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Making Chai with Baba

“And Say: ’My Lord, Have Mercy Upon Them As They Raised Me Up When I Was Little.”

[17:24]


The surprise was this: Fatima’s father had found a promising suitor and invited him and his family into his home.

Fatima was expected to help her father brew the chai and prepare the necessary food to accompany it. ‘Help’ was a bit of an understatement. Fatima was naturally quick. Her hands matched the speed and precision of her tongue, and she was able to brew the chai, prepare breakfast, and set the table, all while having more than enough time to dress her mother and herself before the guests arrived.

Her father watched from the safety of the kitchen as his daughter walked his wife to the couch. Fatima stroked the sparse fuzz that was her mother’s hair, gently put on her knitted cap, and rubbed off some dried spit caking the side of her mother’s mouth. She spoke soft words, taking great care to adjust her tone into something maternal and loving. Fatima knew just what to say to persuade her mother to take her medication. And although her mother could not speak or smile, her gratitude was evident from her content sighing at Fatima’s words.

The wholesome scene between mother and daughter pricked her father’s eyes, and he had to stare at the ceiling light to distract him from his sadness. But it was no use. It was impossible to hide anything from Fatima, and he was reminded of that the moment she re-entered the kitchen.

“Stop crying, Baba. You’ll drown in your tears.”

Fatima planted a kiss on her father’s cheek and he smiled despite himself. “I was wondering what I would do without you.”

“Why worry? I’m not going anywhere.” Fatima said as she opened up a bag to set aside a tiny bowl of dried rose petals. She took a moment to take inventory of the items on the table. When she realized that she was missing the ghuri (teapot), she went to retrieve it from the pantry.

Her father laid his hand on the pantry door, blocking it. “If this arrangement works out with Samir, you will.”

Fatima turned to look at her father’s crooked smile and noted all the gaps between his teeth which she grew to adore. It was the smile of an anxious father who wanted the best for his daughter. No metaphor could correctly describe how much he loved his daughter.

“What makes you think he’s so special?” Fatima fired back. The coolness of her words was offset by her girlish charm. “What makes you think he can handle me? The last thirty-two suitors ran off faster than they could finish their chai.”

“I’ve heard great things about him.” Fatima’s father said with a hopeful lilt.

“As you have with the last thirty-two.”

“Fatima!”

Fatima gently moved her father’s hand off the pantry door and retrieved the ghuri. The ghuri shone under the ceiling light, glossy from a hardy coat of sealant. Fatima and her father only ever used this particular ghuri during special occasions, including tea parties with potential suitors and their families. She stroked the pot, minding the intricate design of the red rose at its center. Both the handle and the rose’s outline were painted in gold. Creamy white served as a base, setting on the pot’s surface in smooth layers. Asides from the ghuri’s cultural significance, it was a pretty teapot nonetheless.

“Please...promise me that you’ll wait until after our guests finish their chai before you scare them away.”

“I make no such promises.”

Fatima rinsed the ghuri in the sink and patted it dry with a towel. Telling from her father’s fallen smile and his crossed arms, she put the ghuri down and faced him.

“Fine,” Fatima said with a heavy sigh. “I’ll try to be less abrasive.”

“Thank you, eshgham.”

Fatima moved to transfer all the food and plates to the living room when her father ushered her to sit down by pulling out a chair in the kitchen.

“You’ve done enough, eshgham. Take a break.”

“You must really want this to work, huh. Calling me eshgham this and eshgham that...”

Fatima reached over to snatch a sugar cube from a bowl when her father took the entire thing, including the plate of flatbread and cheese. When he saw his daughter pout, he gave in and offered her one sugar cube for her to snack on. His face broke out into a smile as Fatima aged in reverse, sucking on the sugar like she was a child again.

“I don’t want you to leave. And I definitely don’t want you to marry soon. If anything, I wish you could stay just the way you are, just like this.”

“Then why are you rushing things?” Fatima asked. “I’ve had thirty-two suitors since the age of eighteen. That’s not normal considering the fact that I’ve just turned twenty last month.”

“I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life taking care of me. I’m your baba. I’m supposed to be the one taking care of you but…”

Her father didn’t need to say more. Fatima knew fully well what he meant.

Fatima’s sharpness and quick tongue was not blessed upon her at birth. As a child, Fatima was the very thing she had grown to hate. She was meak, sensitive, and the target of everyone’s criticism. Fatima could remember all the times she would run into her father’s arms crying after her father had picked her up from school.

Baba! Leslie said I was too fat, so she didn’t want to play with me.

Baba! A boy cut off my hair in class!

Baba! I don’t want to go to school any more! Please don’t make me go!

Everything changed when, at the age of thirteen years old, Fatima’s mother discovered she had a massive brain tumor. She was told that if she went through with the surgery, she would only have a fifty-fifty chance at survival. And even if she survived, the consequences would be devastating.

But she did it anyway.

The surgery left her severely cognitively impaired. Most of the time she had no idea where she was or who she was.

Fatima was forced to grow up quickly.

At the age of thirteen, Fatima became the woman of the house.

She learned how to cook meals suitable for a family of thirty whenever her extended family came over for Ramadan.

She did her father’s laundry, packed his lunches, reminded him to take his medication, all while caring for her mother.

The responsibility of being a substitute wife changed her. She learned how to become independent to the point that she could only rely on herself for everything and anything.

Fatima Said did not need a man to protect her. Her words were her sword and shield. She was to be feared and respected, not the other way around.

Closing his eyes, Fatima’s father kissed her hair and whispered, “I want you to find someone who makes you happy.”

His beard felt scratchy on her scalp and she playfully brushed him away. When he removed his face, she saw that he was crying. On the contrary, Fatima pushed down her own sadness. She would rather die than cry in front of her father.

“Don’t be so ridiculous, Baba. You make me happy. There are only three people I need in my life and that’s you, Maman, and Grace. I don’t have room for anybody else.”

“Don’t speak so soon.” Her father said as he wiped away his tears.

As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Both Fatima and her father jolted from shock.

“They’re here.”

Fatima lips lifted to form a mischievous grin. For all the reasons her father feared, she couldn’t wait.

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