ME: On way back from Namus. Guess what they sent home w me? ALICE: Olives? ME: REEM!!! ALICE: Seriously? ME: For a week. Help! ALICE: Hahahaha. I'm coming in to Irbid. Let's take her to Pizza Hut!
I look over at Reem. I’m pretty sure the passing landscape and the novelty of being on a big Hijazi bus wore off about half an hour ago, but she is doing an admirable job of keeping the squirming to a minimum. She is swinging her plastic bag against her legs and humming to herself. I wonder if she’s humming to bolster her courage, or if she’s even thought through the fact that she’s been entrusted to me, and what that entails.
The plastic bag contains a change of shorts, two t-shirts, and one pair of underwear. Asra packed it in the space of about thirty seconds, handing it to me and saying “This should be enough! Bring her back whenever.” I think Um Shakur may have slipped Reem half a dinar too. Otherwise she has nothing between her and the big wide world but me.
It all started as a sort of joke. I went to Namus yesterday because summer vacation is ending soon and I wanted to get some quality time in with the family. The last time I visited, there had been strong indications that Enas might soon be engaged. It hasn’t been that long since my last visit, but apparently the groom-to-be has decided he needs to abbreviate the engagement and do both it and the marriage as soon as humanly possible. Asra says he’s worried that money in hand gets spent, and since he has the dowry in hand right now he’d like to close the deal right now. This is unusual, but he’s a cousin and a police officer with a steady income from the state, so the family is making allowances.
The problem is, of course, that the burden of the wedding falls on Enas’s family. It’s even worse because Asra is in tawjihi this year and had hoped not to have to assume Head Daughter household duties for another year. Um Shakur is still two years out from retirement. But it’s a good match and Enas is excited, so everyone is attempting to remain cheerful as they frantically clean, spread the word to family, buy and sew clothes, and generally otherwise fret about the upcoming celebrations.
It’s a tough time to be a middle child, is what I’m saying. Especially a girl middle child, who at the best of times is sort of shuffled around, and who is just flirting with moody puberty. I’ve always worried about Reem. I can’t tell if she’s intelligent, but certainly nobody thinks she is. I can tell when she’s whining, which is often, but she doesn’t seem to deserve the random swats and chiding that usually fall her way. I really think she’s just the middle of nine. She is loved. I’m just not sure she’s liked. And after I watched a number of brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles trip over her all day yesterday, I said, “You should just let Reem come stay with me for the rest of the summer.”
I barely had time to process what a dumb idea this would be before Um Shakur said “Okay!” It felt like Asra almost simultaneously procured the plastic bag of clothes and we were relatively unceremoniously bundled out the door. I was a little peeved, because I hadn’t actually planned on going home today. But there we have it, and here we are.
Finally the bus arrives at the long, flat plateau that is the final minutes of the drive into Irbid. We swing into the Amman bus station and everybody pushes and shoves to disembark, because those few seconds make a huge difference. I shepherd Reem along and we grab a taxi to Pizza Hut. I’m pretty sure this is Reem’s second time in a taxi and the first was earlier today. She beams as if she were a princess in a gilded carriage.
Alice meets us at the restaurant we affectionately call Beesa Hoot, because of its transliteration. Reem greets her warmly, grateful for another familiar face in a city essentially a world away from home. She behaves politely and eats her very first pizza more or less without issue. In fact, she’s behaving so well that I’m a little worried. So I ask Alice to come home with us tonight. Two adults are better than one when it comes to solo child-having, right?
“Can’t. I might be able to come spend tomorrow night or one of the other nights this week, but I have stuff I have to do tomorrow morning. What are you guys going to do?”
“I was thinking Jerash. Maybe University Street. God, I don’t know. What was I thinking?”
Alice only laughs.
The good thing is, this is a child who has been trained to obey, and trained to work. I can work with these attributes. She sits more or less quietly in the internet cafe while I check my email. Then she’s absolutely overwhelmed in the Zamzam Supermarket when I ask if she’d like cereal or jam or cheese or something else entirely for breakfast. She shyly asks for some candy that I know she’d never be allowed to buy at home, so of course we buy it. Then we head for the Valley bus station and off to Dir Edis, equipped for at least one evening on our own.
I’m not sure how quickly it occurs to me that there might be someone else I could enlist for help entertaining a ten-year-old, but by the time we reach my house I have a tentative plan. We drop our bags and sundries off in in my apartment and then I march Reem upstairs like a tiny prisoner of war and present her to Um Jameel. Exactly as one might predict, Um Jameel is both amused and horrified that some mother somewhere else in Jordan has actually entrusted her child to the crazy single American woman. We are swept instantly into the household and given snacks while Reem is grilled about her family and interests and background. They are also pleased to be able to ask Reem questions about me, about my training, about whether I actually do go to Namus when I say I do once a month or so. Reem basks in the center of attention.
Throughout it all, one person doesn’t speak: Noor, Um Jameel’s youngest daughter. Um Jameel’s ten-year-old daughter. Noor regards Reem with big, interested eyes. And I am utterly unsurprised that when we finally manage to extricate ourselves and get back downstairs, it’s mere minutes before Noor knocks on the door.
I never had the facility that some children have of just walking up to a strange child and saying “Let’s play.” I envied kids who had it. Now I am grateful that apparently both Reem and Noor fall into that category. I’m not sure exactly what she said, but it’s quite clear that Noor didn’t come down to call on me, and Reem has been whisked off for a little girls’ tour of Dir Edis. Suddenly I feel like I might be able to handle this, and my plans are growing grander and more complicated by the second.
When the young ladies come tumbling back into my apartment an hour or so later, Noor follows Reem into my bedroom. She’s initially a little awkward, as her parents have impressed on all their kids that I am to be given my space. Reem feels no such compunction about going through her “sister’s” drawers, closets, and jewelry, and they appear to be having a delightful time chattering away. But I think I can make the evening even better.
I poke my head around the door into the bedroom and I say “Hey… I have an idea. Would you ladies like to make dinner?”
They look at me in stunned silence for a second. Then Reem says “What would we cook?”
“Whatever you want!” I say. “You can go see what I have in the kitchen, and you can make whatever you want. I’ll help you if you need help with the stove.”
I don’t know if Tom Sawyer felt any guilt about getting neighborhood kids to paint his fence, but I honestly don’t think I need to feel any here. They are delighted. They are young enough that they have never been entrusted with an actual meal, although they have been asked to do enough prep-work that they’re quite capable of handling knives and probably even cooking the whole thing themselves. It’s the perfect arrangement and I gratefully sit back on the couch while the rest of the evening unfolds. There is giggling and singing and a little bossing and tension. There is running up the stairs and back down with various tools and dishes, so I assume Um Jameel is aware of and agreeable to my scheme. There are even relatively pleasant odors emanating from the kitchen. At one point, Jameel knocks on the door and asks if Noor is bothering me, and then looks mystified when I assure him that we’re having a blast. But he goes away, and the experiment continues.
Eventually the young chefs inform me that it’s time to sit down and put the tea-tray, equipped with a pot of very weak tea, in the middle of my carpet. It is followed quickly by a tray of bread and what I think must be every one of my two dozen eggs, fried with tomatoes, onions, and garlic. It is beyond edible; it’s actually quite good, and I eat in silence while they chatter away.
If I had had time to think this whole thing through, I might have guessed that bedtime was going to be the hardest part of the process. It’s all happened so fast that I’m relatively unprepared for it, though. So I pull out an extra fersha and pillow and put them in my bedroom. I watch Reem arrange herself there and I do have enough forethought to loan her a stuffed animal. Then I say goodnight and shut the door, planning to watch the next hour of the miniseries I’ve been watching on Jordan Two.
It isn’t five minutes before it’s quite clear that this isn’t going to work. It does occur to me now that Reem has probably never, not one single time in all her life, gone to sleep in a room alone. She isn’t about to start now. And I feel terrible for not having thought of it. So I call it a night and join her in the bedroom, even though I’m not at all tired and there’s still a bit of foot traffic outside in the street and the garden. I think I’ve avoided the worst of the loneliness problem and that Reem may even be asleep. Then a clear, shaky voice says: “I want to go home tomorrow.”
“Home… to Namus?”
“But you’re supposed to stay a week!”
“Yes, but I want to go home,” she says, with increasing whine.
I hesitate. Then I say, carefully, “We can go home tomorrow if you still want to do that in the morning. Okay?”
I can practically hear her lift her chin with resolution that it’s absolutely, definitely what she’s going to want in the morning. But she says only “Okay.” Then she falls fast asleep.