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.