Review and edit old stories– The first day of school

As the summer months drug on, the sweltering heat proved to be unyielding. The a/c chug and thud signaled the end to electricity and a day ahead with no relief, no t.v. or cooking. The children added Grama’s box to their pad house which served as a car, train and boat. Obstacles were to be avoided by launching onto a pad, skipping past pitfalls, lava and water. Quick trips to a nearby park during evening prayer time were a nice break in our mundane routine. See See and Foof played on the swings and little Abude crawled through patches of grass and dirt. He took the big boys to prayer and then returned to sit for a few minutes before carting us back to the apartment. This occurred twice a week until we were approached by children who stood, staring and chanting ABC, 123 Abc.”  They gawked, taunted and pointed, while their mothers sat sipping tea, glancing our way. I smiled, reminding myself that they were children, but one group was replaced by the next until there was a constant barrage of onlookers. When he came back he shooed them away, sputtering harsh words in Arabic, and with a wave of his hands they were gone. From that time forward I declined these little excursions giving a list of excuses. It was the beginning of years feeling displaced, branded as outsiders and misfits.

The first day of school had finally arrived and although we were nervous, it became a long over due break from the stagnant heat and days that stretched on without basic essentials. The previous year had been a disheartening experience, no supervision, children throwing rocks, and teachers hitting students. I was sure that this was not an accurate representation of the Saudi school system. This must have been an exception, nothing at all like the school that stood next to our apartment. I packed the boys lunches, kissed them, and reassured them that I would be at home cooking their favorite meal, waiting for their return. My oldest reeled off his ritualistic goodbye, “I love you, you won’t leave the apartment, you promise? I love you,  goodbye” and then they followed their father out the door.  This routine pledge began the year before when he was left repeatedly outside the rusty metal gates of the villa. They suspected he had chicken pox and so they put him on the bus, dropped him at our gate and left. He had no idea why he was leaving school, where he was going or his whereabouts. A 6 year old boy standing outside of the gate in a city of five million people, buzzing frantically, hoping this was his home. In an attempt to control this situation he insisted that I never leave home and I readily complied.

He had been told that this new school was well organized, did not allow corporal punishment, was famous for it’s kindly religious atmosphere and in general, a reputable institution. I ran through the apartment cleaning and cooking in an attempt to finish my routine before power was cut. Nervous anticipation filled the air as I stirred sauces, whipped up cookie dough and made my way through the first day of school. I knew that this year would be different, teachers would see the inner beauty of my special little boys, they would help them learn Arabic, be patient and embrace them, providing security and warmth.

The door swung open and he sauntered in, followed by two glum faces and a look, reminiscent of the year before. I smiled, hugged the boys and started to ask how their day had been, this was met with a standard warning glance, one that was well known and understood. I carried on about the food, their favorites and the special cookies, complete with forbidden ingredients from the list.  One day at a neighborhood Bukala (mini mart) I had nervously shoved m and m’s up to the cashier, a  last minute purchase when I saw his watchful eyes were not in sync with mine. These were mixed in with peanut butter and chocolate chips, to make large, warm cookies, waiting on a swap meet plate. The boys drug their backpacks into the empty bedroom and dropped them onto the floor. I served lunch and watched them pick at their meal, exchanging small stories of their first day.

He eventually wandered to the bedroom to take his afternoon nap and at that time I sat next to the boys hoping to extract any small details about their treatment at school. I put my arm around them and told them about my day, how See See and Foof made a pad fort, how little Abude pushed it down and how the box had now become an airplane. They laughed and sighed snuggling in for hugs, devouring warm cookies and milk. My oldest son then pronounced that in the first class a teacher asked every student to place their hand, palm upward in front of them. He then hit them with a ruler several times and followed it with a lecture. Their Arabic was not fluent but they got the message that this would be the result for any lessons missed,  incorrect answers or bad behavior.

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).