Green Eyes, Date Fruit, and God's Other Choices

Tagreid Hassabo

Artwork by Ellen Blom

Asha arrived at the front door of her house shortly before sunset, covered in a pasty layer of red dust, and only one-third the volume she was when she left three months ago. The dirt yard was freshly sprinkled and the dust all settled. The smell of wet earth pleased her—the girls did well keeping clean in her absence—and reminded her that she was home, where nothing happened that she did not will. She edged toward the sitting room under a shower of kisses from her longing daughters and sat down on the daybed, then laid the baby on the prickly weave of a stringed footstool.

Look how beautiful your sister is.

The girls squatted by her feet inspecting the baby, their hands feeling the downy hairs on the head and tallying clutched fingers.

Undress her; she needs a wash after this long trip, Asha commanded.

Yumma? You don't look too well, one of the girls inquired.

Before a reply was issued, Asha's four-year-old announced in a soft, amused voice,

Look! My sister has a date fruit between her legs.

First there was a brief laugh, then a shriek, and the eldest girl slapped her chest,

In the name of Allah, Yumma, what's that?

Is this a boy? another one whispered.

The three girls, all frightened now, faced Asha, who looked down on them with slits of hard eyes.

I see a girl and so should you. If I ever hear any mention of a boy again I will rip your tongue out.

She stuck her hand under the arm of her little girl and pinched a fold of tender, warm flesh.

Now, who's this one here? She pointed to the baby.

The little girl started to cry, and Asha squeezed and twisted.

My...little sister Mabrouka, Yumma.

That evening Asha's husband sat on the floor hiding his face in his knees as she repeated the same demand she'd imposed on her daughters. Convinced that her sensibility was diminished by some labor malady, he said,

Woman, wash and pray; tomorrow we'll see a doctor before it's too late.

At the tail of his words she answered,

The last word will always be yours. But this time you should know it will truly be the last, because if you don't help me protect this baby you will never see either one of us again.

Asha's husband didn't insist. In a few days, when she'd calmed down, they would go to the clinic on the mainland, he thought. Two days later, while having supper his appendix burst and he died before they were able to get him to a hospital.

That was the beginning of the peculiar life of the boy named Mabrouk Shalali, or, as his mother preferred to call him, Mabrouka.


Our village lay on one of the islands of the river, not too far from the southern border. It was small, a little hamlet with roughly three hundred families. Most of the men worked on the mainland and a few were farmers with tiny plots on the outskirts of our dwellings. Other than that, and the graveyard, there was nothing but the neglected ruins of ancient tombs. It was commonly known that nothing of value was found in the tombs because they belonged to poor people, servants, and other lowly workers of kings and queens. But no one on the island talked about that because of the implication that we came from such humble descent.

Facing the island on the eastern bank was the town where we conducted our business. We traded and sold farm products in the market by the dock, and, in the afternoons, the men lingered in the harbor café until the last ferry left for the island. Occasionally, our women, too, crossed over to buy jewelry, fabric, and spices. The children were sent to the elementary school at the end of the market road, and the older boys often played ball games against the town's youth in the empty court in front of the school. Everything beyond that court was off-limits. We never ventured to the residential area. For unlike us, the town people had the ways of big busy places, and our general rule was to keep them at arm's length.

The events that came to pass, those that placed Mabrouk at the center of this curious tale, were the result of one of the rare occasions when that rule was broken.

It all began with Osman Shalali, Mabrouk's cousin, several months before the latter was born. Osman fell in love with a seventeen-year-old brown belle from the town. The first time he saw her she was dancing barefoot at a wedding held at the harbor. She was tall and well rounded, with shiny cocoa complexion and the only green eyes born in our area. She danced like a nomad, her braids lashing the hearts of the young boys and the ripples in her buttocks turning to raging waves in the loins of grown men. When she caught Osman's gaze he was momentarily blinded by a brilliant glow and found himself wishing he would never see again so that he could keep her face in his eyes forever.

The boy and his family had a spotless reputation, and there were many girls who would've found it a blessing to be wed to him. But Osman was poor—a poetry teacher at the town's public school with a meager salary plumped with respect. His father, Idris Shalali, tried all trades and never made it one way or the other. He farmed, fished, labored, sold odds and ends, and once he opened a coffee shop in the front yard of his home then refused to take money from the customers because, he said, it felt as if he was charging friends for calling on him. Finally, he settled on being the island's on-call butcher slaughtering lamb and calves in people's yards. Idris Shalali's assets were his children. His seed gave only males: Haroun, Radwan, and Osman. His wife died bringing Osman into the world and the man refused to remarry. He was a firm, hot-blooded disciplinarian, and his boys grew to fear and respect him more than any man could wish.

Hanan, conversely, was the daughter of a venomous spice merchant, Hadj Attar, a man of great means and connections all over the country. Her mother was a stranger, a woman from a faraway city on the northern shore by the salty waters. She was a different kind of female from those known to our area, colorful and bubbling with femininity, always merry for no obvious reason. Her skin was light and soft like rising dough and her laugh loud like a string of bells. Our men and women feared and revered her all at once. She gave Hadj Attar five children, a boy followed by three girls and another boy. Hanan was the middle child. It was from her mother that Hanan got her green eyes and a taste for adventure.

Osman and Hanan weren't a natural match. The Shalalis were honorably penniless, and the Attars were despicably wealthy. The eye, sharp as it might be, couldn't sit atop the crooked brow.

Osman didn't find the courage to confess his love to anyone, but he was often seen roaming among the ancient ruins reciting over and over what soon became a sizable collection of poems inspired by his love for the green-eyed girl. In time, the poems traveled from the village to the mainland. They popped up in jingles, lullabies, wedding songs, and in the fields, markets, and homes. Hanan and Osman were now the most popular names, and many babies born at the time were named after them. Eventually word came to Osman that the girl anxiously awaited every new verse written in her honor. Her messengers told him she wanted to speak to him in person, but he declined because, he said, he was now happy to love her the way she deserved to be loved: with poetry.

When Hadj Attar heard of his daughter's not-so-secret admirer, he feared her reputation was at stake. Quickly she was betrothed to a young relative, a camel trader who lived in a nearby town. Before the news of the looming marriage spread, Osman found an envelope in his briefcase as he exited the school one day.

Should you fail to take action to spare me the catastrophe my father has set for me, I will hold you responsible for the life I shall endure. I seal this letter with a tear and it's you who must decide whether it's a tear of joy or one of grief. H...

Precisely what happened after that, no one knew. Osman and Hanan disappeared. The girl's family claimed she was sick and bedridden, but curious visitors reported she was nowhere to be found in the house. Three days later gunshots were fired in the air at the Attars' house, as was the custom, to announce Hanan's marriage. The contract was signed in the presence of family members only. News-sniffers who loitered outside saw Hanan leave in her bridal garment with her groom, the camel trader. Her mother's face was stern and didn't have a trace of the joy called for by such an occasion.

The following day, a policeman delivered the news to Osman's family that his body was found floating in a conduit in a village just beyond the border. His throat was slit and his private parts shredded. Osman's family buried him without ceremony and didn't accept condolences until three weeks later when the eldest brother, Haroun, restored the family's pride by shooting the older of Hanan's brothers in the head with a rifle and then turned himself in to the police. That was how the blood feud started between the Shalalis and the Attars and made Mabrouk, a candidate victim before he was born.


Mabrouk Shalali was born a few months after the death of Osman. At the time of the tragic incident, Asha feared that if her baby were a boy the feud would catch up with him. It was not uncommon that a feud would extend to cousins when it had consumed all male siblings in the immediate families. Asha had three girls and thus would've had nothing to fear since in feuds only the blood of men counted. But now she was expecting, and along with the discomforts of pregnancy, she agonized—and in time we all did—over the question of what her womb carried.

Two months before she was due Asha set out for the city declaring that her deceased mother visited her in a dream and asked her to burn incense in the holy shrine. Not too long ago she had prayed for a son, a male who would bring her honor and pride and become the man to stand up for his sisters when their husbands mistreated them. Now, kneeling before the shrine, Asha prayed for a girl. If it was a boy she would name him Mabrouk, the Blessed Boy, so he could receive God's protection; if it was a girl she would call her Mabrouka, the Blessed Girl, because God would've already protected her. Asha then called on some relatives who had long moved to the city, and asked to stay with them. She sent word to her family that the train ride had caused her to bleed and the midwife advised against road jiggles. Three months later she returned home with a bundle in her arms and a claim to a baby girl she called Mabrouka.

But in our village, nothing remained secret. A few days after Asha returned a rumor spread that Mabrouka was, in fact, Mabrouk. Some sympathized with Asha's motives but thought that her plan was far-fetched. Others decided she had tainted the boy's manhood beyond repair. In any case, whether out of sympathy or apathy, no one confronted her and most of us ignored the fact that the child was even born.

Mabrouk's first years passed under his mother's tight watch. Asha stopped all social calls and confined herself and the boy to the walls of her house. Because of the extent of caution exercised in all activities involving him, and in particular bathing and changing, Mabrouk learned from early on that his life must be shrouded in secrecy. From the time he began to walk, his movements were tied to the tail of Asha's dress. When she walked he walked. When she stopped he stopped. And when at the end of the day she sat down to rest he sat beside her, pulled her dress over him, and sucked his thumb in the darkness of her space. Whenever one of his sisters picked him up he shrieked until he was returned to Asha's feet. Well past his third year the boy had not learned to speak, he communicated only by pointing to things and, occasionally, he elaborated with a grunt or a moan. When his demands were more complicated he threw a fit shaking his head violently, the ribbons in his two little braids slapping his face, until Asha guessed what he wanted.

Asha didn't make a public appearance with Mabrouk until the boy was almost four years old. It was on the day that Haroun Shalali was released from prison. Because of the circumstances surrounding his crime, the Shalali boy had received a reduced sentence of three years combined with hard labor. We all went out to greet him by the riverbank. He arrived in the early afternoon, his father's arm wrapped proudly around his shoulder and his remaining brother behind them along with a crowd of relatives, friends, and tagalongs all cheering triumphantly. The women yoo-yooed all the way to the Shalali house, where the celebrations lasted through the night and were, without a question, heard by the Attars on the mainland.

Asha couldn't possibly be excused from attending that event, and she showed up with two of her daughters and Mabrouk. To prove beyond doubt that the child was a girl Asha dressed him in a white dress with red frills from waist to hem, lined his eyes with thick powder kohl, and dipped the tips of his fingers in red henna. She carried him on her hip and he clung to her tightly. When Asha wasn't looking everyone stared at Mabrouk curiously, and he looked back from over her shoulder with little round eyes like a frightened mouse.

A few hours had passed uneventfully when a cluster of children dashed into the women's quarters and ran in circles around Asha singing,

Mabrouk, Mabrouka...Your Mama ate your date fruit and left you with a sambouka.

The boy's body arched and he grabbed at his mother's clothes frantically as if he wanted to climb on her head, while she struggled to shoo the children away. She scampered out of the Shalali house and spent the rest of the evening trying to comfort him, but he didn't stop crying until after midnight when he fell asleep from exhaustion.

The following day Asha was sitting in the living room peeling potatoes when she was startled by the slam of the front gate. The heavy footsteps of Idris Shalali crossed the yard and the living room, and before she could get up he snatched the child from under her clothes and walked out. She ran after them wailing, then collapsed to the ground slapping the crown of her head.

Leave my baby alone, she cried, she's just a little girl.

Her neighbors tried to calm her, but she heard only the distant howl of her child. An hour later Mabrouk returned with his uncle. His braids were cut and his hair shaven to the scalp. His long flowing dress with the floral pattern was replaced with a white shirt and brown shorts. His eyes were red and swollen, and he was convulsing from crying.

If you're afraid for your son's life, Idris roared, you better make sure he grows up like a man, because if a man who carries my name behaves like a woman I will kill him with my own hands. He let go of the boy and walked out.

The next morning, just after the sweet voice of the muezzin had finished calling for the dawn prayer, a terrible long cry vibrated through the village and jolted us awake. Haroun Shalali was found lying in a puddle of his blood by the front gate of his father's house with a dagger sticking out of his back. The investigation revealed that all the Attars were together at a banquet in the family house, and they had guests to corroborate their story. A rumor was launched at the café, where people from the town and our village mingled, claiming that the banquet did in fact take place but on the evening following the murder and not the night before as the Attars and their witnesses claimed. People swore in whispers that the officer investigating the murder of Haroun Shalali was among the Attars' guests. After that night the only surviving Attar boy was never seen again. It was common knowledge that his mother sent him off into hiding. The case was eventually filed as unsolved.


Like all other important incidents here, people indulged in discussing the murder of Haroun for some time then stopped. Even Idris Shalali, who used to go around talking liberally about his efforts to locate the fugitive Attar boy, seemed to have no more to say and we assumed that he had given up. A couple of years later we realized we were mistaken. Idris Shalali began receiving regular visits from some people who, we were certain, were hired to hunt down the missing boy. They were criminals branded with strokes of knives and razor blades on every visible part of their bodies. They walked through our village eyeing our women shamelessly and peeping through the open doors and windows of our homes. When some older men confronted Idris Shalali about bringing such disreputable characters to meddle in our lives, he lied, claiming they were distant relatives. There was nothing we could do but hope that sooner than later he would give up on finding the boy.

Asha, like most of us, thought the disappearance of the Attar boy meant the feud was over. Mabrouk was now seven and eligible for school. Although she didn't welcome the idea, Asha gave in to pressure from Idris Shalali and sent Mabrouk to the boys' school in the town where his cousin Osman had once taught poetry. Like a well-guarded virgin, he was escorted to school by his mother, and she waited for him by the gate at the end of the day. Soon the history of his early years caught up with him. His peers called him by his feminine name Mabrouka and pinned it to the back of his shirt. Even his teachers didn't spare him the agony. One time during a writing exercise Mabrouk stopped when his pencil broke, and the teacher pulled his ear and said, Why aren't you writing like the rest of the class? Is your nail polish still wet? Or did your mother put henna on your hands this morning?


Toward the end of the first year a group of older boys cornered him as he was leaving the bathroom and tried to pull his shorts down. When they threw him to the ground he stopped breathing, his body became stiff, and froth came out of his mouth. The boys got scared and ran away before they were able to bare his bottom. That day when Asha came to fetch him he was still unconscious on the floor by the latrine. She never let him go to school again, and for a while he disappeared completely from our lives.

Then, after two years, something happened which made us regret each time that we had mocked the boy. One early morning Mabrouk sat on the roof of his house anticipating the sunrise when a dove fell into his lap. He cupped his hands around the bird then launched it into flight and watched it flap its wings a few times before it fell back next to him. He inspected it carefully and realized that its wing was broken. Quickly he set up a home for the injured bird, a box quilted with pieces of cut-up sack. Day after day he fed the bird and cleaned its box until it was able to fly again. A few weeks later the dove returned shortly before sunset, as it had always done since it healed, but this time it had a companion. The following day the two returned with more doves. Mabrouk added a few boxes for the new residents. The birds continued to multiply inside the homes he fabricated for them and when each one was old enough to fly it brought back more doves. In a short span the entire roof was taken up by dove slots, which were stacked up so high that from a distance the Shalali house looked like a tower of feathers. When the birds took off, their shadow covered the entire island.

We were always told that doves were holy creatures made from the wings of angels. Because of the doves, and maybe also because Mabrouk looked so frail and innocent like an angel himself, we believed that there was something truly holy about him. People started calling on Asha regularly with an appeal for Mabrouk. Barren women wanted his blessing to conceive. The blind needed his prayers to see. The elderly desired a painless passage to the afterworld. The mysterious ten-year-old boy was now the solution to all our problems. Some people considered the Shalali house altogether holy and went there to rub their hands on the blessed walls. Others collected the droppings of the doves and made them into amulets. Even Asha believed in Mabrouk's holiness and began to treat him with the kind of cautious respect that's usually reserved for important people. For the first time since Mabrouk was born, she felt proud of her child.

I named you The Blessed One, and you grew into your name.

Unfortunately, just as Asha started to enjoy the attention, it was Mabrouk's turn to enter the rink of the feud.


The Attar boy was found. Not by Idris Shalali or his mercenaries, but by Radwan, the surviving Shalali son. Radwan was at the Central Customs Office in the port up north receiving a shipment for the import-export company that employed him. While sipping tea with the usual customs officer, a man in his mid-twenties walked in and was instantly awarded the attention of all the employees.

And who was he? Radwan asked after the man had left.

Chief, is what we call him, the officer replied. Sprinkles cash around like rain to get his shipments through quickly. Too bad it isn't my account. Moved here a while ago and bought a big factory for plastic products.

Radwan was about to return to discussing his shipment when the officer continued,

Actually, they say he's originally from your part of the country, somewhere down south.

For days Radwan fought a nagging suspicion that the Chief was the Attar boy. Radwan didn't have a stomach for blood, so during the day he wanted to forget about him and continue living in peace. But at night images of his brothers, bloody and mutilated, came to him in his sleep. Finally, he tracked down the Chief hoping that the search would prove him wrong. He was disappointed.

On the first Friday of the new month, the Chief drove to his grandfather's house to receive a care package his mother sent him on schedule. That day Radwan waited in his company truck outside the house. When the Chief got out of his car Radwan drove at high speed and hit him so hard he flew several yards in the air and fell on the pavement. The Attar boy survived. He got away with a broken hip and a few minor bruises. Radwan, on the other hand, crashed into a lamppost at the street corner and died on the spot.

When the news reached our village, Asha knew that as soon as her son was tall enough Idris Shalali would demand that Mabrouk kill the Attar boy to avenge his cousins. She gathered some of Mabrouk's clothes and a pocket-size prayer book, and wrapped them in a bundle along with some sandwiches. She waited for nightfall and, cloaked in darkness, shipped him off to a secret refuge. Though we usually didn't see much of him in person, we quickly realized that Mabrouk was gone, because the following morning the doves flew out and didn't return.


Many years passed and our village remained the same. Idris Shalali and his sorrows were gradually put away in a fold of the village memory. People stopped using his butchering service; they said he slaughtered the animals so slowly as if he wanted to extend every moment of the killing, while the animals squealed their way to death, so much so that their meat was too hard to chew. That and the fact that he continued to surround himself with the group of thugs he had accumulated over the years made it easier for us to push him away and forget about him. The blood feud was now a tale we told our children when they heard the songs that still echoed in our weddings about Osman and Hanan. Mabrouk was mostly remembered as the timid boy whose prayers turned our wishes to reality.

Perhaps ten years had gone by when he returned. Asha had been struck by a disease in her lungs and had been dead for almost a week when he arrived. It was high noon in the middle of August, one of those days when the sun's rays burned like live flames. A group of us from the village sprawled in the shade of the harbor café hoping for an occasional cool breeze from the river. No one saw Mabrouk when he came off of the motor boat because our eyes were raised to the sky, which had suddenly become dark with a vast cloud of doves flapping their wings vigorously. All at once he was in the coffee shop, so slender and almost invisible as if he were a figment of our imagination. His face was smooth and transparent, his perfectly pressed shirt a brilliant white, and his sandals hadn't a speck of dust. When he exited the café—we hadn't yet realized who he was—the attendant reported that the stranger asked for directions to Hadj Attar's house. Without deliberating, we followed him, not bothering to settle our accounts with the shopkeeper.

He walked through the market and past the elementary school, then crossed the court and headed to the residences while the crowd trailing behind him multiplied. He stopped a few steps away from the gate of the Attar house and produced a white piece of cloth from a pouch that hung on his shoulder and draped it over his arms. Then he turned on his heels, his arms fully extended with the cloth hanging on them, and stood trembling like a confused orphan. He studied the crowd as if he had just realized that he was being followed. Only then did we recognize him and a murmur spread among us.

Someone must've alerted the Attars because Hadj Attar appeared in the front yard between the two guards seated on either side of the gate. Mabrouk's voice came out shivering,

Good man, Hadj Attar, I come to you with the cloth in which I will be buried if you choose to carry on the war. My hands will not take a life, but if you wish they will take your hand in peace.

It seemed like an eternity before the old man put out his hand and shook Mabrouk's. The trilling yoo-yoo of women came from behind a window in the house, and we all cheered. Hadj Attar insisted that Mabrouk enter the house to celebrate the truce. We continued to roar outside while glasses of chilled sherbet streamed from the Attar kitchen and cooled our steaming bodies. We were all so merry we forgot about Idris Shalali and his expired sons. That was until he showed up with his thugs in a cloud of dust kicking the ground like a herd of angry bulls.

Shame on you! Idris Shalali roared. Get out of my sight; you are nothing but a bunch of women.

The men parted, making way. One of Hadj Attar's guards closed the gate.

Is there a problem? the other guard asked, breathing down Idris Shalali's face.

Bring out our boy, I will rip off the only thing that makes him a man with my bare hands, Idris Shalali huffed.

Even if he was the devil's son, as long as he is in this house he has our protection, the guard replied.

One of the men Idris Shalali brought tried to sidestep the guard, who then raised his club to his chest. A word here, then a shove there, and the clubs were hurled in every direction, and soon the fight spread to us all. We fought using whatever we could get our hands on. Women gathered at a distance sometimes screaming and other times cheering. Older men including Idris Shalali and Hadj Attar stood on the outer rings giving instructions.

Then in the middle of it all, we heard a noise that made everyone stop. We turned to the source, by the Attar gate, and saw two of Idris Shalali's helpers dragging Mabrouk by his hands on the dirt floor while he squealed and twisted like a wounded animal. From then on everything happened so fast that no one had the wit or time to come to Mabrouk's aid, and we remained still until the ordeal was over. Then we just ran away.

Mabrouk was thrown at the feet of his uncle. Idris motioned to his men, who pulled Mabrouk's legs apart and one of them ripped the top of his pants to the crotch with one slash of a knife. A frightening deep howl rumbled in Idris Shalali's mouth and jolted us into motion. Each one who came closer to look at Mabrouk gasped and staggered backward until the entire crowd stood peering over each other's shoulders at the body that now lay blue and unconscious. What we saw, though clear under the burning sun, we couldn't believe. At the far bottom of his belly the flesh parted into two little fuzzy dunes. His pants still hugged the top of his thighs and covered the deeper part of the crotch, but what we saw was enough to leave no doubt in our minds that this was a woman.


There were many stories woven to explain what had happened. One claimed that what we saw wasn't the real Mabrouk but a jinni that could take the shape of any creature it desired. Many believed that explanation, and for weeks they burned incense in their homes to keep evil away.

Then there was the old neighbor of the Shalalis who said that when Mabrouk was an infant one of his sisters told her the baby was neither boy nor girl but something in the middle, having a bit of both between its legs. At that time she thought the girl, like her mother, was trying to protect her brother. But we didn't pay much attention to that story. The neighbor was old and senile now and must be excused for making up such nonsense. Whoever heard of such a thing? God created man, then from his rib He created woman. There was never anything in-between.

Was there?

In the end we came to the conclusion that a miracle had happened before our eyes. Indeed, God, Creator and Master of the Universe, transformed the holy boy to spare him the punishment of his vengeful uncle.

Idris Shalali lost whatever was left of his sensibility and spent most of his time wandering the streets rambling like a lunatic about the day justice would be served.

Mabrouk was never seen in our village again, but every morning when the doves took off from the roof of the holy house we wondered if he was still in there.