guest-edited by Danielle Evans
NI’MA HAD A CRUSH on her art history professor. She often went to see him during office hours, and he never made any sign that he reciprocated her crush; indeed, it felt impossible that he should know of her attraction to him, that he should ever return that feeling of attraction.
At first, she only thought about him as she was getting ready for class—a lecture-style review of Ancient Near Eastern Art History, which was taught in a hall that held almost two hundred students. Ni’ma drove her daughters to school and went home to shower and change. She exfoliated her skin, wore her only lacy black bra—something she did on the days she attended the lecture. She swept blush onto her cheekbones. Her husband never commented on her appearance, and only noticed the difference if she wore her glossy lipstick before she stepped out of the house. So she began to wait to apply the lipstick in the car, in order not to arouse his suspicions.
Then, she began to think about her professor as she was sewing at work. She thought of his arms as she cooked dinner. She thought of his hair as she listened to music in the car on her way to and from work, and to and from campus. She would play Fairouz and think of how the words would sound to his American ears. She fantasized often about playing him Fairouz as they drove across the bridge to Canada together. He would close his eyes and ask her to translate, and she would translate. Then she would sing her favorite section, and he would reach for her hands and caress them, and say, “You have such a beautiful voice.”
She did not have a beautiful voice.
This was Ni’ma’s last semester at Wayne State, yet none of her three daughters thought of her as a student, preferring to view her as their elderly tyrant. At forty, she was weeks away from earning her degree. She allowed herself once to wonder if her crush was a distraction from all her responsibilities, the long commute to her job, or a simple and healthy physical attraction.
She decided it was the latter.
WHENEVER AMERICANS asked Ni’ma what the Lebanese had to fight so much about, and for fifteen years, she always explained by saying two things: Imagine a country the size of Delaware, and imagine 17 religious sects in it. Now add a hundred thousand refugees.
She was from a camp called Burj el-Shamali. She had been born there in 1956, and unlike her husband, had never seen Palestine. Whenever Americans behaved rottenly towards her- said something stupidly racist, or asked her to go back to her country—she was not affected. Nothing the Americans could do would be worse than what the Lebanese and the Israelis had done.
In 1982, a phosphorous bomb was dropped on a social club in her camp, and 92 people who had been hiding there for shelter were killed. She had been spared because her mother was too proud to hide from the Israelis, and Ni’ma later saw the affected men and women in the alleyways, their eyes oozing with puss.
When the PLO was forced out shortly afterwards, four years before Ghassan married her and brought her to America, all the social institutions that came with it also left. She suffocated in the camp’s breezeless, narrow alleyways. The last two years had been worse than the twenty-six years that came before them; much, much worse.
Ni’ma began apprenticing with Umm-Hadya-- the camp’s main seamstress-- in ‘82, and quickly learned how comforting it can be, when your life is precarious, to follow patterns and exact measurements. She soon felt happiest when she took scissors to fabric, fed fabric to the chattering teeth of a sewing machine.
Umm-Hadya told Ni’ma that she respected fabric more than she respected most people. Think about it, she’d told Ni’ma, we are constantly in contact with some form of fabric. When are we not? Ni’ma had spent a few days after this examining Umm-Hadya’s theory. When she was sitting, she noticed that she could feel both her skirt and the fabric of the sofa. When she slept, her skin touched her sheets. When she showered, she couldn’t stop the shower curtain from sticking to her wet skin. Babies were swaddled in blankets. The dead were wrapped in burial cloths.
When Ghassan had come to bury his first wife in Burj el-Shamali, Ni’ma attended the burial. It was incredibly unfair, Ni’ma thought when she saw Ghassan’s wife being lowered into the ground, to escape these twisted alleyways and the bombs from every direction; to make it all the way to America, only to die anyway.
The Professor had assigned the class a field trip to the Detroit Institute of the Arts. He said that though the DIA might have a terrible reputation (she had no idea), the museum still held some notable pieces from the period they were studying. He wore a dark sweater the day of the field trip, and thick-rimmed glasses, which she loved.
She wandered the halls of the museum with her much younger classmates, with whom she had felt no affinity throughout the years she’d studied at Wayne State. It was the groundskeepers, the teaching assistants, the department secretaries she’d maintained a rapport with.
She stood at the first of three pieces her class was assigned: Gudea of Lagash. This statue depressed her - his clothing was heavy, cloaking, and his hat resembled an over-large Jackie-O pillbox hat.
She giggled at this image, of Jackie-O as a Sumerian. To stop from giggling, she had to think of something tragic. She thought of her stepdaughter. She thought of the war in Lebanon. She thought of Jackie-O in her pink Chanel suit, spattered in her husband’s blood.
Knockoff pink Chanel suit, she reminded herself now, a fact that had always shocked her.
Using the map the professor had given them, she then went searching for the second item- a snake-detail from Ishtar’s gate. What, she wondered, was a piece of Ishtar’s gate doing all the way out here in Detroit? Just as she asked herself this, she saw the professor.
He smiled, and then waved for her to join him. When she did, he gestured to the figure on his left: it was the third item on this class’s scavenger-hunt. An “eagle-headed winged genius.” That was its full name. Unlike Gudea of Lagash, this guy had style.
She told the professor this. He agreed with her, and they talked about how the creature’s dress felt light, airy, appearing to be made up of a few wide cloths that were wrapped around his body. Ni’ma noted the thick, almost anatomical muscle of his calf, and the professor pointed out the twin tiny daggers the winged creature held clipped into the fabric at his side. “Very versatile,” Ni’ma had said, and he’d agreed.
But the creature held a bucket that she couldn’t help but see as a purse, and this made the professor laugh. His smile was bright, cared-for.
“A murse,” he said, and she didn’t know what he meant, but laughed anyway.
“What are you thinking about?” The professor wanted to know.
She shut her eyes and shrugged.
They wandered to the Diego Rivera mural. She was astounded by the images of factory and auto workers bent at the waist, laboring; the fertility symbols painted above arches and doorways—more labor. The roof was partially glass, and a grey light came in.
“Shall we all take a break? Are you thirsty?” He said, and she said that, yes, she was very thirsty. But they did not all take a break. Only he and she did, sitting alone in the museum’s cafeteria.
As they sat, he awkwardly tried to connect with her, and implied that, after the final grades had gone in, and after she graduated in two weeks, she should try to come see him. That he would like to get to know her better. So he had noticed her, after all.
She blushed. She didn’t know what to say or do.
There was no Fairouz in the basement of the DIA. There was no sound at all, only she and the professor.
“I would like that,” she finally said. She imagined him kissing her neck in his office.
“I would very much like,” he said, “to get to know someone of your background.”
It felt suffocating, then, to be in the basement of the museum alone with him. She picked up her bag and walked up the steps, back towards the galleries. He followed, most likely unaware that he had offended her.
The night after her graduation, she sat on the couch across the room from her husband. He ignored her completely, as he always did, only nodding or humming if she asked him a question. He knew the hell she had come out of. He himself had taken her out of it. But he had never, for one moment, asked for her gratitude. Though he rarely liked for her to play music in the house, she stood up and put a cassette in the old stereo. After the initial seconds of silence, the song began. Her husband said nothing, only read the Arabic newspaper, which he bought from the newsstand near his job every evening. Fairouz’s voice spun through their living room, and Ni’ma did not need to translate any of it.
Randa Jarrar is the author of A Map of Home. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Utne Reader, Salon.com, Guernica, The Rumpus, The Oxford American, Ploughshares, Five Chapters, and others. She was named one of the most gifted writers of Arab origin under the age of 40.