Friday, March 30, 2012

The Old Woman From Lebanon

La Roma Pizza is a small food joint on 61st and South Sheridan in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I don't remember how I discovered the place during my three-and-a-half years in that town, but I did begin to rely on it for its falafels. I grew up in the Middle East where falafels are sold on every street corner. Not many such street corners exist in the rest of the world. I'd learnt that the hard way.

I was unhappy and lost and forgotten in those days, a brown girl with no name and dark eyes and dark hair in a quiet white town in the middle of the American Bible Belt. Life was a haze. Somedays I almost remembered a life where I knew who I was and where others didn't look through me, but then that vision would slip away before it started to feel like it had once been reality. I hadn't always been anonymous, but I had started feeling like I had. I fought against that final darkness everyday, that last nail in my coffin that would take me under while I was still breathing.

The falafels at La Roma Pizza tasted a lot like the falafels from those phantom Omani streets that remained in my mind. I liked how I felt after I ate them, like I had been happy once, that that past had been real. Like I hadn't lost yet, that there was still that chance for...for what?

La Roma Pizza felt familiar to me. Their falafels made me feel like I was known, the way I had been known to the dark South Indian man who'd smile and give me free falafels week after week after week for years in Muscat when I still wore frocks and pigtails and peered at him from below the counter he stood at. He wasn't here in Tulsa, but La Roma Pizza still felt like mine. It was owned by a Lebanese family. A thin old woman in black stood at the counter and took my order most of the time. Falafel with fries. She never smiled, she barely spoke. Her hair looked like it used to be a deep black, but now it looked wiry and dusty, like she was in a photograph that was beginning to fade. Her skin was pale, her mouth was small, her features were delicate. Her face didn't move a lot. She looked sad, and her sadness looked slow. Her eyes never really looked at anything. We were just two sad dark-haired girls in a light-haired town. We both looked like we were far away from home, even though home was Tulsa.

The wall near the counter had framed newspaper clippings and magazine articles hung on it. I'd read one of the articles once and learned that the restaurant had been started by this old lady and her husband. I remember their picture in that newspaper article. She was smiling and sitting behind her husband, a cheerful balding old man with a round face and small eyes and thick fingers. I don't remember her name, but her husband's name was Rafat. I'd got excited about that because that had been my sister-in-law's name, and she had been from India. A Shia Muslim. I'd told the old woman about that. "Your husband's name is Rafat, that was also my sister-in-law's name...!" I was smiling.

She'd looked up at me. Her eyes looked startled, like something had moved inside her, but then they'd gone quiet again. She told me that her husband had died not too long ago. I'd stopped smiling and told her that I was sorry about that.

And my visits to La Roma Pizza continued, maybe once every 2-3 weeks. I always got a falafel and fries, sometimes two falafels. Once I took my mom there when she visited me in Tulsa. The old lady in black had nodded at her but remained silent. My mother had ordered hummus with pita bread and liked it very much.

One day the old woman talked to me. I don't remember what made her start talking; I was just placing my order as usual. She looked up at me and told me that she'd been to India once.

"Oh, really? Where in India?"

"Vee had gone to Bombai," she had said in a voice that was as deep as the Arabian desert and as rich as olives. Her r's were sharp, her d's and t's were soft. "My husbaand and iee. Many yeers ago. Vee had a good treep. Vee stayed in a hotel, what was the name?" She looked far in the distance over my head, her sight extending into the past. "What was the name of the hotel?" She looked distraught, as if she'd lost something but couldn't remember what it was except that it was upsetting her. "Iee can't reemember. Iee mees my husbaand. See, see, he used to reemember things like thees. Iee would always forget things, and he used to reemember for me. Eet's so deefficult for me now, without him." Her small mouth crumpled.

She set her gaze back on me. I was still looking at her, this Sphinx that had chosen to speak today.

"You are a preetty girl. So beautiful you are. You are so young and so beautiful. You must stay happy. You must stay happy. Look at you, you must always smile and be happy. Beautiful young woman."

Then she stopped. She wanted to convince me so badly about something but maybe there were no words in English for the pictures she was seeing in her Lebanese eyes.


Sonal Mehta said...

She was right. You're beautiful, and you must stay happy.

Khadija Ejaz said...


Priyanka S said...

I have always admired the honest, visceral quality of your writing, Khadija - but this piece is in an entirely different league altogether! I can return to this again and again - how powerfully you paint portraits through your words. You really must work on a book of pen portraits of the significant people you have encountered in your life!

Anonymous said...

I now have your blog bookmarked...I don't always agree with some of you posts... But there is a rawness and authenticity in your writing that just cuts thru and makes for compelling reading.....Oh and tomorrow I shall go and get a falafel:)

Khadija Ejaz said...

Priyankaaaaaaaa, your words are too huge for me! It means a lot coming from a sensitive writing soul like your own self.

And Anonymous, 'it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.' It is an honour to receive such nice comments from someone who is capable of independent thought.