Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Woman in the Middle Seat

For weeks my mind had been elsewhere. Eighth grade end of the year. If it weren't for the constant, excited inquiries to my summer in Morocco, I wouldn't have known I was going. Four A.M. the day I left I was up and packing. A good friend asks how much Arabic I'd been studying. None is my reply. So he teaches me how to greet people in two ways: marhaban and asaalaamu alaykum. 

The endless hours in LAX, while bonding time with other teachers, still didn't allow the experience to sink in yet. I am a slow processor. The flight to Amsterdam was like any other international flight, save a smattering of extra blondes that I'm not quite used to.

Then I entered the plane of Royal Air Maroc. The smell was different--aromatic spices--on an airplane! The mosaic pattern lining the walls invited me in. The seats were no longer filled with Dutch. I made it to row 20. In the middle seat was a Moroccan woman. She's covered head to toe and looks to be about my grandmother's age. 

I always tell my students that most communication (it's increased over the years from 70 to 80 to 90%) is non-verbal. I signal to her that I have the window seat. She points to it, I confirm, and she smiles and motions for me to come. "Okay," I think, "I will crawl over you with my bulging backpack." And I do (thank you, Glen, for all of the yoga classes!). Five minutes into the silent void, I realize that this is the perfect opportunity for me to practice my one word in Arabic. So I try. I mutter, "Marhaban." She is on auto-pilot, shaking her head, "No. Arabic." Oh. Huh. 

Sylvia, another teacher, is now on the other side of this woman in the aisle seat. She recognizes my lame attempt at Arabic and begins to tell me about her studies. We discuss the root "to welcome" that is mar, and the varied dialects of Arabic. Now, the woman in the middle seat lights up. Sylvia's Arabic is obviously recognizable. She begins speaking to Sylvia with great gusto. I am reminded of how crucial language is to accessing a culture. Being useless in this regard, I resume my usual passed-out-on-a-plane position. 

I am woken up by the woman in the middle seat when it is time to eat. We both get chicken. She greets the flight attendant with such warmth; it was as if they were long lost family members. We eat in silence. The food is rich in spice. The turmeric reminds me of Nepali food. The cheese spread and yogurt won't sit well with my lactose intolerant self, so when the woman in the middle seat gets another roll, I offer my unopened cheese spread to her. She smiles and happily accepts, then wraps it all up for later. She reminds me of my mother. We didn't waste any food in my house. 

So, I decide since she accepted the cheese spread, I will offer her my yogurt. I do, and she signals no, but gives me the warmest smile and touches me on the cheek while muttering something in Arabic. It is at that moment, in that embrace, that I realize the adventure I am on to Morocco. The past weeks of teaching, grading, packing, traveling--all melt away and I am ready. This is it. The present moment is wonderful. 

For the remainder of the flight, the woman in the middle seat, Sylvia, and I communicate fluently nonverbally high above the Mediterranean, mixed in with a few Arabic words. The woman in the middle seat was my first Arabic teacher, and by the time we were off the plane, she was kissing me on the cheek. It's going to be a great summer.

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