I’ve often wondered whether it might not be better to eradicate the nuclear family altogether, to just let us disperse like loose seeds, striking our roots into some foreign earth, unfettered by customs and bonds and the burden of ancestry. How much damage do parents do, unintentional though it may be? A word that cleaves the psyche, a withheld embrace that ripples through generations, an episode that festers like an open wound. Might these things not be so easily avoided if we all just scattered ourselves to the wind?
There was a lot of weeping in our house, mostly by me, but my mother did her fair share. There were times, when I wasn’t speaking and spent my days locked in the bathroom, that I would wander the house at all hours of the night. Gliding down the halls and up the stairs like some restless spirit, I would pass my parents’ room, and from within I would hear her sobs – like something was desperate to break free of her – and Baba’s quiet comforting nonsense. I never knew exactly what her tears were for – love, grief . . . despair. With my mother, it was like my little cousin Bader, who could never tell if the face you were giving him was a happy or sad one. I couldn’t decipher her tears, and for the longest time I wasn’t even sure she was on my side.
Our lives are sustained by rituals. Up in the morning, shuffle to the bathroom, pick out an outfit, coffee run, and head to work. Family lunches on the weekend and rushing outside when the first rain of the year comes. Gathering around the table for futoor during Ramadan and buying new clothes for Eid. Compulsory calls to relatives just back from vacation, three days of funerals for those that have died.
A man comes to see you, and it’s a whole other set of rituals. You wait at the top of the stairs, never greeting him at the door – that’s for your chaperones to do. When your mother and sister and aunts have ushered him into the fancy sitting room, you still wait five minutes or so. You stand on the stairs, and maybe your nerves die away or maybe they gather strength like a western dust storm, obliterating everything in its path. Finally you come down, you kiss his mother’s cheeks and nod politely at him. Don’t smile too much, that reeks of desperation. Let the chaperones do most of the talking; let him lead the discussion. He speaks English to impress you. Try not to spill the tea when you pour it for him.
‘So, I’ll be working at St Thomas,’ he said, plopping two sugars in the hot liquid, ‘but I’m also giving a lecture at Oxford while I’m there.’ The stirring spoon looked tiny in his hand, like something from a dollhouse.
‘But you’re so young,’ Mama exclaimed, nudging another slice of pound cake his way.
He shrugged with a smile that was meant to be modest, but I could see he was pleased with her comment. By midnight I would have forgotten what he looked like. ‘Yes, well, I worked hard at school.’
‘Dahlia always got by well at school,’ she said, patting me on the knee. ‘Decent grades, but I thank Allah every day she didn’t get it in her head to be a doctor or some such.’
‘It’s difficult work.’ He nodded. ‘Long hours.’
‘Yes, and a woman’s hours shouldn’t be spent on other women’s husbands and children at the expense of her own,’ added Mama.
‘True,’ his mother said, smiling at me like she was proud of the choices I’d made.
I didn’t make many choices. It wasn’t my choice that they should come over that night, or that I should participate in this ritual. The only thing I had chosen was my dress. It was my go-to number. Black. Simple – ‘Boring,’ Mama said – and straightforward. I’d worn it so many times that the buttons down the front had gone a bit loose and the organza layers of the skirt had dulled. It was the polar opposite of the one Mama had laid out on the bed. That one was colorful and frilly and not me. She’d bought it the previous spring because I’d needed to ‘get in touch with my roots’. The dress was cocktail length, but designed to resemble a dara’a, with multiple layers of cotton and chiffon and thick silver embroidery in the shape of Arabic calligraphy. The fabric was rich, weighty with expectation, and I imagined for a moment that I could read my future in those curling, twisting letters: noon for Nasser, the name I’d always assigned to the hypothetical husband I might one day have; ain for wedding, the word that would return to everyone’s lips over the next few months; sa’d for patience, which people always told me would be rewarded.
I’d squashed it into a heavy, loose ball and shoved it deep into a drawer.
‘Her father considered medicine long ago, but I confess that I talked him out of it,’ Mama continued, shaking her head. ‘It was selfish, but I wanted him home at normal hours, not spending his nights with dying people.’
‘A natural instinct,’ the suitor said, inclining his head like he was at an interview, which I suppose he was.
The sadu carpet under the coffee table was woven in thick strands of black and white and bold red. Geometric patterns bordered by thick blocks of color. An Arab’s idea of neutral. I picked a thread at random and followed it down through the weave. My eyes tracked it up and over the ziggurats, sliding down the incline of a diamond, hopping across little interruptions of white. The pattern was a choice someone had made, the will of another that the thread was obliged to bend to. If you picked the right thread, you could follow it back to the beginning. Thread Zero, the one that started it all, the one holding it all together, that one element upon which everything was built.
Did my life have one such string? If I pulled at it, would it all come crashing down?
This excerpt has been reproduced here with the permission of the author, Layla AlAmmar, and the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers UK. All rights reserved.
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