Mohannad AL Zahid arrives on my front porch in Maine – delivered by private car – with a very expensive suitcase and a silent but obvious attitude. He is 17 and so thin, with a little squirrel- like face and bony wrists sticking out of his shirt sleeves. His lips are pursed and his dark eyes jump all around, trying to take all the strangeness in.
Mohannad is the 38th exchange student that has shared my home. He is also the last. Years of hosting foreign students have come to an end as my house is empty now, my own children long graduated. One last summer, I think, one last young man to help along his way. Mohannad is Saudi Arabian and has come to my home in the Maine woods from a desert nation built on oil. For six weeks he will attend an intensive English immersion course at a nearby school that will ready him for the fall semester at American University of Sharjah.
He’s afraid. I can see a slight tremor in his hand as he carries his suitcase to his room, which once housed basketball and football players, students from Egypt, British Columbia, Korea, Hong Kong, and Maryland or California. They come to bring their grades up as they vie for college scholarships; or they want to better their English skills to compete for Ivy League admittance. But mostly, they come to experience America, an American home, family, food, customs. And I, along with my children, am their guide.
Mohannad sets his suitcase on the top of the dresser and follows me through the house, gliding along with almost ghost-like silence. I show him where the bathroom is, how to use the shower, the location for the hamper. We come to the kitchen and I show him where to find the dishes and silverware, how to load the dishwasher, where the chips and cookies and Klondike bars are kept. I give him a piece of paper with my phone numbers on it – home, work – and a little map-like drawing so he can find my office and walk to his classes. He tucks the map in his wallet but remains silent, even when I say we will head up to his school in an hour. For several moments we stand awkwardly and I suggest that he might like to go up to his room and unpack his things. No words does he share. Just a nod and a soft turning away towards the stairs.
This one is going to take some time, I think. He hasn’t made eye contact and by the rigid way he is holding himself, there will be no shaking of hands, no hugging my shoulders (the Egyptian kids always give great hugs). I am a single woman running a household, a complete anomaly for Mohannad where, in his deeply conservative Islam kingdom, women are secondary citizens. They cannot drive; they access businesses and homes through a separate entrance from men; they are required to cover their bodies; they cannot be alone with an unrelated male; they cannot enter a cemetery. My American independence, as flawed as it remains, is a threat to his entire culture.
We walk a single block through our traditional New England neighborhood to the school and once there, Mohannad is reunited with a fellow Saudi Arabian boy, part of a group of 15 in the summer program. Suddenly his little face becomes animated. He begins chatting – all students are required to speak English for this immersion – and I can overhear them discussing music and their bedrooms in their new summer homes, how difficult they guess classes will be, what will they eat? But they also quietly mutter in Arabic and from their quick glances at the women in the room, I know the topic is the gender disparity of our two cultures.
For six weeks, Mohannad and I share a house, meals and homework lessons but not much else. His home is 7,448 miles away and we both feel every mile of that distance. I launch into one-sided conversations, trying to find which magical topic will open him up to me. He remains stoic, solid in his determination not to interact with me. He sets the table when asked. He tells me which foods he prefers. He is up and dressed and on time for classes. But the connection of the heart and soul is missing; our cultural foundations are so far apart and neither of us can change who we are. I’m failing him, I believe. Of 38 children, this one I cannot reach. I am keenly aware that this must be horribly difficult for him, this cultural clash inside his head and heart. His very soul is being challenged and I take care to be especially gentle with his spirit.
I wonder if this is what he expected, this boy who has lived a sheltered, pampered life of richness. I wonder if he treated his servants with the distance I am now receiving. Or his mother, or sister.
And then, one night at dinner, with about two weeks left in his stay, Mohannad carefully sets his silverware down and quietly asks, “Where is your husband?”
I slowly explain to him about being a single parent, about divorce, about raising my children by myself. “This is what America is like,” I explain; “Women run households. They run businesses. They are the brightest and most innovative students. There is nothing in America that women cannot do.” I tell him that when I was a girl, my father would not let me mow the lawn or take out the garbage or get a paper route. My father believed those chores were, “for boys.” Once, when I was 10, he found me playing football with the neighborhood children and I was forbidden to ever play it again. I was punished for climbing a tree.
I tell Mohannad that I chafed under those misogynistic rules that made not a speck of sense to me. Instead of making me obedient, the restrictions to my freedom made me more resilient and fed my desire to try all new things. I tell him I have taught my daughter to reach beyond, to seek more, to fight for equality and respect because even here, in this perceived civilized and progressive society, there are invisible fences and glass ceilings.
I say I understand that my freedoms and ambitions are very different from those of women in his country, including his own mother and sister. He asks me if this makes me sad and I tell him no, not for the women of my country; but yes, for the women of his. I tell him this ability to be wholly myself and pursue my dreams and passions brings me complete joy. I am honest in saying that it would be lovely to have a partner in my life, but not one to make decisions or restrict me, rather someone to share my accomplishments and triumphs, provide me with strength in the tragedies.
It is a quiet, one-sided conversation, not words to change his mind but rather to show him light through a different window.
Mohannad helps clear the table with no comment and heads upstairs for homework. The silence remains an unseen ghost around us. But over the next few weeks, I notice a subtle shift. There, I see a smile. There, he helps unpack the groceries. Suddenly the towels are IN the hamper rather than ON the floor. I wonder if he might be understanding – even if not accepting – the cataclysmic difference between women in his home country and my role here. But I still feel so much space between his heart and mine.
On the very last day of his exchange term, the hired car returns to my porch to take Mohannad to an airport and home to Saudi Arabia. He carries down his suitcase. After one last trip to his room, he brings me a brown paper grocery bag, carefully folded at the top and hands it to me. “Is this for the trash?” I ask.
“No, it is for you,” he says quietly, looking at the floor. I am confused by this gift and wonder if it is an Arabian tradition and I have somehow failed him again by not having a gift for him too. I open the bag and inside is the single, most precious gift he could have given me. It is a total acknowledgement of all he could not say or recognize without betraying his culture. It is a bridge between our worlds, a lightning connection between us. It is his prayer rug.
My eyes fill with tears and when I look at this boy, he too has wet cheeks. And, in a moment that we both know will change us forever, he reaches out to hug me; “Goodbye mom,’’ he whispers.