Sorry for keeping you waiting

Bookshelf: Secrets Under the Olive Tree

By Nevien Shaabneh

Shortly after our arrival to the United States, a tradition that taught me many of life’s important lessons began. From underneath a kitchen table, a portal opened, allowing me a glimpse into the lives of Arab women in America. We resided in a twelve unit red brick building, in what people liked to call the questionable part of town. Why it was questionable, I couldn’t figure out. To our surprise, most of the residents were Arab. Sounds of Arab children echoed in the hallways, the smell of falafel and fresh bread brought a smile to Mama’s face as familiarity comforted her.



Gina was the first neighbor we encountered. She stuck her head out of her third floor window, inhaling her hookah while she surveyed the new neighbors. The whiteness of her full chest peered through a low cut negligee. Shoulder length brown hair was pinned with butterfly clips on each side of her head, adding a youthful air to an otherwise sensual appearance.



“Hey new neighbor, what’s your name?” She hollered as Mama struggled with the groceries.
“Miriam,” Mama panted from the heavy bags in her hands.
“We’re going to call you Mary! You’re in America now, Habibty!”



Mama put down the bags, fixed her hair, wondering what gave her away as a new immigrant.



Shortly after their first encounter, Gina invited Mama to cook warek dawali on Saturdays with the other women in the building. All of their husbands, including Baba, worked on Saturdays while the wives prepared the labor-intensive dish intended for Sunday’s dinner.



The little grape leaves stuffed with rice, tomatoes, ground beef and pine nuts were individually rolled like a little baby’s finger, perfect and small. I observed Mama and Grandma Amina prepare warek dawali together, talking, laughing and swearing that the three hours they spent in preparation went by like a flutter of an eyelash. Blink Layla, and it’s all finished.



Mama walked in Gina’s tiny apartment with Rami and me in each hand. In Gina’s kitchen lay a six-seat, oak dinette table surrounded by women gawking at Mama. Some women put down the grape leaves and brushed the rice off their hands to say hello. Others kept rolling the leaves while stealing glances at Mama.



Even after four kids, she had a size six waist. Mama had recently cut her hair shoulder length to please Baba, and managed to blow dry it before coming to this, her first warek dawali meeting. She hoped to appear modern – more American. Gina’s eyes gazed admiringly at Mama’s stiletto brown sandals that wrapped around her ankles, her knee-length brown suede skirt, sleeveless button down gold top, dangling gold earrings and her freshly blown hair pulled back into a ponytail.  She looked I just came to America stunning. The kind of stunning that meant she was trying too hard.



Gina spun to look at the other women all dressed in jeans and oversized t-shirts with the logos of various cigarettes or beer, and slapped her thigh with laughter. The women muttered various remarks about this “not being a wedding”, and “look at Miss Princess Palestine” all the while drinking her beauty. Mama nervously laughed at herself and was given an oversized t-shirt to protect her nice clothes. She quickly sat at the table, and Rami and I scooted underneath.



Saturdays at Gina’s became routine. Rami attended and played with his dinosaurs, and Eiyad and Adam stayed behind at home to watch TV or work on their homework. Each week I sat underneath the table as the women chatted along, and each week had its addition of drama, laughter, and as the weeks went on, tears.



Mama befriended all the women rather quickly. Each woman had an English name to accompany her Arabic name. Gina’s Arabic name was Geneene. Nisreen became Nancy, Amana was Amy, and Saja, Sally. They took great pride in telling their own “when I first came to America” story. Each had a funny tale about buying pork, and a funnier tale about speaking with the landlord. With each gathering, a new story made its way around the table, passed around like an entree to be tasted. Either their mother-in-law came to town, or so-and-so had a baby, or a bride looked hideous at the wedding last week, or so-and-so bought a house but didn’t deserve it, or so-and-so was poor and miserable, and she deserved better.



I frequently feigned reading a book, and when something in the room was funny, I was careful to chuckle in my hands and stay as quiet as possible. I longed for Sarah to join me. Some days, her laughter brushed past my ear as a gusty wind stirred about the room. Other days, when the sun shone bright and dust danced mid-air on its golden rays, I thought I saw her silhouette. Like a Bedouin lost in the desert chasing a mirage, I wandered aimlessly looking for signs of Sarah. But she was nowhere to be found in America, and my childhood days changed dramatically, became stagnant, and the streets of Chicago paled in comparison to Jerusalem.



Gina had pretty feet. Her toenails were painted like Mama’s except Gina’s were a deep crimson red and always appeared freshly polished. Her legs were smooth and soft, and she wore stretch pants rolled up to the knees. Only nineteen, yet she was already married for three years. Her son, whom she humorously referred to as a result of her wedding night, was the center of her universe. Her husband drove a truck from state to state, and he remained a mystery to the women because no one actually ever saw him. Sometimes late at night, we could hear his footsteps clumsily making their way to the third floor. The careless stammer preceding the fumbling of the keys, and then “Giiiina, open the door!”



Most of the time, even before he uttered the G in Gina, we could hear the feverish unlatching of the bolts. The embarrassment of a drunken husband must have propelled her to anticipate him, but although she tried to be discreet, he wasn’t. On one of these nights, with the familiar stumbling up the steps and thunderous pounding at the door, Gina failed to unlatch the door. She failed to pull his body in before anyone could see, or to hush and plead with him to keep the noise down so the neighbors wouldn’t hear – she failed to do anything. Lying down in my bed next to Rami, the sound of his howling at the door reverberated through the night. “Giiiina!”



The barbaric hammering on the door persisted, synchronizing with the beating in my chest. Rami’s breathing was steady, his body unaffected and unmoved by the commotion taking place. The only other noise to be heard was Baba’s laughter and Mama’s affirmed silence at the matter.



I didn’t understand how one woman’s sorrow could be ignored. I expected it from a man, because I grew up hearing about the way men were, but not women. I hoped and prayed that Gina wouldn’t open the door. I asked God to make her husband disappear, to ease her suffering.  Gina didn’t deserve this. In the Quran, doesn’t God promise bad people to one another and good people to one another? Why wasn’t this the case with Gina?



He kept pounding on the door. Don’t open the door. Don’t open the door. Don’t open the door. Please, Gina don’t open the door. I sat in bed, eyes clenched tight, hands open and raised to the ceiling in prayer like I witnessed Grandma Amina do many times. I walked in on her while in such a prayer. She was kneeling, head bowed, but hands raised up. Her thowb sleeves reached her shoulders, the moonlight caressing her bare arms. When she saw me, she called me over to her lap, smoothed my hair with her hands, and kissed the top of my head. I’m praying for you, Layla. That’s all I can offer you, my prayers. So that’s what I’ll do.



And that’s all I could do for Gina. I prayed to God to protect her, to keep the door shut, to keep her safe, to keep her strong.Preoccupied in my prayers, I did not sense Baba entering the room. A hand grabbed my pajama top yanking me up off the bed before hurling me back onto the mattress. Rami awoke for a brief moment, rubbing his eyes in confusion.



“What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re supposed to be in bed! Now! Bed! Damn you!”



I covered my face with the bedspread and before I could respond, Baba marched out.



“Can we go back to bed now, Layla?” Rami whined. “Yes, Habiby,” my lips quivered, but I was determined not to cry, not now, Gina needed my prayers.



On Baba’s way out he barked to Mama, “You teach this girl obedience, Miriam, or we’re going to have trouble on our hands!” Mama whispered something as she closed their bedroom door. Upstairs, the pounding stopped. The submissive unlatching of the door locks were followed by the door squeaking in surrender. Then, painful resignation. That night, tears carried burdens beyond my comprehension.



The next day, Gina did not leave her apartment, but I saw her husband face to face for the first time. I was admiring my collection of little bouncing balls acquired from the Buy Wise store a few blocks away, when a low, gravelly voice startled me: “Hey, little girl!”



Protective of my collection, I zipped up the fanny pack I used to store away precious items. It paled in comparison to the box Sarah and I shared, but nothing in Chicago could compare to that. Two steps above me, a man in his late thirties, with a cigarette in his mouth, a huge canister of coffee in one hand, and a brown paper sack lunch in the other was trying to get through. By his voice and mannerisms, I knew he was Gina’s husband. I thought of ways to avenge for what he did to Gina. Kick him, trip him, spill his coffee. In a different dimension where children play out their fantasies, I told him I hated him and that he didn’t deserve a girl like Gina. He cowered and groveled for forgiveness, swearing never to hurt Gina again. But reality has its way of snapping you out of the courage that fantasy offers.



I looked at my collection, hoping for an answer, a sign, of what I should do. My throat began to tighten and my determination vanished under his scrutiny. Hesitatingly, I moved without utterance. All I could do was glare and hope that my eyes somehow communicated my revulsion. He muttered “good girl” through his clenched teeth as he passed. I was a good girl because I obeyed. I then understood that Gina opened the door because she wanted to be a “good girl” too, a good Arab girl. Lesson learned: good girls get hurt.



I anticipated Saturday’s get together with a great fervency. I needed to see Gina, to confirm her safety. Because no one saw Gina leave her house in three days, it was enough to nourish the rumors. All the shades in the house were down, and no one heard a peep out of her as they were coincidentally walking past her door. Mama was on the phone for hours with other concerned neighbors. My anger and frustration circulated through my blood stream. Why couldn’t they just knock on the door and ask about her?



Mama explained that it would be aib. Aib was incomprehensible to me, rooted in cultural protocols and made things shameful.  It was aib to ask Gina how she was doing. It was aib to admit you were sick or that it was a bad time to have people over. It was aib to ask for help, or to not give an admired item to the person complimenting it. It was aib to admit that you were struggling with money when someone asked to borrow it. It was aib for a girl to talk to a boy, to laugh too loud, to let her voice be heard, to confront another male, to mention weakness. It seemed like anything involving human compassion was aib, including rescuing Gina from her husband.



On Saturday, the women attended the warek dawali gathering at Gina’s apartment as if nothing ever happened. If there was an elephant in the room, they chose to cover it with a tablecloth and shove it in the corner. Gina opened the door in her oversized t-shirt and pants. Her toenails were freshly painted, and she had the rice and grape leaves ready on the table as usual. The tea was brewing, and the cups were neatly placed where each woman convened week after week. She smiled and greeted all of us. When silence allowed an unspoken sadness to pervade the air, Gina quickly interjected with gossip about someone down the street who was seen with a ring on her finger, indicating an engagement. The women took the bait and gave their input on the presumed bride and groom. Conversation ensued, and the grape leaves accumulated with the welcome distraction. Each woman glanced at the other once in a while to gauge whether the other would bring up anything. No one did. They made their dinner and went home. I was left wondering how they could ignore it.  She looked so well put together that I questioned whether it ever happened. Was it all just that – a bad dream? Did Baba not say those things to me? Was it all in my head?



My questions were answered one evening when my mother sent me upstairs to borrow a cup of lentils for dinner. I knocked on Gina’s door, and when she didn’t answer, I let myself in. I thought Gina wouldn’t mind if I waited in her kitchen. The bathroom door opened and before I could announce my presence, Gina walked out with only a towel around her body. Purple and blue splotches covered her upper back. Her body had somehow been considered ductile, apparently to be hammered into submission. There was the proof, under the makeup and clothes.  I felt like a thief stealing the truth. One more secret to store away. One more in a line of many.




Nevien Shaabneh has been penning her own fiction since kindergarten. After quickly realizing books were far more interesting than reality, Nevien delved into the world of fiction. Her love of literature led her to pursue a bachelors  in English Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Masters of Arts from Saint Xavier University. After years of teaching literature to high school students, Nevien felt propelled to contribute to the Arab-American voice she saw missing from the novels she taught. This prompted her to write her novel, Secrets Under the Olive Tree.  She espouses the intrinsic belief that “Great literature, real literature, moves people.” When Nevien is not writing, she is enjoying her many cups of coffee, baking desserts, and challenging her husband to game of pool.  She looks forward to releasing her second novel.    

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