Hello and welcome back! Yup, you guessed it, it’s another installment from our resident guest author, Taylor Anne Vigil! We have another chapter from her current WIP, Innocent Eyes. If you haven’t guessed by now, Raif Badawi’s plight hits Taylor close to her heart. I think it’s wonderful what she’s doing to call attention to his mistreatment at the hands of the Saudi authorities. There is a video at the end of the chapter, and I strongly urge you to watch it. It’s an hour long but important!
“حرروا كل النشطاء!”
Baba’s heart thudded in his chest; that was the first thing Amal noticed when they stopped at a street corner. These were not the streets they knew, full of vegetable carts and laughing children, honking cars and hollering salesmen. These were streets of blood and fire, overturned cars and broken windows. These were streets of war.
Amal felt her hijab wrap around her mouth and nose. It was Baba who did it. His hand was to her face, shielding her eyes from the devastation that surrounded them.
“Waleed!” Baba roared over the bike engine. “Get his head down!’
Waleed pressed his hand to the back of Little Raif’s head, pushing it down. Amal looked between Baba’s long fingers. What she saw would haunt her nightmares and Baba’s for years to come.
It started with fire.
It ended in blood.
There was shouting and the sound of glass breaking. Suddenly there were two groups on either side of the road, blocking Waleed from turning either way to make an escape. Driving forward would mean passingbetween them, a risk that Waleed was hesitant to take. If he had the car they’d be protected. On a bike, they were exposed. Turning around and going back the way they came was a death wish.
The group on the right held signs, a peaceful demonstration. The group on the left held clubs. They were shouting words that neither of the children understood, words like, “Activists” and “Terrorists”. There was another word too, one that they’d heard Baba say over and over again during conversations and phone calls: “Secularism”.
“Conservatives,” Waleed said, angrily referring to the people on the left. “They’re coming for anyone who tries to stand up to the Mutawa.”
Baba didn’t say a word. He merely watched on as a flaming bottle was hurled into the air. It arced across the night sky and shattered in front of an elderly conservative, setting him ablaze in an instant. As he screamed, dropped and rolled, the two sides converged, the left with clubs raised, the right, the one from which the fire emerged, using their signs as shields.
Little Raif lifted his head just in time to see a woman, shrouded in black, being beaten to death by a man with a club. He whimpered. He started to cry. Amal saw it too, the brutal beatings, the bloody bashed in skulls of the peaceful protesters, the fire consuming the man who, mercifully, was no longer breathing. She wished she hadn’t looked. Her eyes shut tight and her body clenched into a fist. Baba felt all of this and held her tight to him. She trembled and shivered against him, wanting to go back home, wanting her Mama, wanting the yelling and fighting to stop.
“Saeadna ya Allah.” Waleed mouthed, searching for a way out. “Help us Allah.”
He covered the eyes of Little Raif and steered the bike toward a shop that sold Baba’s favorite brew of black tea. It was a quaint little place with outside seating and white flowers lining the arched entrance. They ditched the bike, leaning it against the wall of the building and rushed inside. They were met with the barrel of a gun.
“Get back!” the old man yelled. “Leave now or I’ll shoot you!”
“Shh!” Waleed hissed, placing his hands out in front of him. “We’re not dangerous. I swear to you, we’re not.”
He spoke quickly and quietly.
“We’re seeking refuge, that’s all. There’s a mob out there. They’re beating protesters to death. They’ll kill us.”
The old man looked past Waleed at Baba, who had a protective grip on the children. Slowly, the gun was lowered. The old man sighed and motioned with his head. Inside was a disaster zone, evidence the conservatives had been there already. Empty tea bags, shattered tea pots and cups, pieces of baked goods and shredded napkins; all were scattered across the tiled floor like confetti. Baba and Waleed carried the children through the small store and sat them in two of the remaining chairs.
Little Raif went straight for the packets of sugar that miraculously sat unscathed in the center of the table. Amal sat silently observing her surroundings as she so often did. The shop still smelled of hot tea and pastries. It brought back memories of the rare days when Baba left work early and picked her up from school, leaving Mama to care for Little Raif, who had still been in diapers. He would bring her to this shop and spoil her with frosted treats and steaming cups of tea until she felt sick. It was a special time; an hour or two with no crying toddler or a call from Mama asking for Baba’s help with a task. It was a time when he could give her his undivided attention, a time for just her and Baba and no one else.
The shop was quieter then. The tea wss fresh and only available in the brewing pot in the back room. Over time, it grew into a bustling business that offered take home tea bags and seating in the open air surrounded by flowers outside.
Amal smiled at the memory, then frowned, feeling that this place would never be the same again. At the counter, Waleed and Bsba stood amongst the mess, looking at one another as if speaking a silent language. On the counter was a book. It was yellowed and tattered, like it had been read many times over. Beneath the title, “Free Saudi Liberals” was Baba’s name. Amal’s eyes grew wide. She’d always see her Baba with a book in his hands when he wasn’t playing with her and her brother or going out on the town with Mama. She’d even see him scribbling in that little notebook from time to time. She never knew he wrote a book.
Waleed placed his hands on the book before Amal could point it out to Baba.
“That’s a wonderful book!” said the old man, crouching down to pick up a broken plate.
“I know,” Waleed replied smiling. “The author and I are very close.”
He winked at Baba, who was still hidden under the Abaya. The old man looked up at them with a glint in his eyes. Baba stepped towards him and crouched, meeting the man’s gaze. He held out his hand.
“Alsalam ealaykimi.” he said. “Peace be upon you.”
There was a frozen moment between the instant the man realized the importance of who he was talking to and shaking Baba’s hand. He’d never met Baba in the flesh, his two sons having done most of the running of the shop in the days when Baba brought Amal. He stared as Baba began picking up the pieces of rubble on the floor, stared as if Baba was a holy statue.
“I-I greatly admire your writing.” the old man stammered. “I reread your books all the time.”
Hand on heart, Baba accepted the compliment, then went back to helping the man clean up his shop. Waleed smiled, then did the same. The children watched them, awestruck that their Baba and Uncle would help a man who was a stranger to them. After all, hadn’t Mama always forbidden her little ones from talking to strangers?
“Do you have a place to stay?” asked the old man.
“Yes,” Waleed answered. “There’s a safe house five blocks from here where other activists are hiding.”
There was that word again.
What did it mean?
Was Baba one of them?
Waleed looked over at Baba as he continued speaking to the old man.
“We’ll be safe there for the night. Tomorrow, we’ll go to Jeddah. I have friends who’ve agreed to take us in until things calm down.”
Baba placed a firm hand to the old man’s wrist and he flinched.
“Come with us, friend.”
A stern look passed between Waleed and the old man, a look that said, “We have too many bodies to protect already. Please, say no.”
With that, the old man swallowed and shook his head. He had a shop to protect. A wife to care for. He couldn’t just leave. After this, nothing more was discussed, not even the terror the conservatives had inflicted on them in one way or another. They cleaned in silence. They waited in silence. When the screaming died down, they bid the old man farewell.
“May Allah watch over you on your journey,” he said.
They ran. The bike had run out of gas, a fact that Waleed hadn’t even thought about. He cursed under his breath and picked up Little Raif.
“Run!” he’d said.
Baba didn’t question him. He took Amal into his arms.
“Close your eyes, sweetie.” he told her, softly.
She listened. They stepped over bodies and bloodied clubs, weaved their way through the red stained streets. Amal only opened her eyes when Baba tripped over something, nearly falling to his knees.. In the seconds it took for Baba to steady himself and continue running, she spotted a sign that belonged to one of the peaceful crowd of protesters. The writing was smeared, the paper damp, but she could still make out the words.
“حرروا كل النشطاء!”
“Free All Activists!”