MY husband, Ismail, and I were traveling to Libya, where I would meet his family for the first time. I loved the exhilaration of international travel—and having trekked the Himalayas, camped along the Baja peninsula and crossed Europe in trains, I considered myself a seasoned traveler. If I’d known that the cup of coffee I drank at the Milan airport would be my last for the next two weeks, perhaps I would have felt more apprehensive about this trip. Dependent on both strong coffee and regular exercise, I was also unaware that the workout clothes neatly packed in my suitcase would remain untouched. None of my previous adventures had prepared me for my arrival in Libya as the American wife of a firstborn Muslim son.
A crowd of relatives the size of a tour group awaited us at the Tripoli airport. Ismail’s youngest brother, Hussein, engulfed him in a tight embrace, weeping and kissing his cheeks, while his four sisters, in bright head scarves, circled around us. Like colorful, twittering birds that have found birdseed, they talked and laughed and kissed our cheeks, foreheads and hands. We crammed into tiny cars, counting each lap as an additional seat, and drove to Ismail’s parents’ home, where my mother-in-law, Haja Njima, waited beside a parched lime tree whose skinny branches were bowed with fruit. Her head was covered by a flowered head scarf, a faded cloth was wrapped around her body like a toga, and a thin green line stretched from her bottom lip to her chin.
“A tattoo,” my husband explained to me later, “inked onto her face by an elder the week before her wedding.”
Haja’s leathery face creased into a broad smile, and her eyes brimmed with tears at the sight of her son, whom she had not seen in eight years, with his young, blond wife in jeans and running shoes. She laid her broad, calloused hands over mine, then stood back to -appraise me, furrowing her brow and uttering Arabic words that, I would come to learn, meant, “Too skinny! Eat!” She pulled me by the hand through the doorway of her squat stone home, turning back once to wag her finger at Ismail and accuse him of not feeding his wife. Inside, a crowd of relatives gathered in a circle on thin floor cushions. The men looked down when I entered the room, avoiding eye contact, but the children stared wide eyed, and my four sisters-in-law met my gaze with exuberant smiles as I sat down among them.
For the next several hours, Haja plied me with pastries and jerk meat and sweet green tea, seeming to be at peace only when my mouth was full. Sunlight danced across the concrete floor, then faded. Darkness pressed its veiled face against the window, and the shadows of women in the kitchen boiling yet more water for fresh tea began to seem like a delirious dream. Five hours had passed since our arrival, and I was exhausted. I had not had a moment to myself except in the bathroom—and then, squatted on the low toilet, I’d listened to my sisters-in-law in whispered conference outside the door before they cracked it open to offer me toilet tissue and slippers. I longed for privacy, and I’d hoped to stay in Tripoli’s big new hotel, where oil executives and tourists congregated. I wanted a steaming-hot bath, a shining countertop on which to spread my toiletries, an adjustable thermostat and a heater that hummed through the night, drowning out the honking of horns on the crowded streets below.
I did not realize how offensive this proposal would be to his family, but Ismail did. His gentle suggestion that we retire to a hotel was met with shocked silence, followed by a clamor of protest from relatives who insisted we stay in the finest accommodations they could offer: the half-built home of my sister-in-law Fauziya and her husband, Adel. Blinking back tears of frustration, I climbed into the backseat of Adel’s tiny car, and we sped off down a winding alley while I groped in the dark for seat belts that did not exist. At their unfinished home, Adel and Fauziya led us to a small, unpainted bedroom with black plastic taped over each gaping window frame to keep out the wind, and we slept in their bed while they curled up nearby on the floor.
Awakened at dawn by the nasally call to prayer crackling over the fuzzy loudspeaker of a nearby mosque, I slipped out of bed while Ismail slept, and greeted my sister-in-law in the hallway with my morning breath, my bed head and my frown lines. She handed me a tiny cup and saucer, the kind children use at tea parties, filled with a frothy concoction. None of my relatives drank coffee, but as a special treat for me, Fauziya had bought a small, expensive canister of Nescafé powder. I tilted the cup to my mouth, nearly emptying it in one gulp. Among my hosts there would be no coffee, no alcohol, no television or Internet—and as I quickly realized, no outdoor exercise, since I could not be on the streets without an escort and nearly all my skin covered. In Libya I would be cut off from all these addictions at once, cold turkey—and under the watchful eye of female relatives who scrutinized my every expression, trying to anticipate my every need.
After breakfast, seven of us piled into a car not much bigger than a golf cart and drove to the home of Ismail’s beloved aunt Fatama, swerving on dirt roads past towering piles of trash and potholes deep enough to swallow a tire. A lone Libyan flag flapped in the wind, as green and plain as the apron of a Starbucks employee, and in my mind’s eye I saw a barista offering me three sizes that started large and grew from there, saw myself cradling a paper cup filled with rich, dark brew. Folded onto Ismail’s lap in the backseat, my head brushing the torn vinyl ceiling, I whispered into his ear: “Is there a Starbucks on the way?” He chuckled, low and sympathetic, and squeezed me tighter. Behind a high concrete wall, his aunt Fatama squatted on her porch waiting for us. A round, beaming woman swaddled in a brightly colored cloth from head to toe, she greeted us with kisses, tears and prayers, then disappeared into her darkened home. She returned a moment later with a plate of french fries, which she served us at 9 AM. We ate in her courtyard, warming our faces in the weak morning sun as her cats threaded through our legs and her chickens pecked the dust.
There was no Starbucks to be found, but something equally appealing caught my eye as we drove past it a few days later: a small, hand-lettered sign that read INTERNET. I motioned to Ismail’s brother to stop the car, ducked into a small room lined with computers and sat down at a terminal beside a Libyan teen with stacks of textbooks and earplugs tucked beneath her head scarf. The sight of Google popping up on my screen was as comforting as a visit home. I could have sat there for hours checking news headlines, scanning the weather, e-mailing friends. Even checking work e-mail felt like a vacation. I wanted to climb inside the computer screen, hook myself to the Internet with an IV, numb myself from the unrelenting intimacy of this strange country. But my brother-in-law Hussein waited patiently in the car, and a houseful of relatives awaited my arrival at my mother-in-law’s. On previous travels, exhausted by foreign languages and unfamiliar customs, I’d withdrawn to hotels and bars filled with other travelers, all of us ready to commiserate about home and toast our adventures. For the next two weeks, however, there would be no respite from crowded, generous, broken, resilient Libya, which in 2005 was just emerging from 18 years of sanctions by the U.S. and its European allies.
In the United States I spent most daylight hours in an office, tapping on a keyboard until my wrists ached. I equated travel with being outside—surfing rolling waves, walking city streets, hiking narrow mountain paths—and I had looked forward to spending my vacation in the sun, exploring Libya. But nearly all my time was spent inside the crowded homes of women who called me sister and daughter. While other foreigners took guided tours of Roman ruins or were whisked into the desert on air-conditioned buses, snowboards (for flying down sand dunes) strapped on top, I sat thigh to thigh with these women at social gatherings that often lasted as long as an entire workday.
I had counted on Ismail to be my translator, but I quickly discovered that men and women socialized separately. I panicked the first time he disappeared into another room: How could I spend time with these women with whom I had nothing in common, not even language? I suddenly missed my own three sisters and the time we spent together: shopping, eating out, checking in with cryptic text messages and buzzing cell phones. The circle of women closed around me like a tent, shutting out the world beyond this small room. Surrendering to the inevitable, I took deep breaths and tried to relax. I studied their hands—refilling someone’s teacup, resting on someone’s thigh, tucking a strand of hair beneath someone’s head scarf. I listened to the rustle of long dresses and smelled something buttery and sweet in the oven. Watching my mother-in-law raise herself slowly from the floor and shuffle into the kitchen, I felt sorry for her and for her daughters: Their days passed mostly inside these walls; their lives revolved in tight orbit around their families and their faith. They would never know the thrill of boarding an airplane alone for a destination they had never seen, or have their own credit card or e-mail account, or enjoy the endorphin rush that follows a hard workout.
Hours slipped away as I lounged on floor pillows with them. My long runner’s legs, clad in jeans, jutted like sharp outcroppings from among the soft hills of their bodies. Back home, my hips were too broad to fit into designer jeans, but Haja was right: In Libya I was too skinny. I’d taken up running in college in Southern California, where smooth, graceful women in bikinis secretly waged a ruthless war against body fat. My first semester, I swallowed my homesickness and anxiety in the cafeteria, along with bowl after bowl of pasta and ice cream and sugary cereal. The 15 pounds I gained horrified me, and I began to run each morning along the edge of the Pacific, my feet sinking heavily into the sand. I ran until my chest heaved and my legs turned rubbery, until I doubled over to catch my breath. I ran until I no longer felt the fear that pressed against my rib cage like a tumor. Running had been my religion ever since, my path to a fleeting sense of peace and well-being. I’d run through painful breakups, cross-country moves, the completion of a master’s thesis, through waves of shame and anger and a persistent longing I couldn’t name.
The only exercise routine my -sisters- in-law maintained was their five daily prayers, when they knelt and prostrated and rose in the direction of Mecca—but even without the benefit of exercise, they glowed as if endorphins coursed through their veins. Curled up on floor pillows like cats, their low laughter a contented purr, they were far more relaxed than my fit and toned girlfriends back home, who needed at least one drink to unwind this much. For as long as I could remember, I had understood beauty to mean thin women in revealing clothing—but these women were undeniably lovely. Their soft, concealed bodies; their bright, open faces; their calm, inviting presence redefined beauty for me.
Two weeks later, having run out of paid vacation days, Ismail and I needed to fly back to our new home with the big mortgage, empty each weekday while we each sat in an office staring at a computer screen. My last day in Libya, my sisters-in-law insisted on dressing me in traditional clothing. They turned me in circles, wrapping stiff, gold-embroidered cloth around my body, then covered my head in even more cloth and girded my neck with an ornate gold necklace that hung all the way to my waist. I liked to wear clothes that showed off my best features (long legs, narrow waist) and minimized my worst ones (small chest, big bottom)—but beneath all this cloth, my body was no longer divided into good and bad parts; it was a seamless whole. I had always equated feeling sexy with feeling beautiful, but underneath these heavy layers I felt entirely different: hidden and safe.
With my eyes closed, I felt fingertips sweep through my hair as someone brushed it; felt moist, warm breath on my cheek as someone stroked eyeshadow gently over my lids. My sisters-in-law spent hours decorating my feet and hands with intricate henna designs. No one stopped to answer a cell phone or check e-mail. No one grew antsy because she needed to run errands, or get to the gym, or have time to herself. Each gave her time and attention lavishly, as if these precious resources flowed through her blood like the oil that coursed beneath the Libyan desert. I drank in the intimacy in the room, and it warmed me from the inside, loosened the tension in my neck, turned time into something warm and fluid, in which I was completely submerged.
When Ismail stepped into the room, I felt silly and self-conscious, as if I were in costume, but his face registered awe, not amusement. “You look beautiful,” he whispered. How could I, when there was so little of me to be seen? But when my sisters-in-law led me to a mirror, I understood what he meant: All that colorful, shimmering cloth caught the light as it fell sensually to the floor, and in the midst of it my face shone as fresh and inviting as a blossoming flower. With no other part of my body to appraise, I met my own gaze in the mirror, and my face was revealed to me in a whole new way. My eyes danced with light I had never noticed, and I barely recognized my own expression: not the anxious frown of a tourist, but the relaxed smile of someone who felt at home.
Seeing the faces of my sisters-in-law crowded around mine, I was overcome for the first time with envy. I could not imagine living as they did, confined mostly to their homes and subject to the will of their husbands—and yet I ached for the intimacy they shared, for their selfless generosity, for their abiding faith and the slow pace of their daily lives, devoid of my typically American concerns: balancing career and family, saving for retirement, trying to stay fit and thin. They would never experience the freedoms I enjoyed, but neither would they have to correspond with one another by e-mail from thousands of miles away. They would never negotiate six weeks’ maternity leave with a boss who viewed that arrangement as generous, or leave their tiny babies with a stranger for eight hours while they sat in an office across town, taking breaks to pump breast milk in the employee bathroom. They would never worry that the lines on their face made them less marketable in a tough economy. They would never know the persistent sense of inadequacy or the creeping exhaustion that comes from doggedly chasing the elusive dream that women can be everything at once: sexy and youthful, independent and financially successful, extraordinary mothers and wives. And yet during my time in Libya I missed this chase most of all: the working, driving, shopping and exercising, the exhilarating freedom to pursue my endless desire for more.
The next morning, as our plane sat on the tarmac at the Tripoli airport, I pulled my iPod from my purse, then held my hands up to the light to examine the intricate henna designs that were already fading from brown to orange. As the plane’s engines roared to life, I took one last look out the window. The floor shook beneath my feet, the desert fell away, and the shimmering blue carpet of the Mediterranean stretched out as far as I could see. I took a deep breath and squeezed Ismail’s hand; all that acceleration and open space outside my window was both thrilling and terrifying. I was ready to return to my busy life; my mind hummed with everything I would do when I got home. The freedom I had tasted inside the homes of my Libyan family—the brief refuge from striving and consumption and the tyranny of my own agenda—vanished as rapidly as the Libyan landscape beneath me. I soared west, toward the liberties I cherish even as they constrain me.
Update: Since the Libyan uprising began, Internet access in Tripoli has been cut, and phone lines have been disrupted, so our contact with family has been intermittent. A month ago one of my sisters-in-law told us she had used her entire savings to stock up on food for her family. As this article was going to press, she told us fuel supplies in Tripoli were dwindling, grocery shelves were bare, and the city sat under a cloud of fear, with only glimpses of hope. During this difficult time, my relatives have been relying heavily on one another, visiting regularly, sharing child care and dreams of peace.
KRISTA BREMER writes for various publications and is a regular contributor to NPR. She is currently at work on a memoir.
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