From Vietnamese original Linh Hồn Tôi Đâu, short story by McAmmond Nguyen Thi Tu
At times I wondered if God had punished me as a warning to any Roman Catholic who would risk his soul. If not, why would He let the prying eyes of her brother stop at my Blackberry that had slipped into a crack on the sofa in her living room when I was there. In the name of Jesus, my carelessness deserved to be cursed, but did the price to pay have to be so high? And what about her God, Allah, who she had always feared and worshiped with all her heart, why wouldn’t He vouch for her purity and shield her from that fatal stabbing? Every time I imagine what she had to endure in her final moments on earth, I lose my mind. I see her gentle face framed by an emerald green hijab covering her head and shoulders. With her headscarf on, she looks like a Catholic nun. Her eyes are wide open, filled with panic. A sharp pointed knife suddenly appears, piercing her neck, chest, and stomach. It isn’t only one stab, but then one more, then three, four, five, six… a total of eleven thrusts, fast, regular, like a rhythmic dance. Not a sound comes from her. Only the calm and sorrowful voice of her father repeating a sura from the Qur’an. She’s sitting in the front seat of the old, dark blue, Toyota Cressida, next to her father. Her head drops to her shoulder, her eyes are still wide open, terrified, blood spattered on her hijab and soaking through her white blouse. This image pains me deeply. I feel powerless and horrified as if it is my body being cut to pieces under that sharp pointed knife. No, it couldn’t be. She was just with me walking along the hillside covered with wildflowers and green grasses in the golden afternoon sunlight. The night before the murder we were sitting together until past midnight in the living room of her house, the house I had stepped into for the first time, stealthily, like a thief in the night…
It was all because of them. The doctor, police, social worker, and also my father. They held meetings, conspired together to bring me in this place. My mother came to visit me, touched my face again and again, tears running down her cheeks. She said that my craziness was caused by demonic possession — (and of course I understood that my mother referred to the girl I love). My sister would stand by a window gazing at the parking lot down the street, occasionally turning to me with a pitiful look. Before leaving, my sister always asked what books I needed so she could bring them the next time she came. She meant the books for the new research about the life of Native Indians in western Canada before the invasion of the White people. I was conducting this project with a professor who was a foremost authority in the field. What was the point of reading that stuff now, I would ask myself bitterly. My sister assumed that I didn’t know what had happened to the project, so she just pretended, in order to console me. But the truth is, I had already learned the news from one of my classmates. The professor had sent a letter to my home advising that he had ended his contract with me, and had replaced me with another student. When I first came here, my friends visited quite often, but somehow in the recent weeks they had all disappeared. My father, no, he has never appeared. My mother said that he was too busy with trips to Vietnam to take care of his newly formed stock company in Ho Chi Minh City. I know that my father no longer cares about his oldest son he used to put a lot of hope in. “That’s it. Children who don’t listen to their parents are like fish without salt, they go rotten. He refused to study business, but wasted time on a lousy program that won’t help him get a job. He protested marrying a girl in Vietnam, but let that Muslim witch steal his soul, now even his body is badly damaged. What else can we do but consider him dead”. I heard him talking to my mother on the day a group of people had gathered in my house, when they pushed me down to give me the needles and then carried me to the police van on the street.
The girl I love was born and grown up in Karachi located in southeast Pakistan, a financial and commercial hub on the coast of the Arabian sea. I am from a small Catholic parish in central Vietnam. I have been in Canada for 20 years, arriving here when I was a boy in grade 3. She, on the other hand, came here with her family only three years ago. We did volunteer work together with an agency that supports immigrant youth. She was studying law, in her second year. I was writing my PhD thesis, hoping to find a job teaching anthropology for a university in the city.
I remember when we first met she asked why I was called Cao. I said I heard from my mother that my paternal grandparents had migrated to the South many years before but still missed their homeland Dong Cao which is on the Northern coastal plain, so they named their grandson Cao. As for her, her father named her Aishah to show his respect for the prophet of God. Aishah was the youngest among more than ten wives of the prophet Muhammad. Aishah was married to him when she was nine and he over 50. So, Allah is obviously unfair. He allowed his prophet to break the law by having more than four wives. I was just joking, but her black eyes, framed with exquisite long lashes, looked at me in disbelief. “Cao, saying that is an insult to God and his prophet. It’s a serious sin,” her voice was solemn and scolding.
When we saw each other the next time, she handed me a copy of the Qur’an, brand new, an English version. “Unless one reads it in Arabic, one cannot comprehend its deepest meanings,” She said. I asked if she wanted to convert me. She shook her head, saying that she just wanted me to read so that I could better understand and appreciate God even more. But during our meetings afterwards, it appeared that she wanted me to believe in her God. There’s no other God but Allah. Allah is the Creator and Sustainer. She argued with me. How could God have a son when he never had a wife. God doesn’t have children, and He wasn’t ever born himself. She said Jesus is only one of God’s prophets, not the Son of God as stated in my religion. In fact, Muhammad is the prophet and last messenger of God, who God had chosen to convey His words through the Archangel Gabriel. She even insisted that it’s not my Bible, but her Qur’an that is truly God’s word.
Her lectures about God actually couldn’t shake my belief. I was inspired by the beauty radiating from her bright and gentle face accentuated by the big beautiful eyes full of mysterious and magnificent stars. I’m not exaggerating, but I must say that I have never seen any woman, Western or Eastern, with such alluring eyes. Even my sister who always likes to criticize others, said, “Brother, your Muslim girlfriend has eyes that are getting ready to steal another’s soul”.
I brought the Qur’an home. My father reacted as if he had caught sight of the devil. It’s garbage from the satanic religion that attacks our God in Three Persons. It insults Jesus Christ and his savior mission. Being Catholics, we should just learn what’s written in the Bible. My father lectured me for a long time. I wasn’t surprised. For more than 10 years my father has been president of a parish committee which has two thousand Vietnamese Catholics who immigrated in groups to this North American city. He followed in the steps of my deceased paternal grandfather, whose life and money was dedicated to God. My father lectured me, but how could he control all my deeds. The Qur’an given by her was therefore put in the stack of research books I read every day. Allah must know, if it wasn’t for Aishah, I wouldn’t take the trouble to read it. Aishah, the girl who wore the hijab that covered her head all the time, and who had exquisite, round eyes, could ask me to do anything.
If we didn’t count the living room in her house where we were together the last time, the enormous and quiet hill located in the north west of the city was the only place that had witnessed our secret dates. It was the world that opened its arms for us. Only there could she have the freedom to walk side by side with a man who was not a family member or even a relative. Of course she always lied and told her family that she was going to the library to study. To avoid attention, she would take off her hijab and put it in her bag. I don’t want people to be nosy when they see a Muslim girl with a man who’s not only of a different religion but also of a different race. The second reason is to ensure our safety. “You know, Muslim Pakistanis like me are often discriminated against,” she explained. With her long hair covering her shoulders, she walked beside me, both beautiful and innocent. The path to the top of the hill was exactly two kilometers long. We had counted every loving step. On one side of the path, a broad grassland area was all we could see – fescue and Blue Grama grass, sage and parry oatgrass. On the other side, a sharp coulee was sprinkled with multi-colored flowers, wild willow bushes and shrubs, and the stands of slender aspens whose leaves trembled in the wind and sunlight. Why is this flower is called buffalo beans, why is this one a black-eyed Susan? I think wild flowers are actually more beautiful than garden flowers. Her voice was excited. So this is the Seneca Snakeroot you told me about; the Natives used to chew it and apply it to rattlesnake bites and insect stings? Oh, look! Roses, a forest of roses! No wonder our land is named the land of the wild rose. She was lost in that paradise with countless mysterious things unlike those in the narrow and restricted world of her family and mosque. She asked questions, she wanted to know everything. She admired me for having eyes that could pick out a deer hidden in distant bushes. I showed her the solitary porcupines that lived among the willow branches. I taught her how to tell the Red-tailed from the Swainson’s Hawk and from the Northern Harrier.
And sometimes I was able to show off to her knowledge I had acquired from my national culture research project. Many things on the hill which was formed at the end of the Ice Age were familiar to me. We often stopped by the rock where the buffalo, for hundreds if not thousands of years, came in the spring to rub off their tattered winter coats that made them itch. Millions of North American bison, with short faces, shaggy coats and humped backs, roamed in immense herds on this very spot. They searched out new grass on the windy slopes and along the banks of the Bow River that was now a city centre where only skyscrapers grew. She listened as I told stories of the Europeans who appeared on this land with guns, horses, and also with diseases. They said that they discovered this land that had been the home of Amerindians for more than ten thousand years. They thought it was their duty to ‘civilize’ the Natives by placing them on reserves, challenging their culture and traditions, by telling them that their God, whatever they called him, was not the true God and by introducing the concept of land possession, The Natives had never thought of land as something that could be possessed. Land belongs to nature like the sky and the air. But the White people had set their foot here, taking over the rich fertile areas, and forced the Natives to live on poorer land with their families. She sighed and said, “Is that not the way White people operate in many places on earth?”
She talked to me about the inferiority complex of Muslims who immigrate to Europe and North America. The day when the two towers in New York were brought down, she was in school. Everyone gathered to watch television in the cafeteria. She felt that all eyes were on her with hostility as though she personally was the pilot in one of the planes. In the afternoon she went home to find that her father’s car, which was parked in front of the house had been smashed, the windshield and the glass in one door broken. On the front of the car were big letters in English written with a black felt pen “Terrorist. Go home.” And if that wasn’t enough, the next morning, her mother was horrified when she opened the door, to see a pig’s head, soaked with blood in the front yard. Theirs was the only Pakistani family on that block. The same day, there was a report that someone had thrown four freshly cut pig heads in front of the city mosque. What else will they do? She was worried about being harmed by these extremists.
I must say my meetings with her on the hills were the most beautiful and exciting moments that I had never experienced. Our passion to learn about nature brought us closer every day. I was thrilled when she showed her complete trust in me, sharing with me thoughts about her life without any hesitation. Yes, she was the first and only woman that I ever wanted to protect with all my heart and mind. There were times when we stood in silence on the hilltop, feeling no need to utter a word to each other, just quietly watching the sunset partly hidden in clouds clustered like sheep on the far side of the Rockies. And behind us the majestic buildings that rose out of the valley on the banks of the winding river, and an immense prairie stretching off to the East as far as we could see.
That day she told me her family would be absent the whole night. They had gone to a relative’s wedding in Vancouver. She wanted to stay at home alone to study for final exams. She asked if I would like to come over.
I did go to her house. We sat together for hours in the sofa in her living room. She told me that her brother had become suspicious. She had come home late from the library too many times. There were signs that her computer and cell phone had been inspected. “But don’t you worry,” she said, “I deleted everything.” I told her that my father was pressuring me to go to Vietnam and marry his business partner’s daughter. “And will you do as your father wants?” she asked me. Her voice couldn’t hide her worry. I couldn’t imagine myself being converted to her faith, but swore to her that I would find a way to fight for our love. She also said that she could never abandon her family, but swore that she would remain single for the rest of her life if we couldn’t live with each other. That night, the very first time after more than a year of knowing each other and being deeply in love, we could put our arms around each other. The inviting darkness and overwhelming love had made it hard to repress our burning desire to unite our bodies. I placed my lips on her pure breast. She trembled and offered herself to me, heart and soul. I could hear her pleading breath, her racing heart, and sense the virginal fragrance from the girl I love.
Then I stopped during a sacred moment I will never forget. What if I couldn’t marry her? What if her father forced her to be another man’s wife? The horrendous and heart-wrenching stories she had told me about Islamic law regarding the virginity of a woman on her wedding night put out the flame in my heart.
I went away while she was getting ready for her prayers before going to bed. I left her house, stealthily, the same way I came in, worried that someone might see me.
That night the Muslims started to prepare their heart and body for Ramadan.
The next morning was the first day of Ramadan, the fasting month. She once explained to me that this was the month the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Muhammad and that during this holy month, everyone must forgive and repent.
Back from Vancouver, her brother grilled her all morning after spotting a strange cell phone between the sofa cushions in the living room. Her bedroom and clothes were ransacked. Her brother’s snooping eyes finally came upon her diary. The walks on the hills. A man’s kisses and hugs. Praise be to Allah, the one and only Creator! “So, this Blackberry belongs to that bastard and he stayed over last night. You trashy whore! Don’t think you can fool me. The sin is clear on your tired face. Did the damn dog get you pregnant? Speak! How many times have you slept with the man who worships many Gods, and eats the meat of the dirty pig? Tell me!” Her mother wept. Her sister too. She tried in vain to defend herself while her brother grabbed her hijab and banged her head on the wall. That evening, her father ordered her to accompany him to the mosque to pray. He stopped on a deserted street, and suddenly pulled out the sharp pointed knife he had hidden in the car. She didn’t have time to react. She would never be able to know that her father had, in fact, prepared the plan to kill her and discussed it with her mother and brother a few hours before. Only her death could protect the family’s reputation.
The city newspaper the next day ran a big headline on its front page “Muslim student stabbed to death in her father’s car”. Included in the news article was a portrait of Aishah whose head and shoulders were covered with the green colored hijab, the one with small dotted sparkles. Her beauty was that of the Virgin Mary – eyes wide open, profoundly gentle.
And now she is dead. Not because of prejudice from White extremists, as she had always feared, but from the furious hands of the person who gave her life.
Until the moment of leaving this earth, the girl I shall always love had not fulfilled her dream of going to the holy city Mecca once as all Muslims want to do in their lifetime.
As I’m telling this, her father is still in jail serving his life sentence. He is waiting for his lawyer’s appeal to ask the court to lessen the punishment for the “honor killing” for, as he says, “Killing a daughter to protect a family’s reputation is a sacred duty.” Her mother and siblings have moved to a small town down East. And here I am, my soul lost somewhere where it can’t be found. I am a prisoner in this place for an indefinite period of time…
That was all I had gathered after many meetings with Cao, a 30-year-old man of Vietnamese origin, the subject of my research paper for the graduation thesis in my psychology degree. Cao was admitted to the psychiatric hospital three months ago, and classified as a serious and complicated case. Normally, he will be extremely quiet and just focus on his reading not saying a word to his cellmate, but occasionally he will fly into a fit of madness, banging, breaking things, screaming and crying and they have to send him to a special 24 hour secured room. It’s written in the nurses’ daily reports that, one day Cao threw the Bible on the floor, then peed on it. The other day he used his teeth and hands to tear many pages from the Qur’an.
Cao wouldn’t talk about his story every time we met. Some days he would just sit like a statue, staring at me with vacant eyes. Other days he would talk for a while then suddenly stand up shouting at me and use rude or vulgar language as he told me to go away. Other days, he talks without stopping, jumping from one subject to another. Usually his voice is calm, as though he’s telling somebody else’s story, but sometimes he gets a lump in his throat and chokes up. His eyes turn red. Once he paused in the middle of the sentence, mumbling to himself as if he had completely forgotten that I was there. “Where’s my soul. Where is God the Trinity? Where’s Allah. Aishah is the girl I love.” He kept muttering sentences as though he was repeating what he learned by heart in a textbook, his eyes stared at me but his mind was somewhere else. “For though the pig’s hoof is divided, thus making a split hoof, it does not chew cud, it is unclean to you. You shall not eat of its flesh nor touch its carcass. Everything is only an invention! Religion. Culture. War of the Cross. Holy war. Bullshit!” Cao burst into angry words while waving his hands in the air. He stopped for a short moment, eyes still far away, then continued mumbling. “The Dalai Lama said that if I look at you superficially, we are different, and if I put my emphasis on that level, we grow more distant. If I look on you as my own kind, as human beings like myself, with one nose, two eyes, and so forth, then automatically that distance is gone…” I listened to Cao and could not help thinking about tragedy that seems impossible to erase in the human world. Isn’t it right that humans by nature shall be forever prejudiced against each other, and that discrimination is not just limited to religion? Beside me, Cao was chanting “Where’s my soul. Where is God the Trinity. Where’s Allah. Aishah is the girl I love…” And right at that moment I saw tears streaming down his cheeks.
Calgary, June 2009
McAmmond Nguyen Thi Tu & Gary Donovan