Chapter 6: Million Years Ago
“Mom, I’ve got to go now. Bye.”
Waleed kissed me goodbye on his way out to meet his father. Every weekend, he went to visit his grandparents and when his father was in the country, the four of them would spend the whole day together. I didn’t have a problem with that; on the contrary, I wanted him to live a balanced life with both me and his father so he wouldn’t be negatively affected by our divorce. This was the best way to help him cope with our separation in a healthy way.
One time during a parents’ evening at my son’s school, his teacher had revealed how impressed she was with his development. “I didn’t know that you and his father were divorced,” she said. “His emotional and psychological health is great compared with other kids in similar situations.”
I had responded with a smile, while in my head I was thinking about the price I had paid to give him such stability and rationality. It had been a long, emotional, roller coaster filled with quarrels and court cases. It had worn me out at the age of twenty-six and still burdened me now at thirty-four.
I popped out that morning to run some errands, since I had some free time with Waleed gone. The streets were half-empty, with only a few people performing the traditional Friday morning practices. Some were carrying home plates and bowls, heading to the nearest restaurant to fill them with the typical Friday breakfast ingredients: hummus, fool (red fava beans) and falafel. Others were looking for manakish (a type of pastry) and tannour (a traditional bread).
Friday is a special day for Jordanian families. It’s the only real weekend day for many employees, enabling them to spend time with their families away from their demanding jobs. Each family member knows his or her role on that day; especially when it comes to preparing the breakfast feast. The mother wakes up early and starts to wake the lazy sleepers. The son heads out to one of the traditional restaurants, while the daughter makes tea using a few stems of home-grown mint. The father takes his seat at the head of the table.
Then they all gather around the table to eat together. A few hours later Friday prayers start, when the males, and sometimes the females, go to the mosques to say their prayers and to ask for both forgiveness and reward. Following that the streets are flooded with pedestrians and cars buzzing around the mosques.
Jordan has always been a humble country. It may not be considered a place of myth and magic, but its people are rich in love and compassion. The generosity and hospitality of its citizens were the most difficult things for me to leave behind when I married ten years ago and had to leave my country. Every time I came back to Amman on vacation during that period I had carried within my heart the deepest and purest love for its soil and its people. Even its breeze, which may not be different from any other, had been drenched, for me, with the presence of my family, friends and even the neighbors I barely knew. Knowing all that, I had still chosen to leave for the sake of love. Although we didn’t live too far away, I had missed that comforting breeze and all that it signified to me.
I had pledged to live for that love. I had convinced myself that being away from my home country was merely a matter of sacrifice for the sake of my lover; the same lover who had caused me to lose faith in love.
As I drove around the streets of my old neighborhood, where I now dwelt again, Adele accompanied me, as always. I listened to her music all the time. It caused me to shed tears like no other music could; not even the songs of the iconic Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim Hafez. Over time I had become more attached to her songs, especially when I heard her latest album, 25.
I can still remember the first time I listened to ‘Million Years Ago’. It had made me cry really hard. I don’t know whether I cried for the whole night or longer than that, but I certainly cried. I cried for the eight years of my life that I had spent drowning in work and all of life’s other demands to give my son a dignified life. I cried for the memories of the childhood I had enjoyed with Lara and many other friends, and for the youth I had spent dreaming about the rosy, romantic poems of Nizar Qabbani, which had fooled me into believing that all men were like the sensitive poet.
I cried over the house I had yearned to call home, which ultimately I had paid for with my freedom. Realizing that, I had chosen liberty over stability. Now I was in a better position to understand and feel proud of my decision, because my freedom deserved to be fought for, regardless of the many obstacles I would have to face as a result.
I had suddenly felt that every single detail of my life was a choice I could make. I had chosen to move on with my life and to stop believing in love. I had chosen not to like Abu Al-Abed’s coffee any more. But most of all, I had chosen to sacrifice spending that special Friday morning breakfast routine with my son the moment I filed for divorce. I had made all of these choices because I wanted to be free. Freedom is the crown of the liberated, after all.
Amid all these thoughts, I played ‘Million Years Ago’ once again and fixed my eyes on the empty street in front of me, seeking some clarity.
After a while, I remembered the earlier phone call with Lara and decided to check on her. She was still crying when I did and complaining that Kamal didn’t empathize with her; that he was always complaining that she had changed.
“But I love him, Nadia,” she said tearfully.
“So how are you going to fix this? You need to sit down together and discuss these matters. You’re not teenagers any more, Lara!”
“We’re not grown up either! He’s dating another woman,” Lara murmured.
“Are you sure about that?”
“I can feel it. No man stays the same when he gets involved with another woman.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Absent-mindedly, I said: “Yes, maybe. But don’t worry, Lara, there’s a solution for everything.”
“But not everything can be fixed.”
“Don’t say that. I’m sure you’ll find a way out of this,” I said, trying to reassure her.
“After having these blood pressure issues, I’ve realized that not everything has a solution, and sometimes you have to face painful facts. Some things remain broken no matter how much of an optimist you are.” Lara said this in a voice that sounded strange to me; the voice of a burdened woman who was still trying her best to remain positive and full of life.
“You know what you’re in desperate need of now?”
“For me to come over so we can spend time like we used to; singing, talking, laughing and just having fun. Then you’ll forget everything and we’ll sort it out, I promise.”
I couldn’t work out why this conversation with Lara distracted me so much after we ended the call. Neither did I understand why I couldn’t tell her what I was really thinking, even though she was my best friend.
Being divorced, I have always been worried that I wouldn’t be fair with the advice I gave her, or anyone else for that matter. I had always avoided saying anything that could plant seeds of discord in a family’s life. Nonetheless, I was also worried that Kamal’s infidelity had proved my opinion of men. They can never be faithful!
Although my ex-husband and I had loved one another, that hadn’t stopped him dating other women. The day I found out about it, I felt humiliated and angry because I had been cheated on. I didn’t blame my husband or the other woman; instead I questioned what I had done wrong. I was so naïve back then. Why do we blame ourselves as if it’s our fault? How could it be my fault? Why had I allowed myself to be the victim in such a relationship?
It wasn’t my fault; his waywardness had nothing to do with my imperfections. He had allowed himself to be drifted along by a whim; not because he didn’t know how to love, but because he didn’t know how to be faithful. I refused to fall for the illusion of faithfulness my grandmother had kept up for my grandfather. She had allowed him to bring his mistress into her home and eventually accepted her as his second wife!
Regardless of everything, I blamed Lara for not trying to solve her problems with her husband. Nothing would ever change unless they were prepared to work at changing it. Lara had to make a decision at this point and do something about it. Since when did love became an excuse for infidelity and silence a sign of loyalty?
My phone rang again, interrupting the thoughts and memories that had flooded into my head after the phone call with Lara.
“Mom?” said Waleed.
“Yes, honey. How are you?”
“I’m good. I’m going to a wedding with Dad so I might be home late.”
“Do you want to go? If you don’t, tell your dad not to take you.”
“It’s fine, Mom. I want to go.”
“Okay. Take care of yourself.”
“I will. By the way, Dad says I should stop loving Adele so much, and that I need to become more masculine.”
I laughed to hide the distress I felt when I heard these words coming from my ten-year-old son. “Do you love her?”
“Yes, I love her a lot.”
“Then do whatever you love, my dear.”
I sensed my son’s smile without even seeing his face.
“Okay, I will,” he replied.
I arrived home with the groceries and fresh bread I had bought. Then I lay on the couch to watch some TV. I switched between channels but couldn’t find anything interesting to watch.
Later that evening Waleed sent me a video of himself at the party. “Mom I’m here at the ceremony. Look…”
He was recording the action inside the wedding tent, where a large group of men sat celebrating with the groom, obscuring him from view. Waleed showed me the flashing lights, the decorations and the band performing the traditional dabke and dahiye dances.
The men were inside the tent, while the women had gone to the groom’s house, where they had been celebrating since the night before.
This was the traditional pre-wedding party to say farewell to the groom; to celebrate his last night as a free man, because everyone recognized that marriage was a type of confinement. After a long night of dancing and socializing, dinner would be served.
If the groom or his family were wealthy enough the dinner would be mansaf; the most traditional Jordanian dish. Mansaf is best enjoyed during a large family gathering. It is served from large dishes, which the men gather around to eat from together, while the women eat from separate dishes.
It consists of a thin layer of traditional bread spread across the bottom of a serving dish, with rice, meat and a special yoghurt made solely for this dish, which is poured over the rice. On top of the pile of rice, the sheep’s head is given pride of place. The head is a symbol of respect and pride, and only the elders of the family have the honor of eating it.
Waleed kept me updated with videos of the guests singing and dancing throughout the evening. I could tell he was enjoying himself.
However, the last one he sent filled me with horror. It was almost unintelligible as loud gun shots rang out in the background.
I could hear my son screaming: “Dad, I’m hurt.”
Then the phone fell to the ground and all I could see were the feet of the men covering the shaking lens as they ran. The screams echoed in my ears, and I could hear a voice yelling at the others to move away because someone was injured, and another yelling louder, urging someone to call an ambulance.
Then there was another voice that I couldn’t fail to recognize, despite all the time that had passed since the separation. “There’s no time to wait for an ambulance! Let’s get my son to the hospital now!”
The video stream was suddenly switched off, taking my breath away with it. I tried to call Waleed’s number, but no one answered.
I called his father, but with no luck. No one was answering. I ran towards the door and grabbed my keys on the way out.
I wished the distance between the street we lived on and the hospital would somehow shrink beneath the tires of my car. I struggled to comprehend that my son had been shot at a wedding and was on his way to the hospital.