One of the very first people who befriended me here in Ajman is named E. Her English isn’t great, or perhaps I should say my Arabic is awful, so we don’t understand each other very well. But yet know each well somehow.
Last Thursday afternoon she came to wish me a good weekend — using the beautiful phrases, “Inshallah” and “Humdililiah” — before bursting into tears. She told me that her father had just gone into intensive care. I held her hand while she cried and gave her a few hugs.
E’s father died a day later. I was invited by a work colleague to offer my condolences during the women-only Arab equivalent of “sitting shiva” at the family home.
I decided to wear my black abaya robe as a way to visually pay my respects since I wouldn’t be able to do it verbally. Just before I walked out of the hotel to catch a ride with my colleague, I texted the Chancellor to see if I should know anything special about these kind of profound events.
“No makeup,” was the response.
Huh? Women here wear makeup at all times. He’s a man, what does he know of these matters!
I don’t normally wear much makeup, but I’d gone to great lengths to don an extra amount because of the occasion. My best pink lipstick had been applied with aplomb! Eye shadow too! Even blush!
But what if the Chancellor was right?
By then, I was in the car with a woman I didn’t know and decided to get my makeup off ASAP. Especially my lipstick. So I dug around in my purse to find an old shopping receipt. I started kissing it repeatedly. My colleague, I noted, was wearing little-to-no makeup. She must have thought I was a lunatic with all the paper smooching.
E greeted us at the door of her home, and behind her was a room full of grief-stricken women — wearing no makeup whatsoever. Thank goodness I’d managed to get rid of mine. At least mostly.
Of course the most striking thing about the moment and the room was a deep tenderness that transcended language. Lots of crying, hand holding and real-human kissing, some wailing, some strong tea. I mostly sat on my chair and quietly watched this great big grief being expressed in another culture.
When the widow came out of her bedroom, we all stood. I could see immediately that the surrounding female presence was a deep comfort to her.
E introduced me to her mother, who kissed me on each cheek and said, “Shurkon,” which is “thank you” in Arabic. I said the first thing that came to my mind, “Afwan,” which is “you’re welcome.”
I wanted to sit there all night and be with this amazing group of women — even though I had, no doubt, botched some of their protocol. I liked being in the sea of sadness with them, where tradition was keeping everyone afloat.
They were a comfort to me, too, for old and unfinished grief.