1 Gentile Security

Gentile Security

By Renad Taher

“The Earthquake Devastated The Land.”

Things like that, plastered all over the internet, under the shade of the stall that the newspaper vendor on the St. Paul intersection, everywhere.

Turkey was getting aid. It was easy to do, just a quick internet search and a few tapped buttons. That was good, the earthquake shook their ground and shook their hearts. How could your entire world not crumble before your eyes when your home was in ruins? How could you feel anything but frightened, surrounded by the ruins of where your life and your children’s lives were written in the rubble that surrounded you?

Dalia Ansari knew they were suffering. Barely sixteen years old, Dalia knew that pain was deep there. Surroundings, she learned, were a part of mentality.

The people there were surrounded by their broken homes. The people there were in a desolate, colorless world of towering buildings and rubble under their feet. They saw the people who survived, they saw the people who didn’t. They saw each other under the rubble and cried and lost and lived together. They mourned and they moved into tents in parks they played in and in schools they studied in, and they flinched away from buildings on the street and they wept.

She watched, engrossed, as the news reporter showed the destruction in Turkey. Her eyes were dry, something she hadn’t expected when she watched the broadcast. Dalia was emotional, it was a fact. The grass is green and Dalia cries easily, but something was different today.

The woman on the screen, on a hospital bed with tubes in her nose suddenly cried out her daughter’s name, and Dalia’s eyes darted to her mother. She was distracted, watching Dalia’s younger brother. Dalia’s eyes returned to the screen, staying quiet. She wanted to scream Look! Look at these people, and look at us, and look at how good we have it, do something!

She stayed silent, eyes fixed on the TV screen, as the scene shifted again, to a wheelchair crushed under rubble. Her hands flew up to her mouth, trying to muffle the gasp that escaped her lips.

Oh my God, she thought, sharply, Oh my God, oh my God-

A whine from her brother cut off her soundless panic. Her head whipped around to face him, heart pumping and blood infused with adrenaline, but there was nothing.

There was nothing. There was nothing she could do. She was over here, living life like a queen, and they were there and she wasnt, and- She shut off the television, hands shaking. She needed to move.

“I’m going on a walk!” She yelled, getting off the couch. No one made any indication that they heard her, but she knew they would assume that’s where she was. She’d been going on a lot more walks lately.

She slipped into her room, tossing on her favorite light blue varsity jacket, ignoring the fact that she was in her pajamas. She ruffled through her closet for her favorite hijab, a muted blue jersey headscarf her friend gave her. She wrapped it, not so much as sparing a glance at the mirror.

The comforting soft fabric kept her ears warm as she opened the front door and stepped out into the biting cold. Her hands slipped into her pockets, and she closed the door behind her, taking a deep breath of the cool Minnesota air.

The leaves were a bright mosaic of fiery red and muted gold on the dying grass. Nature was getting ready for winter.

They couldnt get ready. The people in Syria and Turkey couldnt get ready for that earthquake. No one could. They were trapped in their own waking nightmares, and they couldn’t go outside and take a breath and leave the rubble behind them, because it was everywhere. It surrounded them, they couldnt just turn it off, and reparations were such a large and daunting idea that no one knew how to approach it.

Dalia shook herself off, hopping off her unfinished porch and sprinting off her lawn. Her feet hit the street pavement with a steady thump, thump, thump, and the air was cold and crisp and clear, and everything was behind her, just for a moment.

Exhaustion overcame her quickly. She slowed to a walking pace, trying to get rid of the ice in her lungs. The sun was setting, and Dalia could see the pale dot of the moon in the sky. Halfway through Ramadan, the moon was full again (The pink moon her brain supplied for April). She stood there, gazing at it for a moment, before snapping out of her stupor. God. Here you are, enjoying all these blessings, and theyre suffering so much, and youre helpless to it all.

She remembered, faintly, that they hadn’t given sadaqah this Ramadan yet.

An idea began to form.

She pulled her phone out again, switching to her Phone app, clicking on the contact. Dialing Cousin Zazu <3

“Zahra,” she said, a little breathless, into the speaker, ”Can you fit something in your bag?”

“What do you have in mind?” Zahra asked. Dalia grinned, unable to help it.

“Hold up- I’m biking over,” Dalia said, excitedly.

I can do something. Oh my God, I can do something.


Selma hated her name.

When she was little about six, her father had sat with her, spinning her a tale of a bright future. He told her, smiling the way he always did, Your name means secure. Insha’ Allah, one day, me and your mom will secure you a wonderful, happy life. Just trust us, habibti. Well have it all planned out for you, and you wont have to worry one bit. He smiled fondly, bopping her on the nose and smoothing her hair back. Selma was pretty sure she smiled, back then.

He lied. Ten years later, last night, they dug her parents out of the rubble.


Selma didn’t remember much, and what she did remember was blurry and panicked. She faintly recalled being pulled away by her Uncle Khalid. Then it was a fuzzy haze of desperate clawing and fighting, trying to run towards the stretcher and being pulled away again, and again, and again.

She never saw him.

Now, nothing was secured. Everything was just wrong, wrong, wrong, and she couldn’t make it stop. It was everywhere, on the floor, in the sky, in her uncle’s eyes, inside her, squeezing her lungs dry and leaving her empty.

She shook herself off. She glanced around their pathetic tent, searching for her jacket. Shifting to sit up, she felt her joints protest to the jarringly different “bed” she slept on. She found a scrap of light coral under one of the blankets, and she pulled out her mother’s rain jacket.

Slipping it on, she relaxed slightly. It was around eighty degrees outside, but for once, she didn’t care. Mama loved this jacket too, her mind helpfully reminded her. She faltered, before crawling out of the tent.

You cant think like that. She reprimanded herself. You just cant.

She took a deep breath, choking on the thick, musty air. The sun was shining brightly, and it filled her with unnatural fury. Why did she get to be so joyful, while were over here, barely breathing?

It just wasnt fair. Im not supposed to bury my parents, not yet. Her hands started shaking.

“Are you ready?” Uncle Khalid asked her patiently. He held out his hand, but Selma shrugged, hugging her arms around herself.

Last night, after they found Selma’s parents, Uncle Khalid brought her to a medical tent. She screamed the whole way, they told her. When they arrived, they rejected her, already swamped with the newest wave of injured Syrians, and with the limited number of tents and supplies, Selma didn’t blame them. The pain didn’t really register, anyway, so she supposed her own body’s painkillers would have to do for now.

Later that day, they were supposed to head down to the grave site, taking that stupid pick with a number and sticking it six feet above her parents, amidst a sea of thousands more. They couldn’t even do Ghusl Mayyit right, because the body was already decomposing. Auntie Haniya told Uncle Khalid that it would be done with dirt. He hadn’t moved, but Selma could tell he was uncomfortable with the idea. She was too.

They set off, herded with the rather large crowd of others heading towards the same tent. It was a quiet walk, considering these were Syrian streets, but so many cars and so many people were crushed under the chunks of their houses, and no one could muster words. It seemed fitting, with the red-hot angry grief that was broiling in the pit of her stomach. She wondered, faintly, if anyone else felt the same gnawing in their skin, turning them inside out.

The tent wasn’t far. They arrived there within ten minutes, and Uncle Khalid wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She knew it was so he didn’t lose her, but—

“Don’t touch me!” she shouted, breaking the silence. A few heads turned their way, but it was soon lost in the sounds of a busy hospital. Uncle Khalid’s eyes widened slightly, and his hands drew away, behind his back. Selma felt a stab of guilt, but she buried it under the rubble.

The tent was a stark white, sticking out like a sore thumb against the muted tan of the buildings that surrounded it. Selma’s shoulders instinctively raised at the still-standing structure in front of her. It should have been fine, she’d seen that building a million times, but…. She looked away, trying to distract herself with the buzzing inside the medical center. She caught sight of bright blue shirts, weaving in and out of the mass of people inside.

It’s so blue, she thought, stunned. Colors are actually real.

Engulfed by the hue of buildings and dust, it was hard to see the rest of the spectrum in her surroundings, but the bright blue reminded her of the Mediterranean Sea, back when they lived near the shore. It brought back memories of pails in the sand and learning how to swim with her parents.

Oddly enough, the reminder didn’t hurt quite as much as it did earlier that morning.

“As-salamu alaykum,” A woman with a blue shirt and a white, long-sleeved shirt underneath greeted them, fiddling with her hijab. It was just as bright as her shirt, but a little darker. It looked like the waves of the ocean to Selma, hopeful and calming.

“Wa-alaykum assalam,” Uncle Khalid responded. “We’re here for my niece. She got hurt last night. Fell on the rubble.” He explained. She nodded, taking a glance at Selma.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked, leaning down to look her in the eyes.

Selma couldn’t make herself say anything. The words were lodged in her throat, and she felt her stomach turn. Oh God, oh God, oh God-

“Selma,” Her uncle responded for her. The word itched at her skin, and she could feel the rage bubbling in her veins.

“Don’t call me that.” She snapped, again, “Nothing is stable anymore.”

The stranger in the blue shirt furrowed her eyebrows. “Maybe not now,” She started, “But it will be again. I promise.” She held out her hand, pinky out. Slowly, carefully, Selma linked her own pinky with the lady’s.

“Now come with me,” She said, gesturing towards the tent.

They walked in, and Selma was engulfed by the too-close crowd, and the walls were closing in and the ceiling was falling on top of her and-

The shrill cry of a baby cut off her spiral. I recognize that voice Her hands flew to her mouth. Its not Nadir. It’s not, its not, Nadir is dead, that cant be him.

Uncle Khalid heard it too, Selma could tell. His eyes darted around, trying to find his son. His eyes glassed over. “Nido, Nido, Nido,” he muttered, over and over.

Selma suddenly wanted to cry. The nickname reminded her of a little boy, not even a year, babbling his own name. Ni-do! He’d giggle, Ni-do! And Mama would laugh and Nadir’s mom would clap, and the two sisters would pull out their phones and start recording. Even Selma had recorded him, once. The phones were still somewhere under the rubble, videos lost to broken buildings and crumbling homes.

“Come on,” she whispered, tugging her uncle along, “Let’s go, Uncle,”

He didn’t say anything.

They followed the lady with the bright blue shirt and the darker hijab through the tent. There was a choking feeling of loss that overwhelmed the area that Selma recognized from the entire city. It’s in the air, it’s in the earth, it’s inside everyone, it’s all-consuming, and it’s so much bigger than anything Selma could have imagined.

“Here we are,” The woman said, gesturing at a small cot. Selma hesitated, not quite willing to let go of her uncle, but with an almost imperceivable push, she sat.

“Where are the most injuries?” The lady, probably a doctor, asked. Selma rolled up her pant leg, wincing as the fabric rubbed against the scrapes. Her hands, still bandaged, hurt a little when she curled them up, but she was somehow still riding on the adrenaline from the night before.

The doctor lady frowned.

The rest of the visit was a blur. It was hard to focus on the volunteer worker when the tent was like sitting in a room with a hundred TVs on at full blast. Selma’s ears hurt, but she didn’t have the heart to say anything. It was better than the suffocating silence outside, she supposed. At least here, the people acted alive. At least theres noise.

She felt the angry sting of alcohol on her knees and shins, something she was used to for small scrapes, but never anything of this size. Her fingers dug into the cot, and she grit her teeth.

“I know,” the lady said, “I know. It’ll be over soon.”

Selma tried to breathe, barely managing to ask, “What’s your name?”

The woman didn’t look up, but Selma could feel her shifting as if she was going to. After a short moment, she responded, “Zahra. Zahra Ansari.”

Selma breathed out sharply, trying to ignore the sharp stab of pain rocketing up her leg. It felt like her knees were on fire, like the alcohol was buzzing and burning its way into her skin, seeping into every cell. Instead of acknowledging Zahra’s response with words, she nodded.

Finally, the pain faded out, leaving her with bandages wrapping her legs and teary eyes. Selma wiped her face with the bandages on her hands, wincing when it hurt. Now that she had felt the sting of antiseptic on already-bad-enough wounds, every little pain was coming back tenfold. “We’re done,” Zahra announced softly, standing up and inspecting the bandaging, “That’s it.”

She paused, then looked at Selma again. Selma could have sworn she saw her muttering to herself, but over the din of the makeshift hospital, she couldn’t hear it. Unkle Khalid took that as a sign to go, pushing up off the wall he was leaning on and gathering their (rather pathetic) things.

(It was only his hat.)

“Wait,” Zahra said, just as she was about to stand up, “Let me just…” She trailed off, looking around the room frantically before darting back into the crowd. Selma and Uncle Khalid just sat there for a minute, too untethered to think of moving. She said to wait, so we wait, Selma thought.

(Even she could tell she needed direction. In a crisis like this, with her parents and cousins and family dead)

Zahra didn’t take long, back before either Selma or Uncle Khalid could muster up the brainpower to say something. She has some sort of blue bundle, Selma noticed as she bobbed and weaved through the people milling about.

Surely enough, she reached the place she had left them, nodding when someone told her something Selma couldn’t hear.

“Selma!” Zahra called out, shifting the thing in her hands to wave, “I have something for you!”

She placed the blue roll of what Selma could now identify as fabric in Selma’s arms. Cautiously, Selma unfolded the material to find a light blue varsity jacket.

It wasn’t even dirty.

“It’s from my cousin,” Zahra explained, “She said to give this to someone I thought needed it. It was her favorite.”

Selma didn’t say anything, still gazing at the pastel blue varsity jacket. She couldn’t quite draw her eyes away, transfixed by the actual color. Someone out there, someone she didn’t know sent her something she loved, and gave it to Selma.

“What’s her name?” Selma asked, barely breathing.

“Dalia,” came the soft reply.

Quietly, Selma slipped off her mother’s jacket, putting on Dalia’s instead. The inside was almost fluffy, with a soft lining that felt soothing on her skin. The fire underneath was quieter, less aggressive, and Selma felt like she could breathe again.

Her mother’s jacket sat beside her on the cot, innocently a muted, tarnished pink. Selma couldn’t face the echo that hid underneath its smooth outside. It was like holding a reminder; it was comforting, but it held bad memories.

“Ahlam wouldn’t mind,” Uncle Khalid said, reading her thoughts.

Dalia’s jacket for Selma’s jacket. It was only fair.

She pulled a gum wrapper out of her (old?) jacket, scribbling a quick note. Placing it back in her pocket, she thrust her mother’s jacket to Zahra. “Can you give her this one?”

Zahra nodded, smiling. She looked like she was about to say something, but before she could, someone ushered Selma and Uncle Khalid out of the tent. Stepping away from the hospital, Selma put her hands in her pockets, finding a slip of paper. She pulled it out, reading a phone number, followed by ‘call me when you can’

Four years later, when the power lines returned, she did.


Anoka County Library Write On! 2023 Short Story Contest Winners Copyright © 2023 by Avrie Siedschlag; Ella Howard; Greta Graham; Renad Taher; Rachel Mueller; Daniel Gbati; Julia McBride; Audrey High; Lucia Floan; Rhett LeBeau; Anna Moline; Hannah Jemming; Valomi Lewis; Fen Hendren; Kathryn Downs; Megan Nguyen; Lizzie Elsenpeter; Sophia Accord; and Sophia Acord. All Rights Reserved.

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