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.