A Special Tea for Mahmoud|
Um Mahmoud, our neighbor, shoved me impatiently, “Go get your grandmother. I must have a reader tonight.” Having just awakened, I was slow to move, so she followed the shove with a smack on my behind. I wanted to shout in pain, but a young boy does not cry.
My grandmother heard the commotion and came out of her room, barefooted, adjusting her veil and abaya. She offered the frantic Um Mahmoud a seat. Up until that cold winter night I had never heard of readers. To me, my grandmother was the best sticker maker in all the Bekaa valley. Her stickers were round as full moons, stick-to-the-pan with sugar and a delight to eat. To me, my grandmother was the cushion that supported my back, the bosom I cried in when memories of my dead parents became too much to bear. But what on earth was a reader? It had to be something important for Um Mahmoud to be so insistent.
“Khaldoun,’ my grandmother said,” go to the kitchen now.”
I wanted to protest, but the look in my grandmother’s eyes stopped me. I ran into the kitchen and scrambled up the ladder to the mouneh room where winter food was stored. From there I peered out of the small window into the sitting room. I saw Um Mahmoud wringing her hands and crying. My grandmother patted her head and went into the kitchen. She filled a bowl with drinking water and walked back into the sitting room. I wondered how a simple bowl of water could help Um Mahmoud. And why did she need help anyway? It was only this afternoon that her son had gotten married. As I stood on the balcony, I saw the groom’s family on their way to get the bride. Mahmoud rode on the shoulders of his friends while the female members of his family ululated, their shrill noises mingling with the beat of the small dirbake drums the young men were playing. Women on balconies showered the procession with brightly colored toffees, shouting their congratulations while the children scrambled between the dancers’ feet to scoop up the dark candy.
As I imagined chewing a toffee, I heard Um Mahmoud say to grandmother, “They have given him the eye. He is the handsomest groom in all of Marj. That’s what they said, but he did not say Smallah fast enough, so their eyes hit him. May the ground open up and swallow me. He has not been able to enter his bride," she said, shaking her head, unable to look my grandmother in the eye. "The shame.”
Talk of an evil eye made me shake. I had often seen the results of it. Pearl necklaces exploding, glass plates breaking, people doubling in pain. This is what happened to those who did not utter the words of God to ward off the eye.
My grandmother placed the bowl of water on a small table, set her glasses down on her nose and began curling and puffing her lips. Evoking the powers of God, she recited holy verses from the Koran, her whispers echoing in the silence. Her small hands waved like fans over the water, her fingers making circles in the air. And I saw the water part, its aching mouth swallowing her words. I still remember how it fumed and hissed like an angry cat. My grandmother, the ‘reader’, began to weep, her eyes turning a bright red. She stood up moaning, crying as she batted her hands at some invisible demon, swaying to the rhythm of her words. Her printed skirt was a field of white daisies dancing in the wind. I looked into her eyes, but they were unseeing.
This was not my grandmother. Now I understood what a reader was and I was terrified.
I wanted to run away from this house. I would rather live in a haystack by the graveyard where the spirits of the dead were not as close. But the reader recited the words of God. What was happening here? I wanted to cry, but boys don’t cry. I recited a few verses of my own, my eyes shut tight while I listened to my voice. “ I beckon the power of God to save me from the devil; in the name of God the merciful, the compassionate.” I repeated the words over and over.
Finally, the noises stopped. I opened my eyes and saw the reader. She wiped her face with a towel and poured the water into a bottle. She then handed it to Um Mahmoud.
“Let your son perform his abulitions and pray to God twice. Then let him drink the water and all will be well.” Um Mahmoud bent down and kissed the reader’s hand and left, closing the door slowly.
I crouched, knees quaking and wondered how I would face my grandmother again.
“Khaldoun, where are you dear boy?”
I snaked down the carved wooden ladder mumbling an “I’m coming.”
My foot touched the kitchen floor and I looked up expecting to see the reader with her eyes glowing like the red coals on the tip of a well-lit nargileh and was relieved to see that the reader had disappeared and my grandmother was back.
“What’s wrong Khaldoun?”
“Oh nothing; I just want to go back to sleep.”
“Fine; I will wake you up when it is time for school.”
"Thank you grandmother.”
The next day, while my grandmother was out baking the morning bread, I filled a bowl of water with water and set it on the nightstand. In a whispered voice, I recited the words I had heard my grandmother use the night before. I knew nothing would happen so I just danced to the rhythm of the words. Suddenly, the water started hissing and I nearly screamed when I saw my reflection in the nearby mirror.
Reem Rashash-Shaaban was born in Beirut, Lebanon, where she lives with her husband and four children. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics and teaches at the American University of Beirut.