We were supposed to be going djellaba shopping. Aisha had volunteered to help me when she found out I wanted to buy a traditional dress. I had agreed to meet her at her house, knowing well what would happen.
I was right. After an hour or so, when lunch was cleaned up and everyone was dressed, we moseyed out to a shop that happened to be closed. So we spent another half hour sitting on her mother’s couch and chatting over cups of thick coffee as someone dozed under a wool blanket across the room.
We entered a tiny shop that sold mostly pajamas. They did have a few djellabas, however. The tailor made me try them on and was disheartened when they all ended before my wrists and above my ankles.
So he took my measurements and told me to pick out a fabric. Aisha negotiated the price alone. When we walked away, she squealed. “That is the local price. You would not get a price like that. If I wasn’t with you, people would take advantage of you.” I didn’t doubt it.
She still had my money in her pocket and waving the scrap of fabric the tailor had snipped off for us, she insisted that we find a headscarf and traditional shoes to match my new outfit.
In that neighborhood there was such a camaraderie of poverty- a people that hovered just above the grime of life, but hovered together. Still, admonitions came to “hold your sack in front of you, not behind you!” Indeed, a lady in front of us paused when she realized that she no longer had her wallet.
But I was so watched that I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have stolen anything from me without someone else noticing. People swarmed around us, bumped into us, gawked at us.
A shopkeeper motioned to me while addressing Aisha. “Is she a Muslim?”
“Not yet.” He eyed me. “Why aren’t you a Muslim?”
Taken off-guard, I straightened. “Why do I need to be?”
“She prays!” Aisha inserted, intent on protecting my religious freedom.
“Who is she?”
“You’re short and she’s tall. How can you be sisters?”
I cleared my throat. “She is like our mother and I am like our father.”
Then Aisha and I giggled together, and the shopkeeper gave an irritated but irrepressible grin.
Another lady stopped us and Aisha proudly told her that I was getting a djellaba made by a local tailor.
“Is she a Muslim?”
“Does she pray?”
“Does she fast?”
“Yes, she fasts.”
“Well then, what does it matter what she is?”
I spoke up then, but the lady was more interested in the fact that I was speaking her dialect than in what I had to say. And she walked away, still convinced that my good deeds gave me a good shot at paradise.
The sundown prayer call sounded. Aisha kissed me goodbye and tucked me into a taxi, even while insisting that I stay for tea.
I stared out the window at the sunset on the way home, pensive and full. It was one of those days that I would like to store in my pocket and pull out when I get lonesome for these people.