My Unexpected French Guests
The phone rang. A welcomed interruption, since that sunny April afternoon, I had no real clarity of thought, nor the energy or inspiration necessary for the task of writing a book. The words on the computer screen hung like a laundry line. The washed laundry – not to be confused with the laundry on the computer screen – expected to be folded and happily put away. The ingredients for our dinner waited patiently to be cooked, wondering if on this occasion they might receive a charred outcome, or what I describe as “well done.” It won’t be long before SpongeBob and Dora episodes will end, and the children will hand me a list tied with a blue ribbon with their needs, wants, and desires – mostly wants and desires. The writer in me wanted to pack away pen and paper, or in this case the computer, and go on a writing retreat.
The caller was Eman Jajonie-Daman, an attorney and magistrate at the 46th District Court. She said there were French reporters/filmmakers in town doing a web documentary entitled My Beloved Enemy: Iraqi American Stories. They hoped I could introduce them to Warina Zaya Bashou who at 111 years old became the second oldest person to be granted a US citizenship. I had interviewed Warina the year prior, on January 17, 2012, for an article that was published by The Chaldean News. She had received nationwide media attention.
Warina lived only a few blocks from me. When I arrived to her house at eight o’clock on that cloudy and cold night in January, I was greeted by her only child, Mary, and her only grandchild, Dina. Their spouses were there as well, as was Mary’s brother-in-law, Saad. Saad had taken Warina for her citizenship test. The three women – Warina, Mary, and Dina – lived together, with a baby on the way.
Warina sat on her favorite blue camping chair, her wrinkly face and blue-eyes (though she claimed they were not blue) glowing with bliss. With her red-henna hair, colored at the recommendation of an Iraqi doctor who told her that henna remedies head pain, her blue sequenced custom-made gown, and a pale blue headscarf that tied around her forehead, she looked not a day over ninety.
Due to her hearing problem, it was oftentimes difficult to translate and so her relatives spoke on her behalf. It was even more difficult to transfer and transport her, I was told. Her fragile body and inability to walk made getting her from the house to the car, for instance, a laborious task that required some forty-five minutes. Most importantly, the family was proud to have Warina’s name go down in history, which they described as “a beautiful thing for our children and their children and their children’s children.”
Warina said that the keys to living a long life are work, drinking tea, and not going to see the doctor. Her smile never leaving her face, she then demonstrated how in her birthplace, the village of Tel Keppe, she separated grains by shaking a sieve. She excitedly expressed that, in the village, there was a lot of love, for God, for the family, and there were very good relations. She felt very sorry for what was happening to Iraq and missed the village, the old days, and her friends. Yet she’d wanted to come to the United States to reunite with her daughter. She liked the new country and assimilated easily because everyone stood behind her.
“Who doesn’t like America?” asked Saad. “It’s the best country in the world. I mean, where do you see a judge come to someone’s home to swear them in?” The office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services brings the swearing-in ceremony to the homes of people who have health issues that make it difficult to walk, hear, or see.
It was Saad’s wife, Pam, a full-fledged American, who translated into Chaldean for Warina when the district judge read her the oath. Later, I asked how she learned Chaldean, a dialect of modern Aramaic which Chaldeans refer to as Sureth, Chaldean, or Aramaic. She said, “My mother-in-law lived with us during the first sixteen years of our marriage. My husband was mostly at work so when you have two women alone in the house, they must find a way to communicate. That’s how I learned Chaldean.”
The one advice Warina always gave her children was to love their parents and to not push them to the curb. “That’s how it was back home,” she said, adding that while she was pleased about the press attention she received (her family said she even had fun posing for the cameras while proudly holding up her naturalization paper), the real joy will be “up in heaven,” she said, pointing to the sky. Her family responded, “Hopefully, she’ll live another one hundred years.”
At the request of Eman, the attorney, I called to see if Warina could be interviewed by the French filmmakers. Her family said she had passed away last year. The news saddened me and reaffirmed the reality of one day my mother dying and me never seeing her again. I quickly shelved the idea away as, given my mother’s deteriorating health, it was too much to bear. Eman asked permission to give the filmmakers my phone number so I could assist them in finding another subject. I agreed, and shortly afterward, I received a call from a woman with a French accent. “Hello, we are looking for an elderly person who has received a US citizenship.”
“I know many people and I can try to think of someone for you,” I said. “Why don’t you come over for brunch in the afternoon and we’ll talk about it?”
“Oh, that would be lovely! Thank you so much.”
The guttural “R” sounds, along with the skipping of so many syllables, reminded me of my love for France that began in 1999 when a friend and I hopped on a train and traveled from London to Paris for a day. The moment we landed in Paris, we knew we’d made a mistake. Paris deserved a week, a month, a year of exploration. The city was alive with the melody of cars and trucks on the streets, the colors of fashionable women, the scenery, and the Eiffel Tower. Obviously, one needed money to enjoy the endless possibilities of museums, theaters, restaurants, and shops, so I was determined to return some day and stay a lot longer. Circumstances however didn’t allow for a follow-up trip. With the help of our husbands, my friend and I made human beings, built in our wombs, and our love for them changed every atom of our being. The sense of responsibility caused us to become “Crazy Middle-Eastern Moms” who are overbearing and anxious and whatever other descriptions apply to mothers who have cultural roots in the Mediterranean such as Italians and Jews. Some stereotypes are simply true.
I tried to swap the France experience with movies and books: watched Julie and Julia and Midnight in Paris umpteen times; listened to My Life in Paris in the car; bought a planner with a cover photo of the Eiffel Tower. And now France, or its real-life people which were possibly Parisians, was visiting me. I needed to find a subject, quick, to secure the success of this visit.
My mother came to mind. She had a lot of similarities to Warina; she married at age twelve, or as she always liked to emphasize, “twelve-and-a-half”; she was illiterate and attained a citizenship without knowing how to speak English; she thwarted off any idea of having another man after the death of her husband. When Warina’s relatives teased about matching her up with a new husband, now that she was famous and getting media attention, she said passionately, “I’ll bury him! Me, replace the father of my children!” and she swayed her arms left to right, a Chaldean way of gesturing that an idea is taboo. Both women had a true marriage of the soul. They knew who they were.
I called my sister-in-law. “Tell Mom to dress nice and to find her citizenship paper. I’m picking her up in fifteen minutes.”
Before I got married, I lived with my mother, brother, his wife, and two children. Leaving to my new home saddened my mom. She continued to live with her son and his family, but I knew it didn’t feel the same without me. I was thirty-four years old, and aside from when I traveled, I had always lived with her. Since she did not speak English, read, write, or drive, she relied heavily on me and my sisters, and we all played various roles in ensuring to take care of her. I drove her to most of her doctors’ appointments, and when she had surgery or other more serious health issues, I stayed the night with her at the hospital.
My sister-in-law often dropped her off at my house, which was only a mile away from theirs, and we’d have lunch or dinner together, drink tea, reminisce about old times, gossip a little, and regurgitate complaints and current problems. At those times, l usually gathered my sisters too, knowing Mom loved having her children around, and they, especially her daughters, loved being around her. Their presence also spared me from engaging too closely in the gossip and complaints. Instead, I became an observer, as if watching one of Bravo’s Housewives series: Did you see how she bolted outside like a horse, dialed her boyfriend’s number and had him pick her up from the street before anyone could catch up with her to drag her home? Did you notice how tiny the portions of food she served for her guests, and to top it off, she eyed that food as if it was gold! Did you hear how, while his wife was in the shower, he saw pictures on her phone of her sitting on his cousin’s lap?
Initially I detached from these “gossip” sessions as I did the dishes, laundry, cooked, or whatever other activity helped me check off my to-do list before the day ended. I was behaving like the timid or conceited girl who stood on the side and watched everyone enjoy themselves on the dance floor. But after a couple cups of coffee, I usually let my hair down, took off my house sandals, and joined the party barefoot as I engaged in these stories that were true! Which raises the question: Was this even gossip? Could a more accurate term be venting or storytelling? According to a recent study by Stanford scholars, while gossip and ostracism get a bad rap, they may be quite good for society and have very positive effects. They are tools by which groups reform bullies, thwart exploitation of “nice people” and encourage cooperation. Something the women in my family knew without seeking academic validation.
My mother couldn’t find her original citizenship, only a copy of it, a black and white copy, reduced in quality, absent of vibrant colors, and protected by the fortress of a Ziploc bag. “This will do,” I said, scanning her clothes. The knitted mauve sweater was nice, but the collar of the blue striped shirt underneath showed. The shiny brown velvet pants did not match. I asked if she had something else to wear, and she looked down and replied, “Why? What’s wrong with this?”
“Nothing,” I said, as time was running out and I still had to pick up pasties, get my house in order, and look half-decent before the unexpected French guests arrived.
Claire Jeantet had the typical features of French women; tall, thin, blonde, gentle, cool and collected. Accompanying her were Fabrice Catrini, the co-director, who could have passed for Claire’s family member, and Thomas Bernardi, the cameraman, an Italian, I presumed. We chitchatted, each of us with our unique accents, as we enjoyed a little brunch – date syrup and sesame purée, along with other Iraqi specialties. Claire asked if I knew the status of the museum being built by the Chaldean Cultural Center (CCC) and housed inside Shenandoah Country Club. The film crew had gone there a few days prior but a man at the door did not permit them entrance, explaining it was under construction. She was disappointed, to say the least, and wondered why he hadn’t let them inside, given they were visitors, filmmakers to top it off, from another country. “And from France!” I emphasized.
I didn’t know the answer to her wonderment. Rumors had been spreading, piling up actually, to why it was taking eons, nine years to be exact, to build a 2,500 square foot museum in a 95,000 square foot country club located in the city of West Bloomfield. Surely, the initial $5 million budget should make the process a piece of cake. How did they plan to stuff over five thousand years of Mesopotamian history into such a small little space? And it was obvious that by placing the museum inside a country club which had one of Michigan’s largest ballrooms, at 11,336 square feet, they were catering to the wealthy Chaldeans, known as “The West-Siders” – a confusing term, in my opinion, unless someone could clearly define where the east ended and the west began. What I also didn’t know was that this mysterious museum would become a big part of my life six years later.
Once we completed our brunch, we moved to the living room. My mother sat on the couch. My children frolicked from room to room. The interview began.
“Why did you want to get your citizenship?” Claire asked.
“I wanted to be like my children,” my mother said, and I interpreted. “They all got their citizenship, and so it was now my turn.”
My mother attained her citizenship in 1997, a tremendous accomplishment for her having never gone to school. The only schooling she received was when, in 1978, Saddam passed law number ninety-two, a literacy program that made going to school a legal obligation for every illiterate person between ages fifteen and forty-five. Anyone who refused to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic had to pay a fine of $30 or serve one week in jail. Those who lied or attempted to impede the implementation of the literacy campaign received larger fines and longer jail time.
According to a 1979 Washington Post article written by Edward Cody, the Iraqi government estimated it was spending nearly $200 million on the thirty-five-month program. More than two million Iraqis were said to study in 28,725 literacy schools staffed by more than 75,000 teachers. Khalid Shukri Shawkat, then the undersecretary for literacy affairs in the Education Ministry, formed “the Pioneers,” a group that consisted of volunteer teachers. Classes were usually held in schools and mosques after the children had gone home and most men had ended their workday. Other classes were tailored to accommodate the community they served. The Bedouins, for instance, were assigned teachers dressed in traditional headcloth and long tunics who rode camels with their students as they went from camp to camp. Sailors had teachers join them during sea trips and provide classes there. Truck drivers and fishermen were given taped lessons so they could study on the job. Iraqi television broadcasted literacy lessons every night except Friday, the Muslim day of rest.
Some questioned the quality of this type of pressure learning, done mostly by memorizing, amongst people who traditionally shared stories, composed poetry, and taught life lessons via oral communication. Furthermore, how sincere could a student be when he or she attended class simply to avoid fines and prison terms? That the literacy lessons had sprinkled all around it the Baath Party’s ideology
Shawkat reported various complaints from students; one man missed a business opportunity because of the classes; café owners said the classes had turned into gossip sessions; the Baath Party’s ideology was mixed into the lessons. Shawkat wrote, “The Ministry of Education was keen to prepare curricula in a way that ensures disseminating national education and appropriate information on the Arab homeland, especially on its leaders, geography, and history. It also concentrated on the Zionist settlement occupation in Palestine as an existing danger threating the masses’ future. The ministry also aimed at educating the citizen with a unionist and socialist education.”
Nevertheless, the program taught countless Iraqi men and women to read and write, something they most likely wouldn’t have done on their own. This resulted in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to award Iraq a prize for the most effective literacy campaign in the world.
My mother attended these classes long enough to learn how to spell part of her long first name, Shamamta, and for abbreviation purposes she only used the letters sheen “sh” and meem “m.” Shortly afterward, she left for Jordan to await a visa to the United States.
It seems that I helped my mother study one hundred civic test questions, not the fifty I previously thought, for her naturalization interview. Either my memory failed me, or maybe I couldn’t imagine her memorizing the answers to that many questions that dealt with U.S. history, government, and the legal system. She had to get six out of ten questions right. She only got one wrong answer. I was her interpreter. Some applicants are exempt from the English language requirements when applying for US Citizenship. Applicants over the age of fifty-five with a valid Green Card who have lived in the US for fifteen years, as was her case, could take the civics test in their native language if they do not understand spoken English and must bring an interpreter to the interview.
The Oath of Allegiance to the United States is a sworn declaration that every citizenship applicant must recite during a formal ceremony in order to become a naturalized American citizen. That day, I was in a hurry to go to work. My mother wanted to take a picture with the judge, like other people had lined up to do. Occupied with a dozen responsibilities and millions of thoughts, I did not see the point of the picture. Besides, I had not taken a picture with the judge when I received my citizenship. We left the building with her request unfulfilled, and ever since, I wished I had reacted differently. I did not realize it then, but this was my mother’s first major accomplishment outside of her home. She was proud to have received a document that honored her efforts, a reward, something that validated she had capabilities other than being a good housewife and mother.
“Now she got more than that picture that she had wanted sixteen years ago,” I said to Claire, and we both laughed.
The recognition my mother was seeking sought her, magnified. Five months later, in September, the filmmakers showed the documentary at Visa pour L’Image, the premiere International Festival held in Perpignan, France.
“Oh Weam, your mother up there on the screen made a real impact,” Claire told me through Skype. “The audience loved and applauded her.”
Her words further illuminated what I had begun to understand about my mother, now that I myself was a wife and mother. This woman had deep tribal and ancestral powers that few people understood. She had impacted not only the lives of her twelve children and nearly two dozen grandchildren, but her story had landed in France and later traveled the world through the internet.
That same year, at age eighty, my mother’s health drastically deteriorated. On several occasions, my siblings and I thought we were going to lose her. Later, we were also faced with the difficult choice of who would care for her now that she was in a wheelchair and had dementia. In the end, I offered to take her into my home. The process taught me quite a bit about God, life, and humanity.
My mother and I were as different as apples and oranges. She was born to farmers and raised in Tel Keppe, a once-Christian village, and she did not go to school, although she wished she had. I was born to a highly educated father in the Muslim city of Baghdad and my attendance of school was as natural as learning jumping jacks. She married my father at age twelve-and-a-half. I married my husband at thirty-four. She never went anywhere alone and rarely left her home. I traveled the world alone. From a young age, I knew I had inherited my love for words, books, education, and adventure from my father. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned I could not have made my dreams come true without witnessing my mother’s self-discipline, her ability to rely on her intuition and common sense, and her faith in a higher power.
Claire and I stayed in touch. She regretted not having seen the Chaldean Museum. I ended up entering into a marriage with the place.