The change that came over the house since the arrival of the Sha'aban family interrupted the somber routine that had once dominated it, but with time this change too became routine. I grew accustomed to the everyday commotion in the big courtyard, to the noise made by the children, to the festive nature of Fridays, to the appearance of women from the neighborhood who came to help Fatma and keep her company. This family's world became part of my world even though I wasn't directly involved in it and, in spite of all my attempts to cross them, boundaries were carefully maintained. For family members and Fatma's friends I was the “Bey,” and the women would cover their faces and silence the children whenever I walked in. Do not disturb the “Bey,” the “Bey” will get angry, god save our “Bey” — whispers to that effect would steal into my ears as I went up the stairs to the second floor. The children were not allowed on this floor, and its three rooms stood empty the year round. The study, in the new wing, was the only place I spent my free time; the bookshelves were there, the large drawing board, the writing desk, two chairs and a couch. I only saw people in the living room on rare occasions, and weeks would go by without anyone entering it except Fatma when she came in to clean.
I adapted to this routine and was determined to go on living like this and not share my days with a second wife. Concealed somewhere in my heart was a desperate yearning, doomed to remain unfulfilled. During the long nights, seated in a chair with a book in my hand, my mind sometimes wandered and got lost in the entrails of a bottomless maze. I reflected on the condition of a man marked by a sense of foreignness, unable to root it out. Such a man resembles one who adapts his clothing to circumstances so as not to look different or out of the ordinary, but can not adapt his behavior to the clothes. Worst of all, even if he manages to behave according to circumstances, this would appear strange to those around him and emphasize his foreignness even more. A man's image depends on the perception of those around him and that, in turn, depends on the things deeply ingrained in him. Acceptance? Nothing motivates man as much as the desire to be accepted, not just as one of many but as someone unique and special. Sha'aban's family was part of my world, but I was kept outside its world. I liked to squat on the floor and eat with them, the way I did as a child, avoiding my father and brother's watchful eye to join my friends the peasant children. And I did sit with them a few times, but this seemed so unnatural to them that my presence took away the joy of eating, and instead of removing barriers I found myself making them uncomfortable and endlessly puzzled. It saddened me as I again realized that I had to accept my predicament and carry my foreignness wherever I turned, accept not being accepted just the way I had been in the past, a Jew from without, as Assad had put it, and now I was a Muslim come from without. Every now and then I found some comfort when I told myself that Jane also had to be experiencing a sense of foreignness in the natural surroundings she had returned to since she carried — in her soul and the eyes of those around her — the indelible mark of one who had crossed borders and donned the garb of others.
My mind sometimes wanders to those distant years of childhood in al-Hilla, to the house I grew up in, always alive with the sound of work carried out on regular days: slaughtering chickens and preparaing hamin on Friday, slaughtering a lamb for Rosh Hashana, building a sukka in the yard and decorating it, the week of baking matzos for Passover. Purim gave me an opportunity to show my readiness to fight by putting on a lion's mask or being a wild Indian shooting my pistols in every direction. How great was my joy to have my new clothes, tailored for the holidays, the spotless white suit I would wear for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when my brother and I accompanied my father to synagogue. I was especially proud of the new shoes, they hurt my toes alright, but they also made a sharp squeak that paced my tread like a marching tune. I recall that even then my joy was mixed with unease at the sight of the peasant children in worn-out weekday clothes, eyeing me enviously. I wasn't allowed to visit them in my new suit; it wasn't only my celebrated Judaism that kept me apart from them but my loftier status too. Only later, as an adult, did I realize how great the injustice was, that we Jewish children had our holidays for our exclusive joy, while Muslim holidays were like holidays for us too. We celebrated ‘Id al-Fitr and ‘Id al-Adha with them, and on the night of Mihya, in the middle of the month of Sha'aban, we used to play with Muslim kids, setting up bonfires, lighting sparklers and flares and other fireworks. The sense of injustice that pierced my soul at the time later forced me to consider the inconsolable contradictions of minority/majority relations. For in the ongoing struggle between the force of assimilation on the one hand, and the force of protection on the other, the preference given to the minority over the majority stands out in its strangeness, as the minority maintains its distinction while it is taken to be part of the general public. The holidays were but one aspect of this preference, and made me compose the article demanding discontinuation of that unacceptable custom of recognizing the right of Christians and Jews to miss work on their holidays.
In those days my heart was heavy when I thought of Jane. Even now, as I recall that memory and put it in writing I'm caught in a dismal state of mind. I wasn't saddened by the boycott my brother imposed on me and by being ostracized by the community as much as I was to see Jane in her loneliness. There were no holidays in our home; except for birthdays and the New Year's ball at the British Ambassador's residence, we had no days of celebration like everyone else. Even the food the Armenian cook made for us smelled and tasted different from anything else cooked in the neighborhood. The house was like an island and no neighbor ever came in, though they kept a suspicious and curious eye to whatever went on in it, gesticulating amongst themselves: “The American woman's house.” Now, I would tell myself in a kind of stoic acceptance, the neighbors point to the house with the polished brass sign affixed to the door as the “Bey's House,” and whisper: A Jew who became a Muslim and his wife deserted him.
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