Seven Billion Cities
By Alyssa Loughery
The day begins with the infinite canvas of red and orange, the everlasting molasses in the sky. The color of mangoes hang above seven billion heads as the sun rises for the day.
Nuzar Buqri has seen her own sunrise, found in blaring alarms and black coffee. She reads the newspaper at the counter of Buqri General, waiting for the world to wake up and come in her store.
Nuzar’s seen people of all shapes, colors, sizes, everything. Not many have seen her, though. The dark woman’s head can be found buried in a newspaper or glued to a TV screen, with the news always turned on. She seldom can be caught with a magazine in her hands, but only if it featured an interview with a famous journalist. Customers come and go throughout the day but the only thing Nuzar notices is the turn of the page and, of course, the beep of the register.
She looks up and the dark skies left over from last night are gone, the heavens now lit up in a bright azure. The clock next to the register says 8 am and in fourteen minutes her sister will stomp down the hardwood steps leading from their apartment to the store.
“Good morning, Beela,” Nuzar says calmly, taking a sip of her hot coffee.
Abeela replies with a mumble or a groan or maybe a croak, but, to Nuzar, they all mean ‘good morning to you too.’
The sisters are right on schedule. Nuzar grabs her purse and leaves the store with Abeela. On the way out, a note tucked into the glass door peeks out of its hiding place and Nuzar takes it.
It reads “GO BACK TO IRAN” and other obscenities scribbled on a piece of notebook paper. Another uneducated bigot who thought every Muslim came from Iran. She shoves it into her brown leather bag, hopeful that Abeela it.
“What was that?” The question her sister asks fills her with dread.
“Are you sure? Was it from our boss?”
“We don’t have a boss, Abeela. We run our own business.”
“Then who’s that guy who we give money to every month? With the key to our house?” The little girl quickly went off topic, and Nuzar was glad she didn’t have to find an excuse as to what the letter was.
“No, that’s our landlord. He’s a man who owns our house and we pay him rent for it.”
That’s another thing she admired of Abeela, how she absorbs new information so easily. Nuzar may be a smart woman, but she didn’t start that way. A youth of ignorance leads to her somewhat educated self today. But Abeela has always been very bright, with a seemingly photographic memory. Once, she calculated a customer’s total in her head.
However, this is also another of Nuzar’s myriad of anxieties. What if she lets something slip? What if she doesn’t notice notes placed in the front door? She couldn’t do that to Abeela. She wouldn’t let her sister’s identity be reduced to a piece of loose-leaf. Those misguided words will stay in her bright mind forever. Even if she doesn’t have a photographic memory.
They make it to the metro stop, and Beela has finally woken up. Her slouch has retired itself until the next morning and she’s alert, waiting confidently for the train.
“How do they work?”
“What?” Her question broke Nuzar’s contemplative silence, but she didn’t mind. Her questions were always fun to answer.
“The train. How does it go? Who makes it move?”
The older sister laughed to herself, imagining the subway being pulled by a couple of minimum wage workers.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, nothing. The train was made in the industrial revolution, but it looked very different than our modern trains. They weren’t underground or inside a station, they were outside so that way the coal fumes could be easily ventilated. They’re pulled along on tracks.”
“Why are they trapped down here?” Her imagination amused her, thinking of stations as a sort of prison where they keep trains contained on the tracks.
The aforementioned train interrupted their conversation, and Nuzar gave her little sister a kiss goodbye.
“Pay attention in school today. Have fun!” She knew she didn’t have to tell her to pay attention, but it was part of their morning routine. The small girl boarded the metal car, too occupied in her thoughts to notice what her sister had said. This was a key part of their routine as well.
Nuzar waited for its daily departure and began to walk home. She got the usual stares but remained unfazed. Her hijab has been a constant barrier in her life since she was 13, therefore onlookers have been a part of her public persona for the past eight years. She remembers that day like any other, Aunt Qirat teaching her how to pin her hijab. She recalls Beela begged for her own headscarf. She was only three, and the picture of her was lying on Nuzar’s dresser. It was one of their aunt’s t-shirts, but Beela looked adorable. It was a fun day,one that Nuzar remembers fondly.
The reminiscence was interrupted by an interjected slur, another microaggression that comes with living in America.
In the New York crowds, it’s hard to determine who said what in the street, the perfect platform for the anonymous cowards hiding behind the singularity.
It is easily forgotten, and Nuzar goes about her day. Returning to the store, she sits back in her swivel chair behind the counter and turns on the small box TV.
BBC News is switched on as usual, but the headline for today makes Nuzar wish it wasn’t.
“PAKISTANI CITY SAMBRIAL BOMBED AS TENSIONS BETWEEN INDIA ARISE”
It was easy to miss – hidden away in the bottom bar where only titles fly across. Newscasters didn’t think the story was important enough for a speaker, or to even interrupt their current tell-all with a mother begging young girls to stop wearing leggings.
Sambrial. A city of Pakistan that is easily overlooked. It has no landmarks, and no notable history. The Western world doesn’t know of its grey skies and busy markets. Nuzar has seen every dirt path, old park, creaky store, and kind-eyed person that her city had given her.
But where were they now?
Her beating heart didn’t cease as she began to run through every person in that city. Mama, Baba, Teeta, Jeddi, Cousin Aasim and his son Baqar, Auntie Rumeha and Uncle Khazi. The shop owners, shoe shiners, taxi drivers, pedestrians, everyone. Everyone. Gone.
The phone rang.
Nuzar picked it up and said nothing, only listening to the red plastic receiver tied to the cord.
“Hello?! Is this Nuzar Buqri?” said the man with the thick accent. He sounded afraid.
“Yes, Baba. I just heard the news. Please, what happened?”
“Our house is down to rubble. We can’t find baby Tariq. His mother has been searching for days.” Nuzar had known the small boy in pictures, he had the same dark shade as her, and Abeela says they look just like each other. He’s only two years younger than her sister.
“Farha was in a restaurant when it collapsed, doctors are saying she’s lucky to be alive. There is only so much they can do here, Habibi. They couldn’t save her legs.” The nickname that usually makes Nuzar smile is easily forgotten when she hears the news of her best friend from childhood. They used to hide from soldiers together.
Her father lists the many losses that the war had given them. Each name made Nuzar gag. They were all once so happy.
She sat in her black chair, frozen. The tall woman didn’t know what to do. So she asked.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“I want you and Abeela to come home.”
“Are you serious?!”
“I want my daughters to meet their family before there is no family to meet. Pictures and status updates on Facebook aren’t enough. Please. At least stay for the memorial service.”
Nuzar thought about Farha and Tariq, and her heart ached for her home. She knew the consequences. She knew what would happen if Abeela saw Pakistan in its current state.
“Alright. I’ll let Beela know when she gets out of school. We’ll call you later.”
“Okay. Goodbye.” She missed her home.
The afternoon rolled around and Abeela had chimed herself into the store. The bell rang. The older sister didn’t seem happy to see that Abbela was home from school.
“I need to tell you something,” said Nuzar in a worrying tone.
“Do you remember the name of the country I told you we were from?”
“Yes, it’s Pakistan, right?”
There was that bright mind of hers. She doesn’t forget anything, does she?
“Yes, that’s right. We’re going to visit.”
The 11-year old’s smile went from ear to ear. She had wanted to meet her family, say hello to her culture, and be welcomed back to her city for so long. Nuzar could only wonder what it felt like to love a city that gave her such bad memories. Now her sister can make her own.
“Really? For real? Are you serious? I can’t wait! Oh my gosh, I have to tell cousin Farha! And Sadaf! Oh, do you think they know yet? I wanna surprise them!”
“What?” She knew something was wrong by the unusual sternness in her voice.
“It’s not – happy. We aren’t going for a family reunion. Do you know about the war? The one that makes me upset and stay up at night?”
“Yes, between Pakistan and India. It’s why we can’t go visit.”
“That’s right. We’re going because there’s been an attack. India has bombed our city. They bombed Sambrial, and a lot of people we know got hurt. Mama and Baba want us to meet our family before the next attack is even worse. I’m sorry Abeela, I didn’t want this life for you. I didn’t want you to grow up like I did, hiding away from big scary soldiers, hearing gunshots while you try to sleep at night. You’re only a little girl. You don’t deserve this. If it’s not you growing up with a warzone in your backyard, it’s people filled with hate and spitting it out at you. I’d give anything to make you happy. Even if it meant only me having to go through all of this pain.”
Nuzar hid behind her headscarf, hiding her tears so her sister wouldn’t see her cry.
Abeela hugged her big sister, even though she could only reach her mid-stomach. Nuzar didn’t notice, she felt her warmth all over.
“That’s why we’re sisters. We face the world together. Even if it means we have to go through bad things. We do it together.”
Nuzar was so, so proud of her little Beela. How did she get so lucky?
“I know that people are hateful. Girls at my school say that you’d be much prettier without that cloth on your head, but I tell them you’re already pretty. They don’t believe me. All the boys tell me that I should color my skin with white-out to make it lighter, but I don’t listen. My teachers blame me for what they say because they tell me I’m provoking the other kids. I know you tried to stop discrimination from reaching me, but it already has. And that’s okay.
It’s okay because I know that they don’t matter. The girls in my class are just jealous that they all look the same. They’re afraid of people who stand out in crowds. Boys tell me to whiten my skin only because someone who isn’t as pale as they are is terrifying. People are afraid of different. So why should I fear them? I am proud of my culture. I’m proud of you. No one can take that away from me.”
Nuzar had lived in fear for so long, afraid that Abeela might find the real world one day.
She had been so busy looking out for her little sister, hiding notes, distracting her from bad news and horrible people to see the brave and confident little girl that Nuzar never was.
“I’m so proud of you.”
“Me too.” It was the first time Abeela said it back.
Their last night in New York was spent in the living room, the two sisters made pillow forts and told stories of fictional princesses and train conductors. They didn’t stay up late. There were planes to be caught in the morning.
Alyssa Loughery is a senior at FTCHS, and likes to write poetry as well as short stories. She also likes to learn new things, like ASL, and lives with her dog, brother, and aunt in Philadelphia, PA. Her friends call her the “astrology expert.”