Excerpted from Savage Tongues. Copyright © 2021 by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi. Published and reprinted by permission of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins LLC. All rights reserved.
Halfway to the apartment, I decided to cut through the blind alleys of the old city, to climb up through its shaded streets and stout houses, their windows gazing at one another coyly, to the Plaza de los Naranjos. I remembered an old woman who ran a shop in the far corner of that plaza; we’d chatted once or twice. I wondered if she was still alive. She was thin and had a wrinkled face, a humped back, but nevertheless she was elegant, attractive, a woman with a poised demeanor, pearls in her ears, and hair meticulously combed into a chignon pinned together with silk flowers.
I walked resignedly through the streets now, jostled by crowds of chattering tourists, by young men in leather jackets, their motorcycle helmets hanging off their forearms, the odor of alcohol wafting from their armpits as they staggered home from the clubs. As I looked at them, I felt an intense, searing heat crawl up my throat. It was Omar’s name rising to my lips. My eyes grew moist. I felt as though steam were rising from the center of my being, forcing its way up and out of my eyes, ears, nose. It was time. The hour of sobbing had arrived. I didn’t want to submit to my tears. I didn’t want to succumb. I feared I would collapse, turn to liquid, be unable to put myself back together. So I swallowed his name. I willed it to drown. And for a moment — a brief minute — I experienced relief. Perhaps, I considered, I could hardly bear the thought that Omar was still there, in that recondite twist of alleys, hiking through the brush and bramble of the mountains, drying herbs on his terrace, because I feared that, if given the chance, he would work his way through my body again. I shook away the thought. I pushed his name down.
I entered the shop and asked for the woman. Rosario. Her name had come back to me the second I crossed the threshold. I said it over and over to myself — Rosario — a prayer bead, an incantation, shoving Omar’s name further down with each repetition. Rosario. The man who was minding the shop looked at me with expert eyes, then looked down at his desk, which was crowded with objects — saltshakers shaped like tuna fruit, tiny olive and almond and salt platters with flowers painted on their glazed yellow surfaces. Slowly, without raising his gaze from his desk, he told me that Rosario was his mother, that she’d passed away nearly ten years prior, that the shop was his now. There was a grandfather clock standing against the wall behind him. The clock was wheezing like a pair of lungs. I stared at its swinging pendulum. It seemed to be whispering something to me. I felt a hot breath on my neck. Omar. There it was: his name trembling on my lips, more powerful than I was.
“I want you naked,” I heard, “as the day you were born.”
“Excuse me?” I asked Rosario’s son. He had a concerned look on his face.
“I was just asking,” he said, “if you were looking to buy something.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes.” Nervously moving about the store, I picked out a candleholder, a beautiful centerpiece delicately carved and painted a regal blue. I told him that I was looking to light some candles, paid him, and quietly left.
Outside, I sat on a bench. The ache in my stomach had worsened; the pain had become unbearable. I felt as though someone had turned up the pressure in my gut. I felt ready to burst. I needed to take a moment to breathe before walking the rest of the way to the apartment. There were two men standing a few meters behind me. I directed my attention to them in order to distract myself from the tears working their way out of my body, tears I was afraid would be toxic. I swallowed hard. I shoved everything that was rising up in me as far down as I could. Listen to their conversation, I told myself, and my old habit of obedience kicked in; I resigned myself to listening. They were talking about women, marriage. I heard one of them say that he preferred his women to be ugly because the ugly ones made more competent housewives. They’re better cooks and don’t complain when it’s time to mop the floors and deweb the ceiling. Besides, he added, he could always go down to the beach and stare at the foreign women, their bodies overflowing with sexual offerings, their habits and tastes indiscriminate. “Obscene women,” he said. “Women who spread their legs for anybody.”
The other man laughed and clapped encouragingly.
“What happened to women cutting their hair short when they got married and letting their waists thicken and being happy in their house slippers and aprons?” the first man asked. “They used to go down to the butcher looking like that, and now they all want to be appreciated; they want us to cup their breasts as if they were pears carved from gold by the hands of Jesus,” he exclaimed happily. “Forget it. Give me an ugly wife or nothing.”
His friend went on clapping, applauding what he kept referring to as a timely sermon.
It dawned on me then why all the women called one another guapa here. It was a code of solidarity, a rallying against the abusive language catapulted at them by certain men. It was a collective affirmation of their dignity.
I’d closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw that Rosario’s son was standing before me. He was holding out his arm. He said, “You forgot your change.” He opened his palm to show me a five-euro bill.
I took the bill and thanked him.
He walked away, dragging his feet, head hanging, his eyes on the ground. A man who was afraid, who had likely always been afraid, of making eye contact with women. There are all kinds of men in this world, I thought. All kinds.
As soon as he was out of sight, I began shaking. I tried to push the surge of tears back down. I swallowed. I begged. I negotiated with the heavens. But nothing worked, and soon I had given in to a long bereft fit of weeping. It hurt. My throat and the backs of my lids hurt. I cried until my head throbbed. My lungs were exhausted and sore, my lips raw, but I couldn’t stop. It was as if a great flood were moving through me. A terrible earthquake. A shifting of the fault lines in the oceanic depths of my life. I thought of Ellie, reminded myself that I wasn’t alone. I just had to get myself to the apartment. I just had to make my way to Ellie. I got up and walked downhill through the old quarter. I could hardly see straight. My vision was blurred with tears that were collecting faster than I could unload them. I walked down a narrow street flanked by the puckered walls of the Arab ruins; great tufts of lavender and capers were growing out of the cracks and seams. I stopped halfway down the road and clung to one of those bushes. I nearly yanked it out of that great ancient wall, those stones that were as rough as sandpaper. The street was deserted. There was no one in sight. I heard my mother’s voice. I heard her utter that saying she had so often repeated: “God is our only witness.” I didn’t even know if I believed there was a God hovering in the heavens, crowning our heads.
I couldn’t wait to get home to Ellie. I thought of the healing power of friendship as I made my way down that empty street, a street as old as time. Friendship, I thought, is a form of witness. She had received my testimony. She had held it with tenderness and love. She had taken care with my story. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have never been able to receive Xavi. I could feel myself — my whole body — rushing toward Ellie. I thought of her contagious laughter, how we’d doubled over laughing in the middle of an empty maze of streets behind the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, the air thick with the smell of incense and the sound of murmured prayers because I, who did not even know if I believed in God, had been turned away from the Al-Aqsa Mosque that morning by two Israeli soldiers in green fatigues and combat boots, bullet belts strapped to their chests. They were holding machine guns. “You are not Muslim,” they’d said in unison, as if channeling God herself. I was wearing a full hijab. I’d wanted to go into the mosque, to pray, to press my forehead against its well-worn floors as a way to be near my mother and her parents, to salute their deep religiosity despite my own confused ambivalence. I had been raised, after all, to greet God every morning, to thank God every evening. “Recite the Ash-Shura,” the soldiers commanded, stroking their guns. And I had. I stood there with a fire in my eyes, holding back my pain, hardening my face so it wouldn’t show my sorrow or anger. I recited the verses. I recited them for myself. I recited them for the soldiers, for the collective humiliation that we had been forced to perform. For the Palestinians whose relationship to the divine was eclipsed by the Occupation, a form of psychological and spiritual torture, not to be allowed to access the sacred sites of one’s culture. And as I recited the Ash-Shura, in that moment, against all odds, I had suddenly believed there was a God. I had felt heard, accompanied by an invisible fleet of bodies that had gathered at my back to support me. I was sure my ancestors were standing behind me, placing each verse of the Quran in my mouth to be uttered. Halfway through the prayer, the soldiers grew impatient and let me in. And my privilege in comparison to the Palestinians to whom this land and its sites belonged was not lost on me.
What business did I have entering the mosque while they, who were devoted to the mosque, were cut off from its holy walls? I almost turned away, but the soldiers waved me through the arched passageway with their guns and a nod of their heads, and I walked, aware that I was a target, that all my life there had been a gun pointed at my back. I walked through the courtyard of olive trees, beneath a blue sun so bright that it appeared to have been lit from below, past men and women dressed in simple robes, toward the golden dome of the mosque, and left my shoes at the door. I’d needed to cry but hadn’t been able to.
I met Ellie at the Damascus Gate after that. I told her what happened, and we’d begun to laugh. You are not a Muslim, we kept repeating to each other, laughing our hearts out at the preposterous request that I justify my humanity. It was an absurd utterance, a statement that ushered hatred into the world — a statement designed to remind me that I was under surveillance, that I, a potential purveyor of future violence, needed to be monitored, controlled. How, Ellie and I had wondered, laughing out our pained hearts, were we expected to carve out lives for ourselves amid all of that suspicion and hatred? How were we meant to believe in God? And what would that belief absolve us of? We had treated our friendship as sacred, as a kind of religion. Was that not, then, a manifestation of devotion? Was love and laughter not devotional? “Laugh,” my mother had often said to me as a young child. “Laugh as a way of being close to the grace of God.” That was long before this story had unfolded. As I emerged from the street and looked up at our building, I remembered how Ellie and I had stood in the shade of those ancient walls and given ourselves over to laughter. We’d barely been able to contain ourselves. Tears had streamed down our faces; we’d been on the verge of having to urinate, folded over, giggling in heaves between breaths, everything rushing out of us in one mad delirious stream. Had we been crying then? Crying together through our laughter, articulating side by side our profound sense of loss and loneliness? Had we been asking the universe not to turn its back on us? Had we been asking God to kneel down as our witness?
Read an interview between Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi and novelist Alexandra Kleeman about Savage Tongues.
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the novel Savage Tongues (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), Call Me Zebra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the John Gardner Award, was long listed for the PEN Open Book Award, was an Amazon Best Book of the Year, A Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller and named a Best Book by over twenty publications. It is being translated into Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Turkish and Romanian and was published in the UK by Alma Books, a division of Bloomsbury. She received a 2015 Whiting Writers’ Award and was a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree for her debut novel, Fra Keeler (Dorothy, 2012).