By Stephanie Greene
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I am Nisma, and my story is about a man I met one night in my dreams.
He was a man unlike any man I’ve met before, and somehow I got the feeling that he was a man who was more than just a man. I had my dream for the first time in June—and it was a hot, sticky night. I got home from working in the clothing factory at ten o’clock, but my mother and my stepfather were awake and sitting in the tiny receiving room of our shack in urban Cairo drinking tea and honey. They were laughing, and I thought my stepfather, Na’im, had been drinking. He drank a lot and he beat my mother, so I was afraid of him. He had a job in the steal mill, but he didn’t make a lot so I still kept my job after my mother married him, when I was twelve. I started working when I was five years old, and I worked in the pottery kilns until I was thirteen. I found the work in the pottery kilns tiresome and so I started working in the clothing factory. I don’t suppose I thought it was much better work, just different. I have never been to school and I can’t read, but I know the alphabet a little and I can write my name, “Nisma”. My mother probably named me Nisma because I was born on Sham An-Nasim, a Coptic holiday which falls one week after Easter. My mother was Muslim, though she doesn’t go to the mosque, but she tells me my father was Coptic. He moved to France before I was born and I never met him. My mother didn’t work because of my stepsister, Sara. Sara was two, and she was the survivor of the twins—the other little girl died only a few minutes after they were born. Sara could not walk or crawl, and my mother took her to many doctors but none of them could help her. There was one doctor I particularly loved, John Armanious, and he was Coptic, so I always imagined he was my father. I dreamed of meeting my father, but I knew I never would.
But never mind, I am rambling.
I was speaking of the night I had my first dream. I opened the door—it had many nails sticking out of it, so we were always careful when we opened it. My mother and Na’im were sitting across from each other at the little table that was pushed up against the thin wall. It had a dirty blue tablecloth on it and an ashtray for Na’im’s cigars. Our house was like all the houses in the urban slums. It was very small and Sara and I slept in a tiny room that was hardly big enough for the mats we slept on. Sara cried all the time so I had trouble sleeping at night.
Na’im stood, and his legs were shaky so I knew he had been drinking.
“Nisma!” he yelled my name. “Why are you late?”
“Master Mustafa made us stay late,” I said, looking down at the floor. Some of the floorboards were ripped up and I could see the dirt and weeds underneath them. “Sometimes he makes us stay until we finish…”
“You were out making mischief!” Na’im accused me.
He stumbled across the floor and pulled hard on my hair, which was wiry and broke easily, so I usually kept it up but not that night. I tried hard not to scream, and the next thing I knew Na’im’s strong, hairy arm was around my neck and I felt like he would strangle me. I was crying, but no one noticed.
“Go to your room, you little rascal!” he scolded me. He slapped my face and punched me. My mother just stood there and watched.
I ran to my room, desperate not to let my mother see my tears. If she did, she would be upset and she would feel terrible. I could hear Na’im yelling and swearing at my mother. He was pounding his big fists on the table and making the ashtray rattle. I could not hear my mother’s voice.
I sat down on the floor on my sleeping mat, next to Sara who was sleeping soundly. I hugged my knees to my chest and cried into my sleeves. I didn’t want to wake Sara—she looked so peaceful—but how could I hold my tears in any longer? Our room was dark and we didn’t have a lamp, but a shaft of light fell through a hole in the roof and cast a radiant glow on Sara’s little face. Sara was beautiful, and she took after my mother, who was light for an Egyptian. I must have taken after my father, because I was dark and ruddy with deep, reddish-brown skin.
I sat next to Sara and cried. I felt trapped in the tiny, dark room. It was bare and miserable—all we had were the little hooks drilled into the walls that we hung our clothes on. I liked to visit my friend Galila, who lived in a beautiful apartment. She had an older sister who was engaged to be married and an older brother who was an architect. I had spent the night at Galila’s house many nights when I was afraid to go home. We stayed up late and watched movies together, and I was never happier than when I was with Galila. It was as if we were sisters, and even though she was rich and went to high school and came from a family of successful professionals, she didn’t seem to look down on me because I was poor and dirty. We used to spend beautiful nights together, talking about all of our troubles, but I stopped spending the night at Galila’s house after one night when her brother got home very late from a business trip. I had come out into the kitchen to get a drink of water, and he saw me and as I was going back through the living room he held me down on the couch and put his hands all over me. I was so startled and scared, I ran back to Galila’s room and closed the door very quietly. I cried because I was so embarrassed, and I felt like the only safe place I knew had become unsafe. But I never told anyone. I knew Atallah would deny touching me, because he was very arrogant and pious. He knew a lot about the Qur’an and went to Friday prayers, but he didn’t act like what I thought a religious person should act like. He wasn’t kind.
The night I sat in my room crying reminded me of my last night at Galila’s house. I felt very unprotected. Who was there to protect me from authority, I wondered? Master Mustafa beat me with his stick sometimes if I was slow with my work, but that didn’t anger me half as much as when he beat the little children. I loved the little children, especially the little girls because they reminded me of myself. They were so vulnerable and fragile, and they depended on other people to protect them. I had never had anyone to protect me, but I wished that they could. I was fifteen now and becoming a young lady, but I still felt unprotected and unsafe.
I don’t know how I fell asleep that night, but I am certain I fell asleep crying. I lay on my bed and looked at my fair little sister, whose white cheeks didn’t in any way resemble my swarthiness, and I cried for her because she was lame and because she was unsafe, too. I could take care of myself, but Sara couldn’t. I suspected that Na’im hit her, too, because there were bruises on her little legs. When I asked my mother about it she said no, that Na’im would never hit a child. But Na’im had hit me.
Sara was my last thought before I fell asleep, I think, but I can never remember for certain my last thoughts before I fall asleep. And the first thing I saw when I awoke in the middle of the night was the light that was flooding in through the hole in the roof, and I was startled because it reminded me of the light…the light I had seen in my dream.
In my dream I was sitting in an alleyway and I was very dirty and there were cuts on my hands from my work. And then I saw the most wonderful man walk up right to me. He was dressed in glowing white and light was all around him. Suddenly the alley wasn’t dark anymore because he was there, and he was giving off light. He smiled at me; he seemed to be pleased with me. Then he took my hand in his hand, and he said to me,
“Nisma, my body was broken for you. By my wounds you are healed.”
But that was all before I woke up, and I was disappointed. I wished that the man would come back, or at least that I knew his name or something to call him, so before I fell asleep again I prayed to God that I would see him again. But that night, I didn’t.
I woke up a second time to Sara crying. It was morning, and my mother came in to tell me to get ready for work. I got up and washed my face and put my hair up and put on my sandals. Na’im was sitting at the table and having his bread and beans. My mother gave me my bread and beans and hurried me off to the factory.
As the day went on, I nearly forgot about my dream, but at night I remembered it again and I hoped that I would have another one like it, but I didn’t that night, nor the next night. But on the third night, I dreamed that I was sitting in my room and crying because Na’im had hit me. And the same man came in to my room and he comforted me. He held me in his arms and he told me that no matter what anyone else thought of me, he loved me dearly. I told him that I loved him, too, then I asked him who he was. He said he was Isa. Then he took Sara’s hand—in my dream she was sleeping next to me. He brought her to her feet and she could walk.
When I woke up from that dream I was surprised. The man in my dream was Isa, the prophet. I didn’t know much about religion, since I had not been to Qur’an school, but I knew that Isa was a prophet to the Jews and that the Christians worshipped him and thought he was God, or one of three gods, or something like that. I thought that Galila might know about religion, so on my day off—Friday—I told my mother that I was going to Galila’s house and I got on the bus, which was so crowded I had to stand near the front and the driver wasn’t very good so I nearly fell a few times.
I walked up the stairs to Galila’s apartment, which was lovely. I loved Galila too much to be jealous of her, and I was happy for her that she had such a beautiful house. I knocked on the door, and Galila answered—as though she was expecting me—and she threw her arms around me and kissed me on either cheek the way good friends did.
“Nisma! I haven’t seen you in over a week!”
“I’ve been saving up to ride the bus,” I explained, humbly looking at the ground when I caught sight of Galila’s family at the lunch table. “Are you eating?” I asked. I was hungry, and my stomach ached for something more than bread and beans. I could smell the meat and vegetables and rice that Galila’s family was eating.
“Yes,” Galila nodded. “Come eat with us.”
I sat down at the table, too shy to look at anyone but Galila.
“How are you, Nisma?” Galila’s mother asked me.
“Alhamdulillah,” I replied softly.
“Is your family well?”
“Yes, subhan allah.”
Galila’s mother served me on a porcelain plate, and I ate quickly and hungrily. I was so overjoyed with my lunch that I nearly forgot about my question. I looked at Galila and asked her,
“Your brother knows a lot about religion?”
She nodded, then looked at Atallah, who was sitting next to her. I was too scared to look at him. As far as I was concerned he was a very bad man, but I hoped that he could at least be useful to me.
“What do you know,” I asked him, “about Isa al-Masih?”
Atallah took at minute to finish chewing his food, then answered, “Why?”
“Oh…I…” Suddenly I felt embarrassed. I wasn’t going to admit that it was all because of a silly dream, so I lied, “I heard about him on the Islamic radio station.”
“Well, he was the last prophet before Muhammad (peace be upon him). He came to the Jews and he gave them the injeel that was revealed to him—”
“What’s an injeel?”
“It’s the holy book that was revealed to Isa (peace be upon him),” he sounded impatient having to explain things to me. “But it was corrupted and changed by the Christians, so we no longer have it. That is why God revealed us the Quran, the revelation to surpass all other revelations so that—”
“Tell me more about Isa al-Masih,” I interrupted him, rudely. “What did he do?”
“Well, he did miracles.”
“Like what kind of miracles?”
“Like healing the sick.”
“Really?” When he said that my eyes went wide with wonder, because I remembered the part in my dream when Isa had lifted Sara to her feet and she could walk.
“And why didn’t Muhammad heal the sick? Couldn’t he have done it, too?”
“Of course he could have done it, but that’s not why Muhammad (peace be upon him) came. He came to reveal the Qur’an, the divine revelation from God.”
I was a little confused. Muhammad was the last and greatest prophet, they said. If Isa healed the sick, I believed Muhammad ought to have, too.
I learned little from talking to Atallah, and I think he seemed nervous of my questions. He kept asking me why I wanted to know about Isa all of a sudden, but I couldn’t answer him. He asked me if Christians had been talking to me, and I said no. He warned me not to listen to them because they spread lies about God, he said. He told me that they joined partners with God—whatever that meant—and that the Qur’an said that that was the only sin that God would never forgive, the sin of shirk.
I was sad that night when I was eating my bread and beans with my mother and stepfather and my sister, and I didn’t know why. I tried to remember everything Isa had said to me in my dreams, and I remembered him telling me that by his wounds I was healed and that he loved me. What wounds? I wondered. If only I had remembered to ask Atallah about that. I couldn’t go back and ask him again.
But that night I had my third dream, and in it I was sitting at the table in our little receiving room but I was all alone. Isa appeared to me again and said to me,
He held me in his hands and I looked at them for the first time, and there were holes in them.
“What do the holes mean?” I asked him.
“My body was broken for you,” he said. “And by my wounds you are healed. I am the light of the world; if you follow me, you will never live in darkness ever again.”
Then I woke up, and I knew. I knew that there was something that Atallah had not told me about Isa, because a prophet, a mere man, could not speak the way he spoke, calling himself the light of the world and claiming to be able to heal me with his wounds—the suffering that had somehow driven holes through his hands. He talked about himself as though he was something much greater than a prophet. Even prophets were weak men in their natural selves and made mistakes, but I could not fathom in all my wildest imagination the Isa I had met in my dreams being capable of making a mistake.
I was walking home from the factory the next night—very late, perhaps after ten—and I was afraid. I did not like the darkness, but I remembered Isa’s words, “If you follow me, you will never live in darkness ever again.” So I prayed to him. It seemed the most natural thing to do, even though I knew it was wrong to pray to anyone other than God. I couldn’t help myself. “Isa, protect me,” I whispered allowed.
Just then I saw a man in the shadows, reading a newspaper. He turned and looked at me. Had he heard me speak? I was afraid of him, but as I drew closer I pressed my lips together and walked quickly, and I passed. He did not follow me. Perhaps I was just paranoid.
The next day at the factory I saw a man who I thought was a Christian because his name was the English name Josef, and I told him that I had prayed to Isa the night before and I didn’t know why I had done it, but it felt like the right thing to do. Josef told me he would give me his tape player and his tapes of the injeel, because it was the story of Isa. I asked him if it was true that the injeel had been changed, and he said it hadn’t. I told him that Atallah said it was, but all he said was that all Muslims believed that because the Qur’an said the injeel was from God, but because there were parts in it that didn’t agree with the Qur’an, they said it had been changed.
I was very eager to listen to Josef’s tapes, and I took them home the next night and hid them under my bed. When I listened to them in the middle of the night when no one would hear them, I felt that I was listening to the story of someone I already knew, and I began to realize that I was right in what I had thought—Isa was a man who was more than a man.
As time went on I became more and more in love with Isa, and it seemed a mystery to fall in love with someone you had never seen before. But, strange or not, all I knew was that he made me feel safe and protected, and that was something I could never in my life remember having felt.
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