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The single word dies beneath the sensory suffocation in the flat. Lentil soup and meatballs simmer and sizzle on the stove—contained explosions rattling lids, erupting cinnamon and cilantro—as her aunt and mother argue over how to best roll out the pita dough.
Cousins and siblings dart in and out of the flat, shrieking in toddler pidgin or exhorting brothers to return stolen dolls—and screaming, crying, and tussling when demands are not made—while cousin Amira gossips on the phone, despite her mother’s grumbling from the kitchen.
The whine of the television her mother insists provide “noise,” the air swollen with heat and moisture, the anxiety of summer about to break into autumn—
“Mama, come here.”
“Aqila, I’m baking. What’s the matter?”
“Mama, come look.”
A bar of lamplight blinds the television screen, obscuring its projection from those at the stove. The children drown the television’s volume beneath a crescendo of cacophony.
Aqila’s timbre—inexorably leveled, like a field after battle—penetrates the sixth senses of those who hear it. Wiping the flour from her hands, Aquila’s mother Hiba steps into the living space, her nerves quivering like a drop of water before vaporization.
The tail end of a breaking-news bar crawls as a stinging centipede across the bottom of the television screen. The Arabic script, ordinarily lovely and floral, traces words of dead flowers.
A proper report overcomes the image, tearing through the pixels and spilling into the room. Aqila’s younger brother wrestles a cousin for the remote and punches the volume higher. The disembodied voice of a reporter emanates, like the spirit of a slain innocent, decrying the tragedy which grows more violent with every second of footage, unraveling, heaving—
“Hiba,” Aunt Rajiya demands, entering, “what is it? Turn that volume down!”
Concrete sidewalk ruptured as if by an earthquake, autos twisted as if flash-melted, ambulances screaming off—
“—Mahir Kader was declared dead at the scene—”
“No—not my Mahir.” Rajiya’s shaking hands rip the remote from her nephew’s, and fumble with it as she strives to turn off the television. “This is ridiculous. This is too violent for the children, Aqila, you should know better—”
Hiba grips her sister-in-law’s shoulder, leaving a powder of flour like plaster after a bombing, as the reporter slices through Rajiya’s chiding, “A suicide bomber struck at the reconciliation meeting, killing 14 and wounding 20, just as the Minister joined the gathering . . .”
Rajiya collapses against Hiba, weeping, clawing at her sister-in-law’s dress—her daughter’s eyes flick from mother to television before she wails, “Oh, Allah, no!” and drops her phone—a little cousin scrunches his mouth and sobs in sympathy. The rest of the newscast crumbles under the torrent of torment. An uncle charges in like a tank, his words like ammunition.
“Those traitors! They’ve stolen my brother! The thieves! Just like thieves!”
Though all around her surges reaction—devastation and passion—Aqila kneels before the screen, a rock yet weathered by the storm, numbed to the tragedy pouring down upon their family yet again.
While the remaining family men bury her uncle, Aqila slumps on the rusted swingset in the apartments’ courtyard, absorbing the rocking creak as she pushes herself forward and back. All through the preparations, the prayers, the walk back home, she could not cry. It is like drawing water by hand from a drained well; even in the calm of the courtyard, she cannot wring out her tears, try as she might. With each will, her dread increases, her dread of hardening as time storms by, snatching and devouring her loved ones—father, brother, cousins, uncle now. Insulated as she is in her reflections, she does not realize another has joined her until the second swing seat lends a counterpoint squeak. Aqila turns to glance at her companion, startled to realize who sits beside her.
Murmurs the new girl, “I heard about your uncle.”
Aqila turns her head back, defiant.
“I thought your parents won’t let you talk to me anymore, Nadira.”
The girl points a warning finger. “Hey. I don’t remember the Prophet saying I can’t comfort a friend.”
Aqila continues to ignore her.
“I’m really sorry about your uncle.”
“Don’t be,” snaps Aqila. “It’s not your fault.”
“You have no idea.”
“It was my uncle who did it.”
Aqila leaps from her swing. “He what?”
“I know.” Furious tears run over Nadira’s cheeks, collecting in her scarf. “My uncle went and—blew himself up. And—he killed your uncle—when he did it.”
“Well.” Aqila’s lips press together. “Congratulations. Your uncle did his job.”
“Aqila, don’t be like that—” protests Nadira, reaching out a hand to comfort her friend.
Aqila slaps it away.
“Get out of here,” she spits.
“Aqila, you’re hurting my feelings—”
“You hurt mine.”
The air crackles like fractured glass.
“So that’s it, is it?” Nadira says. “You’re going to be just like my parents, too? Just because my family does something you don’t like—”
“No, it’s not like that!”
Aquila sinks to the ground beneath the swingset, not caring that the dirt stains her dress. “It . . . it’s a stupid—grown-ups’—war.”
“I know.” Nadira wraps her arms around the girl’s shoulders. “What’s the point?”
Aqila hugs her friend close. A tear breaks from her eye, coursing through the dust on her cheek.
“We’re all humans,” she breathes. “We’re all humans.”