The next morning, was very hectic, a rather busy one. Aliya did not go to school. After waking at eleven in the morning she didn’t like her cereal and asked for eggs instead, after the eggs were prepared, she decided she would just have a pastry. She seemed to be adding work after work for the maids and Violet had not even begun her usual list of chores for that day. That list included cleaning the bathrooms, changing the drapes, vacuuming the rugs and doing the never ending laundry. Tintin had said she would prepare some meals, if Violet would cut and wash all the ingredients, but today she had to take the kids with Madam to the mall. Violet now had the added burden of preparing something for lunch.
Aliya, had spilt her coffee over the table, knocked over the vase with fresh flowers in the hall, broken an inkbottle on the couch making Violet run like crazy around the house, to clean up the mess. Basically, she had somehow decided to make the day as chaotic as possible for Violet.
Violet had managed to prepare lunch, the traditional biryani. Since it was Indian dish Violet knew how to make it, in fact it was the only thing she knew of all the Kuwaiti dishes.
When Aliya spooned the food into her mouth at noon, she complained that it was too spicy, so Violet rushed to prepare a curd salad, to temper the heat. But Aliya left the food untouched, opting for some pastries again. Her mother who came in later in the afternoon, loved the food, and for the first time appreciated Violet’s cooking,
‘Biryani, zen, it, good.’
But that was the only good thing about the entire week. As for the rest of the week, it was mayhem with Aliya making Violet dance from pillar to post asking her to run errands, do chores, and more laundry. When things were done she wanted them undone, redone, done again, undone again and the chores were endless. Violet found it backbreaking, but the phone call she had with her brother made her even more persistent, she suffered it all without complaining. She had no other choice but to endure.
Aliya was beginning to wonder, when this girl would break, there had been maids before who ran away, after all these games she played with them got too much. Even for a measly sixty Kuwaiti dinars, nobody had tolerated her nonsense. Most maids had at least that much pride.
On the weekend, Madam decided they were to go to the chalet. It was near Ahmadi close to the desert. Many rich Kuwaiti’s owned chalets or villas near popular beaches. These were either along the waterfront in Failika islands or along the borders of the desert. They would set up tents if it was the latter. They loved to go to these spots for some good time at the end of the week. Aliya didn’t look too excited about it, but her mother insisted, since Mishal and Dana would be joining them.
The chalet in Ahmadi, was a one storey, home, with five bedrooms and a swimming pool about six feet deep. The chief engineer, who was a German as Mishal bragged to some of his guests, had used the lights to play up on the water. The end result was a beautiful reflection of the water on the walls and windows of the home. The interiors, were done up tastefully by a young Kuwaiti interior decorator. She had tried to modernize the chalet, by combining the dining and kitchen into one working area.
As if the Kuwaitis were really going to cook themselves?
The rooms themselves were large, with windows from floor to ceiling. The bedrooms on the ground floor opened straight onto the front lawn. Tintin, Violet and the drivers occupied the back, small rooms on the ground floor, while their bosses were on the top floor.
Violet realized that the trip to the chalet was back breaking work. Since it was unoccupied, the first thing she had to was clean up the whole place. That included mopping the floors, dusting the furniture, changing the sheets, pillow cases in all the bed rooms and hanging the drapes. In the kitchen she had to wash all the utensils, cutlery and cook meals for ten people.
The girls went about doing their regular job, Tintin had come with the kids and her job was to look after them, while Violet stayed in the kitchen most of the time after the chalet was cleaned. Madam had asked her to prepare the biryani along with the curd salad and fry a few chicken pieces. Madam herself marinated the meat much to Violet’s surprise.
Throughout the morning Violet was busy and she rarely noticed the pair of eyes following her in and out of the kitchen. They were watching her every movement.
Madam Dana occasionally came in to check the kids but it was Tintin who virtually did all the mothering, Violet noticed. The children were craving for attention and the moment someone looked at them or talked sweetly to them they were all ears. The atmosphere here was quite different from what it was on the third floor at the villa. The children just set the house on fire with their laughter. Ahmed the youngest was one, Isa was three and Yusuf was five. The children were cute, with their curly hair, fair skin and chubby disposition. They were a rowdy bunch but cute as they played in their tiny white dishdashas.
The dishdasha was a white floor length garment that all Kuwaiti men wore. The dishdasha was to Kuwait what the kimono was to Japan. However, even in modern day Kuwait, the dishdasha had not become obsolete. It was still worn by most men in public. It was especially suitable, because of Kuwait’s desert climate. The men also had special headgear, namely the gutra, a piece of white cloth that was folded in the form of a triangle, held in place by a circular double cord called the ogal and the gahfiyah a close fitting skull cap worn under the gutra. Unlike other Arab states, the Kuwaiti gutra was often white and had both tow ends arranged on either side of the face.
Occasionally the boys would run to their mother, to which she would respond with, ‘ya hamar, lesh?’ which Tintin translated as ‘you donkey why?’ Violet remembered the times her parents called her a donkey, was when she usually acted like one, but otherwise, they always treated her like their princess.
She felt sad for the children, such beautiful children that were referred to and treated like animals. The kids were neglected by the parents and were solely left in the care of their maids. Tintin had explained this as common occurrence in most families. Too rich and too busy to be parents, she said.
By the end of the weekend, Violet was tired; she was exhausted doing all the cooking, cleaning, serving, and the laundry at the chalet, since it was not for two but rather a household of seven. Moreover, opening and cleaning up the place and then closing it back again was a lot of work. Violet secretly hoped they would never come back again to the chalet at least for another year.
When they returned home Violet was praying she would not suffer a burn out, especially in the face of Aliya being such a monster to her. The troublesome teen did not relent as far as making trouble went, though she was subdued at the chalet in the presence of Mishal, her eldest brother.
As usual on Saturday morning Aliya woke up with tantrums. After her mother left, she asked for coffee in her bed and spilled it all over the sheets. Violet came into the room not surprised by the sight and began changing the covers.
Aliya watching her strip the bed remarked, ‘You know it would be easier for you, if you could just yell at me or complain to my mother.’
Violet raised an eyebrow, as she held a pillow in her hand, ‘is that why you’re doing this? To get your mother’s attention?’
Aliya seemed at a loss for words, ‘No, why would I?’
Violet retuned to the pillow, gently stuffing it into a fresh pillow case.
‘It’s rude not to answer someone when they’re talking to you,’ she offered hoping to hear a response.
‘I’m sorry; I just didn’t know what to say,’ Violet answered refusing to be drawn in to a war of words with her little mistress.
‘Do you think I’m doing this because I want my mother to spare me some time?’
Violet gave a long sigh and said with finality, ‘If what I think really matters, then listen, if you think you can equate what’s happening to you by doing the same to me then by all means go ahead and do it. Being a bully does not make you brave. On the contrary the brave thing for you to do would be to stand up to those jerks on that bus and live your own life. Once you start becoming responsible for the little things in life, your mother will definitely notice you.’
Violet started laying the sheets, when Aliya walked straight to the bed standing on the opposite side
‘What do you mean?’ she spoke softly, clearly inquisitive about Violet’s inference.
‘You know what I mean Madam. Anybody who sees you at the bus stop probably knows what’s happening. I don’t know what those people say to piss you off, but it sure seems like right now they own you. If you’re not going to stand up to them, it’s never going to happen.’
Aliya said nothing as Violet walked out to the laundry, to start a fresh wash cycle hopefully the last for the day.
Aliya, walked down to the basement, sitting on the stairs in the darkest area concealed from Violet’s view. She had tears in her eyes, ‘You know what they say. They call me a sausage, because I’m fat. Every time I board the bus, I say to myself “I will not look at those girls at the back”, the most beautiful, slim girls of our school, but I look at them. I can’t bear to see them giggle and laugh at me because I’m fat,’ with that she broke into tears, sinking to the floor. The girl was being bullied by a bunch of empty tarts and now her whole identity was being shaped by them. And nobody in her family was helping her, not that anyone knew what was going on.
Violet knelt down next to her and held her. Aliya laid her head on Violet’s shoulder and cried like a baby. Nobody else knew how she felt, nobody understood her.
After what seemed like an hour, Aliya spoke up.
‘I’m not denying the fact that I’m fat. It’s just that I don’t know how to change. I try to be like them, buy nice clothes, wear expensive perfume, but that doesn’t change me being fat. I tried going for walks, but so many people kept staring at me, it was embarrassing. I felt like drowning myself in a bucket. Besides, all that walking didn’t make me thinner.’
Violet smoothed her hair, running in her hand through the dark mane.
‘That day I threw the plate because it was all this useless eating that has turned me into a fat potato. I was upset that even you were just adding to my problems. I hated you because even though you are a maid, you’re thin and you still look lovely with those cat eyes. But look at me I’m still fat and ugly.’
Violet smiled, and asked the teenager lying in her lap ‘What according to you makes a beautiful woman? No wait, name three women that you think look beautiful.’
Aliya thought for some time and said, ‘Lady Diana is very beautiful, Julia Roberts and Pascale Machalaani. They’re all pretty women.’
Violet mulled on it for a second and said, ‘what are the most common traits among the three of them?’
‘They are all thin!’ Aliya replied sheepishly.
‘They’re very tall and they look polished.’
‘I think elegant would be the word you’re looking for. The three women you just described to me were not just physical beauties, but they were strong women. You’re choices are not just some Barbie dolls which is good. These women, are elegant, have certain poise to them and are very strong women. Don’t you agree?’
Aliya looked confused, ‘what does that have to do with being beautiful?’
‘You see, my doll,’ Violet said stressfully, apparently winning Aliya’s smile, ‘you need to be elegant and strong in character. It’s not all about looks. You have to be physically and emotionally beautiful. They say beauty is skin deep.’
‘So how can I do that?’
‘Well you can only reflect outside what is within. So if you’re intelligent inside, that wisdom will show in your talk, if you’re calm inside that poise will show in your carriage, if you’re happy inside, it will show without.’
‘Violet, what’s your point?’
‘You need to start making changes and working on all these areas of yourself.’
‘But how do I do that?’ said a frustrated looking teenager with a tear streaked face.
‘Are you willing to do what it takes? It requires a lot of commitment and sacrifice.’
‘Oh please, I am ready to do anything to become one of those girls in my school. Please help me.’
‘Alright let’s starts with the first thing. You will need to start eating right. And I mean, eating healthy food at certain hours of the day. You have to get into sports so that you stay committed. Is there any sport that you like playing or that you know to play?’
Aliya nodded in the negative. ‘I like watching sports mainly, skating, they wear such lovely clothes.’
Violet rolled her eyes.
Born to be a spectator, how sad!
Violet stood up and Aliya sat on the floor cross legged, with her fists under her chin.
‘No, being a spectator is not going to help you lose weight. I can teach you badminton. Tomorrow at school, see if you can enroll for badminton and make sports one of your main subjects of interest for your exit levels.’
‘Whom should I ask?’
‘First go to the sports department, ask the teachers there and then check with the administration offices. If they want a trial to check your skills, tell them you’re rusty and you need two weeks’ time to get in shape.’
‘Two weeks?’ Is that even possible? I don’t know a thing about badminton. That game is so fast I get dizzy watching those people play in the box.’
‘That’s squash not badminton!’ Violet remarked in horror.
‘Good, so we’re not playing that,’ she said relieved. ‘But is two weeks enough for me to lose weight?’
‘My doll, they are not going to weigh you at the trial. They’re going to see how good you are with the racquet and how quick you are to the shuttle.’
‘Oh!’ Aliya responded.
‘You need to make some goals apart from sports. What do you like to do? Who would you like to be if you could be someone?’
Aliya seemed all excited, that somebody, anybody was interested in her, ‘Me? I would like to be one of those people reading the news,’ she said with a wide grin.
‘Okay so that means you like journalism. It also means that you need to get good grades in language, literature, social studies and the like. You can just scrape through the other subjects like mathematics and sciences.’
‘I like history and civics too,’ Aliya chimed in, obviously liking this conversation.
‘This is the last two years you’re in school right? So we have two years to work on your application.’
‘You’re college application! You can’t just read the news or report it without a college degree.’
‘Oh right,’ Aliya said before speaking up again, ‘can I go to the States like my brother? He went to college to study civil engineering.’
‘Sure you can, you’re rich right?’
‘Yeah, but I don’t know if my mother would allow that.’
Violet shrugged it off, ‘there’s still time for that, let’s work on school for now.’
‘Let me finish my work and then we meet at four for tea, bring your books to the hall.’
Contrary to what Violet had expected Aliya was studying at the American school of Kuwait. She wasn’t studying at a public Arabic school like her peers. Her textbooks were all in English and her accent was not bad for a Kuwaiti. She had picked up a good deal of the language at school if nothing else. She didn’t pronounce the p as a b unlike other Kuwaiti’s, nor did she say ze instead of the like her mother.
They first started to work on literature. Aliya had trouble understanding William Wordsworth’s “Solitary reaper” and Violet made no bones in explaining the romanticism in that poem.
‘Imagine you see somebody and are so struck by that face that you don’t want to leave.’
A bubbly Aliya added, ‘you wonder if you’re ever going to see it again.’
‘Yeah, something like that.’
Violet worked with her for two hours on her lessons helping her with her homework and projects.
Aliya loved it all and was beginning to wonder as to why she didn’t like this poem or even English literature before.
When Madam walked in she was surprised to see her daughter in the living room with all her books splayed in front of her. Violet emerged from the kitchen with a tall glass of fresh fruit juice, handing it over to Aliya. Madam herself asked for one, which Violet happily agreed to make. What Madam did not know, was that starting that day Aliya had agreed to be on a diet. Violet promised to feed her something healthy every two hours, provided the content and portion sizes were limited.
The next morning before she went down to school, Violet brushed the girls’, hair, took out a beautiful butterfly clip and set it in her raven black hair. Madam had not yet asked the girl to wear a headscarf so she was free to dress as she liked.
Violet finally gave her one last piece of advice, ‘you are beautiful and don’t let anybody tell you different. Remember once people see you on television, they will have to eat their words up. Let that inspire you. You have to work hard to get there.’
Aliya waited for her bus, and then looked up at the window of the third floor. Though no one could be seen though the dark windows, she waved out and boarded her bus. Her mother still in her car, checking her sheaf of papers, looked curiously at the window. She saw no one at the window. But she smiled when she saw her daughter climb the bus, it made her feel proud.
Madam Sabah Dashti had never had the opportunity to go to school. In her days, most girls were married off by the age of fifteen. If you could read and write, that was enough. She was never allowed to even finish school. Her parents had been part of the date business. They had even owned a ship mainly for pearl diving. After she got married to a man who was ten years her senior at the time she immersed herself in cooking and maintaining the household, in Ahmadi. Her children came along and life was comfortable. But then the Iraqi invasion took place, her husband Jassim, on the night of the bombing sent his wife and children to Bahrain. He fled to Saudi Arabia. When the Iraqis’ invaded the country, their houses were looted; most of the plantations which he owned were destroyed. The couples’ parents and two brothers were shot dead as they slept when the house was raided by the Iraqi soldiers. Sabah Dashti returned immediately when the Americans came to Kuwait. She would never forget the sound of wailing in the streets as Kuwait counted its dead. So many husbands were taken, children shot, women abused during the invasion. Even now they were still hoping that the prisoners of war (POW’s) were alive. But the loss was innumerable.
She would never forget four bodies lying in her father’s house. That day she thought she would die of grief. But she lived on for her children. Days later after the Americans liberated Kuwait; there was little celebration in her household. The government helped support them through the oil money. They rebuilt the country, and her oldest brother, set up the plantations again. It would take years to reap profits, but the government promised to take care of them till then. So Sabah started a boutique and a cloth center. She only knew how to dress well and so decided to try her hand at it as a hobby. Since the government was rebuilding, it didn’t mind financing small businesses. All this time her husband said he had been handling the plantations in Saudi. He would come home for a few months and then head back to Jeddah.
Three years later her husband returned permanently from Saudi Arabia, saying that he was going to bring another wife. Kuwaiti men were allowed four wives. But to marry them, the groom had to pay a large dowry in addition to the wedding expenses. Jassim was a wealthy man, no doubt. He was in the plantation business for a long time with a solid reputation and was now also involved in the spice trade. He owned shares to a petroleum company and was paid even if he showed up for half a day’s work.
However, marrying another Kuwaiti woman would be expensive, since the dowry to be paid was much higher. Marrying a non-Kuwaiti was better because the dowry was less and the costs of the wedding in Jeddah were cheaper.
It was a traumatic time for Sabah. She refused his initial proposal of having his second wife live in the same house. They fought regularly and those fights started turning bitter. There were days where she would end up being beaten. Looking for a way out, Khalid asked his parents to send him abroad to study; Mishal on the other hand used marriage as an excuse and moved to their other home in Qoturba. Aliya had witnessed all the pain of her mother. But she never understood. She always thought that if only her mother had allowed the other woman to stay with them her father would eventually change his mind. But Jassim didn’t change his mind.
Instead he divorced Sabah, and got away with paying a huge alimony citing her business and financial independence. The truth was Sabah Dashti’s business, was not faring well at all. Even her husband knew it. He knew that his wife did not have the skill or the knowledge to run a business, but that’s how he played it. And Sabah tried to do better. Oh how much she tried to revive the business. She tried hiring better people, getting better material, infusing more money, but nothing changed. The dealers and distributors swindled her by over pricing and Sabah didn’t know she was being taken advantage of until she herself went shopping at other boutiques. She didn’t want the same fate for her daughter. She wanted her own child to go to school and make something of herself so that no one, in particular a man would one day leave her fending for herself. Tears stung her eyes.
Abner noticed his mistress, and passed the tissues back in the GMC, Madam Sabah Dashti smiled, with ‘shoukran, ya Abner’ (Thank you, Abner)
That evening when Aliya came home, she was all excited. She impulsively went to the fridge to fetch a pastry when she saw her reflection in the window, she shut the door and said, ‘Violet where’s my health food.’
Violet had already kept a bowl of cut fruits ready for her which Aliya gladly chomped down.
Aliya did not complain about the fruits, but went on to tell her maid what she did at school and what homework she had for the next day.
Violet helped her with her lessons as she finished the laundry, while Aliya sat with all her books spread on the floor in the basement.
When Violet was done with all the laundry, Aliya followed her barefoot into the kitchen with all her books piled up. She laid them on the main counter and sat on a high stool.
‘You know there’s a debate coming up, in school on the pros and cons of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.’
Violet could sense something amiss in the child’s voice.
‘When our teacher asked for those who would like to participate, I raised my hand, but she said my English was not as good as some of the others who were taking part. Can you help me?’
‘Do you really want to take part?’
‘Of course I do, I want to show all those girls what I’m really made of.’
‘Fine, when is the debate?’
‘It’s four weeks from now.’
‘Tomorrow, go to your teacher; tell her, to give you two weeks’ time, during which we can prepare some material for the debate. If she likes it ask her to include you as part of the debating team.’
‘You mean I can still take part?’
‘We can try, but I have one condition.’
After you’re done with the debate, you will have to teach me Arabic.’
‘Naam, naam, naam,(yes, yes, yes). It’s a deal.’ Aliya screamed at the top of her voice.
Madam, who had walked past the kitchen, was happy to hear her daughters’ exchange with the maid.
The next week, after Violet had served Aliya and her mother breakfast, Madam, said she needed some help to clean up the shop, so she would take Violet with her. Aliya frowned at the suggestion, even though Madam noticed, she didn’t say a word. Aliya had become very possessive about Violet. She would spend hours lying down with her books in the basement or on the kitchen top talking to her. Sabah could not understand how her daughter could talk non- stop for hours about topics that were so boring. Shakespeare, birds, plants, politics, liberation?