Disclaimer: While the original author of this article would like to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, the runners of Project Consent would like to applaud her courage for sharing her story with us today. We are immensely proud of the displays of strength that we've witnessed from our audience and hope to create an environment where more survivors feel comfortable sharing their tale.
I was 10 when I was raped. It took me a while to remember (I think I remember). It’s hard to remember something you never talk about.
They were nice boys, all four of them. The neighbors’ sons, all in their older teens. One of them was 18. I liked him best. The age had no particular significance in Saudi Arabia but I had a well-loved stash of English novels in my room, given to me by my parents as rewards for good behavior and good grades. I knew what it meant to be 18. I admired all of them from afar, longing to be as old as they were, longing to have experienced as much as they have.
Everyday, I’d rush to finish my homework so my mom would let me go play at the neighbors’ house. I played with two kids my age, waiting for one of their older brothers to take my hand and lead me into the next room. There, they’d ask if I wanted to play doctor, if I would take my shirt off, if I would let them touch me there, if I’d let them do this, if I’d let them do that. I didn’t say no. I’d sit there in that attic room watching dust motes circle in the air, running my blunt nails over the dirty carpet in figure eights and loop-de-loops, waiting for them to finish squabbling over whose lap I’d sit in this time. It was a few weeks before they moved on from just molesting me.
I forgot. Of course I did. I’ve been drunk a few times, but I’d only blacked out once. And blacking out - it’s a difficult experience to describe to others, isn’t it? – how people can tell you what you did, can tell you, “It was so funny – you sat down on a wicker basket and crushed it” and “You don’t remember throwing up in the lawn?” You believe them, of course you do, why would they lie, but have no personal recollection. The hazy snippets come later. Maybe they come the next day when you see a scratch on your hip, and remember the sound of a basket snapping under your weight, the feeling of a jagged piece of wicker scratching you where your shirt had ridden up. Maybe you walk past a freshly mown front yard two weeks later and the smell of grass reminds you that you threw up in a lawn, with your face pressed into the grass and the dirt, laughing and laughing and laughing as your friends held your hair back and told you not to choke. And maybe – just maybe, seven years pass before a boy at a club you’re too young to be in puts his beer-sticky hands on your hips and presses his erection against your thigh and you suddenly remember other hands on you, hands parting your legs, hands turning you over, hands clamping over your mouth when you whisper, “I don’t think anyone’s supposed to touch me there.”
We left Saudi Arabia a year later. I grew up in Canada. “We’re Palestinian,” my mom would say. “We’re without country. We don’t have a choice. You need to be a citizen somewhere. You need a country to claim you.”
Three weeks into the seventh grade, my homeroom teacher walked to the front of the classroom and said that one of our classmates, recently arrived from India, had changed her name. She wanted to be called Tracy. I didn’t understand it just yet, but three years later I was writing a different name on my tests, awkwardly and nervously tugging at my Catholic school uniform as I told my teachers that I was using a different name now: “I’m Rawan. But I’m going by Rowan now.” It was just more convenient. People mispronounced my name anyways. What difference did a single letter make, really? My mom asked what was going on when I showed her a test grade I was proud of and she saw my name, misspelled, written on the paper in my own penmanship. I snatched the test back, smiled nervously, and said, “It’s just easier.” She tried to smile back.
I went back to Saudi Arabia only once since I began remembering. There, the memories came back quicker.
The first time they raped me, I was flat on my back, silent and staring at a crack in the ceiling. I wasn’t sure what was happening, just knew that it hurt, that it seemed never-ending – that it seemed like my body would always be pinned down against that dirty carpet. They helped me up, pulled my underwear and pants back on. “Don’t tell anyone.”
For a long time, I didn’t. I slipped back into my house through the kitchen door and told my mom I was taking a bath. I was a dirty child, like most kids are. Hated showering. Hated brushing my hair. Refused to floss. Snuck to bed without brushing my teeth – my dad would come into my room every night and ask, “Did you brush your teeth? Don’t lie to me. I checked your toothbrush. It’s not wet.”
Suddenly, showering didn’t seem so bad anymore. There’s something about blood and cum running down your legs that makes you want to scrub and scrub and scrub until nothing’s left but thighs rubbed red.
I crumpled up my stained panties and shoved them in my nightstand drawer, not sure why I didn’t want to put them in the laundry basket where my mom would see. That night, I fell asleep staring at my nightstand and thinking of every time my mom had reached over and covered my eyes when a man and a woman kissed during a movie. I was too young, she said.
My housemate tells me that she can’t eat shrimp anymore because once, she ate half of a shrimp platter by herself and ended up hunched over a toilet, throwing up. “When something like that happens, it just ruins it for you. You get nervous around shrimp.”
I knew all about being nervous. I was nervous every time I ended up with a boy alone. Seeing men who looked like people I knew in my childhood made me anxious. I couldn’t kiss anyone sober. I didn’t know why any of that happened, but suddenly, there were past incidents to examine through a new lens, leaving me to futilely draw and redraw lines in a convoluted, never-ending game of connect-the-dots that has not yet yielded a clear image.
“Now,” I tell myself, “all that’s left to do is heal.”
I was in the pool when my brother told me that my mom wanted to talk to me.
Ten minutes later she was crying, great heaving sobs, looming over me, asking “What happened, what happened, what happened, what did those boys to you?” her hands on my shoulders, shaking me, “Did they take your clothes off, did they touch between your legs,” and I wanted her to stop, cried too, and lied to her, “No, no, they didn’t, they didn’t touch me there, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have, never again I promise, why are you crying mom why are you crying?”
I don’t go in pools anymore.
I cope because all that’s left to do is heal.
I use the language of love when I talk about the things that keep me up at night: “Rape and immigration are the two great traumas of my life.” And they’re interconnected for me. How could they not be? How could they not be when both took things away from me without asking? The things I’ve lived through, the traumas I’ve experienced, they’ve left me questioning things, running the thoughts around and around in my mind, creating a whirlwind that I stand in the middle of.
I wonder if it would’ve been easier if I didn’t forget. If that first flashback I had, alone and tipsy at a club with a man pressed up behind me hadn’t snapped me and scattered me like a broken rosary, beads clattering to the floor. I questioned the autonomy of my choices, the validity of my identities.
Is this why I’m not straight? Is this why I’m scared of people? Is this why I left my religion for a few years as a teen? Is this why I rejected my culture and my language? Is this why it took me years to once again speak in Arabic, letting the sounds sit on my tongue and taste like home? Is this why I spent years avoiding the prayer mat, only to end up curled up on the ground at 18 crying with a Quran pressed against my bosom, asking Allah to forgive me, to heal me, to strengthen me?
My therapist says that you can lose years of your life when you repress something like that. I certainly did. My childhood is only remembered in flickering vignettes and countless photo albums I’ve flipped through again and again.
When I called my mother from my dorm room, yearning to be held by her even though she lived halfway across the world, she lied to me.
“Mom, do you remember that thing that happened when I was a kid?”
A hitch of breath. A few moments of silence. “What thing?”
“You know, with those four guys. The neighbors’ kids.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
And I believed her until she called back later that night and said, “Honey, I’m sorry, habibti, I’m really sorry, but I was hoping you forgot, I don’t want you to carry that around with you, it’s not fair, I only ever wanted the best for you,” crying, crying, and I cried too, wanting to hold her, wanting to be held by her, wanting to kneel down on the floor in front of her while she braided my hair and told me she was proud of me.
These are the two diasporas of my life.
A home that I never knew was taken from me and I feel its absence everyday.
(Where are you from? No, where are you really from? Oh, you mean Israel? Am I saying your name right? It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with Muslims, but – This is where I’m not wanted, this is where I’m not at home, why are you guys causing so much fuss over wearing the hijab here?)
A body that I never knew was taken from me and I feel its absence everyday.
(It’s been 10 years. It’s been 10 years and this is where they touched me. This is where they touched me. This is where they touched me. This is where they held me down. This is where they touched me. This is where I bled. This is where they touched me. This is where no one touches me anymore. These are the places where I will scrub, and scrub, and scrub, and scrub, and scrub for the rest of my life. This is where I rinse off the soap and the water. This is where I still don’t feel clean. This is where they touched me.
And this is where I will heal.)
All that’s left to do is heal.