Voices

by Lisa Suhair Majaj

1.
the night was brittle with cold
bed shaking legs shaking brain shaking
I screamed in terror
voice shuddering into fragments
a weight pressed my chest
my arms couldn’t move my legs couldn’t shift my head couldn’t turn
I stayed like this so long I thought time
had stopped
cold eating at my bones

at last I heard a shout
I screamed back, pain ripping my throat
like a knife

a man’s voice threw a lifeline
it came toward me in the dark place
          lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu

pulled at me like a rescuer, hand over hand
          (my father at the mosque
          palm on my head
          shahadah resounding like a cymbal)
          lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu
                    muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh!

dust clogged my mouth
I struggled to respond
          lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu

the voice shouted, recite!
          lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu!
                    lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu!

I sought breath from my bones
screamed back to the darkness
          lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu

the voice cried out
          muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh!

I reached for courage
          my father’s voice inside me
          a torrent over broken stones

called back
          muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh

again and again the voice reached me
          lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu
                    muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh

again and again I cried back
          lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu
                    muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh

what strength I could find
faltering

 lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu
          muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh

                    lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu
          muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh

weight on my chest
my voice stumbling
fainter, fainter
light leaving my body
like ash

2.
I was with my brother in bed
I am the elder sister
I take care of my little brother
it is what I do

the walls started shivering
the floor below us heaved
I held my brother tightly
put my arm over his head

my mother taught me when he was born
that his skull is soft and precious
I must shelter it

the noise battered me
I couldn’t breathe
I couldn’t move
concrete hard above me
inches from my skull
mattress crushed beneath me

my brother cried a long time
I cried too
our throats ragged

I whispered his name over and over
Ilaaf, Ilaaf
cold biting us like an animal
my arm curved over his head
in protection

he whimpered in reply
Mariam
Mariam

we heard our father recite the Quran
he could not reach us
we could not reach him

we heard our mother pray
she could not reach us
we could not reach her

we stayed like this for so long
I was sure we would die
I was sure we were already dead

when they came at last
light shining in our faces
my eyes blinked in bewilderment
my brother quiet beneath my arm
eyes fixed on the cold slab inches above

I begged, get me out of here, I’ll do anything for you
I’ll be your servant
No, no the man said,
lifting me out into air
          so shockingly cold
I thought again I would die
though voices cried out in joy–

          alive! they are alive!

3.
they tell me
get up, seek shelter
they tell me
take food, water
they do not
understand
I cannot leave her
she is only fifteen
so cold in her bed
pink bedsheet dangling
everything smashed to rubble
her name is Irmak
they say she is dead
I do not care
I must keep her safe
I am her father
we will stay here together
I will hold her hand
I will not let her go
my name is Mesut Hancer
without her I have no name

4.
somehow I was alive
I started digging for my relatives
chunks of concrete so heavy
I could not shift them
cold like a blade
I heard a cry
we found the newborn
between the legs of the dead mother—
my cousin’s wife—
umbilical cord attached

I could not think
I cut the cord
pulled her from the wreckage,
ran across rubble to the ambulance—
infant body bloodied
tiny fists blue
tiny face blue
          breathing

at the hospital they did
what is done for the living
then turned to the dead

by her first cry she had already
lost everything—
her mother Afraa
her father Abdallah
four siblings, an aunt
family home flat to the ground
as if a giant had stepped on it

her name is Aya—
miracle—
one day she will learn
of her birth
into darkness
into light
her family will live
in the pulsing
of her blood,
in the miracle
of her breath

VOICES (Audi0)

Recorded by Lisa Suhair Majaj

1.

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4.

Notes: 

1. A video of a building in Turkey records a man’s voice outside the frame calling out the Muslim shahadah, or testimony, to a boy trapped in the building. The boy’s voice, shaky with fear, calls back the lines of the shahadah: there is no God but God, Muhammad is his prophet.
2. A family spent 36 hours under the rubble in Besnaya-Bseineh, Haram, Syria. A photo of the sister and brother trapped beneath the rubble went viral. The name Ilaaf means ‘protection.’
3. In a widely distributed photo, a father in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, holds the hand of his dead daughter as he stares vacantly into the distance.
4. A newborn baby born under the rubble was pulled to safety in Jinderis, a town in northwest Syria. When found, she was attached by her umbilical cord to her dead mother.

Links:

1. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/02/07/middleeast/syria-quake-siblings-rescued-intl-hnk/index.html

2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/feb/07/turkey-earthquake-man-photo-dead-daughter-hand

3. https://www.npr.org/2023/02/07/1155116036/syria-earthquake-newborn-alive-baby

Art by Büşra Akbulut https://www.instagram.com/busraakbulutart/

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