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  • Writer's pictureHina Siddiqui

Prayers and Pork Buns

T/W: Description of dead bodies, mention of murder, honour killings, death



The floor was fascinating.


The delicate vibrancy of turquoise, violet, green as they mosaiced into a story told on shimmering sangemarmar. The quiet coolness against her feet as her toes traced the almost imperceptible lines between tiles. The evening light playing hide and seek through the latticed arches, catching the water in the blue-tiled basin only to lose sight of it again.


It was all endlessly fascinating.


“Baz! What are you doing? Yella!”


Baz turned to her cousin. Rayna was standing at the edge of the washing area, apparently having already finished her ablutions. She wore a hijab with a floral print over her a simple blouse and jeans. And from the annoyance on her face, Baz knew that they were already running late. She quickly rinsed her arms, three times, and ran to join her. Turquoise, purple and green blurred as they raced up the stairs to the gathering.


Women were technically not allowed in a mosque. Which is why this was not a mosque. Eden was a community centre. On the ground floor was a community kitchen. On the first a community library and reading room. And on the second a large open hall for community gatherings like the prayer circle they were having today. It was the eve of the first of Ramzan. Teta had brought together women of many different faiths to read and sing and share stories as they waited to sight the moon that would confirm the beginning of the holy month.


Hala Bakhash was a legend in Havenhearth. Hala was her given name, but everyone called her Teta, which simply meant grandmother in Arabic. Teta had come to the city just before the civil war broke out in Lebanon. Started a shawarma stand to raise funds to help her husband and two boys join her. And went on to establish a food empire in the growing city with two fine-dining restaurants as well as takeaways and fast-food joints in almost every Havenhearth neighbourhood. She had even managed to convince those mansion-dwellers at Red Oaks to welcome Middle Eastern cuisine, not to mention the additional rental revenue, with open arms.


Then five years ago, Teta had passed on the reins of her business to her oldest son and put all her energy and resources into building Eden. Eden was situated in Little Levant, a neighbourhood that sprang up almost overnight in Havenhearth. Little Levant was situated far from the city-centre, made-up mainly of immigrants in government housing. But Teta ensured that Eden, like its biblical namesake, was a place of beauty and rest that welcomed everyone. The tiles that so fascinated Baz were brought in on special order from Turkey. The library’s collection was one of the best in the city, even though people from Havenhearth proper barely ever bothered to thumb through its prized collection. The community kitchen catered to nearly fifty families and five hundred people in any given month, while providing livelihood and support to the women of Little Levant.


Rayna and Baz skid to a halt at the arched doorway that led to the gathering hall. The circle had already begun their meeting. The smell of fried zalabia and freshly brewed coffee filled the room. The women here were of all ages. Most sat on mats and cushions on the floor. Some sat in chairs. A couple stood near the windows. Some covered their heads with scarves, some leaned against the wall in formal tops, and some managed to sit cross-legged despite their short skirts. They all looked inwards and they were all part of the circle. Baz caught her grandmother’s eyes. At nearly 80 years, Teta had broad shoulders and a full head of white hair. She looked at her tardy granddaughters through lowered glasses, smiled and tilted her head to the space next to her. The younger women were quick to take their place.


Attention turned to a middle-aged woman in a hot-pink turban. She was resting on her knees, eyes closed. And slowly, in a voice that could calm storms, she began to recite the traditional prayer of the Sikhs.


Baz leaned in to Teta as the sonorous call flooded her with calm. Teta placed her arm around her, rubbing her back. It had been a tough few years. Baz still had trouble sleeping some days. She had given her all, reading every piece of research, going above and beyond on every case, shifting to the capital to make sure everyone knew her name. She became who she wanted to be in record time, only to find that’s not who she wanted to be anymore.


It was in moments like this though, Baz knew that moving back to Havenhearth had been the right choice.


The next person to sing was Kaylee. Baz knew her to be a quiet girl who had moved to Havenhearth for education. She had been an active member of the church back at home and was kind of lost in the city till she heard about Eden. Kaylee had a guitar with her and was strumming something real rhythmic. That was when Baz felt her phone buzz in her pocket. Normally, it was beyond rude to pull out a phone in the circle. But Baz knew people only called her when they needed her. And the people that needed her often had very few others to turn to. She pulled out the phone. The number was unknown, but that didn't mean it couldn’t be someone from the clinic. She squeezed Teta’s hand and tiptoed out of the circle. The phone was still buzzing by the time she walked to the corridor outside.


“Hello?”


“Yasmin… Baz! Thank God you answered.”


“Armin?”


“Yes, I need your help.”





“So, will your school pay for this?”


Baz could have sounded a lot more professional without the pork bun she was trying to inhale. Her family had a rule about pork, if you ate it, you went to hell, no detours, no need to ask for directions, the flush was pressed and down you went. Baz’s workaround for this was, never to eat pork unless someone else was buying. During her Academy days, it was Jean, because he was a mamma’s boy whose mamma made a killer pork vindaloo and he was good at keeping secrets. Now apparently, the void was going to be filled by his house-husband, boyfriend, live-in partner - whatever the kids called it these days. The butternut squash deserved it for pulling her out of the feast that all the ladies were probably quaffing down at Eden.


On the plus side, at least she wasn’t eating pig during the holy month.


Baz picked another pork bun.


There was probably a special place in hell reserved for her.


“To be honest, I didn’t really think of that.”


“Quelle surprise,” Baz tried to say sarcastically, and it would have worked too, if the meat didn’t get in the way.


They were both sitting on the footpath outside Woodlands Park, a pine-covered stretch of land that had miraculously been preserved in the middle of Havenhearth. It lay conveniently midway between both their residences downtown. Separating them were two orders of pork buns, another of lemon chicken skewers, button mushrooms with a mustard dip, sweet potato fritters and refillable cups of ginger-cherry iced-tea.


A girl has needs after all.


Fairy lights and lanterns lit the whole walkway. The crowd around the food-trucks and homemade delicacy stalls was beginning to thicken, the lazy Friday before summer vacations began, taking everyone in to its sweet embrace.


Armin chewed a sweet potato fritter thoughtfully.


“I’m sure we can work something out,” he said, “Rico’s desperate. This situation’s gotten out of hand pretty quickly.”


“It’s probably been getting out of hand for a while. You’ve only just noticed it.” Baz sipped her ginger-cherry. “Adults often live in a state of semi-permanent denial. Keeps them functional.”


“Do you think you can help though?”


Baz sipped some more ginger-cherry. “What exactly do you expect from me?”


“Jean told me about the first case you worked,” Armin said.


Baz watched the pines sway over the walls of the park. There was a lovely cool breeze. A perfect summer night.


The defence’s strategy was to present this as a cultural crime. If successful, it would lead to a lower sentence. Yasmin Bakhash, consulting detective, understood why that was necessary. But Baz, the young woman who had grown up in and loved Havenhearth, saw that it would paint her entire community as a bunch of monsters who ate their children alive. That it would undermine everything people like her grandmother worked so hard to achieve. Already the restaurants Teta ran had seen a fall in business as details of the crime made their way to the media.


It was good defence though.


“Hey Jean,” Baz said with a small smile, “Or should it be Officer Kirschtein?”


“Hey Baz,” Jean took a seat across the table from her, putting his beret and files down next to him. “Long time.”


It had been nearly two years since they had properly met. Jean had graduated and gone straight in to uniform. Baz had applied for an extension and gone to do her Master’s in Forensic Psychology. As a result, she had come back to the legal system as a Consulting Detective, assisting in the tying up of criminal cases in court rather than solving them on the streets like Jean did.


They had been best friends. And now they were what… two people in a cramped cubicle trying their best to reconnect over stale coffee and crime reports?


“Do you want me to run you through the case reports?” Jean asked, already rifling through the dozen different documents he had brought along, “Or is there something specific that you want to start with?”


Jean had been first on the scene. Technically, he should have been the first person she spoke to. But Baz had chosen not to speak to him until now. She watched his hands unnecessarily flick through his own reports.


“Jean,” Baz said, steadily, “look at me?”


Because he hadn’t, not for a second since he had come in. Jean stopped what he was doing, but he still didn't look at her.


“What do you think I am here to do?” Baz asked.


“Your job, I suppose,” Jean said with a shrug.


“And what do you think that is?”


“I don't know, to get the best deal for a bunch of shitstains who killed two children?”


Baz sighed. She should be angry. She had been angry all this week. At everyone who looked at her sideways. At everyone who saw her as the bad guy. At every single witness, officer and case-worker involved in the investigation. At the mob that had broken the windows of a falafel joint on Main Street and then urinated on the freshly cut vegetables.


But at the moment, she just felt sad. And tired. And lonely.


His mother used to make pork vindaloo for her every time she visited. They used to smoke pot together on the roof of his little house in the suburbs. He used to volunteer with her at Teta’s soup kitchen every break.


It had been two years. A lot had changed. And now Jean didn't even want to look at her. It broke her heart.


“I’m going to get some more coffee,” she said. And got up and walked out of the police headquarters.


By the time Jean found her, at least two hours had passed. She was sitting on top of her car. Rain poured down. Another summer shower. There was a harsh northerly wind. The tree swayed in the empty field. A single stretch of police tape fluttered helplessly.


“Hey,” he said, getting out of the squad car.


It was Baz’s turn not to look at him. She continued to stare at the tree. Jean stayed by his car.


“Do you think they knew?”


“The post-mortem report said both girls were beaten heavily. They were most likely unconscious.”


“I meant, did they know the consequences? Did they know that a simple kiss would end in them strung up on this tree? Did they know what their family’s honour would cost them?”


Jean didn't say anything. The tree swayed. Baz watched the tree. He watched Baz. The rain poured over them all.


“Hey Jean,” Baz turned to him and for the first time in two years, their eyes met. “Do you think all my people are monsters?”


Jean’s first instinct was to scoff and remind Baz that the monsters who did this were not her people. That she was born and raised in Havenhearth, while they…


That’s where his thoughts froze.


So instead of replying, he just rushed forward and wrapped Baz in his arms.


Just like he used to back when they were still learning what it meant to be guardians of the law.


Baz stayed in his arms for a long time that night.

In the morning, they returned to the police headquarters and finished the meeting they had skipped the day before. Baz filed her final recommendations and report on the case later that week. She had gone way beyond the scope of the case. They’d definitely ignore most of it. But she said what she needed to say nonetheless.


“He said your report led to the conviction of nearly thirty people. Instead of just the four they decided to charge initially.”


“Twenty-six. The community played a role in the way those parents behaved, in what they did. Justice should mean more than just slapping the hand that held the knife.” She paused, staring at the mushroom in her hand in deeper contemplation than it deserved. “But it’s never as simple. That conviction led to a year of communal and racial tensions in the city.”


And possibly prompted Teta’s retirement. And her own move to the Capital. Baz stopped studying the mushroom and put it in her mouth.


“There was no violence though,” Armin said. This had been before he had moved to the city, nearly a year before he even met Jean. But Jean spoke of that time a lot.


“Mostly no violence,” Baz responded.


“But even that was resolved, right?”


“Eventually. People run out of steam. They get back to life.”


“You’re saying that the city finally implementing the programmes you recommended had nothing to do with it?”


Baz shrugged. She offered the mustard dip to Armin, who liberally lathered his fritter with it.


“I was just doing my job,” she said.


“Well then, I guess that’s what I expect of you.”


Baz turned to Armin, raising her eyebrow. Armin held her gaze.


“You’re a manipulative little shit, aren’t you?” she said, though she was trying to use her last mushroom to scoop out the last of the dip, so there was really no bite to it.


Armin chuckled, like it was a compliment.


Baz took her time with that last mushroom, chasing it with some ginger-cherry.


“Fine,” she said after the food was gone, “Give me a few days to think up a plan for your school.”


“Didn’t you attend St Hildegard as well?” Armin asked.


“Yep,” Baz replied, “And it wasn’t my school then and it sure isn’t my school now. I may need to talk to some of the students, maybe even the teachers. Parents, if we can get them.”


“I don't know how we’d be able to swing that,” Armin started.


“We’ll figure something out. But about the other problem of yours. Look man, I am not a therapist, I just barely got my counsellor’s certificate. I don’t know what I can do for your janitor man.”


“His name is Levi.”


“And it’s a beautiful name. My point is, if Levi doesn’t want to talk, I don’t know what I can do.”


Armin leaned back on his arms, looking up at the sky. He smiled sweetly, at nothing.


“When I was in Year 9 back in Ipswich,” he began, “there was this boy in my class, Bertholdt. He was German, tall as a bloody beanpole. He was shy, barely spoke, but he had an accent. It was the cutest thing.”


“So you have a kink for tall, European guys. How original.”


“I caught up with him one day after school, it was fucking Valentine’s Day and I wanted to give him a card I’d spent all night making. But when I tapped him on the back to get his attention, he froze, like a chicken before a cleaver. I remember the look in his eyes, like he expected me, a pint-sized fairy to beat him up or something.” Armin smiled up at the sky. “That was the last time I ever saw Bertholdt. He killed himself that weekend.” Armin shook his head, blinking quickly. “No one knew,” he whispered.


He looked back to Baz to find her staring at him. “I never did get to give him that card.”


A few breaths passed between them. Then Baz rolled her eyes and looked away.


“I want to respect the memory of your friend,” she said, “and the fact that you felt comfortable sharing this with me, but I can feel the emotional manipulation coming at me like a fucking freight train.”


Armin smiled sweetly again.


“It’s not a manipulation. That look in Bertholdt’s eyes that day. I see the same look in Levi’s eyes.” Armin stopped and considered his words. “Okay, maybe it was a small manipulation. The point is, I know that man needs help.”


“And I repeat, no one can be helped if they don't want to be.”


“Well, right now, all we need is a cover to keep him from losing his job.”


Baz looked at Armin and then back at the trees, still swaying in the evening breeze.


“Ten sessions, every Friday, starting next week. I’ll send you an email to flash in Rico’s face. And you’re buying me pork buns for the rest of your life.”


“Deal!”


“Now let’s get some more food and pay that overworked boyfriend of yours a surprise visit.”


They both stood, dusting themselves off. Armin looked at the food-trucks and then the crowds hovering around them.


“What should we get him?”


“Pork buns, we’re getting him pork buns.”






Meet Yasmin "Baz" Bakhash. Another one of my original characters. Inhabiting a Shingeki no Kyojin / Attack on Titan AU - Havenhearth. I am pretty proud of the city and the character I've created. AoT itself is coming to a close, with the final chapter of the manga due to be released next month. And the final season of the amine already airing. I don't know how Levi will end up once all is said and done. But I hope I can satisfy my own need to give a beloved character a happy ending through this work.


Some notes on the words:

Sangemarmar is the Urdu word for Marble, you know the stuff the Taj Mahal is made of. The image used is tile mosaic though. In my imagination, Eden is made from marble, but also had tile inlay work in the washing area.

Image Credit: Mosaic & fountain, Hassan II mosque, Casablanca, Morocco from Milamber's Portfolio on Flikr. (License)


Zalabia are sweet dough fritters (called Jalebi in Hindi) that originated in Lebanon. You can find an easy recipe for them on Hilda Sterner's blog. Hilda was born in Baghdad and grew up to be a US Navy Veteran and Deputy Sheriff before turning to writing about food from her homeland. Check out her website for some amazing tales, history and cuisine.


Baz, Yasmin's moniker in this tale comes from the Arabic word for eagle.


You may have noticed that my characters have a tendency to be Middle Eastern. There is just something about a badass Muslim woman that really gets my blood flowing.


This is Chapter 5 in the actual work - Chained. Since this was written, I have actually neglected the work and it lies, almost abandoned-looking on AO3 and my google drive. But the thing is, stories do not have an expiry date and I know I will return and complete it when I will. I am currently working on an article that decribes the world-building that went in to the setting for this piece - Havenhearth. That should be out late April.


Till then, enjoy this amazeballs Levi artwork by Sukiblog, that will be the cover image of the book when it is released. This artwork wasn't commissioned for this, but I did pay a small fee to be able to use it.



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