It’s not a good day teaching-wise, so I am holed up in the tiny kitchen with my janitor-friends, The Tea Ladies. Joining us for a quick cup between classes is Hiba, the excitable chemistry teacher, and her best friend Yasmeen, the gym teacher.
The Tea Ladies are busy exclaiming over Yasmeen’s new scarf. The scarf is significant because Yasmeen has only just started to cover; previously, she wore a modest long-sleeve shirt and loose slacks to work every day, but after months of gentle harassment from fellow teachers she has arrived today in the coat-dress jelbaab and with her hair covered. All things considered, I think this transition is probably to the detriment of her usefulness as a gym teacher, but as her students are all similarly covered — and, usually, wearing atrocious platform footwear entirely useless for athletics — it probably doesn’t make much difference.
Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with the subject, as the number of teachers in our school with uncovered hair has now gone from four to three. Miss Sara, the principal, also doesn’t cover, but her social status as our boss and her undisputed purity as a fifty-year-old virgin seem to make this okay. Sana is a Christian, respectably married with children, and as such unlikely to cover or tolerate conversation about it. And then there’s me. The direction of this conversation seems inevitable.
I indicate my disinterest in humoring any such advances by curling up on the day-bed and opening my book of the moment. It happens to be Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I am generally enjoying. Better yet, it seems relatively innocuous, and a book I can read in public without too much curiosity or consternation. I’m still not quite over the double-thick pasteboard someone had bound to our group’s copy of The Satanic Verses, so that we could pass it around and read it without risking serious trouble. This one seems safe, I think, as I turn the page and…
With horror, I realize there are pictures in this book.
I close the book as quickly as I can, but it’s too late. Hiba, ever closely observant of my actions, is upon me, flopping down on the daybed next to me and involving herself entirely too much in my personal space.
“What’s that book?” she asks, not quite casually.
“Oh, just a book about human history,” I say. I don’t say: evolution. Even if I knew how to say this word, which I don’t, I’m not totally stupid.
“Let me see it,” Hiba says, as she takes the book from me and flips directly to the photographs. Smelling a story, the other women crowd around us.
There’s an old man in a hat; a woman with a bone through her nose; a man whose face is a fascinating chaos of tattooed dots. None of this is especially controversial, although it is curious, and elicits much tongue-clucking and muttered references to the almighty. But then: the second set of pictures features two beautiful women with short, shiny hair, smiling directly at the camera, totally oblivious of their naked, pendulous breasts.
The silence is deafening.
“Who are these women?” Hiba finally breathes, speaking for them all.
“Just some women from South America,” I say, miserably.
“Why don’t their husbands kill them?”
This question makes sense to me. I’m even finely-enough attuned to Hiba and these women to understand that she’s not quite serious, but is totally curious. A woman here might not be killed for going topless, but she would definitely have to be insane to do it. Clinically. And her husband would definitely not be amused. These happy, unembarrassed women make no sense to Hiba. So I turn to my standard response, when I’m asked why I’m not married at 24, why my father isn’t concerned that I live so far away, why I don’t mind grocery shopping for myself.
“It’s normal in their culture,” I say, nonchalantly. “This is just how they dress.”
I’m pleased that nobody seems especially outraged by this. I love the Tea Ladies because, although their education is limited and their worldliness is nonexistent, they are accepting. They alone have taken me in and loved me with no hesitation lest I unexpectedly embarrass them, or exhibit sudden outrageous tendencies to drink alcohol or eat pork. Some of my more sophisticated acquaintances constantly monitor me, fearfully, as if I would at any moment attempt to compel them to kiss a rosary. The Tea Ladies have never given me anything but unconditional love. Neither do they judge these simple Amazonian ladies, even for their incomprehensible fashion choices.
“Aren’t they cold?” Um Bashir asks.
“No,” I say, patiently, maybe with a bit of condescension. “Where they live, it’s very hot all year. That’s probably why they don’t wear shirts. It actually makes good sense; aren’t you very hot in your jelbaabs?”
The ladies all nod thoughtfully, acknowledging the general foolishness of all-encompassing polyester in a desert summer. Nudity isn’t an option, but I know they occasionally envy me my elbow-length cotton blouses.
But Um Bashir isn’t done. I should have known that her straightforward, blunt honesty would be my intellectual undoing. I am sitting there, gleeful in my First World smugness, proud of having introduced these provincial ladies to some New Thoughts. Pride before a fall.
Um Bashir is indeed having a new thought.
“But,” she says, “Where do they get their water?”
“What do you mean?” I stammer, floored by the non sequitur.
Hiba rolls her eyes at me and explains, having totally understood what Um Bashir had asked, not suffering from my cultural blindspot.
“Rains come when it’s cold,” she says, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. “If it’s always warm, what do they have to drink?”