Hibah Shabkhez

Photo Credit: Sue Thompson/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Nelui painted the three men simultaneously, one feature at a time, which was perhaps why, despite being of different ages and races, they seemed like triplets. All of the heads had the same bestial quirk of the jaw, the same distressing pinch of nostril, and the hair-tufts seemed to bore into their half-skulls like grotesque trepanation commercials. Their leering right irises were ghastly in thick-browed almond-shaped sacks when set beside the closed eye-rims sunk deep into their left cheeks.

I cleared my throat. ‘Look, I think it’s amazing. But… I don’t think it’s a good idea to… most people won’t understand it, you know. And—they—do you know what they could do to you?’

‘Thank you for the lie—and for the truth,’ she added a final dab of paint to their noses, bulbous jutting things hooked more like cliff-tops than falcon-beaks. ‘And yes, I know exactly what they could do to me.’

I pretended to try again, though I had already yielded before her fury and her resolve, too suppressed and concrete to be born of anything other than a pain lived and remembered. ‘Maybe you could call this something else, something abstract or surreal, and paint another official portrait of them?’

Nelui smiled and went on painting.

I did not have the courage to attend the unveiling, so I sent a card with a flu-excuse and spent the next week reading the reviews—in the incognito window, and through a vpn. Of the art jargon I understood nothing, but I could see one thing: either it was either hailed or execrated—there was no middle ground. And the triplets, as the whole world was calling them now, remained silent. If they had sued Nelui, or railed against her in the press, I would have been reassured. But they did nothing. Nothing at all.

It was not they who threw stones at her studio and set fire to the canvases, screaming of blasphemy and profanity. It was not they who carried the guns, not they who fired them, not they who faced trial for murder—though nothing was proven against anyone in the end, so that did not matter anyway. Of course they did none of those things. No, they mourned her, that bright talent lost so early to the cancer of fanaticism, and founded a generous memorial trust for young artists in her name.


Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in Plainsongs, Microverses, Sylvia Magazine, Better Than Starbucks, Post, Wine Cellar Press, and a number of other literary magazines. Studying life, languages, and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her. Linktree. Email: shabkhezhibah[at]

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