Story-The Tricks Trauma Plays

The month after Mazen’s death passed numbly. The entire month felt confusing, groggy, hazy—like the minutes after a nap, but lasting for days on end. Each morning, Isra’ woke up with eyes red, no matter how long she slept. She woke up clinging to her pillow, her little sister clutching her hand tightly by her cheek. 

Each morning she woke up with a lump in her throat, a feeling of something left unchewed, stuck, choking. Under the warm water of the shower, Isra’ felt chills, her goosebumps refusing to go away even with scalding hot water. 

For more than thirty days, their house was practically silent. Whispers occasionally floated from the kitchen across the first floor. A faint voice calling to all, yet answered by none. It was her mother’s voice, soft and steady. Her monotonous prayer of “My Lord, bring tranquility to my heart and give me ease in my affairs” was the only soundtrack to the long, cold days. 

Isra’ knew her mother always chose prayer when confronted with tears. In a choice between tears and prayer, prayer could care for more people and soothe more hearts. This time, this month, Isra’ would notice her mother’s recitations choked off, stopped in their tracks by tears too powerful and urgent. Her mother would sniffle, audible from throughout the house, and pick up where she left off. 

Whatever spiritual force of will Isra’s mother had that month felt both remarkable and impossible to the rest of the family. No one else could do that. Only their mother. Only Mama could cope in that way. Only she could alchemize pain to comfort her children in time of need. 

How Isra’ needed her mother! How Isra’ needed the safety found only in her mother’s cradling arms—the smothering and miraculous embrace that, until the past year, had been able to soothe any wound, any heartache, any fear. For Isra’, the arms of her mother were how she understood the loving embrace of God. To Isra’, her times of prayer were times of the same feeling—of things being all right, in spite of all else. An embrace that calmed all anxiety, even if just for a moment.

It was not just Isra’. Everyone in the family needed their mother that month. They all were terrified. Of what exactly, they did not know. They could not say. The incident was over. The terror was over. The terror had not wanted them, per se, just one they loved. Their dear uncle. 

As badly as they all needed their mother that month, she was somehow inaccessible other than via her prayers. The best she could do for her children was that embrace through whisper, and a quiet offering of peace through recitations while she toiled in the kitchen preparing whatever she could find. This pain was more than her; this was a task only for her Creator, her prayers, and her cooking.

Isra’ said no more than a handful of words each day for that entire month. While she could not summon the energy to speak, she equally detested being alone. Time alone was filled with terror, a terror invisible to others but pervasive. It was her mind. Her thoughts. Sensations of cold and trembling that would overcome her in moments alone. 

It started one morning when she was left by herself in the living room, in the same spot where she had been sitting when they broke in and took her uncle. Her brother had been there with her, silent, on his phone, distracting himself from any number of feelings and conversations so desperately needed, but too overwhelming to allow space for. After a period of time unfelt, unknown, Ahmad got up and left, sneaking through the kitchen to the back patio and garden. 

That morning, the light was shining through the small crack in the shades—shades which were left tightly drawn most of the time now, like most of the houses in the neighborhood. Innocently, Isra’ followed the beam of light with her eyes until its end, until the middle of the rehinged door where their nightmare began. 

In an instant, she froze again. She could smell smoke. 

Where is that coming from? 

The smell of gunpowder. 

Ya illahi…

She saw with her open eyes the outline of her brother on the floor. The pool of blood that she thought her mother had scrubbed out. They had never scrubbed so hard. 

Her mind raced—asking herself all these questions. But her limbs were dead. Her heart beat loudly in her ears. 

Get up. Run. 

Do something. My God, do something. 

She sat frozen for nearly ten seconds. Hoda walked down the stairs unbeknownst to Isra’. Hoda gently tapped her crying sister on the shoulder. 

Isra’ turned to her sister. Her little green eyes felt otherworldly. 

She felt a chill. She swallowed. She felt her heartbeat drop from her ears to her chest. She opened her mouth.

“Yes, my dear?” 

Hoda gently wiped away her big sister’s tears and sat next to her in silence, knees drawn in to her chest, looking at the door where Isra’s gaze had been fixed siince she had first descended into the room. 

Hoda turned her head up to her sister Isra’s face. Barely audible, she asked, “Why were you looking at the door?” 

Isra’ opened her mouth—no idea what was about to come out of it. 

“I—” she fought back tears. 

Hoda asked, concerned and cold, “Are they coming back?” 

In that moment, Isra’ was drawn out of herself, turning what little focus she had away from herself and to her baby sister. She pulled her in tight with one arm. 

“No. Not them. Not now.” 

The sisters gently rocked back and forth, as their mother’s dirge poured from the kitchen towards the living room, towards their chamber of gathering and pain. 

For the entire month after that incident, Isra’ could not sit by herself in the living room. She could not look at the iron door. She would do anything to avoid the intrusive memory, to avoid seeing again the sight of her brother on the ground, or the writhing body of her uncle as the door slammed shut. 

Since the day after Mazen’s death, Isra’ jolted at the sound of closing doors. She asked her father, on two occasions, if they could put something in the frame to soften the opening and closing. The sound alone gave her chills. The sound of the weighty door hitting its own frame induced a tremble in her hands and a palpitation in her heart. And she hated it. She hated herself for it. 

Weak. Pathetic. Be strong, she would tell herself in those moments when her hand trembled. She would usually clasp her hands as tightly as she could, breathe in deeply and exhale with a powerful quivering that would calm her hands just slightly until she hid them in her pockets.

For the entire month after Mazen’s death, Isra’ thought little about the future. Perhaps for the first time in her life, and surely for the first time since the conflict began, she thought little about what might come next. She had neither the willpower nor the incentive to prepare herself further. Surrender and silence were the words she felt deep in her gut. 

And Isra’ remembers clearly the silent morning, thirty-eight days after her uncle was killed, that that rambunctious voice of worries foretold returned to her. 

It was early. Her brother knocked on her bedroom door. She opened it just a crack, knowing it was Ahmad and knowing that she and he had too much to say and no way of saying it. 

“What is it? I can’t…I just can’t talk right now. I—” 

Ahmad cut her off. “It’s Baba. He wants us to pack. He wants us to leave.” 

And in that instant, a new feeling came over her. An unfamiliar paralysis—not of fear, not of pain. Something altogether new. Something she had never considered. Perhaps confusion. Perhaps a new type of loss—not of a person, but of a home. 

She had no idea what to say. She opened her mouth again, but nothing came out. Just a punctuated breath that Ahmad interpreted, accurately. 

“Tomorrow, inshallah” he said flatly. Isra’ still said nothing. She put her hairbrush down beside her bed. She closed her eyes.

Ahmad whispered, sheepish, “We’re going together, Isra’. My sister, at least we’re all going together,” he added quietly, perhaps talking to himself more than to her.

Isra’ could sense in her brother’s voice tears he did not want her to see. Ahmad shut the door gently, knowing how his sister hated the sound of closing doors.