‘Lullabies in Arabic’ excerptMay. 12, 2016, 12:27 PM
Rani Banjarian’s short story “Lullabies in Arabic” won the 2016 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. The award is given annually to the best short story written in the science fiction or fantasy genres by a full-time undergraduate college student. Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine will publish the story in full in a future issue.
Excerpted courtesy of Asimov’s Science Fiction c. 2016. Published by Dell Magazines.
“Lullabies in Arabic”
by Rani Banjarian
10 years before
A row of plants, in dashing green. My pencil strokes were impeccable. My circles were perfect and I had drawn them all in one go. Miss Amal the art teacher had shown us how we could draw tulips by writing a big W and drawing a semicircle underneath it. My tulips grew in brown pots, bronzed with age and lining the window. It was a window into a room only I could see and I can’t remember what was in it now even if I tried. This room was going to make us famous, these flowers, these pots, truly they were a work of art.
On the cheap green carpet in the living room in the middle of a messy mound of coloring books, children’s storybooks, math and phonics books, blank pieces of paper and pencils and cheap knockoff Crayolas. Mama sat across from me and tirelessly recited the alphabet and the days of the week and the months of the year and the national anthem and all of the children’s classics and her favorite Arabic lullaby.
“Eh habibi, tell me what comes after March?” she asked, her accent heavy with French and the exaggerated cadence that comes with addressing a child. Eh, habibi, she always told me.
I sputtered and choke. “April!”
Ten years later she maintains that that word is guud and not good even after a crash course at an English language institute and despite Baba’s undying encouragement, which at one point led to his purchase of a twenty-volume set of tapes cassettes and books entitled Hello America, now sitting wistfully under a thick blanket of dust in the green bookcase in our sitting room and are worth absolutely nothing.
“What’s in April?”
Delighted I would chuckle, throaty and wet. “Birffffday!!!”
One year after
She was in the screen. Browser histories and confrontations in subdued, muted, white-hot, awkward awe.
“That is unnatural, habibi, you know that,” with the porn playing silently in the background. The air was cold and stiff, a wall between me at the big dining table and she on the screen.
“Against physiology,” Teta added, standing behind the table. “You are free to do whatever you want but this is not the right.”
Shameful red, I was suffocating.
“There is no gays. They are not normal. They suffered psychological trauMAS,” she said, her face static on the screen, incorrectly enunciating syllables the way she always did when she was alive. “Maybe it is a passing, but we will help you. Maybe one year maybe ten years, but if it doesn’t pass we will go through strict psychological protocols.”
7 years before
On the big dining room table the nice man assembled our new PC computer. It was so bulky and strange, a spaceship had landed on our dinner table and overturned our lives. I giggled in delight when the nice man recorded us on Sound Recorder and giggled again when I heard myself giggle, tinny and distant. In the morning some days I would wake up earlier with Mama and we would go through all the screensavers and preview them all, the aquarium and the maze and my favorite the bouncy words that let you type in anything you wanted.
She also taught me how to print a document that said to Alexandra my friend in kindergarten that I liked her a lot. On my birthday I took a copy to her but she tore it and threw the pieces in my desk. Later that day when I told Mama she said it was too early to like girls or anyone.
Regally she sat down at the dining table after lunch. But she looked like the computer spaceship could devour her in two bites.
“What are you doing?” I called from the kitchen.
She giggled like I do when I eat all the Kinder bars and I know it’s wrong. “Recording something for you. Close your ears it’s a surprise for your birthday!”
I made to run in and listen to what she was doing but she told me to stay back and go to my room!
“Ahhhhh ok.” Dejected, and as I walked down the hallway toward my room I heard her sing the first line of her favorite Arabic lullaby.
“Sleep, tired toys
All the books are sleeping
Even the fairytale goes to bed.”
Teta’s house is too old and doesn’t have a generator installed. We spend the nights when the power is out sprawled on the balcony, our bodies bathed in the sweat of too-hot summer nights. We bask in the fluorescence of false normalcy from the buildings around ours. Kitchens and bedrooms and balconies were alive with hushed whispers. Across the parking lot, a foreign worker peeks down at us from the window of her employer’s fifth floor apartment. We understand her. She probably isn’t fluent in Arabic but she understands us too. Some nights she leans against the windowsill, her form silhouetted against the white glare of kitchen light behind her. Some nights she waves at us. She doesn’t belong here. Some nights we wave back. She belongs with her family in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka or the Philippines and not in a pinprick of land ravaged by a war that is not hers.
The fear is loud and rich. It settles at the bases of our stomachs and the backs of our throats. It silences our thoughts and makes swallowing difficult. Later at night, we lie, the five of us, on the old double bed, our limbs bent at impossible angles, wondering if we would die. …