I don’t remember your name. I do remember your laughter, your patience when you helped me with my pronunciation of sounds that are difficult for the English-trained tongue.
I never saw you again after our college Arabic class ended but the look in your eyes has remained with me all these years—the fear and sorrow I saw there when your entire existence was reduced to stereotypes. I realized the distance between you and me was greater than I had imagined. It was September 12, 2001, and on that day the only thing people saw when they looked at you was the headscarf you wore. It’s still the only thing many probably see. But I saw you.
You were the friend of a friend and I could only speak to you through her translating. When I first saw you, we all looked the same under our colorful headscarves and baltos, the long, black dressed that covered our clothing. Over tiny cups of strong coffee, we were able to remove all that kept us hidden from the eyes of men on the streets. I laughed to find you in jeans and a tank top underneath, surprised at how young you looked though already a bride.
Years later, I still kept the small piece of knitting you gave me in the curio cabinet in my bedroom. I would touch the woven white and blue yarn and breathe a prayer for you. I would remember your story and the ancient smell of incense in your home. You were the second wife to a man you rarely saw, living a few apartments away from his first wife. You handed me a pile of knit pieces to choose from, evidence of just how much time you spent alone. The distance between us is many miles and I don’t know if your house in the war-torn Yemeni capital is even still standing. But I remember you.
You made me feel your home was mine. Every time I visited, you had a gift for me. Sometimes you would open your jewelry box and let me choose a bangle. I remember the way your voice would rise with as much passion when we talked about the Egyptian TV dramas you used to act in as when we discussed the differences in the Qur’an and Bible.
You shared all you had with me. You let me see your pain and you carried mine. You cried when we told you we were moving back to America. When you became our landlady, we had nothing in common. We were from different nations, religions, and generations. But I called you friend. I still think of you when your teal and red bracelets clink on my wrists.
You were the first welcoming face on a new street, in a new country, speaking a language I couldn’t yet understand. You kissed my cheeks and held my hand, laughed as you took me home to meet your parents. I watched you grow from three to four, always looking for you when I went out. My daughter carries your name so I never forget.
Your laughter still rings in my ears every time I think of certain Arabic words. You were more friend than a language teacher and with the invention of social media, though I haven’t seen you in over a decade, we still exchange occasional messages. You prayed for me when my world was crashing down back then, walked with me through my first real battle with anxiety. You taught me a fuller picture of what God looks like.
You ask after my children by name when I see you in the elevator of our apartment building, though I haven’t met you before. I can only see your eyes behind the full veil you wear but they are smiling and kind. Our exchange is brief but when my son bounds off the school bus and passes you he says, “Hey, she’s my friend! She was playing cricket with me in the garage the other day. Can she come over?” In your kindness, you’ve already given my family so much.
I rustle his blonde hair as I feel the tears stinging my eyes. He didn’t see your veil or the color of your skin or any differences at all. He saw you and first thought “friend.” He is farther along in loving beyond borders at age seven than I was at three times his age. You are teaching me a fuller picture of what it looks like to honor the image of God present in others.
As we honor women this month, we are naming women who have remained previously forgotten to history. You may not have made an impact on the history of a nation or have your story featured in the news. But as I thought of the women who have impacted the course of my history, I knew the part you have played cannot be understated. My life is richer, my world more colorful, and my faith deeper having known you. You, like many women who had profound impacts, may remain unnamed, unsung. But not today. Today I see you. I remember you. I honor you. I thank you.
Your sister, Nicole