The Tea Ladies

I’m feeling moderately better by the time I hear Abu Aiman’s truck puttering outside my window Sunday morning. He waits a polite ten seconds before honking to let me know he’s there. If I don’t appear within 30 seconds after that, he’ll leave me behind and let me find my own way to work. But today I’m ready and drag myself out of my house, through the garden, and out of the compound to squeeze myself into the back of the extended cab with three other teachers.

This driving service seemed ludicrous when we all taught at Dir Edis’s old girls’ school, which is two blocks from my house. I had been pressured into agreeing to let Abu Aiman drive me by my colleagues, who were horrified at the concept that I might walk to work unescorted. Now that I’m a bit more jaded about the shocking notion of a woman walking, and a bit more familiar with the weather, I might not agree if I had it to do over.

But now that we’re all at the new girls’ school at the very base of Dir Edis’s hill, I’m very glad to have Abu Aiman. Especially this morning, when I’m still not entirely sure I’m not going to pass out. I spent most of last night slumped sweatily on the couch, watching programs in at least two languages I don’t speak and not even caring, trying to force myself to drink the noxious rehydration punch I’d made out of my medical supplies. Yesterday morning I barely remember. There was the tail end of the overnight vomiting, and I think I spent some time in bed, and some time just lying on the floor praying for a breeze. It was not my best weekend.

Joe Foodie/Wikimedia Commons
Joe Foodie/Wikimedia Commons

When I drag myself into the kitchen and fall down on the daybed, I’m not sure I should have come in at all. Of course, it’s hard to call in sick when you have no idea whom to call. I guess I could have asked a kid to tell someone I wasn’t coming to work, and in a town this small my boss would have gotten the message. I’ve never done that yet and I didn’t particularly want to try today it for fear of being swarmed by curious neighbors. But now I’m thinking maybe I made a mistake.

“What happened to you?” Hiba asks, in her typical blunt manner.

Hiba is one of the regulars. Some teachers drift into and out of the kitchen to use the stove for their personal cooking whims, but you can tell they’re not interested in hanging out. Then there’s the crowd of kitchen-teachers, the ones who seem like maybe they hate the teachers’ lounge as much as I do, and maybe they feel almost as constrained by the capital-D Decorum that room demands. My counterpart, Islam, is another one of these teachers. She and the few others flow in and out during the day, between classes and during their free periods. Sometimes Islam stays in the kitchen and tells me it’s my turn to teach. It’s almost always a surprise to me, but no matter what she says, I can tell you it isn’t going to happen today.

“Ugggggh,” I moan.

“Seriously, you look a mess,” Hiba says, bouncing down next to me. “Are you okay?”

I wait a few seconds for the daybed to stop vibrating from her arrival, just to be sure the rehydration beverage stays down. “I am so sick,” I whine.

“But it’s summer!” Hiba argues. “Nobody gets sick in the summer.”

“My niece has been sick all week,” Um Bashir says, gently tapping Hiba’s legs to move them as she sets out the coffee table in preparation for the breakfast she will serve us. “Maybe she has the same sickness.”

“Ohhh no,” I contradict her. “This one is entirely my fault. I am the stupidest donkey alive in the world.”

Everybody giggles. This is how I function socially: lots of self-deprecating and humor. My vocabulary is too limited to function intellectually. It’s a different life than my life in English, but it feels okay, and I am so grateful to the warm, accepting women who have tried to understand my pitiful jokes and love me even though we must have next to nothing in common.

“Did you eat too much cheese?” Um Bashir teases. They all know how much I like goat cheeses. They think it’s ridiculous how excited I get by the beladi cheeses they bring in from local farms. The teachers who drift in and out to use the stove sniff at these local cheeses contemptuously. I’ll eat them every day. Usually.

“No, not cheese,” I say, accepting a cup of tea gratefully. Liquid sugar will help my stomach. “But it was food. I went in to Irbid on Friday and I was on Eidoun Street…”

Um Ahmed has just walked in carrying a floor squeegee and a damp rag, smelling intensely of the institutional cleaner the Tea Ladies use on the hallway floors. “I’ve told you not to go to Eidoun Street,” she says. “When you get off the bus, get into a bus or taxi right away and go over to the other side of town. Eidoun Street isn’t safe for women.”

She knows what my response is going to be because we’ve had this conversation dozens of times. “I like the walk. I can’t walk in Dir Edis,” I grumble. “Everybody watches me. At least there are lots of people on Eidoun Street, so fewer people are looking at me. And in the daytime nothing is going to happen to me! And, I’ve just found a new grocery store that has American food. I wanted some food from home.”

This is a compelling excuse, so the chiding stops. For now.

“How did Eidoun Street make you sick?” Hiba prompts.

“I’d been shopping all morning and I was tired. And on the way home down the hill, I walked past all the shwarma stands, and they smelled so good…”

My story is drowned out by knowing and disapproving chatter. It’s funny, because everybody eats the shaved meat, cooked on a spit at rotisserie carts or in storefronts. But everybody also knows it’ll kill you. It’s one of those things.

“You probably went to Abu Samir’s stand. He’s not clean.”

“I bet it was Abu Jaafar. I saw flies all over his meat last time we were there. And his cousin is a thief.”

“Hey, he’s my husband’s cousin too. Don’t say that. Besides, if it was at the top of Eidoun Street, it was probably somebody from the Bani Hamida family…”

I cut off the speculation, honestly not caring whose cousin owned the spit on which my meat had been roasted. “The meat was so good. I really think it was the mayonnaise. Somehow my body thinks it was the mayonnaise.”

“Well, you should never eat mayonnaise,” Hiba says, conclusively.

“You poor thing,” Um Ahmed soothes, brushing back my hair and refilling my shot glass with tea. “If you get sick like that, you should call me. You know I live right down the street. Send one of Abu Jameel’s daughters to get me.”

“I also know you’re busy. And besides, I really didn’t want to see anybody. And I wasn’t making good decisions. I think at some point Saturday morning somebody knocked on my door, and I hid under my bed.”

“You… what?” Um Ahmed asks, in the tone of voice they employ when I’ve just said something ludicrous, but probably by accident. Unlike the more worldly teachers in the teachers’ lounge, for some reason the Tea Ladies are willing to give me the benefit of the linguistic doubt, and assume I’m bad at Arabic instead of generally bad as a person. They always give me chances to try other words. “You didn’t hide under your bed. What do you mean?”

“No, that’s what I mean. I was asleep on the bed. I heard the doorbell. I’ve told you before, I hate Jordanian doorbells. The crazy bird tweeting makes me jump every time.”

They all nod and try not to giggle. I have told them this before, and they thought it was dumb then too.

“So I was asleep, and suddenly there was TWEET TWEET TWEET, and I was so scared that I rolled off the bed and hid under it. I thought maybe the visitor would come knock on my window and I was too scared to see anybody. I was really, really sick.”

For some reason I don’t understand, this makes Um Bashir burst into laughter and laugh until tears roll down her cheeks. Um Ahmed grins at her and inexplicably pats me on the knee approvingly. “I told you,” she says, to Um Bashir and not to me. “I told you she was home and ignoring me. But at least there was a good reason.”

When Um Bashir is able to speak again, she wipes her eyes and pats my other knee. She chokes out, “Do you remember, later Saturday, when Ahmed came to your door? Um Ahmed’s son?”

Suddenly, I do have a vague memory of this. Of staggering to the door, opening the window in it, and saying whatever I had to say to make a person go away.

“Yee-es,” I say, uncertainly.

Um Ahmed takes over. “He was looking for me. I’d told him I was going to be at your house for the afternoon. You told him you hadn’t seen me all day. Don’t you remember?”

“I guess so. Not really. But you weren’t at my house. So why is that funny?”

“You got her in trouble!” Um Bashir chokes out, before collapsing into another fit of loud laughter. “Nobody could find her and her husband was very very angry!”

I am immediately indignant. “That is not my fault. I didn’t even know you were coming over! Besides, where were you that nobody could find you?”

Um Ahmed lifts her chin defiantly and says, “I went to Irbid. I paid one of the pickup drivers to take me and I did some shopping for jelbaabs. I am allowed to go to Irbid if I want to, and I told my husband that later. He should have guessed that was where I was, anyway, because he knew I needed new clothes.”

Now both my indignation and my feminism are engaged. “Well, that’s just silly,” I tell them. “Next time, this is what we’ll do. You warn me first! And then you can go wherever you want, and I will tell anybody who’s looking for you that you are sick and in the bathroom.”

I was vaguely aware that the concept of lying on her behalf would amuse and please Um Ahmed, but I wasn’t ready for the volume and tenor of the approving laughing and cheering from every woman in the room. Eventually Miss Sara opens the door and sticks her head in, frowning and asking what could be so funny. Um Bashir tells her the whole story, from my mayonnaise and hiding under the bed to my promise to protect and hide my friends.

Miss Sara laughs too and comes in for a cup of celebratory tea. She leans across the table and says to me, in English, “You! Good!” Our principal, despite clear and frequent evidence that I am capable of low-level functioning in Arabic, always speaks to me in one-word, exclamatory English sentences. I don’t know if this has to do with her desire to practice English or her estimation of my intelligence. Several weeks ago, I asked the Tea Ladies if Miss Sara thought I was stupid. Now, as she does it again,  they all look down or turn away, biting their lips, to keep from laughing.

“You! Good!” Miss Sara says again, to make sure I understand. “Good! Friend!”

Noblevmy/Wikimedia Commons
Noblevmy/Wikimedia Commons

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