Maskat wept himself to sleep at the courtyard dinner table that night. His left face was smashed into the table’s marble surface, with his jaw jarring and drooling. His hands lay flat to each side in complete surrender, as his body had cried every inch of energy it had.
He stared blankly at a shelf on the corner of the courtyard where wooden-carved animals lived. Among the animals was a large bull with two mighty horns, a couple of elephants, a giraffe, and a zebra. Maskat noticed that someone had rearranged them so that the bull was now facing all of the animals in the kingdom in a direct confrontation. He wondered if that was his mother’s form of silent rebellion as he drifted to sleep.
As he faded away, the courtyard started fading into purple hues, and the edges of the table started to curve and lose their straight shape. Light from the stars up above started to bounce off the stone floor, swiftly penetrating the thick puffy purple air that now filled the space. Maskat stared at the fireplace and furnace. Deep within its darkness, seemed to approach a tornado. It grew bigger and bigger and suddenly, it lit the furnace with a brilliant fire of bright yellow-orange and red sparks. A roaring fuming red bull came charging through the furnace with wild eyes of fury. The bull was on large stilts that could be mistaken for a horse’s legs and it was galloping straight towards Maskat, who could not move from the terror. He stood there: Forehead sweaty, hips paralyzed, and heart racing.
Maskat jumped out of his sleep. He made his way back behind the niches and into the corner of the house where his small room was. There was no door and barely any privacy in the household, but he still had more walls surrounding him than his sisters who slept in the main living area.
He did not want to get out of bed the next day. He tried his hardest to convince Mama that he was sick by placing the thermometer close to a lit candle and showing her a fever but she knew her son pretty well. She had a very strong voice that filled the large house with echoes that could not be escaped.
Maskat! This is the third time. Next time will be water all over your face. You better get up, your sisters are ready. You will be late for school!
Maskat groaned, twisted, turned, and then groaned some more. He had not yet understood what a hangover was but he was going through his first one. He was full of anger and had no understanding that his body was still dealing with the bout of shame from last night.
His back was still feeling hot from the beating.
The middle child, Asha was all showered and dressed up. As the elder of two sisters, she was her mother’s right-hand person and confidante. She had already gotten up two hours before Maskat, cleaned the kitchen and bathroom as her mother gathered the clothes and made sure the school gowns were ready.
Asha went to elementary school but since she had turned 10 this year, Zemunke took her out of school and into an Islamic Madrasa that she only went to on Saturdays. She now spent the rest of the week helping her mother with household chores.
“Mama, I really miss my friends at school” Asha told her mom as she set up the breakfast table.
“Asha my dear, you are quickly becoming a woman and the men out there are not be trusted. You make us so proud and we have to keep it that way.”
“But Amina and Safeya still go to school. They are starting to learn science too this year.”
“What good is all that learning if you do not learn the proper Islamic teachings that would make you grow into our pride and joy? Leave all this math and science for your brother, they will not make you a better woman or mother. “
“I just miss playing with my friends.” Asha replied with a sad notion of nostalgia.
“I don’t know how these parents leave those girls so far away from their home all day. I can’t keep this house on my own, I need you here.” Mama took the last plates out of her hand and wnet to Asha, holding her by the shoulders. “This is what will make you a good wife and beautiful bride one day.”
Maskat came out with eyes still half shut. Asha was braiding Khadija’s hair as his father ate breakfast and his mother quickly put his lunchbox filled with some of her trademark Nyama Choma (grilled meat) with some Ugali porridge. His lunch was better than what most kids brought to school and the kids at school always wanted a taste or a bite. He sometimes wished he had more common food that attracted less attention.
“Hayyuh Aaal Alasalah!” Maskat heard Zemunkes voice commencing prayers.
As the only other man in the house, Maskat was required to join Baba’s pray. In Islam, group prayers count for more and bring you closer to god. It made it hard to refrain from any group prayers because of that reason:
By praying you are helping others. Maskat couldn’t get out of those but was getting better at avoiding the big Friday ones, where all the villages men pray together and meet.
“Allahu Akbar!” Zemunke shouted louder to make sure Maskat heard him.
Maskat came running in and stood behind him, putting both palms on top of each other and joining the morning prayer. In group prayer, the oldest man usually leads the group and stands in front. Then behind him, younger men and boys, followed by women in the back row.
During large Friday mosque prayers, women pray in a separate place altogether.
The leader of the prayer recites the opening verse of the Quraan followed by any verse that he chooses.
Today Zemunke chose to recite a part called “The Thunder “ Ar-Rad:
These are the verses of the Book.
What has been revealed to you
˹O Prophet˺ from your Lord is the truth,
but most people do not believe”
Baba’s voice was strong and melodic. He had a tone that was both relaxing and melancholic. The Arabic words rolled fluently over his tongue and one could identify how much the meanings behind the words lived in his bones.
Every word was enunciated with such emotion and moved the listener whether they understood the words or not.
“It is Allah Who has raised the heavens without pillars—as you can see
—then established Himself on the Throne. He has subjected the
sun and the moon, each orbiting for an appointed term.
He conducts the whole affair.
He makes the signs clear
so that you may be certain of the meeting with your Lord.”
Zemunke inhaled deeply, as the walls still rang with the last word he uttered “Tuw-kenoon”…Maskat could hear the courtyard walls sing back “Nooooooon”.
Baba went on and closed the prayer after the 13th verse of the Qurans: The Thunder…
“He is the One Who shows you the lightning,
inspiring ˹you with˺ hope and fear, and produces heavy clouds.
The thunder glorifies His praises, as do the angels in awe of Him.
He sends thunderbolts, striking with them whoever He wills.
Yet they dispute about Allah. And He is tremendous in might.”
Maskat didn’t listen to the words or make much meaning from them. He was instead relieved that he was standing behind his dad and not in front of him again.
By 6.30 am, Zemunke and Maskat were on their morning walk to the school.
They lived a short beach-side walk from Stone town academy. Maskat always felt ashamed walking with the chemistry professor, although many kids respected him because of his father. He felt ashamed that he did not get to walk to school on his own like most kids.
They walked by the beach as the sun was still rising.
Like a drop of fluorescent paint dropped on a blank canvas, the dark sky was valiantly ripped apart by majestic purple and blue. Shades of crimson and orange stood still in the far horizon hugging the old buildings of Lamu Town’s skyline. Fluffy clouds filled up quickly with the colors of a new day, marking the onslaught of darkness by the sun one more time.
“The sun is a role model” Baba said “She rises everyday, and provides warmth to everything and everyone regardless of where they slept or who they were. She is a message from God to remind us that regardless of what happens we have to be consistent and rise to the occasion. No matter how many suns have risen, today it must be done all over again, and be as glorious as it ever was.”
Maskat stayed silent but got lost in that thought.
Maskat felt inspired by the sun as well but in a different way. To him, seeing this darkness shattered by these gorgeous colors every day represented hope. Hope that he himself is just like a new day, a blank canvas that needed to be creatively transformed with a flush of new paint and colors.
It gave him hope that one day he may break free of the shackles that tied him. A new way of being, a different reality similar to what his grandfather brings up in his stories. The sun rising is proof that reality can be bent, and that after the darkness, an orchestral melody of freshness must ensue.
The walk was silent. His heart was still heavy from the night before, and he rejected all of Baba’s attempts to make conversation or light up the mood.
“Maskat you made your mom very angry at me” he said trying to get a laugh from him but found nothing but silence. “I am sorry, son. I did not mean to hurt you. You made me loose it, and I should not have let you get to me”.
Zemunke’s face was grave and there a most sincere regret on his face.
Maskat remained silent and avoided looking at Baba. He avoided eye contact as he felt himself tearing up with memories of the day before.
He was terrified Baba would see him cry again.
- "Is there anything you would like to talk about?” Tried Baba.
- “Well mama told me about the girl you like at school, what was her name? Laila?”
Maskat felt a new wave of goosebumps. He could feel his intestines coil up and twist around themselves with embarrassment and resentment.
- “Her name is Leila.” Maskat almost choked and had to clear his throat to continue the sentence, betraying his concealment of tears.
- “A man must learn how to be kind, gentle and respectful to a woman, but you also need to show her that you are a good breadwinner and that you are generous.”
Maskat stared blankly into the Indian Ocean.
- Take her somewhere romantic and treat her to dinner. You must show her that your are a good provider.
Baba gave him hope, but Maskat remained skeptical.
"But how do I go and ask her. What if she rejects me?” Maskat asked angrily, with more tears betraying any attempt to keep a strong face.
“Son.” Zemunke spoke slowly as though preparing for the climax line in a play “Any girl in Lamu would want to spend time with you, you are bright with a great future and you come from a big family that everyone knows. It would be her loss.”
Zemunke gave him a loaf of bread and 50 shillings. “Here is some money and some bread to eat with your Nyama Choma.”
No one really talked to Maskat about sex or love. He was used to avoiding his parent’s advice because answers were never satisfactory. He once heard from a kid in school that it involved a girl and a guy being completely naked and sleeping on top of one other. It sounded rather bizarre.
When he asked Mama, she anxiously explained that sex is just another word for gender; His sex was male and her sex was female. That was it. There was once news about the first cloned cow in the world, leading to the first virgin mother since Mary. Baba asked him if he knew what intercourse and a virgin meant, and he said yes.
Maskat didn’t really know what it meant but was afraid to admit that. The relief on his dad’s face made him feel like he had the right answer. Baba was relieved that he did not have to be the one explaining what intercourse was.
It was therefore an unspoken convention in the family, that discussing sex was stress-inducing and not explicitly wrong, but very much unwanted. Whenever a kiss would come up on TV, Maskat would cringe in response to what they now must be thinking about what he knows. Little did he know, that it was a step towards a long life trend of carrying others anxieties and making it his own.
His father spent countless hours on walks after Friday prayers, telling him about how important it was for him to find discipline and mental toughness.
“I will not live forever Maskat. When I am gone and finished, you will be the man of this family”, he would tell him. “You need to learn how NOT to react to the world around you, and not let your friends dictate how to live your life.”
“Being a man is about choices son, and you must always do the right thing. You can’t let your friends decide where you go and what time you come home. You need to focus on doing the right things. The right things, are everything that makes you excel in your career, brings you closer to God and makes people respect you.”
Maskat would daydream about being the man of the house, and it was nothing like his father’s fantasy. It was a faraway island where no one would tell him what to do, he would have the ultimate authority over himself and others. He would come back home whenever he pleased. It sounded like a fun job.
As Maskat grew up, he found his father’s advice quite conflicting with how the professor lived his own life. It seemed to him that Mr. Zemunke was heavily influenced by his own friends and did not just dictate his own actions but it affected what Maskat and his sisters can and can’t do as well.
The resentment brewed over the years, but no one really ever confronted the bull.
They passed by Lamu fort, Riyadh mosque, and then there it was: Stone Wall Academy.
It was one of the few private schools on Lamu Island and Zemunke always reminded Maskat about how he works hard to afford the 5000 shillings to take him there.
Zemunke’s goal was to put Maskat through the university where he taught, and Maskat knew that he had to live up to this standard. He kept score of his grades and knew that anything he wanted to do, including playing with the other kids, was tied to how well he scored on tests. Each exam was a step towards university and the pride his parents were so desperate for.
Maskat would always say goodbye to Zemunke and try to walk into the small playground area on his own before the kids saw that his father still took him to school.
‘Do not let yourselves be impressed by the roar of a man. Rather, if he fulfills the trust and restrains himself from harming the honor of people, then he will truly be a man.’
Umar Ibn El Khattab