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In pre-Islamic Arabia, the practice of female infanticide used to occur. Many non-Muslim tribes forced others to murder young girls; and it wasn’t until the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad that these acts were forbidden in society. But, nevertheless, some tribes still believe it was their gods’ order to kill off all females, and, disobeying Muhammad’s order, they still practiced female infanticide and forced others as well. There were few people who disobeyed the tribes’ orders because they were afraid of the terrible punishment they would receive if they did.
Outside in the dead of night, there stood a group of cloaked men, gathered outside a hut. The family was poor; the house was miniscule with cracked gray walls about to crumble from the weight of the patched up, leaking roof. The front door hung on loose against the house’s front wall, on the brink of snapping off and falling to the dusty ground beneath it. One tall and broad-shouldered man stood in the front.
“Come, boys,” he spoke in a cold and clear Arabic dialect.
“But, Master, are you sure this is the right one?” asked one of the scrawnier of the cloaked men.
“Yousef, waa’ na’ aalam,” the leader replied with a sly smile, and Yousef immediately quieted. He stood with an air of arrogance and power; all of his men held great respect towards him. Oh how he loved moments like this; moments of giving people the pure punishment that they deserved. Yes, nothing was better than that. He agreed with the gods; every father who didn’t kill off their precious little daughters should be punished greatly.
And now, without any extra interruptions, the men proceeded stealthily to the house’s only entrance.
Ahmad awoke with a start.
“Oh, Allah!” he wondered what happened. Next to him, his wife, Haya, whimpered in fear. Ahmad wrapped a protective arm around their young daughter, Layla. Ahmad slowly got up from the woven mat made of palm tree leaves he used to sleep on, and slowly walked the short distance to the front door where he heard the crash. He squinted in the dim moonlight and saw the silhouette of cloaked figures stepping into the house.
“Ah! How are you Sheikh Ahmad? Did we wake you? You have my sincere apology.” The leader stopped short and looked straight at Ahmad with a devilish smile. “But we had some important matters to discuss.”
Ahmad felt a jolt of fear and gave a warning glance to his wife, signaling her to stay behind him. The leader apparently witnessed this action.
“Ah! Don’t worry! We mean no harm…unless you disobey our request.”
“What—what do you want?” Ahmad’s voice wavered, and he said yet again a silent prayer.
“It has come to our attention that you’ve ignored our previous request; you still have decided to keep your daughter.” The leader enjoyed the fearful look of Ahmad, who realized what this conversation was coming to.
“And so, we’ve decided to be courteous enough to give you one last warning: either the girl goes, or you and your whole family go…you must choose.”
“La, la! No, no! Please! Oh please have mercy!” Ahmad sunk to the ground, and Haya gave a little squeak. “Can’t you just take me? Please! Just take me!” At this request, the leader gave a deep throaty laugh.
“Oh? And what good will that do, huh? You’ll leave your family unprotected. Do you know what will happen to them now? Killing off one daughter by the order of the gods is not a crime. But if you disobey, we will have to kill the rest of your family; you’d have a label plastered on your head that states that you committed murder. You hear that? Murder.” The leader was playing him, convincing him to do what the Gods wanted. “You know the law, Ahmad! The gods have said that females are weak; society should be rid of them! And those who bear girls should be punished—they should pay the price. You have a price to pay, Ahmad.”
Oh how the leader wished the gods would give him the power to kill off each and every one of these vermin. But, sadly, the gods had said otherwise; they had said that only the father has the right to do that; if not, how would he ever feel any real pain and punishment?
“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” Ahmad whispered this quiet saying.
“Really?” The leader seemed quite amused. “You believe in a god you cannot even see? You put your face in the dirt and bow down to the air when you pray, thinking it’s God you pray to? You listen to his so called ‘Respected One’ do you?” Yousef snickered, and the leader glared at him. Yousef made a point to never snicker again in front of him.
Ahmad quivered in rage. How dare they! How dare they speak of the Great One like that! “You have no right—” he began in a voice of pure hatred. Then, the leader smacked him hard across the face, and he sunk to the ground. Haya gasped and, despite her husband’s warning, ran to his side.
“I have no right? I have no right?” His voice was shrill and shook with power. “Look at you! You filthy piece of scum! You’re standing up to the gods’ Chosen One? You better watch your tongue! Listen to me, and listen to me carefully: if you don’t have your daughter dead by sunset tomorrow, we will murder everyone; including your precious wife, right before your eyes, you hear me? We’ll make you suffer.”
“I-You can’t touch them! Allah will stop you!” Ahmad tried desperately to hold onto his hope.
This time, the cloaked figures all gave a devilish laugh. “Oh, but we can,” said the leader with a sly smile. “Don’t forget our warning this time, Ahmad. Men, move out!”
Even after they had left, Ahmad was still curled up in the corner with his wife, both weeping pathetically, staring fearfully at the doorway which now had no door. Ahmad could still feel the hot sting of the leader’s slap on his cheek; his words were still ringing in his ears: you’d have a label plastered on your head that states that you committed murder. You hear that? Murder…
None of it made sense to Ahmad, but what did it matter if it made sense to him or not? He was just a poor man with a poor family. His mentality wouldn’t change the Cloaked Ones’ ways, who had roamed around the city for months, forcing fathers to murder their daughters. But still, Ahmad had hoped this day would not come; he had hoped and begged for Allah’s protection; he had prayed all his daily five prayers, making supplication that God would never make his family suffer, even when he found out Haya beared him a girl.
Then why? Why would God make them suffer? Ahmad didn’t know. He didn’t know one bit, but he knew he had no choice. And so he slowly walked over to the prayer rug and prostrated before God and made silent prayers until dawn, hoping that Allah would forgive him of the evil act he was about to do.
Somewhere in between his prayers, Layla had crawled over and stroked his head softly; it was as if she knew her fate, as if she knew how just how much pain her father would have to go through.
The next morning, the quiet city was now alive with music, shops and merchants lined up selling fresh fruits and vegetables, tunics, turbans, and hand-made toys for children. The smells of the bazaar wafted through the air; blending with one another. Ahmad recognized the smell of Al-Mathbi, grilled seasoned lamb; his mouth watered, but of course, he couldn’t afford it. He then decided to stick with the shop that was selling Saliq, lamb with milk and rice, because it was at a more affordable price. Ahmad finally found enough strength to take his daughter out for one last day of fun—he at least owed her that much. And so, now, he wandered the city holding little Layla’s hand, trying to suppress a smile as his five-year-old daughter shrieked with delight when she saw anything that caught her eye, which was now apparently a small baby camel.
“Aba, look! It’s a cow!” She was practically jumping right out of her small leather sandals. “Why won’t he talk? He’s a stupid cow!”
Ahmad made a failed attempt to stifle his laughter; no matter how depressed he was, he knew his daughter could always make him happy again. “It’s not a cow, Layla dear. It’s a camel.”
“Fine! It’s a stupid camel!”
“Now Layla, maa ho khat, that’s wrong! God is never happy when you insult his creations.”
“I’m sorry, Aba.” Layla looked down innocently, sincerely apologetic. “But it’s not my fault he’s stupid!”
Ahmad and Layla continued to walk around the city, stopping only occasionally when Ahmad bought Layla a small hand-made doll or some dates to eat when they got hungry. Before he knew it, the time that he dreaded came near, and he knew, with a heavy heart, that Layla’s time was running out. He stole a long glance at his young daughter; God knew when he would ever see her again. She had her mother’s dark, mysterious eyes and pale white skin, and had inherited his high cheekbones and light brown hair. She would’ve been a beautiful woman, Ahmad realized. His eyes filled with tears. She could’ve had a wonderful life, but because of her very own father…
“Layla, child, it’s time to go.” Ahmad couldn’t hide the sadness that crept into his voice.
“But I don’t want to go! I want to see more of those cow-camels!” She protested. Ahmad managed to give a small laugh.
“Oh! But I have one more surprise for you!” At this, Layla’s facial expression instantly brightened.
“Heeth, Aba? Where?”
“Well, you’d have to follow me to figure that out, wouldn’t you?”
And so, puzzled and excited at the same time, Layla followed her father through the city, and she noticed that with every few steps, the number of people would decrease, and the music, the laughter, the voices, the smells, all faded away. Soon they stepped into a deserted area, and only the sheer whistling of the wind could be heard in the eerie silence. It was a moment not unlike last night, thought Ahmad. “We’re almost there,” he whispered, gripping his daughter’s hand tightly; her hand suddenly felt very small and vulnerable in his big, soft one. He knew somewhere, the Cloaked Ones were watching. He knew they were hidden, keeping his every move under their watchful gaze, in case he disobeyed them. Layla and Ahmad stopped in the middle of a vast land covered in enormous, cavernous ditches. It almost looked like a hundred meteors struck the earth at that very clearing.
“Well Layla, you shall wait no longer! Look!” He pointed to the big, dry ditch to their right.
“Wow, Aba! Where is it?” Layla’s squeal sounded odd in the perfect silence. Layla excitedly grabbed her father’s hand and dragged him across the dry earth toward the ditch. Ahmad took a deep breath; his hands were shaking, he could almost feel the Cloaked Ones’ breath down his neck, pressuring him.
“Layla, child, your gift is down there! Take a look.” Ahmad was not proud of what he was about to do. Nor did he want to do it willingly. Layla, full of curiosity, stood at the very edge of the ditch and peered down into it. She saw nothing but pitch black.
“Aba, I don’t see any—” Ahmad didn’t want to do it. He never wanted to. But, nevertheless, at that very moment, he gave Layla a quick, hard shove, and she fell down into the darkness, plummeting to her death. Tears filled his eyes; he would never forget her shrill scream, or even the dull thud of her body hitting the rock bottom. Overwhelmed with grief and loss, Ahmad did the only thing left to do, he ran. He ran, hoping that as he did, this whole thing would just disappear, as if it never happened.
Haya, meanwhile, was back at the house; she knew the act was done. She covered her mouth with her hands, just as Ahmad came bursting in through the door.
“You—you didn’t—” she whispered.
“It’s done,” Ahmad said, his voice thick with tears. Haya sighed with grief; she never knew when things would ever be the same. Then, in a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “It’s not worth it.”
“What?” Ahmad was bewildered.
“I said it’s not worth it!” Haya’s voice rose. “How are we going to live, Ahmad? Kaifa? How? Our hands, our very hands are covered in her blood and there’s nothing, nothing we can do about it.” Her voice broke as tears streamed down her face. She slowly walked over to her husband and grabbed his arm. “I want you to go get her.”
“What?” Ahmad repeated.
“You heard me! Go get her, Ahmad, go get her or I…I just might jump into a ditch myself!” At this, Ahmad whipped around to face her.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen to us if I do!” He screamed right back. “They will murder us, Haya! All of us! How much blood will cover our hands, then? Huh? It will be all our fault.”
“No, Ahmad, you are wrong; the blood will cover the Cloaked Ones’ hands, not ours. I swear by Allah that we will get punished by Him a thousand times more if we let our very own daughter die from our own hands than if we let fifty of our relatives die from the hands of non-believers. We have a choice, Ahmad. Go get her, and we’ll migrate north, toward Medina, and we’ll help our relatives escape. Trust me.” Ahmad stared deep into his wife’s eyes; oh how he wished he could have possessed the courage and bravery she held behind them. “Wait here and pack our belongings; pack only the stuff we need that’s necessary for our survival. Try to take as little as possible. I will be right back.” He grabbed a small rope placed on the floor and headed quietly out the doorway.
The sky was slashed with red as the sun began to dip down, and Ahmad knew he had to hurry. He couldn’t help but to turn around every few steps, in fear that the Cloaked Ones might be standing behind him. Before he knew it, he was back at the same clearing he was at earlier. He found a boulder big enough to hold his weight (and Layla’s) and wrapped the rope tightly around it, securing it in place with a big knot. Ahmad’s hands trembled once more, and he began to have the familiar feeling of nausea. Nevertheless, he pushed himself down, painfully, carefully, until his feet hit the bottom.
“Layla?” He called out; even though he knew it was pointless; from the thud he heard when she fell, it would be impossible for her to be conscious. He groped around, until, finally, his hands felt the familiar cotton tunic his daughter was wearing, only, except, it was soaking wet. Hurriedly, Ahmad hoisted his daughter on his waist, and began to again painfully climb the rope, each footstep making him groan with agony. He didn’t know how he’d done it; perhaps it was the anxiety that kept him thinking that the Cloaked Ones could be coming for him right this minute, but Ahmad soon reached the top. He sighed, sat down, and braced himself to see the horrid face of his daughter. He gasped. Her whole body was covered in blood, her face looked badly bruised, and one of her arms hung at an odd angle. Her nose looked like someone punched it, and her scalp looked terribly scraped. It took all of Ahmad’s willpower not to cry again, and he scooped his daughter in his arms and ran all the way home.
Back at the hut, Haya was already done packing and she was harnessing the last bag onto the family’s camel.
“Oh, Allah!” She whispered shrilly at the sight of Layla. “There is no time for any of that,” Ahmad hurriedly hoisted Layla, Haya, and lastly, himself onto the camel and gave it a quick kick on the side to get him to start walking. Haya already busied herself by cleaning up Layla’s wound, when—
“Did you hear that?” Ahmad whispered, and stopped the camel.
“What are you—”
“Shhh!” He quieted Haya and both of them were dead still as they strained their ears. Then, suddenly, Haya heard it; it was soft at first, but it seemed to grow louder. It was the pounding of hooves. And, she might have dreamed it, but she heard a soft voice trailing through the wind. You disobeyed…
“Run.” She whispered. Ahmad gave the camel a kick so hard, it broke out into a run faster than he had ever seen it go before. He looked back at the hut, which was growing smaller and smaller by the minute. He hoped that one day, in the dead of night in Saudi Arabia; the Cloaked Ones would never appear again on anyone’s doorstep. He hoped that one day, he would return and help others from suffering from the wrath of the Cloaked Ones until he turned his community into a society where one was never forced to make the sacrifice that he did. But, most of all, he hoped that one day, Layla would forgive him.