A few strands of hair escaped onto her forehead from under her hijab. She jammed them back underneath the silky fabric, frustrated. Disappointment swelled for her careless job in fastening her hair that day. The perfumed laundry detergent she’d switched to recently was causing the skin around her neck and chin irritation. She slapped her hand, doling punishment for daring to think about scratching the itch. That would be weak. She deserved to endure her own mistake in her mind.
“It’s unreal to me; all turning thirteen this year,” Tabinda said sentimentally to Farazeen and Iphraah, standing in their residential street, hawk-eyeing over their adolescent sons playing cricket.
The three mothers were close, having each settled there with their husbands of arranged marriage on the same affluent street in a tight-knit area of Rawalpindi. All had, coincidentally, given birth to boys in September of 2004. They’d made this their obsession, huddling outside their houses in a threesome, discussing matters of their children with either love, worry, or disdain interminably. They out-chittered the crows.
“Mashallah,” Iphraah whispered duly. “All of them blessings.”
“Who are they becoming?” Farazeen pinched her beige, knitted jacket closed, even though there was barely a detectable chill in the humid air.
“I know what you mean,” Iphraah chimed, as if on cue; she was the yes-woman of the group. Whether Farazeen was on one of her hellfire-damnation rants or Tabinda rambled on with her faux-wisdom, there was Iphraah nodding in agreeance, not knowing where she fit.
Religious interpretation is complicated. Some women followed with textbook adherence and even one of two sisters brought up by the same Muslim parents didn’t always attend weddings of family members, as the receptions were thought to be overblown breeders jealousy.
“It would be nice if Zeeshan and Moheem’s attentions were spent on loftier things,” Farazeen criticized of her twin boys.
The same fears rose in each of the mothers regarding the obedience of the four boys, who were the eldest children in all three families. There was no argument the mothers had won with their boys’ love of fantasy and horror books, music, TV, video games, and facebook. To the moms, those were damning, and would leave a kind of stain. Don’t get any of them started on the boys’ attitudes. The moms pictured manhood approaching and it scared them past reason.
Who will I have raised? How will their character reflect back on the family? Will the devil himself have taken them hostage? The three moms had asked themselves.
“My Zaibi won’t put his guitar down for anything,” Tabinda confessed. “Yesterday his little sister was filming him with the mobile. I asked them about it and they said it’s a ‘stairway to heaven’ or something and then they laughed. I don’t know what they were talking about but it was like they were teaming up against me.” Feigning victimhood, the reality that Tabinda and her fellow martyr-mates saw their children was skewed.
“My kids do that too and I believe it’s under the influence of the eldest. Why do they do that to their own mother?” Iphraah vented.
“That’s the thanks we get for all we do,” Farazeen grouched.
“If only I could trust that what we ask for in earnest prayer will be,” Tabinda said, halfhearted, only pretending to be a person of introspection. Farazeen squinted. She didn’t like that idea any more than she liked Tabinda’s collarbone-exposing blouse or her loosely draped hijab that allowed practically half her hair freedom. Farazeen believed matters of their pre-teens need be controlled by the parents themselves.
Noticing Farazeen’s reaction, Tabinda attempted to recite a bit of Islamic wisdom she’d remembered from her upbringing. “I know we shouldn’t invalidate our deeds with reminders of it.” This was only a facade; Tabinda had, many times, shouted angrily at her children about all the things she had provided and done for them as their mother in order to evoke guilt. The other mothers had done this too. Unfortunately, they had all let their tongue strip them of their motherliness time and time again instead of finding patience.
“Zeeshan! You ruined your dress shirt!” Farazeen yelled, noticing a mud stain on the back of his white, button-down. Zeeshan ran over. “You know you’re supposed to change out of that shirt after school.”
“I know, Mom. I put a sweatshirt on over it but I got hot so I took that off and accidentally wiped out in the grass,” Zeeshan explained, trying to calm his mother. He started unbuttoning his shirt.
“What are you doing!? Don’t take your shirt off in the street.” Farazeen snatched the shirt from him. Although modesty and formality in dressing was a rule she’d successfully made her children follow, to have put so much emphasis on the perfectionism of clothing itself, ironically, went against a prominent virtue of her religion.
“Ok, I’m sorry, I just didn’t want to get it dirtier.” Zeeshan said. “Don’t flex, Mom.”
“What did you say to me?”
“Nothing…sorry…it’s nothing,” Zeeshan apologized. He sheepishly returned to playing with the other sons.
The day grew old and Iphraah commented that she couldn’t see where the boys had gone. She reasoned they must’ve went to the next block or to the park.
The boys wouldn’t dare push it and stay out so close to Maghrib, would they? Farazeen worried.
Of course it’s expected for men to go out to the mosques during the dusk prayer time. However, children are prohibited to be anywhere but indoors at Maghrib. It is believed that djinns are out stalking easy targets then. Muslims are instructed:
Do not send out your children when the sun sets for the Satans are sent forth when it does, until the blackness of the night descends.
Having lived with the belief since before her memory began, the dread of it was embedded in her cells. It controlled her blood, the way she held her face, and even her posture. In her mind, when the sun began to leave the sky, even the trees grew wary and pulled their limbs in close to their trunks. Each home seemed thinner, barely able to safeguard the preciousness inside its feeble walls. The roads lay trembling, shriveling their cracks closed in an attempt to contain whatever horror may want to escape from below the surface.
Each Maghrib, Farazeen looked to the sky and saw the eyes of a hundred thousand elders (not to mention her mother’s and her mother-in-law’s) boring down, judging, disapproving. She never stopped worrying about their approval, even at the age of forty-one.
“Farazeen?” Tabinda said.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Farazeen asked, confused. Her thoughts had consumed her for a few minutes. Tabinda and Iphraah looked at each other then giggled.
“I said,” Tabinda repeated, “Do you think one of us should go find the boys?”
“I’ll go,” Farazeen volunteered. “Watch over the houses and I’ll walk a couple blocks over towards the park.”
The wind gained unexpected power in the openness of the park, the sky a haunted crowd of clouds. A gust stripped Farazeen of her hijab, which was carried off faster than she could catch it. She struggled to keep her kameez down against the wind which was adamant about lifting it. Frantic, she screamed out the boys’ names in vain. A dead-leaf-riddled branch clawed a thin gash into her cheek. She stumbled and tripped on a stone, face-planting in the mud. Mortified, she returned home.
Farazeen went directly to the prayer room, after fielding questions from her younger children about the state of her appearance, and begged for the return of her twins.
She ran to the front room to find the source of the noise. The wind had hyperextended the front door open and smacked it against the wall. Zeeshan and Moheem walked through the doorway.
“Where were you!? How could you be so disobedient!?” Farazeen raged.
“Mom, we’re so sorry,” Zeeshan pleaded. He was the outspoken one between the twins, acting as the defense lawyer in this and many situations in which they’d made mistakes. “It was the first warm day in a while and we just really wanted to be getting out. We were having this competition…we didn’t pay attention–”
“I did not raise these boys. Who do you think you are?” Farazeen’s eyes darted back and forth between them, and so did the eyes of the younger siblings who were watching the argument unfold.
“Mom, would you just chill? Huh? Be cool for once!”
With the follow through of a golf swing, Farazeen’s palm landed a hard slap across Zeeshan’s cheek. His twin and younger siblings cringed on his behalf.
“Never talk back. May you be cursed with children one hundred times more unruly than the both of you,” Farazeen seethed. There was a long pause. None of the children exhaled. “Go to your room. No dinner.”
She followed them wardenly, where they sat down on their beds, then barked one last scold about the despicable example they were setting for their siblings. On a side table, she noticed a worn copy of the twins’ favorite book, something about wizards or killer clowns. It was next to one of their beloved Playstation games. She clawed them both up in her talons and pressed them to her chest, slamming the bedroom door against the boys’ protesting groans.
Overtaken by emotion, failure throbbing in her veins, Farazeen stole away to the master bathroom. She collapsed down at the edge of the bathtub and wept. The book and the game lay strewn on the rug and the sight of them disgusted her further. She removed the lid to the toilet tank and threw them into the filthy water.
They will worsen if I don’t act. I need a plan, Farazeen thought. Their future could be at stake. In truth, under the roofs of the mothers’ houses, they’d all resorted to drastic measures with their children and, although they felt conflicted about it, they’d stuck by the mantra, ‘Devils cannot be tamed with mere words.’
I will not fail this time. They will obey me for good, Farazeen resolved to herself.
A flurry of phone calls were then made amongst, Farazeen, Tabinda, and Iphraah. All concerned wanted to make sure the boys were safe, but that was short-lived. The urge to react and shorten the reins of their sons was strong. No one had come up with a suitable consequence yet.
Farazeen’s mind, however, was brewing to the point of an overflow. She neglected to make a guidance prayer, an earnest request for aid in decision-making, just before bed.
The sting from the previous night still reverberated the next morning for Zeeshan and Moheem. Nonetheless, they went to school and followed their typical routine. Mr. Kazemi’s Literature class, the last of the day, was the only one in which the twins, Tabinda’s son, and Iphraah’s son all had together. Partway through, a disheveled man, drifted through the classroom entryway. His eyes, unfocused, were wide. It seemed aloof.
The stranger shuffled in front of the teacher’s desk. There was no pause in the lecture. The students exchanging confused glances. No one made a sound, save for Mr. Kazemi’s talking and his chalk tip-tapping across the board.
The man stood within an inch or two of the far wall, unwavering for a few minutes. Some students’ snickers spattered the air.
“Alright, don’t lose focus,” Mr. Kazemi said, nonchalant. “We’re almost finished with the notes.”
The unknown figure then whispered indistinctly to the wall, as if having a dialogue with no one. This quieted the students, who now sat ramrod. Their heads swiveled between the man and Mr. Kazemi for answers. One boy took out his mobile and powered it on, planning to record a video. Another boy raised his hand meekly, trying to draw Mr. Kazemi’s attention.
One spastic jerk and the wall-whispering man turned ninety degrees and looked hazily toward the back windows. Startled, the boy with the mobile dropped his phone to the floor. Zeeshan, Moheem, and their two best friends all leaned in the opposite direction of the man, who moved towards them. He lowered himself down into an empty desk behind the four, keeping a blank gaze.
“Oye, yaar…bro,” Zaibi uttered cautiously.
“Uh…Mr. Kazemi?” Zeeshan called out.
“Yes, Zeeshan?” Mr. Kazemi replied. Zeeshan and some other boys gestured towards the frozen man in the desk behind him. The boys could now see his paleness and dark undereye circles distinctly. His eyes were yellowed, as a serpent.
“What is it?” Kazemi asked.
“I’m not sure but…I think he needs…something.”
“The man, here,” Zeeshan pointed.
“Sure, sure,” Kazemi said, smirking. “Okay, that’s enough playing. Copy down the homework assignment. The bell’s gonna ring.” A horrifying realization hit the boys: their teacher could not see that man.
“What is going on?” Moheem whispered, spooked.
“Maaf kijiye, janaab,” Zeeshan addressed the man formally. No response, only a dead stare. “Is everything okay?” The man snapped his head to gaze directly at Zeeshan, his snake-eyes blazed into the boy, his lips parted revealing rotten teeth.
The suddenness startled all the students and they scooped up their things and hurried out of the room. Zeeshan dared to look back over his shoulder. The man-thing was standing in front of the first row of desks, riveted in the same foreboding gaze, his eye-contact still on Zeeshan.
The boy turned to run down the hall where his friends were urging him to catch up with them.
“Hang on one second,” Zeeshan called to them. Something compelled him to go back. Perhaps it was curiosity or concern for Mr. Kazemi. The stranger was gone when he peeked in on his teacher.
“Did you need something Zeeshan?” Kazemi asked coolly, sitting at his desk, tidying up his papers. Zeeshan couldn’t speak. He scrambled out of the room and headed towards home with the others.
“I think it worked,” Kazemi said to the man, who was crouched behind the teacher’s desk, hidden from view.
“Perfectly,” the man said in agreeance.
“Expert makeup job, by the way,” Kazemi complimented.
“Thanks, but I swear, I’m never wearing these contacts for anything ever again; they’re killing me. Can’t wait to get them out and dump a bottle of Visine on my eyes,” the man complained. Mr. Kazemi chuckled.
The twins walked nearly the entire way home in silence.
“Zee?” Moheem said to his brother. “Was he a–”
“Don’t say it, bro,” Zeeshan shot back, shaken.
“It was, wasn’t it? It was a djinn.” Moheem panicked. The brothers remembered warnings from their mother. They’d heard of sinister spirits who could appear in human form and take possession of a person, especially children.
Bursting through the front door, their oasis of safety, Zeeshan explained the strange encounter from Lit. class to his mother.
“Oh, God! I hoped this would never happen,” Farazeen said. But her dismay was an act, no more authentic than the pallid stage makeup on the actor she’d hired herself, earlier that morning. She’d just hung up the phone with Mr. Kazemi who’d given her confirmation that their plan had gone well. “You summoned a djinn due to your actions last night.” Tears were pregnant in the twins’ eyes.
“What happens now?” Zeeshan worried. “Will he come back?” His imagined his mind being inhabited, until it didn’t belong to him anymore.
“He might,” Farazeen lied. “But there is a way to drive the djinn away. You’ll have to give up a few things that may weaken your mind. No more games, books, mobile phone. Never skip prayers. Obey your parents.” Her sons nodded in agreement.
The picture-perfect family routine resumed the following week. Farazeen was pleased. Unflawed automatons. They behaved as was her vision that they should, or more accurately as was her mother’s vision, whose was her mother’s before her. Farazeen had had to play ignorant during talks about the spirit-in-the-classroom incident with Tabinda and Iphraah during their usual gabfests. She was convinced that the means were justified but hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell the other two ladies.
On the fifth evening, post djinn-actor episode, Farazeen noted to herself that her eldest boys had not left their house except for school or necessities. Zeeshan and Moheem’s heads were hung. They took to prayer even more than five times per day. Somber meals. Morose conversations. Jumpy apologies for reasons that didn’t warrant it. Hastily they cleaned up after themselves and their siblings.
At the brink of dusk, Farazeen brought her tea and took a moment to herself outside. The sun was too low to do battle with the seasonal chilliness anymore that day.
Have I acted wrongly? she wondered. The boys light seemed snuffed out.
“I would’ve done it again if I had to,” Farazeen said aloud to herself, burying doubt even deeper. She wouldn’t allow a weak moment to unfocus her impressive convictions.
Flying low, a few carrion crows who’d been killing time in a nearby tree, passed overhead. Farazeen watched them head west, chasing the sun, as if desperate to find solace in its feebly remaining light. Something came into her peripheral vision on her other side. It was her youngest, her daughter Ibtisam, looking up curiously at her mother.
“Whatchu doing Mama?” the girl asked. Farazeen lost her grip on her teacup and it smashed on the driveway.
“Ibbi, get back in the house,” Farazeen spurted.
A knock at the front door came the next morning while the kids were at school and her husband at work. Farazeen opened it to a man holding a small box.
“Oh, a delivery for me?” Farazeen asked. The delivery man was unkempt, pale-faced with shaded circles around his wide, yellowed eyes. Though they’d only spoken over the phone, she realized he must be the actor she’d hired.
“Ohh, salaam! Please come in,” she greeted. She closed the door quickly behind him for fear of peeping neighbors. “What brings you here?” Unmoving, the man continued to hold the box close to him with both hands.
“Did you receive the payment I sent?” The man uttered nothing.
“Aha, I see; you don’t break character,” Farazeen remarked. “Very convincing. You scare me even.” Her last comment was the utmost truth; this visit and his performance wasn’t amusing Farazeen at all.
The man extended his arms, handing the box to her. She took it and opened the lid. Inside was a red envelope.
“What’s this–” Farazeen began to say. But he was gone. Gasping, she fumbled the box and covered her mouth with both hands.
Shock choked her. She swung open the front door and ran outside into the street. Turning in circles she looked for any sign of him. Then she wondered if the actor had hidden inside, just as he’d done in the classroom last week. The boys must have found out the truth and this is payback.
A thorough search of the house turned up nothing. Farazeen phoned the actor but it went to voicemail. She spotted the red envelope, still on the foyer floor. The DVD inside was unlabeled.
She slid the disk into the family PC. A video played automatically. On the screen was the living room of a house Farazeen didn’t recognize. A boy of about eight-years-old came into the frame, laughing and shouting a song. Soon after, a man, presumably his father, came storming in yelling furiously. The father was in his thirties but his face was unmistakable.
“Zeeshan,” Farazeen gasped. She held onto the idea that it was a computer generated hoax.
The video continued as Farazeen’s tears wetted the keyboard. The father, the older Zeeshan, smacked and paddled his son violently. Criticized. Shamed. Lectured about prayerfulness, obedience, and idle time. Moheem, perhaps over at his brother’s for a visit, scurried across the room after his toddler-aged daughter, seeming as equally short-tempered as his twin brother.
Familiarity mirrored back at Farazeen. Why hadn’t she seen the vileness of her own parenting with this clarity before? How had she become so desensitized? The video abruptly ended. A message punctuated the computer screen:
آپ کو برائی کرتے ہیں تو آپ اپنے آپ کو برے کام
If even half of her doubted the authenticity of the video, she wouldn’t anymore. The actor, or so she thought that’s who’d come to her door that morning, materialized in front of her, the computer table cutting through the middle of him. Farazeen jumped up, screaming and inadvertently toppling her chair.
“Do evil to others, you yourself draw evil,” warned the djinn, repeating the same message at the end of the video in a rumbling hiss. The figure dissipated into a bluish smoke cloud. Farazeen fled bawling to the prayer room.
She hadn’t decided what she’d say to anyone about her experience, if she said anything at all. But when she saw her twins’ faces walking up the drive, returning from school, there was no question what she would do first. A calmness led her.
“Zee, Moheem,” Farazeen called to them. “I want to speak with you.” They sat down in the boys’ bedroom.
“Sweethearts, I need to admit something,” Farazeen said, voice shaking. “I feel ashamed. I felt for a long time, that in many ways you’d both been leading a life that you’d regret later. But I needn’t lie.” The boys looked at each other, lost.
“There was no djinn in your class. He was an actor. And I’m sorry,” Farazeen apologized.
“Whoa,” Zeeshan said. Both boys’ mouths dropped open.
“Oh my God, Mom,” Moheem added. “That’s crazy.”
“Yeah, but still, kinda amazing, like…kinda cool,” Zeeshan admitted. They all laughed. “But seriously, Mom, we were so scared. No more pranks.”
“I love you both,” Farazeen said. “I hated to see your light hearts crushed this week. Maybe I even admire you guys for that since my worries feel so heavy all the time.”
“Mom, we get it. We love you too,” Zeeshan comforted. “You’re a good mom. We know right from wrong even if we play around. Don’t think badly of us.”
“I know. There has to be a meeting in the middle,” Farazeen acknowledged.
“I just remembered something your Naani said: ‘Jahan se zaroorat ke poorey honey ka sawal bhi peda ny hoga, vaheen se ap ki zarooratein poori hon gee,’” Farazeen recited. Her mom had taught her that where there is no question of a true need being met is where your needs will be met. Farazeen understood meddling is pointless.
“It came sooner than I thought,” she mused.
“What?” Zeeshan asked.
“Well, I was so scared about you growing older, about what kind of man you’d be,” Farazeen admitted. “But now I see you already are one, both of you, good men.”