The Girl in the Car

"Jazia Shuaiter"

We often made the journey on Thursday, or even Wednesday. We’d shop and prepare, in our dreams and in our waking hours, for that long awaited holiday–the sea in summer and the forest in winter. The eldest girl in the family, I had just started high school, and Abdu, the eldest son, was in his third year of middle school. 

Our Mitsubishi was an emblem of those trips–among our rituals in the forest was playing in the car, and with the car. Abdu excelled in driving it. My sister and I would coyly ask if we could learn how to drive, but our father would always say: “God willing, my dear.” The closest we came to driving it was this photograph we took behind the wheel. 

I was my father’s dream come true because of how well I did in school, and yet I always felt that he had wished for a boy in my place. I had the same wish in those days. So much so that I thought he had wished it only because I did! I used to dream of becoming a boy, and often wondered what they would call me. I imagined I’d keep my hair short, grow a beard, and a mustache–all those masculine markers that Abdu had. 

 

I used to tell myself that if I were a boy, my father would teach me how to drive the beige Galant, just like he taught my brother Abdel Salam in middle school. I would’ve traveled, learnt how to ride horses, and gone on sailing trips with my friends. I would’ve become a brilliant swimmer. I would’ve enrolled in the Military Academy, just like my brother, Jamal. 

We had a unique stereo at the time. It was big, black and shiny. My mother used to alternate between playing Oum Kulthoum and other cassettes to while away the hours between Alexandria and Benghazi. I often tinkered with the stereo. Sometimes I would pretend to play music with its buttons, since my utmost wish was to be allowed to be part of the music band in school and play the piano. My father’s response to that was gentle yet stern. “That would distract you from your studies,” he said. Later, I went to him with another request. I wanted to learn how to use a typewriter. The clicking of its keys was music to my ears. I longed for the power and assertiveness associated with fingers punching the keys. My father agreed to enroll me in the Bushallah Institute, but my mother stopped that plan in its tracks. She feared I would drop out of school before earning my degree, and look for a job instead. I had many dreams, and repeatedly said something along the lines of what Mahmoud Darwish later said: “One day I'll become what I want.”

I smile when I look at this picture, longing for those days as events unfold across my mind like a movie reel. My father passed away four years after this photo was taken. To mourn him, I started covering my hair. Us girls were never allowed to drive our own cars until we got married. 

 

The chapters that follow turn this ambitious girl into a mother who tries to live her own dreams vicariously through her daughter. She taught Asmaa how to drive when she was still in middle school, and made her issue a driving license when she went to college. She was thrilled to be able to sign her up for horseback riding lessons at the age of six. She also taught her how to play the piano in Cairo, where she was getting her PhD. 

On road trips, the mother no longer brought novels to read, but instead became preoccupied with her family–she kneaded and baked the bread, and searched for rosemary to season the meat for the grill. She enjoyed collecting twigs for the fire, and gathering the remnants of the pine nuts. She steeped the tea with mint or basil, and spent more and more time by the bonfire, observing the flames’ colors and heat until they withered to ash. She’d stare out and think of her dreams–only the slightest trace of which had been fulfilled.

Born in Benghazi, she is an academic with numerous legal and human rights publications. She is a professor of criminal law at Benghazi University. Her recent book “Legal Tribulations: Critical Readings in Libyan Legislation” was published in 2021.

Jazia Shuaiter
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