As I followed Ahlam her through the narrow alleys toward her family’s house, I thought how she looked like a royal sorceress in her black robe and fluttering veil—inscrutable, distant, otherworldly. But this sorceress’s palace reminded me more than anything of the gingerbread houses I used to make as a child, and when Ahlam shed her outer layers, she was just an ordinary young woman in acid washed skinny jeans and a pink tee shirt.
Ahlam waved me into the family sitting room, where her mother reclined on the mafraj, smoking a tall water pipe. Ahlam’s mother’s face was beginning to crease, but she was not yet shriveled into the raisinlike old age that comes to women in dry climates. A few wisps of hair escaped from the bright orange scarf that was wound around her head. She looked so much like Ahlam, or rather, Ahlam looked so much like her, that I felt I was seeing the same person in two different lifetimes.
Ahlam’s mother smiled at me as I entered but she didn’t get up. Our hands met through a cloud of acrid smoke and I bent to kiss hers. It was hard and dry.
Ahlam brought me tea and sweets on a dented metal tray and sat down beside me, raking her hair up into a high ponytail. Suddenly she tensed, listening. A whimper rising to an indignant wail hurried her out the door to the rescue of whichever of her two sons was being atttacked by the other.
I sat and sipped. Ahlam’s mother sat and puffed. I wished I could remember her name.
“You are Ahlam’s English teacher, aren’t you?” she asked, finally breaking the silence.
“Are you married?”
“Do you have any children?”
“No, not yet. We’ve only been married two years.”
“You have time. God is gracious,” she exhaled in a long cloud. “How old are you?”
Her laugh was soft and dry and little puffs of smoke came out with it.
“At your age I’d been married six years. I’d given birth twice and I’d been a widow thirteen years.”
“How old were you when you married?” I asked.
“I was about thirteen.”
Ahlam put her head in the door. “I’m so sorry—the boys are not behaving. Please forgive me, I’ll be back as soon as I can. Lunch is almost ready. Mother, why don’t you tell Katja the story of Qays and Layla?”
Ahlam’s mother took the pipe out of her mouth. “That’s an old story. I’m sure she’s heard it before.”
“Not the way you tell it.” Ahlam and her mother shared a smile before a muffled shriek sent Ahlam dashing away again.
Ahlam’s mother put the pipe back into her mouth. It gurgled softly. I waited.
“One spring,” she began, “A handsome boy named Zayed visited his village relatives. While he was staying with them he climbed up onto the roof and looked over into the next yard and saw a beautiful young girl. That girl was me. I was hanging out the washing. I saw him staring so I pulled my scarf over my face. He leaned over the edge of the roof toward me, and sang, low and clear, so nobody but me could hear, “Are those two moons, or are they your eyes?”
I tried to imagine Ahlam’s mother as a girl—a beautiful child with black eyes and black hair, standing on the packed earth of her courtyard hanging out the family’s wash on a line strung between dusty fig trees.
I imagined her wiping the water that had dripped onto her face away with the back of her hand, looking up onto the neighboring roof and meeting the eyes of her handsome, almost-grown-up city cousin, and blushing.
“We were married soon afterwards,” she continued. “Zayed, my husband, was his mother’s darling, her youngest, her only son, and since she had spoiled him she had to let him have whatever he wanted, even me. She was furious though, especially since she had had another wife picked for him—closer to his age, and educated.
That killed any friendship we might have shared before I even joined the household. She would hit me with her sandal if I didn’t do everything exactly as she pleased. She made fun of me for being an ignorant, illiterate village girl. Of course she pretended to be kind when Zayed was around—so sticky sweet she was poisonous. And I had to pretend to like her, or Zayed would be sad, and angry with me. He loved us both, but in the end, she was his mother.
Once, she screamed at me all day for letting a piece of bread fall in the ashes, but when Zayed came home she gave me a pair of earrings and gushed about what a wonderful daughter in law I was. After Zayed left for work the next day I threw those earrings in the toilet.
At first I couldn’t get pregnant. Maybe I was just too young. Ahlam was born when I was about seventeen. After her, I had another daughter, born dead. Zayed named her. I have forgotten now what he called her.”
Ahlam bustled in, hot and huffy, dragging her youngest son, Osama, by the arm. His face was sticky with honey and he grinned at me as he went by, mischief sparkling in his eyes. She plumped him down firmly on the mafraj cushion. “There—now don’t you dare move until I say you can.”
She opened the mirrored, gilded doors of the cupboard next to me and handed me out a photo album. As I turned through it slowly, Ahlam’s mother scooted herself and her pipe closer and looked over my shoulder. I tried not to cough. The smoke of the mada’a, the big water pipe favored by grandmothers, is a rank, dark smoke, hard to breathe if you’re not used to it.