Friday, January 12, 2018

Back in Giza and Back to Alex

Asalamu Alaykom,

We have been to Giza and back again.  This is a picture of a tangerine that had been left for someone hungry at the Sidi Bishr train station.  It might not have wanted to go from a lofty branch in the sun to the cavernous dark of a railway platform, but you go where you are needed.

My wish had been to finish up with a very busy month at school and then spend the start of my vacation resting up for a few days.  My husband's wish had been to leave the next morning, so we left the next morning.

There are times when my feminist ire kicks up while married to an Egyptian husband.  However, I would not trade him in for a weak man who caves in to my every desire.  We spar and sometimes he gives in and sometimes I give in.  This, apparently, was my time to acquiesce.

I had thought of not going at all. I was not being selfish, but rather self-preserving.  Being sick, tired and worn out isn't a good recipe for returning home...especially when you feel home already.  We do have two homes at this point and those three hours back and forth are a deterrent.

It's a bit like having a lake cabin.  Many Americans in the northern states have a lake cabin----my grandparents did.  I would see these tiny black and white Kodak shots of an idyllic stone building with a lovely front porch surrounded by trees.  My mom had said that my grandma used to complain about all the work it took to go back and forth and I tacked it up to my grandma being difficult (which is how I remember her).

Actually, I get it now.  It is an adjustment to leave a comfortable place, taking only what you need, and go to a place that needs time and effort before it's comfortable again.  There's always something you forget, and you never feel like you have all your stuff in one place.  It's a hassle to be on the move and to organize everything for a short time.  Having no food is a problem on both sides.

What made me go?

It wasn't my husband because, although he wanted me there, he has gotten used to trusting me and giving me more freedom.  There have been times this fall when we have had to be alone while he went to Giza.  This has become easier now that my son is a young man since Islamically he counts as my guardian when my husband is not with me.

No, what made me go is a sense of family duty and of respect.  My sister-in-law's husband, God bless him, had passed away forty days before, and paying a visit to her and her children was needed.  I needed it.  I needed to validate the tough time she'd been going through.  Yes, maybe my first term at my new school was tough, but it was nothing AT ALL compared to her grief and hardship.

It wasn't only the loss of her only love, my sister-in-law had lots of red tape to cut through and my husband, a.k.a. her baby brother, was now that one who could help her.  It was a payback for all the years she had helped Ahmed like a mini-mom.  The strange thing is that her husband, God bless his soul, had planned for everything.  He had made all the arrangements, visited the bank, and signed the papers, yet STILL the procedures required many trips out, interviews, and confusion.  During one trip, she started to get questioned on the sidewalk by a bank guard and, since my husband was still inside, she got flustered and broke down.  My husband came out, calmed her down, and reassured the guard that she was not a threat, but rather a grieving widow.

Dear God.

Yes.  I wanted to go to Giza for her and her children.  I wanted to go to show respect for a man who tried to leave the people he loved well taken care of, although they wish they could give all the money just to have him back.  As I prepared to leave, I started to see how I was helping my husband keep his wits together.  By supporting him---yes, by giving in to his wishes---I was in turn supporting her and the children.

It's not easy to let go of our own wants and desires for other people.  I was an only child---and an American to boot---so sharing still takes a bit of a nudge.  Sharing my winter break took some soul searching, but, in the end, I made the right decision.

It doesn't mean that every moment felt good.

After three days of not seeing anyone except my hub and my kid, I said that I really did want to go to my sister-in-law's home.  Remember, in Islam, a grieving widow takes a time-out from being social and stays secluded; she wasn't supposed to leave to come see me.  I had to go to her.  We arranged it.  However, I'm learning that a twelve-year-old changes family dynamics as much as a toddler does.  All of a sudden, I was the only one at the door ready to go:  my hub was mad on the couch and my son was mad in his room.  Ah, the joys of being in the middle!

I really thought I could positivity-plus the moment into a better outcome, but I couldn't. I remained standing at the door...alone.

"Can I go by myself?"  I asked.

"Go." My husband was still sulking.

I called to my kid to come with me, but he was not interested in I left.

I walked down the stairs and out the door.  I walked into the night air.  It felt strange even though it's my neighborhood.  Being away had made the place decrepit, even in the moonlight.  It was a bit frightening because I've gotten use to security guards at every high-class apartment along our well-lit street.

I got as far as the vegetable seller, UmAhmed, and stopped to greet her in the cold.  It was well after magrib, and she was still out hoping for someone to buy her food.  She said she needed an operation.  I know that meant I was supposed to give her money, but I had left the house with none.

There still wasn't any phone call telling me to come back.  I'm used to a phone call three minutes later, telling me that he didn't want me to go by myself.  What I'm not used to is leaving the house at night alone...and remaining alone.

What to do?

I kept going.

I got to the busy street and thought how it would be a bad ending to get killed by a speeding micro-bus the moment I finally tried to show how independent and capable I am.  I timed it right and did my quick turkey trot across the road.  As I kept walking down the narrow footpath, I soon realized that crossing the street was probably less dangerous than walking alone at night as a woman in Egypt.

To put an image in your mind, I will mention that I was so layered up that I'm not sure if I resembled a woman as much as a pillow.  My long, baggy, pink sweater hid most everything, but it was breezy, so just in case I had a shawl over that.  I wasn't going to be attracting unwanted attention; on the other hand, I did wonder if my purse would.  I carefully opened my purse to check my phone.

Still no call.

I decided to put the phone in my pants pocket as the nights in Giza can be so noisy with car horns that you can't hear your phone ring no matter what the volume of your ringer is.

Time to cross another street.  This one was less defined than the last one because it was the access road to two one-way streets.  Looking both ways had to happen rapidly and carefully.  I tried to look confident as I made my way across the street and out of our neighborhood.

Men were parked in cars along this street.  I don't know why and I kind of don't want to know why.  It scared me.  I was officially scared---and no one could know this but me.  This would have been a good place to turn back.  I had made it half way and  I had made my point:  I had left the house and been independent.  Khalas!

Then, I thought about my goal.

My intention had been to make it to their house to show solidarity and respect, and I was half way there.  If I gave up now, I would not fulfill my promise to see them that night.  I kept going.

I wasn't used to this part of town in the dark.  It seriously does look so different in Egypt when night hits.  There was the new Chinese restaurant on the corner.  I had noticed it on our way to our apartment.  It was the second new Chinese restaurant near us (and the second one that my husband had refused to eat at).  All I had to do was cross this street and then I'd be in her neighborhood.

That's when the Adam Ant song began to play.  My phone!  My husband was calling me.  Like a surreal bad dream, he was asking where I was and why I had left.

"You told me to go."

"Come home now."

"I'm almost there," I kind of fibbed because I was close but not that close.

"Where are you?"

"I'm at the Chinese restaurant near the football field," I answered.

Oh, this conversation was all in Arabic, so I had to be crossing the street, finding my way, acting coolly confidant, AND speaking in Arabic.  Somehow, I pulled it off and he hung up without trying to divorce me.  Past the football field I went.  Horses munched clover in the median strip.  It was darker here.

I hadn't been to her house that often on foot and it had always been with my husband.  What the hell had I been thinking?  This was alone and at night!  If I ran into trouble or got lost...

There was Zagahloul in the distance.  This main street was a welcome sight because I knew I was close.  I dodged the tuk-tuks (knowing that I would not be hopping into one alone) and started to look to my right.  One of these roads led to her house, but which?

There aren't usually street signs in our area next to the Pyramids.  You look for landmarks and memorize the graffiti on the walls, or the horse carriage parked outside.  That's what I did now.  I walked into the labyrinth of apartment homes and tried my best to remember where they were.  I turned and turned and then stood at the steps of a house that I thought was hers.  Was it?

A little girl was knocking on the door.  I asked her the name of my sister-in-law and she told me that it was.  She called for her.  Still, there was this disbelief that she had understood me and that I was in the right place.

That's when my niece came to the door, saw me, and ran into my arms.  I held her as she cried.

I don't know.

Egypt has been hard at times; hurtful, painful, and cruel, but it has also been that moment many times over when I was connected on such a deep level.  I have made some of the stupidest mistakes in my life, but I think I have made fewer of them here.  I think I have done more to set my life aright.  I have felt compelled to move forward, push ahead into something better and do what's for the best.

I was welcomed in and I stood in the spot that her father had stood as he had greeted his family right before he died.  The location was not lost on me.  My sister-in-law came out of a room where there was a crying baby---whose I wasn't sure yet---and hugged me tightly.  I had been sending messages of love and support through my husband to her, but nothing beats a warm embrace.  She wanted to tell me that her husband had fallen down dead right where we were standing.  I tried not to grimace.  We don't handle death the same way in America---not by a long shot.  It's hard to fathom for me, so I don't know how she can live in that house for the rest of her life with that image in her mind.

Time to call my husband and tell him I had reached my destination.  He wasn't exactly cheering on the other end of the phone.  He also wasn't coming over.  I had really broken with protocol.

I greeted the two eldest children, who are going blind; they move less steadily to the door each time I see them.  Their eyesight is fading.  One of the home improvements was the make the house brighter for them to see better.

I was ushered to sit down on the couch cover that I'd never seen.  I complimented my sis-in-law on her choice of beige stripes.  "He never got to see this," was her reply.  Everything in her world now is in reference to him.

The crying baby in the back bedroom was finally leaving in the arms of a visiting family member.  The back bedroom was where the grand matriarch of the family stayed.  Not only did my sister-in-law lose her husband, she gained a grieving mother-in-law.  The day before, this lady had fallen in the bathroom, so now everyone was coming to visit.

It was my time to visit her too.  This elderly woman was someone who scared me the first time I met her.  She has this strong, strong sense of self that makes way for a grande entrance wherever she goes.  If you told me she was an aging movie queen, I might actually believe you.  She used to wear gold bangles---rows and rows of them---on her arms.  Somehow, with her sitting on the patchwork quilt in the back bedroom, I still saw them, although they are long gone.

She is my husband's paternal aunt.  I never met my father-in-law, however, I can see some strength of character that she has which flows through my man too.  I do believe he inherited that character trait from that side of his family.  She loves me because I have made it a point to love her.

I am loving the old women I meet more as I spend more time away from my own mother.  I can't see her easily, so I see them and see what they need.  I made sure she had socks on her cold feet.  I gave her hugs and held her hand.  I listened to her talk about the three children she has lost to death.  I let her talk about her husband and that made her glow in such an aura of radiant beauty.  She lost years and fears, and became a girl again for a moment who loved a handsome man with a future ahead of her instead of a life behind her.

They all begged me to stay, but I couldn't.  I reasoned with them that my husband was so kind to let me go, but he wouldn't stay understanding for long.  I had to leave or he'd be nervous.  They understood that I spoke the truth and made me promise I'd come back.  I promised.

Thankfully, my teenage nephew came back and could walk me to the busy street.  He wanted to send me home in a tuk-tuk, but I asked him to walk me back instead.  Part of the reason was my safety in the street, and partly it was for my safety once I returned home.  He could buffer upon my re-entering my apartment (and maybe save me from a few angry words).

As we walked, we talked together about his life.  His life had changed so much that day that his father died.  This was as true for him as it was decades ago for my husband.  Both lost their fathers at sixteen.  I warned him that his uncle, my husband, had thought it best to leave school and start working; that had been a bad choice.  I encouraged him to stay in school and dream a big life.  He's good at math, so he'd like to become an engineer.  Whatever he becomes, he will be the only male who can fully take care of the family as his older brother is on his way to becoming completely blind.
He will shoulder the family in the future and this is much harder than my husband had in his life.

We made it back to my neighborhood, then my street, and finally to my apartment.  It felt so good to be home.  It still is home.  There were the little ones I hardly know now sitting on the cold front steps.  Up the stairs we went, and we were welcomed in much easier than if I had been alone.

No fall out happened.

The world didn't end.

Life went on.

Later that week, we all went---the three of us---back to the house in mourning, paid our respects, and said our goodbyes.  The papers had been sorted out, and the money would now be safely in the account.  It had been the right thing to do to spend time in Giza, and God had made it easy on us.

Did I want to stay longer?


I would miss the sunshine that floods our salon in the morning.  I would lament the loss of three places to hang my wet wash.  I would really feel strange to be back among other people's furniture.  All of that was true.

Still, I had an exciting time unfolding in my life on the North Coast, and it felt good to be heading out that morning---even without bus tickets.  Our usual driver picked us up, drove us to downtown Giza,  and miraculously there was our bus to Alex (except it didn't know that yet).  My hub bought tickets as they were calling for the last passengers to load their luggage.  We boarded, sat down amid the smell of kabob-flavored chips, and were off in ten minutes.

It felt good.  It felt blessed.  It felt like going back home.

When I thought of how I have two homes, I thought back to being a child of divorce and having to shift between my mother and father.  It wasn't easy back then, but it did shape me into a person who feels at home wherever I am.  That's a life skill which I'm glad I have.  I love where I'm at and if I go on to a new place, then I love that location too.  Which is the best?  I am really enjoying the mix of the two worlds---just as much as I needed a mother and a father with very different homes.

I see my life as encompassing a bigger area and a better understanding of what is Egypt and who I am.  Alhumdulillah.

May God bless you with bigger and better in 2018.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Assalamu aalaikum.

Wonderful narration. A true story written like a suspense thriller..Sad and little bit adventurous as you are walking along the streets in the night to console a woman who lost her husband.
Very touching.
May Allah always be with you and protect you.
jazakallah khairan.