Tuesday, December 23, 2008

No Plans for Christmas: Lessons I'm Learning, part 3

Oh, but this time I finally have plans for Christmas! When I try to process my thoughts of the past week, I get overwhelmed and am not sure I want to unpack them here in public for you all to see! But there are some things worth sharing:

- I could do a separate portrait on "English front lounges during the holidays" but I'm not. What I would write in said portrait is about how fun it is to walk on the streets of residential neighbourhoods in England, catching glimpses into people's front windows. I know, I'm a terrible invader of privacy, but it's such a cozy sight to witness people sitting around, getting on with their lives. Some lounges look lonely but many homes have a definite family feel as well. I get almost as cozy a feeling from glimpsing into people's lives as I do from living a cozy life! I guess that's the sociologist in me... One observation I've made this week, specifically, though, is that there's a lot of TV-watching going on. Most homes had a television turned on. It was a little sad to see, but it also somehow added to the cozy homey feel of it all.

- It is both gratifying and disconcerting to live my life in semi-public via Facebook, blog, and now Twitter. To those of you who commented or emailed me about current state of flux, each of you with encouraging notes, your words meant so much to me! I'm so privileged to not feel alone even if in many practical senses I am alone. Somehow I've ended up with friends in all corners of this crazy world, and it's great to still feel connected.

I've also been a tad disconcerted, though, with how many people have started wondering about me who might have otherwise forgotten me. For example in reply to a status update saying "I have no plans for Christmas" someone might have emailed me to ask "What are your plans for Christmas?" This would have been someone who wouldn't have thought to ask me had I not 'announced' my lack of plans.

- I am still trying to process what a life is without plans, without a future. I've made plans to see friends over Christmas and afterwards, but the details from there on out are still very fuzzy... This feels like a very wrong way to live, yet I wonder whether it really is wrong. Perhaps it's actually the right way to live, but my culture has conditioned me to plan, plan, plan! Either way, at the moment, I'd sure like to be able to see into the future, at least a little ways!

- I need an Internet break. I think I'll close down skype, close down Facebook, and close down my RSS reader. I'll still check email because it'd feel responsible not to, but maybe less frequently. This means I'm not going to blog for a while. How long? A week, maybe two, I imagine.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

No Plans for Christmas: Lessons I'm Learning, part 2

One of my favourite Christmas songs is "Little Drummer Boy." As a bit of a treat to get myself into the Christmas spirit, yesterday I downloaded (and paid for - a big step for me ;) ) Josh Groban's Christmas CD Noel. One of its feature songs is a lovely rendition of this great song. As I've been listening to the song over and over and over, I have been especially inspired by it. Here are its lyrics, with the pa rum pum pum pum's removed:

Come they told me, a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring, to lay before the King so to honor Him, when we come.
Little Baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that's fit to give the King. Shall I play for you on my drum?
Mary nodded, the ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for him, I played my best for Him. Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

Picture with me a little poor boy. He's barely old enough to work to help support his family: maybe 9 or 10. His only talent is that he's got rhythm, so he walks the streets playing on his little drum, hoping to get paid for accompanying funerals or weddings or the like. One day he hears about this baby who is the talk of the town, so he goes to visit the child that was born in a barn. When he gets there, something in him connects immediately with this infant, and he wants to give the baby something special, or maybe a gift for the mother. But he has no money, in fact he still hasn't made anything today and he still needs to buy bread for his family before going home tonight. So he timidly asks the mother, "Would it be alright if I play my drum for him, just a little?" The mother nods and smiles at the boy, who then starts banging out a beat. It's a catchy beat, and he totally gets into it. The mother is tapping her toes. The baby in his mother's arms feels the rhythm from the drum, flowing through his mama, feels the motion in his mother's legs, and lets out a joyful baby giggle.

Isn't this what a life of faith is all about? Giving God whatever it is we have, whatever it is we enjoy, whatever it is we're going to do anyway! No more, no less: it's just living our lives, knowing that he's smiling down at us as we're smiling up at him.

This afternoon as I listed to the song for about the 47th time, I started to think of that classic film Chariots of Fire. One of the main characters, Eric Liddell, is a very religious man who is an extremely fast runner. The film makes it seem like he could run the sprinting competitions in the Olympics in his sleep. And this is what he says about running: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." He ends up a missionary in China, but before he goes to do that, he runs. Running is his way of smiling at God and he knows that he's being smiled upon as well.

I like that story because I love running. If I were racing Eric Liddell, he could probably start the 100 metre with a full kilometre's disadvantage and still beat me. I'm not a fast runner. But I love it, and I can relate to what Liddell said about it being a spiritual experience (but not the part about being fast).

This afternoon, thinking of the drummer boy who had nothing but his music, something he loved doing anyway, and Eric Liddell, I was so encouraged. Here I am in between jobs, not sure where I'll be in two day's time, and even less sure what I'll be doing. But that all fades in the everyday glory of living my life, doing the things that I can do, that I enjoy, and that I can do well. Like writing. Like running. Like visiting with friends. Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

No Plans for Christmas: Lessons I'm Learning

(By the way, if you read my blog via RSS or Facebook, at some point, check out the actual website: I did one of those wordle images for my book. It may not be your personal cup of tea, but I thought it was cute :) )

Today is exactly one week from Christmas. I never imagined that I'd make it to the 18th of December and still not know how I'd be spending the holidays. Yet here I am, and enjoying it so much. I'm learning a lot from living without panicking over the calendar, possibly for the first time in my life. While I know others would like me to make up my mind, I still have a whole week, and in God-time, that's like 7000 years! It's been faith-building to trust that when the time comes to take the next step, I'll know that it's time. And right now I'm pretty sure it's not time.

But, more than anything, it's been one of the most affirming experiences I've ever had. With my lifestyle, I can often fall into a mire of loneliness, feeling like no one really cares about me. But this Christmas season, I find myself wondering what I did to be the beneficiary of so much love!

A few years ago, when I spent Christmas with my parents in England, they signed up to help transport people to and from their church's Christmas dinner. Every year the church prepares a nice Christmas banquet and invites anyone from the community who doesn't have anyone else with whom to spend the holiday - mainly elderly retired people whose children aren't nearby or who - gasp - don't care. Some of those who attend the dinner, being accustomed to living a life of solitude in their homes, are apparently overwhelmed at the thought of spending the afternoon with a big group of people. Other people are touched to the core that they don't have to spend Christmas alone. I suspect most of the people who attend that Christmas dinner waffle between both emotions.

I kind of figured that if I couldn't make Christmas plans in time to get to my holiday destination, I'd be lucky to be invited to a group dinner. But instead, I have received almost an invitation a day for the past two weeks! At least four countries and seven cities are represented in the invitations - though I'm trying not to keep count, because each one is special. (Seriously, I'm not naming names in my blog, but if you're reading this and you are one of the people who has made a point of saying I'd be welcome to join you over the holidays, I guarantee that my heart is warming at the thought of you right now! I really enjoy your company, and it would (will? who knows) be a joy to spend the holiday with you.)

What did I do to deserve such a supportive collection of family and friends? Instead of brainstorming ways to show the same kindness to others (I do do that, and will do that more), I just want to express my deep gratitude to God right now.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chapter 8e: Could anything be harder? (final)

That night I lay on my mattress in the living room trying to be as quiet as possible. Rashad had school early in the morning and I didn't want to disturb his rest, but I could hardly keep still as I processed and reprocessed the conversation with the landlord. What had he been thinking? How had I given him the impression that this was something I'd do? Maybe it didn't have anything to do with me at all, I came to thinking. Maybe it was all about him wanting his money and seeing a business opportunity. For I couldn't bother to doubt that, besides our rent, he'd be getting a little extra on the side for pimping my sisters to this woman, whoever she was. I knew that Iraqis don't have the best reputation in Syria, and of course being Christian - could I expect any less of a Muslim?

I was so irritated I couldn't hardly believe it. But after an hour or two of lying there, shivering under my blanket and finding it hard to get sleepy at all, I moved on in my thinking. Since we would not be getting a rent reduction, we had to do something else. We'd have to move out by the end of the week, I supposed. The one good thing about the Landlord's sleazy offer was that it bought us a few days, I mused. So where would we go? How would we find a place that was cheaper? What neighbourhood? Who would we live with until we found a place?

These thoughts rolled around in my bed until they rolled so gently that I finally rocked off the sleep, with the dim resolution that I'd go apartment-hunting in the morning. I'd find something, then announce to the family that we were moving and I would already have an address ready for them.

The next day, I called my boss and asked for the morning off. He's a good man, truly sympathetic to our plight, I think. He understood and said to come in when I could and not a moment earlier. So I began house-hunting.

It was possibly one of the most frustrating mornings of my life: Nothing clean. Nothing warm. Nothing spacious. Nothing at all cheaper than what we already had!

I was so dejected I never made it in to work. I went straight home and kissed Mama on the cheek. Then I pulled her into the kitchen and explained the situation. Her mouth opened a bit, then her jaw dropped down a bit, then her eyes widened a bit, then her body seemed to tense up a bit more. When I told her what the landlord had said, she shook her head.

"Of course we can't do that," I quickly added. "But, Mama... I don't know what else to do."

She just looked at me and said, "We will sleep on your streets. Just keep your sisters out of it."

"Mama. I love my sisters. They are my blood and my family. But what do I do if they are the only ones who can save our family?"

"I don't want to hear another word about it." She said, her jaw now clenched and her arms crossed. "I'll go to the church and pray. God will protect us. He always does."

And she quickly put on her hat and scarf and marched out the door.

I wandered into the living room and sunk into the chair. I think I probably let out a sigh and looked irritated as I stared at the TV screen without paying any attention to what was there.

"I'll do it. I'll help!" It was the cheery voice of Nour.

I quickly glanced up at her. I hadn't realised anyone else was there. She was alone, and she told me that Marwa was at a friend's house and Rashad was in the room taking a nap. There was no need to involve them. She understood that this was a bad job, so she might as well do it herself. No need for Marwa to get messed up.

She was 13 years old. A baby. But she seemed to understand what she was offering.

I just stared at her for a minute, then went back to watching TV. But I felt the silence swelling to an uncomfortable tide, so I walked out of the living room onto the street.

I don't usually smoke, but I did that day. I got downstairs and asked the shopkeeper for a cigarette and a light. This was too much. Nour was our only way out, but how would I ever live with myself if I let her do this?

Oh, that was the lowest point in my life, that week. I didn't make a decision immediately, and Mama told me to keep waiting. Then after a few days, she suggested I go to the Catholic Sisters. And it was there that I met Hanan. The best day of my life. And it was they who asked around at the church and found us a cheaper flat with a kinder landlord. We moved the next week. Nour never found out what she had offered to do.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chapter 8d: Could anything be harder?

Good girls don't work. Girls from good families shouldn't work - shouldn't need to work. Maybe when we move to Canada, my sisters will get a professional qualification and then work in their field of expertise: I hear it's normal there. But not here. Here, there are horror stories of girls being mistreated in their workplace. I wouldn't want to subject my sisters to that. Plus, girls who work don't have a good reputation. Our family doesn't need to deal with that.

But between sleeping on the streets and sending my sisters to work... Of course, if I asked my sisters, they would jump at the opportunity. They'd want to help out. It was better for them not to know about the idea - or the need behind the idea - at all. All things considered, though, I was interested in the thought that what my landlord was suggesting was a job where their boss would be a woman. That's something. And that they could go to work together. Marwa and Nour would look out for each other.

So, standing there in the hallway, I decided to consider it.

"What kind of a job is it?" I asked him.

He crossed his arms on his puffed-out chest and leaned back against the doorframe. "Well, let's see. You're a good young man and I don't want to mislead you. It is a hard job, not easy work for a young girl. But there's a huge demand for girls like your sisters these days, and I know they would be able to take in a good salary."

"That's good, I guess," I said, not at all suspicious. "But what exactly would they be doing?"

"Boy!" he exclaimed in a very quiet voice, arms still crossed. "Think about it. What can young women do that pays well?"

I thought for a moment, then felt like a complete idiot. But the anger was stronger. How could this man think I would stoop so low?

My body started pulling me back up the stairs to our little flat, but I kept my feet rooted as I said, "Honourable Mister, I guess we'll be moving out in a few days. Can we have to the end of the week?"

"Think about it," he replied smugly as he turned and knocked on his own door. His wife quickly opened it and he slipped in, leaving me to trudge slowly back up the stairs.

I couldn't think of how to break the news that we'd be moving out to the women sitting around the coil heater watching some soap opera. So I just walked in silently. Mama moved over an inch or two to make room for me to hold my hands up to the heater.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Chapter 8c: Could anything be harder?

The last thing I wanted was for them to hear my conversation with the landlord, so as soon as the new year had officially begun, I walked downstairs to the spacious ground floor flat, where he and his family lived. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

He greeted me graciously, shook my hand, bellowed Ahlan wa Sahlan! Welcome!, and wished me a happy new year in a loud cheerful voice. But he didn't welcome me in. He came out and closed the door behind him, so we were left standing alone in the dank hallway.

"You're a few days late, but it's the holiday season so I won't charge you a penalty this month," he said, still in his big sweeping voice. So generous of him, no?

"Actually, sir..."

"Oh, you need a few more days? I understand. After all, life stopped over the holidays, didn't it? But I bet you did well at the restaurant with all the extra movement, eh?" and he chuckled while fake-elbowing me on the arm.

Then it all poured out in a completely illogical order. My poor father, may he rest in peace... ("God have mercy in his soul," the landlord chimed in.) Mama was bringing in sewing... Syria had truly welcomed us... Brothers... ("We stand in solidarity with our Iraqi brothers against the Zionist invasion." Ha.) I was working so hard but would work harder... ("May God give you good health," he offered, sounding somewhat distant now.) Canada any day now...

At this point the big man cut me off. "You mean to say that you do not want to pay the rent anymore because you'll be leaving any day? That doesn't make any sense at all."

"No, no," I clarified. "It's just that you are a kind man who fears God and I need to ask for your mercy because until we get our resettlement call, money is going to be very tight. My salary at the restaurant is no where near enough to cover our rent, you must understand."

It occurred to me at that very moment that I had never begged anyone for anything.

"I see, I see," he said, and I had a glimmer of hope. Would he lower our rent? "Don't you have an uncle who lives in Canada already? Why don't you call him and ask him to help you out? Why ask a stranger for help before turning to your own family?"

"Sir, our uncle is doing everything he can to help us. His job in Canada pays very little, but he sends what he can to my aunts and uncle living in Jordan, and when there is any left, he will send it to us. I have asked him, and he has promised me he is trying. He also told me that he is working on our visas which should arrive any day now."

"And you want to continue living in comfort until your visas come?" he said, now in a sarcastic voice. I could only assume that the sarcasm was due to the assumption that, just because we had fled our homeland for our lives, us Iraqis think we should move to Canada when everyone knew that a Syrian would have much more trouble getting a visa to any country in the West. Not because his calling our flat "comfortable" was laughable.

So I kept trying. "It is so hard to find any place in Damascus these days, sir. This is an excellent neighbourhood, true, and you have been a good landlord to us. It is my job to look out for my family and I don't want to see them suffer. My poor mother has lived through so much. And my grandmother is ill, it's so hard for her to move anywhere."

"But she'd get on a plane to Canada," he said quickly.

I shut up. I'd lost, hadn't I? I was only 18 years old, I didn't know what I was supposed to do!

He was quiet, too, for a moment. Then he said, "These are difficult times in Syria. Not just for Iraqis, but for Syrians, too. My expenses have gone up considerably and I should raise the rent, too. I have been kind in leaving your rent as low as it is, and I'm afraid it's out of the question to lose any more money than I'm already losing on you." I felt my blood boiling. There is nothing so character-building as having to stay quiet and respectful in the face of such blatant lies. "But," he continued after a moment's pause. "I may be able to help you. Specifically, I may be able to help your family make some more money. I know someone who is looking for young women to work for her. It would be part-time, so your sisters could continue attending school during the daytime. She pays quite well. I'm confident your sisters could make enough to lessen your family's burden."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chapter 8b: Could anything be harder?

I went to talk to the Landlord. I remember clearly the day, it was right at the beginning of the year. It was cold! That year during the holidays we went to the Chaldean church service, the Greek Orthodox church service, the Syriac church services, the local Catholic church services. We even almost went to the Evangelical church services but we showed up at the wrong time and couldn't figure out what the right time was.

It seemed like inside the house was closer than outside the house so we went to all the church parties, we walked around the souqs pretending to shop at least twenty different times, and to celebrate Christmas we went to a nice restaurant and drank tea. That was a fun outing. It was in another one of the Arabic house restaurants in the old city, and we chose a table right in the middle of the courtyard and asked the waiter to bring the big gas heater right by our table. Rashad wouldn't sit: he just stood under the tall umbrella shaped heater and reached his hands up to feel the warmth.

But even though we kept ourselves active, to keep warm, to forget, to depend on God, or for some other reason... we still seemed to spend most of our time at home, huddled together around the little old electric coil heater. We watched lots of television, and chatted. My sisters were just moving up from children to women and I remember clearly some of the things they said that seemed so wise and beautiful. I was proud of my little sisters, and vowed to myself to look out for them until they met men who deserved them.

I knew during this season that we were not going to have enough to pay the next month's help. Up until then, my salary, plus what Mama made sewing, plus a chunk of cash taken from the savings box, had covered our expenses. But the savings box was now empty. It was just me and Mama, and we were not going to be able to make rent. It was the holidays, though, so I kept quiet about it and avoided the Landlord as best I could. He was busy with his own holiday - all of Syria was celebrating that December because the Eid fell on the same week as Christmas - so it would have been aieb/shameful for him to have come bothering us about the rent. So I just enjoyed the season of goodwill with Mama, Teta, Marwa, Nour and Rashad. We missed Baba, but the way the cold brought us all together seemed to lessen the pain of his absence.

The Landlord could wait, but he wouldn't wait much after the New Year. My plan was to appeal to his humanity, to his sense of charity. At night, awake at night, I would rehearse what I'd say to him. I will work harder and hopefully make more next month. Teta is sick and our UNHCR check hasn't yet come. It would be tragic for my sisters or brother to have to stop school. Soon we'll get our resettlement call and be on our way. I'll write my uncle in Canada again, but the poor man has his entire family in exile. We really like living in this flat, you've been so good to us so far. God bless you, kind sir. You have shown us that you truly are our brothers by welcoming us in... He seemed like a dignified man, surely he would give us a more reasonable rent. What else could I do?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chapter 8a: Could anything be harder?

Remember Majid, the [fictional] young Iraqi man living in Damascus with his mother, sisters, brother and grandmother? Well, he's back, now, to tell some more about life as a refugee.

I'm not even yet twenty years old and it seems like I have lived enough to be an old man. Back in Iraq, I quit school early and worked. I saw the war start, the violence continue, and the suffering all around me grow. I became the head of my family at an age many men like me would be just starting their university studies, then I led my mother, grandmother and the younger ones to a foreign country that doesn't want us. It is I who keep the security police from entering our house when they want to threaten us with deportation. I do the best I can to protect my family from knowing just how tight money is and just how insecure our residence here is. I know my job is to look out for them, and especially to protect my sisters. I need to be like the leaves on a flower protecting the petals until it is time for them to bloom.

I have been called nasty names, snubbed and even beaten up on the street. I can handle it all and more if I have to. Sure, I dream of a life somewhere someday that's comfortable, where those things don't happen. But this is my lot in life. What I can't handle is the thought of surviving another incident with my sisters.

They are young and innocent, with their whole lives before them. They still have a chance at a future and happiness. Only a truly evil person could think of doing the things to a girl that my landlord wanted to do to my sisters. And only a truly heartless person could sit by and watch it happen to girls he loves.

But... I almost agreed, didn't I?

Because I was faced with a choice. This all happened about a year ago. We'd been living in Damascus for almost a year. I had found my job at the restaurant, but seriously, anyone who thinks that a busboy's salary would be enough to support the family must be naive. Or not care. Because Iraqis pay a lot for rent. I don't know how much Syrians pay but I've heard a rumour that we pay three times what a Syrian family would pay for our same flat.

So we came to Syria with a couple of thousand dollars in savings, and we thought that would last us until we moved to Canada, but everything just cost too much! Our money seemed to just sift out of our hands like sand. Mama asked around with the neighbours and found some people who would pay her to do some sewing for them. That lessened the tension a little bit.

But the Math still didn't add up. We were stuck.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Scenario #18: Gloss or Matte?

I'm talking about my fingernails, of course!

I was walking through a mall today and avoided being stopped by any hagglers of any sort, until I was just about on my way out. Then a lovely woman with black hair and white skin and gorgeous eyes pulled me aside and asked me if I do my nails 'natural.' When I said yes, she was excited and asked me for 'just five seconds of my time.'

Famous last words. It was not a good start. That and the fact that the miracle product she showed me (which actually did seem to work!) was only sold with a variety of other beauty products in a package that added up to a rather hefty price.

The miracle product was supposed to make my natural nails look much better. It was a three-sided nail buffer. The first side was like a file but for the surface of my nails. The second side was something that was supposed to bring out the natural oils from my nails, whatever that means. The third side was silk, she claimed.

As she finished the three-part buffer job, she said, "Are you ready to see the amazing change? Now, I warn you, don't scream so loud everyone in the mall comes running, ok? I'm going to take the buffer off and you're in for a shock!"

Seriously.

Well, I must admit I was impressed. My nail now totally glowed, and it had taken less than a minute!

But the thing is, I always get my photographs in matte, not glossy, so why should I want my nails in glossy?

She found a real connecting point with me when I told her I lived in the Middle East, as she's originally Israeli. So she tried to inspire me to buy by throwing in some Dead Sea soap as well. But the one thing she wouldn't do was sell just the buffer without the side products (oils and creams).

So I told her I'd look at my nails tonight and decide: Do I prefer matte or glossy? If I like glossy, is it worth buying all those other things, too?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Profile #63: Down to Earth

I remember when I was younger, probably not quite yet a teenager, I learned about 14 Carat gold. The first time someone mentioned carats of gold, I asked, "Why do they name gold after carrots? What do gold and carrots have in common? That seems like an odd name..." Then someone kindly explained to me that it's not "carrot" it's "carat" and it refers to weight not vegetables. I still thought it was funny, but I came to accept it and now don't think twice about it.

This afternoon, I was checking out the Hope Diamond, a 45.5 carat gem in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and reading about how its known history started at 117 carats but was cut down to fit different jewelry settings to what it is now.

As I was observing the gem, trying to decide whether I thought the thing is more blue or black, two women in their forties-or-so walked up to look at it. When they read that it's a 45 carat gem, one woman said:

"That's a funny thing to call it, huh? Carats."

Her friend replied, "Carats actually refers to the weight of the gem."

"Yes, but it's still a funny name, isn't it?"

"I don't think it's spelled the same as 'carrots.'"

"I think you're right," the first lady said, bending down to read the label a bit more carefully. "Look, it's spelled C-A-R-A-T."

"So it's really a different word, isn't it?" The second lady mused. "But you're right, it's still a funny sounding word."

"It must be foreign or something," nodded the first lady.

I'm so spoiled by my education, both in school and in experience, for having learned the difference between a 'carat' and a 'carrot' at such a young age!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Babci and Dzia-Dzia

"Don't marry someone because that you like him. Marry him because he need you. I am praying for you to one day marry someone you can help."

That's the relationship advice I received from my Babci every time the topic came up. Which wasn't all that often, but she did regularly share with me what was on her mind. So if she was thinking about the "special boy" that I know she prayed about, she'd tell me that she was praying and tell me to look for someone who needed me.

Two years before she died, Babci started down a painful path of confusion and even dementia. It was hard to see such a strong woman unable to remember people, and even harder to watch her occasionally grow paranoid. But to everything there is a silver lining, and the silver lining to this was that whenever her brain was in good shape, Babci took advantage of her clarity to tell us stories. Her life was not easy, and she was very much not a selfish person, so she rarely talked about herself. This meant that every time she'd tell me a story, it was special.

One of the first stories she told me during those final years has stuck clearly in my mind. It was the story of how she met and married my Dzia-Dzia (grandpa). And it completely helped me understand the thinking behind her unusual relationship advice.

Babci was very happy with her life in Germany. After the war ended, she had made a group of close friends who were also single, also independent, and also believers in the same strong Christian faith. One of them in particular was a dear friend, close as a sister. I recently saw some photos of this group of ladies: they'd go out together and places together, they went hiking together: they did the kind of things that young professional adults do.

She missed her family in Poland, but going home wasn't an option, so she decided she'd probably just make her life in Germany. She'd found her own version of family there. But she had an uncle who had immigrated to the United States, and had in fact done rather well for himself. He owned a duck farm. Every so often, he'd write my Babci and suggest she come for a visit. He'd say it's not good for his niece to be off on her own when she has a family in America who can look out for her. He kept writing and grew rather insistent, so eventually my Babci agreed. Her visa and ticket came through, and she got on a ship across the Atlantic. She figured she'd go to Long Island, spend some time with her uncle's family, show them that she's still a good girl and is happy and healthy, then after a few months she'd head back for Germany.

When she got to America, though, as is so often the case, things did not turn out as she had expected. Her uncle didn't expect her to leave again, and one thing led to another. Six months came and went and she didn't leave. But she wasn't particularly happy. She told us that she wanted so much to go back to Germany, and was always waiting and looking for a way to leave. Her best friends and her life were all back in Germany. In America she was living in someone else's home: even if they were family, she didn't really feel like she belonged.

Well, also during this time, a young man from Ohio came to work on her uncle's duck farm. He was related to Babci's uncle's wife, and had recently left the military and was needing some work to get on his feet. He was an electrician by trade, so was invited by the family to come try his luck in New York.

Well, this young man was, at least as far as I can tell from the old family photos, a rather good looking chap (not that my Babci was the type to be too concerned by these things). And he was nice, too. My Dzia-Dzia (for of course this is who that is) helped her out in little ways. The two distant relatives living and working on the duck farm developed a bond of friendship.

But my Dzia-Dzia had some health problems. While in the military, he'd been posted out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where he'd contracted malaria. It hit him frequently, and hard. So when he had a recurrence of malaria while living on the duck farm, his new friend found herself nursing him back to health. He was sick for a few weeks, and my Babci stayed by his side, looking out for him, doing what she could.

When he got better, life went back to normal. If anything, I got the impression my Babci was a little irritated that she'd had to do this service. But she thrives on serving people, so mainly she was just glad to help.

After a few months, right when my Babci was finally making arrangements to catch a boat back to Germany, my Dzia-Dzia proposed. According to Babci, he said, "I get sick sometimes and need someone to take care of me. Will you marry me and take care of me when I'm sick?"

Well, I wasn't there, but from the way Babci told the story, I got the impression she kind of laughed in his face. Here she was getting ready to go back to living the life of the independent, strong young professional woman in Europe, and this Polish-American semi-disabled electrician expects her to drop her life and be his wife? I don't know what her expression really was, but I know that she said no and went on with her plans.

But then a week or two after that, Dzia-Dzia got sick again. And Babci found herself at his bedside again. During this time she felt like God was speaking to her, showing her that she had a new job to do, in America. And so when he was conscious enough to have a proper conversation, she told him that she'd thought it through, and if she was going to play the role of his caregiver anyway, she might as well marry him and make it official.

My grandfather was in and out of work his whole life. After they were married, they moved into a small flat owned by someone they knew. They were not very comfortable there, and not treated particularly well by their landlord, so they were fortunate enough to buy a house after only a few years of marriage. Babci was more than thirty years old already when they were married, and Dzia-Dzia was several years older, so my aunt came along quickly, and my mom not too much later. Through most of this time, Babci worked as a seamstress to support the family, which was important because her work was much more consistent than Dzia-Dzia's. In her spare time, she took care of her two daughters and looked out for Dzia-Dzia who did in fact get sick from time to time and need someone to care for him.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

the Babci interview

If you read my blog about Babci, I finish it with a few paragraphs from a narrative I wrote up from Babci several years ago. I lost the last few pages of it, but here's what I do have. She was the most pragmatic, practical and loving woman out there, and I hope that you see that in her words here...

I am from Poland, from a very small town. Its name is B. I was taken when I was twenty years old to Germany to work during the war. You see, when they took our country, there were not enough workers in Germany for the factories. So whomever had three kids, one went to Germany for six months. But that wasn't true. After six months, the war wasn't over. I guess they thought that the war would be quick. I worked for a little while in a soap factory, for oh, three or four months.

In the soap factory, there are many departments, and I did as many jobs as they needed. Some workers can switch easily, don't take a long time to get used to the new job, and that is what I did.

But then, my boss's maid had a baby. I went to work in his household as a maid. It was June of 1942 when I went to Germany. The war was over in 1945, but I couldn't go home because of the Russians.

There was no mail to Poland. I could not write my family. My family was very persecuted there. It is hard to understand or to put on paper. My father didn't want to submit to the Russian guidelines. They were not right. He believed everyone is free and can live free - just like we do here. But the communists, they have a different system. My father said no. If my father said OK, then the rest of the people would go, too. This is why he was treated so badly by the Russians.
My father was honored by the people: he helped whomever needed help, so the people supported him. He suffered a lot because of this; he gave in at the end.

All this was after the war, though. During the war, the Germans were there and life stayed the same. When the Russians conquered the Germans, they inflicted their rights.
After the war, I couldn't go home because of the Russians. So I became D.P., that's a displaced person. I didn't have anywhere to go, so a good friend took me in. Her name was AW. I knew her from working in the factory. Yes, she was German. I lived with her and her parents and sewed for people. They were very good to me, and I agreed to stay in Germany until it was free for me to get on a plane, or a bus, or a train to go home. But that never happened.

I had an uncle living in the United States, and he invited me to come stay with him. I really didn't want to go. You see, the first time you move to another country, you don't know what to expect, but the second time, you know the hardships you will have to face. And I already had a family in Germany.

But my uncle kept asking me, so I came for six months. I came from the Germany on a boat, the Stuart. That was an empty United States military boat. We didn't have to pay, just clean the boat. We were fourteen days on the sea. Lots of people was seasick the whole time. There were all kind of people on the boat, like me, displaced.

But they were a different kind of displacement. They had to leave the territory for various reasons. Some of them, the Germans have to take them out of their homes because of the war. It wasn't punishment, but they still lost their homes because of the war. Then the Russians came. Before going to the United States, they lived in, where is the military home? If you are drafted, you don't take an apartment, you go to training. Well, that is where the D.P.'s lived, there was lots of room there after the war.

But when I arrived here, I couldn't go back, because I didn't have the money. This was 1952, I was 30 years old. So I found a job at a dress factory. In 1953, I met, uh, Daddy - W. He came to visit my uncle: he is related to my aunt. He asked me to marry him and I agreed. We were married in 1953.

That was another hard decision to be made. He was a sick and he needed the work. But he could speak English. I could speak almost very little English then. I still wanted to go back, too. I couldn't go back to Poland, the Russians don't deal so merciful, they treat the people who come back like traitors. But the Lord showed me if I was to go back to Germany... well, here, I knew I will have many difficulties to overcome, but there are blessings here too. So I knew I had to stay.

We got a little apartment, and we bought a house, this house where we are now, in 1954. Our daughter A was born in 1954 and S came in 1955. Life went on. Going back home was something that I no longer hoped for. I learned more English, God gave me new friends, and a church, and I grew in loving him.

I am still a displaced person. I didn't take U.S. citizenship. People have told me it would be very easy, married to an American citizen. I just never applied for it, though. I don't regret it, I never needed to use it. I never traveled more than to Baltimore to visit S and her family. I feel like a U.S. citizen. And I still could have returned to Germany.

I'm not illegal, I'm married to a U.S. citizen. And I have the, what is it? The pink, no, the green card, l came to the U.S. because I needed a country. I have the privilege to live here. Nobody ever asked me for anything. No, no problem with social security either.

My friends from Germany passed away. One girl is still alive. I can't do the German anymore, I can't keep in touch with them anymore anyway. After a long time, you know, you lose the language. I tried to read it for a long time. A family I lived with here before I married was German, but they sold their house and moved to California ten years later. They were kind of like parents to me, their son is back in Germany. So I lost the German.

I never talked to my sister. We write, but we don't talk. Only my sister is now living. My brother have a three sons. My other sister has three children living in Russia. This sister is living in a small country between Russia and Poland. So you see, they're all in different countries.
The Russians took the two sisters. Only my brother stayed. He was in a different part of Poland which became free, after I was already here.

I would wanna go back now for a visit. You know, from the beginning I worked to go back. Because, you know, there was home. Here, I had to learn everything, the language, the responsibilities.

The Lord gave me three families. The first was when I was born. The second was in Germany, people loved and supported me. Then the Lord gave me the third family which is here in the United States.

He replaced the things with what I needed in life. Here is good, but here is a struggle for survival. People say here is everything, and they are right, here is a everything, but you have to struggle to survive. You have to know how to do something, how to get places. You see, these kinds of struggles, they are every place existing. We have to adapt, we have to know how to conquer.

I love my other two families. You don't lose the attitude, you don't lose the love. I cherish them all. Now I have bigger number of people to love. Yes, I would love to go back to Poland to visit!
But I know in my heart it is impossible for me. It is hard to travel when you are old. I have a husband who is needing care. Someday, when we see the Lord, we will all see each other Just to feel you want to is too much trouble for the people. My daughters would be worried to make sure I get there, that I don't get lost. My desire would be very costly.

In Germany, almost everyone is gone. At home, too. The price would be much too big. Sometimes we have to put our desires behind to do what is right...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Babci lives on

I've been in the U.S. almost two weeks now. Meeting a nephew and experiencing reverse-flipped-repeat-rereverse culture shock seem to have just about completely stumped my ability to blog. The only person I want to portrait is little Des (the nephew), but there are two problems with that: first, you may get bored of me telling cute baby stories; second, if he ever grows up to read my blog I don't want him to get off on a too-embarrassed foot. Actually, make that three problems: third, I'm having way too much fun making a fool of myself with him to take the time out to write about it!

But, meeting Des this Thanksgiving week has been an interesting convergence of factoids. One, it's really easy to be thankful for Thanksgiving with a cute nephew to play with. Not only that, but it's been great to spend time with his parents, too.
Second, with my parents around up until last weekend, it was also a little bit of a family reunion. Almost the entire family, but not quite, on my dad's side was together for Thanksgiving for the first time this year in... no one can remember how long, but at least a decade!
Third, it was our first family holiday without the Babci, one of the most amazing people in the world, around. I didn't call her, didn't go through the brief words of loving encouragement and prayers and tears that I've received from her faithfully every birthday and holiday and other special occasion for years now.
Fourth, I did a double take when I realised that my mom has actually stepped up to the plate and braved the title of Babci for herself! In a strange way, was it God's mercy that the original Babci passed away just two weeks before Des was born, leaving the position open for the new grandmother to take on the title?

(Babci is, at least according to our family's tradition, Polish for grandmother. So of course my mom's the new Babci because she's a new grandma. But in our circle of friends, and especially for my brother, my cousins and me, the label Babci carries with it an enormous weight and the aura of a big personality encapsulated in a frail body...)

Anyway, the fifth converging factor was the day after Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving now has, as far as I have been able to ascertain, a minimum of four titles. Please tell me any titles I may be missing!
1. Black Friday (aka, the biggest shopping day of the year)
2. Buy Nothing Day (seriously. In response to Black Friday: you choose, buy loads or buy nothing)
3. Make Something Day (a response to Buy Nothing Day, apparently)
4. National Listening Day (simply NPR's good idea of a good way to spend a relaxing holiday Friday, I think!)

It's this final one that I really was inspired to embrace last Friday, were it not for the cutest little baby in the world yanking my attention away from the important task of listening. Oh yeah, and all the shopping. But I was really inspired by one of my favourite blogs to not only do some listening, but to record the story I've listened to.

So in honour of the passing on of the Babci baton, I think it's finally time for me to write down some original Babci stories. In her final years she grew quite chatty about her fascinating past, so even though she was no longer around to be listened to last Friday, I hope her stories - and even more than her stories, her wisdom, can live on. For a start, I've already posted some of her story that I shared at her funeral.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Scenario #17: Women and airplanes

Have you seen the film Love Actually? I love how it begins and ends in Heathrow airport, one of the world's busiest airports - I think it's the airport out of which one can fly to the largest number of different destinations in the world. In the first scene of the film, as the film reel shows people of different ages and different nationalities and different type of bags arriving in the airport and being greeted by their loved ones, the voiceover says, "Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends."

My flight from Doha to Washington reminded me so much of this scene. Here were some of the people I met:

- A Pakistani American woman who had recently returned to her native Punjab to get married. Now she was expecting her first child and flying to Virginia to finish out her pregnancy while living with her parents. After her baby is born in the U.S., she hopes her husband will be able to join them, or else she and her child will return to Punjab.

- An Indian woman who was traveling alone with her one and a half year son. During the interminably long wait to board the plane (thanks, U.S. security regulations!) the boy became increasingly restless. Finally, when our place in the queue was nearing the front, he reached an incurable tantrum. He whimpered and cried and screamed, and soon I was playing the staring game with him as our bus waited to let us off and onto the airplane stairs. As long as he stared he forgot to cry, but alas, I won the staring game and he won the crying game. His poor mother was at her wits end, no doubt trying to figure out how she would handle 15 hours of angry fellow passengers watching her try to calm her son down.

- A Sudanese woman and her eight-year old daughter. Neither one spoke a word of English and so they begged me to help walk them through the frightening process of flying across the world to meet their husband/father. Baba had lived in the U.S. for the past nine years and only now was ready for his family to join him. The woman wore niqab, the headcovering that left nothing showing but her eyes, and so she and her daughter were given extra attention... and extra security checks. The daughter was scared of flying, and when I went to my seat in another part of the plane I felt terrible for leaving them helpless without a translator.

Meanwhile, surrounding me were several men travelling alone, including:
- An Arab man who watched films the whole time.
- Two middle-aged American men who chatted in the empty space by the toilets for several hours.
- A young Asian guy who enjoyed the selection of games on the plane's video system.

With such a collection of fellow travelers I found myself:
(a) grateful that I was not squeezed between two of the sketchier-looking men on the plane
(b) concerned that the woman with the crying toddler was sitting next to some unsympathetic guy, the pregnant woman was squeezed between two sketchy men, or the woman on the way to meet her husband was finding herself having to explain her situation to some flight attendant who didn't understand Arabic.
(c) imagining what it would be like to have my entire face covered in black for a fifteen hour flight, eating by tucking my fork up under my scarf and sleeping with an elaborate set of garb arranged on my body
(c) wondering why no airline has yet thought of having a section for women only, somewhere for these women to feel safe and where their children are welcome

Seriously, in the Middle East, many restaurants have "family" sections, where women and children are allowed to sit safe from the haunting eyes of less-thoughtful men. Men accompanying the women are also welcome to sit in the family room. It works well, everyone's happy. On these flights from the Middle East to the "West", there are so many young, impressionable and vulnerable women... why not reserve a section for these sweet ladies and their kids?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Profile #62: RSCN

The Jordanian government knows how to raise awareness about the environment: Glamour

The people who might be able to do something to help the environment are the same people who holiday in five star resorts and stop at the Middle East's only drive-thru Starbucks as they zip to work in their flashy SUVs.

So, if Jordan wants to get its population on board in saving its fragile ecosystem - and a very fragile system it is! - meanwhile earning serious brownie points with the huge numbers of greenconscious Westerners who pass through its land each year... Glamour is the word of the day.

In fact, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, as it is called, has set up nature reserves throughout the country. These reserves are more about the glamourous ecotourism than about the preservation, though. (After I visited one such site, Wadi Mujib, I questioned whether this particular reserve was actually preserving anything to start with.)

My last day in Jordan, we visited the Dead Sea Panorama complex, the newest nature reserve to be receiving tourists. It's an amazing clifftop location overlooking the Dead Sea and Palestine beyond.

As we sat on the courtyard terrace, sipping our virgin cocktails (the real kind were available, too), looking out at the beautiful view, we perused the menu. The restaurant is a lovely state-of-the-art facility with a rather nice menu of Lebanese food. It'd be the perfect setting for a wedding reception or something of the like.

My friend decided she'd like to smoke an arguile (hookah, shisha... that stuff), but the waiter apologised. He said they don't offer arguile because the land is a nature reserve. My friend apologised profusely for even suggesting such an affront. Then her sister lit up a cigarette, and the waiter brought her an ashtray. One can only push the envelope so far for the sake of nature!

There really are some lovely facilities and several of them are quite eco-friendly. Like the Fenan lodge, which is all solar-powered, meaning that people mostly walk around with candlelight at night. I've heard it's gorgeous: a candlelit B&B in an idyllic setting. Or the nearby campground where they set up the tents for you and make sure you're fed, and offer some sort of showering facilities.

Nonetheless, these reserves continue to be an adventure. We're allowed to clamber endlessly and freely over rocks and through gorges. Some of it's actually a bit dangerous. At the Dead Sea Panorama, apparently the "be careful by cliff's edge" signs are a recent addition. Anyone want to guess why? There's barely a beaten path to follow when hiking and no one really says anyone if we fall away. As we do so, we get to know our environs, see little critters us city folk don't recognise and identify unusual plant formations. Glamourous it may be, but somehow it's still rugged enough to feel green.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Scenario #16: Work

I've had several conversations lately about overworking. Today, I start with my questions:

- What is the difference between working too much and working too hard?
- What is the bare minimum of rest a person should have?
- When we choose to work more than we should, what is really going on? Why would we do that?

Please do give me your answers. Personally, I'm kind of passionate about this topic, but I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise.

To me, working too much is a huge problem while working too hard is actually a difficult feat to achieve. Working too much entails spending more hours than we should working, but if we do that we start to shut down mentally or physically, so we actually end up not working hard enough.

I think each person is different, but I also think the Bible was onto something when it mandated one day a week. It seems reasonable that once every handful plus of days, we take a day to catch ourselves up emotionally, mentally and physically. But there are people who will work a month then rest a week. Or two months then rest two weeks. Personally, I'm kind of like that, but two months is really pushing it. This whole conversation has come up in my life because I know people who have gone a month without a day off and that seems terribly dangerous to me. As a bare minimum, bare minimum, I'm suggesting one day every two weeks... plus proper vacations from time to time!

Do we overwork to escape something else? To prove ourselves? To avoid being bored? Because we feel people are depending on us? I've heard them all. The worst is when one leads to another, I think: for example, we work too hard to avoid being bored... but then we feel all eyes are on us to really do something amazing, so we start trying to prove ourselves... but then we fall behind on the cleaning and on contact with our closest friends and it just seems like too much work to catch up on those things, so we work to escape the dirty house and our unreplied text messages. Oh no!

Sorry, today's is not a very literary post. Maybe later I'll make this into a story about a person who worked too hard!

Ironically, I'm writing this on my last day of work... and I have too much work to do.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Portrait #61: Overattentive taxi driver

Last night we were going to check out the European Film Festival here in Amman. It runs for a few weeks and every night shows a film from a different European country. Last night was Bulgaria.

My friend gave me directions for the taxi driver, and when I got into the taxi and read out the directions, he said he knew exactly where that was. No problem.

Amman is a city of hills, so we drove down our Jabal (mountain), up the next Jabal, then down the other side of that. We zoomed along a highway for a few moments then the driver stopped. "Here we are," he announced. "I think... right?"

I replied, "This is it? I've actually never been to the place before, but I know it's in this area."

"Yes, this is it." he affirmed. "I think. But where's the entrance..."

Now it just so happens that this theatre is the median strip of a somewhat major highway, so we were all the way on the left side, right by the fastest-moving traffic. This did not stop the driver from putting the taxi in reverse and driving backwards past the theatre to look for an entrance.

"I'm sure this is fine," I said, reaching for the door handle. "Just stop here and we'll walk."

"No, I need to make sure this is the right place" was his reply.

"No, really, we'd be happy to walk."

"I can't just leave you in the middle of the highway!" he protested, as if driving backwards in the middle of the highway was better.

"Please!" I pleaded. "Let us get out and we'll figure it out. If this isn't it, we can't be too far."

Keep in mind that we were slowly driving backwards this whole time with cars zipping by on our right.

The driver glanced again at the building and declared, "Look, there's a guard. I'll just back up a bit further to ask him."

"We really can figure it out on our own," I tried weakly.

"Don't be scared. I'm just looking out for you."

"I'm not scared," I sighed. "I just want to get out. Please, can you stop here?"

Meanwhile my friend, who was patiently watching the interchange without understanding our heated Arabic, started counting out change to pay the fare. So as the driver set his focus on the guard, I turned to my friend and told her to just go ahead and pay.

But the driver wouldn't accept the money. He was too busy driving backwards, and now he had the added task of trying to get the attention of said guard. He pulled into the driveway where the guard stood, and asks the guard where we were supposed to be. The guard obviously knew about the European Film Festival, so he immediately gave walking instructions for how to get into the facility from there. As the guard talked, the car finally came to a complete stop, so we pushed the cash into the driver's hand and got out.

The driver told the guard, "I just wanted to make sure I brought them to the right place."

Then he drove away, and I told the guard, "That driver is crazy. He wouldn't let us get off!"

The guard chuckled and nodded and pointed us to the elevators.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Portrait #60: A really cool teacher

I first encountered her when I got on the bus for the four hour drive down to the camp. She and another teacher were sitting on the right side of the front row and my mates were sitting on the left. This meant that the only seat on the bus left for me was the fold-down chair in the front, where the driver's assistant usually sits. I certainly didn't mind - it was the best view on the bus! But Sitt Lara wanted to greet the students, so once the bus started moving, she moved down, told me to get out her way, and picked up the microphone off the bus console. Did this older, proper-looking woman really want to sit in the seat usually reserved for the servant boy?

Eventually, she went back to her respectable seat, but not without dancing a bit in the aisles first. She's fifty-two years old and not a small woman. She wears thin wire-rimmed glasses and a flowing white headscarf, and her eyes and nose peek out from her headgear in a way that made me think at first that I'd best not mess with her. And yet here she was, playing around with the bus console and dancing with her students.

The next day, the students were doing their group activities before lunch, and several of us leaders joined in the games. The last game entailed one player from each team running to the middle of the room. Whoever grabbed the dartball sitting in the centre first, and then managed to escape without being tagged, won. It was a great way to build team spirit, as we cheered our teammates on. To keep the tension high, the moderator didn't call out the names of the individuals who would have to represent each team until the very last minute. So when Sitt Lara's name was called, she didn't hear. She was too busy cheering the rest of the team on. The other team's significantly more sprightly competitor ran to the middle, grabbed the dartball, and was almost back to her side of the room by the time Sitt Lara realised she was supposed to participate.

So Sitt Lara asked for a re-do and the game moderators agreed. This time, she was determined to be ready. I can't remember if she won the race for the ball, but I do remember her Olympic-worthy pose in preparation for the proverbial gun to go off. She stood a metre ahead of us, the rest of her team, right in the middle of our line. She wore a tailored skirt suit with the white headscarf, and as she flexed her legs, her long gray skirt was stretched to the max. Her arms too were flexed, left arm up and bent, and right arm down and bent. Her whole body leaned forward and rocked back and forth. All 200 pounds of her were focused on the prize of that dartball.

Shortly thereafter, she got word of the fact that I am a "doctor." For her a sociologist was as good as a psychologist, so she decided that I'd be qualified to help her work out her needs. If it wasn't too inconvenient, she asked, could I sit down with her for a while? Since she talked with me as if I were some sort of psychotherapist, I suppose I shouldn't share the contents of the conversation.

But I'll give you the background information: she was widowed at a young age, and has never remarried. Why? Well, she said there are five types of men who would marry a widow: an older single man, who will probably want children and she doesn't want any more children; a divorcee, who might still have ties to his previous wife or else might also want children; a widower, who is probably just looking for someone to help him raise his own children; a man who is already married and looking for a second wife, in which case she's better off alone; and... I can't remember what the fifth one was. Well, after an explanation like that, how could I doubt her? She'd clearly thought it out and had a clear explanation of why she would not be remarried. Nonetheless, she was humble enough to ask me, little old me who is half her age and has less than half her experience, for advice.

She's a clever one, though, and she loves her work. Her desire to help her students is so strong that she may suffer from it: wanting to be sensitive, she gives them their distance, but at the same time she's eager to sit with them and encourage them. She asks for no recognition for her work with marginalised girls and gets silently irritated with others who seek reward. I truly enjoyed meeting someone who tries so hard and has such pure motives, even to the point of throwing cultural proprieties to the wind whenever it seems that doing so will be better for her girls.

But perhaps the moment my heart was truly won over by Sitt Lara was when she informed me that she spends five or more hours each night gaming on the internet. It's Marge Simpson, to the tenth.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Scenario #15: married dude with fat divorcee?

It is a well-known fact that in Islam, men are allowed to marry up to four wives. But I think it's also somewhat well-known that very few Muslim men actually choose to exercise this right. "Marrying over", as it is often called, comes with a lot of obligation and emotional hassle. Plus, I like to think that there are good-hearted men who want to build a family with their one wife and their shared children. Oh, and let's not forget that women prefer to have a man all to themselves, so there aren't loads of women queuing up to be second wives, much less third or fourth wives!

Nonetheless, in many communities of the Middle East, this simple little law changes the entirety of inter-gender dynamics. A married man is not a 'taken' man as I have generally been taught to think. I'm not talking about sordid affairs or stealing someone else's husband; I mean that when an unmarried woman is speaking with a married man, often the dynamics are not all that different from what they would be if she were speaking with a single available man.

So the scenario I have in mind is not completely unreasonable, and yet I still can't really imagine it. I was told the other day about a situation in which a slight married man (think Mr. Bean but capable of enunciating complete sentences) sat down with a woman ten years his senior, who just so happens to be 'back in the market' to talk about the philosophy of luuuuuvvv. About what it means to be in love and what relationships should look like. Rather a flirtatious topic, I would think, in a culture where men and women are rarely good friends to start with, much less men and women who are both in the market!

Yet, this woman is not particularly attractive. She's fifteen years his senior and must weigh at least twice what he weighs. She's not in possession of any incredible wealth. Though her mind might be stimulating, I couldn't quite see a reason for the likes of him to want to flirt with the likes of her. Plus, he is well-educated and comes across as a cultured person, not the type to be looking for a second wife. Could he truly be in the market? Why did he start talking about love and romance with her?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Portrait #59: Crazy... Two young Iraqis whose mother's job changed their lives forever

How can a teacher be a war criminal?

She's a Shiite from the south of Iraq and she is deeply in love with her husband. He's a Sunni from Baghdad. They were studying together at university and became good friends. Then they decided they wanted to be more than friends. So as their university years ended, he approached her family about the possibility of marrying her. And she talked to her father and to her brother and to her mother. Her brother was furious and beat her up. He said there was no way. But when the man she loved stayed faithful and kept trying in a respectable way, he eventually came around.

They got married and that same night she became pregnant. And the next day he left for his military service, to fight in the war with Iraq that ran throughout the 1980s. She had their baby and stayed living in the South with her family. His barracks were nearby so every month he was able to come for a few days to visit.

When his military service ended, he was able to get a good job back near his family in Baghdad. He wasn't from just any old Baghdad family. His family lived in the same neighbourhood as most of Saddam Hussein's extended family. And the two families ran in the same social circles.

But it was actually through her Shiite family that she got her job. Her sister married a man who was a decorated pilot in the Iraqi army, and her sister got a job as a secretary for someone who was well-connected. So when her sister learned through the Baghdadi elite grapevine that Saddam Hussein's cousins were looking for someone to teach their children, she immediately thought of her sister, the woman I met. She had completed her university training as an educator but because she was busy being in love and convincing her family to let her marry the man of the dreams, then watching her husband go to war and raising their baby... well, she had never had a chance to build her career as a teacher.

This was her golden opportunity. And a truly amazing opportunity it was. She got to be a private tutor for children, focusing on their basic educational needs, in an atmosphere where she could concentrate her energies on teaching and not have to worry about discipline. Plus, there were the perks. She got an amazing salary, a private car, and invitations to events in high society. This well-spoken, kind-hearted woman could be an influence in the lives of the future leaders of her country.

She enjoyed her job and was able to be a teacher while raising her own children. Things were going well until she started feeling some funny headaches. She went to a doctor and learned that she needed treatment for a potentially serious neurological problem. So the Iraqi government paid her expenses to go to Jordan's world-famous doctors for treatment. This was 1998, and the treatment took a couple of years. She came with her two children and her husband.

When the treatment ended, she and her husband started discussing their options. They'd been living in Jordan for two years now and the pressure on Iraq was beginning to mount. Something in their guts told them that trouble might be around the corner. So they decided that her husband would travel to Europe and get a job and start working on a way to bring his family to join him. In the meantime, she'd wait in Jordan.

But trouble did come, and her Jordanian residency was revoked. She had to leave the country before she could come back, and this entailed passing through Syria. In Syria, though, her name was on a blacklist, and as soon as she arrived in the airport, she was taken into custody. She spent 21 days in a Syrian jail before she was deported to Iraq. Fortunately, her children were safe with the family. So she went back to Iraq for a year or two, but when the war started, anyone affiliated with Saddam Hussein's family could be at risk, so she quickly came back to Jordan with her children. Her husband was living in Europe at the time, travelling around from country to country depending on his work. Every year he would come to spend a few weeks with his wife and kids.

This time, they were in Jordan as refugees. They still have a comfortable savings account, but they don't have a residence visa, so the children, who are now in their early twenties, were not able to complete their education. She can't work. As an Iraqi these days, it has become very difficult to get a visa into many countries. So her husband is now working in the Gulf, but he doesn't want to leave because he may not be allowed back in. And she and the kids can't go to join him because they can't get a visa.

As refugees, they are eligible to apply to the United Nations to be resettled permanently to another country. Returning to Iraq is absolutely out of the question for this family, so they applied for resettlement. They were granted an interview with an immigration official from the U.S., but all of the questions in the interview were about her relationship with Saddam Hussein's family. They asked her if she knew details of the Hussein family gossip and about the neighbourhood where they lived. They just got word that they have been flat-out refused resettlement.

She told me her story, then she commented that she feels that the U.S., and in fact the entire refugee system, has been unfair to her children. She hasn't done anything wrong, but she understands that there are consequences for the position of privilege she used to hold. But her children were not even teenagers at the time that she was working as a part of the Hussein family. Why should they suffer for her choices? Her son can't work, can't study, has no future. Her daughter is no better off. Neither has any prospect of seeing their father or making a life for themselves, and she misses her husband whom she loves dearly. These seem to her like such unfair consequences of her choice to educate a few children of privilege.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Portrait #58: The two women with last shift at my gym

I'm always the last person out of the gym in the evening. When my gym membership ends next week, the staff will get to go home fifteen minutes early each evening, I'm sure! So I appreciate the fact that they still say hi and smile at me, because I suspect that they're regularly checking their calendars wondering when they will be rid of me. In my defence, I do rush there as soon as I'm done at work, but we must keep in mind that most women who frequent the all-women's gym don't go to work at all.

These two women's smiles and greetings have made the gym a pleasant place to frequent, but I'm often struck at the huge differences between the two.

The first is a petite dark-haired beauty. She is the type that looks like a teenager but by the confidence with which she carries herself, you'd guess she is older than she looks. In fact, she is 32 and has two children. Her son is already himself a teenager! She got married at 16 and divorced only a few years later - she told me she had been too young to know how to be a good wife back then.

The second I don't really know much about. She has blonde highlights in her cropped hair, and smokes after her workout and shower every afternoon. Yes, she is an employee of the gym, but I suppose use of the showers and the facilities is one of the perks. Then again, maybe she's the aerobics instructor: by the time I get off work and into the gym each day, aerobics classes are over.

The first was actually the person who showed me around when I first visited and convinced me to buy a membership. She latched on to me and was happy to show me everything. She said there have been some other women from Brasil using the gym and she'd love to introduce me to them.

My first encounter with the second was when she walked out of the showers dressed in nothing more than a towel. As I jogged on the treadmill, I watched her trek over to the reception desk, lose the towel, and start combing out her hair wearing nothing more than her underwear. Then she smoked a cigarette.

When I head for the showers after my workout, the first woman is wiping down the floors. In fact, even though she took initiative to play gym salesman for me, her job description is actually that of the cleaning woman. Meanwhile, the second woman might be chatting with a friend, measuring a client's waist and giving fitness advice, or smoking a cigarette.

As I'm leaving the gym, right at closing time, my two favourite gym staff are getting ready to leave as well. The first woman is putting on a long skirt, long-sleeved blouse and a headscarf. The second woman is peering into the big mirror in the aerobics room, putting the finishing touches on her lipstick.

What I love about these two women, though, is that sometimes as I walk out onto the street, I glance back and see them leaving together, chatting and laughing with each other. These two women are so different, and surely come from such different backgrounds, but they act like lifelong friends.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Portrait #57: CRATS

(I have slacked off on my blogging adventures. I've taken no portraits, pondered no scenarios and told no stories in the past week. This is because I was given the gift of sight last Sunday (also known as LASEK surgery)! But apparently the gift of sight is not always received immediately, and while I now see things that are far away much more clearly, I can barely make out the words on a computer screen. I may still be typing everything wrong here now and just not realising it, but I think I've improved enough to at least try.)

But to celebrate my return to the blogosphere, I today want to portrait a phenomenon of the Middle East that I finally named this summer, in the end of my 7th year hanging out around these parts. The CRAT*

The Crat is not a human, nor an inanimate object. A crat is very much alive, and savvy and often quite hard-working at the business of surviving. On any given day I will cross paths with at least a dozen crats, some of which are horrifically ugly, others endearingly cute, and yet others just plain scary. Usually when I pass a crat there is a bag of rubbish or a big bin close by. Crats don't usually scare me, but I think they probably should. Usually they either tug at my heartstrings or they groce me out.

Today, I passed three crats hanging out by a bag of rubbish on the sidewalk (pavement for you Brits). They were tearing at the plastic to get to all the yummy goods sitting inside. People aren't usually very nice to crats, so when they saw me coming, they abandoned their feast and fled to the street.

My timing in walking up the sidewalk was fallacious, however, in that a car was approaching from the other direction. So as the crats fled my imposing presence, they ran straight into the path of the oncoming car. One tan crat was just plain slow, so never made it to the road in the first place. The second crat, a bright white character, was clever and fast and got out of the way in plenty of time. The third crat, gray and white striped.... SPLAT! I actually screamed. I've never screamed like a girl before (that I know of), but the thought of seeing a crat slaughtered in my face was a tad shocking.

The car shrieked to a stop. I stopped dead in my steps. The gray and white little guy stood up, shook its head and slowly followed its friends in the opposite direction. After taking a breath, I waved at the car. It drove off. I continued on my way, and Amman 's crat population continues at an all-time high.

*CRAT = Cats that play the role in society usually expected of Rats

Friday, October 24, 2008

Scenario #14: Average guy or scum of the earth?

His car smelled like women. I thought the smell was the intended outcome of the strawberry air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, next to a little black pillow with "Allah" embroidered in gold. She thought the smell was the smell of women, probably many women, in his car.

He had a very deep voice. I thought he probably had troubled vocal chords and had smoked too many cigarettes. She thought it was the voice of a scoundrel.

He wore sunglasses that had obviously been very carefully selected for fashion. I thought they looked good. She thought... well, I don't know what she thought, but they gave her a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

His wife told us that sometimes he gets cranky but she knows how to deal with him so that it's never too much of a problem. I believed the wife. She suggested that he probably beats his wife.

He acted like he'd known us for years. I assumed that was the familiarity that came with the fact that we were working closely with his wife. She presumed that he was a little too familiar with young women in general.

He asked in a dozen different ways if the taxi service he provided was to our satisfaction. I didn't answer but could think of no complaints. My friend took his phone number with a look on her face that told me she hoped she'd never have to use his service again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Portrait #56: Someone who struck me as completely non-interesting

...who by her very mundaneness caught my attention and became interesting. But first, some background.

Today I had an extremely disconcertingly frustrating experience. It wasn't that big a deal, but the way it all panned out left me an emotional wreck. In summary: I am hoping to do Lasik eye surgery this week (I appreciate any prayers since I am quite nervous). I had my initial appointment on Tuesday and was supposed to go in today for further tests. But they never told me what time the appointment was, just 'sometime in the afternoon.' So this morning I called to ask and was told to come in at 11 a.m.! This didn't give me much time, so I rushed and rearranged my morning so I could make it in for 11:15. Then I was promptly left sitting in the waiting room for an hour and 15 minutes. I was getting very frustrated. I'd already missed an appointment and was beginning to suspect that something was wrong, considering that everyone else in the waiting room had already rotated out twice.

Finally they called my first name, but when I stood up they glanced at me and confirmed my last name. Nope, different person. So I sat down again, but a moment later went to the front desk to figure out what was going on. It took the next half an hour for them to sort out that they'd given me the wrong appointment because my name is not a common name in Arabic but on this particular day they had two 'Kathreens' scheduled. My appointment was in fact in the evening, though they still couldn't tell me exactly what time. By this point I'd been at the centre for nearly two hours and had yet to do anything except be told I might have to come back in the evening. Not that big a deal, in the grand scale of global unrest and the AIDS epidemic, but the things that sting the worst are often the minor m mishaps that so easily could have been avoided but weren't.

So, once they realised something was wrong, they took me into a private room to wait for them to sort it out. I guess they didn't want me to blow up in rage in front of the other customers. They left me sitting in a dark examination room for 10-15 minutes while I heard them whispering amongst themselves in the corridor.

But I wasn't alone in this room. I had the company of a young dark woman with long black hair and a big white labcoat and huge hoop earrings. She sat there quietly while I sniffled away and blew my nose repeatedly.

Finally, when I was feeling composed enough to put together a sentence, I decided conversing with someone about something completely unrelated might distract me from my current conundrum. So I asked her what she does at the clinic.

She told me that she is an optometrist and that today is her very first day working at this centre.

So I asked her what she thought of it so far. She said it's very nice.

I told her that my first impression had been very good, too, but today's experience had dealt a blow to my enthusiasm. Thinking about my dilemma made me weepy again, and she nodded sympathetically. What could she say? She works there, but she's brand new and doesn't have ownership of the place. She said, apologetically, that it sounded like the receptionists were a bit disorganised today. I nodded.

We were silent for another few moments, then I decided to try again. I got out of her that she is from the city, that she's been an optometrist for two years, that her mom encouraged her to pursue this career because 'it's a respectable career for a woman', and that she kind of likes it.

That was all I could get her to share. She seemed a bit lost herself - how miserable it must be to spend one's first day at a new job sitting alone in a darkened examination room! But she didn't really want to talk about it. She just sat there and kept me company.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Chapter 7c: Love (cont)

But now, Hanan is no longer a breath of fresh air in my life. She is the source of my greatest worries. I'd grown so accustomed to having her around, to seeing her beautiful face, to listening to her wise advice. I'd dared to hope that we would always be together, someday even starting a family of our own.

So the announcement hit me almost as hard as had my own father's death, except that this time I was used to bad news.

Oh, but, this is not bad news!

And that is why I can't sleep at night these days. I feel guilty for being so devastated by such wonderful news. But I am devastated and scared. Happy, too, knowing that Hanan's dreams are coming true. She wants to study and be an English literature teacher and now she will be able to do that. Like all of us, she wants stability and a future, and now she will have that. I am happy for her, I am!

I could never, ever ask her to stay, but deep down I am tempted to ask her to marry me tomorrow so that she will have to stay.

But in two months time, she and her two brothers and her mother and her father will be moving to Australia. They will be given English lessons paid for by the government - not that Hanan needs them, she is already brilliant. They will be given a home to live in. And in five years - five long years in which I won't be allowed to leave Syria and she won't be allowed to leave Australia - they will become Australian citizens. It is the dream that we all have, and her family has waited a very long time for it to come true. They deserve it.

Why does it have to hurt so much?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chapter 7b: Love (cont)

It turns out that she's from the same village as my grandmother, and is actually related to my grandmother's cousin. She has been in Syria for a lot longer than most of us, for more than four years. Her family left at the beginning of the war because her dad had worked with Saddam's security police and he had a hunch that things were going to get worse before they got better. So as soon as the border with Syria opened, he packed up his wife and three kids and brought them across to a place where they would be safe, a place that would never be home. Hanan is 18 years old now, and so her teenage years were mostly spent in Syria. She doesn't remember Iraq very well. When she said this, I thought of Nour and Rashad, both young children when we came. Will they feel the same way?

She and I chatted for at least half an hour. Once we'd shared our stories of how we came to Syria, and discovered all of our common friends and distant relatives, we talked a bit about other things. It was so easy to talk to her. She asked me questions and seemed interested in me. Not just because we're both Maslawi - I suspect that many Maslawis come to the Sisters to ask for help - but she actually seemed interested in me.

I think I was waiting to meet with one of the sisters, but I eventually started to feel guilty for spending so much time chatting with this stranger of a girl. So I got up to leave.

"You never told me why you're here," she said, still sitting at her desk. She didn't seem surprised or to feel guilty at all. She just pointed out that I was leaving without doing what I'd come to do.

I was already smitten, but her matter-of-fact way of doing her job won me over for good. The way she said it meant I didn't get nervous or self-conscious like I usually do around girls I like. This time, I had plenty of time to feel my heart beating later, but at that moment I sat down again and started telling her about our current crisis.

She listened, taking notes and nodding. I still didn't know what her job was at the Catholic Sisters' Office. Actually, I wasn't even entirely sure I was in the right place. Maybe she was a dentist's receptionist secretly laughing at me, a silly refugee boy asking for help to pay the rent when all she did was schedule appointments for teeth cleanings and fillings.

But she led the conversation. After I finished my story, she asked me a series of questions, some of them quite personal and embarrassing. Then she asked me for my phone number. I gave it to her.

And just like that, she was standing up. She walked to the door and stood there expectantly. So I stood up, too. She offered me her hand and shook my hand firmly. She said they would be calling and that it was a pleasure to meet me.

That night, for the first time since I arrived, it wasn't worrying about the family that kept me awake til sometime in the early hours of the morning. It was her smile, her direct communication, her kindness. Her eyes and her teeth haunted my grogginess. I relived every word of our conversation two or three times, getting irritated with myself for all the silly things I'd said, then feeling embarrassed that after I'd told her of our plight she knew so many personal details about me. It was a very pleasant way to spend my insomnia.

I started looking for excuses to visit the Sisters' centre and when I found out that she participated in the Chaldean Church youth activities, I decided to join that group. She didn't seem surprised by my obvious interest, but she did seem flattered. Eventually she invited me to meet her family and I brought her to meet my family. Every moment I spent with her I enjoyed her company even more, and was always amazed at how relaxed I felt when she was nearby.

We started talking about marriage. We're both so very young and everything was so uncertain for our families, but we started to brainstorm whether it might work. I began to hope that I might be able to share my burden with someone. With Hanan around, I felt completely confident that things would work out. She had a way of putting everything into order. But it wasn't just that. I really liked seeing her face, hearing her voice. I didn't want to have to contemplate not having her around all the time.

At nights I would lay awake thinking of her, and imagining what it would be like if she, not Rashad, lay on the mattress beside me. This would keep my mind occupied for hours, and it was a beautiful way to spend my hours of sleeplessness.

Other nights, my worries would once again take over, and while Hanan would occasionally float through my thoughts like a breath of fresh air, it was the poverty and uncertainty that kept sleep at bay.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chapter 7a: Love

We hardly ever eat meat, the staircase in our building is filthy, my sisters are wearing last year's fashions and my brother wears an old uniform with a few rips in the hem when he goes to school. There is a perpetual scent of sewage oozing out of our bathroom and the corners of the kitchen floor won't come clean no matter how hard my mum scrubs it. My grandmother sometimes takes her meds and sometimes doesn't, depending on when we have enough money to fill her prescription. I often walk halfway to work to avoid paying the extra ten cents for a connecting service minibus.

I don't have my own room like I did in Mosul. Every night, my mum lays out two thin mattresses on the living room floor for my brother and me. She wishes us sweet dreams and heads into the bedroom that she shares with my sisters and grandmother. Little Rashad is still an angel and before Mama has left the room he is usually asleep. Then my long night begins, every night.

Before, it was worries about my family, about how we would pay the rent and about how to ensure a future for my sisters, that kept me up at night. Now it's Hanan.

Hanan whose flashing white teeth smile at me every time I see her. Hanan whose skin is fair and whose hair is never quite perfect but always eye-catching. Hanan whose eyes are soft and pure. They speak of kindness but also give a sense of mystery. She isn't the type who says everything she's thinking, and her eyes don't reveal a whole lot either.

I met her when I first went to the Catholic Sisters to ask if they could help us. We'd been in Damascus for a few months. From the day we arrived I kept hearing about an order of Catholic Nuns who would always help us if they had the resources. And they were always kind and thoughtful even if they couldn't give us the aid we needed. They were described as if they were a group of personal envoys from heaven sent to help us Iraqis in Syria. Too perfect to be true, I was sure. I didn't really believe what I'd heard about them, and I figured that even if it were true, the Sisters were already too busy helping everyone else to have time for our newly arrived family.

But things kept getting worse and worse for us, it seemed. Never any better. And after a few months I really didn't think we were going to survive. So I decided to go to the Sisters and present my plea.

Hanan's was the first face I saw when I walked in to the little top floor office. She didn't look like a nun, I thought. But she did look like an envoy from heaven. She smiled at me and invited me to take a seat. I obeyed her, feeling a bit overwhelmed and perhaps a bit shy.

"You're Maslawi?" Her voice hit me like a bolt of lightning. I looked up from the spot on the floor I'd been staring at and peered at her. I took in the teeth gleaming at me and the soft light-brown eyes. I had the sense that my eyes were stuck, that there was no way I would be able to ever look away again.

Then, after a second or after an hour, I couldn't tell you which, she furrowed her eyebrows and tilted her head, and looked even cuter. But that little motion jolted my mind back into action. She'd asked me a question.

"Uh? Oh, yes, I am."

"That's nice," she said. And she got back to work doing something with the papers on her desk. My eyes were still locked on her, but with her no longer paying attention, I managed to eventually pull my gaze away. I looked back at the little dark brown pebble in the mosaic floor at which I'd been staring.

I wondered how she knew I was Maslawi, so I quickly glanced up and back down again, then worked up the courage to ask her.

"And you? Where are you from?"

She looked up at me and smiled again. "I'm from Mosul, too. But not from the city, from a village about 20 minutes away."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Portrait #55: "I used my mind..."!

Her father used to give her a hard time about how she dressed when she went out, and about the type of transportation she took to school. He never let her have a minute's peace about anything. Nor did he really see the point in a girl studying, so whenever she left in the morning he'd hassle her about wasting her time trekking to school every day, meanwhile risking her own innocence by leaving the house. Why didn't she just stay home?

By the time she got to 9th grade, his harassment had worn down on her. So when the first thing went wrong at school, she went ahead and quit. It wasn't as if a girl like her was every going to use her education anyway.

Sure enough, within months, an eligible young bachelor noticed her at a party and got her phone number. The next day he was at her family's house asking for her hand in marriage. It was a dream come true for the impressionable 15-year old and both she and her parents agreed. It was a short engagement, and she soon moved to a nearby town to live with her new in-laws.

The fairy tale ended abruptly when her mother-in-law started shouting at her and demanding things of her, and giving her a hard time about pretty much everything. About how she kept the house, about her lack of children. Her handsome groom was also merciless, always, without fail siding with his parents over her. He beat her violently and regularly, often even in public as they walked down the street. He told her that the Holy Qur'an said he was supposed to beat his wife, and the poor teenage girl had quit school, meaning that now she didn't know how to argue with him or explain to him what the Qur'an really says.

But she wasn't stupid. Quite to the contrary, she speaks elegantly and has a real knack for decision-making. She didn't learn her values at school, or from her family, or from her husband's family. She told us that she used her mind and figured it out for herself.

First, when she didn't immediately become pregnant, she went to an uncle and asked for help training as a hairdresser. After completing a 6-month training course, she went to work at a beauty salon. For six years she did something unheard of in her community: she commuted the hour between her in-laws' house and her city of birth to work and contribute to her family's income.

When she got home each night, she was met by verbal abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law and physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She grew in confidence at her job, though, and for a short period of time one of the women at the salon took her under her wing and mentored her. She started to learn a little bit more about her religion and about moral living. So when she would come home and her husband would beat her, she started arguing back, using logical arguments to explain why he should stop.

Finally, she got pregnant with her first child and quit her job. Life was still hard at home, but she was excited to begin her family. She swore to herself that her daughters would grow up with a good moral education and good values, that they would not suffer the emotional and intellectual vacuum in which she herself had lived. Things were still bad with her husband, and at one point she was so beaten up that she went a full year without leaving the house.

Her son was born a few years later, and she continued to try to instill good values in her children. When they reached school age, she prepared their clothes and school supplies, and gave them pep talks. And she continued to try to convince her husband to treat her well, explaining that their children deserve the best. She also told him that she wanted to stay with him and build a family with him, but she would have to leave if he kept treating her this way. In fact, she had already approached her parents about moving back into the family home, but they said that while she was welcome back any time, her children were their father's responsibility and so not their problem.

So she stuck it out. Slowly, her husband began to come around. He responded to her arguments, and the blows subsided. He started to set up a little house of his own, a place where his wife and children could live free from the watchful eyes of his mother and his father. As his daughter matured, she too started pressuring her father to treat her better. When he'd shout at her or beat her, she would look up as only a daughter can look at her father and ask, "But Baba, why do you do this?"

Then her husband lost his job. His wife, now a mother of three, swung into action. She asked a few people for help, but didn't get far. No one gave her a penny. But a neighbour hired her to do some cooking, then a local organisation hired her for bigger cooking projects. During the two years her husband was unemployed, she supported the family by making party snacks and helping to cater meals. She could do this at home, still looking out for her own children as she worked.

Now she has four children and isn't working. But when her youngest is in school, she plans on going back to work. Her husband isn't yet the man she dreamed of, but she believes that he has improved from Zero to Fifty Percent good. She is proud of her children who are doing well in school. Though her house is barely two rooms with no more furniture than two tattered sofas, it is hers, it is the domain in which she has begun building a family the way she thinks it should be, something different from anything she has ever seen, and something different from what they saw in her husband's home.