A fictionalized short story based on the man who's death triggered a revolution in the Arab world.
Author: JM Jackson
Illustrated by: Dan Robinson Miller
Edited by: Kimberly Charlton
I remember when Suraj and I used to play in the market as children. We were carefree and bonded as brothers.
Even though I was a year older than Suraj, he was taller. A skinny boy, but very strong. When we wrestled he usually won. I am not just saying this because I miss him. He was very strong. Both in his body and his mind.
Our families often shared meals together. I still see his parents, but not as often as before. I think I remind them of Suraj. I do not wish to cause them pain now he is gone.
When I was ten years old and Suraj was nine, he came to visit our house early one morning. My parents welcomed him with a smile and a kiss. He was very polite to older ones. They offered him some bread and honey for breakfast, but he declined. He had come to collect me for an adventure. I asked my mother and father if I could go out with Suraj. They agreed.
As the sun slowly rose, bubbling on the horizon, Suraj began bubbling with excitement.
We wandered along the streets towards the marketplace. This was our playground. There were many stalls that day, more than usual. A busy day. I think some travellers were visiting with their wares.
I always longed for the fresh fruit that was sold in the morning. Apples and oranges, dates and pomegranates, melons and grapes. As I was staring in a daze at the colours, Suraj grabbed my arm. He said to follow him. He had something to show me. There was a glint in his eye, like a lit match.
I followed. We ducked between two stalls and scrambled below a cart. We sat giggling in the dust. Nobody had seen us. A secret hiding place from which we could watch the sellers.
Suraj suddenly hushed me and became serious. He beckoned me to look over at the stall we had just passed. The seller was weighing out fruit. The scales were old and rusted. Then I noticed something strange. Every time the seller placed some dates on the scales, he dipped his hand into a small bag of sand by his side and sprinkled a layer of sand over the scales. He was like a magician. I wondered why he was doing it.
Suraj stared fixedly at the seller. Still serious. A face older than his years. After several moments, I realised what the seller was doing. He was weighing down the scales in his favour. For the sake of a few tiny coins. The fine sprinkling of sand gradually built up as he weighed out fruit for each customer.
After several minutes, Suraj turned to me and said to follow him. We dove out from underneath our protective cover and dashed back into the main marketplace. Suraj grabbed me by the shoulder and told me to watch what he did next. He turned away from me and started skipping towards the fraudulent seller's stall. As he got closer, he slowed down and mingled with some customers, hiding in their shadows. In an instant, he grabbed an orange from the stall. Then he was back in front of me holding the orange to his nose and inhaling deeply, eyes closed, smiling.
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. He had just stolen some food, which didn't seem like him. But perhaps it was exactly like him. I learned something new about Suraj that day, and I learned something new about myself.
He came out of his trance, then slapped me on the shoulder and rushed past me. Game on. Time to play. I swung around and started chasing him as he burst into laughter and shouted that I couldn't catch him. I laughed too. My muscles pumped. I scrambled after him, kicking up dust, weaving in and out of the crowd. Some adults looked at us with serious faces as we ran past them. I didn't care. We were just two children playing a game.
Suraj's theft seemed like a lifetime ago.
When I finally caught him, we had almost reached my home. He slowed down and feigned exhaustion, letting me catch up with him. I slapped him on the shoulder and he fell to the ground clutching his shoulder as if he had been shot.
We both laughed. We caught our breath. I asked him why he stole the fruit. He sprung to his feet, beckoned with his arm and told me to follow him. I followed him. I always followed him.
We walked between a pair of poor houses down a narrow passageway. A small stream ran down the middle of the path. It didn't flow with water.
After some minutes we saw some children huddled against one of the crumbling walls. They were flicking pebbles at each other. Their eyes searched through us as we approached. I stayed behind Suraj. I hadn't met these children before. Maybe six or seven years old. Dirty faces.
Suraj walked right up to the biggest child and sat next to her. I think it was a girl. Suraj revealed the orange in his hand and offered it to her. She smiled at him, then looked at me, then looked back at Suraj and took the orange and began peeling it.
She handed pieces of the aromatic fruit round to each of the other children. Suraj called me over and made me sit down. We stayed for a while, playing the game with the pebbles.
The girl offered us some of the orange but Suraj declined. When we left, Suraj and I walked back towards my home and my heart felt warm and calm.
When we reached my home, we went inside and my mother welcomed us with her warm smile. Suraj stayed for a while and we had food together as a family. Then he went home to his parents and I was left thinking of the market and the orange and the children and their faces and the dirt and the feelings I had in my heart.
Now I understand why Suraj did what he did when he was older.
Even though he is gone now, he will always be my friend and I will never stop talking to him.
We had a family meal this evening. I decided to stay the night as I don't often see my parents now. If I stay too long, though, they always start annoying me. One night is enough.
It was Suraj's birthday yesterday. He turned twenty. He seemed to be quite proud of himself this evening. I'm not sure why. Perhaps he now sees himself as an adult.
Our father always preferred my little brother when we were growing up. I don't mind, though. He's not our real father anyway. But we don't speak of that.
I remember when we were very young, Suraj and I would be caught doing something mischievous by our new father. This imposter would always beat me hardest. I suppose it was because I was the eldest. It didn't matter if Suraj had started it.
I don't blame Suraj. As little brothers go, he isn't so bad.
I am in my old bedroom now. Finally some peace and quiet. The meal was pleasant enough.
The pictures on the wall always make me uncomfortable, though. They smirk at me. There is a family photograph at the head of the table downstairs. From around ten years ago, I think. I don't remember sitting for it. I don't even remember where it was taken.
We are all blurred, as if in a dream. It looks as if there was fog over the lens. There are four of us. Our lean mother, our fake father, my mischievous brother, and my younger self. These are the faces that smirk at me.
Our fake father tried to keep the conversation flowing throughout dinner. He enjoys talking about his work. He is almost at retiring age, but I don't think he will retire anytime soon.
I don't enjoy listening to him talk about his work. Suraj doesn't either. At least we have that in common.
Suraj kept quiet through most of the meal, but when my mother asked him about whether he had put any more thought into finishing school, he broke his silence and explained his life plan to the room. I don't think she even wanted to raise it. I could tell as soon as she asked the question that our fake father had put her up to it.
'Yes, I've been thinking it over,' Suraj said, finishing off a mouthful of food. 'I'm sure that I've made the right decision. I found out that there is a spot opening up in the marketplace next month. I've put my name on the list. I have enough saved up now for the deposit and handling fee. I can't wait to have my own stall and serve you guys in the morning.'
Any other twenty-year-old I know would have snapped at his mother and told her to mind her own business. That's what I would have done. But Suraj had a calm defiance about him.
He was thrilled about his plans and any negativity brushed off him like water off waxy feathers. Even the fact that the handling fee was simply a bribe didn't seem to affect him.
I wonder what Suraj will be like when he's twenty-six like me. I'll be thirty-two. I wonder if I'll be married. I haven't met anyone yet. I live alone and my life is pretty dull. I don't think Suraj will have a dull life.
I think he's desperate to have a family. Last time we spoke properly he told me about a girl he had fallen in love with. He used those actual words. 'I've fallen in love with her,' he said.
The market stall idea is part of his grand plan of having a family and looking after them. He will be a self-made businessman. He will become a respected member of the local community. Local people will shout out his name at the market and he will smile in return and wave. He will be a brother to all. Generous. Honest. That's Suraj.
I hope he achieves his dreams. I think my dreams have faded. I went to University because my parents wanted me to, especially my fake father. It was the path of least resistance.
I think Suraj is better than me for knowing what he wants to do in life. I've never really spoken to him about it, but I think he can tell I don't really know what to do with my life. He's not stupid. But I'm glad he has a plan. I envy him.
Is it obvious that I worry about Suraj? He left for the market ten minutes ago and I cannot stop worrying. I know something is wrong. It has been eating away at him. He is not the husband he used to be.
But I still love him. With all my soul I love him. Why wouldn't I? He is the father of our two children. He has provided for them from birth. He has provided for me since we married.
I still love him.
I worry that our children will see me worrying and think I do not love him anymore. But that is not true. I still love him. It is not my fault that life twists and turns. But I wish I knew what was wrong.
He is still a young man. Five years and twenty is nothing. He is young. I am young. Why am I having these thoughts when we are so young? Life should be simple and happy.
Please tell me, Suraj, what is wrong? Have I done something? Are you bored of me? I look at myself in the mirror and I see a plain face but I have a strong body. I keep my head covered in respect. I cook and clean and look after our children. I am a dutiful wife.
But this is not about me. This is about Suraj.
I want to ask him what is wrong. But I stop and I panic. I keep a soft smile on my face but my belly is full of fear. I do not want to panic him or make things worse. He will tell me if he wants to.
A knock at the door pulls me away from the mirror and I make sure I am decent before unlatching the door to our humble home. It is Hiran. I am relieved. I do not like strangers knocking. Hiran is not a stranger. I do not trust strangers. I think it is maybe because I do not trust myself.
Hiran greets me and asks after my family. I inform him that we are well and that the children are healthy and happy. He gives me a warm smile.
Hiran is a year older than Suraj. He has a full beard which makes him look even older still. I do not know whether I prefer men with beards or not. But it is not my place to have an opinion, even if I was not married.
Hiran is like a brother to Suraj and they spend a lot of time together. They both work at the market and help each other. Hiran joins us for a meal every week and this makes me happy. I am happy to be hospitable. I am a good wife.
Hiran asks if Suraj is still at home. I inform him that he left for the market ten minutes ago. Hiran relaxes his shoulders as if he is relieved. He does not betray any relief on his face, only with his body.
I should not be noticing his body.
He asks me how I am feeling. I say I am fine. He asks again but with a different tone and I can feel him closer to me even though he hasn't moved a step. I say things are fine again. But I am worried about Suraj. I tell him I am worried about Suraj.
Hiran's features become more attentive. The smile is softened and his brow is knitted. He tells me not to worry. Everything will be fine. I am not sure how he knows this, but he is a trustworthy man, so I try to believe him. I will cry when he leaves. I do not know why, but I will cry.
He says he hopes to see me again soon and reaches out his hand and clasps his hand softly around my upper arm. I can feel him even closer now. As close as I dare to dream.
I will cry when he leaves
When the latch shuts behind me I stumble towards the nearest chair and drop my head into my hands. I feel everything but I am not sure of anything.
Please tell me, Suraj, what is wrong? And please forgive me for my thoughts.
I do not know whether I am happy or sad when I remember our wedding day. Four years and two children. Two lovely gifts from God. I remember that I was filled with excitement and fear on our wedding day. Jumping into the unknown, but in the arms of Suraj, so I felt safe. He still makes me feel safe, even though I feel like I know him less.
Both our parents were joyous on our wedding day. A meeting of two families that respected and loved each other.
Our first embrace was like a lightning bolt. It was perfect. But nothing is ever perfect. I know the truth of the world. Realities I try to ignore but I cannot.
Our intimacy has been fading. I should feel ashamed to admit this, but the shame of not admitting it outweighs the shame of expressing it.
He always used to kiss me on the cheek when he returned home from the marketplace. Now he does not. It is a small thing. But it is a big thing.
I try to remember that he is the same man. He has to be the same man. If he is not, then I am nothing. We are nothing. It is the world's pressures that are affecting him. It will not last. I keep telling myself that. I have to believe it. He has to be the same man.
He is the same man that I met when I was still under the roof of my parents and he showed the other children around him kindness by giving them food. He is the same man who spent time with people below his caste.
But his exterior has been hardened by stress and trials. As his wife, I am here to help him, to love him. I do my best. But why should it be so difficult? He has given me so much. He has given me life. Two happy children and a comfortable home. When I watch the children play, I cannot help but be grateful for every little thing. The toys that they play with. The rug upon which they sit. The dust beneath the rug. Everything. I could not be happier when I watch them play. Yet, I struggle.
He mentions corruption and cheap produce but I do not really understand what he is talking about. Suraj is such an honest man. Why would people not buy from him?
I should just focus on the future. Things will be better. I will hope and pray for life to become easier for Suraj. Life will always have ups and downs. I know this. I will leave it with God and focus on the joys that surround me. Our children. The life we have ahead of us.
He left the house with a clouded mind. Thoughts of his children playing with their toys, their mother smiling over them. Thoughts of their future. Thoughts of a struggle. A bitter taste in his mouth wouldn't give him any peace.
He headed towards the market, through dust and noise. He noticed his friend Hiran walking in the opposite direction on the other side of the street. He didn't notice Suraj. Deep in thought, perhaps.
Suraj reached the market at eight o'clock. He prepared his fruit cart and began selling. In recent months, he had lost all enjoyment for his work. Authoritarian abuse stamped down on him like a boot on a human face. There was only so much more he could take before losing consciousness. His innate positivity was almost dead.
At ten o'clock, the boot appeared. Two police officers walking through the market singled him out.
'Where is your license?' they asked.
'I do not need a license,' he replied.
One of the officers slapped him across the face and spat into his fruit. The other tipped over his cart leaving fruit strewn in the dust and his scales damaged by the fall.
'Brothers, I have no money!' he shouted with his hands clasped together.
As they started to beat him, his body went numb. He began to remember flashes of his childhood through a cloud of sweat and blood that shuddered with every kick.
When he regained consciousness, the policemen had gone. Another seller, an old man, stood over him and helped him to stand. His fruit was ruined and his scales were gone. The bustle of the market continued unabated. The market had no interest in the plight of a lowly fruit seller. The old man encouraged him to go home for the day, clean himself up, see his family.
Suraj defied the old man's advice.
He began walking to the government offices, limping, dripping blood and cursing the inhumanity of humans.
At the entrance he demanded to see the governor. He shouted about the beating and started drawing the attention of passersby. The guards refused to admit him. They had seen it all before. The best way to deal with crazy men was to ignore them. And if they didn't disappear, then a beating would be in order.
The guards laughed at Suraj as he walked away. Another crazy fool who didn't know his place.
Suraj was a fool for wanting to be able to work without having his livelihood stolen by state-endorsed bullies. He was a fool for wanting to provide for his family.
Only ten minutes had passed when Suraj returned to the government offices holding a can of gasoline.
He missed his wife and children terribly.
He raised the can above his head and poured the contents over himself.
Dripping with desperation and defiance, he dropped the can and lit a match.