Unexpected Letters

Chapter One of Inner Demons

By Aisha Zahid, Afreen Razvi, Sumayya (writing) & Muhammad Mijil Pamungkas (art)

Hanan was not mad. He just felt resigned. As he mopped the cracked hardwood floor, his cheeks flushed with exertion and beads of sweat lining his forehead, he couldn’t help but wonder why he gave in so easily. Why was he mopping the floors for the third week in a row? The lecture his grandmother had given him many years ago came back to him now, “Learn to say ‘no’,” she’d told Hanan.  “Don’t make excuses or try to over-explain yourself. Just decline.”  If only it was as easy as that.

Hanan had just moved to dip his mop into the bucket of soapy water when maman walked in. Her presence pierced through his thoughts. Hanan passed his mother a smile, which she was quick to return.

“Working as usual,” maman spoke as she moved towards the kitchen adjacent to the verandah. Sunlight fell over her salt and pepper hair and it gleamed. “Let me guess, her majesty declined our wishes once again?”

Hanan forced a smile. “She was planning something. Said it was for a friend and she shouldn’t have any more house chores dumped on her. I didn’t want to interrupt her work.” 

“You’re not doing her any favours. She’s going to have a tough time looking after her own when she grows up,” maman paused on her way to the kitchen and looked back at him with disapproving eyes. “You won’t be around to do her bidding forever.”

Hanan moved a chair to the side, and it screeched. He rubbed the cloth over the spot. “Ma, let her be. She won’t be so young forever.” At least, that’s how he’d justified it to himself. He too had a hard time imagining his crazy little sister ever growing up.

Maman sighed. Whether it was one of frustration or agreement, Hanan couldn’t tell.  “We’re having falafel for dinner tonight. Have you had your bicycle repaired yet? You need to get me the chickpeas.”

Hanan shook his head. “The payment, Maman. Armin can’t get it back for me without payment.”

When on one rainy day Hanan had punctured the tire of his trusty bicycle, Armin had offered the services of an acquaintance who could transform the bike to ‘as good as new’. If only Hanan had known then what he was getting into. His bike now looked almost worse than before with an oddly mismatched tire in the place of the punctured one. The repair bill mounted the skies. 

Maman pursed her lips and left to the kitchen without a word. Hanan followed in her wake, waiting for her reaction; it would come even if she acted as though she was above taking a dig at a half-witted young man. Even the flies in their house were aware of exactly how fond maman was of Armin. It was hilarious, to say the least.

“Next time, you leave Armin out,” maman chided as she set to work in her kitchen. “He makes easy things difficult. How can he be so stupid when his mother is such a strong-willed woman? I’ve seen her work at the masjid. Bold woman, she is. I feel sorry for her. I have a good mind to give him a piece of my mind next time I see him.”

Hanan pulled a bottle of milk out of the refrigerator. “I’ll come up with something. I need that bike back.”


Dinner was an event as far as The House was concerned. ِAbba was home from work and not in a hurry to get to it just yet; he still had twelve hours before the next day. Despite being home, however, he wasn’t frequently without some paper or journal in his hand. Still, at least he was present. Hanan, Farid and Avalie set the table and maman took turns talking to each member of the family while the others listened. Unspoken rules ran The House.

Abba seemed to be in a different world today with his nose buried deep into the day’s paper. Maman narrowed her eyes at abba, waiting patiently for him to look up. The pin drop silence made Avalie crack up, but this sudden outburst too went unnoticed by their father.

“Abba,” Avalie finally said, wiping her eyes and trying not to look at maman. “Abba.”

“Yes Avalie, you can talk.”

“We’re here and we’re hungry,” she said in a small, amused voice. “We can start when you’re ready.”

Abba suddenly looked up from his paper with a sheepish look on his face. “Yes, of course.” He put away his paper, “bismillah.” 

Dinner began and maman spoke to each child in turn. Hanan’s siblings tried their best to come up with the most politically correct answers to her pointed questions. Avalie had indeed started studying for her May exams but seemingly couldn’t remember how far she’d gotten with her preparations due to the many subjects she was studying together. Farid was doing well at work and his epilepsy was under control. He’d bought his new prescription and even felt the new tablets worked better than the old ones. Hanan didn’t mention he’d noticed Farid coming home later than usual for the past week. Nor that he hadn’t seen Farid swallow a tablet for a while. As for Hanan, 

“And how are your studies coming along Hanan? We can hire a tutor for your final exams. Remind us again, which colleges are you applying to?”

Before he could answer, a loud rapping on the door took everyone’s attention. 

“We’re not expecting anyone, are we?” maman asked. 

Avalie wasted no time as she hastily pulled on her chador and ran to the door – anything to get away from maman’s second hand lectures on her studies. She came back with a stack of parched envelopes.

“Mailman ran into problems earlier today so the mail’s late. Thank God, I thought Mina didn’t write to me this month!” she said in an exaggerated tone which Hanan knew was an effort to make maman forget what they’d been talking about. He didn’t mind, he wasn’t fond of the topic himself. Hire a tutor? Like they could afford that.

Avalie read out the names on the letters. When she picked out a letter for Farid, Farid’s eyes widened and he mumbled a few incoherent words before he snatched the letter and pocketed it out of sight. 

As usual, Avalie had received the most mail. Her pile consisted of an assortment of letters, magazines and other packages – all from her friends. She was quite popular with her friends. Hanan didn’t care much for the mail and continued with his dinner. He watched, with mild interest, his family sorting out their mail. The last letter, however, caught his eye. He recognized the seal from somewhere. 

Avalie looked at him, raising an eyebrow, “This is for you,” she said and held the letter out to him. “Ibn Rushd Academy? You didn’t tell us you applied.”

Hanan hurriedly wiped his hands on the table cloth, not without earning a glare from maman, and grabbed the letter. The parched paper was cold to his touch. Hanan ignored the sudden jolt that ripped through his chest. He could feel the eyes of them all on him – curious, inquisitive eyes. He couldn’t ignore the flurry of different emotions that surged through him as he scanned through the letter.

“Erm, abba, maman, I–” he struggled to find words to explain the letter.  “I applied to the academy a while ago. The teachers thought it would be a good idea but I didn’t really mean to do it. They kind of forced me to. I don’t have to go.”

Hanan’s family stared at him. 

“Are you stupid?” Avalie broke the silence.

His parents and Farid started speaking together. 

“This is great! You should go!” exclaimed Farid. 

“Ya Allah! I knew you were ambitious but I didn’t think you’d get into Ibn Rushd!” His mother was talking more to herself than anyone else, “Oh, I heard Layla’s son went there and now he works in the ministry. It’s really such a surprise! Not that I didn’t think you weren’t smart enough, no, of course not, but I couldn’t have imagined that you’d really apply…”

“Well done, son. Congratulations, this is very good news.” Abba put a hand on Hanan’s shoulder and smiled for what seemed like the first time in a long while. “Ibn Rushd has medical courses too, doesn’t it? It’ll be a brilliant opportunity to get a head start on your subjects. I must say, I didn’t think you were up to much staying home all the time and only meeting with that Armin, but you really did a damn great thing here, didn’t you?”

“Hayat!” maman rebuked. “Language! Please!”

“A man gets excited sometimes, woman. Let me live,” abba chuckled. 

Hanan’s parents looked at him expectantly but when he said nothing his mother spoke, “Well, when do you leave, dear?” 

“I don’t want to go, maman,” Hanan said looking into his mother’s eyes and paused for a few moments before he continued. “It’s a great academy and all but really it’s not worth my time. I can start college right away, why would I waste a year before that? The sooner I graduate, the better.”

“And why don’t you want to go?” maman asked, puzzled.

“Because – because it’s a waste of time!” he said, feeling flustered because of the attention. 

“He’s lying,” Farid cut in. Hanan shot him a dirty look. As if Farid didn’t have his own secrets.

“Hanan,” his father said gently and looked at Hanan with a serious expression. “Why don’t you want to go?”

Hanan struggled to make an excuse. He couldn’t say the reason; not to his parents, anyway. “I, erm, I don’t like being away from home. I’d rather be here, with you guys. Go to college, come home, uh, get groceries, you know. That sort of thing,” he paused before another, better excuse formed in his mind.

“And!” he added with more confidence, speaking animatedly and making wild gestures, “I hate studying! I only do what I need to do and never more! A year away from home studying? Pfft, not a chance!” he smiled at his parents now, sure that he had made a valid case for himself.

Hanan glanced at Avalie who had been watching him quietly. Suddenly, he saw the gears moving in her head and knew she’d figured him out. “Oh,” she said quietly, not knowing whether or not to expose her brother. Hanan gave her a hard look. 

The exchange did not go unnoticed by maman. “Avalie, what is it? Why does your brother not want to go?”

Avalie swallowed, “He just doesn’t want to go, we really shouldn’t force him–”

“Avalie.” Said abba sternly. “Why doesn’t he want to go?”

Avalie sighed and looked down at the table, “Ibn Rushd is expensive. He doesn’t think we can afford it.”

“What! No, that’s not–” Hanan began but promptly shut up seeing his father’s look.

“You will go. Don’t worry about the money,” abba spoke with finality.

Hanan looked down at his falafels that had now gone cold. There was nothing more to be said. He was going to Ibn Rushd Academy right after his exams. He wouldn’t need to wait for his results. 


Hanan left home after he’d checked and rechecked everything was in place. First,  maman’s requirements for her Saturday masjid class had been arranged for. Avalie’s ‘something for a friend’ turned out to be a welcome party hosted at their own home. He made sure she had all the things she needed and, more importantly, Farid would have somewhere else to be when their house would be taken over by teenage girls. Poor Farid didn’t keep many friends and now Hanan was leaving too. Farid reassured him he’d be fine, it wasn’t like he didn’t have any friends. 

The pieces were coming together quite nicely for Hanan, much to his chagrin. The train ticket was confirmed and bought, maman wasted no time assembling his luggage, and Avalie was over the moon with everything that awaited him. With the promise of writing to them frequently, Hanan left.

Hanan groaned at the sight of Armin at the train station, leaning against the platform column, his hair parted in the middle. Hanan held back a smile as he approached him, his lone dusty brown suitcase behind him.

“Friend,” Hanan nodded.

“Friend,” Armin grinned back. Hanan saw a missing tooth. “I got your bicycle fixed. And paid for it.”

Hanan creased a brow. “You know how to get me into trouble.”

Armin grinned. “Do you want me to keep it until you are back?”

“Abba is at home,” Hanan muttered as he watched hordes of people board the train, his eyes trailing to the rusty clock perched on a column not far away. “He’ll get it from you.”

Armin cocked his head, “Actually, I’m gonna drop by Faravan myself. Cousin’s wedding, you know how it is. I’ll get you the bike there. I can do that for you. I’m a great friend, you know?”

“Sure,” Hanan said absentmindedly. His bike was probably as good as dead by now. “You do that.”

“Anyway, Ibn Rushd, huh? I heard they make you work with cow dung.”

“They probably will,” Hanan replied as he read through the details on his ticket. He glanced up once at the platform number encased on the train, and then at the car number. “Trying not to think too much about it.”

Shrill laughter caused Hanan to move his focus away from the rough ticket and his friend’s horrified looks to a small crowd of women gathered together and huddled at the distant end of the platform. Hanan was quick to notice their widened eyes and recoiled exteriors. This group was a melting pot of ages – young, old and everything in between. Hanan even caught sight of a couple of children, closely huddled next to their female accomplices. The only oddity Hanan could comprehend was how there was no man amongst them, and how they weren’t dressed in local attire. 

He caught the gaze of a very young boy staring back at him with an expression that he guessed mirrored his. The boy’s eyes narrowed, scowling at the staring stranger. Hanan looked away, sorry, little guy, didn’t mean to scare you.

“Are they from our city?” he questioned Armin. “Don’t look so.”

“Because they’re not,” Armin eyed him. “Been pouring into the city. Up to no good, if you ask me.”

“Yeah,” Hanan snorted, unable to mask the sarcasm in his voice. “I’ll take your word for it.”


Hanan had rarely travelled by train. He watched with wide eyes everything going on around him. When Hanan noticed his fellow travellers in the car pull out their boxes, an incredibly delicious smell wafting in the air and his stomach grumbled. He had only packed dinner which wasn’t for hours.

He offered his midday prayers in congregation at the very end of the car and quite unintentionally eavesdropped on a vivid debate on the many different ways the inflation rate could be stabilized. Hours later, he boarded a cramped bus and twisted into his seat a little so his back was turned to the others. Advantages of a window seat. He quietly chewed on his fried vegetables and drank down the yogurt. He finished dinner with a gulp of water.

Soon, he fell asleep with his head resting against the window. Hanan woke up with a start when the bus came to a sudden, screeching halt. By now, most of the bus had emptied. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and watched silhouettes in shades of brown and black get off the bus. 

“Get off, boy,” an old man next to him grumbled, and Hanan creased his brows.

“Why, sir?”

“Your stop. It’s here.”

When Hanan remained as clueless as ever, the man pointed to his bus ticket. 

“Bin Hamid Street. Here. Get off.”

Hanan nodded and pulled his luggage behind him to the bus door. He glanced around for any sign of the people he just saw get off, but they were all gone. Hanan whirled around in shock as the bus door shut loudly. The big bus rumbled noisily as it accelerated and drowned out the chaos in his thoughts. Hanan stood alone in the middle of a street with just one name staring down at him.

Ibn Rushd Academy For Young Men.

Copyright © 2020 Aisha Zahid, Afreen Razvi & Sumayya

About the Authors

Aisha Zahid is a college freshman with a soft corner for handwritten letters, flowers, and art. She’s been reading since her early years and writing for 5 years now. She’s currently in the process of writing her own book, which she hopes to publish in the near future.

Afreen Razvi is a dentist by day, writer by night, a staunch debater and an avid reader.

Links: Tumblr | Instagram

Muhammad Mijil Pamungkas is an artist from Indonesia. “Art is a line around your thoughts.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *