Up until now, I have described on the pages of this blog my real children, i.e. those I gave birth to—Lizzie, Noelle, Shane, and Doah—and those who popped into my house, family, and heart and stayed for years—Blaine, Ksenya, and Shura. There have been, as well, four more who call me “Mom”—two boys and two girls—who have never slept at my house. In fact, two have never been in my American home although all have been in one or another of my homes. All are Middle Easterners: two from Iraq, one from Jordan, and one from Bahrain. Among them are two Christians and two Muslims; of the latter, one is Sunni and one Shia—definitely a balanced set. All are Arabs. All have a biological mother, and all needed me at some point (seemingly, still do) as their emotional/psychological mother. Below, in brief, are their stories.
Shem. I have watched Shem, a fresh-faced, Christian Iraqi whose real mother is in Europe and about whose father I know absolutely nothing, mature from a gangly and awkward, but brilliant, young college student into a fully fleshed-out, good-looking young man. He first showed up in my writing class at the Jordanian branch of the America university for which I worked as dean and chief academic officer, as well as, for 18 months, as chief administration officer. The only student to get an A+ in my class (I set high standards), he graduated summa cum laude from the university with a 4.0 average, the only student on any campus to achieve this academic feat. Afterward, I interacted with him frequently in his capacity as work-study student, assisting the librarian, whom I had brought out of retirement in Montana to Jordan to help establish a respectable library. Shem learned library science rapidly under her tutelage. He went on to work in registration, admissions, and many other areas of the university, and through it all, his mother being absent, he would come to me for advice, first for academic advice, later for personal and emotional advice. I don’t know when he started calling me “Mom,” but at some point the relationship did take on many aspects of a parent-child bond. When I left, he became depressed and decided to drop out of the university, but I was able to convince him from afar to finish what he had started and then to go on to graduate school.
Leyla. The work-study student assigned to the dean’s office when I arrived, Leyla, a Sunni Muslim student from Iraq, immediately struck me as academically and professionally competent but an emotional wreck. I soon found out why. Her family lived on Airport Road in Baghdad during the days of the worst bombings along that road. After a bombing, communications would cease, and she would not know for days whether or not her family had been affected. Many was the morning that she would walk in my door and say, “Mom, may I sit here and cry for a while?” I would shut the door, sit with her, and let her cry. There was little more that I could do for none of us had access to the kind of information she needed. Her siblings and father were not allowed exit visas by the new Baghdadi government because they were professionals (medical doctor in the case of her brother and well-known professor of psychology in the case of her father) whose skills were needed in the newly founded democracy. (Knowing what I do about the daily life there, I would hesitate to use the word democracy in any other than a nominative sense.) I kept prayer rugs in my office, one especially for Leyla since the women could use the uni’s prayer room only after the men no longer needed it, and Leyla came in 2-3 times a day around the times of the calls for prayer to pray. Not all that long ago, Leyla’s father was arrested. Some members of the Shia contingent hid a bomb in his car, and then turned him in to the police as a terrorist. It was sorted out eventually; the bomb turned out to be fake, and the guilty parties were identified. Nonetheless, these are some of the unreported daily nervous-making activities that go on in the Baghdad of today. Leyla’s mother was once allowed to come to Amman for medical treatment, and she learned about Leyla’s other mother. She said that it made her feel much easier about being separated from her daughter, knowing that she had a substitute in Amman (not that anyone can really substitute for a beloved biological mother).
Maha. I introduced Maha a while ago on my Blest Atheist blog when her brother was arrested on trumped-up charges and beaten by the police in Bahrain, where Maha’s family lives in a small town considerably south of the only real city, Manama, where Maha works. The king, a Sunni Muslim and a patriarch of the Al-Khalifa family, eventually pardoned Maha’s brother and 18 other accused teens, all Shia. (Maha and Leyla have the same, but reverse, problem: Leyla is Sunni in a Shia-governed country, and Maha is Shia in a Sunni-governed country. In both cases, palpable hatred of the other colors enforcement of regulations and interactions of people and officials. It did not even help that Maha’s family directly descends from the Prophet Mohammed.) We all thought that the matter of Maha’s brother and his friends had been resolved by the King’s pardon, but in recent days, since the court dropped the case rather than exonerating the teens, the prosecutor has appealed the entire matter. (Who would have thought a pardon could be appealed!) It would be laughable—they are accused of killing a policeman who had died of natural causes six months earlier, but in Bahrain, where there is no rule of law, nothing is laughable, and Maha’s brother was beaten every day for nearly a year, almost blinding him and forcing an unfounded confession from him and the others to stop the beatings, before the King granted a pardon. Maha comes to me on a regular basis through Skype mostly when she needs emotional support over issues such as her brother’s troubles (I worry with her; it is an egregious situation, but since God moved the King once perhaps God will move the government next) and job advice. I cannot remember when or how she began calling me “Mom” or treating me like a mother, but it was a number of years ago. I do not visit Bahrain these days as often as I visit Jordan, but I do get there occasionally, and she has visited me in California. Three years ago, when Maha’s biological mother was ill, Maha asked me to come to her younger sister’s school’s Open House, which is different from American school open houses. In Bahrain, an Open House is where parent and child meet with each of the teachers, the child receives his/her grade for the semester, and the parent gets to talk with the teacher about the child’s progress. (I think American schools could use this model to advantage.) Maha and I went with Miriam, Maha’s sister, and I was accepted in loco parentis. I guess that legitimizes the “mom” label!
Yahyah. I met Yahyah later and in the USA. A transplanted Jordanian married to an American, he was working for me several layers down the chain of command. A few months after I began working at our organization, I, along with several of our supervisors and Yahyah, attended a conference in Jordan. Yahyah’s family invited us to lunch and embraced us in pure Jordanian fashion—with dish after dish and long conversation, lasting into the early evening. As the sun began to set, the supervisors, who had looked forward to seeing the Dead Sea, located not far from YahYah’s house, considered that their chances for doing so were quickly disappearing together with the light, and became nervous. Dessert and tea had not yet been served, however, and walking out before then would be violation of a cultural norm. Yahyah understood the situation. I suggested that he take the supervisors to the Dead Sea and Donnie, who was still living in Jordan at the time and had joined us, and I, who could speak enough Arabic to manage informal conversations, would stay for cake and tea and talk to his parents. The deal was done, and I found myself one-on-one with his mother, who brought out the baby books, showed me the wedding pictures, and talked non-stop about all those things that proud mothers in any country talk about. Then she broke down. She told me that she deeply worried about Yahyah in “dangerous America” (my, how those stereotypes persist—we, in turn, after all, consider the Middle East dangerous). I promised her that I would be his American mother. Relieved, she thanked me, hugged me, and smiled. When we finally left a couple of hours later, she thanked me again, hugging and kissing me in Jordanian family/friend fashion. From that point, Yahyah became “ibni” (my son) and I became “Omy” (Mom) in communications and beyond. He comes to me for professional and family advice and celebrates our family events with us, as we celebrate his with him—birthdays, the arrival of his brother in the USA, the birth of his baby. We also take planned outings. He is as much a part of our family as if he were one of the birth kids. Yahyah told me that his mother has been much calmer about his being in the USA since that day of our first conversation. I have been back to Yahyah’s house from time to time, and his mother always greets me like a sister. I guess the family connection was glued the day I fell asleep on the couch while talking to his father. I was quite embarrassed about fatigue—it had been a difficult and busy several days—overtaking me in that manner, but Yahyah’s parents were delighted. There falling asleep is not a culture faux pas but a sign that one considers that s/he is among family. I am.
And so in this way, although Donnie and I are almost, hopefully soon, past the childbearing capacity, the Mahlou clan grows, blessed now by children of several nationalities and grandchildren who remarkably blend the best that happens when East meets West and North meets South.
Note: I have not included pictures because the "children" are sensitive about their pictures being seen in the West.