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.
Chaimae’s hug was long and tight, trying to make up for the year and a half of missed embraces. Her mother gave me the same hug. They led me into the salon, not the fancy one for guests, but the family salon that doubled as a bedroom. I wasn’t a guest; I was still family.
“Did you eat lunch?”
Chaimae fried fish and reheated chicken and potatoes already in a pot. We ate, talked about our families, and showed pictures from our time apart. Both mother and daughter were amazed that I remembered Arabic, or at least a semblance of it.
After the bread was patted into round loaves, Chaimae and I went for a stroll around the neighborhood. By the time we returned, the older brothers had arrived for afternoon tea.
It was after sipping cups of syrupy tea and eating mounds of oily bread that one of the brothers wiped his hands on the community napkin, leaned back against the couch, and pinned me with probing eyes. “Who is Jesus to you?”
I was ready.
The entire family listened as I shared. I listened as they shared. The conversation grew thick and loud. My face turned hot in animation. But their faces were hot too.
We discussed our differences and how our separate paths could not both be the path of God. Yet, beneath our disagreement was a profound respect for one another. We had known each other long enough now that words were more than just words; our words were what we had seen each other living and breathing.
And our words were as different as our lives.
Tea time blurred into dinner and more food appeared on the table, but no one seemed interested in another round of feasting.
My Arabic was worn out. So was the rest of me. When family members started to trickle out the door, I slipped into the kitchen to wash dishes. Chaimae made beds on the floor. She gave me a couch pillow so high that my neck immediately began to ache. I waited until the light was out to quietly set it aside.
Partway through the night, the light switched on.
“Chaimae! Chaimae! Wake up! Trish isn’t on her pillow!” They tucked the pillow under my kinked neck, and Chaimae’s mother tucked more blankets around me.
“It’s good that I slept in the room with you,” she told me after my interrupted night of sleep. “To take care of you.”
I smiled, hoping my expression reflected more of the endearment and less of the suffocation I was feeling.
After breakfast, they sent me to the taxi with enough tears to let me know I would be missed.