Maria arrives in Egypt on a Wednesday afternoon in November of 1998. I wave from behind a security line at the Alexandria airport as she breezes through customs without question. Her warm complexion and broad smile lights its way through my body. After three months of bearing myself in a foreign land, tears of relief pool and fall as she draws near. Comfort lies on her perfume in our embrace.
She holds a little tighter.
“How was the flight?” I reach for her bags.
She does not let me take them. “Fine. Quick!”
“Ms. Maria, I am so glad you are here. Thank you for coming.” Her eyes meet mine, and for a moment, I am startled. Her glance lifts and feels around under my emotional veil.
I stare into the distance as we walk to the taxi stand.
Maria is Greek, and I consider that up to this point, she has regarded me as a lot less than her youngest son’s girlfriend.
I fill the silence. “Hey, have you talked to Pete lately?”
“Last week. You?”
“Yesterday. He calls at least once a week. Because of the time difference, we talk in the middle of my night. But I don’t mind.” I want to add because he is the love of my life, but bite my tongue instead.
“Christinaki,” her whisper is warm on my ear, “I have wine, cheese, and sausages in my suitcase.”
We are quiet as the taxi, a ‘70s Datsun, darts through traffic to my high-rise complex. The air is thick with odors of burning trash, dinner spices, and dust. An ancient land, with well-worn pathways, voices carry all transactions: financial, social, emotional. Relatives close and distant often crowd into tiny apartments, dirt floors or marble, to share in communal spirit. Identity is not formed by input of one, but of many. Life is savored slowly, deliberately. En shah Allah. If God wills it.
I live on the thirteenth floor in a spacious three-bedroom, single-bath apartment. The elevator mocks us: En shah Allah. We leave her bags for the doorman to bring up, and, God-willing, we begin the marble climb.
I open my door wide. Mediterranean air breathes into my apartment from a raised window. Maria finds her way to my balcony, where a laundry rack and two dusty chairs lie overturned from the strong overnight winds.
“Beautiful view.” She lights her cigarette and finds a focal point beyond the water and setting sun.
“I know. I’m lucky. Some of the other teachers have views of parking lots.” I wipe down the chairs and bring a dish for an ashtray. We cool the day with glasses of Greek wine and cheese from her suitcase.
“How are you? How are things going here?”
Her sincerity is a salve. The muscles in my shoulders and back relax.
“I am doing okay. My roommate just moved in with her boyfriend. I think I like living by myself.” I find a hangnail and pick at it. I feel her eyes on me now.
“So, what will we do this weekend?” Maria’s grace eases us into the fact that we will spend three whole days together, something we have not done before.
“We’ll take the train to Cairo tomorrow, and later we’ll have dinner at a quiet, American-friendly place. Friday, we’ll tour Giza and try to take a camel ride. Saturday, we’ll go to the souk to look for buried treasure. Then we’ll take the train back to Alex.”
“Treasure?” Her voice matches the tender smile spreading in her lips. “Now that sounds like fun!” She slides her hands around my shoulders and gives me a hug. I drink in her loving, maternal gesture.
“Well, I am looking for a perfect gold chain,” I say. “I have been in many gold shops, but have yet to find it.”
After a lovely dinner and a day at Giza complete with camels, I find traveling with Maria pleasant. Mostly, she talks and I laugh. Her spirit, her exuberance, they lure me. I cocoon myself in her warmth.
On our third day, we visit the grand bazaar. Souk. A collection of sellers and wares meet shoppers in a dizzying number of alleys and stalls. Rows of gold and silver chains, bolts of fabrics, and stacks of rugs color the day. Wagons with mountains of strawberries, fragrant mounds of spices, and chickens in cages line the back alleys. Animated voices claim the air around me.
We turn a corner and walk into a gold store. The shopkeeper and another man sit behind a counter in the corner, whispering and nodding as we enter. They have glasses of black tea and an ashtray between them. Accustomed to this behavior, I do not rush for a transaction and ignore them. Maria, though, nods back and smiles her hello.
Stubbing out his cigarette, the shopkeeper winds his way over to us.
“For your mother. Fifty camels.”
I find what I am looking for—someone to take my potential future mother-in-law off my hands. And in a foreign land!
I feign horror. “Ha! She is not for sale, sir.” After living in Egypt for three months, I know the souk and its language well.
I look hard into Maria’s eyes and give her the smallest shake of my head. A warning. For years, our relationship consisted of looks like the one I just gave her—until now I always had been on the receiving end.
We walk a little farther to the second glass case, and I find an exquisite gold necklace the necklace. “Min hina, shokrun,” I say.
“Ahh, you know Arrabi? Beautiful language, no?” He shakes my hand.
I take the necklace between thumb and forefinger of both hands and clasp the lobster hook. It settles into the cleft of my collarbone. I fall in love with the shimmer, the weight, the size. This is the one. But I find that in this a land of mysteries, of delights, of personal exchanges, price is a conversation, not a number.
“Bikam hadha?” How much?
“Miss, your mother.” With eyebrows raised, he nods in the direction of Maria, who is peering at some gold rings.
“Sir, the price for the necklace. My mother is not for sale.”
At this, Maria looks up and starts toward us.
A beautiful and smart woman, Maria loves a good gamble. “Twenty and the necklace.” She is the only one smiling.
The shopkeeper looks at me with raised eyebrows and nods slightly. I give him a weak smile, and squeeze Maria’s arm, pulling her aside.
“Mom. This is not a joke. He is serious.” I cough from whispering through clenched teeth. The gold chain around my neck weighs me back to the present. “Please. Just wait here. Let me handle this.” I leave Maria by the entrance.
“Sir, how much for the necklace?”
He retrieves a digital scale and calculator.
“Two hundred. In dollars.” As I caress the chain, he stares at Maria, seemingly appraising her, admiring her.
“One-fifty,” I counter. Everything from fruit to fabric to gasoline is bartered here.
“One-seventy-five. And camels for your mother.” Now, he looks at me.
“One-seventy. And my mother is not for sale.” Every hair on my body stands in its place. I focus on his eyes. Lowering my chin slightly, I do not show emotion.
“Okay. Okay, miss. Yes. One-seventy.” He takes my cash.
“Shukran.” I force a smile and shake his oily hand.
Leaving the souk, in a blink, my heart blooms. Something is new in the air between us. Instantly, I view her in fresh light. One tinted with love.
“Ms. Maria, that was incredible! We are lucky we got out of there without more haggling! I was honestly worried.”
“Christinaki, they were not serious!” Her broad smile softens my prim, contained opinion even further.
“Oh, I have heard some stories. Trust me. I might have a stable of gorgeous jamali if you had kept on with them!”
That tenderness flushes again into her face and eyes. I see something there between love and curiosity. And I like it.
Maria, who would become my mother-in-law three years after this Thanksgiving visit, was the first person to see me in my new home. For eight years prior to this trip, we had exchanged little more than glances across a dinner table. We spent more time being skeptical than learning about one another. During this visit, though, Wonder Bread white toast at last truly met olive tapenade.
I was a foreigner in Egypt, and I was as foreign to Maria as she was to me. I felt certain she was cautious of me, considered me too rigid, too dry, too quiet, especially for her son. I was just as cautious of her; she was loud and unrestrained, a handful, a mouthful, a lifeful. By definition, we were contrary.
But in Cairo, over gold, camels, and sand, my chained heart unfastened. There, my tight heart met toothy laughter. Insatiable perfection admired loose happiness. Stored confusion embraced crumbs brushed from her apron. And the comfort of that and the glow of her warmth was—and still is—worth far more than fifty camels.
Author Bio: CHRISTINA MARIE SPEED taught overseas and in the US for several years before admitting to herself that she needed to give in and just write. She has written a short column for The Lahontan Valley News, and is currently a Literary Reflections Editorial Assistant at LiteraryMama.com. A full-time wife and stay-at-home mother, and part-time literacy coach for children, she writes creative non-fiction, poetry, and books for children. To learn more about Christina, visit her Web site at www.christinamariespeed.com.