Outside the train a desert landscape darkened toward nightfall. In the glare from the overhead lights, the window reflected pale gleams of color from Laila’s headscarf, patterned in dusty shades of green and brown. She had been born not far from here, twenty years ago, before her parents had emigrated to France.
The high-speed rail line connecting the port city of Benghazi with the small villages of southern Libya was newly built, like much else in the country. After the civil war that ended the dictatorship, many construction projects had been funded to put people to work. Some expatriates had returned, bringing investment money from abroad to start new companies. Not Laila’s parents: they counted themselves lucky to have left behind their village for what they saw as the freedom of a sophisticated Western society.
She hadn’t told them when she met her cousin Aysha on Facebook or when she started practicing her conversational Arabic. These days, the village was very modern, Aysha had assured her earnestly—it had a train station, an Internet café, and even a McDonald’s. She would feel right at home if she visited, which surely she could find time to do.
After dithering for several months, Laila had made arrangements for the trip, leaving her parents to think that she was staying in Marseilles with some of her friends from university between terms. The headscarf had been an afterthought, purchased at a small shop in Benghazi from an elderly woman with bright lively eyes, who had shown Laila how to drape the ends of the scarf properly over her shoulders. She’d had in mind that it would help her to fit in during her travels and to meet her birth country on its own terms.
But now, Laila felt like an impostor dressed in someone else’s clothing. What had made her think she could fit into a culture in which she hadn’t been raised? The very idea now seemed absurd, a presumptuous intrusion into a way of life that was not her own. Why hadn’t she just stayed in Paris where she belonged?
The train started to slow as it approached the station. Along the western horizon, the last rays of sunlight touched the shaggy tops of the palm trees, casting long shadows over the sand. Laila had no conscious recollection of this place; she had been a very small child when she left. But as the light faded, something in the shape of the land and the shadows stirred an ancestral memory deep within her, a feeling that she was home.
Carrying only one bag, Laila stepped down from the train onto a plain concrete platform, newly built like much of Libya’s infrastructure. A ticket booth to her left stood empty in the twilight. The other end of the platform held only a few benches and a newsstand, also empty. One inadequate lamppost stood in the middle, casting a dim glow. Commuters in business suits returning from their city jobs gave her inquisitive glances as they walked past her, but they said nothing. A truck rumbled by on a narrow street. The air smelled of jasmine and diesel exhaust.
A fast-approaching blur of bright colors soon resolved itself into the figure of her cousin, whose long green skirt and blouse clashed amazingly with her red nail polish and the orange headscarf that framed her round smiling face. Aysha spoke first in French, fluently and without much accent, as she gave Laila a hug. “So glad you’re here! Did your trip go well?” Then she switched to Arabic to introduce the man accompanying her as “Uncle Mustafa.”
Short and muscular, Uncle Mustafa had a full black beard and a long scar that began within it and went up the left side of his face. He had a soldier’s erect posture and was perhaps in his mid-thirties. Out of habit, Laila started to hold out her hand, but then she remembered that women didn’t shake hands with men in the traditional culture. She stammered a few words of her limited Arabic instead.
Uncle Mustafa seemed pleased enough as he greeted her in return, with a hoarse, raspy voice. Then he gestured toward the nearby street. “Come, we have the car waiting for you, this way.”
The car turned out to be a mustard-yellow Jeep with a small round hole midway up the driver’s door. A bullet hole? With an effort, Laila turned her gaze away from it and climbed into the back seat when Uncle Mustafa held the door open for her. Aysha walked around to the other side and got in next to Laila, nodding to the young man in the front passenger seat, whose broad smiling features closely resembled hers. He was dressed, like Uncle Mustafa, in the plain cotton shirt and trousers commonly worn by laborers. “My brother Saeed,” she told Laila.
Although Saeed had a friendly smile, he was literally riding shotgun, with a large and very deadly-looking automatic weapon across his knees. Aysha followed the direction of Laila’s stare and explained, “Sometimes there are bandits on the road after dark. No need to worry, though—there hasn’t been anyone shot in the village in almost two months.”
Putting the Jeep in gear, Uncle Mustafa roared off, jouncing along the potholed street that went through the village’s commercial district. New stores and restaurants stood next to dingy old shops. The McDonald’s that Aysha had mentioned in her Facebook message was on the right, a solidly modern expanse of brick and glass contrasting with the narrow stone buildings on either side. Some of the commuters from the train were walking in to get their dinner.
After a few blocks of shops there was nothing but a dark road ahead, illuminated only by the Jeep’s headlights and a thin sliver of the waning moon. Aysha pointed to the left at an unmarked intersection and said, “The school where I teach is that way.” Turning her head, Laila saw nothing along the cross-street but a few trees and shrubs near the intersection, looming large against the night sky.
At the next intersection, which was also unmarked, Uncle Mustafa made a right turn, passing several small houses before finally slowing down to turn into a driveway. The little one-story house looked neat and cheerful, with a well-kept exterior and candles burning in a high window beside the front door. Their flickering light left Laila feeling as if she had traveled back in time, until she realized that they surely had to be decorative electric bulbs in a plastic base; even in the villages, nobody used candles to light their homes anymore. But although they weren’t real, they gave an impression of ancient, changeless tradition and an old-fashioned welcome all the same.
“This is the house where you lived as a small child. Do you remember it?”
Aysha spoke quietly to Laila in Arabic, her words hard to distinguish above the rattling of utensils in the dining room. Her brother Saeed was busy setting the table, which was a long rectangle of dark polished wood. A delicious smell of lamb and spices came from the kitchen, where their mother Hanna presided, coming out every few minutes and beaming at her long-lost niece.
Although Hanna’s speech had been too rapid for Laila to follow easily, the delighted, welcoming tone had made the meaning plain. Like her children, Hanna had a broad smiling face and a mouthful of large white teeth that stood out prominently against her dark skin. She was a widow, Laila knew; her husband had been killed in the civil war.
From another room came the soft babbling of an infant half asleep, the first son of Saeed and his young wife Fatima, who had proudly displayed the child to Laila before putting him back to bed. All three generations lived under the same roof. The little house was well maintained and impeccably clean.
Both the dining room and the kitchen had curtained windows above eye level, as did the rest of the house. Libyan families traditionally valued their privacy more than an outside view. The design of the house felt profoundly alien to Laila, who had grown up with large windows in her parents’ apartment letting in the sounds and sights of Paris’ busy streets at all hours.
The kitchen had a door leading to a fenced backyard, with a window at the top of the door through which a mother might watch a young child at play. This window also had a curtain, drawn all the way across. Laila hadn’t seen anything of the backyard except a brief glimpse of the high stone fence in the dim moonlight when she arrived.
Fragmented images suddenly came into Laila’s thoughts—sandaled feet raising puffs of dust on a hot sunny afternoon, a door creaking not far away, her head turning to look toward the sound. But only the little footprints behind her came clear in her mind’s eye, not the door or the house to which it was attached.
“No. I don’t remember.”
The pale light of early morning tumbled through the high windows of Aysha’s bedroom. Though it was smaller than Laila’s dorm room back in Paris, every wall was crammed full of books on long shelves, with titles in Arabic, French, and English. The few places not occupied by books had been thickly papered with family photos, to such an extent that almost none of the wall itself could be seen. Aysha had pointed out some of the photos to Laila last night, trying to find something Laila would remember from her early childhood years, but with little success.
Today was a regular workday for Aysha, and she had invited Laila to visit the school where she taught. After putting on a navy pantsuit, slightly rumpled from her travels but still serviceable, Laila considered whether she ought to wear the brown-and-green headscarf she had bought in Benghazi. Obviously it wouldn’t match; but that didn’t seem to matter, considering what Aysha was wearing. Aysha’s current ensemble consisted of a bright red skirt, a ruffle-bedecked pink paisley top with puffy sleeves, a broad mustard-yellow sash, and a purple headscarf with blue stripes.
Busily adorning her fingernails with sparkling green polish, Aysha looked up to meet Laila’s astonished stare, and then she burst out laughing.
“There’s a labor dispute going on,” Aysha finally explained. “Our local school officials, who are more interested in pious posturing than in buying new textbooks or doing anything useful, decided last month to require all female employees to wear the old-fashioned black hijab. They didn’t bother to talk with us about it first. So now we’re dressing like this until they agree not to change our work conditions without notice and discussion. We know they won’t fire us because, well, who would they find to replace us, out here in the villages? And we’re all properly covered and modest, so they can’t say too much about us without looking silly themselves. I expect it won’t be much longer before they give in.”
“France has politicians like that, too. The sort who never do much, but talk forever about traditional values.” Laila took an emery board to one of her own fingernails, having noticed a rough edge. Then she glanced up again. “Are you worried that they might beat you up, or something?”
“No, that wouldn’t happen here. Maybe in the cities, it might be a worry; but around here, we’re all related, you know. If a man were to put his hands on someone else’s wife or daughter, that likely would start a family feud.”
“But if a woman’s own relatives didn’t approve of the protest…”
“That’s different, of course. Family is everything.” Aysha’s voice held as much calm certainty as if she had been remarking that the sun always rose in the east. She added, “But only two women couldn’t get involved for that reason.”
Laila found herself thinking of her own parents, who didn’t know that she was visiting her cousin in Libya and certainly wouldn’t have approved if they had known. Over the years, they had admonished Laila many times—such as when she didn’t do her homework—about how fortunate she was to grow up in France and how many opportunities she had. They fully expected her to live on her own and make decisions for herself—and not in the distant future, either. The last time she’d been home from university, she discovered that her mother had turned her bedroom into a sitting room; she’d had to sleep on the fold-out couch.
Aysha looked up from a dresser drawer, with a pink paisley sash in her hand. Clearly it had been meant to go with her blouse, once upon a time. Tying the sash around Laila’s waist, Aysha regarded its effect with the plain navy pantsuit and then grinned broadly.
Lively conversation filled the halls of the girls’ high school where Aysha taught French, history, and world cultures. Uncle Mustafa had given her a ride in his Jeep, which was her usual means of transportation. Laila had taken the seat next to Aysha in the back of the Jeep, as before. After seeing his nieces safely into the school, Uncle Mustafa drove away with Saeed to the nearby construction site where both men worked.
About two dozen girls came into Aysha’s classroom and took their places at old wooden desks, giving Laila curious glances as they did so. The desks looked very clean, with no graffiti or stickers. Aysha’s first class this morning was French. The classroom’s walls had been decorated with colorful posters in that language. Outside a row of high windows, a fig tree slowly waved its branches in a desultory breeze.
Standing in front of the class, Aysha introduced Laila as a visiting university student from France and encouraged the students to take full advantage of this rare chance to practice their language skills with a native speaker. Laila greeted the girls and invited them to ask whatever questions they wished. She assumed that they would ask about French fashions, celebrities, and other topics of popular culture.
The reality turned out to be different, however. The first few questions, carefully constructed in proper French, were very formal. There was none of the cheerful chatter Laila had expected. Did you have a pleasant trip, Mademoiselle? The train, it is very modern, n’est-ce pas? How are you enjoying your visit?
Laila thought at first that the girls hadn’t yet learned much French beyond simple phrases. That assumption also was disproven in short order. Another girl, tall and hook-nosed, made a perfectly grammatical remark that bore no resemblance to anything from a phrasebook, speaking in a flat hostile tone.
“My father says that the French didn’t care about helping the Libyan people when they got involved in our war. They just wanted our oil.”
Taken aback, Laila glanced toward her cousin before realizing she would find no help there. Aysha remained silent, and her expression changed very little; there was no doubt she meant to leave it up to Laila to resolve the situation. Perhaps this was the usual way of dealing with other people’s conflicts in her culture—or were there many villagers who shared the girl’s opinion? Laila found herself wondering what the textbooks for Aysha’s world cultures and history classes had to say about France. Nothing very complimentary, she suspected.
“Politicians,” Laila finally said, punctuating the word with a very French shrug, “who knows why they do what they do? But I didn’t come to Libya for oil. I’m here because of family.”
Several girls smiled when they heard that response; and one of them asked Laila, in a much friendlier voice, to talk about everyday life in France. A lively discussion followed, with Laila describing the independence and the many lifestyle choices that would be available to her. By the time the bell rang for the next class, however, many of the students had expressed their sympathies for her misfortune in being so tragically deprived of proper family and community ties.
Laila put a clean plate away in the cabinet and took another plate from Aysha, who was washing the dishes by hand while Laila dried them. Except for the soft splashing of the water in the kitchen sink, the house was very quiet. The baby had fallen asleep some time ago. Saeed had gone down the street to watch a soccer match on Uncle Mustafa’s new big-screen TV. There wasn’t a TV here, Aysha had explained, because her mother Hanna—who believed that television corrupted young people’s morals—wouldn’t allow one under her roof. Apparently Hanna didn’t think much of modern appliances in general; she and Saeed’s wife Fatima had taken the family’s laundry down from the backyard clothesline earlier, and they were busy folding it in Hanna’s bedroom.
“I’d think it would be hard for you sometimes, living here,” Laila said in a low voice. She spoke in French, both because she didn’t want to be overheard and because her Arabic wasn’t adequate for everything she wanted to say. “You don’t have your own apartment, a car, a TV, or even a dishwasher or clothes dryer. There are busybodies telling you how to dress. You can’t make career decisions or get involved in union organizing unless your family approves. Don’t you ever feel trapped?”
Aysha methodically finished washing another plate and handed it to Laila before she answered. “No, that’s not how I feel. I believe in owning my choices. If I put a lot of importance on living alone and having a car and household appliances, I could move to the city or emigrate. Many people do. I could get a job teaching at a school in France, where, as you probably know, I wouldn’t be allowed to wear a headscarf to work. Even in another country, I would still have busybodies telling me how to dress, and for the same reason—because so many people are afraid of anything that looks different.”
That was the last of the plates; Laila finished drying it and put it away. Aysha had started washing the flatware, which was an old-fashioned set with an ornate pattern along the handle.
“And as for career decisions,” Aysha went on, “when I was a child, I always loved reading about far-away places and how people lived there. Saeed has a more practical mind; he doesn’t give much thought to anything he can’t see or touch, and he enjoys building things with his hands. So our parents decided that I would be the one to get an education. They saved for many years to make sure of it. When the war broke out and Father was killed, I was halfway through my teaching program in Benghazi.
“I said that I should leave school and find work because I didn’t want to spend Mother’s savings. She has never worked outside the home and doesn’t have the skills for a modern job—can you imagine her using a computer? But Mother wouldn’t hear of it. She told me to stay in school, keep my mind on my studies, and have faith that it would turn out all right. When I graduated, there was a position available at the school here. I felt that coming home would be the right thing to do, and I haven’t regretted it. The village girls are Libya’s future, you know; they are the ones who will take the best of our traditional culture and bring it forward into the modern world. It’s a privilege to work with these girls as they discover how much personal power they have to shape tomorrow’s society.”
Aysha rinsed the last fork and gave it to Laila. The dishwater swirled down the drain. After drying the fork, Laila put it in the drawer with the others; the metallic clink seemed unusually noticeable in the little house. In Paris, there had always been traffic and other city noise. Laila had found it hard to sleep after coming here, just because the village was so quiet.
“Maybe someday I’ll travel abroad and see the places that I imagined visiting when I was a little girl,” Aysha concluded, her voice turning wistful for a moment before she smiled again. “But right now, I’m just going to help Mother put away the laundry.”
Laila had packed her bag for the return trip to France. Uncle Mustafa would be coming over in a few minutes to drive her to the train station. On impulse, she walked through the little kitchen and stepped outside into the backyard. Its tall, weathered stone walls enclosed Hanna’s thriving vegetable garden, three date palms heavy with fruit, the empty clothesline, and a flock of clucking chickens fenced off into a small area around their coop.
She heard the kitchen door creak behind her and turned around. The fragment of childhood memory from the first night of her visit suddenly came back to her. Again she had a mental image of sandals leaving dusty footprints; but this time, she could see the house in the background, its high windows set into walls that loomed like towering cliffs from a toddler’s perspective.
“I never really forgot,” Laila said quietly to her cousin, who had just walked into the backyard.
Aysha returned a broad smile, her white teeth gleaming behind dark lips. “I never thought you did.”
A horn blared somewhere in front of the house. Laila couldn’t see where the sound was coming from, but surely it had to be Uncle Mustafa in his Jeep. Aysha, who planned to ride with Laila to the train station and see her off, turned to walk back into the house with her. The kitchen door closed behind them.
“I’ll come back and visit again someday,” Laila said, as she picked up her bag from the floor of Aysha’s bedroom. “And next time, I’ll tell my parents about my travel plans, and I’ll ask them to come with me.”
Aysha calmly nodded as if this declaration, which felt very strange to Laila in light of her upbringing and her independent habits, had been the most natural thing in the world.
“Maybe we can come and see you in Paris, too.” Aysha held the front door as Laila stepped outside with her bag. “I have some money saved. Mother’s opinion of air travel is not much higher than what she thinks of television, but I might be able to persuade her to travel to France by ship.”
Uncle Mustafa took Laila’s bag and put it in the Jeep. Hanna and other family members and neighbors crowded into the driveway, wishing Laila a safe trip and a successful university term. All of the neighbors were related to the family, Laila knew, in one way or another. She had grown up without knowing any of her relatives, and now she was part of this large extended family. The faces of the well-wishers around her started to blur, and Laila blinked tears from her eyes. She thanked everyone several times for all of their kindness and hospitality, until she had used up her entire vocabulary of Arabic compliments and parting phrases; and then it was time to go catch the train.
~ The End ~