Iman Ali writes a story about a completely different enemy in this story for our theme “Villain“. Enjoy
Salim furrowed his brow as he stared down at the dial. The indicator stopped shivering and was quite settled at that damnable digit. Sighing, he clutched at his clothes over his head and in one massive pull tore them off of his body. He pushed down his wizar and underpants until he was as naked as he could possibly get.
He stepped back on the scales and there it was. The same number. Feeling dejected, he threw back the toilet seat and sat down, his head in his hands. A terrible feeling quite like anger was brewing steadily in the back of his mind until he found himself almost hyperventilating into his hands. He took his hands away from his face and stared down at his sweaty palms. Was the sweat from his face or his hands? He couldn’t tell. Both were adorned with fat.
Taking his time, he grabbed his clothes and struggled into them one by one, his thoughts turning darker by the second. At this rate he couldn’t see how he would make the camping trip. He did not want to be resigned to the sidelines watching everyone have a grand time on the ATVs while he looked on like a jackass. He wouldn’t even go in the first place. What was the point? He thought of his much leaner cousins and felt his heart shrink in hurt.
Grabbing a nearby towel he rubbed its fresh surface over his face and opened the bathroom door. Immediately a welcome blast of cold air overwhelmed him and he padded across the shiny ceramic tiles to settle upon his bed. The battle lasted all of a minute before he opened his bed drawer and drew out a grocery bag full of sweets. He hated to be a cliché but ever since he had his own allowance this drawyer had been his refuge. Through thick or thin, whenever he felt down or upset a quick trip to the neighbourhood grocery chased the sadness away.
He handled the sweets in his hands, looking over their familiar brands and packaging lovingly. They were like his closest friends, always there for him in his time of need. He looked up quickly afraid someone would stroll in and find him smiling daftly at a bunch of candy bars but after a moment his shoulders sagged and he remembered that they’d taken Amna’s car out to the nearby mall. She’d come in and asked if he’d like to come along. He scoffed quietly to himself. He was fifteen years old. What self-respecting teenager would want to be seen willingly with his sisters? Not for the first time he felt an unease at thinking of his sisters in such a way but he remembered his friends and what they said about their own families was far worse than he could even imagine and instantly felt better.
He grabbed a tube of candy bits and popped off the cover. He rattled the candy inside and he poured some into his palm. The sweat was no longer there but the fat certainly was. The candy bits looked so small and innocent in his palm. He felt such self-loathing at himself as he lifted the candy to his mouth. He felt the candy melt on his tongue but instead of feeling better he felt worse. Suddenly jerking upwards he threw the tube inside the bag and then hauled the bag itself angrily down the stairs. He almost slipped at the last step but managed to hold his balance miraculously. He looked around but thankfully the house really was empty. If Saleha had been here he would be hearing of this for the next five years, at least. He crinkled his nose at the thought of his younger sister’s cruel streak but then resumed walking down the plushly carpeted hallway towards the front door.
Outside it was humid. There was nothing new about that. The winter months were firmly behind them and summer was reigning supreme. Some poor swallows were roosting up on the jasmine tree and he wondered how they hadn’t managed to shed all their feathers by now. He was already feeling sweat accumulate on his spine and he had barely been outside five minutes.
The street was mostly empty. A group of what looked like Pakistani men sat on a grass lawn underneath some palm trees playing some sort of card game, a large thermos sitting by them. They laughed loudly at something and he glanced back thinking he’d been the target of their mirth. But their attention was still on the game and Salim felt a surge of anger at himself for lacking any sort of confidence. It wasn’t like his fears were unwarranted. He’d had his fair share of jeering and mockery. His friends had stood up for him and had even urged him to give his offender of the day a giant wallop with his big, meaty fist. This had, contrarily to their imagining, only made him feel worse.
Even when he’d been a skinny beanpole of a boy he’d never acquired much strength or interest in sports. Why they thought a wad of fat was supposed to make him any stronger he hadn’t a clue. He hadn’t challenged them on their thoughts, however. Some things were just never meant to be voiced.
He arrived by the trashcan and just as he was about to swing the candy inside saw a boy loitering around on a bike. A little girl who resembled him was leaning against a light pole a few feet away swinging a yo-yo in what he thought was quite a professional manner.
Not thinking this the wisest decision he decided to approach the boy. “Hey.”
The boy frowned at him and turned away but curiousity got the better of him almost instantly and he stopped cycling to abandon his bike by the side of the road. The girl had gotten a whiff of the scene and was drawing close, too.
“Do you want some candy?”
The boy looked at his sister and then back to him suspiciously. “We’re not supposed to take candy from strangers.”
“The candy is sealed, isn’t it?” The girl was clever, Salim had to give her that.
The boy was now done feigning disinterest and like a pair of vultures they descended on the bag. Salim held back a chuckle as he waddled back to his house.
Once inside he breathed a sigh of relief. The heat was indescribable. It didn’t help he was carrying around buckets of fat, either.
He threw himself on the couch and it creaked dangerously beneath him as he turned on the TV. In record time he had barreled through all the channels on his selected favorites which was quite a significant number.
He just didn’t have it in him to care about the lives of fictional characters when he was feeling so heavy. He had to do something about his problem. He had to. He needed to. The thought of bypass surgery had passed his mind but he had overheard his mother talking to his aunt only last month that this surgery was out of the question for how dangerous it was. His aunt, to his chagrin, had only voiced her agreement.
He hadn’t meant to overhear it, either. He was in the kitchen making himself a homemade burger, all the condiments that he loved sitting side by side on the counter. He had rushed himself after that, feeling strangely annoyed, as if the comment had been for his benefit. His aunt visited frequently though and when he sank his teeth into the burger and his eyes rolled back in ecstatic appreciation he knew that it was only his paranoia.
There was that thing, though. Almost no one told him off for his weight. And it wasn’t like he was a little overweight, oh no. He was clinically obese. He knew this because the doctor, bless him, had told him this in the stripped down straightforward way that only doctors had perfected down to a science knew. His pressure was up, his cholesterol was through the roof and he was only fifteen. If he continued on this path then diabetes was a definite future. He’d asked if he played sports; if he had dieted in the past. Just the very thought of diets made him shudder. There was no way he could keep to a diet. Not after that disastrous first attempt with the no-carb diet. He hadn’t wanted to see a burger or heck, even a piece of meat after that. Just the very thought of nuggets made him want to puke and it was a great feat for Salim to want to puke over anything food-related.
He’d gone down eighteen kilograms in less than a month, though. People were congratulating him left and right before he’d gone to a wedding and broke down spectacularly. Goaded by his uncle about a quarter of the giant plate had been devoured. With dollops of yogurt and spoonfuls of chilli tomato rice had never tasted more magnificent. That was truly a night to remember. Of course following that he kissed his diet goodbye and had gained the eighteen kilograms and then some in about the same time.
Thinking on that, it was probably the only time in his life his mother had addressed the subject. He’d just collected an order of fast food one night and was heading inside the house with his bounty when his mother had said that perhaps it was time to cut back on the unhealthy food. There was some grilled fish and steamed rice sitting on the stove if he’d like. He’d muttered something unintelligible and escaped. But the words had weighed heavily on his mind, if he was honest with himself. He thought he’d hated her over them for a while. That had been two years ago. Incredibly, he’d only managed to dig a deeper hole and now all his “big” clothes strained against his body. He hated going to the tailor’s. That was how some days he’d sit by the giant upstairs windows while his mother dutifully took his measurements. She’d been a talented seamstress in the days when going to the tailor had felt like a luxury but now her ancient sewing machine collected dust in the master bedroom closet. She jotted down number after number as she stretched the measuring tape over his shoulders and abdomen, his back and then the full length of his body leaving the required distance between the floor and his ankle so he wouldn’t fall into the hadith that the prophet had warned men against.
Even now, the thought that she’d been trying to guide him in a roundabout way did not sit well with him. But what grated on him more was that a treacherous voice was saying that if she really cared there would be far angrier rows over this. How could she let him gain all this weight? But he was not a child. He was a thinking adult, if truth be told. Sure fifteen was young but not young enough that he marched to whatever supermarket was around and loaded up on the junk food. He had a free will. He still received his allowance same as his sisters did but while they spent it on who knows what girls were into he was sure they didn’t blow it the same way he did.
Outside the athaan for al-Aser carried on. He frowned at the recording that did not even start at the beginning. If they were going to have recordings the very least was that the masajid get it right. A kindergartener can start a recording from the beginning for God’s sake. Feeling twitchy he got up and quickly performed ablution. He sat on the window seat looking out at the dates wrapped in burlap. The birds had no hope of getting to it. He remembered sitting with his grandfather back when he was alive a plate of dates and a coffee thermos all that they needed to be wonderfully satisfied. He felt himself tearing up at the thought of his grandfather and blinked quickly. That was enough time to get to the masjid without sitting idly. Ironically, the more religious you seemed the more you warranted mockery for some reason from the local boys. He wished he could just own himself sometimes but he knew he was not as strong as his brothers.
His brothers attended the masjid on a capricious whim while he had always managed to get himself in the front row on most days. For this he was his mother’s pride and joy, always bragging to whoever would listen at his steadfastness. Other boys his age would turn their nose up, turn the music up, or turn their car around, but not him. He had a healthy fear and a healthy yearning for God that he could not deny. As always, the Pakistani men were amongst the first to get to the masjid. He admired them for this. They were all rather on the lean side, too. On their earnings he doubted they’d go waste it on confectionary the way he did. As he watched them settle by the low tiled sink where they performed ablutions he caught himself thinking of habits. If he could get himself to the masjid five times a day and on time to boot, then why on earth could he not stick to a diet and an exercise regimen? It didn’t make sense to him. The source of his misery was a discipline away.
He headed inside the masjid and it smelled as musty as always. He wished his mother’s incense could be borrowed for half an hour to liven this place up a bit. It wasn’t a bad smell, per se, but it would not be boxed and marketed any time soon, he could fairly say.
As he settled himself in the first row, the boy from before caught his eye and waved. He tentatively waved back and broke eye contact. The prayer was soon performed and just as soon as it had begun it had ended.
No doubt his family was home by now or at least on the way. The mall wasn’t too far so they could afford to be late. It wasn’t the weekend, after all. He had an exam to revise for, too. He tapped his fingers on his phone and it blinked with the various innanities that waited for him to read. He felt it was time to upgrade to another smartphone. Just as he was about to scan through the broadcasts the phone began ringing. He quickly silenced it and exited before receiving it.
“Salim? Where are you?”
“Around,” Salim grumbled. His mother was on high alert after a bunch of youngsters were caught sniffing glue. She’d be reassured (or not) to believe the only addiction he had was readily available in their fridge.
“Well, come on over. We brought ice cream if you’d like and your uncle is here.”
Salim rolled his eyes. His uncle was not high on his list of friends. “I’ll try to come but there’s not many taxis around.”
“Well, who’s with you? If Khalid is with you let him drive you home.”
“All right,” Salim said and the conversation was soon ended.
He flagged down a taxi and decided to go to the corniche. He was glad he’d taken the call. His uncle was an expert at deflating self-esteems and he didn’t think he could take a beating especially today.
The corniche was lively no thanks to the government’s idea of livening it up. There was nothing wrong with it before. Now half-naked people wandered around obstrucing his view and making him extremely uncomfortable. The Arabs, South Asians and his fellow Emiratis were the only ones who took modesty seriously. Well, as he passed a couple of Arabs, MOSTLY Arabs. There were some Arabs who he doubted possesed any idea of modesty.
He managed to get himself down to beach and sat there. Feeling apprehensive he looked to his right and sure enough someone was jogging steadily towards him. Tensing up he only let himself relax when he’d gone on his merry way. But that was just the start. Over the next half hour three more would be marathoners had passed him by. His seat by the beach had taken quite a beating. They were all extremely fit and were exercising. They could all be past clinically obese people like himself or perhaps they were one of those unicorns who did exercise for the sake of doing exercise. Because it allegedly made them feel good or something. He felt uneasy at this thought. But the more he thought about it the more fired up he felt.
Getting up to his feet he saw that the sun was bleeding red across the sky. Twilight was soon approaching and in the distance he saw the blessed image of a masjid.
I’ll head there, he thought. On another day he would not have dreamed of walking all this distance. He was wearing sandals and his kandoura but he wasn’t going to jog, after all – only walk. He could walk it. Over the summer when they had made their way to Italy they had walked everywhere. His eating habits had accompanied him and there had been absolutey zero chances of losing even half a kilogram. But maybe… Maybe if he just walked he might make it a habit. He was a habitual person, after all.
The scenery was colorful around him. Children zigzaged in rollerskates. Couples leant against railings looking out to the sea. People ate icecream, others just sat in large circles. More children were cycling around in hired pedal cars. Cats lounged around trashcans and kind (full) folk.
The sun sank lower and lower until he was almost upon the masjid. His phone was vibrating in his pocket but he ignored it. He was wheezing quite a bit and did not want to reveal what he was doing. It wasn’t like he was ashamed of wanting to exercise but it might put the idea that he was going to make a habit of it. It was going to raise expectations that he might not keep. He did not want to lose face. Despite everything, he had a lot of pride.
The shrubbery and trees had acquired a gray bluish tint. The sun was a half-circle down the sea by now. Slipping a tissue out of his pocket he wiped his wet brow and breathed openly through his mouth. He was fatigued, there was no way around it.
But he could make a habit of it. He was not going to let himself win. The ATV might not handle his weight by next month but maybe if they had gathered the month after that he could fit in comfortably without feeling like he was a burden or that they were humoring him and laughing behind his back.
When the call to al-Maghrib sounded he was glad to hear the first call of Allah Akbar; it had been from the beginning.
And as the day came to an end, he knew tomorrow awaited him and it was a new beginning, too.
Author: Iman Ali