November 20, 2021
Dr. Abeer El Gamal
Hala grabbed a small black notebook that was hidden under piles of books by her desktop and started to write:
I dreamed a memory, and the remains of it stayed with me in my body. I woke up terrified; my body felt like a big sack of wet sand and my head had a buzzing fan that kept rolling until I felt dizzy. I tried to pull myself out of bed; I could not move a limb; I stayed there defeated and betrayed by my own body. The smell of smoke still permeated my nose and lungs; I could even hear the hissing of fire; I tried moving my head slowly to make sure nothing was burning around me despite the realization it was only a dream of a memory.
I did everything to remove that stain; that sooty misshaped stain bothered me like no other, not even the ink stain on Salem’s pants that triggered the first ‘good wife sermon’ only four days after our marriage. He had forgotten to place the led on the pen in his pocket and I failed to clean it. The stain in the corner of the kitchen sink brought all the incidents back to my mind; I used every detergent, Clorox, steel wool, thick and thin; nothing removed it. I never knew stainless steel could get stained, and sometimes I was afraid the stain was only inside my mind, insisting to appear in front of me whenever I came into the kitchen. It made me feel I was going crazy and seeing visual hallucinations until Maha asked me about it a month later. I was grateful I was sane; there was a real stain visible to others; it was not a projection of my troubled mind! But then the doubt that Salem had told her about burning my diary tortured me; I felt I was naked in her presence, knowing that she had access to all my life.
The smell of burning of the plastic pink cover still invaded my nose from time to time, and the hissing of the burning paper, fading away, page by page, line by line, word by word made me feel my whole being was deteriorating, little by little; bits and piece of myself were falling down, separating from me. The flood of humiliations, the accusation that I was hiding things from him; keeping my life to myself and not sharing it with him were fiercer. I never tried to hide that diary; it was always there by my books. I was sure he had seen it before, many times, and read it perhaps; he likes to go through my stuff . I sometimes wished he would discuss it with me; I hoped he would understand how I felt about everything, without having to tell him and be ridiculed for every word and emotion.
My whole body shook with fear as Salem darted into the kitchen with my diary in his hand in the same manner mother made her entry into the balcony years ago. He was furious; I could hear him breathing heavily as he walked towards me with threatening eyes. I had just finished the dishes and was still cleaning the kitchen sink; I turned to face him, leaning my back against the sink. Those dizziness attacks had already had started and I could anticipate one so I wanted the sink to support me.
He approached until he almost touched my shaking body; I had to stretch my neck up to look at him as he shouted at me while waving the diary to my face: “how can a married woman find the time to write such stupid stuff? How can any respectable wife say she feels lonely? What else do you need more than ME? Am I a piece of shit in your life?” He stopped to take a deep breath before he resumed:” Of course, who am I to compare with your highness little princess?! I am not good enough for you; I am no match for the heroes of your damned books! Are you still an adolescent? When will you grow up and act like a respectable wife? How can I trust you to bring up my children if you ever had the time to get children”?!
My tongue got stuck in my dry mouth; I could not utter a word; I wanted to tell him I had always kept a diary, ever since I was twelve; I wanted to defend myself; I wanted to tell him writing was my only way of combating stress; I wanted to go as far as telling him I have no one to speak to because he hated my friends, or even to talk to me himself unless it was an order or reproach or sarcasm. But I just froze there, feeling cold to the bones and dizzy and wet. He kept showering me with his accusations and then he started to tear the notebook pages to pieces and throw them in the sink behind me. I felt relieved that he threw the diary in the sink, not on the floor.
Salem had two favorite insults: the first was the word “stupid” which he used to describe anyone or anything that did not live up to his expectations, the second being throwing stuff on the floor when he got mad . Then I would have to take things away, and put them back where they belonged. Sometimes, the process did not involve only putting things away, like the time when he threw a dish of foul on the dining room carpet because it was too salty and I had to spend an hour to clean it. I felt grateful then; I would have been more hurt by gathering the torn sheets form the floor than by the actual tearing of the notebook I have been keeping since we got engaged and entitled it “Best Years of my Life”. Then he pulled me by the hand away from the sink and turned me around to face it; the sudden move hurt my elbow and it was swollen for two weeks.
It never crossed my mind then he would go as far as burning the diary, sheets and plastic cover and all. The flames raised above the kitchen sink and I kept staring at them until they faded away. Why did I stay in the kitchen glued where he left me and took in all the fumes of plastic burning? Why did not I open the window and go out of the kitchen and close the door behind me? Why did not I turn the water on to stop the smoke that filled my lungs and the smell that permeated my soul? See, Kareem? I was confused; but now I can see I was responsible too, it was not just about your father hurting me; I did hurt myself even more.
Later, it hurt so much not to be able to remember what I wrote. The thing that Salem never understood was that my mind functioned in a totally different way from his; I was wired differently, my memory and feelings and reasoning and all. Or maybe he realized it and tried to re-wire me to satisfy his expectations! He had re-shaped how I dressed and talked and dealt with people, why not change how I thought and felt too? No matter how important, happy or traumatizing an event was, I might forget all the details, but never the emotion or the wound it left behind. I kept asking myself what was wrong with my memory and wondered why it failed me at the age of 24? Memory is such a funny thing; some incidents slipped away instantly and I could barely recall them an hour later. Others held tight, lurking in a corner of my mind and popping out when I least expected them; fresh to the extent it could reproduce the same feelings, sounds and smell.
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