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Lessons From an Arabic Aunt On Fortitude and Grace

Although she was my dad's older sister, their lives were a study in incongruity. While my dad attended schools in Ramallah (in Palestine), and later in Beirut, France, Germany, and England - learning five languages along the way - Aunt Khadra spoke only her native fallahi Arabic, and her early "schooling" centered around her daily life. She married Shatara, a widower with children, but never had children of her own. My dad considered his sister Khadra, a fallaha - a country woman, uneducated in Western ways.

Yet, when I was very young, Aunt Khadra owned a fabric shop in the older part of Ramallah. She sold cloth to both westernized Palestinian women, as well as to those who wore the thobe - an embroidered, ankle-length dress. My mother once discovered her in the outdoor marketplace in Askalan, north of Beersheba, bargaining with the men.

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"She was buying bolts of material for her shop," my mother said, admiration in her voice, "as astute a business woman as any of them."

After World War I, when control of Palestine changed from Ottoman to British hands, we - our father's daughters - came to believe that "East is East, and West is Best." And, although Aunt Khadra did not give it much thought, for my dad, survival in a Western-dominated world meant emulating Western ways. His lifelong quest became to transcend his humble Palestinian origins through his American/European ties. He worked for the British rulers of Palestine until 1948 - defying their colonial concept of "equality" - and occasionally, scoring a point.

My dad's awe of things Western may have spurred his sending me, his eldest daughter, to college in the United States. Somehow, I survived the four long years away from home and returned to Ramallah with the coveted BA to teach at the Quaker school where my mother and my Lebanese grandmother had taught.

Occasionally, after school, I would visit Aunt Khadra who lived nearby. Her large, one-room fallahi house had a domed roof and an apse ceiling. Its stone floor was raised two or three feet above the ground to allow for storage underneath - and to make room for her pet chicken to spend the night.

Aunt Khadra was widowed by then, living alone, and glad to see me when I dropped by. On cold days she sat huddled over the glowing coal embers of her kanoon - a homemade clay urn that served to heat a small corner of her house. She made me a hot drink whenever I came to visit, adding two cardamom seeds for flavor and holding the brass pot over the charcoal embers, to bring the water to boil.

We sipped the steaming brew from tiny, porcelain cups, holding them by the rim - fallahi-style - without benefit of saucers. The tantalizing cardamom aroma wrapped us in companionable silence, straddling both past and present - and creating a footpath of womanly solidarity between our worlds.

Last summer, during a visit to Ramallah, I took a walk through its commercial area, passing our old Quaker meeting house, past the tall modern buildings in various stages of completion, toward the older, quieter part of town. The narrow road where Aunt Khadra once had her fabric shop is still lined with old stores, their walls sprouting moss and wild grasses. Although most are deserted, an enterprising Hebron man now uses two of the shops to sell a colorful array of house and garden tools, including leather buckets and homemade saddles for horses and mules.

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A middle-aged woman in native thobe stops by to inspect the heavy saddles.

"So how much do you want for this one?" she asks the owner of the shop. Like a stylized dance, their words move in cadence to their hand-gestures as once more the Middle Eastern skill of bargaining comes to life. As I listen from the sidelines, I feel Aunt Khadra's spirit alive and well in this narrow street.

Since no car awaits, and no offer of delivery is made, I ask the woman, "How will you take the saddle home?"

Her eyes meet mine as an amused smile flickers on her face. Then squatting, she picks up the heavy saddle, hoists it into the air, and balances it carefully on her head. She turns her regal head - saddle and all - in my direction, and declares triumphantly, "That's how!"

To Aunt Khadra, my favorite fallaha - and to all the women of Palestine who, like the woman with the saddle, have carried the burdens of their lives with stamina and grace - my admiration, my gratitude, and my love.

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