Back to the living room, my sister Yasmine is day dreaming with an enormous bowl of oranges in her lap. I ask my dad if I can go work with my friend Noor on a project - in the library tomorrow - he directs me to ask my mom. I go to my mom and ask her, she yells at me by calling her own self: Mama! Why are you asking me? Go ask your dad!…moments later.. she takes a look at my puzzled eyes and says “benshuf” (we’ll see) and I feel satisfied and thankful for not giving me an answer that I have to decode for days….
In the midst of everything; my brother Mohammad (mom’s golden treasure) is in his room playing video games and screaming out loud sentences that start with “Bro..come on.. Khaye… let’s go!...”
I paused in the hallway for a second and decided to go back to the safest spot in the house; on the couch next to my dad, to scroll through my phone in peace. This calm; for the most part, environment was shaken by one incident: someone knocked the door out of nowhere!
We all look at each other with “I dunno” and “it wasn’t me” faces. My mom brings a storm with her from the kitchen and unlike us, does not wonder who this is, but instead missiles a single commander’s stare at us to immediately tidy up the house without saying a single word…
She even screams at her “gold treasure - Mohammad”: turn off the …(some cuss word), change, and come now!
The remote stumbles in my dad’s hands as he switches back to Aljazeera to stay on the safe side, straightens up his eyebrows and sits in total class and pristine. Yasmine is still daydreaming and half an orange is stuck between her lips when my mom pulls the bowl out of her hands and murmurs something in Arabic that I still haven’t figured out.
Needless to say, within a couple minutes we managed to fix up the pillows, check on the bathroom towels, and for some odd reason made sure the beds looked spotless, then Yasmine brushed her hair, and I put on my scarf right before the door opened in slow motion!
It was my Aunt Amira!
Of course - everyone makes it seem as if we haven’t seen her in a million years, and that we are so excited to see her on a Thursday night, half an hour before bed time. After Khalto Amira takes off her shoes, makes her way to the most comfortable chair, we all find our own spot & sit in a circle around her, except Mohammad who came in late.
To add more awkwardness, Mohammad pulls the dining room chair and streaks my mom’s floor all the way to the family room. After this traumatizing scene, my mom’s cheeks turn red, she angrily bites her bottom lip as she makes eye contact with Mohammad and makes sure that no one has seen her, especially my aunt who was discussing the geopolitics of the middle east with my dad.
Khalto Amira then asks each one of us how school has been to prepare for her 15 min speech about her son who is currently working on his third PhD in college!
All of a sudden snacks; that we have never seen before, make their first appearance on the table! Baklava & mixed nuts from Lebanon, freshly baked cheese pies that came straight from the freezer to the oven, freshly squeezed juice, followed by both tea and coffee! The smell, the way they were organized, everything looked incredibly delicious!
Despite the fact that my mom ended up offering all 3 drinks, she still asked whether Khalto Amira wanted coffee or tea and she double checked: American coffee, Turkish, Nescafe? It sounded like a product tour at a coffee farm in Sierra Leone.
During that tour, I made my way to pick my favorite baklava (the finger) and started working my way through the second half. I look up to see my mom giving me death stares because I dared to help myself to the dessert before the guest. I also see her making this teardrop shape with her thumb and index finger (under the table) indicating that I am going to hear a lot about it tonight and instantly turns around to my aunt and smiles!
I start to feel a little uncomfortable; considering that I am the middle child does not help either, and I glance over to see Yasmine laughing and is almost in tears - silently - at the rocking chair. I realized that I needed to call the family’s helpline: my older sister Fatimah.
Me: You said you will be home in 5 min - 20 min ago!
Fatimah: What do you want?
Me: Khalto Amira is here!!!!
Fatimah: OMG am coming
Needless to say, Fatimah shows up ten minutes later, with a bag of new nail polish to add to her collection of - never used but keep growing - nail polish drawer.
Fatimah gets the warmest welcome by Khalto Amira who repeats her son’s college accomplishments and adds some more this time around. We all think that she is trying to get her son and Fatimah married however Fatimah thinks we are crazy and want something to gossip about!
She also asks about how Mohammad’s schooling is going and my dad complains about the time he spends on video games considering he is a “genius” and should invest his time working on “his arithmetic skills”.
Mohammad; who is very funny, handsome, and always knows how to sweet talk my mom; explains about the world of gaming and how the latest studies show that it is actually healthy and promotes creativity. However his desperate attempts are quickly halted by dad’s mantra:
“When I was your age…”
where he talks about how grandpa (his dad) used to make him dig up the whole backyard with a fork, and mom adds to it by reminding us of how spoiled we are in comparison to her great grandma that used to walk 20 miles back and forth from and to the well to get water for her kids!!!!
My Khalto Amira, who would never leave her purse on the floor for some reason, nodded her head in agreement then picked up her purse and said her famous farewell phrase: “I took too long, I have to go cook for my family, and have some 7 loads of laundry to finish!” My mom and dad insist that she stays and had to mention that it is “too early still” - mind you that it was already half an hour past our bedtime - after which they gladly walked her to the door.
The whole visit restarts..
My mom says something like: did you hear that so and so got engaged where they dissect their whole family tree and how they could be related.. I think this and that.. and the door conversation drags for at least another ten minutes where dad says “please have a seat” few times and my aunt insists that “she is in a hurry”! She also happens to talk about her neck, shoulder, 9 bulging discs, dislocated hip, thigh, broken knee, and carpal tunnel pain - all at the door!
Dad then tells her: but wait you haven’t seen how our mint has grown?! He pulls out his flashlight, puts on his slippers, my mom puts a whole palm on her whole face but eyes, and pulls her cheeks down, as dad makes his way to take Khalto Amira on a tour to his mint garden.
After my aunt leaves, my mom warns dad about entering the house with his “muddy shoes” and turns to us asking why we are still awake?!!
We make our way to our bedrooms and hear someone saying in the background: no one helps me in this house, no one will ever feel what I go through… we continue making our way then hear: I will go to a place that no one knows and where no one will ever find me.
This is when we know things got intense!!
All three of us help clean up fast, Mohammad puts the trash outside, Dad turns off the tv, folds his glasses and gets ready to sleep.. then my Mom looks at us from a distance, her eyes fill with tears, and says in the warmest voice: Toobroone (may you bury me in a grave! An Arab expression of deep love!) I love my children!
This story was totally imaginative!
None of the characters are real, and none of these events happened, however one thing it holds is true: the endless memories, laughter, suspense, and deep but weird love in Arab households that happens on a daily basis.
If any of this made you feel uncomfortable, that is great, you are now challenging yourself to break some cultural chains that have been passed for generations. And if some made you smile, it is because you know they are genuine, real, and you can relate.
For these experiences; different or similar, I am forever grateful to have belonged to a family of Arab descent where suspense is our water and bread, the giggles and smiles are endless, and where love is given unconditionally and in the most unexpected ways!
Now I turn the table to ask you: