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Stories

The Magic Staff

A poignant short story about a Rohingya child by Shaheen Akhtar, translated from Bengali by Arifa Ghani Rahman

Shaheen Akhtar

Musa was born in the year when the girl child in his region was allowed to live and the sons were being killed. Dadi, his father’s mother, Bismillahjaan, had named him. There were no celebrations, no events to mark this ceremony, and not even an insignificant penny was spent on incense. However, as a tax for the arrival of a child into this world, a fat sum had to be donated to the nearby police station. That is how Dadi Bismillahjaan described the heavy term ‘birth registration’ used by people.

And Musa had landed on this side of the Naf River last night without that Dadi. He did not know at the time that his grandmother was not on the boat. She had paid for both their passages with six thousand kyat[1]. Then ensued the hullabaloo as people vied to get on the boat under cover of the darkest of nights.

A stream of salty tears ran down Musa’s cheeks as he stared down the endless river. Had his lungi been tied to his Dadi’s Thami,[2] he would never have let her float away. God forbid! Why would the old woman have floated away? She probably had not boarded the boat in the first place. She had ensured her grandson’s passage and quietly withdrawn from the back.

That was what Bismillahjaan had wanted from the very beginning. Musa was the sole heir to his family name, she used to say with every breath. If he survived in any corner of the earth, at least his bloodline would live on. And so, she had pulled her old, skeletal body across the hills and through the jungles. In all this time, she had held on to the enamel pot in which she cooked rice. Along the way, she had boiled whatever leaves she could gather and served them to Musa.

Musa had not paid attention to this at the time. His eye had been on the mountain along their path – perhaps he might see the light of God, the light which burned the mountain, but not Musa, the prophet. But none of these mountains were named Sinai. He had found a staff on the way though, and he had tied the bundle of clothes and the cooking pot to one end.

When Musa’s caravan arrived at the sandy banks of the Naf, he had relieved the stick of its burden. The sandy banks were like Karbala – with no water to drink nor food. The salty water where the river and the ocean met only made them vomit, cry, and struggle. In the meantime, when one woman gave birth, Musa, the learned student of the village religious school, was summoned to sound the azaan, the call for prayer, in the baby’s ear. Two days and two nights passed. There was no boat in sight. The Burmese army was hunting them down like the Pharaoh’s soldiers. Secretly, Musa had extended his arms once towards the river but to no avail. So, under cover of the night, he had thrown his staff into the water. This too was fruitless. The stick was swept away by the current. But at that moment, an engine boat puttered over from the other side and stopped at the bank. It was in that boat that Musa had piled in to arrive at this unknown destination last night. In the midst of this, he had lost Dadi, Bismillah.

How would Dadi traverse that long road again? Where would she go? What would she eat? Home burnt, fields burnt – their land had been destroyed by the ruling goons. If the family graveyard was still intact, she could probably find shelter in a foxhole. This must have been her plan all along. Musa’s sleep-deprived, numb, dizzy brain now recalled the rambling hints she had dropped about this. Five years ago, Bismillahjaan’s only son, Musa’s father, had been laid to rest in that graveyard. Musa had been a child of eight then. As he watched the gravedigger shovelling in the earth, he thought about the ancestors that were lying there. Baba had suffered much in life and his death had been worse. The military junta soldiers had shot him in the chest and then his throat had been slit by the monks. As he lay in his grave, Baba would tell of his travails to his dear ones who had led comparatively peaceful lives.

Musa wiped the tears from his eyes and sat on the rocks of the dam. He was closer to the water’s edge from here. Countless people stood squashed together on this side of the Naf, their eyes trained on the other bank. As darkness descended, a lantern or two lighted up on the river, and there was the occasional flicker of a flashlight. Musa drew in his breath sharply. Did the battery-operated lights belong to the military junta?

Perhaps there were still thousands of people waiting on the tarpaulin laid out on the sands he had left behind yesterday. Some would be giving birth; some would be dying – their bodies burned or maimed by bullets. There was no medicine, no proper food. For what sin were they suffering this hell on earth? Was Dadi still burning in the hell at the sandy banks?

As soon as a fleet of boats docked along the bank, Musa jumped into the water. He could not move forward as the crowd shoved through the neck-deep water from the opposite direction. He did not even have a light to shine on the faces of the swarm of people to find Dadi’s. Whatever light there was on this side came from the flash of cameras or the flashlights of the BGB[3] or the coastguards. They were using their flashlights to search through the refugees’ belongings that had been dumped on the banks – their plastic sacks, cooking utensils, urns, broken wall clocks, solar panels, and piles of quilts and pillows. At that moment, lightning in the sky heightened the tremors in Musa’s heart. What if Dadi drowned in the middle of the river in a storm? Raindrops fell on Musa’s head while he was still chest-deep in the water. In the meantime, boats docked relentlessly, as countless as the waves in the sea, compounded by the lapping of the water on the bank and the ear-splitting noise of their engines.

When it began to pour, Musa took shelter in the barn, or rather, a goat shed, of a nearby house. The shed shared a wall with the hut and was covered by the Nipa palm leaf with the other three sides open. In this tiny space stood two closely tethered goats. Musa crowded in with them. Who knew how late it was now. The homeowners must be sleeping soundly. He thought he would leave when the rain eased off but just then, the thunder clapped and he grabbed one of the goats around the neck and sat down. It was a familiar touch after so many days and the smell was exactly the same. When lightning struck a little later, he looked timidly, for the first time, at any creature from this unknown land. It did not look unfamiliar though. In fact, the eyes looked as tender as his pet goat’s. So what if Musa was a scholar in the maktab[4], at heart he was a shepherd – of a pair of golden buffalos and two goats with four or so kids. How much pain those goats must have suffered when they struggled in the fire that engulfed them!

Before the army set fire to their homes, the buffalos had been set free and Dadi had taken refuge in the forest with twelve-year-old Musa. Perhaps she had thought nothing would happen to a woman, child, and a few innocent goats. What Bismillahjaan did not know was that the tyranny of the army had heightened by the day. Even the girls were not spared. These tyrants used to rape before, but now they resorted to spilling blood. When Musa returned home two days later, all he found were ashes and destruction. They had taken shelter in Dadi’s sister’s home a little to the south that day and that is where they stayed for a full year prior to their migration.

When Musa thought of his mother, he recalled a woman sprawling on the front yard with a child in her lap. The child’s pigeon-like pink feet hung over one side of Ma’s lap. Where were his young siblings now? His mother? Musa was awoken by his own cries. He found himself lying curled up on the straw in the goat shed, the pair of goats standing next to him. Someone had wrapped his entire body with a torn quilt – just as his mother used to silently cover him up during the heavy monsoon or winter nights. Even so, Musa left the shed before the first light of dawn. He did not return to the dam. Instead, he began to wade through the muddy path in the opposite direction.

The marketplace ahead was already buzzing at this ungodly hour. City dwellers, alighting from the intercity buses, rushed to the stalls for breakfast, their bags hanging from their shoulders. Aromatic smells filled the dawn air. As hunger pangs rose in Musa’s empty stomach, he began to loiter around the stalls.

When someone came out of a stall and aimed a camera at him, Musa took shelter behind the stall. The camera was a lure – this person was actually a kidnapper, thought Musa. He hissed inwardly like a snake. When the same man, however, returned with a plate of food from inside the stall and called to him, Musa dragged his feet forward. Then he wolfed down the food. He cared nothing at all for the number of clicks the camera made or how many pictures were taken of his starved face. As he burped after polishing off the plate, Musa thought that he would be willing to allow photographs if it meant meals twice a day. He was actually waiting to find a staff that would transform magically into a snake. This was now his aim in life.

With his life’s goal determined, Musa could now afford to look around casually. The place may not have been a township but it was quite busy regardless. There were some paved stores. A schoolhouse stood nearby, some mud-splattered sleeping people crowding its veranda. In the middle stood a pile of their dirty household belongings. When someone emerged from behind a plastic sack of this rootless group, Musa was taken by surprise. Was this boy his twin or was he looking at himself in the mirror? The only difference was that the boy had a white clay mark of Thanaka[5] on his cheek. He was dressed in light blue denim shorts chopped off at the knees. With these and some other differences, the two of them stood in the shade of the stall, next to each other. Neither seemed to have the strength or the inclination to speak.

Children with Thanka on their face. Courtesy: Creative Commons

When the cameraman appeared with a local in tow, Musa quickly turned his back on them to face the wall. Why was this man so overenthusiastic? Wasn’t he satisfied with the bunch of photos he had already taken of his starving, beggarly face? But this time it was not the click of the camera, but the man’s words that drew attention. Musa realised he was taking interviews. In the beginning, the boy next to him also stood silently. Perhaps he was mute, deaf. But the next moment, he began to stammer. Musa felt goosebumps. Did everything become topsy-turvy when doomsday loomed? Was Musa glib of tongue and Harun a stammerer? Of course, he had no idea if this boy’s name was even Harun.

‘So many murders, rapes, arson – did you see these with your own eyes?’ The local translated the cameraman’s words into Rohingya.

What could be the answer to this question? And how could it be described? Did the kid next to him stammer so he did not have to answer such questions? Musa’s heart was in a turmoil. To save the boy who looked like his twin, Musa turned his face away from the wall.

Holding his Dadi’s hand, he had been escaping – Musa began to pour out his story in Rohingya. There was black smoke and fire behind, the sound of screams and bullets chasing them. Body after body lay dead along the road. Bullet-ridden. Throats slit. Then the thunder of the ocean. It seemed to be howling, wanting to divide itself into two. But the stick in his hand did not have that power.

The two men, like the Pharaoh, looked at Musa in disbelief. But the twin-like kid was happy, even though his name was not Harun, but Shah Alam.

As they walked towards the schoolhouse, Shah Alam said that they had crossed over on a raft the night before from the village of Fatongja in Maungdaw. Shah Alam’s father was missing and his older brother had been murdered. His three other siblings were with his mother.

“With Musa, you are now four,” said his mother to Shah Alam as she sat on the veranda and rolled up a plastic mat. A truck was due to arrive shortly and they would be transferred to a nearby refugee camp. Musa felt suffocated. The air was moist and heavy like a full mashk[6]. Dazed people walked around, vacant looks in their sleepless, tired eyes. No face reflected any sign of joy at the prospect of a new life. Did Musa’s face show any sign of delight? He did not want to live the life of an insect in a camp.

When the convoy of trucks arrived in the marketplace, Musa ran the other way as fast as he could. Government forces of this land chased him back. Shah Alam was standing in the truck and sucking his thumb. His mother had let out a cry as if a child of her own womb was running away. Standing in the open truck like cattle, Musa growled in anger. He was more upset with Shah Alam’s mother than with the authorities here. Musa did not want an adoptive mother or brother – he wanted a staff, one that would magically turn into a snake.

“You must not take the words of the Book literally, Musa!” Bismillahjaan came into Musa’s dreams that night. “It is foolishness to do so. Forget about me. Your entire life awaits you. Go forward on your own.”

“Where will I go, Dadi?” Sad and angry, Musa asked in a teary voice. “I want to go back – to that graveyard where you are headed to take shelter in a foxhole.”

Musa shut up when he heard someone groan in their sleep. He began to sweat profusely as he lay under the tarpaulin. His stomach had encountered some rice after many days, refugee rice – and he had not been able to digest it properly. Yet, the day before, a lot had been accomplished. The authorities had done a family headcount and provided ration cards. They had collected and brought their rations of rice, lentils, sugar, and oil to their tarp-covered shelter. Shah Alam’s mother had instantly set up house and Musa had become a part of the family. He was now spending his nights under the same tarp.

Chores were distributed in the morning. Shah Alam’s mother and siblings would stand in line at the ration shop while Musa and Shah Alam were responsible for collecting firewood from the forest and water from the pump. “Don’t fight like Habil and Qabil,[7] my dears,” Shah Alam’s mother poked her face through a hole in the tarp as they walked toward the jungle. “Be good brothers like Musa and Harun.[8]

Musa’s heart danced with joy when he heard the names Musa-Harun pronounced together. He immediately wanted to address Shah Alam’s mother as Ma, but he suppressed that desire by turning to look at Shah Alam. What a fool! He did not look like he could be good for anything other than gathering firewood. Anyhow, going into the forest did not just mean collecting firewood for the stove – it also meant that he might find the staff he had been searching for. By Allah’s infinite mercy, Shah Alam’s mother had not made him stand in line like a beggar with a bowl, waiting for handouts of food. Moreover, he did not have to remain confined to the camp.

Besides going into the forest, Musa also climbed the mounds around the camp with the others when he heard that the Burmese military had yet again set fire on the other side of the Naf. His people howled, the women wailed and beat their chests. Musa joined them: “Oh Dadi! My heart aches for you!” Sometimes, he cried in tune. “How will I live without Dadi!” When his tears dried up, there was fire in his eyes.

When he received news that a boat had sunk on the Naf, Musa rushed to see. He went close to the dam and sat on the stone slab to stare out into the river. In his hand was a branch of the gojari tree he had found in the forest. He muttered to himself as he struck the water with the branch.

What sort of justice was this? No one would remain – no father or mother, sister or brother, no home or land, no country, no earth. What was his fault? Why did he have to spend his life at a camp – like a cockroach under a tarp? And then there were other troubles. Young girls kept disappearing. As soon as their wounds healed, the young men plotted evil deeds while the police invaded at odd hours of the night. Children cried, old women lamented. Was there no way out of this hell?

“Of course, there is! There is only one route out of this place,” said a trafficker to Musa one day by the riverside. Musa could test his fortune by crossing the river like Sindabad the Sailor. There was a boat nearby and he would not even have to pay for passage.

Musa had no desire to test his fortune. He did not care either about the camp’s development like the light-skinned men who rolled in on expensive cars to find fault. He just wanted to return to his own land. For that he needed a magic staff that would turn into a snake and chase his enemies away. He wanted to see the land overrun with frogs, lice, and locusts that would put fear into the hearts of the Burmese soldiers and drive them out of Rakhine. Or blood would flow in the river instead of water, just like it did when his people were tortured by the commanding forces on his land.

The idea of blood flowing down the river appealed to the militant who waited by the mound everyday for Musa. He had no beard on his face or cap on his head and Musa had no idea where he came from or where he lived. Perhaps he hid beneath the grass like an insect or burrowed into the dark trunk of the enormous banyan tree. But no matter where he lived, the militant ignored the staff in Musa’s hand. As he stood on the mound and looked out onto the fire and smoke on the other side of the Naf, he said to Musa, “If you want blood to flow in the river, you must be trained in arms. It is not possible to do it with a mere gojari branch.”

“Who said this is merely a gojari branch?” Musa questioned. He had no use for an AK-47, grenades, or bombs. He wanted to tell him about the magic staff that would instantly turn into a snake and save his people.

The militant grew quite angry with Musa. He said, “Listen, O Musa, doomsday is near. Bullets and guns are the final answer.”

Musa felt helpless. Couldn’t he show the militant even a little bit of magic now? Like a tiny frog? Musa opened up his palm. Instead of a frog, his palm felt the brush of the breeze.

But neither of the paths suggested by the trafficker or the militant appealed to him. What would he do now? Musa wanted to howl. In anger and frustration, he flung away the branch in his hand. Instantly, it turned into a snake and disappeared into the wilderness around the mound.

(First published in Bengali in Prothom Alo on July 15, 2018)


[1] Kyat is the currency of Myanmar

[2] A sarong-like piece of clothing worn by the people of Myanmar

[3] The Border Guard Bangladesh

[4] Islamic elementary school

[5] Thanaka is made from barks of trees and used like Sandalwood paste to decorate and protect people from sunburns

[6] A traditional water carrying bag made from goat skin

[7] The Quranic equivalent of the Biblical Abel and Cain

[8] The Quranic equivalent of the Biblical Moses and Aaron

Shaheen Akhtar is a notable Bangladeshi short story writer and novelist. She received the Bangla Academy Literary Award (2015) for her contributions to literature and the Asian Literary Award (2020) for her novel The Search.

Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor and Head of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka. In addition, she is a freelance editor and translator.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Begin with a Question

Book review by Candice Louisa Daquin

Title: Begin with a Question

Author: Marjorie Maddox

Publisher: Paraclete Press

There are people who write poetry, and there are great poets. By great, we speak of those few capable of transcending above the multitudes with their mastery of the word, imagination and homage to the interior and exterior worlds. An academic and writer, Marjorie Maddox, is such a poet. When you read her, you feel almost angry at her unbridled ability to speak to things you couldn’t begin to evoke yourself. She’s fleet of tongue in her assessment of the world, and does so without a shred of arrogance.

Begin with a Question is a clever collection of spiritual, religious and lived in moments. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, you may find yourself falling for Maddox’s quick wit, keen eye and erasable wordplay. Maddox explores existence from a multitude of directions. These are real moments, most of us have lived in some form. Who hasn’t sunk to their knees and asked;

“affirmation its own negation of belief— ‘no,
I do believe your unbelief’ —the tangles already
tugged and tied into a complicated Yes.” 
-- Begin with a Question

It’s such an honest reflection, painfully so — querying the very reasons we could wish to believe in a God juxtaposed against the real reasons we may not — ending in the all-abiding faith we want to, even if to do so is searingly hard at times. As much here is unsaid as said. There is a sensibility to the journey from first line to last that echoes a refrain, a favourite choral song, something holy and human being implored from a deep place.

This first poem sets the compass for the rest of the journey, this books intention is attuned to the whole with each poem. Structured collections don’t lose something by their intentionality, they often hone the message to greater clarity and this is the case with the poem ‘Begin with a Question’.

“by your own single note of joy: 
You stop moving. And that is when you begin.”  

This deliberation comes from experience, knowledge and the craft of writing. Maddox’s years spent teaching and writing are evidenced in the flow of her message. That said, she’s not sterile in her precision, there is an abundance of passion, intensity and emotion throughout, it’s just placed rather than flung. For some, the adherence to a spiritual theme, may be off-putting, though this would be a mistake, given one’s personal faith doesn’t have to alienate the worth of a story. We can all read about someone who has a different life and gain from it. Whether atheist, agnostic or spiritual, Maddox asks you to consider the story within the story, a story we all share. A search for the meaning of our existence and what matters along the way as found in the poem ‘Your Godmother, almost blind’:

“no promises, 
but it gets easier.
If you are left-
handed, reverse
everything.”

This poem has many layers. The same is true of the poem ‘During My Daily Phone Call to Her Assisted Living Facility, My Mother Explains That She Is Slowing Fading Away …’. The title itself is searing, liminal and the subsequent poem equal in measure. Maddox knows how to open a poem like nobody else with unforgettable lines like:

“And it is not the light but the dust in the light
that rises, plunges, plateaus on the short hhhhh
of my exhale, less final than a sigh that dies
from hopelessness but, still there…”

It’s devastating in its rendering, there are no unnecessary words. This poem is emotions in a capsule that reaches inside and rips out stifled feelings. The power it possesses is otherworldly, magnificent, terrifying:

“And it is not
the distance between words,
between parent/child, not the desert under the plane,
or the plane cursing above and past the jagged mountains,
the wholesome prairies, the vast expanse of flat nothing
I’ve come to expect from questions…”

This poem cuts in half any pretence. You just hang your jaw and drink it in. It’s only once in a lifetime someone can write a poem with this kind of truth.

Maddox knows her history of literature and many will feature in this collection, with the ease of a well-versed lover of stories. Few read like this anymore and even if you are not familiar with all the characters, you may appreciate this nod to them. She does this without a hint of pretension, naturally as if they represent in metaphor, our own lives. From her poem ‘Gardens and Farms’:

“Which we, weary Anno Domini gardeners,
expatriates of Eden” 

Whether you believe Eden on a metaphysical plane, you can appreciate the idea of having fallen to Earth and the subsequent toil, versus the dream of an ideal. Each observation is achieved with the fluidity of a natural observer. Maddox reminds of the pastoral poets of the 18th century who transcended their descriptions with the heraldry of their spiritual quest. When Maddox writes:

“Fear tangles every root of prayer;
all I can mutter is Why? How?”
 -- Without Ceasing

I heard the universal howl into the abyss, the raw cry of pain, unassuaged, lost and wandering. It felt both Biblical, as in Christ in the Wilderness, and also deeply human, the purpose of Christ being among humanity. Without obviating the religious undertones, Maddox piques the question we all have, when suffering, ‘Why? How?’ – echoing the universal refrain when faced with terror, pain, suffering. Paraclete Press who published this collection, is the publishing arm of the Cape Cod Benedictine community. Given that much published poetry today is based upon ‘trending’ themes, I am glad such publishers exist to ensure we are not blinkered in whom we publish:

“No longer partitioned off
by sin, by regret, by self-righteousness...” 
 -- Voices Raised

It could be argued, Maddox achieves the impossible, a meshing of past and present, in appreciating both. Paring a Leonard Cohen song with the story of Joseph and Mary. The poignant story of Mary finding ‘no room at the inn,’ is one that struck me as a small child (even as I was Jewish) because it spoke to me of human cruelty. It is that great story of overcoming, endurance, love, and something more than humanity. When Maddox writes:

“and still
convinced of the predestined
roll of dice chrismated with Miracle—
keeps walking with his-not-his woman
forever strangers in this hometown
that will not welcome them, will 
not lay them down to sleep.” 
-- Traveling Man

It’s truly clever to juxtapose Leonard Cohen’s prescient lyrics against a story we know relatively well. The bittersweet, the ideas of not being welcomed, nowhere to sleep. A powerful parallel between that and other acts of selfishness committed by humanity, how often we close doors and bar entry can be seen. There are universal themes here that haunt and force thought beyond comfort zone, which is exactly what poetry at its most powerful, can do. Saying so much in so little, is both reflective, achingly transposing and deft in its precision. Often, I am struck by how closely Maddox’s work feels like a prayer, incantation, yearning for … betterment. And I take solace in this because I share its intention.

“What does the world weight
slit this way; infused with sorrow?
The bones of betrayal are wood
nailed with pain.” 
-- The Five Sorrowful Mysteries 

Maddox ends with her poem And All Shall Be well. The title alone moved me. It soothes that entombment that haunts our peace, when we have been hurting and believe it will never end. We seek the solace of hope, and kindness. In many ways, whether we acknowledge it or not, this is a step Jesus would have taken, because all who live in the West are influenced by the teachings of Christianity even if we’re unawares. The infiltration of those simple morals and codes to live by, are often a solace without our knowing.

“Begin
where there is no beginning, where refrain neither breaks nor mends
what you once knew as discipline. The middle is where we start from—” 
-- And All Shall Be Well 

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.