Stories Move in Circles
It’s almost midnight when I drive the fifteen miles home from a day spent in Small Syria. This is what Houda and I call the apartments on Tucson’s east side where her family and a cluster of other Syrians live.
My evening ended by the pool with four Syrian ladies, none of whom speaks more than a few phrases of English. All of us drinking sweetened tea. Their sons jumping in and out of the pool, showing off, goofing off. A lesser nighthawk swooping over the illuminated water to catch the insects drawn to it. Sweet 14-year-old Sara considering whether she will swim. Waiting until the loud older boys clear out — then she cannonballs into the pool with the young ones.
The ladies are mothers, all of them, to three, four, six children. They know each other by the name of their eldest child: Um (Mother of) Feras, Um (Mother of) Talal, Um Noor, Um Ammar. When they became mothers, they received a new name, a new status.
I wish them a happy Mother’s Day. They wish me the same. My first conversation with each of them covered this ground: Do you have children? Why not? I fumbled for an answer in our limited shared vocabulary. Finally, after various efforts, I’ve settled on I have no children of my own, but that leaves me room to love all children, all people. It’s not quite right, but it satisfies.
Houda occasionally translates the older women’s Arabic into English for me. The tears in their eyes as they share longing for their daughters still overseas. When I look at the stars I see her. The laughter when Houda jokes that she will be the imam so that they can pray at home during Ramadan. Stories in Arabic move in circles, Um Feras says, not like English where everything is straight lines.
Sometimes I understand a word, just enough context to guess the subject. But mostly, it’s the chatter of voices in a language I don’t speak. Long stretches of conversation are simply sound and movement around me.
Earlier in the day, Houda and I recorded the 10th and 11th episodes of the radio show we host together, Mn Huna: Finding Refuge in Friendship. She is 19, from Aleppo. Her family arrived in Tucson last July. We met in August. In the first episode, she was tentative, quiet, scripted, but determined. Most of the show was me speaking.
In episode 9, I was silent while she interviewed Mohammad about his family’s escape from Syria — five people on a motorcycle, bribed border guards, babies drugged to keep them quiet. He’s in the pool now. Running rambunctious with the other boys. Being 15.
Today, again, she interviewed another teenager: Farrah spoke about the day a militia threatened to kill her family. Houda was confident, relaxed. Mentoring, translating, encouraging, being everything I was for her six months ago when we started the show. My eyes are full of tears — for Farrah’s determination to speak, for everything Houda is and is becoming. I take the girls for ice cream after. Today Farrah was the same as I was the first time we recorded the show.
Yes, she was.
The girls chat in Arabic as we walk back to my car parked by the radio station. Desert willow flowers are scattered across the sidewalk. Our producer Rusty and I chat in English about trauma about storytelling about breath. I am concerned about getting the girls back to their parents on time, but they tell me My mom knows I am with you she does not worry. Same my mom. If I am with Melanie, my mom she does not worry.
Houda’s mother — Um Noor — and I share only a few words. But she is a gifted physical comedian. When we visit without Houda to translate, still we are able to tell stories — the time she stuck a bobby pin in an outlet when she was six, the godawful stressed out selfie I sent my husband from Times Square two weeks ago. She told me about the bombing at Houda’s school in Aleppo before Houda did. A few words, charades, body language, and a willingness to try. We laugh a lot. She loves to feed me.
Poolside, she and Houda quiz me on my Arabic, showing off what I know. Houda points to her nose and this, what is this? Enfi. My nose. She laughs and explains to the ladies how she taught her mom envy and me enfi. Betanjan. Eggplant. Benadoura. Tomato. Pistachio. Fisto halabi. Walnut. Joz. It’s a call and response of vocabulary. A rosary of connection. Each word a story, a window opened between our lives. Spar — Spur — Houda stumbles until I offer spiritual. Still she cannot pronounce the word she included in the script for one of our early episodes. And we laugh.
Sweet Sara, Houda’s younger sister, is splashing in the pool. Over the past few months, she has progressed from single English words to sentences to conversations. Last fall her dad and I took her to the dentist for a tooth extraction, my French the shaky bridge between Abo (Father of) Noor and the dentist. Courage Sara said from the chair, smiling — a word I taught her in that office as we waited to find out how big the needle would be. Today Te amo in the kitchen. She is learning Spanish. I respond with Ya tibya loobloo and we giggle as she struggles to pronounce the Russian. She wishes me happy Mother’s Day. You are my second mother now. I have two moms. I answer with maybe aunt? She insists, no, mother.
I am her second mother now.
The word works its way into a quiet place in my heart. Mother. I surround it with logic and questions, with respect and love for Um Noor, with awareness of trauma of displacement of need. Sara has been a ball of love since I met her. Full of affection. Tenderness. I cuddle her on the chaise as she watches the pool, waiting for the boys to leave. She started wearing a hijab just two months ago and has a special one for swimming, tucked in to her shirt and dampened to keep it in place. It is moist against my chin. Cool in the desert air. Are you okay? she asks, making sure that I am comfortable.
I am very okay.