Thursday, June 3, 2010

Last Night

This past Thursday (yeah, one week ago -- it sometimes takes me a while to gather my thoughts, and especially my notes) was my last night in Amman. Last nights anywhere are hectic. They tend to be even more so when one has yet to pack and the taxi leaves at 5:00 a.m. for the airport. But not so my last night in Amman.

Shem had been trying to find time all week to see me in spite of both of our schedules being locked in and very tight. After missing a couple of tiny windows earlier in the week, I was able to find a few minutes on Thursday between 4:30, when my observation of classes for our study abroad students at the University of Jordan (UJ) ended, and 6:00, when I needed to depart for a wedding to which one of the students had invited us. Quite by chance, one of his cousins, an American betrothed to a Jordanian, lived in nearby Zarqa and had planned her wedding during the time he would be studying in Jordan. All of the students were excited about being at a real Arabic wedding, and I, wanting to endorse their enthusiasm for learning more about Arab culture, agreed to attend with them. They promised that we would be back early. I knew otherwise. They had never been to an Arab wedding. I had. So, there would be limited time to pack and get together with Shem.

Shem was adamant. “I have to see you, Mom; I have to, I have to, I have to,” he wrote in Facebook and on Skype and then called and left the same message on voice mail. “I miss you sooooooo much!”

Of course, he needed to see me, and I needed to see him. We are, after all, family, albeit bonded by something other than blood. But how to manage all of it?
I ultimately decided not to try to manage it all. When we got back from UJ to the hotel where the students and I were staying, near Sixth Circle in West Amman, Umm Uthaineh to be specific, I begged off from attending the wedding, encouraging the students with my words rather than my presence.

That would give me a little more time with Shem. I text-messaged him that I was back. While waiting for him to arrive, I packed everything so that I was ready for my early morning departure.

Shem arrived promptly. We bought some postcards that I had promised to bring to folks back in the USA at the hotel gift shop. Then we decided to have dinner in the hotel’s lounge-café so as not to waste our limited time together fighting Thursday night traffic, which is always heavy because Friday is the holy day and the first day of the weekend.

As we ate and talked, leisurely now that I did not have to swallow down everything before 6:00, Shem asked if I had had a chance to see Leyla. Sadly, no, I told him, woefully explaining that the telephone number I had for her no longer worked and my email to her a few weeks earlier had bounced. Shem helpfully volunteered that he had her phone number. “Let’s call her,” he said with a bright tone and countenance.
Then his face darkened. “She might not answer when she sees my number. Or she might hang up when she hears my voice.”

“Why?” I asked. “What happened?”

“She got mad at me in late 2008 when all the Iraqis were fired by the administration of the uni because the vice president did not want to spend money on residency permits.” (The uni is the American university that I had overseen for two years several years ago at a better time in its history—I like to think I made it a better time, and folks accord me that credit, but as with everything else, one person alone is rarely responsible for good times or bad). “She thought that I should have quit in solidarity with my countrymen. However, I was exempted because I had a work permit from another job, and even if I were to be replaced, I needed to train people on my various jobs; in some cases, no one else knew what I knew after six years of working there. I also needed the money to finish my MBA. She already had completed hers. I did quit after I graduated, but she had stopped talking to me by then.”

“Call her and see what happens,” I said. He called, and as soon as she answered, he handed the phone to me.

“Mom!” she shrieked. “Where are you? Why are you calling from Shem’s phone? You cannot be in Amman! I have not heard from you since my email got blocked months ago. I miss you! How long will you be here?” The questions cascaded one against the other.

When I told her that I was in town, having dinner with Shem, but leaving in the morning, she begged me to wait until she arrived. She was not far away so very soon the three of us were sitting in a corner of the lounge-café taking care of old family business.

“I am angry with you,” she told Shem as soon as she walked in, “but I forgive you because Mom is here.” Just like blood siblings!

“You owe me big time,” he retorted. “Mom did not have your number; I did.” Just like blood siblings.

And just like blood siblings, the conversation darted between them as they aired old hurts and new hopes. I listened, occasionally questioning, rarely commenting, like with my biological children. At one point, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and returned to find that Shem and Leyla had found common ground and planned to stay in better touch. Although neither initially thought he or she had done anything offensive, that façade had been dropped, a new understanding had been reached, and real forgiveness seemed to be taking place. Yes, I would say, to the extent that a real family can extend over miles, across continents, and among cultures, we are a real family, a part of which resides in Amman.

It was as if no time had passed since the last time we sat and talked. No time at all. But little time was left of the night, and we had to go, each our own way for the night. Shem paid the bill and left. Leyla remained for a few minutes longer to smoke the rest of her banana arguila (hookah), and then we, too, parted, I for my room upstairs in the hotel in Umm Uthaineh, and she for her room in Rabia, one of the bordering sectors of town. Just for the night I could pretend that it really was the old days and in the morning we would repeat the evening. But that was just for the night for in the morning I would get into a taxi, go to the airport, get on a plane, and fly 10,000 miles away where I would await the next opportunity for a “family” get-together. In the interim, I am grateful for that last night in Amman.

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