What Enas Told Me, Much Later

Saturday, August 7, 1999

Of all the times for the foreigner to arrive, she picked the absolute worst. I mean, I wasn’t going to do anything too fancy, but my house is always clean and it was a bit flustering to have her show up just at that moment.

It’s Saturday, and on Saturdays the city water is unlimited for a few hours, so we rush to fill our water tank and buckets. My sister Asra and I had just dumped gallons of water on the floor and Asra was pouring out cleaner and sweeping it into suds with a broom. We were both wearing t-shirts, and we had tied our hair back in old bandanas and rolled our pant legs up nearly to the knee, so when the foreigner showed up I had to run into the back room and cover my head and my legs. Then we both stood there awkwardly, shyly too but mostly awkwardly, while the suds faded away and the foreigner’s (male) driver carried her suitcases back into my parents’ big bedroom.

And how much stuff it was! I mean, one person, and she had two huge bags and a giant backpack. My sisters and I share clothes if we’re roughly the same sizes, but I don’t think all put together we own that much clothing. Never mind how bulky the big green duffle bag was to move around when I was trying to wash under it. I guess I’ll just have to let the spot it occupies collect dust for the next three months, or I’ll get one of my brothers to help me, because it’s huge. I wonder what she could possibly have in there and if it’s very expensive or maybe it’s Versace.

I finished washing the bedroom floors and came back out. Asra had squeegeed away all the water on the outer floors and my aunt Noor had taken over the rice-making in the kitchen so I had a minute to check on the foreigner. I have a normal sense of curiosity, after all. She was sitting there in the living room with her feet tucked back under her on the couch, holding her shoes, because Asra had taken up the rugs and was squeegeeing in there too. I can’t decide what to make of her, really. She’s not pretty, she weighs too much, but her skin is very white and her eyes are blue. But she wasn’t wearing any makeup and she was dressed in something that looked like a dress but was made of the same material as jeans. Her shoes were men’s sandals and of course her hair was uncovered and to top it off she barely speaks Arabic. I asked her if she was hungry and after three tries she still didn’t understand, so I just went into the kitchen and got her some leftover rice and chicken from yesterday, and some yoghurt, and I cut up a little salad and put it all on a tray and took it back to her in the living room.

Chicken_Mandi_Rice_مندي_دجاج_

And what do you think she was doing? She was sitting there, and she was reading, if you please. I guess she must have scurried into the bedroom and dug a book out of one of those big bags. I gave her the food and she put the book down and started eating, although once she had the food she didn’t look very hungry. And when I came back in half an hour, most of the food was still there and she was reading again! She smiled at me and thanked me but then she kept reading.

Um Shakur will be home soon, and then I think I’ll feel a little less stressed, because she’ll know what to do. I really don’t know how I feel about this whole thing, you know? I told Um Shakur that, but she liked her foreigner at work so much last year that she really wants this one to live with us. Plus my aunt has had one each of the last two years and my mother doesn’t like my aunt to have anything she doesn’t have. We would have had one two years ago if it weren’t for the baby, who is really not a baby any more now that she’s two. But Maysoon is exactly one of the reasons I think this is a bad idea. I would never say this to my mother’s face, of course, but she goes off to work every day and leaves me at home with the whole house and the baby and I have to cook and clean and worry about all these children that aren’t mine, although the baby does call me Mama, calls us both Mama actually which tells you something. Um Shakur will take the money and use it to pay for Shakur’s tuition at university and I’m glad that it will help but somehow I think it will be so much more work for me.

And I have to tell you, the foreigner herself scares me too. Not because I’m afraid she’ll misbehave and the neighbors will talk; my uncle worries about that, but we mostly ignore him. Even if she does misbehave the neighbors know we get paid to keep her so it shouldn’t matter too much. I’m worried that she’s going to look down on us, you know? I’m worried because the house was dirty when she came and she doesn’t look like she knows how to sit on the mattresses on the floor and she wouldn’t eat the chicken. I’m worried because in the end she probably thinks her house is better, her family is better, her life is better, and maybe she’s right.

And I’m worried because I don’t know what’s in those bags.

0 thoughts on “What Enas Told Me, Much Later

  1. I always love these glimpses to another time and place, thank you!

    I do think this particular piece could be even stronger though. It clearly renders Enas’ thoughts and anxieties, but then it just ends, and leaves me… still anxious, I suppose. Perhaps because we already know that the two of you would eventually be close enough for her to share these same thoughts with you. I’m not suggesting you relate the entirety of *that* tale, but it might be interesting if, in addition to the events above, you told us little of what was happening when she told this to you. Perhaps a few sentences at the beginning, and just one at the end.

    Of course, I realize life isn’t literature and it is, perhaps, too much to hope that she told you all these things at the same time, in some symbolically convivial setting, and afterward added a comment or made an expression that tied all the foregoing together thematically, but I’m still curious about what *did* happen. I want the window to open just a little wider.

    One last little picayune of a note- I sometimes felt a little thrown by some of the more modern idioms (ie ‘she picked the absolute worst time’, ‘you know’). They didn’t quite seem to match the voice of the rest of the piece. On the other hand, I’m not particularly worldly, and some other idioms didn’t bug me at all. ‘On top of that’ didn’t turn a hair, and ‘if you please’ was very well-chosen, I thought.

    Anyway. my two cents.

    • The person I’ve called Enas here was reserved and spoke basically no English, so there were limits to how strong our relationship could get, but I do think she came to trust that I was neither going to mock her nor cause her undue extra work. She would order me around like one of her other sisters. I’m pretty sure we had this conversation just before she got married. There were layers of issues involved in her marriage and I didn’t understand almost any of them, but I knew she was excited and nervous and very tightly wound. We were sitting at the kitchen table — most of my conversations with Enas took place at the kitchen table, a tiny little card table for no more than two that she used for food preparation — and we were probably cooking something, or she was cooking something and I was trying to mimic her and she was not-so-patiently mocking my attempts. I was feeling hopeful for her and sad that I wouldn’t get to see her much any more, because her husband-to-be lived a couple hours away, and I think I said something like “You really scared the crap out of me for a while!” and she responded with “Well, you were really annoying!” and we went from there.

      I’m with you on the idioms too. Some of these pieces I’m writing now(ish), and some of them are things I’ve found in emails or in my journal. I had forgotten about this one, but I think I wrote it about a year after that conversation occurred. I didn’t change it much, but as I read it it felt like someone else’s writing, if that makes sense, and some of those points bug me too. I think it was important to me to try to get a modern, real voice. In some of these pieces I’ve tried to use semantics to indicate the linguistic difficulties I was having, and that didn’t need to be the case here. I don’t want to try to guess the words Enas used in her own head. The point is, whatever words they were, they were fluent and modern and natural to her. I think the idioms are me going overboard trying to show that.

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