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3/16/10 But I Was *Home*

Suffice to say, it's been something of a day.

So when I pulled my door shut behind me, I took a deep, deep breath, and rejoiced in feeling home. My house may leak and smell like the plaster dust that continually rains from my ceiling and be insulation-less and therefore really chilly... But it's home. I've lived in this cement block for longer than I've lived in any single place since leaving my parents' house for college. (Yes, I'm a nomad.)

I hung up my jacket. I put down my bag. I settled in front of my heater and laptop for some quality Oscars-watching. (They finally finished downloading! Time to see who won - which I've studiously avoided learning over the past week.)

Leaning against the wall, I felt something awkward behind my head. Oh, right, my hair. In the past couple months, I've become more and more conservative with how I wear it. Today, like most days, it's tied back in a bun and wrapped in a headscarf. I don't veil like the local women veil, but I have been covering my hair lately. (The difference between how I tie the telkusht and how the other Berberville women do it might not be obvious to an American, but trust me, it's clear enough here. I'm not trying to look Muslim, just modest.)

But I was home now, so I pulled off the scarf and tugged at the bun. The twists pulled out, leaving the ponytail behind, and I let it go at that.

Pretty dresses. Moving speeches. Movies I've never heard of, but now want to see. Movies I have seen (OK, like three of those). Really really dumb lines for poor Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. More pretty dresses.

And then a bang on the door.

I paused the Oscars. Was it my door or the door next door?

Another bang.

Definitely my door.

I glanced out the window at the sky. Low sun, but high enough that I couldn't justify not going. (My sitemate and I shared a policy of not opening our doors after dark - but this was barely sunset, not even twilight.)

But I was HOME, my inner wimp whined. Home. Where I get to be, y'know, HOME.

At the top of my stairs, I called out, "Who is it?"

"Me!" came the usual response, but I recognized my brother's voice.

I opened the door. Through his torrent of words, I only caught that my host mom wanted me to come over RIGHT NOW. She often invites me for lunch (and has made it incredibly clear that I have a standing invitation, regardless), but she knows that I don't like being out after dark, so it's very, very odd that she'd invite me over at this hour of the day.

I asked, for clarification, "She wants me to come now, or tomorrow for lunch?"

"Mom said, 'COME,'" he said, insistently.



"OK, lemme get my jacket."

I ran back up the stairs. I cranked off the heater (this buta tank is especially stubborn), pulled on my jacket, swapped slippers for shoes, and ran back down the stairs. My little brother had vanished. Little rat.

I grabbed my keys off their bolt and pulled the door shut behind me. Little rat was nowhere visible on the street, so I just headed towards the family home. Ama would yell at him when I showed up without him, but that was his problem. I still resented being pried from my comfortable home-time, and felt accordingly grumpy.

I felt my ponytail swinging behind my head, and almost turned back for the headscarf. After a second's reflection, I figured that it wasn't a big deal. I wear it by choice, not requirement, and besides, I always stick to the back roads - the znqts - where I'm less likely to be seen, anyway. When I emerged into a more open space, I cast an eye towards the horizon. The sun perched on top of the western mountains, ready to slide down into darkness. Probably an hour, maybe an hour and a half, till full dark.

As I approached the family house, a boy hollered at me, from a block away, "Bonjour madame!" I shook my head, half-lifted a hand, and refused to look his direction.

But when I got up to the door, it was closed. Bolted from the outside.

So if Ama had said COME, where was I supposed to go?

I looked around, but didn't see any female neighbors. With a heavy sigh, and a longing thought for the scarf I'd left behind, I headed over to the boy who had hollered at me. He was lounging, with a group of teenaged friends, in front of a block of low-rent houses. Great. I looked around for an adult, but none were in sight.

Throwing my head and shoulders back, I asked the group, "Do you know where they went?" I knew they'd seen which house I'd gone up to, and took it for granted that they'd know the family as well as where they'd headed.

Wrong on all counts, actually. First they guessed the wrong family. When I clarified, they had no idea where they'd gone off to. "They're home. Just knock."

"No, the door is closed. Locked."


"Yeah, locked."

They conferred for a bit, clearly clueless.

And then my little monster of a brother reappeared from around a corner. I cuffed him upside the head and said, "Why'd you run off?"

He didn't answer directly, but just said that the family had headed off to our uncle's house, and then led the way.

When we got there, though, nothing was any clearer.

I walked through the front room, the main part of the house, and then found a cluster of women, all talking over each other, in the back courtyard.

My auntie (3tti) and Ama tried to explain what had happened - what had created the feeling of dread and shock that permeated the house. Through their confused, tumbling words, I finally pieced together that my cousin had been arrested.

They quickly shoved me into a room with the kids, to eat something. (Of course. No family trauma can supplant the importance of bread and tea.)

After I'd eaten a hunk of bread with olive oil, and drunk a glass of tea - and refused more of each, repeatedly - I was led back to the front door, where my 3tti and Ama were holding each other. 3tti kept crying. "You're in our family, right?" she kept asking me. "You're in my blood, and in my liver, and in my heart, and in my head. You know that, right? You're my family."

Since 3tti and I have never been particularly close, I accepted this profusion of emotion to mean that she hoped I could help bail out her son. In her shoes, I'd undoubtedly be showering affection on the rich foreigner, too.

Of course, her insincerity hurt, as did my recognition that, after two years, I'm still seen as the rich foreigner, just one who can be appealed to as a family member.

But I hugged her, and reminded her of God's control of the situation, and assured her that yes, I'm in her family.

After a long and tearful goodbye, Ama led me home. "When we get to the house, I'll tell you the whole story," she said in a low voice.

I don't know how much of the story it's right to post here. For all the anonymity with which I've cloaked Berberville and my host family, there are still plenty of people who know who I am and where I live.

So here's what I will say.

Recently, a masked man mugged another man. He beat him to the ground and took his money. Four young men, one of whom is my cousin, have been arrested and taken to "Springfield", the province capital, for interrogation (which means beatings, among other things). When not being interrogated, they're sitting in jail.

Despite 3tti's frantic insistence that her son be returned to her immediately, my uncles have agreed to let justice be done. If my cousin is in fact the thief, he should serve his sentence, they decided. Given the power and influence and wealth that my extended family could wield, if they chose, this shows a remarkable respect for the law. It would be much more typical, in this tribal culture, for the family to close ranks around One Of Our Own and exert every pressure possible to pull him out of the lion's den. But instead, they're letting the interrogation run its course, knowing that the result may well be a prison sentence for their scion - the eldest boy of the eldest brother of this powerful clan.

By the time Ama had explained everything to me, and I'd gotten my daily quota of baby-snuggling, the sun was long gone. The twilight wasn't quite deep enough for me to requisition one of my to escort me home, but I also didn't dawdle on the path. (Of course, I ran into three of my favorite people in town, so was forced to stop and make conversation, but that only took a few minutes.)

As I stood in front of my steel door, fighting the lock, it was dark enough that I wished the streetlight across the street hadn't broken a few months ago. When I kicked the door open, slipped in, and kicked it locked behind me (not in anger, just because it takes that much force to deal with my stubbornly misaligned steel door), I took another deep breath.

Back home.


1 comment:

  1. I return to say, you write well.
    miguel lanigan


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