In the golden horizon, the sliver of the silver crescent slips below the sand dunes, her secret smile veiled. A blush red and coral caresses the faint twinkling of twilight’s stars scattering across the indigo sky. The whispering winds carry a single cry far across the desert.
“Allahu akbar Allahu akbar!”
Shahira glances up from her kitab to the wide arched windows of her father’s library before placing the inked qalam she’s been holding down on her low wooden desk. She closes her eyes and listens to the prayer call as it reached into the coming darkness.
Shahira turns to see Amira placing down a large sheaf of ivory paper on her desk.
Shahira nods in response, smiling at the dark loops and curves that spelled the names of the Sahabah. MashaAllah! Her script is impeccable! She looks up to see her friend flopping down on the low divan near a massive bookcase filled with thick, gold and green spines. Amira grabs a cushion near her head and holds it to her abdomen, breathing aloud.
The two listen in silence to the prayer call until its end, the syllables stretching into the coming night.
“La ilaha ill-Allah!”
Shahira closes her books, muttering the dua after hearing the azhan.
“Your handwriting is perfect!” Shahira says, taking the large paper in her hands. “Better than mine! MashaAllah!”
“It’s not that great,” Amira mutters, squeezing her eyes shut. “Ustazah Maisarah’s script is flawless, mashaAllah. She never has to ink her qalam twice.”
“I’m going to frame this in our rooms, anyway.” Shahira holds up the paper. “And I’ll even use the gold paint Abi brought for us last month.”
“Speaking of months,” Amira breathes. “My lower abdomen aches with such ferocity that I might not pray tonight. Oh, how I envy your lack of pain and lengthened cycles, Shahira.”
“Don’t be,” Shahira replies. “At least you know before it happens. Mine comes as a surprise.”
“It’s not really a surprise if you’re expecting it any day, right?”
Shahira shrugs. “I guess not.”
Amira drops the cushion and pulled herself upright. “Well, let’s go see if I can get five raka’at in.”
Shahira takes her friend’s hand. “InshaAllah.”
As Shahira passes by the open courtyard, a gathering of people grows. She scans the skies. Is the new crescent visible tonight? She quickens her pace to the baths and cleanses herself in preparation for her prayers. She hears Amira groan in one of the closed latrines nearby.
“I feel horrible.” Her friend clambers out, holding her lower abdomen. “How fortunate I get to pray Maghrib with these terrible cramps.”
Amira sits down on the low bench and washes as Shahira adjusts her dark blue hijab around her face.
“I’ll put out the prayer mat for you.”
Amira waves a hand for her to go. Shahira nods and hurries toward the women’s prayer rooms. Most of the women are already here, stepping into neat rows or placing down mats, while others pray, or leave the rooms.
Shahira grabs two mats from the many on the shelves that lined the walls and places them down. She begins her twilight prayer when Amira comes and stands beside her and prays. As Shahira finishes her prayers and mutters dhikr, she eyes many of the women stuffing their prayer mats into the shelves and hurrying out of the rooms.
“New crescent,” Amira says, shaking her head.
Shahira glances at her friend, who frowns at the passing women.
“You’d think they’d actually pray to end this stupid ritual.” She stands, folds her prayer mat, and places it on a shelf. “But they’re probably the ones who live for it.”
“Some of their daughters were chosen,” Shahira says. “Why would they want it to continue?”
“Maybe they receive some compensation,” Amira replies, flicking one of the mat’s tassels. “But your father doesn’t have the coffers for it, so it’s probably one of the wealthy city merchants. But then it doesn’t make sense for him to be paying a daughter-lost family—he’s got nothing to gain save a favor with your father, I suppose.”
Shahira shakes her head, stands, and folds away her prayer mat. “Abi tells them to do it out of kindness or leave the kingdom. He’s not granting anyone favors for it. That’s why Abi stopped calling out the names years ago.”
“You mean he stopped once your name was added four years ago.” Amira follows her friend out of the prayer rooms.
“For both of us,” Shahira says. “Not just me. Alhamdulillah, our names haven’t been picked in all this time.”
“For now,” Amira adds. “That doesn’t mean our names won’t be called. I pray I live another five years so my name is removed from that stupid lottery.”
“InshaAllah,” Shahira mutters.
Amira adjusts her hijab around her sullen, round face. “Let’s see what they’re making for dinner tonight before it’s Esha salaah. I want to eat something to keep my mind off these cramps.”
“All right,” Shahira replies. “Let’s go.”
The two shuffle their way through the halls, passing the open courtyard where more people have gathered. Voices buzz in the air as they hurry away before they are seen.
“Laiba! They chose Laiba!” Shahira hears someone shout from the crowd. “Bring the girl called Laiba!”
“No! I’m not going!” a girl cries. “I refuse to partake in Shaitan’s ploy!”
Amira stops and turns toward the crowd, her eyes wide. Shahira follows her gaze. The girl shouts at the palace guards that approach the mass. The people clear a path away from them.
“The councilor has chosen a girl called Laiba,” one of the large guards boom. “Are you Laiba?”
The girl’s face is unveiled, but she wears a black hijab that hugged her square jaw. She is no older than Shahira, yet her small stature betrays no fear. “Yes,” she replies, her eyes narrowing. “And I refuse to be a sacrifice.”
The guards exchange glances with one another, unsure of what to do. A sacrifice has never refused before.
“Bring her to the Sultan,” the councilor calls from behind the guards. “Let him deal with her.”
The guards move forward while the rest of the crowd disperses.
“No!” bellows a voice.
Amira nudges Shahira. “Your father’s here.”
Shahira turns to the other side of the courtyard. Her father is there, one hand clutching his white stone tasbih, his long ivory thobe hung looser around his stout frame. He doesn’t wear his official turban, but a plain, round white cap over his short, silvery hair. His eyes narrow at the guards and the councilor who cowers behind them.
“She must do this willingly,” the Sultan says. “That has always been the way.”
“But Your Royal—”
The Sultan raises a hand, turning to the girl called Laiba.
“Are you the one chosen?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies, lifting her chin. “And I will not offer myself to the river.”
The Sultan nods. “That is your decision.” He turns to the councilor. “If another name is chosen—”
He glances at the girl, Laiba. Her outburst draws several onlookers, some of whom are from the original crowd that gathered to hear the name of the new crescent’s sacrifice.
“No more of this blasphemous ritual!” the girl shouts. “You of all people should know that!”
“How dare you speak to your king like that!” the councilor snaps. “Guards! Take her to the prisoner’s tower.”
“Let her speak!” the Sultan cries. “She has a right to be heard.”
“As Sultan, you could have stopped this, but you haven’t.” Laiba steps forward. “And your own daughter hasn’t been chosen yet, but somehow every girl picked has never returned—sent to a fate only Allah knows!”
People hearing her gasp, their eyes darting from the Sultan to the guards.
Laiba clenches her fists, her body shaking in anger. “We submit to the will of Allah, but this is the work of Shaitan! We feed our girls to him in fear of what he might do if we refuse! But what of the greater consequences if we refuse Allah? That is what you are doing! By allowing this to happen! Stop and bring back our daughters! Bring back our sisters! Bring back the truth of our faith!”
Amira steps closer to the scene yet remains hidden under the shadow of a pillar. Shahira gapes in response to the girl’s words. Her father is verbally assaulted by the truth.
The Sultan nods, hanging his head. “It is true, but I cannot stop this. This is beyond my control. Only Allah can.”
“Lies!” the girl cries.
“That’s enough, girl!” the councilor barks, pointing a finger at the girl. “Seize her!”
“You all tread in Shaitan’s path,” the girl shrieks, “if you continue this sacrilege of a ritual! No prayers can save you from the wrath of Allah!”
“May Allah forgive all of us,” the Sultan says as he walks away from the courtyard. “Leave her be.”
The guards stiffen and return to their posts. The councilor grimaces, following them.
“No girl will ever do this willingly!” Laiba cries. “I will make certain of it!”
Then she turns and stomps away. The remaining loiters mutter amongst themselves as they, too, leave the confines of the palace courtyard towards the outer city.
Amira turns to look back at Shahira, whose eyes are wide. “She speaks the truth,” her friend says, stepping away from the shadows.
Shahira follows her through the halls into the kitchens. “But to do so in such a manner?”
“I suppose she thought that was the opportune time—seeing as how her own name was chosen. Perhaps she’s lost many sisters to this ritual.”
Shahira nods. “She’s right about this ritual. Allah would never ask this of us. We appease Shaitan by doing this. In the time of ignorance, baby girls were buried alive—this is no different.”
“Will you speak to your father about it?”
“Abi already said he’s not taking part in any of it, remember?” Shahira says.
“What if there’s rebellion? What if they blame your father? That he’s behind it all—that girls are being sent away for heinous purposes?”
“I suppose Abi hasn’t been transparent as they want him to be,” Shahira mutters. “I’ll tell him after dinner before he leaves for Isha salaah.”