Category Archives: Writing Contest
The last thing Sabria saw before they slipped the hood over her head was the corner of the room. It was oddly reassuring, although like most people she would have preferred to die in her sleep, in a bed surrounded by family and candles, oblivious to the time of day. Her unnatural misfortune was to know the hour and manner of her death.
When she watched her small shoes step onto the stool, she knew that today was not the first time she’d placed foot on death’s platform. Heads, hands and feet were images she often used to capture fleeting instances of humanity—an evocative technique when she recorded large and terrible events of destruction and injustice with her clicking camera.
Of course she was praying. She prayed for the courage to stand as still as a statue. Her mouth was dry, filled with fear and a wordless scream of anger lodged tight inside her throat. Her life was about to be extinguished as meaninglessly as a person swats a bug on the floor. The deprivation of a farewell enraged her. Tomorrow the world would wake up to the babble of Western media, sipping their favorite beverage of indifference but how would her family know what happened to her?
Her father was American. She had hoped this would make her case a political controversy or a bargaining chip for a hostage swap. Most of all, Sabria wished she could apologize to the two others who travelled with her to the refugee camps. They had been arrested with her too. If only.
There it was, that accusing voice reminding her that it was her fault. If only she could locate the triggering event that placed her on this stool. She’d erase it, like deleting a picture on her camera. Or was her death scheduled with ancient, inevitable predestination?
If she were still a teenager, she’d blame everything on her parents. Her father was a missionary; her tiny mother a Lebanese schoolteacher. Strife was an inheritance from Beirut, her birthplace. Or maybe fate was sown when her parents moved to Iran. Overhearing the political debates of adults, discovering the overlay of local and foreign perspectives had set the tempo for her adult life.
Perhaps destiny crystallized one particular day when she was seven, sitting on her bed memorizing the corner of her room. It was her rehearsal for a forever goodbye because she understood they’d be leaving Tehran. The earth rumbled with the grinding roll of tanks patrolling the evening curfew but the afternoon had been safe to shop for flat bread with her mother. She’d noticed the statue of the general-king in the middle of the roundabout, aloft on his pedestal, ropes hanging over his arms and waist.
The Persian baker, with his rheumy eyes, was apologetic. “Insha’Allah.” Perhaps he was the trickster who sent her out to explore the boundaries of God’s will.
Her husband would fault her obsession with her camera, adamant that her hobby sparked her foolish wandering. But photography never felt dangerous, it was curiosity through a camera lens. The clicking noise of the shutter was a detached viewpoint that recorded political upheaval and newsworthy events. Admittedly, she thrived on adrenaline intermingled with déjà-vu every time she reported on social unrest, but the dusty chaos of Middle Eastern countries felt like home, blinding her to realities like a jinn in a desert storm.
Maybe she had sealed her own fate. Last week, she’d spotted a web in the corner of her cell. She inspected it for an inspirational little spider, one that weaved hope for a better tomorrow. She considered baptismal names. Bruce the Bold, after the Scottish knight who hid in his caves before fighting the English, or Charlotte the Wise, the spider who distracted Wilbur from his porcine fate, or Penelope the Faithful, weaving and unraveling as she waited, anxious for her true love to free her. But the web was empty; no motivational speeches would be spun there.
Disappointed, she swiped the web with her hand. It now hung in a series of destroyed little hammocks from the ceiling. But she’d memorized that ugly corner because she wanted to re-direct fate and invoke a departure date like a divine incantation. Maybe her wish had been granted, with cosmic irony.
Months of solitary confinement pressed with dense suffocation inside her skull. She felt like a spider herself, scrutinizing the past and present with intolerable patience from the corner of the world. She was an old soul; she’d seen it all before. Click. Iraq, Tunisia, Pakistan and Egypt, click-click. She fed the world her digitized images of city squares filled with dark-haired mobs and chanting fists. Her pictures of falling statues in the middle of large plazas were front-page news. Classic. Iconic.
She felt grieving love for her husband, a British geologist. They’d sit on their balcony, cooled by a breeze flowing through carved wooden screens while she’d book the itinerary for her next free-lance assignment, places where toppling statues was still in vogue. She had not memorized any corners in their house. She planned to return.
If only she had not gone to the refugee camps. If only she’d missed her plane. If only.
It was a rush of thoughts, images and feelings—ballooning threads in a re-remembered moment. This was her release, execution in a dank room with a little stool, two guards, and a twist of blue plastic rope. Paperwork had been explained and a guard politely asked for her signature. It was a ridiculous request, but she signed without fuss.
She exhaled and memories collapsed around her. The last statue. From the corner of the room, her spider-guide was present, documenting the process like a photojournalist, waiting, patient, for long minutes until her warm heart ceased its struggle.
This story was inspired by the writing prompt “deja-vu” and won second place in the San Luis Obispo Nightwriters, 2014 Golden Quill Writing Contest.
Anja Niedringhaus, a German AP photojournalist, was shot to death while covering the elections in Afghanistan, on April 4th, 2014. Also injured in the attack was Kathy Gannon, a 60 year old Canadian reporter based in Islamabad. They were in the back seat of a car, waiting for the rain to stop before taking pictures of ballots being prepared for voting the following day.
I heard the announcement on my nightly BBC worldwide radio broadcast, then again on NPR. Not many international stories make the American news but two experienced female reporters, gunned down in public, received a fair bit of attention. Later, on Facebook, a Pakistani friend who lives down the street posted that she knew the surviving journalist–six degrees of separation. I wondered about women who take dangerous assignments when most people (like me) stay safe at home.
I understand one motivator that powers such daring, compassionate hearts. It’s a lifestyle. As a “third culture kid,” raised overseas, in Iran, Indonesia, and France by a British mother and a Canadian father, I lived in cultures that were not my own, and was immersed in religions and languages that were not shared by my parents either. In vibrant expatriate communities, new people and continuous travel is the norm, and exploring differences is always interesting, always compelling.
When the San Luis Obispo Nightwriters announced their contest theme of “déjà-vu,” I used it as a writing prompt in one of my writing workshops. Writing prompts stir up all kinds of thoughts and images. This one brought up memories of Iran, saying good-bye to the corners of my bedroom while tanks rumbled outside. It evoked images of Iraq and the “Arab Spring” sweeping the Middle East. I’d seen revolutions before. And I remembered my sorrow over the fate of those journalists, who recorded injustice and truths, and were shot for their troubles, while the world is indifferent to their efforts.
I polished the déjà-vu prompt into a perfect story. Well, I thought I did. I listened, astonished, as my writing group argued over it’s meaning. “It’s a stream of consciousness,” one person said. Huh? I had not realized that it was, and I didn’t like that approach. “Are there magical elements?” “No, it’s an out of body experience.” “Well, I think the protagonist is going crazy.” They even debated the ending, which I thought was clever, and obvious. My first pass was a jumble of ideas. I re-wrote the piece several times until everyone understood what I was trying to say, the way I wanted it to be understood. It was an unpleasant process, like bludgeoning my ego into submission. Eventually, the prompt transformed into a story, and I hoped that the judges would have a broad interpretation of “deja-vu.” As luck would have it, enough of them did, and it won second prize.
I love the magic of writing prompts. Prompts generate ideas for stories by locating, and defining, whispers of thought. Fun, but the next steps are hard. It take ruthless editing and tough love to incorporate the comments from my writer’s workgroup, but it makes me tap into the heart of my story.