If successful personal relations hinge on a kind of radar that tells us how closely we can approach or how far we must stay away from a given individual, then my wife got a clear signal during her first meeting with Khadija. I don’t pretend to understand how the radar works, even for Marianne, whom I married more than three decades ago. Had she already received a faint signal, below the level of consciousness, that triggered her apparently spontaneous confession of petty jealousy of a friend back in California? Or did she yank the confession randomly out of the bag of tricks with which she struggled to entertain someone whose English gave us trouble, and with whom we still had doubts about finding common ground?
I recall neither who the American friend was nor what had made Marianne jealous. But later she patiently explained to me—I need ongoing remedial, and even rehabilitative, instruction in such fine points of human relations—that a confession of jealousy is precisely the sort of thing which can fix the appropriate distance between two people.
“I can love someone who tells me not to be jealous; maybe that person loves me and doesn’t want me to experience the pain of jealousy.”
If I nodded to affirm my understanding, it was only because she must have instructed me in the same way many times before. An account of how personal relations work cannot easily slip past me more than twenty or thirty times.
“But telling me not to be jealous and why I shouldn’t be jealous is a way of teaching me. Sometimes I need a friend to be better than me and to encourage me to be better. It isn’t all I need, though.”
“Because of the distance involved in being better than someone else,” I ventured.
“You’ve got it!”
I felt the satisfaction of the average but hard-working student who finally sees an A on his report card.
“Khadija didn’t care about distance. She showed me she had exactly the same vulnerability I had. She didn’t need to be better than me.”
Khadija had told us all about her sister at that first meeting: the younger sister who, as smart and pretty as Khadija was, turned out even smarter and prettier.
“I study so hard and am proud to earn best marks in my graduating class at school. Ten years later Razan does same and whole family is happy. ‘Just like Khadija,’ my father says. And what do you think happens?”
She paused for effect.
“At graduation, in front of all students and parents, the headmaster say that Razan beat my marks in every subject: I get so many points in maths but Razan get more, so many in science but Razan get more, just like so. It’s first time we hear this. So my brother say to my father: ‘Not like Khadija—better than Khadija!’”
The roll of her r’s, always more pronounced when she gets excited or agitated, had slowed her progress through the story.
But Mustafa objected. “Razan is not more beautiful than you. When my father and mother took me to your parents’ home so I could see you for the first time, it’s like I get a hard punch in my chest: I can’t breathe! I knew right away I want to spend my life with you.”
Khadija looked at her husband as if he were a dull-witted child whose slowness was precious to her.
“We should tell the truth, Mustafa. Razan is. . .”
She stretched out both hands to try to pull the right words from the evening sky. We waited until she clenched her fists in triumph.
“Razan is like movie star!”
She shut her eyes tight, I think for the purpose of forming the clearest possible image of her sister. Mustafa grabbed the opportunity to whisper in my left ear so quietly that I could barely hear him.
“Razan is beautiful, but not more than Khadija. This is the point: Khadija loves her too much. She would die for Razan.”
With Khadija’s eyes still closed, Marianne put her lips to my other ear. At this and in all subsequent meetings, Mustafa and Khadija took care to sit next to each other so that Marianne and I would also sit together. Marianne’s presence on my right would always insulate Khadija from contact with me, while Mustafa’s presence on my left would insulate Marianne from contact with him.
“Can you see how much Khadija loves her sister?” I heard Marianne whisper. “I’ll bet she would do anything for her.”
Khadija’s strong passions—perhaps contradictory, in the case of love and jealousy—and her honesty about them pulled Marianne close, giving her the confidence to tell Khadija things she kept from other Muslims. Omanis often asked us how we liked their country and we would tell them we loved it except for the heat. We found much to love, but Marianne was grateful for Khadija’s openness to her criticisms, which transcended Oman.
“Is it like this in Jordan, that men and women have so little to do with each other?”
Khadija looked blank, so Marianne tried again.
“In Oman I can’t go to a restaurant or a beach by myself because I’ll be the only woman there.”
She interrupted herself to laugh.
“Although if I’m going to be the only woman among fifty men, maybe it’s best that they’re Arab men since they smell so good. If a lot of them are together at the beach, they’ll even bring a big cloud of cologne out onto the ocean.”
Khadija gave Mustafa a sidelong glance that struck me as disapproving.
“For my husband, the point of cologne is to cover up smell of his cigarettes.”
Mustafa only beamed as Marianne continued.
“Anyway, I don’t mean that I feel like I’m in danger here among all the crowds of men; they’re very respectful. But I feel like an oddity, a curiosity. Do you understand? Is it like that in Jordan?”
“Even in Muscat, the Oman people are like simple country people,” Khadija said. “So men and women believe they must be separate. In Jordan I can eat at any restaurant I like, but they know I am good Muslim woman because I am covered.”
“Would strange men talk to you?” I put in.
Khadija made the gesture and the facial expression with which she signaled decision or emphasis: a flick of the wrist like a compact tennis backhand and a screwing-up of her lips and nose, as if surprised by an acrid smell.
“It’s not a good idea. If they see me covered, they should know they will waste their time.”
Marianne took time to consider that.
“But a man doesn’t have to think about you in the way you mean. What if he just wants to be friendly?”
Whatever discomfort Khadija felt with this topic in my presence, it would not come between her and Marianne.
“Please excuse me, Marianne, but I think maybe you fool yourself. I think man can be very good man, but he cannot just be friendly. And I think woman cannot just be friendly if she like the man, even if he is good man. In fact, is even worse for her if he is good man!”
She stared helplessly into the middle distance before bringing both hands up to the level of her shoulders and making her fingers twitch rapidly.
“Between men and women I think there is—”
“A charge, an electricity,” Marianne said, finishing the sentence.
Again, Khadija’s tennis backhand and screwed-up lips and nose. Marianne thought about how to continue.
“It’s women who get shocked the worst by this electricity, though—both here and in the West.”
“Shocked? How you mean?”
“I don’t mean shocked. But it’s women who get imposed on in order to keep that electrical current between men and women from getting too powerful. Here the women can’t go to the beach even on the hottest days. Or they have to cover up even if they don’t feel like it, because not covering shows that they’re not good Muslim women. That makes me angry—but it also makes me angry how women are imposed on in the West. There the young women, especially, are pressured to be thin and sexy and to wear clothes that stress that. I’m not even sure that the Islamic imposition on women is a worse one. But it is an imposition and I resent it.”
Khadija spoke only after pausing to digest everything she had just heard.
“How does your Western imposition on women keep the current from getting too powerful? Doesn’t it make the current more strong?”
“Okay. But again, it’s women who pay the price.”
Having taking the discussion this far, Marianne would not turn back.
“What about polygamy? Maybe you don’t have that in Jordan, but here some of the men take more than one wife. Do you think some of the men need more than one wife because they don’t get enough contact with women in restaurants and other public places? ”
Khadija curled her lips in disgust.
“I know Mustafa is not a citizen here, so maybe the law is different for him. But would Oman let Mustafa have a second wife, even though you couldn’t have a second husband?”
Marianne’s question would have seemed as absurd to her as it did to me, since we could not ignore Mustafa’s unquenchable love for his wife. Yet Khadija’s brow furrowed as if she had just discovered another woman in the bedroom.
“I would kill him in his sleep!”
She jerked an index finger across her jugular. This delighted Mustafa.
“I told you already how I feel the first time I saw her in her parents’ home. But it was not the same for you. Tell them.”
He wore the kind of smile that animates not just the face, but the whole body.
“It’s true what he say: I had to try to love him. My father say, he is good man, Khadija, so please try your best. Work hard if you must. You will not be sorry.”
She shut her eyes.
“I just finish university and I am tired of hard work. But my father is wise, so I do what he ask.”
Above her closed eyes with their delicately quivering lids, her brow was smooth. Her hands rested in her lap.
“This is why we work hard. Sometimes it give us what we want.”—Don Stoll