The first of the four sacred months.
Fast on the ninth and the tenth.
And remember Allah always.
In the golden horizon, a sliver of the silver crescent slips below the sand dunes. A blush red and coral caresses the faint twinkling of twilight’s stars that scatter across the indigo-orange sky. The whispering winds carry a single cry far across the darkening 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 pen 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. Ma sha Allah! 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 il Allah!”
Shahira closes her books, muttering the dua after hearing the azhan.
“Your handwriting is perfect!” Shahira takes the large paper in her hands. “Better than mine! Ma sha Allah!”
“It’s not that great,” Amira mutters. “Ustazah Maisarah’s script is flawless, ma sha Allah. 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 use the gold paint Abi brought for us last month.”
“Speaking of months,” Amira huffs. “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 pulls herself upright. “Well, let’s go see if I can get five raka’at in.”
Shahira takes her friend’s hand. “In sha Allah.”
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 enclosed latrines nearby.
“I feel horrible.” Her friend clambers out, holding her lower abdomen. “How fortunate I get to pray Maghrib with these cramps.”
Amira sits down on the low bench and washes her hands. Shahira adjusts her dark blue hijab around her face.
“I’ll put out the prayer mat for you,” she says.
Amira waves a hand for her to go. Shahira nods and hurries toward the women’s salaah rooms. Most of the palace women are here, stepping into neat rows or placing down mats, while others pray, or leave the rooms.
Shahira grabs two mats from the shelves that line 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.
Amira shakes her head, the tassels on her hijab sways with her. “New crescent,” she says.
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 flicks 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 them to be paying a daughter-lost family—they have nothing to gain save a favor with your father, I suppose.”
“Abi tells them to do it out of kindness for the family.” Shahira stands and folds away her prayer mat. “He’s not granting anyone favors for it.”
“Allah knows why they want this thing to continue.” Amira adjusts her hijab around her sullen, round face. “Anyway, let’s see what they’re making for dinner tonight. I need something sweet to keep my mind off these cramps.”
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 hugs her square jaw. She is no older than Shahira, yet her small stature betrays no fear.
“Yes,” she replies. “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.”
The Sultan raises a hand, turning to the girl called Laiba.
“Are you the one chosen?” he asks.
“Yes.” The girl lifts 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 Sultan like that!” the councilor snaps. “Guards! Take her to the—”
“Let her speak!” the Sultan shouts above the voices. “She has a right to be heard.”
“As Sultan, you could have stopped this, but you haven’t.” Laiba steps forward, eyeing the older man in white. “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 around 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, but she remains hidden under the shadow of a stone pillar. Shahira gapes in response to the girl’s words. Truth verbally assaults her father.
The Sultan nods. “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 points 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!”
The Sultan gives a sigh, loud enough for the girl to hear. “May Allah forgive all of us.” His head hangs as he walks away from the courtyard. “Leave her be.”
The guards stiffen and return to their posts. The councilor grimaces and follows the Sultan.
“No girl will ever do this willingly!” Laiba cries to their backs. “I will make certain of it!”
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, some tailing the girl and voicing their thoughts to her.
Amira turns to look back to her friend, whose eyes are wide. “She speaks the truth, you know.” She steps 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 said he’s not taking part in any of it, remember?” Shahira says.
“And if there’s rebellion like the one before our births? And 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.”
The scent of curried meats, buttered flatbreads, and glazed sweets waft from the kitchens. The women, all relatives of the council members and the palace guards, choose to work for the Sultan in exchange for nearby free housing and pay. The only talk in the kitchens, as the two girls enter, is of the girl who refused the sacrifice and her blatant disrespect.
“The audacity!” One of the women pounds a ball of dough. “Has she no shame, no humility to speak like that? And to the Sultan no less!”
“One would think she was possessed by Shaitan himself!” another adds.
“I know the girl’s mother,” an older woman says. “She’s lost all five of her daughters in the last three years in sacrifice. The only son she has works with her husband in the city as a butcher.”
“They might lose their jobs once word gets out about that girl,” a woman grumbles.
“Asalaamu’alaikum, aunties,” both Shahira and Amira greet.
The women mumble their greetings back.
Amira reaches for a pistachio halwa and stuffs it into her mouth. “MashaAllah, it’s so good!”
She takes a few more off the plate and hurries away to a corner of the kitchen, plops down on a low stool, and devours the rest.
“Have some, Shahira.” One woman gestures to the plate of desserts.
Shahira smiles. “Jazaakillah.” She takes a large cube off the plate and joins Amira.
“Anything for us to work on, aunties?” Amira licks her fingers. “Though it looks like most of it is done.”
A few of the women chuckle.
“Leftovers are always a blessing,” one auntie says.
“But don’t you dare serve it to the men!” another adds.
A chorus of laughter erupts from the other women.
“We’re preparing for the new year’s feast,” one says. “Like every year, we’re expecting dozens of guests for iftar—people will be praying and fasting all day and will be greeted to our Sultan’s finest foods.”
“The year has gone by so fast!” another woman adds. “I remember when I first came here—I was no older than you girls.”
“But you don’t know what Hijri year it’ll be,” another woman says.
“Of course, I do!” the other woman replies. “It’ll be one thousand and one years since our Nabi Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam traveled from Makkah to Madinah!”
“After she asked her husband!” cries another woman.
The rest of the women chortle.
Shahira looks at Amira, who shrugs and glances at the doorway.
“Asalaamu’alaikum, Great Aunt,” both Shahira and Amira greet the woman who walks in.
“Wa Alaikum Salaam, my heartlings.” The older woman smiles at them before turning to the rest of the kitchen staff. “What’s all this hooting I hear across the halls?”
The women stop laughing and mutter their greetings to the older woman, others apologize for their loudness. She gives them a frown in response. Her sandblasted face is taut with a few deep wrinkles and her ivory hijab hides her thick, silver braid bound in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. Great Aunt Halima is the Sultan’s only aunt—the oldest person Shahira knows, yet despite her years her great-aunt continues to manage the entire palace.
“We have an hour before it’s Isha,” she states. “The men will return to the dining hall for dinner. Enough talk—get the food ready, ladies.”
“What can we do, Great Aunt?” Amira asks.
“Nothing here,” the older woman answers. “Follow me. I want to show you both something.”
The two of them say their farewells to the kitchen staff and tail the older woman. Her thick, opal tasbih clicks in her hand as she treads down the hall.
“I saw the new crescent before they called that girl’s name,” Great Aunt Halima says with a sigh. “It’ll be another year, yet we still make the same mistakes.”
“Why can’t the Sultan end the ritual?” Amira asks.
“You can’t end something you have no control over,” Halima says. “And you know Zaad has nothing to do with the ritual, child. I’ve told you girls that years ago.”
“But Laiba refuses, so doesn’t that mean a drought for us?”
“Yes,” Halima says. “But that is no man’s fault.”
“Then whose is it, Great Aunt?” Amira presses.
“I do not know for certain, heartling,” Halima says. “Perhaps it’s the work of certain jinn—those that have aligned with Shaitan.”
“If it’s true, then why hasn’t a maulana or someone exorcised them from our kingdom?”
“They try every year,” Halima says. “And every year we lose twelve daughters to keep the drought away.”
She beckons the girls to enter a room lit with three flickering lamps. Thick, woven carpets silence their steps inside. The older woman shuts the door behind them and sits down near a corner.
“Allahu akbar.” Halima pats the carpeted space in front of her. “Come, heartlings.”
The girls sit near the woman and watch her throw back a padded mat, revealing a wooden chest with an iron lock. She pulls out a key from around her neck and opens the chest. Layers of silken fabric and faceted jewelry catch their eyes. Halima pulls out a gown of red silk and gold thread-work.
“This was your mother’s, Shahira.” She places the dress in her lap. “After she left us, I kept this for you when your day comes.”
“Ammi’s wedding dress?” Shahira whispers.
“Yes, heartling.” She takes out another dark red, velvet gown with golden bead-work around the cuffs and hemline, and a pleated waistline. “And this was mine.”
She places it in Amira’s hands. “I want you to have it, heartling.”
Amira gapes at the older woman. “No, auntie. I can’t.”
Halima waves her hand. “Heartling, I don’t need it, so it’s now yours.”
“But why?” Amira asks. “Why are you giving us these dresses? We cannot wed until we are twenty-five.”
Halima purses her lips, her brows knotting. “I know. If they didn’t raise the age limit three years ago, both of you could have had your nikaah this year and we wouldn’t have to worry about your names being called in that lottery.”
Shahira and Amira exchange glances before looking down at the gowns in their hands.
“Every day I pray your names are never called and that I get to see your children someday.” Halima sighs. “Every year that passes is a year I anticipate and fear. Ya, Allah, help us!”
Shahira fingers the red silk gown. “Tell me about Ammi, auntie.”
“I told you everything,” Halima says. “What more can I say that I haven’t already?”
“When Ammi got this dress.”
“A desert girl no older than you are now dreamed of marrying and starting a family. Back then the age limit was eighteen, so she and her mother came to the palace to remove her name from the lottery. The moment I saw her I asked her to be my nephew’s wife. She accepted and the nikaah was held the next day. You remember from last time I told you, it was a small and simple occasion. No more than the fingers on your hands were present. And that dress was a gift from your father, handwoven and embroidered by my little sister—your grandmother.”
Halima pulls herself up. “All right, heartlings. Go put the dresses away,” she says. “We have a new year’s day to plan.”