Some people like to pretend that they are saints. That the elusive things called right and wrong are so clear in their heads, they could never get them confused. It sounds like a simple thing: right and wrong -what a parent teaches a little child. It’s wrong to hurt others, to steal, to push the other child in the sandbox. It’s right to ask before taking, to hold the door open for and old person, to give to charity. Everyone knows that, and yet everyone gets them mixed up, at least once, often because of the circumstances God or fate has given them.
My family looked at one another, knowing exactly what to expect. My dad mockingly took a big gulp of air as we waited in front of my grandma’s apartment. My sister, mom, and I giggled and did the same and as soon as the large wooden door swung open, we were met by a wave of smoky cigarette-flavored air. I gave the customary kisses to my grandma (who exclaimed jokingly that I was as pretty as bride and would be married off before we know it), I hugged her and then moved on to her husband. As always, a Cleopatra cigarette was in his mouth and I don’t think I can ever recall seeing him without one.
Since the last time I saw the apartment, not much had changed: the same two sets of very ornate (or in my taste, tacky) Egyptian furniture filled the dark Alexandria flat. The same slightly crooked table, the same over-done chandelier. The shelves that seemed could not possibly fit any more knick knacks.
I looked around, hoping to see my grandma’s friendly housekeeper and her baby, Mirna. Mirna would have grown up by now, standing and probably talking too. I was excited to see her young face- I, being thirteen, looked forward to playing with her and having something other than sipping tea to do after the meal. But I could find neither her or her mom, and when I followed my father into the kitchen, disappointment filled me: A new woman stood over the stove.
“Al Salam Aleykom, Peace be upon you,” I said in Arabic, greeting her kindly.
“Wa Aleykom Al Salam, And upon you peace,” she responded with a smile.
She was nice, but I wondered, where was Mirna and her mom? Did something happen to her? Did she move? I tried not to think too much of it. She probably just couldn’t make it today. But in the back of mind, I reminded my self that my grandma didn’t stick to one housekeeper for long anyways.
We ate all the delicious food (rice and lamb and a traditional soup called Mol’akhaya. Not to mention my favorite, mahshy: Peppers, zucchini, and grape leaves stuffed with rice and spices). We ate till we were full and then sat around one of the couches, drinking tea. I was bored and time seemed to pass slowly.
Finally, we stopped by the kitchen to say bye to the housekeeper. She insisted on showing us a picture of her daughter, who was a little older than me: It was a worn school photograph and the young girl smiled a big Hollywood smile and wore red lipstick. Her hair had been done nice and big, a large contrast to her own mother who wore the headscarf. We all said the customary Mesh’Allah or, God bless. It would have been beyond rude not to. A sign of the evil eye or something.
It wasn’t until weeks later, back in New York, eating the usual Saturday breakfast of bagels with cream cheese, did I think of Mirna again. And what my dad said shocked me. A few weeks before our visit, the housekeeper had been caught stealing money and was promptly fired. Stealing? I couldn’t believe it. The good, nice housekeeper I had liked so much. The mother of little innocent Mirna…stealing? It didn’t give me any sense of satisfaction that “justice” had been served. I almost wished she had gotten away with it- but wasn’t that a bad thought? Shouldn’t I have been glad that my grandma had gotten her money? Maybe I just wished my good perception of Mirna’s mom hadn’t been changed. Or perhaps I just felt bad because women like Mirna’s mom were so poor. She could have had a real reason- perhaps her husband got fired, or maybe she needed it for Mirna. I knew what she did was clearly wrong, and yet, I wanted to make excuses for her. It wasn’t fair that she was poor, like so many Egyptians today. It wasn’t fair that maybe Mirna couldn’t get everything she needed. It wasn’t fair that Mirna was born into those circumstances. The same way stealing isn’t fair. I had to remind myself that not every poor person steals. Some go through the same struggles and are honest.
I sighed. I could hear the TV faintly in the other room. Probably CNN, talking about Syria or maybe Egypt again. I thought of the change Egyptians had brought by bringing down Mubarak and I hoped that there would be change to bring people up, like Mirna’s mom, from their tough circumstances. Perhaps then, housekeepers wouldn’t have to steal from safes and maybe then Mirna’s mom could uphold the values I knew she believed in, the same values she would want to Mirna to know.
Hanna Khalil, Age 14, Grade 9, Hunter College High School, Silver Key