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The Loss (1982)

Khayriyyah as-Saqqaf
Document type:

    The Loss (1982)


    Starting in the 1980s, the journalist Khayriyyah as-Saqqaf has utilized her extensive background in education (she holds a Ph.D. in the field) to advance opportunities for women in her native Saudi Arabia. Through her column in the newspaper al-Riyadh and her collection of fiction An Tubhr Nahw al-Abʾad (Taking Off into the Distance, 1982), she has offered an uncompromising depiction of the challenges women face in a changing, but still restricted, culture. In her story below, the female protagonist is forced to leave one oppressor for another, until her very grip on reality becomes suspect.

    Oh! I have been here since yesterday with all these women talking about their mistakes. Each one remembers the error that brought her to this place, but why was I brought here? I just don’t know.

    A while ago I thought maybe I should just try to sleep. I put my abayah under my head and stretched out on the floor in one of the corners of the women’s prison. Noise, crowds, loud laughs, women eating fis fis seeds and spitting out the shells.

    Even in the prison they practice that dirty habit, and they gossip about others. But I can’t sleep here. I’ve tried turning, squirming into this position and that. I’m sitting here with my arms around my legs, resting my chin on my knees and trying to follow the other women with my eyes.

    One of them approached me a while ago and asked, “What is the matter with you? You have been silent since you first got here.” She put her hand on my back and smiled, “In a day or two you’ll be used to this life here.”

    Even the laughter of the women is vague and dark, like everything else in front of me. Their laughter sounds like the hissing of snakes from the darkness of the unknown. I’m shivering. Why was I brought here? Why have I been condemned to misery? Poverty? Loss?

    * * *

    I was searching, yesterday, through a pile of clothes for the medicine that I have to take every day, and I’d just found it when there was loud knocking on the door. When I opened the door, I was surprised to see a man in police uniform.

    “Does Sa’ada Abdu live here?” he asked.

    “I am she.”

    “I have orders to search this place.”

    “But why, Sir?”

    “You are accused of possessing drugs.”

    “Drugs. Oh, no! Sir Policeman, may Allah forbid! I don’t have any drugs. Oh, that can’t be, I don’t own any of that.…” Then, realizing that my reputation and my dignity were at stake, I became angry. “Oh, welcome, welcome!” I told him. “Go ahead, search the house!”

    “Get out of my way, and wait right where you are.”

    The policeman searched all three rooms, and the neglected terrace, the trash-filled storage area, and the kitchen, which I hadn’t noticed was dirty until that moment.

    “I’m sorry it’s so dirty,” I ventured.

    “Do you have any pills?” the officer shouted at me.

    “Well, of course, I have my medicine.”

    “Show it to me, then!”


    He looked at it, looked at me, and said, “You are under arrest!”

    “Why? You didn’t find anything, Sir. What am I to do with that old blind man sitting by the door? And what about the children, who is going to take care of them?”

    “It’s your own fault. You’ll just have to face the consequences.”

    * * *

    My fault? What have I done? Who accused me? Why am I here?

    Medicine, sleep, inability to stand up. But no, my medicine couldn’t be drugs. I’m shivering. I shake my head, to banish the idea. But why not? When I take my pills, I go to sleep. And I want to take them every day. I want to take my medicine. It calls me before I call it.

    * * *

    The day my husband divorced me he stole all I had. Not only my jewelry. He forged my signature and robbed me of my house, my clothes, my dishes, teapot, my comb, every item. Then he pulled me to the door by the hair, and pushed me out into the street, with nothing.

    Crazed, I hurried to Hamidah’s house—Hamidah, the old woman who always found medicine to cure the people in our quarter. When I pounded on Hamidah’s door, it was as if she had been expecting me. Hamidah opened her door to me, rubbed my shoulder as I wept, wiped my bleeding face, and covered me where my dress was torn at my breast. She brought me a glass of water and some tablets to take. “These will lessen your headache.” I swallowed them gratefully. “Don’t worry, Sa’ada,” Hamidah went on, “Allah has helped you. I have a house for you, and a husband for you. But now, sleep a while, then we’ll talk about your future.”

    Astonished, I thought, “Hamidah always tries to comfort people. She just wants to make me feel better, to please me with some sort of hope.”

    I did sleep. And Hamidah offered me more of the pills when I awoke, and then each evening and morning for some days and nights. They helped me forget my disaster and my worries.

    Then one day Hamidah pointed out, “This medicine is expensive, Sa’ada; and since you need more, you will have to pay its price. I am a poor woman, and you’ll have to help me get your medicine.”

    “But how? Where do I get the money? I don’t own even one piece of money, or gold, or even paper! I wouldn’t even have a cloth to cover my naked body, were it not for you, who have showered me with charity!”

    Hamidah didn’t smile. In a serious, sharp voice she said, “Ya Sa’ada, there is no doubt that I am like a mother to you, so this is your home. But you can see the pressure of my responsibilities and expenses, especially the expenses of clothes and medicine. Don’t worry about your food and shelter, because you can eat from my food and shelter with me, but.…”

    “Oh, what can I do? I owe you so much!”

    “I have a husband for you, my dear. I think you should accept him. He has a house, and he has a little money, and he has small children who need a mother.”

    “Small children?” Children are my eternal point of weakness. I had no children of my own from my marriage, but when my neighbor died I took care of her two boys. But my husband deprived me of them, as well as everything else.

    Hamidah shook me. “Sa’ada! Where was your mind wandering? What do you say? Will you marry him?”

    “Oh. Of course,” I told her, “of course. I agree.”

    * * *

    I married him, and on that day was surprised to find out that he was blind, though he had-pretended to be able to see. He did own a tiny house, but that was all, and he could not do any work. The children really did need care, so I found work as a servant in others’ homes to provide food for them, and him, and myself.

    One day when I felt unbearably lonely, nervous, and exhausted, I went to Hamidah. “I need more medicine! I have a few coins.”

    But Hamidah told me she didn’t have any more of it, and directed me to her neighbor, Falih. “He has some, I know.”

    I knocked on his door; he opened it and looked at me intensely. Then he stretched his hand out, grasped my abayah, and pulled me inside. He came close to me, surrounded me with his strong hands, and squeezed me. I screamed, but he would not let me go until he had the price of the medicine. He forcibly kissed me and penetrated me.

    When I gathered the end of my dress, he handed me a large number of the pills. I threw them in his face and ran from his house. At home I was ashamed to look at my face in the mirror.

    After sunset Hamidah came to my door and handed me the medicine. “Free of charge,” she said. When I refused, it she smiled and said, “You need it today more than any other day.”

    * * *

    I look at the women in prison and sigh deeply. How many of them are like Hamidah? How many are like me?

    From Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers, edited and translated by Abubaker Bagader, Ava M. Heinrichsdorff, and Deborah S. Akers. Copyright © 1998 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Used with permission by the publisher.

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