Let me tell you about my accidental blind date.
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.