The flute speaks.
If I could only pass
Through Damascus like the echo.
Silk sleeps at her shore,
Curves in cries
That die before I reach them.
(from The Flute Speaks by Mahmoud Darweesh)
Sometimes it’s only about what it feels like, and anything you think you can teach or learn dries up and petrifies like gum that got stuck on the underside of your chair sometime while other wars were being waged. So when I walk into the room on a typical Monday morning, morose and spiteful over giving up the first, crystalline hours of the day to anything other than my own Herculean penchant for dreaming, Nahla’s eyes settle on me and widen. Her smile breaks open over a sigh while her hands clasp together in front. She calls me a name – no, a title – I don’t truly deserve. She has more to teach me than I have for her.
Nahla has a singular talent for making certain moments feel like an entire springtime. It’s in the way she hugs the Cambodian Buddhist who sits beside her in class. Or the Christian woman from Syria, her own homeland. It’s in the way she treats every one of us as something valuable and beautiful about her day.
As a baby, she was nursed by a Christian wet nurse, a neighbor whom Nahla’s mother loved like family, and for all of her young life, the two families lived as such. But that was the Syria we barely paid attention to: a Syria in which Muslims and Christians shared mother’s milk.
Then, three months after getting married, her husband confessed he was Shiite. Nahla is Sunni, and as she was already pregnant, her husband wanted to give her the chance to change her mind and leave the marriage before it got any deeper. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that she loved him enough to spend the next thirty-five years with him, and have six children together. He was a civil engineer, and his career brought them to Saudi Arabia, where they spent twenty-seven years hiding the fact that he was Shiite.
After his passing, Nahla went back to Syria, but her eldest son, a dentist in Massachusetts, sponsored her for a green card. It’s almost as if her entire life had been grooming her for life in the US. All that selfless kindness toward others. Religious tolerance. And the experience of living another way.
She is neither refugee nor seeker of political asylum. She’s simply an amiable immigrant in a simple, white hijab who shares the warmth of an enviable heart.
A couple of years ago, she went back to Syria for a visit. She had to fly to Beirut and drive to Damascus. I don’t want to think of her having to pass through some arbitrary checkpoint manned by murderous ISIS sociopaths, or the fragile delicacy of that moment in which the wrong answer to a question could snuff out the kind of life that nourishes all those it touches.
The other day, she said she wanted to show me the Syria she knew before it was ravaged by psychopathic bullies who’ve flocked there from all over the region on a blood-soaked adrenaline rush. She seems as much mystified as heartbroken over the surreal wave of brutality that has swept over her home. “Son kill father,” she says. “Father kill son. Why?”
Sitting across a table from Nahla in our classroom at Hall Library in a city as obscure as Cranston is enough to remind you how violence is the worst kind of failure of the human spirit. Her air of peace and openness radiate like a kind of wisdom that strains to rise above the terrible weight of it all.
To repay this debt, I have nothing but words in a language that may make her life a little easier in the post office or supermarket, but will never ease her heart the way her native language can. So I tell her shokran tir.
Thanks a bunch.
But there’s this: maybe it wasn’t Nahla who was being groomed for life in the land of the free and the brave after all, but America being groomed to be a suitable home for someone like her. It’s far from perfect, and probably even far from okay, but at least we have cops and soldiers we can trust…most of the time. And we’re still capable sometimes of offering comfort and freedom to someone who deserves these things as much as she, even when we offer it kicking and screaming like privileged brats in a sandbox.
It’s here where I come to understand a little more about freedom and kindness, sitting at the table facing a woman with a voice like a silk scarf, happy to speak of anything we please.
And shokran tir to Adrienne Gallo at Hall Library, and everyone at The Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative. Without them, there’d be no table at which to sit with Nahla.