Short Story by Feby Indirani (The Jakarta Post, March 13, 2017)
One morning Annisa woke up, and when she looked in the mirror, she realized she no longer had a nose.
“Astaghfirullah!” she cried loudly. If her husband Razi had been at home, he might have fallen off his favorite lounge chair. But Razi was out of town on a business trip and would not be home for another five days. Oh God, what should I do? thought Annisa in a panic.
For several minutes, she just buried her face in a pillow. The mirror in her room became the ghost that she feared the most. For the next several hours, Annisa wept, lamenting her fate. How could her nose disappear? To be exact, it was her slim nose and its cute rounded end by her nostrils. All that was left of her nose were two circles covered by her nostrils, of which only half remained. She didn’t feel any pain whatsoever. She could still breathe normally through the holes. But oh, how ugly her face was with her nose gone!
Annisa still hoped it was a nightmare, however, when she looked in the mirror again, she knew she wasn’t dreaming. She no longer had a nose. She was shaken, but then she began to think rationally and weigh up some alternative actions. Contact a doctor at the hospital? Yes, Annisa would do so, but no, she had better wait for Razi to come home. No, she didn’t want to tell Razi now, because she didn’t want to disturb her husband’s concentration. And yes, she thought it might be very expensive to make a new nose.
As a good wife, she wouldn’t possibly spend that much money without her husband’s permission. No, going to a doctor or hospital was not an urgent priority, because Annisa was certain that she didn’t feel any pain at all. Yes, this was an aesthetic problem, not a health issue. Even though she was in shock, instinctively Annisa knew that her life was not endangered.
Okay, this was not everything. She breathed normally again. Annisa just needed to go out of the house today as usual.
She put on her scarf, which was long in a plain dark blue, along with the niqab (face veil) which she usually wore to cover her face, leaving a pair of eyes and eyebrows. It is lucky I wear a niqab, thought Annisa relieved.
For a moment, Annisa focused upon the things that she had to do that day. Visit the school owned by her family and meet with the teachers. Confirm that the renovations on the school building could start immediately before the new school year begins. Maybe she would take part in a meeting with the contractor, which meant a series of sessions. After that, she actually had planned to relax at a salon specifically for Muslim women, but no, it would be better to cancel that, because she didn’t want to shock people with her face. Yeah, perhaps she would go directly to the supermarket and shop for some household necessities.
She drove slowly, half daydreaming. When she entered the gate to the school, she didn’t know why but her heart started to pound. She didn’t feel ready to meet a lot of people in this kind of situation. Annisa glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw the veil that covered her face. There’s nothing different, Nisa. No one will know whether you have a nose or not; she tried to convince herself.
Three girls in headscarves ran to greet her as she got out of her car and respectfully kissed her hand.
“Mother Nisa…Mother Nisa…” called the girls. They knew her car, and so were ready to greet her.
All of them wore plain white headscarves with their faces unveiled. They smiled when Annisa patted their heads one by one. Annisa’s gaze fell upon their noses. She entered the meeting room where the teachers were waiting. The meeting went ahead, and for a moment she succeeded in forgetting about her own problem.
When prayer time came, Annisa began to think again about her missing nose. But she had a room of her own at the school that was very private, and she could pray there freely without worrying that anyone would spot her without her face covered.
She had spent half the day feeling like a person in hiding, like a frightened person. You must be strong Nisa; you must be strong, she repeated to herself. And that was how Annisa spent the day, trying as much as possible to focus on the people she was meeting, looking for solutions to problems they faced, and often having to make some final decisions.
Her parents had established this school, and it was a mandate for her to maintain it and keep it going. Annisa was grateful, Razi had given her permission to continue managing the school, moreover because Razi supported the vision of the school to create a generation of devout people who prioritized religious education above all else.
She just had to finish the day with shopping at the supermarket. Not something difficult, she thought. I’ve made it through the day so far. But no matter what, on this day she felt more sensitive about being among many people. Annisa noticed several people staring at her, with curious looks. That was definitely because of her covered face. Wearing a niqab was not so common in Jakarta, but she was also not the only one. After three years of wearing the niqab at the request of her husband, Nisa was used to facing the curious stares cast in her direction. Even more so if they were in a restaurant, more people would be watching her because they wanted to know how she ate. It really bothered her at first, but now Nisa was used to it, and she didn’t care.
At first, Nisa refused when Razi asked her to wear a niqab. Even though she had worn a headscarf since she was a teenager, wearing the niqab was a different step. But according to Razi it was the correct way based upon the demands of the religion. “Undertaking religious commands must be kaffah, Ummi.”
This was the endearing nickname Razi used for her. Islam kaffah means thoroughly, with all its aspects, the whole side, related to all the matters in every aspect of life.
“What’s more Ummi, you are a beautiful woman, and even wearing a headscarf, your beauty can still be seen. Meanwhile, I am often sent out of town for work. I’m not willing to have other men looking at my wife,” explained Razi gently while stroking her hair.
And that kind of behavior always made Nisa melt. Razi never forced his wishes, but persuaded her and made her aware of what was right and how she must act as a soleha (a pious woman). And finally, although half-heartedly, she followed her husband’s request that she wear a niqab. And indeed what Razi had said was true, she felt safer and protected from the gazes of strange men.
Annisa found wearing a niqab at times caused difficulties, for instance when she ate in a public place or perhaps due to the hot and humid weather in Jakarta. Also when she met friends at the mall or other public places, Annisa had to call out louder and bump into old friends, who of course did not know her because they couldn’t see her face.
And sometimes, if she was lazy she chose not to greet them even if she crossed paths with an old friend. Actually it didn’t matter, they didn’t know the difference. But still, a guilty feeling would slip into her heart, even more so if that person happened to have been a good friend at one time.
Like on this day when she clearly caught sight of Arifin, a good-looking old friend who she had once been close with. That doesn’t really describe their situation. To be precise, Arifin had been in the process of taaruf or getting to know her for some time, before she finally decided to choose Razi.
Arifin was standing just a few meters across from her, in the fruit area. Annisa suddenly felt her heart beating faster. He was still as handsome as she remembered. His body had filled out, and he was not as skinny as when he was at university.
Say hi, don’t. Say hi, don’t. Annisa was suddenly thrusted into a dilemma. She was still looking at Arifin who was calmly sorting and choosing oranges, unaware of the pair of eyes watching him with the rumbling chest. That’s how it was for her as someone wearing a niqab,
Annisa often felt that the decision of whether or not to continue the ties of a relationship was in her hands. She could decide whether she would reveal who she was or not. If she didn’t wear a niqab, at this distance there was a good possibility that Arifin would know who she was and greet her first — so that Annisa would not have to sacrifice her dignity.
But of course right now, imagining not wearing a niqab and meeting a man from her past, was not something that would be to her benefit. Not when she had just lost her nose. Now or never. Annisa got the courage together to greet Arifin. She would say hello to this man, who would recognize her voice at least. And even if it were only for a moment, Annisa would chat with him again, and see what his reaction was to meeting her.
“Mas, why is it taking so long? Come on, the film’s going to start,” a woman approached Arifin and rubbed his back, just when Annisa wanted to step closer to him. The woman was lovely. She didn’t wear a headscarf and looked like a young professional with her eyebrows neatly drawn and bright pink lipstick. Annisa still had a chance to steal a glance at the woman’s cute nose that fit so well in her oval face.
She turned around and slowly walked towards the cashier. His wife? His girlfriend? What was clear from their body language, they were close. The question that arose in her head was how could Arifin become close to or marry a woman who was not from their group? Arifin had been one of the most respected leaders of the prayer group, whose diligence in praying and spirit in defending religion were well tested. Why had the change taken place so quickly? Was it because he had failed to marry her?
Annisa went home, still feeling confused. She missed Razi, but her husband would not be coming home tonight. She had to sleep alone again, and she felt restless. When she prayed, she wept mournfully, feeling empty. She sent her husband a text message.
Abi, Ummi misses you. I can’t wait for you to come home.
Abi, if Ummi were no longer pretty, would Abi still love Ummi?
The message wasn’t read. Where her husband worked, there were often problems with phone reception. Annisa could only take a deep breath, and try to fall asleep. In her dream, it was like she saw a person drawing a sketch of her face, with her hair long and wavy. She had let her hair grow long at her husband’s request. She seemed to be standing, behind the painter’s back, observing him as he perfected the painting of her face, and appreciating her own beauty in that painting. The painting that was almost done.
Then Annisa was shocked, because suddenly the painter daubed white paint on her nose, ruining the painting of her face.
“Don’t, why? Don’t!” She felt her hands shaking the painter’s shoulders.
But the painter was unmoved. Instead, he continued to move the paintbrush to the area of her mouth. So the painting of her beautiful face was ruined, all that remained were a pair of beautiful eyes. The painter placed his brush right above her eyes. As if he was considering. Waiting for a resolution.
“Don’t… don’t…” Annisa was again shaking the painter’s body. Then she woke up. For a moment she was not aware, was this still night time? Was it already dawn? Had the call to Subuh prayers already passed?
Annisa felt the dried tears on her cheeks. She rubbed her face, with movements that were hesitant and anxious. She rubbed the place where her nose had been, and she couldn’t feel anything. Her fingers moved slowly, trying to feel her lips.
Her heart seemed to stop. She couldn’t feel her lips. She moved her mouth and felt the exhalation of her breath from that hole. But she could not feel her lips. Annisa felt her whole body weaken. With the remainder of her strength, she dragged herself to the mirror.
Annisa looked at her face, or to be precise, what was left of her face. Two holes for a nose, a hole for a mouth. A pair of eyes that had shrunk closed by what was left of the lids. Only her thin eyebrows remained of her face. No one would recognize that face as her face. Not even Annisa herself. She wept uncontrollably.
But when the sun had already risen, Annisa was aware that many tasks awaited her out there. So she gathered her strength, put on her headscarf, and wear her niqab. She left the house and followed her routine. Before starting her car, she got a message on her cellular phone.
Abi loves Ummi, no matter what. Take care of yourself Ummi.
The best jewels are a wife who is soleha. And a soleha wife should obey what her husband says no matter what. Annisa took a long breath. She only hoped she was still the most beautiful jewels for her husband. Even though she had already and might continue, to lose her face.
Translated by Marjie Suanda.
Feby Indirani is a writer and journalist who focuses on the issue of minority groups and women, a Muslim who believes in the importance of critical thinking.