The Burden of Education
By Shakaib Tariq
As Naila sat at her beautifully finished pinewood desk, a rare commodity within these parts, she recalled as to how she had even gotten to this position. How her life had been so intricately arranged in such a way that it lead to this specific moment. Naila knew that even if one event had not occurred, then surely her life would have been completely different. Pondering and reminiscing about past events caused a specific memory to strike out at her, like a slightly tilted tile, which stuck out among the other neat and symmetrical ones. This memory, she realized, was the cause of everything to happen the way it did.
She remembered her mother saying, “Naila, you ought to be more careful, you can be seriously hurt if you go wandering off like that.”
Yet, Naila had a knack of doing things she was told not to, things that were completely forbidden of her to do.
“But mommy I wanted to go see the sparkling stars at night.”
“What sparkling stars?” her mother replied harshly.
Naila answered shyly, not wanting to get her friends in trouble, “Adam said that every night they shoot these stars into Afghanistan and it looks pretty.”
“Well, you’re no longer allowed to go there. Those are the areas that are completely controlled by the Taliban and all they know is violence. I don’t want you getting hurt, Naila. Promise me, you won’t go back there,” replied Mommy in a kinder tone.
Naila was hesitant to respond, “Fine, I won’t go back there.”
With that, Naila went on with her evening, worrying about what she should eat for dinner or when she would be able to see Adam and her friends again; completely oblivious to the war going on right outside her door.
Sleeping was actually one of the things she really had enjoyed, unlike other children her age. She admired the peacefulness and the beauty of night, and how even the strongest men could not elude its temptations.
Morning came quick and Naila was awoken by a bursting sound rippling through the air. Immediately, she moved to the neighboring room that her parents told her would protect her if something like this ever occurred. In the room, she was met by her older brother, Ali, of 2 years, now 7. Naila had always admired his quick wit and the way he was able to eloquently persuade anyone to his way of thinking. Ali was truly a remarkable person when it came to words. However, he had a frail build, legs that seemed as if they would break at any given instance and arms that surely could not hold any more weight than a small rock. Although given his size, one would think that he was easily bullied and picked on. Yet, no one dared to do so, due to the repercussions that followed, Of the things he would bring down upon them within the following days, no one was sure.
Quickly, she followed Ali to the back furthermost closet within the room. Closing the door and cowering there made Naila feel weak and incapable of doing anything - a feeling she had always dreaded. Albeit a quite boring experience, they passed the time by playing Ludo (most similar to Sorry), a game she had only recently learned to play.
The boredom of waiting was quickly dissipated by the entrance of their parents into the room. At first sight, they hugged both Naila and Ali and congratulated them on doing the right thing.
“The Taliban has taken almost complete control of the Swat Valley,” said their father, with a grim face. Her father was a tall man, in terms of the region. He was around 5’7” and had a broad structure and of course, a fair complexion, something which ran in their entire family.
“Once they move in on this territory, Mingora, we will all be completely helpless,” replied Mommy in conjunction with her father.
“But will I be able to go to school?! Please tell me I’ll be able to go to school Mommy,” Naila pleaded.
Trying to calm her down, Mommy hugged Naila. She rocked her and, in a soothing voice, told her everything would be alright. Her father calmly approached her and picked her up and solemnly walked over to her room and put her back in bed, kissing her on the forehead and saying goodnight once more.
The first time Naila had met Emily was on a bus they were both taking to her home in Mingora. At first glance, she was an oddity among the familiar faces of Pakistan. A newcomer, and one most certainly from the West. Emily had hair of gold, a color Naila could not have ever imagined a person having. She was petite, like Naila, but wore her hijab more as a scarf rather than a traditional head covering. Everything about her spoke of success. From the way she carried herself to her Michael Kors handbag and matching jewelry, one could spot her from a mile away.
When talking to her, she spoke Urdu as if she were born into it. Naila also noticed that unlike the rich businessmen of the world who had a sense of egocentricity, Emily was humble and down to earth. She spoke like a commoner and didn’t think she was better than Naila.
Instantly, conversation erupted, which grew longer and longer, like a fire that is doused with kerosene. They talked about their differing lifestyles—how they both loved the idea of freedom and equality. Emily told Naila of the freedoms and education in America; of how each person was given equal opportunity to succeed and girls would not have to be locked up in their houses catering to the will of their husbands. This sudden epiphany made Naila question her entire life. How could she have lived the way she did? How could she deal with such an intolerant husband? And suddenly, her life would change at a moment’s notice.
“So, I see you made a new friend today, Naila,” Hamza replied condescendingly.
“No I didn’t. How do you know?” Naila was quick to respond, denying the accusation, in fear of the wrath her husband would bring down upon her.
“You know what I said about talking to strangers. Especially, Americans.” Hamza stated ‘Americans’ as a derogatory term, someone to be hated. Yet, in the eyes of Naila, they were one in the same.
“I didn’t mean to Hamza. I promise. Please don’t hurt me.” Naila said, now in a weeping state. That was the one thing that triggered him the most. The crying. Most husbands would approach their wives calmly, consoling them with their comfort. However, Hamza was the complete opposite. Instead, he grabbed the nearest item he could find, his shoe.
Quickly, he unlaced the shoe and threw it at Naila’s head. His aim was precise, and hit her directly in the eye. Instantly, as a reflex, she moved back and covered her eye, further increasing her sobbing. Evidently, this made Hamza even more aggravated, continuing the cycle of abuse and weeping. This continued on for several hours, by which Hamza had grown tired and Naila had become too bloody.
Seizing her chance as soon as Hamza walked away into his bedroom, Naila rushed to the bathroom to clean her face and patch her wounds. This week especially had been tough on Naila. She had wanted to leave Hamza, and had tried to, yet was caught in the middle of her escape and was sent back home. The meeting of Emily kindled a new hope inside of her. No, she would not escape. Instead, she would give the one thing which was taken to her from the Taliban--education.
Where Hamza lacked in etiquette of how to treat a woman or proper manners, he made up for in intellect. Although Naila had always regretted the marriage from the start, that was one thing that still kept her going. Hamza’s vast knowledge, along with a room filled with books was something which was truly astonishing to Naila. Occasionally, when Hamza left for work at his bookstore, Naila would sneak into his library and read one book. Each day, she would teach herself about a new topic. Slowly, as time had progressed, Naila came to possess much information about different sciences such as, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics, along with math. After her meeting with Emily, Naila also had started to teach herself how to read and write in English. All of this knowledge is what had prepared her grand plan.
Naila knew many of the neighborhood women, as they would all meet at the Tandoor, or the local oven where they would bake different things such as bread. There, she heard about the town’s gossip. The problems each wife dealt with her husband. This seemed to be a running theme, within this town at least. Each day, Naila would quietly bring up the idea of education and teaching some of the neighborhood children. Although the education of girls was banned by the Taliban and Naila could very easily be executed for this, she still carried on. This was personal endeavor she was destined to accomplish.
As each day went by, Naila slowly started getting more and more children to come to her house. At first only a small boy, whose parents did not care for him much, came. The day after, two more boys followed. And each day, the numbers grew exponentially. Soon, all the women had known that Naila, during the time her husband was away, was running a small school. Naila really enjoyed teaching. The passing of knowledge was something quite beautiful to her. She could fix the mistakes she had made, and that of her parents. She could teach these children to grow up and refuse inequality and injustice and stand up for what is right. These were the values she wanted to instill in these children, to have them grow up to be better and more courageous than herself.
The night before she planned to tell Hamza about what she was doing and to make him come to her way of understanding was the night the Taliban came. It was around 2 in the morning, both her and Hamza deep in their sleep. Abruptly, Naila awoke to the barrel of an AK-47 to her face and the man holding it, short and stout with a booming voice, hollering at her to get up. She instantly complied with the demands. They told her to turn around and face the corner while another person, most likely a female due to the structure of the hands, searched her for weapons. When she was given the “all clear”, she was allowed to turn back around, only to see Hamza being dragged away, his face wrapped in a bag, and his arms tied behind his back. For some odd reason, Naila screamed out for him, pleading with the men to not take him. Even though he had been cruel and unkind to her, he was still her husband and she still had an attachment to him.
Naila tried to run towards the truck in which Hamza was thrown into. Automatically, a guard pushed her into the ground and threatened to shoot her in the face if she did that again. All she could do was just lay there and watch the events unfold. Naila saw that other men were also being loaded onto the truck. These faces seemed familiar, faces of the neighborhood. All of them seemed to come from families and had also been dragged in the middle of the night, the reason for which she was completely unaware of.
The following morning, many of the women and some men had gathered at the edge of neighborhood. Naila walked towards a big crowd to see a man dressed in all black, face covered, with a megaphone in one hand and a gun in the other, giving a speech.
“Last night, you husbands, or your brothers, or your sons, or your fathers, were taken away to join the Taliban and fight for this righteous cause. Do not be worried. You will be provided with food and water and if the men die, then they would have done so for a good cause.”
A booing erupted from the crowd which was followed by a series of gunshots that quickly dispersed the crowd. Back home, Niala was unsure of what to do next. If she kept teaching the children, she would quite easily be caught. But if she stopped, then she would have failed herself and the people. Contemplating this made Niala have a severe headache. To alleviate this pain, she fell into a dreamless slumber.
Niala awoke a few hours later to a knocking at the front door. It was around noon time and she was certainly not expecting a visitor. Naila approached the door and looked through the small eyehole to see who it was. A middle-aged man with a long beard and baggy eyes stood there, waiting to enter. Hesitantly, Naila opened the door.
“You probably do not know who I am but my name is Mullah Abdul Rahman. I’m from Islamabad.” said the strange man.
“And why are you here to see me?” questioned Naila.
“I have heard stories of your courageousness in teaching the children in private under the authoritarian rule of the Taliban and I am quite impressed. I am here to present you with an offer. I want you to be the principal of a school I am opening down in Islamabad. There, you can teach freely, without the persecution of the Taliban. You will be paid substantially and you will also be provided housing. However, I need an an answer immediately since the train departs in half an hour and we have to be on it if you say yes.”
This is what Naila had always dreamed of. To be the principal or the teacher at a school. To be able to give children the one thing they desperately needed. But would this come at some other underlying cost? Yet, the cruelty of the Taliban was far worse than anything anyone could do.
“Yes, I want to come with you.” said Naila.
Remembering all of these old memories and how she had got here gave a pleasure. To think of her humble beginnings and what she needed to do to achieve this position was satisfying. Naila had spent the better part of a decade being the principal of this school. When she had first arrived, it was a ruin, filled with infections, rotting wood, no utensils or even electricity. With hard work and determination, she was able to turn it around and soon, it became the number one school in Islamabad. People of all ages, races, and even religion could come here to seek an education and further enhance their knowledge. All due to the dreams of a small little girl from Mingora.
Samaira, her assistant, stepped into the room. “Excuse me, Naila, but someone is here to see you. He says is name is Hamza?”
“Oh. Yes, let him in.”