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Hair (Between Us) 5 June 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Relationships.
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“Do you have long hair?” Sahla asks, next to me on the parlor couch. We are turned in toward each other, with our knees angled almost to touch. Aisha crawls into the space between her mother and the back of the sofa. She kneels forward, giggling, and pokes me with her thumb. “Your hair is like this!” She makes sawing motions along her jaw bone, with the edge of her palm. “No, it’s not,” I tell her. “It’s longer than that.” I trail my hand down to my shoulders. “But it’s not as long and beautiful as yours.” She has just undone her braid. Waves of hair, long like wheat, reach halfway down her back.

I turn my attention back to her mother. “It’s about the same length as yours, but dark and annoyingly fine.” Between us, Aisha listens. “Your hair is thin?”

I shake my head. “No, not exactly. If you were going to look at one of my hairs under a microscope and look at one of your hairs under a microscope, then your hair would look much bigger.” Her eyes do not follow me. “Okay,” I try again. “Sometimes, when people are from Poland and Scotland, then their hair has a different feel to it than the hair of people who are from, say, Syria and Palestine.”

Aisha’s hand wanders against the back of her mother’s head. “My hair feels different than your hair does,” her mother says. “My hair is coarse.” Tiny fingernails pull their way through wide, red strands. “Your hair is more slippery.” Aisha looks down her chest at a wayward curl. “Do you want to know why I never had long hair?” I ask. She nods.

“Back when I was a little girl, my mother thought that vanity was the worst sin possible. She was worried that if I had long hair, I might struggle with vanity. She wanted me to be safe from that, so she always kept my hair short.” Sahla smiles. “Ah! That’s what Aisha’s father wants to do. He wants to cut all of her hair off! Up to here, like a boy!” She touches her daughter’s cheek. Between us, the child is confused. “What is vanity?”

“Vanity is thinking too much about being beautiful,” I try. “It’s when you get mixed up and you think that being good is the same as looking beautiful.” Aisha chews her lip. “Vanity,” Sahla adds, “is when you aren’t trying to be good, because you are too busy trying to be pretty.”

The young girl moves her hand away from her mother’s hair, and pats the top of my head. I wonder what she can feel through the layers of scarf. Sahla is alarmed. “Aisha!” Her voice is sharp. “You cannot touch Sister Anna on the head.”

I do not want her to be embarrassed. “It’s okay.” I hold my student’s eyes in mine. “Do you know what happens when the First Graders pull on my hijab to get my attention?” I ask. A smile eats up her cheeks. “Marwa always does it!” she says. She tugs on a cotton corner to demonstrate.” Pins, underscarf, hair and all slide uneasily toward the back of my head.

“Aisha!” Sahla pulls the girl into her lap. “Stop it. Sister Anna is lucky to have hijab at all at the end of the day when you guys do that. When you see someone touching her hijab, what should you do?”

Aisha is uncertain. “Make them stop?” She looks to me. “Well, there are three ways that you can try to correct things,” I begin. “If you see someone doing something bad, you can try to use your tongue, or your hands, or your heart to show them a better way.” I pause. It is probably not advisable to encourage her to correct this problem with her hands. “But your tongue is probably the best way for you to use when you see that someone is pulling on my hijab.” Sahla’s eyes catch mine over her head, soft with light.

Aisha stares away to consider. “How can you tell someone something with your heart?” She asks. Her mother speaks up. “If you concentrate in your heart, then you will be able to send someone a message with it.” Together, we regard the girl. “Do you want to try?” I ask.

She nods. “Okay,” I say. “Then I am going to concentrate hard to send you a message which says “I love you” with my heart. And you can try to listen hard with your heart, to see if you feel anything.” She pulls up her knees into a wedge. “Are you ready?” I close my eyes and furrow my brow and think “I LOVE YOU, AISHA” as ferociously as I can. I hold my breath for ten seconds. “Well? Did you feel anything?”

Aisha’s mouth is wet with surprise. “Yes!” She touches her ribcage where her heart should be. “How did you do that?” She does not wait for an answer. “I want to try.” She folds her arms across her chest, as if she were reading Qur’an. Then she closes her eyes, and brings her lips tightly together. I try to do her the favor of listening; all I sense in my heart is the fear of tests.

“You’re going to do great on your finals this week,” I try when she is done. “Don’t worry about that. You’re already almost a second grader. I am proud of you.” A tickle starts in my throat, the same tickle which I have been rallying against for weeks. Aisha points. “Your face is red.”

Sahla clucks her tongue. “Sister Anna squeezed herself to send you her message,” she said. “That’s why her face is red.” My beloved sister, covering me. Aisha sees right through it. “You look like you are going to cry,” she says. “I know what you’re going to do on the last day of school. Cry.”

Now my mouth freezes. It is almost certainly true. “Probably. When I think about being away from the First Graders now, in the morning when I drive to work, I get tears in my eyes,” I try to make my voice light. “Why?” Aisha wants to know. “Because how will I be happy when I don’t see you guys everyday?” It is a weak argument. She turns her head sideways at me. “But you were happy before you knew us.”

I am trying to digest this when Sahla speaks. “It is going to be fun, this summer, when we come back from Syria, and Sister Anna comes to tutor us.” She turns to face me. “I want to come back early. I don’t think that I want to be away from my mother for that long.”

The twins enter the room in a rustle of paper bags. Tata has given them perfume samples from a magazine, which are stuck to their fingertips. It is nearly time for them to go to bed. “Do you want ice cream?” Sahla rises, smiling at me. The kids and I follow her into the kitchen. “Come, I have photos to show you.”

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