Burned Alive

A Victim of the Law of Men


By Souad

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A 17-year-old girl from Jordan beats the odds and lives to tell the tale of her family’s attempt to kill her after she shames them by becoming pregnant.


I Was in Flames

I am a girl. A girl must walk fast, head down, as if counting the number of steps she's taking. She may never stray from her path or look up, for if a man were to catch her eye, the whole village would label her a charmuta. If a married neighbor woman, or an old woman, or just anybody were to see her out without her mother or her older sister, without her sheep, her bundle of hay, or her load of figs, they would right away say charmuta. A girl must be married before she can raise her eyes and look straight ahead, or go into a shop, or pluck her eyebrows and wear jewelry. My mother was married at fourteen. If a girl is still unmarried by that age, the village begins to make fun of her. But a girl must wait her turn in the family to be married. The oldest daughter first, then the others.

There are too many girls in my father's house, four of marrying age. There are also two half sisters, born of our father's second wife, who are still children. The one male child of the family, the son who is adored by all, is our brother Assad, who was born in glory among all these daughters. He is the fourth born. I am the third.

Adnan, my father, is not happy with my mother, Leila, for giving him all these girls. He is unhappy, too, with his other wife, Aicha, who also has given him nothing but girls. Noura, the oldest daughter, was married late when I myself was about fifteen. Nobody has yet asked for Kainat, the second girl, who is about a year older than me. I did overhear that a man spoke to my father about me, but he was told that I must wait for Kainat's marriage before I can marry. But Kainat may not be pretty enough, and is probably too slow at her work. I'm not really sure why she hasn't been asked for, but if she stays unmarried, she'll be the butt of the village jokes, and so will I.

It is a curse in my village to be born a girl. I have no memory of having played games or having fun as a child. The only freedom a girl can dream about is marriage, leaving your father's house for your husband's and not coming back, even if you're beaten. It is considered shameful for a married daughter to return home because she is not supposed to ask for protection outside her husband's house. If she does return to her father's house, it is her family's duty to bring her back to her husband. My sister was beaten by her husband and she brought shame on our family when she came back home to complain.

She is lucky to have a husband, though. I dream about it. Ever since I heard that a man spoke to my father about me, I have been consumed by impatience and curiosity. I know he lives three or four steps from us. Sometimes I can catch sight of him from the upper terrace where I lay the laundry out to dry. He must have a good job in the city because he never dresses like a laborer. He always wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and has a car. I'd like to see his face close up but I'm afraid the family will catch me spying. So when I go to get hay for a sick sheep in the stable, I walk fast hoping to see him nearby. But he parks his car too far away. From watching, I know about what time he comes out to go to work. So at seven o'clock in the morning, I pretend to be folding the laundry on the terrace or looking for a ripe fig or shaking out the carpets to get a glimpse of him driving off in his car. I have to be quick so I won't be noticed. What I do is climb the stairs and pass through the rooms to get to the terrace. There I energetically shake a rug and look over the cement wall, just slightly glancing to the right. If somebody notices me from afar, they won't guess that I'm looking down at the street.

When I see him, I realize I am in love with this man and this car! I imagine many things on the terrace: I am married to him and, like today, I watch the car go off into the distance until I can't see it anymore. But he'll come back from work at sunset and I will remove his shoes, and on my knees I will wash his feet as my mother does for my father. I will bring him his tea, and I'll watch him smoke his long pipe, seated like a king in front of the door of his house. I will be a woman who has a husband!

And maybe I'll even be able to put on makeup, get into this car with my husband, and even go into town and into the shops. I will endure the worst for the simple freedom of being able to go through this doorway to go out and buy bread! But I will not ever be a charmuta. I will not look at other men. I will continue to walk fast, erect and proud, but will not watch my steps with lowered eyes, and the village will not be able to say bad things about me, because I will be a married woman.

It is from this very terrace that my terrible story began. I was already older than my older sister was on the day of her wedding. I must have been eighteen, or maybe more, I don't know, and I both hoped and I despaired. My memory went up in smoke the day the flames engulfed me, but I have tried to reconstruct what happened.


I was born in a tiny village that, I'm told, was somewhere in the West Bank. But since I never went to school, I don't know anything about my country's history. I have also been told that I was born there in either 1957 or 1958, so I'm about forty-five years old today. Twenty-five years ago, I spoke only Arabic; I'd never been farther than a few kilometers beyond the last house on the dirt road. I knew there were cities farther away but I never saw them. I did not know if the earth was round or flat, and I had no idea of the world in general. What I did know was that we had to hate the Jews who had taken our land; my father called them pigs. We were forbidden to go near them, to speak or come in contact with them for fear of becoming a pig like them.

I had to say my prayers at least twice a day. I recited them like my mother and sisters, but I only learned of the Koran in Europe many years later. My only brother, treated like the king of the house, went to school, but the girls did not. As I've mentioned, where I come from, being born a girl was a curse. A wife must first produce a son, at least one, and if she gives birth to only girls, she is mocked. Two or three girls at most are needed for the housework, to work on the land, and see to the animals. If more girls are born, it is a great misfortune and they should be gotten rid of as soon as possible. I lived this way until about the age of seventeen without knowing anything except that I was valued less than an animal because I was a girl.

So, this was my first life, as an Arab woman in the West Bank. It lasted twenty years, and the person I had been there died. She is no more.

My second life began in Europe at the end of the 1970s in an international airport. I was not much more than suffering human flesh on a stretcher. My body smelled so much of death that the passengers on the plane that was taking me from Palestine to Europe protested. Even though I was hidden behind a curtain, my presence was unbearable to them. As I write about it now, I relive that moment: They tell me that I am going to live but I do not believe that and I wait for death. I even beg for it to take me. Death seems preferable to this suffering and humiliation. There is almost nothing left of my body so why would they want to keep me alive when I don't wish to exist anymore, either my body or my mind?

I still think about that today. It is true that I would have preferred to die rather than face this second life that they were so generously offering me. But, in my case, to have survived is a miracle. It allows me now to bear witness in the name of all those women who have not had this opportunity, and who keep dying for this one reason, that they are women.

I had to learn French by listening to people speak and by forcing myself to repeat the words they explained to me with signs: "Bad? Not bad? Eat? Sleep? Walk?" I answered by making signs of yes or no. Much later I learned to read words in a newspaper, patiently day after day. In the beginning I could only decipher short announcements, death notices, or brief sentences with a few words that I would repeat phonetically. Sometimes I felt like an animal that was being taught to communicate as a human. In my head, in Arabic, I asked myself where I was, in what country, and why I hadn't died in my village. I was ashamed to be still alive, although no one knew this. I was afraid of this life but no one understood.

I have to say all this before attempting to reassemble the pieces of my memory, because I want these words to be inscribed in a book.

I remember very little of my earliest childhood, and my memory is still full of gaps. The first part of my life is made up of images that are strange and violent, like scenes in a film for television. I have so much difficulty putting these images back in order that it sometimes doesn't seem real. For example, how could I forget the name of one of my sisters, or my brother's age the day of his wedding, but yet remember everything about the goats, the lambs, the cows, the bread oven, the laundry in the garden, picking the cauliflowers, the squash, the tomatoes and figs . . . the stable and the kitchen . . . the sacks of wheat and the snakes? Or the terrace where I spied on my beloved? The wheat field where I committed the "sin"?

Sometimes a color or an object strikes me, and then an image will come back to me, maybe a person, or voices, or faces that all blend together. Often when I'm asked a question, my mind goes completely blank. I desperately look for an answer and it won't come. Or another image suddenly comes to me and I don't know what it corresponds to. But these images are imprinted in my head and I will never forget them. After all, you can't forget your own death!

My name is Souad. I am from the West Bank. As a child, with my sister, I look after the sheep and the goats because my father has a flock of goats, and I work harder than a beast of burden. I must have started to work at about age eight or nine, and I saw the blood of my first menstrual period at about ten. Among us, they say a girl is mature or "ripe" when this occurs. I was ashamed of this blood because I had to hide it, even from my mother's eyes, and wash my pants secretly to make them white again, and then dry them quickly in the sun so the men and the neighbors wouldn't see them. Two pairs were all I had. I remember the paper I used for protection on these awful days when you are considered to have the plague. I would bury it, the sign of my impurity, in secret in the garbage pail. If I had cramps, my mother would boil sage leaves and give it to me to drink. She wrapped my head tightly in a scarf and the next day I had no more pain. It is the only medicine I remember and I still use it because it works.

In the early mornings I go to the stable, where I whistle using my fingers for the sheep to gather around me, and then leave for the pasture with my sister Kainat, the one who is about a year older than me. Girls are not to go out alone but should be accompanied by someone older. The elder serves as safeguard for the younger. My sister Kainat is nice, round and a little chubby, while I am small and thin. We get along well. The two of us would go with the sheep and the goats to the field, about a quarter of an hour's walk from the village, walking fast and with eyes lowered as far as the last house. Once we were in the field, we were free to say silly things to each other and even laugh a little, but I don't remember any real conversation between us. Mostly, we ate our cheese, feasted on a watermelon, and watched the sheep and especially the goats, which were capable of devouring all the leaves of a fig tree in a few minutes. When the sheep moved into a circle to sleep, we fell asleep in the shade, risking having an animal wander into a neighboring field, and suffering the consequences when we got home. If an animal tore up a vegetable garden or if we were a few minutes late getting back to the stable, we got a thrashing with a belt.

Our village is very pretty and green. There are many fruits, such as figs, grapes, lemons, and an enormous number of olive trees. My father owns half the cultivated parcels of the village, all his. He isn't very rich but he has possessions. Our stone house is big, and is surrounded by a wall with a large door of gray iron. This door is the symbol of our captivity. Once we're inside, it closes on us to prevent us from going out. You can enter by this door from the outside, but you cannot go out again.

Is there a key or is it an automatic system? I remember my father and mother going out, but not us. My brother, on the other hand, is as free as the wind. He goes to the movies; he goes out and he comes back through this door, doing whatever he wants. I would often look at it, this awful iron door, and say to myself, I'll never be able to leave through there, never . . .

I don't have a good sense of the village because I'm not able to go out when and where I please. If I close my eyes and make an effort, I can tell what I've seen of it. There is my parents' house, then the one I call the rich people's house a little farther on the same side. Opposite is the house of my beloved, which I can see from the terrace. You cross the road and there it is. There are also a few other scattered houses, but I don't know how many—very few anyway. They are surrounded by low walls or iron fences and the people have vegetable gardens like us. I've never been through the entire length of the village. I only leave the house to go to market with my father and my mother or to the fields with my sister and the sheep. That's all.

Until I was seventeen or eighteen, I had seen nothing else. I had not set foot a single time in the shop in the village near the house, but in passing by in my father's van to go to market, I would always see the merchant standing at his door smoking his cigarettes. The shop has separate entrances for men and women. The men use the one on the right to go in and buy their cigarettes, newspapers, and drinks, and on the left are the fruits and vegetables where the women shop. In another house on the same side of the road as our house lives a married woman with four children. She has the right to go out and she can go into the shop. I see her standing on the stairs of the fruit-and-vegetable side holding transparent plastic sacks.

There was a lot of land around our house that was full of vegetables we had planted: squash, cauliflower, and tomatoes. Our garden was separated from the garden of the neighboring house by a low wall that was possible to step over, although none of us ever did. Being closed in was normal. It would never have occurred to any of the girls of the house to cross this symbolic barrier. To go where? Once in the village or on the road, a girl all alone would very quickly be spotted and her reputation and the family's honor would be destroyed.

It was inside this garden that I did the laundry. There was a well in one corner, and I heated the water in a basin over a wood fire. I would take a bundle of kindling from the supply and would break the branches over my knee. It took some time to heat the water but I did other things while I waited. I swept, washed the ground, and saw to the vegetables in the garden. Then I did the laundry by hand and would lay it out on the terrace to dry in the sun.

The house was modern and very comfortable, but for many years we had no hot water in the bathroom or the kitchen. It had to be heated outside and carried in. Later on, my father had hot water installed and brought in a bathtub and shower. All the girls used the same water for washing, but my brother had the right to his own water, and certainly my father also.

At night I slept with my sisters on the ground on a sheepskin. When it was very hot we slept on the terraces, lined up under the moon. We girls were next to each other in a corner. My parents and my brother slept in another part.

The workday began early. At sunrise if not earlier, my father and mother would get up. When it was the time for harvesting the wheat, we would bring something to eat with us and everybody worked, my father, my mother, my sisters, and me, but not my brother. When it was time to gather the figs, we would also set out very early because they had to be picked one by one, without missing a single one. We put them into crates and my father would take them to market. It was a good half hour's walk with the donkey to a small town, really very small, and whose name I've forgotten, if I ever knew it. Half of the market at the town's entrance was reserved for produce and the merchants who were there to sell it. To shop for clothes, you had to take the bus to a larger town. But we girls never went there. My mother would go with my father. It was like this: She'd buy a dress with my father and then she'd give it to one of us. Whether you like it or not, you have to wear it. Neither my sisters nor I, nor even my mother, had anything to say about it. It was that dress or nothing.

Girls wore long dresses with short sleeves made of a type of cotton, a very warm material that pricked your skin. They were gray or sometimes white, or very rarely black. The collar was high and tightly fastened. Over this we had to put a long-sleeved shirt or a vest, according to the season. It was sometimes so hot that it was stifling, but long sleeves were required. To show a bit of arm or leg—or worse, any skin below the neck—brought shame. Under the long dress we wore the saroual, which are long baggy pants that are gray or white. Worn beneath these was a pair of underpants that were cut big like shorts and that reached above the stomach. All my sisters dressed like this, too. Women usually did not wear shoes, except sometimes married women, so we were barefoot all the time.

My mother was often dressed in black. My father wore a white saroual, plus a long shirt and the traditional red-and-white head scarf. My father! I can see him sitting under a tree on the ground in front of our house, his cane nearby. He is small and has a pale complexion with red splotches, a round head, and very mean blue eyes. One day he broke his leg in a fall from a horse and we girls were so pleased because it meant that he couldn't run after us as fast as before to beat us with his belt.

I see him very clearly, our father. I can never forget him. It is as if I carry a photograph of him in my head. He is sitting in front of his house like a king before his palace, with his red-and-white scarf that covers his bald red skull, he's wearing his belt and his cane rests on the leg folded under him. He is small and mean. He takes off his belt and he shouts: "Why have the sheep come back by themselves?"

He pulls me by the hair and he drags me on the ground into the kitchen. He strikes me while I kneel, he pulls on my braid as if he wants to pull it out, and he cuts it off with the big scissors used for shearing wool. I have hardly any hair left. I can cry, yell, or plead but I'll get only more kicks.

It really is my fault about the sheep. I had fallen asleep with my sister because it was so hot, and I let the sheep go off on their own. He hits so hard with his cane that sometimes I can't lie down on either my left or my right side because I am in so much pain. With the belt or the cane, I think we were beaten every day. A day without a beating was unusual.

I think maybe it was this time that he tied us up, Kainat and me, our hands behind our backs, our legs bound, and a scarf over our mouths to keep us from screaming. We stayed like that all night, tied to a gate in the big stable. We were with the animals, but were worse off than they were.

This is what it was like in our village. It was the law of men. The girls and the women were certainly beaten every day in the other houses, too. You could hear the crying. It was not unusual to be beaten, to have your hair shaved off and be tied to a stable gate. There was no other way of living.

My father, the all-powerful man, the king of the household, who owns, who decides, who strikes and tortures us! And he sits there calmly smoking his pipe in front of his house with his women, whom he treats worse than his livestock, locked up. A man takes a woman in order to have sons, to have her serve him as a slave like the daughters who will come, if she has the misfortune to produce any.

I often thought when I looked at my brother, who was adored by the whole family including me: What more does he have? What makes him so special? He came out of the same belly as I did. And I had no answer. That was just the way it was. We girls had to serve him as we did my father, groveling and with head lowered. I can also picture the tea tray. You had to bring even this tea tray to the men of the family with your head down, looking only at your feet, with back bent, and in silence. You don't speak. You only speak in answer to a question.

At noon, it's sugared rice, vegetables with chicken or mutton, and always bread. In my father's house, the garden gives us almost everything we need for food. And we do everything ourselves. My father buys only sugar, salt, and tea. There is always food to eat; the family lacks nothing for meals. In the morning I make tea for the girls, I pour a little olive oil onto a plate, with olives on the side, and I heat the water in a basin on the coals of the bread oven. The dried green tea is in a sack of tan cloth on the floor in a corner of the kitchen. I plunge my hand into the sack, I take a handful and put it into the teapot, I add sugar, and I return to the garden for the hot basin. It's heavy and I have trouble carrying it by its two handles, my back arched, so as not to burn myself. I come back into the kitchen and I pour the water into the teapot, slowly, over the tea and the sugar. I know that if I drop any on the floor, I'll be beaten. So I pay attention. If I'm clumsy, I shouldn't sweep it up, but rather collect it and put it back in the teapot. Then my sisters come to eat, but my father, mother, and brother are never with us. In this picture of tea drunk in the morning, sitting on the floor in the kitchen, I always see only sisters. I try to situate my age but it's difficult. I do know that the eldest, Noura, isn't married yet.

As for outside work, there is a lot of fruit. Grapes grow along the terrace, where I pick them. There are oranges, bananas, and mainly the black and green figs. And a memory that I'll never lose is of going out early in the mornings to pick the figs. They have opened a little with the evening coolness and they run like honey, the purest of sweets.

The sheep are the really heavy work. Take them out, lead them to the fields, watch over them, bring them back, cut the wool that my father is going to take to the market to sell. I take a sheep by its hooves and get it to lie down on the ground so I can tie it up and I clip the wool with the big shears. They are so big for my small hands that I have trouble using my hands after only a few minutes. And I milk the ewes while sitting on the ground. I squeeze their hooves between my legs and I pull the milk, which is used to make cheese. When the milk cools off you drink it just like that, fat and nourishing.

In general, I am incapable of organizing my memories by my age at the time, but I think my memory is about right, give or take one or two years. I am more certain of events around the time of Noura's marriage when I was about fifteen.

My sister Kainat is still at home, older by a year and not married. And then there is another sister after me whose name escapes me. I try to remember her name, but it doesn't come to me. I have to call her something in order to talk about her, so I'll call her Hanan, but may she forgive me because it surely isn't her name. I know she took care of the two little half sisters my father brought home after he abandoned his second wife, Aicha. I have seen this woman and I did not have ill feelings toward her. It was considered acceptable for my father to have taken her. He always wanted to have sons, but it didn't work out with Aicha, either. She gave him only two more girls, still more girls! So he dropped her and brought the two new little sisters home. That was considered the normal thing to do. Everything the men wanted to do was considered normal in this village, including my father's striking us with the cane, and all the rest. I couldn't imagine any other kind of life. Besides, I didn't really imagine anything at all. There were no precise thoughts in my head. In our childhood, we knew no play or toys, no games, only obedience and submission.

In any case, these two little girls live with us now and Hanan stays at home to take care of them, of that I'm sure. But their names, too, are unhappily forgotten. I just refer to them as "the little sisters." In my first memories of them, they are about five or six years old and they don't work yet. They are in Hanan's care and she very rarely leaves the house, except when it is necessary for picking vegetables in season.

In our family, the children are about a year apart. My mother was married at fourteen, my father much older than her. She has had many children, fourteen in all, she says. Only five are still living. For a long time I didn't realize what giving birth to fourteen children meant. One day my mother's father was talking about it while I served the tea. I can still hear his words in my ears: "It's good that you married young, you were able to have fourteen children . . . and a son, it's very good."

Even if I didn't go to school, I knew how to count the sheep. So I could count on my hands that there were only five of us, Noura, Kainat, me Souad, Assad, and Hanan, not fourteen. Where were the others? My mother never said that they had died but it was acknowledged in her usual comment: "I have fourteen children, seven of them are living." She included the half sisters with us five, since we never said "half sisters," always "sisters." It would seem that there were then seven others missing. But really nine were missing, if the half sisters weren't counted. Either way, many of the children she had borne were not still alive.

But one day I learned why there were only seven of us in the house. I can't say how old I was, but I wasn't yet at puberty, so I was less than ten years old. Noura the oldest is with me. I have forgotten many things, but not what I saw with my own eyes, terrorized, but not really aware that it was a crime.

I see my mother lying on the floor on a sheepskin. She is giving birth, and my aunt Salima is with her sitting on a cushion. There are cries from my mother and then from the baby, and very quickly my mother takes the sheepskin and she smothers the baby. She is on her knees. I see the baby move under the blanket and then it's over. I don't remember what happened after that, I just know that the baby isn't there anymore. That's all, and a terrible fear grips me.

So it was a girl that my mother suffocated at her birth. I saw her do it this first time, then a second time. I'm not sure I was present for the third one, but I knew about it. And I hear my sister Noura say to my mother: "If I have girls, I'll do what you have done."


On Sale
May 11, 2004
Page Count
240 pages