The first of the runner-up prizes for the Cheltenham Prize is Two-Way Street by Pam Turner of Newent.
Two Way Traffic
A tear rolled down her cheek as Amina looked at the small baby in her arms. It was a year ago today that she and her friends had left their homes. Back then it had seemed such an adventure, such a great enterprise to embark on, to be part of a new Islamic state, where women would be respected for their work as wives and mothers, where people would live their lives peacefully, without the lax morals, the casual way in which drugs, alcohol and extra-marital sex were accepted as the norm by many, not only the young, and by the way girls of her generation dressed and talked and acted. She was sure the news of atrocities was the propaganda of anti-Islamic factions.
It had all been so easy. They had booked their flights to Istanbul, choosing a time when the airport would be busy with holiday traffic. They had worn western clothes and looked exactly like the hundreds of other holiday-makers pouring through the airport. As their families would almost certainly not even realise they were missing until well after their flight had left, it was unlikely that any official would view them with suspicion in spite of their youth. And so it had proved. Arriving in Istanbul they rang the number they had been given and soon a middle-aged couple arrived at the airport. Greeting the girls as you might a long lost relative – just in case any-one was watching – they were whisked away to a house somewhere in the suburbs. Here everything that might have identified them was taken from them: clothes, watches, mobile phones, and they were given a set of clothes such as would have been worn by a Syrian peasant and false passports, identifying them all as members of the middle-aged couple’s family. Two days later, having been warned not to say anything at any check-point, ‘’Aunt Fatimah’’ and ‘’Uncle Mohammed’’ accompanied them to the Syrian border where they crossed with no trouble: the border guards paying no attention to 3 girls in burkas accompanied by their relatives.
Once there they were briefly interviewed by a jihadi commander and then taken to a hostel in an unidentified town, where they were put in the care of an older female jihadist. For a few days they were instructed in how to behave, given a few basic lessons in Arabic and listened to endless praises of the heroes of Islamic State interspersed with readings of the Koran. Then a bare week after leaving the UK they were told it was their wedding day, taken to a small room where they saw their intended husbands for the first time and were married in a brief ceremony. This was the last Amina saw of her friends, for their husbands were all from different units.
Amina’s husband, Ahmed, did not look like the hero she expected. Only a few years older than herself, he was rather spotty, a scar across one cheek, with a figure her mother would have called weedy. In fact nothing was as she expected. Their accommodation was one room with a small kitchen annex, dark and gloomy with ancient equipment: they shared a shower and toilet with 3 more couples on the same floor; water and electricity were intermittent at best: it had simply never occurred to her that she wouldn’t be living in at least as nice a house as she had in London. She had little to do all day; Ahmed would bring food every evening which she had to prepare for the next day and he was not slow to show his disgust at her attempts at cooking; a skill she had never needed before. Leaving the house was not exactly forbidden, but with no money, no friends and nowhere to go, on the only occasion she attempted it she felt so conspicuous in spite of her full veil and burka that she hastily retreated. Her only entertainment was the radio, which she could not understand, until one day, by fiddling she managed to find the BBC World Service. She forgot to retune however and Ahmed had been so angry that she had been listening to such decadent propaganda that she had never dared try again.
The sex had been something of a shock as well. It wasn’t that she didn’t know what was expected of a married woman, but she had gained her ideas of what it would be like from romantic novels read in the library when her family thought she was studying. The first night Ahmed had undressed her, looked at her naked body without a smile and said “We must do our duty”. It had been impressed on her that the first duty of a wife was to care for her husband, the second to have children, and so every night they did their duty, with no enjoyment on either side. She had thought that she had been lucky to fall pregnant so quickly, but once her pregnancy had been confirmed, Ahmed had brought her here to his parents’ house in a small village. ” It will be safer for you”, he said and returned to his unit in the town.
While Ahmed had spoken a little English, his parents had none, and, although not unkind, it was soon clear that they did not altogether welcome this foreign wife, whom they had not chosen, and who had no useful skills to offer. Amina did her best: never having seen one in her life before, she struggled to cope with the primus stove that was the only means of cooking; she tried to make herself useful and she tried to learn some Arabic so she could communicate a little and, as she did, came to realise that Islamic State was not universally welcomed. Even here. She had a difficult pregnancy with morning sickness that seemed to go on for ever and felt tired most of the time. She saw Ahmed only twice, when he took her for perfunctory antenatal checks. He said he would take her back to the town for the birth, but the baby had come prematurely with only her mother-in-law and another woman from the village to assist. It was a girl, which pleased neither the grand-parents nor Ahmed: although she had known boys were valued above girls Amina had never really believed it would be so.
Hearing a step outside her room Amina wiped away her tears: she had chosen this life and she could see no escape, though she would have given much to have been back with her family in London. The door opened and Ahmed walked in. “Come” he said, “it is time to do our duty once more”.
Maha opened the door and paused on the threshold. She looked up at the hated burka, hanging on its hook: she had left it there to remind her. How strange it was, she thought, how quickly people adapted, for although she had only worn the burka for a few short months, now going out without it she felt strangely exposed.
She had been one of the lucky ones, she knew. Twenty-five years previously, her father, a prominent Syrian journalist, had been on a long-term assignment in Britain and had brought his family with him: consequently Maha had been born in a London hospital and was therefore entitled to a British passport. When she was 6 the family had moved back to Syria, and she had grown up in the rapidly changing society, which was opening up to the West. She had never really understood her parents’ insistence that she maintain her English and her British passport, but how glad she was now that they had.
Her father, although critical of much of Assad’s government, knew his countrymen well enough to realise that they needed a strong leader at the helm, and foreseeing the civil conflict that would arise once the opposition found its feet, had moved his family to a small town in the north of the country, thinking that it would be safer. What he had not foreseen was the sudden rise of Isis, and they had awoken one morning to find that the town had been taken over by these extremists. Having never worn a burka in her life, Maha resented all the restrictions that now ensued; she could no longer work, or meet up with her friends for a relaxed coffee in one of the many cafes that had flourished before, in fact even leaving the house could be a dangerous step. Her elder brother had slipped away and was now fighting the extremists; her elder sister, married with 2 small children, was not prepared to risk their safety, but Maha could not accept this new way of life. The last straw came on the terrible day when Isis fighters had burst into their house demanding the whereabouts of her father, who was known to have criticised their excesses, and had severely beaten her and her mother, when they could not give them this information. Maha was only saved from an even worse fate by the arrival of her father, who was promptly seized and dragged away. They had not seen him since.
Her mother now urged Maha to flee: she knew it would not be long before the terrorists came back. With the help of a neighbour, who accompanied her on the first stage of her journey – under Isis all women travelling out of the town had to have a male escort- and using his own daughter’s papers and a story about visiting a sick sister, they had passed through the Isis checkpoint at the edge of town. Maha had waited, her heart pounding, as the soldier checked the identity documents, and for once was glad of the all-enveloping burka and veil, but the guard hardly gave her a second glance. By a circuitous route they made their way to the Turkish border. Here the people smugglers who brought foreign supporters of Isis in, were equally happy to smuggle people out – if the fee was high enough- no questions asked. Arriving in Turkey her British passport came into its own, and a few days later she was touching down on a flight into Heathrow. She had had the foresight to contact family friends in London who were at the airport to meet her, and although the airport police had grilled her for some time, her bruises and connections had convinced them that she was no terrorist and she was allowed to leave. These friends had a small basement flat and agreed to let her stay there for a few weeks until she found work, which she was now setting out to do.
Maha, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt like millions of other young women, opened the door and stepped out into her new life.