Artwork by Alia Nooru

 

This is Water

by Israa Tariq

 

 

The title of this play is taken from a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, given in 2005; “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

 

 

Characters:

Father: Early 50’s, tall, formidable looking.

Mother: Late 40’s, a small woman, with a lined, eternally worried face.

Son: Mid-twenties, relaxed disposition. He is mature, in his parent’s good graces and a very responsible adult, with no bad behavior on his record.

Daughter: Early twenties, visibly stressed and borderline angry.

 

Act 1

Setting: It is early evening time on the patio, with a wooden deck and glass-topped garden tables and woven chairs. A family is sitting and having their evening tea. The table is covered with trays of tea cups, tea pots, sandwiches and desserts. The well-groomed garden is clearly taken care of on a regular basis and the hedges are neatly trimmed, with flowers here and there, making a zig-zagged pattern along the edges of the grass. The family is clearly well-off and there is a certain pretentiousness to the evening tea being a daily ritual that the whole family has to attend. They are dressed well in evening clothes, and the sun is about to set.

At Rise: The family is quiet, the atmosphere is strained. The father is busy on his phone, responding to work emails and messages. The son sips his tea slowly, looking at the garden and occasionally glancing at his mother, slightly nervously. The daughter is clearly distressed and seems anxious, her legs are crossed and the top leg is constantly bouncing, fast. She has not touched her tea.

 

Mother

(Impatiently) Your tea is getting cold, you haven’t touched it. Have your tea. And stop shaking your legs, it’s a sign of anxiety and isn’t ladylike behavior.

 

Daughter

Ohmygod. (Grumbles) Isn’t ladylike… Mum, apparently nothing I do is ladylike. And I don’t want to have the stupid--

 

Mother

Behave yourself. You’ve got such a bad temper, learn to control it. These traits stay within a person for life. How do you expect to ever get married with such an unpleasant disposition? Girls are supposed to be pleasant, polite-

 

Daughter

(Raised voice) Ohmygod, seriously, please stop. (turns to her father) Are you listening to this? Pleeeeeease put away your phone and ask her to stop.

 

Mother

Why are you telling him to stop me? Do you think that will work? You need to hear this, you’re getting worse and worse every day.

 

Father

(Exasperated) Don’t talk to your mother like that. I will not ask her to stop. And yes, I am listening to this, and what I’m hearing is your rude tone and manners. If you listened to her, she wouldn’t have to keep saying it.

 

Daughter

You should ask her to stop – (turns to face her mother)- you should stop, because really, who cares about my temper and my manners? No, really, who the hell sits around thinking about what their mood should be like because one day they’ll marry some grade A, faceless “suitor” that’s been picked out for them. If anything, thinking about that should make my temper worse. I do not want to have the tea. I do not care about how anyone will marry me with my temper issues. Why am I even getting married in this scenario? Do you guys ever think of girls as good for anything besides marriage? Why can’t you--

 

Son

(In a low voice, directed at his sister, as he reaches out to put his hand on her shoulder) Hey, hey, come on, calm down now. You’re starting to shout, it’ll only make it worse. This won’t help your case at all, come on, relax.

 

Father

Help her case? What’s this about now, don’t spring something new on us.

 

Mother

Oh god help us, it’ll be something awful, it always is. And of course girls are good for other things, but it’s all in preparation for your life after you’re married, the new family you’ll have. Girls are meant to start cultivating their good habits and manners from a very early age. (Speaks in an undertone) already 21… no manners…yells so much, voice is starting to sound like a man’s…

 

Daughter

(To her brother, with a look of despair now) None of this affects my case. Nothing is going to make a difference with your parents.

 

Father

Oh don’t be melodramatic, what is it now, just come out with it, I haven’t got time, my conference call starts in a while and I can’t have all this shouting going on.

 

Daughter

How nice. Come out with it because I have a conference call. Typical. It doesn’t matter anyway; you’ll just shove it under the rug like mum did, as though I never said anything. Might as well be talking to walls. At least they wouldn’t want me to get married. Or drink tea. I don’t even like tea, I wanted coffee, but nooo.

 

Mother

You drink too much coffee. It’s bad for your health. Look at yourself, you’re already so skinny and you never sleep, then you keep having coffee on top of that. Coffee ruins one’s complexion, and you shouldn’t be addicted to it at your age, it’s unhealthy.

 

Daughter

Oh what a surprise. Lovely. Absolutely lovely. Don’t have coffee. Don’t have emotions. How will you get married when you’re dark and have emotions. No one wants a dark, emotional girl. My new family will be like, ew, look at that dark girl with emotions and a man’s voice. God forbid, how will I ever be worthy of their son?

 

Son

(Laughs, then looks at his parents expressions and stops abruptly) Sorry… look, ok, everyone needs to stop arguing, this is pointless. Just calmly hear her out ok mum? We’ll nag her later about her habits. And dad, please put down your phone, your emails can wait. (Turns to his sister) Low, polite tones ok? Go.

 

Mother

(Angrily now) No, I know what this is about. And no. I’m not discussing it. If we discuss this, I’m going inside. (Turns to her son) What do you think you’re doing, encouraging her? You should be telling her how wrong it is, and instead you’re helping her?

 

Son

Mum, I can’t just side with you or her because either of you asks me to. I believe she’s right. Times have changed and the prejudices you guys hold are no longer valid, not that they ever really were. You’ve held onto this for too long, and it’s immoral and completely ludicrous. The very least that you can do is listen to your own daughter. Ok? Please. (he holds her hand and smiles a small smile, and she softens visibly).

 

Father

(Puts down his phone) Ok, someone needs to tell me what this is about.

 

Mother

No. There’s no point in discussing it and she’ll only yell more when you disagree with her too. Let’s just go inside now, everyone has work to get to.

 

Daughter

Don’t tell him he’ll disagree too before he’s even had a chance to listen to me, let people form their own opinions for once Mum, will you?

(Silence ensues as they wait for her to speak).

(Nervously, wringing her hands together at first, then stops) Ok, dad, look. I know all you guys think about is getting me married. You have a son that’s older but that’s of no concern, he’s a guy so he can do what he likes when he likes, you respect his opinion, you listen to him, he’s a boy but I am a product, a victim of your culture’s sexist stupidity. All you guys see, all anyone you know sees when they look at me is an eligible girl for marriage. It’s twisted and sick, like I’m a walking, talking – (with dry humour) albeit attractive - piece of meat. Random women I’ve never met or heard of keep calling mum up, asking about me, what I’m studying, when I’ll graduate, so they can send over their weirdo sons to see aforementioned piece of meat--

 

Father

(Interrupts) Can you skip this routine rant and get to the point; I’ve heard all this before. Your mother and I both have, we already gave in and told you, you are getting married when we want, but you can choose whoever you want, so what’s the problem now?

 

Daughter

HA. Choose whoever I want, right? As long as whoever I want meets the IMPOSSIBLE criteria you guys have set. Whoever I want as long as he’s a Muslim, a Pakistani, a Pakistani from an area of Pakistan you think is classy enough, a bachelor and master degree holder, but wait, what areas are those degrees in, they can’t be artsy, strictly business or engineering, and how old is he, he can’t be too old and he can’t be only a year or two older, and he DEFINITELY can’t be younger, and he has to be attractive, how else will I make pretty babies, and what’s his family like, they have to be exactly like us, otherwise it’s a no-go, and let’s look at his manners of speaking, eating, sitting, etc. etc. etc. LIKE OHMYGOD, why don’t we just make him in a laboratory and choose his  name too?

 

Mother

(To her husband) are you listening to this? Do you see how she talks, with such batameezy, how much she says and the way she says it? She’s completely out of control. Those are our requirements and with absolutely no room for discussion.

 

Father

(Holds up his hand to make her wait a moment, as he looks concerned, frowning) Acha, let me talk to her, wait. (Turns to his daughter) I understand that you can’t grasp our reasons and ways, but there’s no need to make a mockery of what we want for you. We only want what’s best, and if this is the way to ensure it, then we will. It’s for your own good. It’s for your futu--

 

Daughter

My own good? Tell me, please, what if your perfect little lab rat who meets your requirements turns out to be a psychopath? How will you know-… ok, whatever, you know what, that’s not the point. The point is, I managed. Mum knows about him. (Speaking more quickly, almost frantically now) She knows his family, she knows they’re nice people and he meets your ridiculous standards and –

 

Mother

(She stands up to leave, and turns to her husband) He’s Shia.

 

Father

(Looks stern now. He sits quietly for a moment, looking at his hands folded on his lap. Then he looks at his daughter) Absolutely not. Don’t –

Daughter

(She begins to interrupt to protest) Dad, I-

 

Father

(Holds up a hand to silence her) Don’t even – Just stop. We’ve said no. Don’t bring it up again. Ever.

(He gets up too. The mother picks up the tray of teacups and exits as he follows.)

 

Daughter

(Quiet. She is looking at where her parents have just left, with a look of despair, mixed with disbelief)

 

Son

(Quietly, reaches for her hand and pats it lightly) Hey – hey, come on. Look at me. Look at me. Just don’t worry ok? I know it looks bad right now- ok, it is really bad right now. But hey, listen.- oh man, please don’t cry, come on, we’ll convince them. I’ll talk to them, I’ll put it all on the line for them, and we’ll make it work. Have you talked to him? Does he know how mum and dad would have reacted to this?

 

Daughter

(Subdued) Yeah he knows. I told him right at the start. He said he’s willing to go through it all, it doesn’t bother him. But I don’t know… I don’t feel like he’s fully grasped what it’s like. He thinks it’ll work out eventually, we’ll all be happy… he’s so wrong, my poor, optimistic baby…(Looks down. Then abruptly starts speaking angrily) It’s almost always the Sunni’s that have a problem with the Shia’s and rarely the other way around from what I’ve seen. Why do you think that is? I don’t get it, it’s such a stupid problem. Isn’t being Muslim enough anymore? That too, a good Muslim? Why does the Shia/Sunni thing matter? I hate our culture, they’ve confused religion with culture so deeply that they don’t see the difference anymore. It’s pathetic.

 

Son

Okay. I know. Don’t hate on the whole culture, especially not in front of mum and dad. There are some good aspects. But anyway, he might be right, look. I think they’ll listen to me. Let me try and talk to them, but you can’t be there. I don’t want it turning into a fight, and then they say something more to upset you. Just go to your room, wash up, talk to him, calm down and I’ll go to mum and dad, ok?

 

Daughter

How are you so confident that they’ll listen to you? We’re both saying the same thing, why not listen to me? I hate this bias. The Pakistani culture is SO hypocritical, in almost every single way. Why aren’t the rules the same for girls and guys? Fucking patriarchal society, with their endless double standards. Aaaaghhhhh. I swear to God, if they listen to you and not me—well, I do want them to listen to you. But I mean, SERIOUSLY? Anyway. I don’t think they’ll listen to you either, did you see that reaction?... (Pauses. Sighs) Whatever. I’m going upstairs. Tell your parents from me that I’ll be upstairs, killing myself.

 

Son

Oh, stop it. Such a dramaqueen. But you know, don’t actually do anything stupid, stupid. (Playfully messes up her hair).

She gets up and leaves.

The son gets up and goes inside to the room where his parents are sitting and having a hushed, albeit heated, conversation.

Setting: The sitting room is richly furnished, with hand-carved mahogany tables covered in embroidered gold cloths and Turkish lamps. There is a large tapestry on the wall of the Holy Ka’bah. The plush, cream colored sofas are embroidered with white patterns of flowers.

At Rise: Both parents sit on one three-seater sofa, with the father holding the mother’s hand. The mother is extremely upset and the father appears to be tired of the fight. The son sits down on the armchair across from them, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, looking concerned, but slightly confident too.

Son

Mum, Dad, please listen to me. Mum, calm down, come on. It’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. Just listen to me, please hear me out. You know me; you know that I’ve never done anything rash or disappointing to you guys. You know my instincts are good. If I’m siding with her, it’s for good reason. She’s just-

 

Mother

(Interrupts) Beta, what are you doing? Why are you encouraging her, we expect you to be responsible and talk to her about her ways and the person she’s becoming, how can you possibly encourage this? You’re our responsible, sensible son; you have to talk to her for us.

 

Son

Ma, I want to talk to you on her behalf. And not just for her, but for myself too, because I need to know that my parents have an understanding of the world as it is today, not in the times you guys grew up in and are used to. This Sunni/Shia thing--

 

Father

There’s no need for you to explain her views on this, we know this is her talking. She’s always been like this, unexpected, unpredictable, fighting all that is traditional or cultural. (looks down at his hands folded on his lap). Now she’s just done the worst possible thing of them all… to rebel against us, I’m sure.

 

Son

Dad, she’s not making a huge life decision to rebel against you. She isn’t taking a chance just to irritate you and mum. She’s in this. You won’t get her out of it and neither will mum. Neither could I, if I wanted to. (Exasperatedly now) Ok, just listen. Ma, look at me, stop worrying and listen, for a bit, just forget what you know and think of and listen to me ok?... This Sunni/Shia argument. I know, I know it goes way back and I know you guys have your reasons for it. But times have changed, Shia’s are a large part of the Muslim community, just like Sunni’s. I hear of it so often that some Sunni guy or girl likes a Shia guy or girl but they can’t do anything about it, there’s fighting with the parents, amongst both of their parents, there’s drama. And you know, a lot of the times the guy or girl will end up doing something rash, something extreme once their parents have said no. I don’t want to see her pushed into that corner where she’ll do something like that.

 

Mother

(Quietly) So that’s what it is now? Listen to her or she’ll run away or commit suicide or something? Do you think that’s right?

 

Son

No, that’s not what it is at all. That’s what it might become. But you guys have a chance now to make it better, in this moment, this is your chance. She’s upstairs, upset at what’s just happened. We don’t know what she’s thinking, what she’ll do. We just know she’s extremely determined to the point of being stubborn when she doesn’t get what she wants. (Pauses, sighs) Look, all I’m saying is the issue you guys have is not a valid issue at all. Isn’t it enough that a person’s Muslim these days? Do we really have to look into what kind of Muslim they are too? On top of all the other attributes we take into account first? He may be Shia, but he practices Islam at the same minimum that she does. The daily prayers, the fasting, charity, etc. Nothing deeper, nothing pertaining specifically to the “Shia Islam”, just the way she doesn’t practice more than any of that either, she doesn’t look deeper into the history of Islam or any of that. And you know what, no one does anymore. You’re stopping something good, with a good family, a good guy, something that will make her happy, for a really, really inconsequential, age-old problem. And honestly, it’s disappointing. Please just reconsider, for her, for me.

(Both parents look at him, then at each other. They are at a loss for words, but have visibly relaxed and softened. After a while of staring at the floor, the father looks up at his son)

 

Father

I… I don’t know, I don’t know how this will go exactly. It will take us some time. We have the right to some time to get used to this. But just… you may be right… I know you’re right to an extent… times are changing, but did the change have to affect our family? I don’t know what that girl will do to us… (sighs) Just… just tell her to calm down, get her to relax. We’ll meet his family. Let’s start off with that…

 

Mother

Perhaps you’re right. Our preferences don’t hold up in these times anymore. (Disappointedly) They’re not good enough for you kids these days. Your father may need some time, but I will need more… But you’re right-- I know you’re right. (looks at her son lovingly) You’ve always sided with the right thing, how can we deny you this now?.. Go talk to your sister. You’re such a good, sensible older brother… Chalo, go, tell her. She has you to thank for this…

 

The End

 

 

Israa Tariq is a 22-year old Pakistani student. She is a senior at the American University of Sharjah and is majoring in English with a concentration in Literature. She aspires to be as awesome as Tolkien someday, but until then, she plans on going to graduate school before going on to do her PhD. She is an avid Arsenal Football Club fan and loves any kind of rock music, namely psychedelic; especially Pink Floyd. 



 

Contact us 

asrarjournal@gmail.com

  • Instagram