Eslam’s Grandfather Salem

You may want to read Part 1 first.

In my second full year of teaching in Faiha’, the headmistress made a very different decision in scheduling. I don’t know if she gave up on the idea that I would enrich the top tier of the classroom, or if she recognized some value to my whole classroom approach, or if she just decided that this was where I would do the least damage. She didn’t owe me an explanation, and she didn’t give me one. She just announced one day that I would be teaching English to the first, second and third grades.

My eighth graders all became ninth graders. There were no more of my unorthodox teaching methods: no more assigned seats, no more enforced cooperative learning. But they didn’t forget me, from Wafa’ right on down to Eslam. I saw them every day. They greeted me in the morning, shared their chips and chocolate with me at snack time, and often walked to and from school with me.

That fall, though no longer my student, Eslam and her family still wanted to thank me. Her mother — whom I knew only by the informal kunya of Umm Eslam, “mother of Eslam” — invited me to dinner. Even knowing how poor the family was, I agreed to go. In the Bedouin culture of the desert, there is no higher imperative than hospitality. In the desert, if you’re alone, you die. Helping a traveler becomes a sacred expression of compassion and humanity. Turning down Umm Eslam’s invitation to dinner, no matter how ill they could afford it, would be an intolerable insult.

Even so, the dinner almost didn’t happen. After I agreed to come across town to join them after school one day, Umm Eslam had a baking accident.

In Jordanian villages, few kitchens have the kind of all-in-one range with an oven that my mother has. They have a two-burner countertop stove for most things, and the furun. To call it an oven would be an overstatement. The furun is a cube of sheet metal, one side a door, bisected horizontally by a shelf, also of sheet metal. Attached to the underside of that shelf is a gas burner. Typically, the starter is shot, and the housewife starts her oven by turning on the propane and reaching in towards the burner with a lit match.

Umm Eslam was making pita bread for the family, as she had done hundreds, maybe thousands of times since she was Eslam’s age. She mixed up the dough, patted it out into disks, and laid them out on a metal tray on the floor beside her furun. She would have a long-handled shovel or paddle to slide the wheels of bread in and out. Often these tools look more like a coal shovel than a bread paddle, with a dishtowel wrapped around the handle as a potholder. First, though, she had to turn on the furun. When she reached in with her match, something went wrong, resulting in serious burns the length of both her arms.

Eslam came to the teachers’ lounge to tell me that her mother couldn’t make me dinner, but that they still wanted to make good on their invitation. Umm Eslam’s father in the adjacent town wanted to host me at his home. He arranged for someone to pick us up in Faiha’ and bring us to his home.

Eslam’s grandfather Hajji Salem had a large house, two stories in soft pink, down beside the highway that ran along the valley between our two villages. There was a small flat space around the house, planted with lime and mulberry trees, and then the hills went up quite precipitously, polka-dotted with a regular pattern of mid-sized olive trees and scrubby grass. We went up a wide staircase on the outside of dar Hajji Salem, into a large, bright-walled room with big windows. Six of Hajji Salem’s daughters were there, and one son about my age.

Umm Eslam sat with a pair of women about her age — late thirties or forties — on one side of the large, airy room. She introduced them as her sisters. Hajji Salem must have had a second wife, because the other four sisters of Umm Eslam were much closer to my age than hers. They sat me between them.

A couple of the younger sisters were in university, the others recently graduated, and none of them married yet. They were beautiful young women, in fashionable slim-fitting jelbaab and brightly colored, carefully wrapped headscarves. Their delicate, aquiline features were a matched set, their clear, smooth skin not ravaged by sun and poverty like Umm Eslam’s.

Eslam herself faded more or less into the background, just as she had done in my classroom when I first started teaching the eighth grade. She sat sometimes with her mother and older aunts, sometimes with her younger aunts, always listening quietly and attentively. From time to time she disappeared into the kitchen to help another aunt finish the dinner.

Eslam’s aunts had come to cook the meal, but also to see this foreign girl, this English teacher who had so captured Eslam’s admiration. Part curiosity, part astonishment, they were really excited to be there, chattering away. Several of them spoke excellent English, and were taking advantage of the rare opportunity to speak with a native speaker.

Seated one spot away on my left was one of their brothers, a well-built young man with short dark hair, neat and clean shaven. He reached around to shake my hand. “My name’s Ahmed. I’ve just come back from university in England.”

Even after studying in England for a year, there was only one English accent I could always recognize. “Let me guess. You were in York.” I’ve never even been there, but it was obvious.

Ahmed was astonished, and speechless for a moment. “How did you know?” he finally asked.

“Because you have the most perfect, fluent, unmistakable York accent I’ve ever heard from a non-native speaker.” He looked embarrassed, uncertain what to say next, so I asked, “What were you studying?”

“Engineering. I just graduated.” York has an excellent technical university, which I know because my childhood penpal and her brother were finishing their degrees there during my year in England, at about the same time Ahmed would have been starting.

“There’s a pretty big Muslim population up there, isn’t there?”

He shrugged. “Yeah. I spent most of my time on campus, though, or hanging out with other students. I didn’t really get involved with the Muslim commuity.”

“That must be why your English is so good.” I knew from experience that the less I spoke English abroad, the more of the local language and accent I would acquire.

“Do you know,” laughed his sister sitting between us, speaking English almost as good as his but with a distinctly Jordanian accent, “that Ahmed came home from England an atheist?” She tipped her head in the direction of the older aunts who didn’t speak English. “They don’t know yet. Neither does our father. It’s crazy, isn’t it? I mean, have you ever heard of such a thing? A Muslim becoming an atheist?” She laughed, and the sisters her age did, too.

I laughed along, meeting Ahmed’s eyes around his sister. His laugh was as awkward and uncomfortable as mine. Without a word, we understood each other immediately. While he was hiding his atheism from some of his family, I was hiding my agnosticism from everyone. Not only that, but Ahmed and I both knew that becoming an agnostic or an atheist was nothing unusual in England and America, whether you had been raised Muslim, Christian or anything else.

Fortunately, we were interrupted by one of the older aunts who only spoke Arabic and had no idea what we had been talking about. It was time to lay out a plastic sheet on the floor and set it for dinner, and we all gathered around. Eslam and her older aunts brought out little bowls of salad and a big platter of magloubeh. As I often did, I had told Umm Eslam that I preferred chicken magloubeh to the more traditional — and more expensive — mansaf with lamb. Umm Eslam served me a plate of the rice cooked with potato and carrot, and used her fingers to pick off bite-sized pieces of the choicest bits of chicken.

* * *

After the excellent dinner had been cleared away by several of the younger women, one of them came back with a couple headscarves in her hands, a cotton knit amira like Eslam favored, and a long rectangular scarf of the sort most of my neighbors preferred. She sat down next to me. “Our father would really like to meet you and talk to you about Eslam and your views on education. Baba’s a very educated man. He was the imam of the mosque here in town for twenty years. He’s retired now, but he’s a very religious man, a very conservative man. He wants to speak to you, but he can’t come in if your hair is not covered.” She held out the scarves, which I realized were color coordinated to my long, loose shirt. “Do you think you could put on hijab, just so he can speak to you?”

Many Western women in Muslim countries choose to cover their hair for a lot of reasons. In parts of Saudi Arabia, it’s required by law. In Yemen, it’s required by custom. In Jordan, hijab customs vary pretty widely, and there’s a lot more personal choice for both Muslim Jordanians and Western visitors. For me, personally, the headscarf is a strong religious statement, and though sometimes it might have been easier to wear hijab in Jordan, my decision not to cover my hair was a deeply felt indication of my respect for Islam. In this instance, though, the request of an imam was equivalent to stepping into a mosque, where I always cover my hair, just as I perch a kerchief on my head in a synagogue or an Orthodox church.

“Sure,” I said, holding out a hand. She started to hand me the simpler amira hijab, but I reached for the scarf instead. “That one matches my shirt better,” I smiled, wanting to be as fashionable as the rest of the young women in the room.

“Let me help,” offered the sister sitting beside me.

“That’s okay. I’ve got it. Got some pins?” I finger-combed my hair back from my face and snapped a hair band around as much of my bobbed hair as would reach. The girls started giving me directions, but I had been watching my neighbors and the other teachers wrap and rewrap their various styles of hijab for a year and a half. I knew what I was doing, and it didn’t take them long to acknowledge as much.

I don’t remember what Imam Salem and I talked about, except that it started with his appreciation for the respect and attention I had given his granddaughter Eslam.

What I do remember is my slipping confidence in my slipping scarf.

I had thought I knew what I was doing, but my hair was too short to stay tied back, and too slippery to hold the polyester scarf in place. The more I fussed and tried to fix it, the more it slipped. Despite requesting the hijab earlier, though, Imam Salem didn’t seem to mind, even as half my hair became visible, and I got more and more self-conscious about it. When the hajji was satisfied and excused himself, I was relieved to give up the ghost and pull the scarf down around my shoulders, and his children were thoroughly amused.

click here for Part 3

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