In Memory of a Beloved and a Home

"Mahbuba Khalifa"

“He was the most beautiful of them all,” she says. Astounded, we ask: “Did you know him?” She laughs out loud and says: “And why would I know him?” That surprises us even more. “What did you love about him?” we ask again. She says, “His words were pleasant, and so was his courage.” We skip the first part and inquire about the second: “And where did you see his courage?” “He had a TV show, where he said things that broke your heart,” she says. “And what else?” we tease her. “Did you notice how handsome he was after he broke your heart?” She laughs and goes on: “It wasn’t just me, all the girls liked him. I even heard that there were some cases of divorce; girls would moan as they listened to him reciting his poems, that red hat (chechia) pulled over his forehead, which you would have thought was made of ivory.”


O God. She even knows the exact tone of his fair skin. She smiles bashfully, that woman whose age is hard for anyone to figure out, for her liveliness and beauty. “Those were the days,” she says. “We were nothing like your generation.” Before she derided our whole generation, we pulled her leg playfully so she’d relax and tell us more. 


In her fifties, this woman is experiencing her life’s second spring. She dons traditional Libyan clothes, with broad stripes and carefully chosen colors. She never shows up to the girls’ student housing, where she works, in the same outfit twice in one week. She tells us that she has as many outfits as her brothers have wives. “Every time one of my brothers marries a woman, she arrives with gifts, a silk one for my mother and more practical ones for my sisters and I. There are three of us, and those gifts make us just as happy as we feel about the marriages themselves. My seventh brother, however, married a well-to-do wife, and she came in with gold rings and bracelets for my mother. She set herself apart from the rest, and forged a special place for herself until today.” She continues: “The robes my brothers’ girls brought me are the ones I wear to my job here.” That’s how she answered our incessant questions about the various colors and patterns of her traditional garbs. 


Married without children, she has lived through terrible times, she tells us. People incessantly asked who was responsible for the infertility. “In our days, this was a sensitive topic,” she says. “I didn’t see a doctor, and he didn’t take me to one, until it was too late. He is a kind man though, not as handsome as the poet was–may God forgive him all the same.”

“He drops me off here every day before going to guard the consulate near the girls’ student housing,” she continues. “I sometimes catch him spying on you girls through the windows. When I catch him, I signal to him that he’ll have to deal with me at home. So he gets back to work, or chit chats with his coworker, his face now contorted. When I confront him, he always says that he was only looking in because he missed me, and wanted to get a look at me.” She brings up the poet’s name again, and gives us a much needed laugh.


Thursday evenings were special for her. She could stay with us until her husband got off duty, and Thursdays were always late nights at the consulate, as the British nationals living in Benghazi would go visit and stay late playing tennis. While we always enjoyed watching the handsome workers at the consulate, we could now also watch fit men and women decked out in fancy sportswear, holding their rackets, and gracefully striking those small yellow balls.


On those late Thursday nights, we offer her the darabuka to keep her entertained. She recoils initially, but after enough encouragement, she picks it up and starts drumming like a master, her voice rising to the sky. Maybe the guard next door can hear her singing: 

"نار المرهونين* 

امعانا لكن صبّارين". 

She was referring to none other than the poet. He alone made women’s heads spin with his poems and his crooked red hat pulled over his ivory white forehead, according to our sweet companion in these bygone days.

Born in Derna, she studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Philosophy and Sociology at the Libyan University in Benghazi. She is a novelist and poet with a published novel and a collection of short stories.

Mahbuba Khalifa
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