In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.
I woke up early. If I had known all that the day held, I may have tried harder to fall back asleep.
“Do you have a friend to meet you at the taxi stand?”
It was the normal question taxi drivers asked whenever they took me to Aisha’s neighborhood. And I was a bit nervous about locating the house without wandering up and down the streets of this particular neighborhood.
“Do you want me to walk you to the door?”
Then I saw it. The taxi driver had pulled ahead far enough that I could see the doorway from the taxi stand. “That’s it!” At least I was 90% sure.
At the top of those countless concrete stairs, I found the family at home, bursting with a warm welcome.
But all was not well.
The tension I had felt in their home more than a year ago had only increased. Sporadic and often violent discipline left the children confused, angry, and out of control.
Aisha invited me to sit on the naked couches. She had washed the covers for my visit, she said. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. Someone had slipped over the roof and stolen them off of the line as they dried in the sunshine.
As Aisha cooked (she refused my help, which was fortunate since her kitchen can only fit one person at a time), I slipped out to the rooftop to pray and to watch the world from the 6th story. The neighborhood was a moving I Spy book: a man leans over a roof parapet with a paint roller on a stick, turning dingy white to barn red. He calls to the men on the roof below to move their things so he doesn’t drip paint on them. His daughter swings on the clothesline behind him, laughing in delight as the wire stretches wider and wider. Boys play cards on the street below. Across the way, a woman gathers laundry. Just next door, a teenage girl drapes a blanket over the parapet, stops to watch the world, and spots me doing the same. I am fascinated by the movement—a symphony of together-life, sometimes harmonious, sometimes not.
More family came for a lunch of fried fish. And then we went for a walk. Rivers of mud flowed through the dirty market, splattering our shoes as motorcycles roared by. We came to an open area of crab grass, where families sat on blankets and pieces of cardboard and peeled mandarins while the children ran wild.
Aisha and I peeled mandarins together and had the first meaningful conversation of the day. But something in her expression and words spoke of stale panic.
The explosion came a little later, on our way home. Slaps, a bruised eye, and suddenly wood pieces hurled through the air as mother and daughter screamed at each other. Onlookers interceded, patching the family’s distress with layers of shame.
In the taxi on the way home, I hugged my backpack that now smelled like leftover cigarette smoke. “God, help this family!” I prayed until the words felt worn out. But God knew the layers in those words. How could I– a long-distance friend– initiate the healing of a crushed and bleeding family?
A few days later, we met for a final goodbye, just Aisha and I. We talked about her daughter. After listening to stories of behavior problems and irresponsibility, I begged Aisha to love her daughter.
“How do I love her?” she asked.
How does she show unconditional love when she may have never known it? How can she pass on what has never been passed on to her?
As we parted ways, I tried to scrape together my broken heart and wished I could scrape together hers too.