Murphy Writing of Stockton College Presents
This entry is part of Getaway Reads, an e-mail series curated by Taylor Coyle that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
Abduction from the Seraglio
by Roberta Clipper
I met her in London. In my cousin Shawn’s favorite black and tan. We’re the only cousins the same age. Our mothers are sisters. We were always begging them to fly us to each other’s houses—him to visit me in Nairobi, me to spend school holidays with him in London.
I was staring at her long, black hair, blending with her straight, black dress, like some kind of head-to-floor-length veil. “Club full of girls,” Shawn said, “like a bloody harem. And you have to get obsessed with the one dancing with a big, fat, dangerous Arab!”
Even Shawn looked older than seventeen. That’s why our mothers were afraid of us. We’re tall, almost six feet. If we grew our beards only our eyes would show, our fair, straight noses. But I had never wanted to cover up my face with a beard like my father, to wrap my hair up in a turban. I was only ten when I scissored off the topknot my mother tied and covered with a swatch of cotton every day. When she saw me, strands all jagged in my face, she screamed. “You are not my son!” sort of thing. Daddy was even worse: “You think you are such a man, you can do what you want without regard for family?” I had a black eye after that. My first. I tried to ride my moped out the gate. Our guard knocked me off the bike, and my grandmother—Daddy’s mother—pushed me into the car and called the driver.
Our driver recommended the barber. Sikhs, what did we know about shaves and haircuts? “This boy, he don’t need a haircut,” the barber said, as he evened up the ends. “He need a doctor.”
My grandmother’s doctor put an ice bag on my eye and said, “Ranjit Singh, you are a Sikh Sardar, like me. You should not have done such a thing. Your father is an angry man. You know that. Even we know it. We are used to Kanwar’s temper.”
He gave me candy and told me to go home, grow my hair, and beg my father’s forgiveness.
I did not. Mummy, black and blue herself by the time my grandmother got me home, muttered, “It will all grow back.” But I found scissors at school if I couldn’t find a pair at home, my friends’ houses, Shawn’s when I was in London. Shawn’s mum, my mum’s sister, never tied Shawn’s hair; even his father had not kept the turban since he had left Africa for college. But there was no escaping our ancestors. Every day at four o’clock the stubble of a full Sikh beard invaded our Punjabi faces.
So when the girl looked back, what did she see? Two men. And Shawn and I had always had to fight them off. At Nairobi parties I took them in their rooms while in the garden their fathers got drunk and their mothers stuffed their mouths. The Arab saw her looking at me and grabbed her arm. Dance steps turned to staggers. I was on him. He went down as easy as my father when he was as drunk. Shawn tried to pull me off. “Ranjit! Are you mad?”
The girl stood staring, hands covering up her sharp cheekbones. I jumped up, grabbed her wrist, pulled her toward the door. The crowd stumbled all around us.
The motorcycle I had bought that afternoon stood sparkling with drops of rain. The girl threw her leg over the seat. An ugly gash opened in her tight, black skirt. My eyes fixed on her thigh, glowing like a beacon in the streetlight. “Go!” she shouted, twisting to look back. “He will kill me!”
I straddled the bike, kicked it into action. Shawn’s bike started right behind us. I could feel the girl’s bare arms around my waist, her belly bag driving into the small of my back.
“I have all the necessary papers,” she shouted, “money! My sister lives in Paris! Take me!”
Gladly. I’d bought the motorcycle for a trip—Shawn’s last before his family was sending him to California. We had visas for every country in Europe.
I cut the motor. Shawn tore halfway down his sleeping street, almost slid his bike out from under him turning around. I laughed. “Just go in and get our packs!”
“Ranjit, the entire Muslim horde will be on us before we cross the Channel!”
“It is true,” the girl said. “He will murder us. He thinks it is his right.”
I lit a cigarette. “Well, Shawn, you had better hurry.”
Shawn ran down the street, past a row of houses. I got to know Zarina.
That was her name. Tears rolled out of her blue-black eyes. She was shaking. I took off my jacket, slipped her cold, marble arms into the sleeves. She was everything I could not find in Africa—beautiful, exotic, older than the average, giggling Nairobi Indian, and helpless. I flicked a tear off her cheek, pulled her face closer to mine. She pushed my cheek with two cool fingers. Even I could feel the stubble. “You remind me of one boy.”
“What were you doing with him?” I asked.
“They would not allow me to marry anyone but him. He drinks. He liked to show me off at these London discos. I have been planning my escape. Take me to the train to Paris. I have money, all the papers.”
I laughed. “I’ll do better than the train.”
Shawn came staggering back, a pack slung over each shoulder. I fixed mine into one of the bags hung on either side of the bike. I’d balance it later. “Ranjit, you are one crazy Sardar,” Shawn mumbled, as he shouldered his pack and threw his leg over the seat.
I told Zarina, “Sikhs—what we call Sardars—have been protecting women from the Muslims since the Mughals invaded the Punjab.”
Europe, forests cut down centuries ago, every space used up, animals replaced with humans, clogging the streets with their little cars. I hate it. Sun shone bright across those treeless fields, then on the factories, car after beeping car, even on the wide, filled streets of Paris. Zarina shouted, “Here! Turn here!” And we zigzagged through the traffic, hardly touching the brakes. Finally in front of a row of square, stone buildings she stopped me. Shawn rode halfway down the street, as usual. “Get a change of clothes,” I said, laughing at my cousin. “Money. What your sister will give.”
She touched my cheek again. “You are good boys. I cannot thank—”
“Fifteen minutes,” I said, “or I’m coming up.”
She hurried into the building, no doorman, no key. Shawn rode up. “Let’s go.” I lit a cigarette. “They’ll call the gendarmes, Ranjit. They know the language.”
I threw my cigarette into the street and ran into the building, up three
steps at a time. I could hear her, shouting in a language I will never under- stand. And I saw her, standing at an open door on the second story. I put my arms around her. “Come. I am your family now.”
Her sister, fat, older, her round face red and wet with tears, shouted at me in English: “Do you know what you have done?”
“Abduction,” I said. “The oldest way to get a date.”
Zarina pressed her palms against my chest. Her sister grabbed her around the waist, then pushed her into me and slammed the door. I could hear her sob- bing. Zarina hurled herself against the door. I pulled her toward the stairs. Just like home. “He will kill her if he finds me here,” Zarina said. She ran down the stairs, into the street, threw her leg over the seat and said, “Take me. I have no one! Go!”
We crossed into Belgium in a matter of hours, riding through the long, bright twilight of the north. Odd the way the sun takes hours to set so far from the equator, and at different times every day. By the time we got to Amsterdam, the light was artificial.
We left her ripped dress on the floor of a cheap hotel. She was shy, pushing my hands off the sleek, torn velvet. But we smoked a little marijuana, a little more.
Shawn spent guilders, Deutsche marks, Austrian shillings, and lira to get what I was getting free. I kept all three of us high. Drugs and alcohol always worked for me. We saw more of Germany than anybody should and crossed the mountains into Italy. In Rome the last of our lira went for a bottle of red in a cafe on a street full of honking, squealing cars. Cross the Mediterranean, and the continent was mine.
“I say we cut through France back to the Channel,” Shawn started, not
for the first time.
“No,” Zarina said, the hundredth time herself. “He will find us, kill
“No one is going to kill anyone,” I said. “Biking back to England was
the family plan. Our plan is to bike along the Mediterranean, then down the Red Sea—”
“Middle East is out of the question,” she said.
“We can get a boat to Tunis.”
“We can’t motorbike through the Sahara,” Shawn said. “Can I talk to you?”
“Shawn, we’re practically doing it in front of you. Anything you say
you can say in front of my woman.”
“You can’t take her to Nairobi!”
“No one in Africa will know me,” Zarina said, staring into the rush of little cars and scooters in front of us.
“You see?” I said. “It’s the ideal destination.”
“You’ll kill yourself getting there!”
I called home. I was sick, I told them, could not ride back to London.
“Sell the bike,” my father said, and he wired me enough to buy a one-way
ticket to Nairobi. With the lira we could get for Japanese motorcycles in Italy— a loss considering what we would have got in Africa—I bought two first-class tickets to Nairobi. Shawn took the train to London.
Imagine me, Ranjit Singh, my arm around a Persian beauty in the tight, black leathers I bought her in Amsterdam, walking out of customs into a crowd of Indians and Africans. When my mother saw me she shrieked. My father shoved her aside and walked up to check out my girl. No hug, no greeting. “Did you meet this girl on the plane?”
“This is Zarina Shabazz,” I said. “I met her in London.”
“Honored to make your acquaintance,” she said.
Dad pressed his palms together. “Is your mother-father meeting you?”
“My mother and father live in Hong Kong,” she said.
“Oh, I see. Can we give you a lift to your hotel?”
“She’s not staying in any hotel,” I said.
“Of course not,” my father said. “Why should she stay in a hotel when
she has friends in Nairobi?” He grabbed my ear and pulled me past my mother. She tottered after us on the usual high heels.
“Ow!” I pushed him off of me.
“What are you doing bringing girls from Hong Kong?”
“She is not from Hong Kong!” I rubbed my ear. “She’s from London, and
“You are a child,” my mother said, too loudly, gaining on us. Zarina stood
frozen, the crowd jostling all four of us. “You cannot marry this girl.”
I elbowed through the crowd and took Zarina’s arm. “We’ll book a room at the Intercontinental,” I said, hoping I could use my father’s credit. I pulled her toward the door.
“She will stay with the Alis,” my father said, right behind me. “That
will suit an Arab girl.”
I whispered in Zarina’s ear as we dodged the taxis, cars, buses. “Conve-
nient. The Alis live next door. My sister made a hole in the fence between our compounds. Ali’s son and she were doing it. Then she did it with someone else, or there would be two Muslims in the family.”
“Are they related to the Alis in Lebanon?” she asked.
“They’re Pakistani,” I said. “They won’t bother you. The son is catatonic. Tried to kill himself, the way I heard it, but he did more damage to the ceiling than his neck.”
We drove up the Alis’ drive, and my mother got out and waddled to the door. Mrs. Ali came out to the car, opened the door, and took Zarina in her arms, as if she were the long, lost daughter she had never had. “You are from London, isn’t it?” I heard her say, as she led my girl into her house. “I have one cousin-sister…”
As soon as Daddy stopped the Mercedes in our drive, I got out and walked across our compound. Behind a row of shrubs I slipped through the hole in the fence. Servants’ huts stood back against the Alis’ garden wall. I wondered if my sister and Kabir Ali had paid the servants for the use of their beds. I stuck my head in the first open doorway. “Juma?”
“Juma!” someone shouted. I could not see anyone in that black dark.
Juma appeared in the open doorway of another hut.
“Where did they put her?” I asked.
Juma pointed to the window. “Don’t tell on me, Sahib.”
I gave him a shilling, walked across the dark garden to the terrace and tapped on the window. Zarina pulled the curtain back. “Open up,” I said.
“These are good people.” I could barely hear her through the glass.
“And I’m not? Come outside. Finish what we started on the plane.”
“Shh. I will meet you. Later. When they sleep.”
I propped my back against an avocado tree. The soft fruit blackened all around me. Juma was no better as a gardener than the houseboy he was in our house before my father hit him. I lit a joint. Insects I had missed in Europe filled my ears. Time faded. I had not slept since Rome.
I woke up and saw the branches of the tree, the bluest sky in the world. I thought, they threw me out, I’m lost, I can’t get home. Then my eyes focused on the Alis’ veranda. It took half a minute to recognize the marble, the white stucco of the house. I ran toward the window. All locked up. Curtains drawn. Did she come outside and miss me while I was asleep?
I was shivering. Summer in Europe, winter in East Africa. Where could she go? She had said herself that she had no one in the world. Even I wished I could just start over, be a kid in someone else’s house. I went home and crawled into my bed. First time since London. Motorcycles, biker girls stared down from the striped green wallpaper.
I went back there after I got up. There she was, sitting on the terrace, shelling peas. Kabir was sitting right beside her, in the white, cotton pajamas he always wore—asylum clothes. He was like a statue: pale, chiseled. His neck was thin, almost white, like a girl’s, with a necklace of cruel, brown scars. My sister was as inhumane as the rest of the family.
He was spouting something in Urdu. I know words of it here and there: something, something “star,” something “rain,” and a question I half understood as “who makes the eyes of women as intoxicating as the strongest wine?” As if he would ever know.
Zarina smiled at me and sighed. “I only understand a few words, but the poetry—”
I flicked a pea pod off her hand, grabbed it, pulled her through the Alis’ compound to the fence. Kabir stared after us, an inmate serving time while we more clever prisoners escaped.
We cruised the streets, riding slalom around buses, taxis, Mercs, Land Rovers. After dark we hit the discos, drank on my father’s account. I told chaps I knew from school, some I’d seen almost every week at the never-ending parties my parents had dragged me to: I was taking this girl to America; I would become a millionaire, like the Americans they read about in magazines. It would be easy for her to marry me—her brutal husband wouldn’t want her anymore. And I had never lost a fight for anything I wanted—cutting my hair was supposed to kill my father, motorcycles were supposed to kill me.
When the clubs closed, I drove us both to my house. Our guard opened the gate. Zarina hopped off the bike and started running toward the fence.
“No,” I said, catching up with her and pulling her back by her thin, long waist. “You stay in my room.”
She pushed against me, then gave up, let me hold her in our garden in the dark. “For myself I do not care,” she said. “You saved my life. What else do I have to thank you? But that sick boy—”
“Kabir? What do you care—”
She put her fingers to my lips. “He will worry.”
The sprawling, eight-room house I had grown up in shot a rectangle of light into the dark. The garden swallowed up my girl, the black leather, her black hair. I stared after her.
“You must go to America,” my mother said, blocking the light streaming from the kitchen.
My father added, right behind her, “Take your sister to the doctor.”
“Kunti’s sick?” I turned back, walked across the patio and shoved past them into the kitchen. A golden opportunity, now that my sister had finally given herself a disease. “Sure,” I said. “Two tickets, and I’ll do your dirty work.”
My mother slapped me. I raised my hand. My father grabbed my wrist and wrenched my arm behind my back before I could flip him onto the floor. “If I weren’t drunk,” I said.
“Idiot!” my father said. “You think the girl wants you?”
“She is pregnant,” my mother said, her hands rising to her face as she broke out in sobs.
“She told you?” I asked.
“It is your sister’s dirty work,” my father said. “I must go myself. How can I trust this boy to clean up after his sister in his father’s good name?”
In my father’s name I lifted a bottle from the dining room. I would not have minded if my girl were having the baby. But my sister? I laughed, took a swig, carried the bottle outside. I climbed through the hole in the fence. The Alis’ garden was completely dark. I stumbled a little as I walked across the lawn, toward the light in the window of the room in which they’d put Zarina. When I got to the veranda, I tiptoed.
There she was, my girl, sitting in the middle of the bed, changed into a white Punjabi suit, as if she were one of their people. The door opened and Kabir came in. I raised my bottle like a club. He sat on a hard-backed chair, like the cold, stiff corpse he was. The window was open, the stupid fools. I could hear Zarina: “What choice did I have? That Ranjit. Say what you will. He was my fate. For so many weeks I carried papers. Once I tried to run with—”
I swung the half-full bottle over my head and flung it at the window. Zarina screamed. Glass shattered over the white carpet. Kabir covered his head and shoulders with his arms. Mrs. Ali rushed into the room, shouted, “Guard! Police!” Servants rushed out of their huts. Lights went on all around me on the terrace. The Alis’ guard pushed me to the ground.
Kabir’s mother shouted a string of Punjabi curses I had never heard in the mouth of a woman. “I will shift houses!” she ended. “You Singhs are the wildest animals in Africa!”
“Zarina,” I shouted, out from under the bodyguard, who was sitting on top of me. “You might have gone with anyone, but fate chose me. You belong to me. This is not some whore’s only gift! I saved you from your husband!”
Where she had come from she could be stoned for such information, her long, black hair shaved off, her round, full breasts, the hot fold of flesh she could not control when I was in her.
“You sex-crazed fool,” she shouted. “You are no better than the man you took me from!”
Kabir spoke very slowly, so softly I could barely hear it. “Leave her alone, Ranjit. She is a Muslim woman.”
“Was my sister Muslim?”
“Go back to your territory, animal!” his mother shouted.
I would have thrown myself right through the window if I could have
climbed out from under the big, black hulk who sat on top of me. Two other servants helped him drag me to the compound gate and throw me into the road. I could hear our servants shouting with the Alis’ servants in the dark. I could not see anything except the lights around the Alis’ house, servants darting in and out of their thin beams. I ran through our gate, left open when our guard jumped up to help the Alis. “What have you done now?” my mother shouted.
“Where are you going?” I heard my father.
I could not stay. Not now. Not without her. And they say my father married for love. The whole family bragged about it: Harwinder did not go for an arranged marriage. And my sister?
Love does not exist. It is a trick, an illusion.
I opened up into the dark, the only light the dull, yellow glow of Nairobi disappearing fast behind me. I did not know where I would sleep that night, if I would ever sleep. But I knew some things. And I could feel them hurling me into the night.
© Roberta Clipper. Originally published in Local Knowledge, 2014.
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Roberta Clipper has published two novels-in-stories under the name Robbie Clipper Sethi, The Bride Wore Red (Picador, 1997) and Fifty-Fifty (Silicon Press, 2003), as well as short stories in The Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, the Philadelphia Inquirer and a number of literary magazines and anthologies. Her fiction has won a National Endowment for the Arts award and two fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Robbie teaches fiction, poetry, expository writing and literature at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ and on a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship spent a “monsoon semester” (August-December 2009) teaching creative writing at the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India. To read more of her work, visit www.robbieclippersethi.com.
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Want to study with Roberta Clipper? At the 2015 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, Roberta will lead Visions and Revision.
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