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.