Khadija reached toward her husband and nearly touched him. To avert the offense against good manners in front of us, she pulled back. With their heads hanging, she and Mustafa spoke to each other in Arabic. Characteristically, he talked faster and a little louder. Trapped between horror and bewilderment, Marianne and I said nothing. Finally, Khadija broke into English.
“I’m sorry: we say in Arabic because we don’t know a way to say in English how sad we feel.”
To avoid mentioning our planned summertime visit to Jerusalem, Marianne had told them we would not return to Oman in September. Mustafa had wanted to know about our summer holiday when he asked where we would go after leaving Oman. But Marianne did not want to provoke his anger about what he sees as the Jewish theft of Jerusalem, where his grandfather had lost his home to the Israelis. So she told them about our new jobs in the United States, which she would start in August and I in September. This led to the revelation of their attachment to us.
Truthfully, I shouldn’t call it a revelation; we knew how strong the bond had grown, yet hesitated to admit it to ourselves. Mustafa and Khadija had nodding acquaintances with many teachers from English-speaking countries in the neighborhood, including four or five in their own building. These were mainly vagabonds, though: childless, not looking to put down roots anywhere, committed to the expatriate life and thus to fellow British, American, and Canadian expats who shared a sense of restlessness and infinite mobility.
Marianne and I were in a different category after living for twenty years in the same house, where we had raised four children. In barely a month in Oman, this had bound us closely to the Jordanian couple with their two children. Now our love of family and old friends and home, and our good luck in finding work there, would take us back, whisking us in and out of Oman much faster than most of the gypsy expats ever moved.
Our news deflated the buoyant mood in which they had asked us over. They wanted us to help them celebrate the completion of the fountain that Mustafa had built in the courtyard beneath their apartment window. Two weekends in a row I saw him laboring in the heat to finish his project. He tore up his first effort after Khadija objected that the tile did not complement the brick wall he had built to retain their bougainvillea garden. He had bought salmon-colored tile in order to come as close as possible to the color of the bricks. Then Khadija insisted on cerulean. I drove past several times while he worked, stopping just once because I did not want to sacrifice my air conditioning. I offered my sympathy, which he courteously declined.
“The fountain was my idea, but to finish, it needs Khadija’s judgment. I tell you, she is never wrong about color.”
I could not picture the completed fountain clad in the blue tile demanded by his wife. But if Mustafa put that measure of faith in her, it was good enough for me. I looked for another way to support him:
“I guess you want it perfect since you’ll have all next year to enjoy it. Then the hard work you did will give you a lot of satisfaction.”
He shook his head as he lit a Gauloise.
“We are here only two more months. The college has found a bigger apartment for us.”
I stared at him, then at the shards of useless pink tile. Soon I would go back to my air conditioning and he would work through the afternoon.
“Why don’t you wait until you move into the new apartment before you build your fountain? It’s too hot to work today.”
“It will give happiness to us now, and later to anyone who lives here after we go. And the heat. . .”
Shading his eyes, he squinted up at the sun.
“One time I have business in Nablus. I tried to go there and I have all the right papers, but still the Israeli soldiers made me wait four hours in the sun. They do this just to show that I am nothing, and then they kick football around. It was more hot than this!”
He thought for a moment before he grinned at me.
“I maybe tell you this story before.”
“Two or three times, Mustafa.”
He balanced the Gauloise delicately on the handle of his wheelbarrow. Kneeling, he began to scoop broken tile into it.
On the night Marianne and I went to admire Mustafa’s finished work, he and Khadija needed the fountain’s pleasures. She had made the latest of her many visits to their sons’ school in order to complain about the quality of the education. Even though we commiserate because we know they are ambitious for their children, the absence of ambition in our Omani students seems linked to other qualities that we cannot help admiring.
Marianne mentions her weakest student. His reluctance to study or attend class has left him with English so poor that she could not make him understand that he has no chance of passing the course, especially after his zero on the midterm. So she asked for a translation from her best student, a young man named Omar. The weak student’s face crumbled when he heard the bad news. Omar turned back to her and said, “But Miss, you will give him a high mark so he will pass?” Despite his hard work, the good student did not believe he had any more right to pass the course than the weak student did.
Maybe the lack of competitive impulses has something to do with innocence or naivety—with a blind spot for the world’s cruelties and hard edges. One of my stronger students, Salim, wants to become a teacher of Islamic studies. He ended an assignment to describe what he would do on an imaginary visit to the United States by writing that he would tell Americans about Islam and explain that it is a religion of peace.
“Your student can say that in Oman,” said Mustafa. “As long as I’m here, I never see a fight. So different from Jordan!”
Marianne and I asked at the same time what Jordanians fight over.
“Women, always! But there is a teacher at our college from Great Britain—very educated, a doctor—who says Oman is ‘land of the lotus-eaters.’ This is famous place in literature, I think, where people have no problems. Or I think maybe they eat a special food which deceives them to think that they have no problems. But I don’t know what is the special food in Oman!”
“Tell them about fight we almost see, Mustafa.”
“I must!” His excitement propels him out of his chair. “The other day we saw a car accident in a roundabout. Not bad, but it blocks traffic, and the drivers get very angry.”
Khadija had started giggling.
“He tell me, ‘Quick, take picture with cell phone—finally we will see fight in Oman!’ But then—nothing!”
“Yes, nothing. It’s Oman.”
Khadija had not quite finished talking about her frustration with their sons’ school.
“Anyway, about Mohammed and Sultan—no more for them in that worthless place! I’ll put them in the Indian school even if they have to miss the first two months.”
The private school she referred to, taught by and mostly for Indian expats, would be in session during the impossibly hot months of July and August.
“We will be in Jordan then, so I will continue teaching them in the home. I have had to do this all year, so nothing changes.”
She looked tiredly at her husband.
“We used to talk about emigrating to Canada. There our sons would get even better education than they can get in Jordan, and many more opportunities. But Mustafa says that is too far from our families.”
Only when she said this did it occur to me that Mustafa, obsessed with his grandfather’s displacement, had the habit of speaking much more about home and family than his wife did. This moment was no different.
“Yes, too far, Khadija. And this summer in Amman we have a new nephew and a new niece to see for the first time.”
In general, Khadija’s English is accented less strongly than her husband’s, though she often imparts such a powerful roll to her “r” that the letter seems to collect earth and acquire weight. Yet we have less trouble understanding Mustafa, who gestures emphatically with his hands. At every instant his passions seem coiled to breach the walls of the kind of polite talk which produces only an impostor of communication. Tonight he revives a topic that he and his wife must have discussed a thousand times.
“I promise that you will be happy if we move to Palestine, Khadija. The people are more friendly and more generous than anywhere in the Middle East.”
Khadija’s mouth hardens. She refuses to look at him.
“Why I want to live there? The Israelis make it like a prison.”
“The Israelis can’t build their wall around our minds and hearts.”
He waves his cigarette in the air. Stabbing at his head as he says “minds,” he almost singes his dark hair.
“It doesn’t matter how many lies they tell about history. When I am in that place, the smell of the flowers brings to life all the memories I hear from my grandfather. I hear his voice even when I smell the dirt!”
Khadija’s voice drops to a whisper.
“Our friends don’t want to hear about Palestine again tonight, Mustafa.”
We had arrived late at their apartment because Marianne could find only a single clean blouse, the one whose second button down sometimes becomes undone and which she therefore had never worn in Oman. A second layer of underwear—a slip or chemise—would solve the problem in the United States, but Khadija’s headscarf, long sleeves, and lightweight coat fastened up to the top of its high collar set a different standard. (Khadija also seems to up the ante for ornamentation of her scarf and coat every time we see her, so Marianne makes sure to wear plenty of jewelry.) Unhappy with the line produced by safety pins, Marianne had decided to super-glue the blouse shut.
“Stand off to the side,” she commanded me. “You can’t see anything, can you?”
“No, and it’s a great disappointment,” I admitted. “But how will you get the blouse off?”
She still hadn’t thought of an answer as she sat rigidly in front of Mustafa’s fountain, drinking the Coca-Cola we had brought and eating the chocolate cake Khadija had found at a bakery. When she showed us the cake, she quietly announced that it was for her birthday. She would turn thirty-four the next day, but they wanted to celebrate with us before we left town for the weekend.
“You should have told us so we could have gotten you a gift!”
“In Islam,” Khadija explained to Marianne, “we have only two holidays. We have the end of Ramadan and we have the end of the time of Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Getting together in very small way like this is all right, but gifts I don’t need. My family and good friends sitting with me is the gift.”
We asked whether she and Mustafa had ever made the Hajj. She shook her head.
“It is expensive,” Mustafa said. “But maybe next year we go, if we can have the college to give us a raise. Our evaluations from the students were not good, they were excellent: I get four-point-seven out of five.”
“Mine were higher even,” added Khadija, laughing. “I get four-point-eight!”
“Many of your students are young men, Khadija.”
Not understanding, she cocked her head at Marianne.
“I’m sure you are an excellent teacher. However, maybe some of your young male students give you such good marks because of your beauty. Ask my husband if male students in America would ever do that.”
Khadija did not see Marianne wink at me. The compliment had embarrassed her, so she looked away. But the wide smile betrayed her pleasure.
The conversation drifted to the topic of our plans for the summer, and that is when our friends dropped their heads. After Khadija apologized for speaking in Arabic with her husband, a long, difficult pause followed. Mustafa, who always smokes hungrily, seemed to suck down a Gauloise in one breath.
Finally, he stood and walked around to the side of the apartment building so that he could turn on the water to his fountain. Foam bubbled up in its highest reservoir, spilled successively into the two elevated levels below, and nestled into the large reservoir cemented to the courtyard floor. Khadija and Marianne and I clapped and cheered and the boys squealed.
When Mustafa reappeared, he pointed a remote at their third-floor window. Scarlet light flooded the fountain as we continued to clap and cheer. Marianne let out an ear-splitting whistle that reduced Khadija to hysterics. The boys leaped up and down as the light cycled through the color wheel, every slice of which flattered Khadija’s cerulean tile. I turned my head away from the spectacle to see that Mustafa was standing between Marianne and me.
“I think this summer in Amman, when we stay at the home of Khadija’s father, I will build the same fountain. But I will build it bigger. If you come to that house, the fountain will remind you of this night.”
He took my hand.
“Please visit us or our families in Jordan any time. You will have a home there.”