5- The Reminder
I sat on the bed watching his long slender fingers grip the phone, he smiled and laughed with a sheepish grin and then handed me the receiver as if it were a childish dare. I had come to trust these hands in all matters, the slightest trace of black hair dotted his knuckles, an olive tone and short blunt nails. They had signified strength through adversity and what had once been calm through any storm. I understood the words he had spoken in Arabic, but now they seemed to repeat at the end of every conversation. It had once been an inside joke, but had slowly made it’s way to the surface and into the real world. I answered with a customary greeting and heard a familiar voice from College days, Emad. He had been a good friend and gave me insights into Arab society, we laughed and talked and formed a bond. It had been 15 years since I had last seen him and now his voice sounded agitated, insistent and curious “Um Osama, do you know what these words mean“? I sat motionless, picking at my nails, thinking back to the first time these thoughts had been made public.
I dreaded socializing and always felt quite out of place. Ladies chatted in Arabic as I sat adjusting my coat and scarf, fiddling with my bag and smiling an awkward grin, pretending that I was part of their group. I had picked up many phrases in Arabic and understood some of what was being said but not enough to enter into a fluent conversation. They always looked at me as if I were an intruder into their private world, snickers and silence. When I started having babies, I tended to them and didn’t mind the lack of interest that I was being given. I had learned that, I did not and would not ever fit in, the message was clear. My efforts to be accepted were all for not, making Arabic breads, cheeses and yogurt, bringing homemade desserts, cooking for ladies who had just delivered babies and exchanging recipes. But then I realized it was just not meant to be, I was different, a foreigner. Many issues were frowned upon up each and every time he insisted that we go to visit and invite large groups of people for dinners at our home. They always stared at my mismatched dishes and silverware and made comments on the lack of furniture. In Arab society it is a sign of a good family to have the right things and to be well provided for. Having a substandard family effects everyone, future marriages and even job prospects. I had resolved myself to not care, to continue with life and all that kept me busy. When we were invited to her house a few months before, this all changed, she laughed and spoke in English, making an effort to be my friend. It was magical and finally all of my best efforts had paid off. We spoke of raising children and the daily food we cooked, our families and our lives. It seemed some how she understood me and cared, she was open minded and interested in the real me. I looked forward to our visits and felt I was finally a part of this new life I had accepted. But now her face had changed, her warm brown eyes and soft smile seemed distant and vacant as she marched down the stairs and towards me. I smiled at first, thinking she was joking, her steps more serious with each stride, as if she held a summons or a letter of eviction. She handed it to me, a plain piece of paper, a grimace smeared across her lovely face, now accusatory and harsh. I held the paper, opened it and read, “Would you accept your husband to marry a second wife? Mark yes or no”. I stood looking at the words, a sick feeling came over me, this hidden secret had now been made public. Until this point it had been an inside “joke” that was flippantly thrown out every now and again, perhaps serving as a reminder. I felt the blood rush to my face, knots formed in my stomach. She looked at me and then at the other ladies who were present, angry words were exchanged in Arabic until nothing remained but silence. She turned to me and asked me if I would accept such a thing and advised me of my rights in this matter. The thought that I was not livid, somehow signaled my acceptance, which in Arab society would be shameful and a sign that I was most likely remiss in my wifely duties. I stood, dumbfounded and told her that I had no say in the matter.
“Um Osama! do you know what he is saying“, my thoughts were drawn back to the male voice on the phone. Emad was now speaking in an urgent tone and insisting that I answer. I looked at him, he sat upright, running his hands over his head in frustration, fingers tracing the outline of the nightstand. “Yes” I answered and then handed him the phone. The same question was asked for years to come, a common ending to most conversations, Biduck shey? (do you want or need anything) and his answer was always the same, Arus ( a bride).