We learn how strong the women in my family are when the men they love leave one day and they are forced to hold everything up, all on their own. My mother has had many conversations with my aunt and each one sounds like, ‘You are my sister. I am not letting you fall apart’.
We learned early to not trust the men in our family fully. We have known how quick they are to move on from wife to wife, letting the children fall through the middle. We see what happened with Naima down the street. How she talked about her husband with such tenderness until the new wife was discovered in a small one-bedroom apartment a couple of streets away. She took her youngest son’s bat and walked all the way there barefoot. She had imagined her husband faithful all this time. She hadn’t known he was capable of loving two people like this. Deep down she knew something was wrong when he stopped coming home some nights, blaming it on the job, the boss, and the people who queued up to file complaints.
My mother speaks with such speed. She wants her words to get to my aunt before the tears start to stream. She tells my aunt about Naima. She says that when her husband left it seemed like all her clothes shrunk. The women talked about her abaaya and the way it hovered above the ankle. ‘She must be mourning’ they said, as Naima kept her eyes fixed on the floor, afraid of the shame but smart enough to know that it covered her now. She wore it like a new fragrance. My mother says, “Be like her. She got herself together. She bought a car. She took her own children to school and got all the shopping. Don’t fall apart.”
Word has gotten around about my uncle’s new wife. Some say she is cleaner than my aunt, others that she is beautiful. I cannot imagine it. His arms cupping another woman’s face, the furniture that they must buy together. We are all thinking about the 15 year old daughter that is the oldest between them. What will she think of her father now that he has turned their back on them? My father once asked me, “How would you feel about me taking another woman?” I said, “You’d still be my father,” and my mother watched on biting her nails, expecting me to beg him to never hurt her like that.
Now my mother has seen everything, she half expects it. She sits in the kitchen on the phone to my aunt. She says, “You’ve seen this happen before. If other women ask, tell them he is not the first to have done this.” In my family we have a hard time blaming our men. When they leave others will ask, ‘did you burn the rice? Did you not let him make love to you?’ When he leaves, we must come together and mourn for days that turn into months. We must beg by the phone. We must say, “Have you not seen how children without their father in the home turn out?” We must use the example of my cousin whose father walked out. All the anger in her body is blamed on the phone calls that did not come after he whispered; “The divorce changes nothing between me and you.”
We are observing quietly how it was a man that knocked the breath out of my aunt, the woman who calls to say, “You are my nieces, be stronger.” My mother puts down the phone and I ask, “Is she OK?” My mother replies, “This has happened to others before her. She will live.” She wants to teach us how to be a rock. We are trying so hard to learn.
by Amaal Said