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Often I’ve heard adults speak of their childhood with regret and even anger, glad that they have escaped the younger years. Such talk is ba. ing to me, for if I could, I would go back in time to the .rst part of my life and I would remain a little girl forever.
My parents and siblings and I lived in a modest villa in the port city of Latakia, Syria. The coastal region of Syria is lovely, with sea breezes and fertile land where lucky farmers grow fruit and vegetables. Our backyard was abundant with green trees bursting with delicious fruit. Behind our narrow seaside plain one could see the picturesque coastal mountains, with terraced hills of fruit orchards and olive groves.
There were seven people living in the Ghanem house hold, so our home was undeniably hectic. I was the second child born to my mother and father and enjoyed good relations with my older brother, Naji, and my younger siblings, Leila, Nabeel, and Ahmed. There was also a half-brother, Ali, a few years older than the children of my mother. My father had been married several times before he married my mother, fathering Ali with an earlier wife.
My closest sibling was Naji, who was one year older. Although I loved my brother dearly, he, like most boys, possessed a mischievous streak that caused me many moments of terror.
For example, I was born with a fear of snakes. One day, Naji used his pocket money to slip into the local bazaar to purchase a plastic snake, then knocked very politely at my bedroom door. When I answered, my brother gave me a ro guish grin and suddenly thrust what I thought was a live snake into my hand. My piercing screams stirred the entire house hold as I dropped the snake to run so fast one would have thought I was riding on air.
My father happened to be home and rushed to deal with the crisis, almost certainly believing that armed bandits had come to murder us. When he . nally realized that my hysterics were caused by Naji, who was proudly brandishing the fake snake, he stared long and hard at my brother before he began to shout a father’s threats.
Naji remained unrepentant, crying out over Father’s yells, “Najwa is a coward! I am teaching her to be brave.”
Had we been able to see into the future, when snakes would become routine visitors to my mountain home in Afghanistan, perhaps I would have thanked my brother.
My favorite spot in the villa was the upstairs balcony, a perfect place for a young girl to escape to dreamland. I spent many enchanting hours lounging there with a favorite book. Generally, after reading a few chapters I would use my .nger to hold the page and gaze outward to the street below me.
The houses in our neighborhood were nestled closely to one another, with small commercial establishments all around. I loved to observe the busy tra.c of human beings rushing throughout the neighborhood, completing their daily tasks so that they might retire to their homes for an agreeable eve ning of dining and relaxing with their families.
Many of the families in our neighborhood had originated from other lands. Mine came from Yemen, a faraway country that was reported to be spectacularly beautiful. I was never told speci.cs as to why our ancestors had left, but so many Yemeni families have emigrated to nearby countries that it is said Yemeni blood .ows throughout the entire Arab world. Most likely it was simple poverty that drove our Yemeni ancestors to sell their livestock, close their homes, abandon inhospitable . elds, and leave behind forever old friends in familiar towns.
I can imagine my ancestors sitting in their home, the men, dashing with their curved daggers, possibly chewing the leaf of the qat tree, while the women, with black eyes intensi.ed by kohl, listened quietly as their men discussed the challenge of parched land or missed opportunities. The old incense trade had died out, and the rains were too uncertain to grow reliable crops. With hunger pangs stabbing the small bellies of their children, my ancestors were likely persuaded to mount tall camels and trek through the green valleys brimmed by those high brown hills.
Upon their arrival in Syria, my ancestors established their home on the Mediterranean, in the large port city of my own birth and childhood. Latakia was noted in texts over two thousand years ago, described as having “admirable buildings and an excellent harbor.” Framed by the sea on one side, and fertile land on the other, it has been coveted by many, and in the pro cess was occupied by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Ottomans. Like all ancient cities, Latakia has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times.
Up until the time I married and traveled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, my life experiences were limited to my family home, my school, my hometown of Latakia, and my country of Syria.
I was a daughter proud of her parents. When I was old enough to understand the things people said around me, I became aware of friendly talk regarding both the inner and outer beauty of my family. I was glad, of course, that we were respected for our good character, but my girlish pride was particularly pleased by talk of our handsome appearance.
My father worked in trading, which is a common way for Arab men in the region to make their living. I never knew much about my father’s daily life, for daughters in my culture do not accompany their fathers to work. I do know that he was diligent, leaving our home early in the morning and not returning until the eve ning hours. His hard work ensured an ample living for his family. Looking back, I believe that my father had a soft touch for his daughters. He was .rmer with my brothers, whose naughty ways sometimes made it necessary for him to be alert.
Mother remained in our home caring for our personal needs. She was a gifted cook and fastidious house keeper. With a husband, three sons, and two daughters, her work was never .nished. Much of her day was spent in the kitchen. I’ll never forget the wonderful meals she prepared for her family, beginning with a delicious breakfast of eggs, cheese, butter, sweet honey with cottage cheese, bread, and jam. Our lunches might be hummus, made of chickpeas and spices, various vegetables fresh from the garden, newly picked tomatoes and cucumbers, mint-pickled eggplants stu.ed with garlic, and pecan nuts. Our nighttime meal would be served between seven and eight. Our big eyes were often greeted by plates of mother’s delectable rice with peas, stu. ed grape leaves, okra and kibbe, a particularly popular dish for Arabs, which is basically ground lamb with bulgur wheat mixed with salt, pepper, onions, and other spices.
Of course my sister and I helped with the housework, although our duties were light compared to Mother’s tasks. I kept my bed neat, washed dishes, and when I was not in school, was my mother’s kitchen helper.
Mother was the chief disciplinarian for all the children. In truth, when I was a young girl, I was frightened of her strict rules regarding the social conduct of her two daughters. This is not unusual in my culture, for girls are the shining light of the family, expected to be perfect in every way, while it is anticipated that sons will sow wild oats. Should a female child behave badly, the entire family su.ers enormous disgrace in the eyes of the community. Had I seriously misbehaved, it might have been di.cult for my parents to . nd a family who would allow their sons or daughters to wed into our family. A girl’s careless actions might deprive brothers and sisters of worthy marriage partners.
When I was a teenager, my mother did not agree with how I dressed. While she was a conservative Muslim woman, covering her hair with a scarf and wearing dresses that cloaked her from neck to ankles, I rebelled against such traditional dress. I resisted her pleas to dress modestly, even refusing to cover my hair. I wore pretty, colorful dresses that were not so old-fashioned. In the summer I rejected blouses that covered my arms, or skirts that hung to my ankles. I would argue with my mother if she spoke against my modern fashion. Now I am ashamed that I caused her such grief.
I remember how proud I was when I .rst went to school. I wore the usual girls’ uniforms, which was a jumper when I was very young, though once I began secondary school, I could no longer ignore my mother and wore a jacket over my dress for modesty.
How I loved school! School expanded my small world from family members to new friends and teachers who had so much information crammed into their heads that I didn’t know how their skulls kept from bursting. I was an inquisitive child, and read as many books as possible, mostly enjoying stories about faraway places and people. I soon came to realize how much I shared with other young girls my age, no matter where they might live.
In my culture school- age boys and girls rarely mix outside the family circle, so my school was for girls only. I came to know a number of impoverished students, and their poverty taught me one of the greatest lessons of life. I particularly remember one friend whose family was so poor that her father could not purchase school supplies or even food for the lunchtime break. Without considering how it might a.ect my situation, for my family was of modest means, I shared my money, my food, and my school supplies with my little friend. I felt the greatest rush of happiness at her reaction.
Since that long- ago day, I have learned that the joy of giving is more acute when sharing creates a personal hardship. It is easy enough to share when a person has plenty.
I recall a second friend, who was often on the verge of tears. I soon learned that her father had recently divorced her mother. My poor friend was not even allowed to even see her mother, but was forced to live with her father and his new wife. My sensitive heart ached for her situation, for every child wants their mother near. I realized that sharing does not necessarily mean the giving of money or goods; there are times that the greatest gift is to set aside one’s own troubles and listen, to care about another’s heartache.
I happened to meet this childhood friend by chance recently. My heart sang with joy when she told me that she had found happiness in the second part of her life. She took the veil out of choice, and she married happily. She didn’t surprise me by saying that her children bring her the greatest joy.
While school was a mind-opening pleasure for me, there were other hobbies that added spice to my life. Contrary to many people’s assumptions about the lives of conservative Muslim women, I was a skilled tennis player. Although I never owned special tennis attire, I would wear a long dress so that I did not expose too much of my legs while leaping about, slip on comfortable shoes, and practice for hours. My goals were to hit the ball just right, or return a serve with such power that my girlish opponent would be left standing with her mouth open in surprise. Yet in truth, the main thing was the sport. To this day I can still hear the laughter that would ring out when my girlfriends and I played tennis.
I also loved riding my colorful girl’s bicycle. Once again I would select a long dress so I would not expose my legs to bystanders, then run out of the house with my brothers and sister to pedal up the gentle slopes of Latakia. We would squeal with laugher as we .ew past surprised neighbors on the way down. Other times I would ride my bicycle to the homes of my girlfriends or nearby relatives.
For many years I experienced great joy as a .edgling artist, painting portraits and landscapes on canvas and smooth pieces of pottery. I spent hours mixing the colors and making the pictures pleasing to my artist’s eye. My siblings were impressed enough by the quality of my paintings to predict that Najwa Ghanem would one day become a world-famous artist.
These days I am unable to enjoy such pursuits, but even now, as a mother alone with many responsibilities to my young children, I still derive some small pleasure from using my imagination. In my mind I often paint beautiful scenes or strong faces conveying great intensity, or I imagine my muscles being stretched tight from cycling up and down a steep hill, or even winning a tennis match against a faceless opponent.
I suppose one might say that Najwa Ghanem bin Laden is an artist without paints, a cyclist without a bicycle, and a tennis player without a ball, a racket, or a court.
My siblings had their own hobbies as well. We all liked musical instruments and it was not unusual for guests to hear a guitar strumming from some hidden corner of our home. My older brother even gave me a present of an accordion. I am sure I was a funny sight, for I was slim and delicate and the accordion better suited to the hands of a hefty musician.
The best time was the summer, when relatives would come to stay in our home. Most of all, I took pleasure in visits from my father’s sister, Allia, who lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. My Auntie Allia was lovely in every way, inspiring awe in everyone who met her. Since she dressed so fashionably when visiting us, I was surprised to learn that back home in Saudi Arabia she wore the hijab, which means full cover for a woman, including her body, face, and hair. In Syria, however, she wore modest but elegant dresses that covered her arms and legs. She also wore a .imsy scarf over her hair but did not cover her face.
Auntie Allia was known for her kindness even more than she was for her style and charm. Whenever she heard of a struggling family, she would secretly provide for their upkeep.
I overheard my parents speak quietly of her .rst marriage to the very a. uent Mohammed bin Laden, a wealthy contractor in Saudi Arabia. Because of his special friendship with King Abdul Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, Auntie Allia’s .rst husband had become one of the wealthiest men in a country brimming with wealthy men.
The marriage was brief and my auntie had only one child from Mohammed bin Laden, a son named Osama. After her divorce, my auntie married Muhammad al-Attas, a Saudi man who worked for Auntie Allia’s . rst husband. Attas was known to be a caring husband to my auntie and kindly stepfather to my cousin. Never have I heard a hard word spoken against my auntie’s husband. Together the couple had four children, three sons and one daughter.
I knew them all very well, for the entire family accompanied my auntie when she visited relatives in Latakia. We had many meals together in our home, occasions I remember as being particularly festive, with lighthearted talk and laughter. Osama, of course, was part of the group. My cousin, already a year old at the time of my birth, was always in my life.
Once I became seven or eight years old, memories began to stick. Osama seemed much more than a year older than I, perhaps because he was such a serious, conscientious boy. He was a mystery to his cousins, yet we all liked him because he was very quiet and gentle in his manners.
In describing the young boy Osama that we all knew, I would say that he was proud, but not arrogant. He was delicate, but not weak. He was grave, but not severe. Certainly he was vastly di.erent from my very boisterous brothers, who were always teasing me about one thing or another. I had never been around such a soft- spoken, serious boy. Despite his serene demeanor, no one ever thought of Osama as being weak-willed, for his character was strong and . rm.
When Auntie Allia and her family visited, the entire family would sometimes take day trips to the mountains or the seashore. During such family jaunts, we kids would run about with excitement, racing each other on the beaches, playing hide and seek, or tying a rope to a tree and then making a swing or jumping the rope. I remember how thoughtfully Osama would select juicy grapes, handing them to me to eat o. the vine. My brothers meanwhile might be shouting gleefully that they had found some crunchy pecans lying under the branches of the tree. Other times we all might climb short-trunk trees to pluck sweet apples or thrust our hands through bushes laden with tart berries. Although Mother warned us about snakes, I was so happy to be playing with my cousins that even my fears didn’t hinder my activities.
There were sad moments, however, including September 3, 1967, when my cousin Osama’s father, Mohammed, was a passenger in a small airplane that stalled and crashed. At age sixty-one, Osama’s father was killed, along with several other people.
My cousin was only ten years old, but he had greatly loved and respected his father. Osama had always been unusually restrained in his manner and in his speech, but he was so stricken by the death of his father that he became even more subdued. Through the years he spoke little of the tragic incident.
My mother’s voice was hushed when she told me about Osama’s loss. I was so shocked I couldn’t react, but I did retire to the balcony to re.ect on my love for my own father, and the emptiness I would feel without him.
When they were young, my brother Naji and Osama sometimes got themselves into trouble. Once they were camping and on a whim decided to go for a long walk, hiking to Kasab, a town in our Latakia Province, close to the Turkish border—and managed to walk themselves right across the border into Turkey. In our part of the world, straying into another country can result in serious consequences, with careless travelers disappearing forever.
A Turkish army o.cer spotted the strangers on his territory. As he yelled excited threats and pointed his weapon, Naji and Osama exchanged a single glance, then turned and ran faster than horses until they reached a garden. Thankfully the Turkish guard did not follow them clear into another country.
On another occasion, Naji and Osama went to Damascus, the ancient city that is the capital of Syria. Osama always enjoyed long walks more than most, and after a brisk hike, the two boys and their friends found shade under a tree. They were tired and a bit hungry. You might know that the tree just happened to have branches heavy with succulent apples. Tempted at the sight of the fruit, Naji and his friends climbed the tree, telling Osama to stay behind as a lookout. Naji said later that he knew that his pious cousin would probably balk at plucking apples from a tree that was not his, so he didn’t want Osama participating in the actual pilfering.
The boys scrambled up the tree, but before they had time to gather a single apple, a mob of men started running in their direction, shouting angrily while whipping leather belts in the air.
“Apple thieves!” the men yelled. “Come out of the tree!”
There was nowhere to escape, so my brother and his friends slowly retreated from the safety of the bushy limbs to face their challengers. As their feet touched the ground, the men began to beat them with those strong leather belts. In between gasps, Naji yelled for Osama to “Run away! Run away as fast as you can!”
Osama was their guest, and it was important that a guest not be harmed. Also, Naji knew how dearly Auntie Allia loved her .rstborn son. My brother did not want to return home with bad news about Osama.
At Naji’s urging, Osama dashed away from the confrontation. For some reason the owners decided it was of the utmost importance to capture the . eeing boy, so they kept after Osama until they caught him, threatening him with their belts. Alone, without the protection of his relatives or friends, Osama was set upon by one of the largest men, who leaned forward and bit Osama’s arm, a bite so strong that Osama carries a slight scar to this day.
Osama pulled the man’s teeth from his .esh and pushed him away, then faced those angry men: “You had better leave me alone! I am a visitor to your country. I will not allow you to beat me!”
For some reason Osama’s intense expression made those men turn away. They lowered their belts, staring at him for a few minutes before saying, “You are being released only because you are a guest to our land.” By this time, my brother and his friends had made their escape. With Osama in the clear, the apple thieves were allowed to re unite and return to a place of safety. Osama’s wound was cleaned and bound and thankfully he did not su.er from an infection.
Those happy days of childhood years passed too rapidly, and as I entered my teenage years, unanticipated emotions began to swirl between my cousin and me. I was not sure what was happening, but knew that Osama and I had a special relationship. Although Osama never said anything, his brown eyes lit with pleasure anytime I walked into a room. I trembled with excitement when I felt my cousin’s intense attention. Soon our hidden emotions would rise to the surface and change our lives forever.
Copyright © 2009 by The Sasson Corporation.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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