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from the March 2020 issue

Razor Blade Rattle and the Beginnings of Being Tamed

Content warning: this piece contains descriptions of female circumcision that may be upsetting.


Writer Ishraga Mustafa recounts her experience of genital mutilation in this excerpt from her autobiography.


Things didn’t stay as the toy boats of my childhood would have wished; unrestrained and free, I used to play with the boys in the street . . . the skies would open and pour down, and we would amuse ourselves to the hilt. The taming began the day I heard them, the women, saying, “The girls have grown, now’s the time for tuhur.”

“Joy tonight, sorrow tomorrow!” the neighbor’s daughter, older than me, sang with a rattle in her throat. I didn’t know what she meant until later: the terrifying leap from the delights that preceded the taming to the slaughter of a child’s innocent happiness.

It was the beginning of a winter that ended with the recitation of loss and absences.

There wasn’t much time left before I would start school. Happily, I would follow the path toward the building, searching, eagerly anticipating my learning.

My younger sister and I were beside ourselves when we were placed at the heart of the celebration; we were the center of the universe. Girls circumcised before us knew that our joy would be followed by the slaughtering of our sparrows, a day drowned in a waterfall of questions, questions about being itself.

How could my grandmother, how could my Mama Halima celebrate my pain?

How could my mothers and aunts welcome the smell of my childhood blood?

How did Riya, my grandmother, do it? Didn’t my habuba hear the mole on her nose sobbing, whispering to her, “This cluster of grapes that you’ve snipped from her childhood vine isn’t that much different from me: the miserable mole on your nose that looks like a kite’s beak!”

How could they, when these women themselves had been through so much pain—or had they grown to savor it?

Habuba’s voice scolded us. Grandmothers had always been like this, showering affection and opening doors of mercy while forcing open young girls’ thighs for the woman with the metal case, inside which different scalpels were lined up, ready to sever us from our human dreams of passion and ardor. The grandmother whose face was unfamiliar to me now. She who recounted the tales and legends of ghouls, how could she herself allow the biggest ghoul of all to butcher the gateway to my fertility while the rain drowned out the women’s calls for it?

The sound of the drums grew louder. I heard my little sister’s stifled scream. Before my legs could find steady footing in the wind, I was grabbed and brought back to a bed covered with a plastic sheet. There were scissors boiling in water atop the stove, its live coals glowing. The injection was prepared and five women assembled to witness the slaughter.

The razor blade rattled, the scalpel itching to be plunged into my tender flesh. “Everything goes! This is a filthy lalob right here!” the woman doing the deed snarled.

How the taste of the lalob fruit no longer enchanted me, and I haven’t stepped near it since that day. The anesthetic coursed through my small body, and I tried to lift my head to see what this woman was doing, but another clasping my left hand berated me, telling me to shut my eyes and not ask so many questions. I could hear the beat of the drum rising outside, the neighborhood girls and other women trilling the more the midwife dug into my flesh. I figured out the meaning of the words the neighbor’s daughter had sung softly, her voice scratchy, like a sob: “Joy tonight, sorrow tomorrow.” I was terrified. In my mind a dove was being butchered at that very moment; would I suffer the same fate? The celebration, the new dresses, and the affection from my family members—it was all in anticipation of the slaughtered dove, its feathers wet, cooing tearfully.

After I was jabbed once more with the anesthetic, the neighbor’s daughter’s voice came to me softly until it vanished with the partial cutting of my clitoris, labia majora, and minora. I then saw the midwife prepare a needle to stitch up where she had cut me. I saw her cut my tender, moist bougainvillea. She smiled as she pushed my head back down; I struggled to see what they were doing to me.

I remembered my father and called out to him. The woman pulling on my right leg said there were no men here. Not my father, not my grandfather, not even my younger brother—the twin of my little sister who was yelling out in pain. There were only women. I didn’t see my father till the next day.

In the evening, everyone was cheerful and the attention paid to my sister and me grew even more. Special dishes of pigeon soup and meat broth were served. Against the side wall, the head of a sheep lay still, the lot of the midwife—this important woman whom everyone heeded left laden with gifts of candy, sugar, tea, pastries, and the head of the poor sheep that had been a witness to the pain before departing from this world.

The time had come for our trip to the Al-Sira sea. A Babu Rjila bus and a taxi came for us . . . us, the circumcised girls.

I asked Mama Halima about that unripened date, the balaha cut from my body, and where they would bury it. I saw it lying sad and pink next to the sink. I breathed into it a great moan of pain and it soon became pregnant with the fruit of that pain, fresh fruit that grew into palm trees that would accompany me in the days to come.

And still, the grandmothers were considered kind folk, bringing pitchers of water for their men’s ablutions.

At night, the oozing started, the scorpions that they hadn’t tamed twitched, waking me. With my small hand, I touched the wound; tightly wound threads taming our sparrows that stopped chirping that night.

The smell of henna that had filled my childhood with delight mixed with the smell of my blood. My pain and screams echoed in the songs of Al-Sira, the white sea. The shrine of one of God’s pious men that lay on the banks of the White Nile remains a witness to my tears and the groans of the two other girls. Once they released us, a spark had been snuffed out within us, but in my mind, a hundred lanterns had been lit.

As we sat under the lalob tree, each of us touched the throbbing pain of the slaughtered dove between her two slender thighs.

Later I came to know that my father had been against circumcision. My grandmothers had told him that it was a women’s issue and that he should keep his nose out of it. To my father’s credit, he insisted that the circumcision should happen the less intrusive way, as supposedly suggested by the Prophet, if it was necessary at all. They obeyed him—only to revisit the entire procedure years later when they thought the midwife hadn’t pulled out the shrub by its roots. Our neighbor swore that she had heard us loudly urinating, sounding like those who hadn’t been circumcised. The satanic plant should have been pulled out from its roots. Had they not been scared of how my father would react, they would have cut off everything, breaking us in completely.

At twelve years old, I was overjoyed at the birds budding on my chest. I would stare at them in admiration, tenderly, in our small mirror. I celebrated my two bougainvillea buds, but the world besieged me until my breasts became firm doum palm fruits that only belonged to fear that I bucked against.

I rejoiced in my first drops of blood, so much so that I would smell it; like fresh rain on wheat, like drizzle and dew on a lemon tree. My mother didn’t breathe a word to me about puberty, but one of my grandmothers, Mama Halima, would always nettle me, curious, “Have you started menstruating yet?”

The day it happened, it was a crescent moon in all its beauty. It then grew round, widening out, only to narrow again when I was hit with stomach cramps. I’d eagerly anticipate this moment every twenty-eight days. It had drawn a map on the dress of the girl who sat next to me in fifth grade. She had covered herself up, embarrassed, while some other girls pointed at her in incomprehension. Those girls must not yet have encountered the tenderness of that bleeding.

The day I got my period, my other grandmother tied together palm fronds from a stripped palm branch, with Quranic verses and black cumin nested within to protect me from the evil eye. Black was to become my identity and that of every female ritual to come.

I remember well how I welcomed my breasts. On my way to school and my way home, I would dance with them. One day my father saw me and gave me a beating. I should walk in such a way as to not call attention to them, he said, not jiggle my chest as I had been.

But from that day on, I have adopted a proud, towering, dancing gait, a celebration of life . . .


© Ishraga Mustafa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.

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