We had seen each other before. Most mornings I passed her by on my way to school. She and a friend would sit on a concrete bench under a tree. Noting the consistency of our timing and location, I greeted the women regularly. But I never slowed enough to make conversation.
Until the day I needed help with my homework. Both ladies were startled when I plopped down beside them and asked them to help me. With no context for this encounter, they were full of questions: Was I a student? Where was I studying? What kind of Arabic was I studying? What was my name?
The conversation was labored, but I finished the assignment and arrived at class, breathless and only a few minutes late.
A few days later, I was striding to school with my normal stoic street face when a lady in my peripheral became animated and shouted to get my attention.
Another beggar, I surmised, and turned to greet her without reaching for my change purse. But then I recognized her face, although she wasn’t in her usual place under the tree.
As we greeted each other in somewhat reserved familiarity, I studied her for the first time. She wore old clothes and the kind of shoes that most women only wore to the public bath house. Her face was enveloped in the odor of her breath, which I smelled as I embraced her. She was a tiny woman, not built for the hard work that life required of her.
Who was this woman? And what did she want from me? She insisted on walking with me on my way to school; she said she worked as a maid at a house nearby.
Her speech was complimented with gestures. “You—come—my house—to sleep.” She isolated her words with the intention of helping me understand. “Do you understand?”
I did understand, but said only, “God willing” which was neither a commitment nor a refusal.
Before we parted ways, she asked for my phone number. That evening she called me and together we weathered my first phone call in Arabic. We exchanged greetings and a few other bits of information among the numerous confessions of “I’m sorry; I don’t understand.”
She told me she would wait for me the next day on my way to school.