By Neil D. Desmond
Elise was not looking forward to her next “assignment.” He did not give his name, saying only that he was from Karachi but had lived in London for nine years. “Why are youback?” she wondered.
“Well, I’m here for a while now, my dad’s not doing well. I used to come here, to this place, before I went to England. I’m not the kind of guy who, you know, makes much headway with the ladies.”
She had figured as much. He was average looking, and quite awkward. He had no swagger. She could see he wasn’t what women wanted.
“Is this what you do in London, also?”
“Yes, this is kind of how it is for me.”
He had used his “nerd pass” -computer expertise, to escape a hardscrabble life in Pakistan and emigrate to the U. K. He now dual citizenship.
“Well, this isn’t London,” she replied, her voice adopting a cautionary tone. “And Karachi has changed since you left. I hope you know what part of town you’re in. I hope you don’t get lost down here. The police won’t come to this part of Karachi. The military won’t come to this part of Karachi.”
His name was Adnan and he was thirty two years old. When he first started visiting brothels, about twelve years prior, he was surprised at the type of conversations the young women would engage him in. In fact, he was surprised they wanted to converse with him at all. They did, and it was real conversation. There was no surface baloney. He quickly realized these women had difficult histories which had led them to their current circumstances. He didn’t know the details, but he knew their histories had been painful. None of them were in a brothel because a sister had stolen jewelry and refused to return it. He knew there was a lot more to it, and maybe that’s why he kept coming back.
He sat on the bed and looked up at her. She slowly removed her robe, unveiling herself
to him. She had to play along, no matter how skeptical she was about the encounter. At the age of twenty five, she felt her beauty and sex appeal may indeed justify the attention and compliments she frequently received from her visitors. As Adnan lavished more of the same towards her, she smiled and performed a slow, 360 degree turn around for him.
He stood up and pulled her closer. She realized he was going to kiss her first, perhaps even make out with her first. This was uncommon, but not unheard of in her experience.
Generally, she didn’t like this part, but it was better than what was to follow. He ran his hands through her hair, then kissed her gently and passionately for some time. His hands respectfully and considerately caressed her body as he continued kissing her. She found herself enjoying the encounter much more than she had expected she would. She placed two fingers on his chin, interrupting a kiss. She found herself looking into his face. He was more handsome, and less awkward, than she had thought. “You’re sweet,” she opined, smiling at him.
Eventually he made love to her, an experience which lasted longer and pleased her more
than she had expected. Only one customer of the many in her mental rolodex could claim to
have equaled him. He was a tall, young lawyer from Karachi who had visited her about two
months prior. She hadn’t seen him since.
As Adnan was cleaning up, he griped, “Oh, damn.”
“What, what is it?”
“Well, the condom broke.”
This didn’t concern her as much as it did him. “Don’t worry about that, it’s happened
before,” she advised.
“I suppose it has,” he acknowledged.
“When are you going back to England?”
Her arms were folded as she sat up against the bed’s headboard and watched him get dressed. She noticed a large, round birth mark in his upper right chest area.
“I’m not sure, it depends on how things go with my dad.”
“I hope your dad gets better. Listen, I want you to visit me again.”
“I might, we’ll see…”
“And not just for the money,” she inserted, interrupting him.
He stopped what he was doing and looked at her. They held eye contact silently for four or five seconds. “Come here,” he instructed her. She approached him and they embraced.
Their hug lasted about twenty seconds before he started letting go. She let go of him as well, but did not step back when the embrace ended. She just stood there, looking at him from a foot or two away. After another ten or twelve seconds, he began to speak when she suddenly pulled him back into another embrace. He swallowed whatever words he had intended to say to her. This hug was closer and lasted longer than the previous one. Her arms were wrapped tightly around his shoulders and neck while her face was buried in his chest. He didn’t dare pull away this time, keeping her in his arms until and unless she ended the hug. After a while, she slowly began to loosen her hold on him.
Later that evening, after four more customers had come and gone, she noticed a white plastic card on the floor. She picked it up and recognized the man in the photograph in the upper left corner of the card. It was Adnan. He had dropped a security card issued by his employer, a computer security firm in London.
Three months passed, and Elise’s difficult life continued uneventfully. She slept during
the morning, did some chores, and read newspapers in the afternoon. She had sex with men
throughout the night. Adnan has not visited her since the night she met him. She had hoped he
would return (to retrieve his security card, if for no other reason), but he had not. She still had the card among her personal possessions. It was her only link to one of the few special memories she’d had in her adult life.
One afternoon, while reading the newspaper in the “employee’s lounge”, Elise and two of
her co- workers were approached by the brothel’s owner. He was short, overweight and in his fifties.
“Get your things and go,” he abruptly decreed. The ladies were stunned and looked at
him silently. “The Taliban gave me an ultimatum. They told me to shut the place down or they
would shut it down – their way. None of us want that.”
The three women looked at each other in disbelief. Finally, Elise turned to the owner.
“Where will we go? I have no place to go.”
“Let’s be clear about one thing. Where any of you go or end up is not my responsibility
or my problem. That said, I will give you the names and addresses of a couple of shelters for
“I didn’t know there were shelters for women in this part of Karachi,” Elise responded,
raising one eye brow.
“Most people didn’t know there were brothels here either,” he replied.
The shelter’s accommodations were a little better than the brothel’s, but not much. At least there wasn’t a parade of men marching in and expecting sex. Elise was given no specific time table for how long she could stay, but it was made clear to her that she could not stay indefinitely.
Shelter, however, was not foremost in her mind in the days following her departure from the brothel. Sickness was. Throughout the day, she experienced spells of nausea. Intense, relentless nausea. She wondered what was wrong. Did she have food poisoning? Did she drink unsafe water?
One night, the nausea awakened her in the middle of the night. She drifted in and out of
sleep for some time. The moon slightly illuminated the room as she lay quietly in bed. At around three thirty a. m., her eyes opened widely. She was no longer half asleep. She suddenly realized what was happening to her, and it was neither food poisoning nor a water borne illness.
Being unwed and pregnant in some parts of the world is not a happy set of circumstances. In 2002, a woman named Safran Bibi in Kohat, Pakistan was sentenced to death by stoning for having a child out of wedlock. Her defense at trial was that her pregnancy had been the result of a rape, and that she could not have prevented it. Her defense was set aside by the magistrate presiding over her case. It was not that the magistrate did not believe her claims. He made no ruling on whether the incident was consensual or forced. He didn’t have to, as it was irrelevant under the law. (-The New York Times, May 17, 2002, “In Pakistan, Rape Victims are Criminals”, reported by Seth Mydans.)
Not knowing who to turn to or who she could trust, Elise was now in a state of panic. Her pregnancy had not started to show yet, but she knew it wouldn’t be long. She knew she had to come up with some sort of plan – fast.
For the next few days, she was in a sort of mental fog and didn’t leave the shelter at all. She spent her time between hoping that an answer would come to her and brainstorming to come up with one. One afternoon, while watching the news on television, a story was broadcast entitled “Karachi’s Benazir.” It was about a Cambridge educated human rights attorney who had returned to Pakistan to advocate for women’s rights. She was doing so, the program pointed out, at risk to her own life.
“May I help you?” the woman behind the counter inquired of the young, tepid woman
“I have a big problem. I need to see Mrs. Nasret Kol,” Elise responded.
Attorney Kol’s office was sparse. A tall, slender woman of thirty five, her demeanor could shift from gentle and inviting to sharp and cutting, depending on the situation. As she listened to Elise’s story, she found her credible and felt great sympathy welling up inside her. At some point, she stopped listening to Elise, and just watched her as she was speaking. She noticed that the young woman’s mannerisms were tepid, innocent, and perhaps naive. The attorney thought she was cute, but also resilient and admirable. Hers was the story of a survivor, it seemed.
“This is why I’m here,” Nasret thought to herself as she continued watching Elise. “This is why I came back to Pakistan.”
Nasret arranged for Elise to stay in a safe house in the countryside outside of the city. For the birth, she arranged for a midwife whose services she’d employed previously and could be trusted to be discreet and confidential. An elderly woman owned the safe house and secretly hosted “troubled” young women in exchange for the assistance she needed at her advanced age. Elise cooked, cleaned, and provided care giving services to the kind old woman.
During the six months she spent in the countryside, Elise found that her stress and anxiety had reduced greatly, and her view of the world had changed. She realized there was more to life that tall buildings, smog, traffic, and people in a hurry. She had never experienced fresh air until she began staying with the old woman in the countryside. In many ways, those six months were the happiest of her life. The dilemma she was faced with, however, was never totally out of mind. It was always there, like a stranger watching her. Attorney Kol had laid out the reality of the situation quite starkly: unless some sort of path to asylum or citizenship in Europe could be found for her, a secret adoption to a childless couple in Karachi would be her only option. Failure to achieve one of those two outcomes, the attorney warned, could put her freedom -indeed, her very life- in jeopardy. Nasret promised to work diligently to find a legal way to get Elise to Europe and keep her there, and to notify her immediately if a path were found. She warned, however, that it would not be easy.
As the estimated due date approached, Elise was saddened, but not surprised, that no solution aside from the secret adoption had been found. Nasret had visited the week before, upset in her own right, and informed her that extensive legal research efforts had, “failed to yield a safe path for you to keep your child.” The best she could offer, her voice cracking, “Is that I have submitted a proposal to change the law to all of Karachi’s members of Parliament, but the bill just hasn’t moved at all. I didn’t tell them about you, of course, I just spoke in general terms about the need to change the law. Despite my pleadings, it has stalled, and even if it does eventually pass, it will be too late for you.”
After a deep breath, Elise responded with gratitude. “I understand. You told me it would be a long shot. Thank you for your efforts and for setting me up in this house.”
Before Nasret left, she had one more piece of information for the heartbroken young woman. “You may be interested to know, the building you used to live in was burned to the ground by the Taliban.”
“I don’t understand, it was no longer a brothel. My captors had vacated the place.”
“I know. The Taliban burned it down anyway.”
A childless couple from the city were to arrive on the estimated due date. Three days sooner, however, Elise started going into labor early. The mid wife was called around 9:15 a.m. The old woman attempted to notify the adoptive couple as well, but she’d been unable to reach them.
Six hours of unspeakable pain. Elise had never experienced anything like it and hoped to never experience it again. Blinding, mind blowing, “what the hell just happened” type of pain. When it was finally over, the midwife (a short, heavy set woman of forty two from a nearby town) handed her a seven pound baby boy. As she pulled the child closer to her, Elise felt a connection which seemed infinitely stronger than anything she’d felt to anyone before. As the child’s head rested against her chest, she felt strangely equal to every other woman in the world. It was as if she had somehow returned to the starting line of life’s race and the punches life had dealt her never happened. Or, if they had happened, they no longer mattered.
She looked at the old woman and then at the mid wife. Smiling, she said, “Thank you both very much. Could I be alone with him for a little while?”
“Of course,” the old woman replied. The two women left the room and walked outside to a courtyard adjacent to the house.
It was a cool, overcast fall day as the two ladies strolled through the courtyard. A mini maze wound its way around wooden partitions covered in vines. “You know what is happening here, right?” the old woman confided in the midwife.
“Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while, I know how this will play out. Where is the couple, anyway? They’re usually at the delivery ready to scoop the child up before the biological mother gets any contrary ideas in her head.”
“I tried to reach them, but they don’t seem to be answering their cell phone. Maybe it is out of range or something. You know how those cell phones are.”
The mid wife paused for a moment and looked around at the walled – in courtyard. Earlier, she had seen the surrounding landscape, with it’s beautiful hills and streams.
“As far as safe houses go, this is a very nice one,” she remarked.
“Yes, I imagine so,” the old woman concurred. “My late husband did quite well in life. I kind of lucked…” Just then, a loud and urgent voice was heard from the open window on the second floor, directly above the women. “CALL NASRET!!! CALL NASRET!!! HIS FATHER IS BRITISH…I CAN PROVE IT, I CAN PROVE IT!!!”
“I can’t require one of our citizens to take a genetic test merely because your client alleges a similar birth mark on the child’s chest,” opined the U. K.’s Consulate Inspector in Karachi, as he sat accross from Attorney Kol, his arms resting on his chest. “How do I know these people ever even met?”
He was in his fifties and had seen no shortage of false claims upon British citizenship in his day. He intended to retire and return the U. K. within a year.
Nasret Kol leaned forward in her chair, and held up a security card with Adnan’s name, photo, and other identifying information. “He left this behind, and she picked it up and kept it,” she advised.
The inspector put his glasses on and leaned forward. He recognized the employer as a computer firm in London he was familiar with. He took a good look at Adnad’s name, photo, and job title on the card. It appeared legitimate to him. Then he turned his attention back to the attorney, and noticed that her jaw was clenched and her eyes were piercing into his.
Elise had never been on a plane before. She was a little scared to get on a plane with the baby, but her excitement over moving to London cancelled out whatever fears she had. After secretly conducted genetic testing had proved Adnan was the father, the British Consulate had come up with a cover story to the effect that she had married a British citizen prior to becoming pregnant, and was now emigrating to join him in London. Whether the Pakistani authorities truly bought the story or played along with a wink and a nod was unclear, but either way she was on her way to a new life. In fact, Adnan had agreed to take her and the child in upon their arrival, saying he wanted to “see how things go.”
The baby started getting restless as the plane flew over Paris at midnight. It was a long flight for him, and he wasn’t used to having so many people around as he slept. Elise took him into her arms and held him against her chest to put him at ease. After she quieted him, she looked out the window and looked down. She saw lights – thousands of them, as far as the eye could see.
About the Author:
Neil Desmond grew up in Boston and has lived in Vermont for nineteen years. His daughter, Jessica, lives in Massachusetts. His fiction has been published in BLOOD AND THUNDER: MUSINGS ON THE ART OF MEDICINE and in VERMONT LITERARY REVIEW. His hobbies include the film study, travel and creative writing.