by Kris Schnee
©2006 Kris Schnee -- all rights reserved
Sulayman was glad for the weakness of his arm as he struck his wife. Never did he hit anyone in anger, but only with that minimum of the hand that maintained the woman's modesty and the world's respect for him. She bore it well and began sweeping up the vase she'd shattered. The sound of its breaking rebounded in his ears. It was election day, a time of unnecessary trouble.
The difficulty began when he reached his brother Antar's house, much larger than his own, and Antar's womenfolk had already crowded in the courtyard, black robes swishing, voices cackling and clucking off-key. A pair of eyes saw him through a chador slit and the women flocked past him into the road. He had no chance even to see Antar. The gaggle of sisters and cousins had swept him up and poured his ears full of their chatter. They tugged him as their escort, down the rivulet of Antar's exclusive street into a river of walkers.
Sulayman knew himself to be a harmless, reasonably faithful man. He served his brother's business ventures with talent and respectable effort. The family had sent him to Europe a few times and he'd drunk and danced, letting go of his conviction that Westerners were all murderous, uncharitable busybodies. Today the sun blazed, a pale sky stretched taut above him, and the world felt full of doubt. Here he was, being swept along in a black river of Antar's women, and of all things they planned to vote. What good would it do to shake things up so?
He hurried ahead to lead the procession and be in his right place as their escort. The sunlight battered his eyes from every wall and roof; his stride was off, nearly sending him face-first to the pavement before the women's arms shot out and grabbed his elbows to steady him. Beneath the black cloth of each chador he saw splashes of colored sleeves, of clacking turquoise-and-lapis bracelets. The colors were coolness to his sunburnt eyes, and he found himself jealous of his wards' ease and comfort. He tried to shake off the wiry hands, but the laughter behind them had turned harsh.
He protested through a parched, cracking throat. The world buzzed around him like a gnat, far-off and erratic. "The sun," he mumbled. It had to be sunstroke. Eye-slits faced him at crazy angles. There was shade from them nearby, and he scuttled a step towards it. But the arms that had seized him now hauled him up into the air!
They had nearly arrived at the polling place, a school commandeered for the bizarre task of asking men and (God alone knew why) women who should run the city, which was already doing perfectly well. Pointless. If anything, the black-robed figures whirling in his eyes suggested that his and Antar's women thought the errand more worthwhile than their husbands did. He saw men as well -- men falling, clutching at their clothes, praying and cursing in squeaking voices. Sulayman felt light, weak, naked on the powerful shoulders of the robed crowd. He cried out for them to let him down but the women's voices now rang like deep bells, as they laughed at something beyond the ken of his overheated brain.
He wriggled and tumbled to the scalding ground, landing on bare arms. Skin tore and he sobbed, not understanding why so many others on the street were falling now while black chador cloth stood tall and strong voices laughed. Sulayman stood and stumbled away from Antar's family. His hips swung with each step; his chest heaved with each drumming breath. Every man in sight looked distorted, afflicted, terrified by a shifting of their own flesh. A weapon? An attack? Sulayman had never done wrong, and God was just. Why had he been denied a peaceful day?
A large, muscular hand reached from the folds of a chador and yanked at the face-cover above it. The cloth parted. Sulayman saw for the first time the whole face of Antar's wife. But could it be? The white face and glaring, grinning teeth were set in a man's face! Other hands tore at veils and exposed strong bodies, faces showing bright teeth to the burning sky while Sulayman cowered in a crouch. There were brilliant colors exposed on the ill-fitting dresses beneath the black chadors, like birds bursting from a garden.
The world blacked out and Sulayman fumbled in the darkness to find that a discarded chador had been thrown over him. He stood up enough to whine that he was blameless, that he had never worked to harm others. To lie that he had no inkling of what had happened to him or to them or why. God had looked upon the women of his country and seen that they were the true men -- and He had made it so. Sulayman could deny the change no longer when the women began to punch and kick him through the cloth, when sounds of fighting and triumphant new voices rang out everywhere, when Sulayman's world was reduced to the confines of a smothering robe. A fist drove the air from his stomach and a high, weak moan from his lips, helping him at last to know his place.