Tag Archives: blind date

The Kiss of Release

She approached me in the middle of the bus.  “One of the girls is crying,” she said.  “She got a call on Miss Mae’s phone, and now she’s really upset…”

I looked forward, where Mae– one of our local teachers with Young Leaders– was leaning over a slump-shouldered fifteen-year-old girl.  Teena.  Her family was the one that set up an accidental (for me) blind date with her brother, shortly after I arrived in the country.  There had been no second excursion with Mohammad, but when Teena applied for Young Leaders, she immediately won our teachers’ hearts.

She had determination, ready laughter, social intuitiveness.  What could have happened to bring about those tears? 

Mae explained.  Teena had been given permission by her mom to go on this class trip to a desert reserve, but another family member found out about it and responded the opposite way.  He called and demanded that the bus stop at a nearby security checkpoint.  From there, he would pick Teena up and take her home.

“He’s on the way already,” Mae told me.  “Teena says he never lets her go on trips outside of town, with school or clubs; but he did not know about this one until a few minutes ago…”  We told the bus driver to slow down.  We called Teena’s mom to see what she wanted to do.  She instructed us to let Teena go if that was what this relative wanted.  We called him, we begged, we reasoned.

She’s with all of her friends.  She’s worked hard in this program.  She’s already twenty minutes out of town.  We will protect her like our own sister, our own child.  

He refused.

I knew that Teena’s seat in the program would be lost if she did not participate in ALL activities.  So no field trips also meant no more after-school English lessons.

No more leadership-building activities.

No more mentoring from Miss Mae.

A few days after this incident, I called a cousin of Teena’s whom I know well.  I asked her to appeal to the male relative on our behalf: She is a delight everyone in the program.  But if she doesn’t take the trips, we have to give her spot to another student.  Please, remind this relative that your family knows me, and that I will look after Teena like my own sister. 

Then we called Teena and asked her to have her relative come to the center, so we could try to persuade him face to face.  She was thrilled.  She knew we were fighting for her.  We felt a small measure of hope.

The day of the meeting, Mae called to reconfirm.  No one answered.  Teena texted soon afterward: “We can’t have a meeting today.  Our father passed away this morning.”

That night, Mae and I drove around Teena’s neighborhood, until we found the apartment where dozens of women were gathered to recite funeral prayers and support the family (the men– including the relative who had forbidden Teena’s attendance on field trips– met somewhere outside).  Despite her grief, Teena’s mom recognized me right away.  I kissed her cheeks and repeated the consolation my tutor had taught me for such an occasion.

Someone pulled up extra chairs, and the mom introduced me: “She’s American, a teacher.  My daughter Teena is with her in the Young Leaders program.”

With us in the Young Leaders program.  I repeated the words as if to etch them in stone.

On rising to leave, I forgot the phrase I had learned for funerals, so substituted my favorite parting words: “God be with you.”

Despite hearing that the relative planned to withdraw Teena from the program entirely, Mae and I returned to talk with Teena’s mom, and with a friend who had a voice in his life.  We drank three cups of coffee, offered consolation again, and explained why Young Leaders was vital for Teena’s personal development.  We invited all of them to attend the Opening Ceremony.  We sensed that they supported us– but depended on the male relative’s approval for Teena’s inclusion in the program.

On rising to leave, Teena’s mom randomly informed Mae, “We wanted this foreigner to marry our son.”

It made the mom smile briefly.  It also left me needing to explain the story to my coworker.

We discovered, just a day before the Opening Ceremony, that as soon as the friend had approached Teena’s male relative, he knew what was going to be said.  “Don’t even try,” he said.  “I decided she isn’t going anymore to Young Leaders.”  And that was the end of that portion of the story.

We used all the cultural wisdom we could get.

We fought, we visited, we begged.

We prayed.

Still, with the Opening only hours away, she left an empty space.

—–

What is surrender?  Some think of giving up.  Of being controlled by someone other.  Of passive living.  But what if it is active?  What if it calls for us to not be coerced, but consenting?

What if surrender needs to happen even in the moments that we are fighting… visiting… praying… as much as when we are giving a kiss to each cheek and saying, “God be with you,” in releasing with a blessing?

—–

A hasty search of the waiting list.  Acceptance into the program of a new student.  Her face is familiar when she joins Mae’s class at the Opening Ceremony; we realize her sister was in last year’s program.

Our hearts accept it as a little bit of balm.  What is your name? we ask.

Faith.

Advertisements

Drunken Drivers, Engagements, & Other Misunderstandings

He honked the horn of the bus.  I ignored him, and opened the trunk of my car.

He smirked, gestured, and beeped a second time.

I hoped he wasn’t trying to get my attention.  For women in this part of the world, it’s not unusual to receive some level of rudeness from random guys; but this bus driver was with the Young Leaders group that day.

IMG_5503
Team building games w/ Young Leaders, by the sea

Three busloads of teenage boys, five local teachers, and I had come to the beach that morning for a field trip.  The students were finishing the last of their “team building” games, just a few minutes behind schedule.  Earlier that morning, they had combed the beach for sea glass, which women who are employed at the community center would later transform into jewelry.

I packed the glass in the trunk of my car, and the bus driver beeped again.  “Hurry up!” he yelled in Arabic.  “We’re waiting.  Let’s get going!”  His abruptness led the thought to flash across my mind: Is he intoxicated?

Out loud, I apologized, and told him I would get the boys moving onto the buses.  Given that drinking was against his religion, it was 11:00 a.m., and he was a bus driver, I dismissed my previous thought as preposterous.  I told Ramsey, one of our Young Leaders teachers, that our bus driver wanted us to hurry up.  The boys got into the buses while Ramsey went to see what the rush was about.

He came back to talk to me, keeping his voice low.  “He’s drunk.”

I thought I heard wrong.  I asked him to repeat himself.

“He’s drunk.  Either that, or he’s wearing this bad-smelling cologne that’s common in his home city.”

We needed to figure out, quickly, if this guy was under the influence, endangering students– in which case my instinct was to pull him out of the bus, leave him in the blazing sun on the beach, and replace him behind the wheel with one of our trusted teachers– or if he just had little social aptitude and a poor choice of cologne.

What to do, with so much at stake?  And with so much, from hometown colognes to cultural methods of confrontation, beyond my knowledge?

We came up with a plan, but all I could think about on the drive home was, How do I make sure this vulnerable scenario never. happens. again?

Last week, my best friend from this city, Sammi, was telling me again what she hoped God would provide in her future husband, though she had no current candidates.  She is helping me with my Arabic, and our “studying” often turns into conversations about heart and soul stuff.

The following day a family who had heard of her came to visit– unexpectedly.  By the end of the evening, they had asked her to marry their son.  The two met that night and signed the marriage contract the next morning.

I understand that this story is normal in this country.  I have met many ladies here who began their marriages this way. And when they talk about their relationships, my limited Arabic is enough to understand that a few are delighted, and others are depressed. I have even had well-meaning friends try to set me up like this, with my blind date Mohammad

But on a deeper level, when I saw my close friend Sammi, joining her hands and connecting her life with this almost-stranger, I knew I didn’t understand.

When we lead, when we love, or even when we simply talk, or connect with one another, the risk is present: of not understanding.  Or, what is an even less appealing option to some of us: of not being understood.

Sometimes the stakes are low.  I recently tried to ask one Young Leaders teacher, in Arabic, Do you know how to cook?  It came out, Do you know how to get engaged?   

Sometimes the stakes are higher.  A bus full of students.  A friend who needs support even if I can’t understand the road she is traveling.

When the stakes are raised, but the guarantee that I will understand and be understood is not there, my tendency is to reduce risk factors as much as I possibly can, and try to increase safety.  I put my hands in fighting stance, or attempt to put distance between what I love and what I feel is a threat.

But, in fight or in flight, many times I’m also guarded against good things.  Deepening relationships.  New experiences.  Trust.

After Sammi told me her news, I went to Dana, my wise friend from this city, for help in wrapping my mind around their quick commitment.  What’s the best way for me to support her?  I asked.  Dana asked if there would be an engagement party.

Next week.

She smiled, knowingly.  The best way, though I don’t fully understand what happened previously or know will take place in the future, to be fully present and engaged?

“Just dance.  Just show up, and dance.”

***Song to this story is Counting On, by John Mark McMillan.

The Blind Date

Let me tell you about my accidental blind date.  

With Mohammad.

I had been in the country for about six weeks.  A friend from our community center, Khudrah, invited me and my housemate to visit the ladies in her home.  My housemate warned me that Khudrah had been inquiring about my marital status that day, mentioning a cousin who “wants to marry a foreigner.”  Note: Marriages here are often set up by the female members of a household, who research options and then arrange a meeting between the potential couple.

As surrogate family, my housemate had tried to discourage Khudrah, but gently so as not to insult the family.

So I wasn’t worried about the visit that night, and I had my housemate with me to help with any challenging language situations. One of Khudrah’s aunts began telling me about her son, suggesting he could teach me Arabic.

I declined the offer.

That Thursday night, Khudrah invited just me out for coffee.  I told myself that there was no way the cousin would show up– culturally, that would be really, REALLY weird.  But the discomfort persisted…

Until I got in the car, and saw just Khudrah and a single aunt of hers sitting there.  I need to be okay with not controlling all the details, I reminded myself.

So I didn’t ask where we were going.  We parked in a busy downtown area, and I noticed the people in the car next to us– three women, some kids, and an infirm-looking older gentleman– and thought, Why is that one lady waving at me, smiling so expectantly?  Have I met her before?

Khudrah grinned: “This is the coffee shop, owned by my cousin Mohammad!  There’s his dad and my aunt– his mom– in the car beside us.  You remember her, right?”

I spent the next two and a half hours trying to make small talk with the women of the family, in my excruciating Arabic. Trying not to make small talk with Mohammad, who would emerge from behind the counter periodically, smoking cigarettes and attempting to ask me questions in English.  Trying to be clear with Khudrah, drawing her aside, saying, I’m here to hang out with you ladies, not with your cousin.  Trying to be polite when the aunts commented that I was “shy” around Mohammad, and Khudrah informed them, “She doesn’t talk to men.”  Trying to figure out if being reserved made them more or less interested in me as a future daughter-in-law.  Trying not to laugh at the awkwardness of the situation.

I found out later that an initial meeting is often all that a potential couple has to go on, before they decide whether to get married.  Sitting with my housemate the next day, I told her, I think I just went on this culture’s version of a blind date.

“Yes,” she said, after hearing my story.  “Sounds about right.”

I waited for the awkward follow-up conversation, but it never came; Khudrah and I became close with other people, and we didn’t see each other much outside of the community center’s exercise classes.  But, just last week, she invited me to a wedding.

Weddings here involve lots of music and dancing, and almost no interaction with the opposite sex.  The women celebrate by themselves, and the groom enters with the bride to dance, cut the cake (with a sword), and present the bride with her dowry of gold jewelry.  I knew Khudrah’s female cousin had just gotten accepted into the Young Leaders’ program, and that I would probably see some of the other ladies from her family, so I accepted her invitation.

On the way over, I asked who the bride was.  “I don’t really know the bride,” Khudrah replied.  “I’m related to the groom.  Remember Mohammad?”

I’ve been in the Middle East under 18 months.  Like “Part II” of a novel, when enough has changed that the author feels it necessary to give you a blank page so that you can catch your breath, a good many things have shifted this spring: the level of my friendships, the people who are my coworkers, the definition of a “hot” day (anything under 95 doesn’t qualify for me anymore), the things I pray when I sit in quiet, the job I do at our community center.

But then there are the things from “Part I” that were incomprehensible then, or stories that I didn’t know how to tell, that are resurfacing later in the book.  Last Tuesday, at the graduation ceremony for our Young Leaders, I saw 100 “parts” ending; 120 new students will begin next week in their place.  Parts ending, parts begun.  All unfinished.

No one but the author knows how the stories will be woven together.

Last night, amidst the strobe light and the bubbles from the bubble machine and the smoke from Mohammad’s signature cigarette, this young couple danced out of “Part I” and into “Part II” of their stories.  He made her giggle as he pulled every woman over 50 onto the dance floor with them.  He made the aunts blush as he kissed his bride in public– twice– and sang along to the ear-splitting music.  He took the mic from the DJ and said, “Everyone should get up and dance, since this is my first wedding, and my last!”

Some friends from New York recently caught up with me on the shifting happening in the stories here.  I don’t know which parts of old stories will resurface in the pages ahead, and a thousand new stories are launching on an unknown trajectory, but I’ll heed their good advice: “Be present. Stay patient and enjoy the good parts.”

On that note, off to brownies and a game night, with good friends, who are present in this part.