Nujood, a Modern-Day Heroine
Once upon a time there was a magical land with legends as astonishing as its houses, which are adorned with such delicate tracery that they look like gingerbread cottages trimmed with icing. A land at the southernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula, washed by the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. A land steeped in a thousand years of history, where adobe turrets perch on the peaks of serried mountains. A land where the scent of incense wafts gaily around
the corners of the narrow cobblestone streets.
This country is called Yemen.
But a very long time ago, grown- ups gave it another name: Arabia Felix, Happy Arabia.
For Yemen inspires dreams. It is the realm of the Queen of Sheba, an incredibly strong and beautiful woman who inflamed the heart of King Solomon and left her mark in the sacred pages of the Bible and the Koran. It is a mysterious place where men never appear in public without curved daggers worn proudly at their waists, while women hide their charms behind thick black veils.
It is a land that lies along an ancient trade route, a country crossed by merchant caravans laden with fine fabrics, cinnamon, and other aromatic spices. These caravans journeyed on for weeks, sometimes months, never stopping, persevering through wind and rain, and the weakest travelers, the stories say, never came home again.
To see Yemen in your mind’s eye, imagine a country a little larger than Syria, Greece, and Nepal all rolled into one, and diving headlong into the Gulf of Aden. Out there, in those tempestuous seas, pirates from many lands lie in wait for merchant ships plying their trades in India, Africa, Europe, and America.
In centuries past, many invaders succumbed to the temptation to claim this lovely land for themselves. Ethiopians came ashore armed with their bows and arrows, but were swiftly driven away. Next came the Persians, with their bushy eyebrows, who constructed canals and fortresses and recruited various native tribes to fight off other invaders. The Portuguese then tried their luck, and set up trading outposts. The Ottomans, who later took up the challenge, held
sway in the country for more than a hundred years.
Still later, the British, with their white skin, put into port in the south, in Aden, while the Turks set up shop in the north. And then, once the English were gone, Russians from colder climes set their sights upon the south. Like a cake fought over by greedy children, the country gradually split in two.
Grown- ups say that this Arabia Felix has always been the object of envious desire because of its thousand and one treasures. Foreigners covet its oil; its honey is worth its weight in gold; the music of Yemen is captivating, its poetry gentle and refined, its spicy cuisine endlessly pleasing. From around the world, archeologists come to this country to study the architecture of its ruins.
It has been years and years now since the invaders packed up their bags and left, but ever since their departure,
Yemen has experienced a series of civil wars too complicated for the pages of children’s books. Unified in 1990, the nation still suffers from the wounds left by these many conflicts, like a sick old man, trying to get well, who has lost his bearings and must learn to walk again. Sometimes you even wonder who makes the law in this strange land,
where many girls and boys beg in the streets instead of going to school.
Yemen’s head of state is a president whose photograph often decorates the display windows of shops, but power in this country lies also with tribal chiefs in turbans who wield enormous authority in the villages, whether it’s a question of arms sales, marriage, or the commerce and culture of khat. Then there are those explosions in the capital, Sana’a, in the chic neighborhoods where the diplomatic representatives of foreign nations live, people who drive big cars
with tinted windows. And in Yemeni homes, of course, the real law is laid down by fathers and older brothers.
It was in this extraordinary and turbulent country, barely ten years ago, that a little girl named Nujood was born.
A tiny wisp of a thing, Nujood is neither a queen nor a princess. She is a normal girl with parents and plenty of brothers and sisters. Like all children her age, she loves to play hide-and-seek and adores chocolate. She likes to make colored drawings and fantasizes about being a sea turtle, because she has never seen the ocean. When she smiles, a tiny dimple appears in her left cheek.
One cold and gray February evening in 2008, however, that appealing and mischievous grin suddenly melted into bitter tears when her father told her that she was going to wed a man three times her age. It was as if the whole world had landed on her shoulders. Hastily married off a few days later, the little girl resolved to gather all her strength and try to escape her miserable fate. . . .1
April 2, 2008
My head is spinning—I’ve never seen so many people in my whole life. In the yard outside the courthouse, a crowd is bustling around in every direction: men in suits and ties with bunches of yellowed files tucked under their arms; other men wearing the zanna, the traditional ankle- length tunic of the villages of northern Yemen; and then all these
women, shouting and weeping so loudly that I can’t understand a word.
I’d love to read their lips to find out what they’re saying, but the niqabs that match their long black robes hide everything except their big, round eyes. The women seem furious, as if a tornado had just destroyed their houses. I try to listen closely. I can catch only a few words—childcare, justice, human rights—and I’m not really sure what they mean. Not far away from me is a broad- shouldered giant wearing his turban jammed down to his eyes; he’s carrying a plastic bag full of documents and telling anyone who will listen that he has come here to try to get back some land that was stolen from him. He’s dashing around like a frantic rabbit, and he almost runs right into me.
What chaos . . . It must be like Al-Qa Square, the one in the heart of Sana’a where out-of-work laborers go, the place Aba—Papa—often talks about. There it’s every man for himself, and they all want to be the first to snag a job for the day at dawn, just after the first azaan, the traditional summons to prayer called out five times a day by the muezzins from the minarets of their mosques. Poor people are so hungry they’ve got stones where their hearts should be, and
no time to feel pity for the fates of others. Still, I’d like so much for someone here to take my hand, to look at me with kindness. Won’t anyone listen to me, for once? It’s as if I were invisible. No one sees me: I’m too small for them; I barely come up to their tummies. I’m only ten years old, maybe not even that. Who knows?
I’d imagined the courthouse differently: a calm, clean place, the great house where Good battles Evil, where you can fix all the problems of the world.
I’d already seen some courtrooms on my neighbors’ television, with judges in long robes. People say they’re the ones who can help people in need. So I have to find one and tell him my story. I’m exhausted. It’s hot under my veil, I have a headache, and I’m so ashamed. . . . Am I strong enough to keep going?
No. Yes. Maybe. . . . I tell myself it’s too late to turn back; the hardest part is over, and I have to go on.
When I left my parents’ house early this morning, I promised myself not to set foot there again until I’d gotten what I wanted.
“Off you go—buy some bread for breakfast,” my mother told me, giving me 150 Yemeni rials, worth about 75 cents.
As a matter of course, I pinned up my long, curly brown hair under my black head scarf and covered my body with a black coat, which is what all Yemeni women wear out in public. Trembling, feeling faint, I walked only a short way before catching the first minibus that passed along the wide avenue leading into town, where I got off at the end of the line.
Then, in spite of my fear, for the first time in my life I climbed all alone into a yellow taxi. Now this endless waiting in the courtyard. To whom should I speak? Unexpectedly, over by the steps leading up to the entrance hall of the big concrete building, I spot what look like a few friendly faces in the crowd: their cheeks dark with dust, three boys in
plastic sandals are studying me carefully. They remind me of my little brothers.
“Your weight, ten rials!” one of them calls out to me, shaking a battered old scale.
“Some refreshing tea?” asks another, holding up a small basket full of steaming glasses.
“Fresh carrot juice?” suggests the third boy, breaking into his nicest smile as he stretches out his right hand in the hope of earning a small coin.
No thanks, I’m not thirsty, and what’s on my mind has nothing to do with how much I weigh. If they only knew what brings me here . . .
Bewildered, helpless, I look up again into the faces of the many grown- ups hurrying past me. In their long veils, the women all look the same. What kind of a mess have I gotten myself into?
Then I notice a man in a white shirt and black suit walking toward me. A judge, perhaps, or a lawyer? Well, it’s an opportunity, so here goes.
“Excuse me, mister, I want to see the judge.”
“The judge? Over that way, up the steps,” he replies, with hardly a glance at me, before vanishing back into the throng.
I have no choice anymore: I must tackle the staircase now looming before me; it’s my last and only chance to get help. I feel dirty and ashamed, but I have to climb these steps, one by one, to go tell my story, to wade through this human flood that grows even bigger the closer I get to the vast entrance hall.
I almost fall down, but I catch myself. I’ve cried so much that my eyes are dry. I’m tired. My feet feel like lead when I finally step onto the marble floor.
But I mustn’t collapse, not now.
On the white walls, like the ones in a hospital, I can see writing in Arabic, but no matter how I try, I can’t manage to read the inscriptions. I was forced to leave school during my second year, right before my life became a nightmare, and aside from my first name, Nujood, I can’t write much, which really embarrasses me.
Looking around, I spy a group of men in olivegreen uniforms and kepis. They must be policemen, or else soldiers; one of them has a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. I’m shaking—if they see me, they might arrest me. A little girl running away from home, that just isn’t done. Trembling, I discreetly latch on to the first passing veil, hoping to get the attention of the unknown woman it conceals. A tiny voice inside me whispers, Go on, Nujood! It’s true you’re only a girl, but you’re also a woman, and a real one, even though you’re still having trouble accepting that.
“I want to talk to the judge.”
Two big eyes framed in black stare at me in surprise; the lady in front of me hadn’t seen me approach her.
“I want to talk to the judge.”
Is she not understanding me on purpose, so she can ignore me more easily, like the others?
“Which judge are you looking for?”
“I just want to speak to a judge, that’s all!”
“But there are lots of judges in this courthouse.”
“Take me to a judge—it doesn’t matter which one!”
She stares at me in silence, astonished by my determination.
Unless it’s my shrill little cry that has frozen her solid.
I’m a simple village girl whose family had to move to the capital, and I have always obeyed the orders of my father and brothers. Since forever, I have learned to say yes to everything. Today I have decided to say no.
Inside of me I have been soiled, contaminated—it’s as if part of myself has been stolen from me. No one has the right to keep me from seeking justice.
It’s my last chance, so I’m not going to give up easily. And this surprised stare, which feels as cold as the marble of the great hall where my cry now echoes strangely, will not make me keep quiet. It’s almost noon; I’ve been wandering desperately in this labyrinth of a courthouse for hours. I want to see the judge!
“Follow me,” the woman finally says, gesturing for me to walk along behind her.
The door opens onto a room with brown carpeting. It’s full of people, and at the far end, behind a desk, a thin-faced man with a mustache busily replies to the barrage of questions coming at him from all directions.
It’s the judge, at last.
The atmosphere is noisy, but reassuring. I feel safe. I recognize, in a place of honor on a wall, a framed photograph of Amm Ali, “Uncle Ali”: that’s what I’ve been taught in school to call the president of our country, Ali Abdullah al- Saleh, who was elected more than thirty years ago.
Outside, the muezzin issues the midday call to prayer as I sit down, like everyone else, in one of the brown armchairs lined up along the wall. Around meI catch glimpses of familiar faces—or, rather, familiar eyes—from the angry crowd in the courtyard. Certain faces lean toward me in a strange way. They’ve finally realized that I exist! It’s about time. Comforted, I rest my head against the back of the chair and patiently await my turn.
If God exists, I say to myself, then let Him come save me. I have always recited the five required daily prayers. During Eid al- Fitr, when we celebrate the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, I dutifully help my mother and sisters with all the cooking. I’m basically a very good girl. Oh, God, have pity on me! My mind is dizzy with images that come and go. . . . I’m swimming; the sea is calm. Then the water becomes choppy. I catch sight of my brother Fares off in the distance, but I can’t go to him. When I call to him, he doesn’t hear me, so I begin shouting
his name. Then gusts of wind blow me backward toward the shore. I struggle, whirling my hands around like propellers—I’m not going to let myself be driven all the way back to where I started, but I’m so close to the shore now, and I’ve lost sight of Fares. . . . Help! I don’t want to go back to Khardji, no, I don’t want to go back there!
“And what can I do for you?”
A man’s voice rouses me from my dozing. It is a curiously gentle voice, with no need to be loud to attract my attention, simply whispering a few words: “And what can I do for you?” At last someone has come to my rescue. I rub my face and recognize, standing tall there in front of me, the judge with the mustache. The crowd has gone, the eyes have disappeared, and the room is almost empty. I have not replied, so the man tries again.
“What do you want?”
This time I answer promptly.
“I want a divorce!”
Copyright © 2010 by Nujood Ali. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.