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Women in our group become responsible for food preparation. As if we women are mentally set to serve food whenever men are around.
“You need any help?” Azad asks.
“No. Just stay with the men. We’ll call you when food is ready.”
“I am not used to that. I often help Mum and my sisters while they prepare food.”
“Well, I am not used to that either.”
“From your mum or dad you get the blue eyes?” Azad asks.
“Actually, neither of my parents have blue eyes,” I say. I know from Azad’s questions that he wants to know more about my features, about what he cannot see behind the niqab.
“The white skin is from my dad,” I tell him. “My teeth are like a line of pearls, so my Mama says. My lips are thin and rosy, my nose like an olive, my ears tiny, but they hear a lot — again, according to my mum. Anything else you want to know?”
“Clever!” Azad replies.
For the first time ever, I feel a warmth different to any other warmth. I feel my womanhood, my freedom to interact with the other sex. I feel as if the entire world has changed and I am not scared to speak to a man as I would have been back in Aleppo. There I was kept in a bottle, shut out from the outside world. I feel as if I left my chains in Aleppo. I sense an attachment to Azad, a closeness, something different. I sense a love seed planted inside my heart.
The food is ready. The women assemble a mat and everyone gathers in a circle. I watch Azad closely to see what he eats and copy his mouthfuls. I take a dip in hummus after he does. I take mouthful of mutabal after he does. I gulp the pomegranate juice after he does. “Yuk!” I think. Bitter. But I put on a façade of satisfaction. Even the manakish, a dish I don’t like, still I take a piece because of Azad. Poison becomes honey because of Azad.
When the food is gone, the men gather to exchange and smoke cigarettes. From a distance, I watch Azad smoke. With every drag on his cigarette, he takes a quick glance at me with the corner of his eye. Through the smoke of his cigarette, his gazes hit me like sharp little arrows.
Wherever Azad goes, he holds a book in his hand. He reads from it when chance allows. He lies with his back against a tree trunk and reads. His lips move with every sentence, with every word, every letter.
I found a chance to speak to him while he read alone, while the others were busy.
“You read a lot?”
“I try.” Azad nods.
“You move your lips as you read!”
“I do it subconsciously.”
“I have a trick to read faster. Don’t move the lips, only read in your head. That way you will read faster and finish more books.”
“How do you know that?”
“I read it in a book that teaches fast reading skills.”
“You read much back in Aleppo?”
“Yes. I used to buy books from bookstores in central Aleppo and hide them beneath my cloak, my abaya, when I brought them home. I roamed bookstores from Al Zahra to Sandibad, Maktaby, and many other places. I read the start and, if it catches my interest, I buy the book.”
“Why hide them?”
“Mama wouldn’t let me read. ‘Reading will ruin you,’ she says. ’Better if you learn how to cook and do the housework, that’s what husbands look for, that makes a good wife.’”
“And?” asks Azad.
“And I ignored her, got more books, read in bed at night before I went to sleep. If a book really attracted me, I spent the entire night on it, until it was finished.”
“What if your dad or brothers know about this?”
“Even worse. Baba says if a woman reads, that makes her prone to loose morals.”
“So says Baba.” I shrug my shoulders.
“Reading changes cognition in your brain, especially at young age,” Azad commented.
“If I ever have a child, I will let him or her read for me.”