Warning: a bit of violence here…
Early the next morning, I rose from my pallet in the corner of my mother’s large tent. I knew my path. During a sleepless night, I had time to refine it.
Sending Takama to gather dates, millet, barley and to fill two large water leathers, I told her to pack for a journey, to roll up clothes for both of us, and to also pack blankets. We were to go away, and with big eyes and trembling lips she listened in silence. I told her I would beat her to an inch of her worthless life if she slipped up and made anyone notice what she did. Takama was a good girl,and she nodded in silence. Although she was only two years younger, and a slave of my family, she was now my travelling companion.
When I listen to myself relate this story, so many years ago, I think I was what the Turks call “burnt kebobs”. A bit crazy, desert-mad–I had lost all my senses. Perhaps I would do things differently if given another chance, but I was so young and the young are not known for their wisdom.
I took a piece of wood used in the setting up of tents, smooth and about as long as my forearm, and walked far into the desert. There, after prayers to Isis and Ifri, I threw off my gown, and placing the wood stake upright in the sand, I lowered my body over it and fell down in one fast drop.
With a scream, I cried out to Isis. The pain was tremendous, this pain I would have felt on my wedding night. I destroyed my value as a bride, for my life as a woman was over at that moment. Now I was not marriageable, I was damaged goods. I took my virginity so I would not be burdened with thoughts of marriage and happiness any longer. No such dream fit with my plan for the future. Now that I had dispensed with my value as a bride, I was freed in my mind.
I drew on my gown and walked back to my mother’s tent. I bled down my legs and I almost fainted when I entered her side. Takama had gathered the stuffs I had demanded and hid them under a blanket in my father’s side of the tent.
No one was there, in either the east or west side, and even my little brothers and sisters were out running around the settlement. Only my old great-grandmother, but she was stricken by some elder disease. Her eyes rolled in her head, but she could not speak. She did watch me closely. Her face could not form an expression– it was frozen into a mask.
I took my hair down, dropping the bone pins on the carpet. Taking a large, sheep sheering knife, I cut off my two braids as close to my head as I could. My crowning glory as a woman was now gone. Great-grandmother Baba watched me, her eyes widening in alarm.
“Do not worry, Mother Baba. I know what I am doing. I am shaping my destiny with my own two hands.”
The two black braids lay like snakes on the carpet. All those years growing and oiling, pinning it up and brushing it out were now in the past. I went and opened a cedar chest and drew out men’s clothes. Putting on the loose pants and the tunic of cotton, I drew on the outer robe and walked to my father’s side of the tent where he kept his many weapons. Picking a short curved sword, light enough for me to use, I also chose a dagger to wear in my girdle. I outfitted my feet with a good pair of sturdy men’s sandals. The final part of my new costume was to wrap a dark indigo-blue cloth around my head many times and cover my nose and mouth with the tail. It had a funny smell but I supposed I would get used to it, and I would be stained blue like the other men, even Hasim. At the thought of his name, my stomach churned, but I can’t now remember if it was in anger or sorrow.
Takama came into the east side of the tent and stopped suddenly when she saw a man standing there. Then she saw the two black braids on the carpet and her eyes grew wide. I took down the veil from my face and smiled at her. She would have screamed but her shock made her silent. All she could do was stare and shake. She knew I would beat her silly if she made noise to alarm others.
“Come, Takama, we have one more thing to do before we leave. Saddle my white camel, and bring her to the tent. Saddle yourself a donkey and get the boys to load both beasts. Meet me back here quickly.”
Takama did as she was told. My camel, named Niefa, kneeled and I mounted her, the saddle feeling strange to my buttocks for I was sitting like a man would on a camel.
“Coosh, coosh, Niefa”, I called out to her as she rose up with a groan. Camels talk a lot, and my Niefa talked all the time.
We rode to the elder’s tent, an open-sided covering with large rugs laid on the sand. There sat all the tribal elders, and the women of status, my mother prominent amongst them. They were drinking the sweet mint tea that Berbers can not live a day without.
I was an object of immediate curiosity, for although I was not recognized, my Niefa was. I came up to the tent, and stopped a respectful distance from them. Niefa moaned and kneeled, and I toppled off her, and saw some of the older men smile at this young man who did not gracefully descend from his beast.
I walked up to them and bowed, and drew aside my indigo veil. Immediately I was recognized, and my mother gave up such a wail that my stomach shivered. My father stared and stared and said nothing. My presence for a few minutes threw them all into confusion.
“I stand before you, no longer Aicha. Aicha is dead and dead to this tribe. I know satisfaction is demanded for the behavior of Hasim Ghanim Iher and his family and tribe.
I know you meet to discuss what is to be done. But I would not have the blood of my tribesmen on my head. I will seek my own revenge in time on Hasim Ghanim Iher and his tribe, but Amon and Isis will lead me to that moment. Now I will leave our oasis and my family and with Takama as my companion, I will go through the desert until I can find peace.”
Those words were the most I ever uttered in public. A girl of eighteen does not presume to address her elders. But of course, in my mind, I was no longer Aicha, a member of my family nor my tribe. I was now a stranger to both, and I could see the doubts as to my sanity in my parent’s eyes.
“Ah, Aicha has lost her senses! A Zar must be commanding her. Whoever would believe that this child could cast off her name and do such a thing?” My mother’s voice rang out in agony, and I winced at her pain.
There was a general hubbub, a confused mingling of voices, when I heard my father cut through all of them with his own low voice. Immediately, everyone stopped talking out of respect for this shocked father. He stood up, drew himself to his full height, (which was not much) and addressed me.
“My daughter, I know your grief. I saw you former happiness and I know how oppressed your liver is now. Do you understand what you do? It is heresy in the face of your tribe to appear in men’s clothing. Do you understand the weight of your actions?”
With tears in my eyes that I shook from my head, I spoke to him, the daughter of his old age and his favorite.
“My father and mother, I do this for the great love I have for my tribe. I know bloodshed will follow the breaking of the contract by Hasim and his parents. Our people will die because of this man and his family. Leave them to their shame. I have my own. But I am born anew and I left Aicha in the desert when I prayed to Isis and Tanit. She is dead, but I am alive and I go to meet my destiny.”
I did not tell him what else I had done. That was for me only, for that revealed would have me stoned to death. Such a violation would not be tolerated by the traditions of our tribe.
My father came forward to embrace me, and turning to the others, with tears running down his face, he addressed them.
“My daughter Aicha, for she will always remain my daughter, has consulted our Ammon and the Goddesses. If they spoke to her, she is bound to obey. Aicha is a good girl, and would not lie to me. I will bless her with my deepest blessings and let her find her destiny. Anyone who would move against her now, moves against me first.”
I mounted Niefa and with the indigo veil wrapped tightly around my face catching my tears, I turned my camel and Takama and I walked out of our oasis. I did not dare look back, for I knew if I did so, I would not be able to leave my tribe and my family.
The desert spread out before me at the edge of our oasis, like a vast, white ocean. I turned my eyes to the east where I knew my future was waiting. What I would find, not even the God and Goddesses would tell me. I was, with the exception of a slave girl, on my own.
Copyrighted, 2009, 2013