In school, Laila passes rows of students and a few teachers on their knees, praying, in one of the larger classrooms. Instead of lessons continuing with a percentage of the pupils absent, she and most of the teachers take a lunch break in the staff room, where a single ceiling fan clatters overhead.
Usually Laila sits by herself, but today she feels isolated despite making little effort to socialize herself. Longing for a kind word or trivial exchange, she settles in an empty corner chair among her colleagues, and she is reminded that the new headmistress expects the staff to be above reproach. So far Hussein’s name has not yet been mentioned.
She rests her eyes. While some of her coworkers bring a sandwich from home or buy a snack from the school canteen, Laila avoids eating in public. Successive small cups of industrial-strength Arabic coffee from Amina, who’s in charge of the teachers’ hot drinks, will hold her until she returns home. She takes out student exercises from the folders she’s been carrying and starts to grade. When the hubbub of voices around her diminishes she knows, without looking, that the headmistress Mrs. Salwa has entered the staff room. As she gazes up from the exercises in her lap, Laila feels the slow, dull breeze from the overhead fan on her face and sees the headmistress coming straight toward her.
Laila immediately stands, papers in hand. She is convinced this is the moment she has been dreading. “Mrs. Salwa.” Laila glances at her watch but the numbers blur.
The headmistress, a stout woman in her fifties, smiles pleasantly, which only confuses the teacher. “I’ve only come to say that I’m off to the Matroubs this afternoon to greet the bride.”
Laila, recovering herself, smiles. “Of course.” She can’t stop her eyes from straying to her wrist. It’s easier to look down than at Mrs. Salwa. This time the numbers appear stark and vivid. She would like to emulate the headmistress’s easygoing manner but blurts out instead, “I have a few things to do after school and probably won’t be able to stay long. I hope I don’t miss you.”
“Looking forward to it.” The headmistress stops and talks to other teachers on her way out.
In a daze Laila returns to her grading. She would like to go to the Matroubs, if only to show her face for a few minutes, while the neighboring women offer advice to the new wife-to-be. Perversely she enjoys those sorts of outings, but one obstacle prevents her: she was not invited. In any other circumstances this might have been an oversight, for Laila and the bride’s mother, Warda Matroub, are close friends. Everyone knows that, even the headmistress, who has been invited to the Matroubs as a matter of form.
Although Warda is nine years older than Laila, she and her family moved to the town the year Hussein brought his new wife home. Warda’s husband had been working as a structural engineer in Jeddah and took the unusual course of taking his wife with him to live there rather than leaving her in Jordan. She therefore spent most of her marriage in seclusion. Women aren’t permitted to drive cars in a country as religiously observant as Saudi Arabia. So Warda—from a large, boisterous Muslim family in Amman—occupied herself by reading romance novels published in English. She attributes her survival in the cultural wilderness to the potboilers of Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland, supplemented by countless afternoon teas taken in the hermetically sealed, marble-encrusted reception rooms of other women living in purdah. By the time she, her husband, and three daughters returned to the town of his birth, she told Laila she was set in her ways and planned to spend her afternoons receiving guests. However, she found her husband’s female relations as tedious as the townswomen. So when she was introduced to Laila, she latched on to the modern Christian teacher who taught English at the government school. She told Laila they had much in common, and not just their love of Wuthering Heights.
The basis of their friendship was the shared alienation they felt in the small, conservative town. Laila has always talked openly with Warda, even when Hussein’s growing business venture was not to the liking of some members of her friend’s community. Warda vowed to be “unadulterated and completely honest” with Laila, borrowing a cover line from one of the romance novels. Despite the pact between them, Laila is sure that Umm al-Khanaazeer has something to do with her exclusion from the women’s get-together.
Warda’s daughter Anna, the bride-to-be, had overheard the two of them talking about the pig’s fecundity, and she became so physically ill that she began retching in the toilet. As they ministered to her, Warda made light of the situation: “Honestly, Laila, many women would be thrilled if their daughters-in-law were as productive and gave birth to eight or twelve children at a time—preferably all boys!”
Anna, objecting, cried out in pain, “Ya, Mamma!”
Warda had sympathetically glanced down at her daughter and then rolled her eyes at her friend, who was laughing so hard she hid her face in a towel.
Laila hopes that Anna—and not her mother—was responsible for the lack of invitation. Warda would never succumb to the growing climate of suspicion in the town. Whatever the reason, Laila knows that by not attending the get-together her social standing will be further eroded among people like Mrs. Habash—the type of tired, blind minds Laila is constantly warning her students and their parents about. She has too much consideration for Warda to arrive unannounced. That would be too embarrassing. Proud and unbending, Laila finishes grading, then flicks through the plans for the next lesson, the composition of an English letter. Once midday prayers are finished, she heads into the maelstrom of the hallways.
Maps, photographs, and school projects cover the walls of a room duplicated throughout the school. Behind thirty desks wait fourteen-year-old girls. School has changed since Laila was a student. Teaching no longer involves a brisk rap across the knuckles—punishment for a wrong answer. Laila is strict, but she would never hit her pupils. She finds a sharp word or disapproving gaze adequate enough. Sometimes she wonders whether her students have grown more docile or she has become more intolerant.
She is writing “dear” on the chalkboard in English and Arabic when a hand shoots up. Reema is one of Laila’s more precocious students. Lately she has become outspoken. “Miss, in our letters we open with ‘Thanks be to God,’” she says. “Don’t the English or Americans have a similar greeting?”
The atmosphere in the classroom is suddenly charged. Reema’s friends who pray and study together are not the only ones listening closely to their teacher’s reaction. Girls who aren’t necessarily religious but feel the pressure to conform to the sheikh’s teachings are also curious.
“Some people, no matter their religion, begin letters with ‘Al-hamdu lillah’ and others don’t,” Laila explains. “In the UK and US, they normally start with ‘dear.’ This has to do with the culture of letter writing and social convention, just like the beginnings of letters here. Today’s topic is English composition, not religion.”
Reema raises her hand again. “Miss, why do we study a decadent culture?”
“Learning and mastering English will enable you to get a better job,” Laila counters patiently. “I believe God matters in those countries but as a rule not at the start of their letters.”
These kinds of exchanges have become a regular feature of this English class, and Reema is the instigator. But she is not the only student who has become energized by faith. Other normally reticent girls have become more forthright too. They brim over with—Laila hesitates to describe—a newfound confidence, through which students’ questions can often degenerate into outright disagreements with their teachers. Laila believes that Reema and others like her state their views so forcibly because they feel obliged to lecture an older generation who, they feel, has failed them. It is this moral righteousness that, for Laila’s mainly Christian colleagues, borders on rudeness, although she makes a point of not taking it personally. Encounters like these are a welcome change from the usual apathy that accompanies learning by rote. This is, Laila thinks, a chance to cultivate inquiring minds. There will come a time, and she understands this implicitly, when Reema and other students will turn against her. Until then, the girl is allowed to ask her questions. When she does Laila manages to deflect her criticisms in hopes of providing an alternative view for the class’s consideration.
In only a few years, Laila’s students will come face-to-face with the meager prospects for their future. Reema’s precociousness will not shield her from being married off to someone she doesn’t know or like, or being treated as a second-class citizen in her wider community, the result of religious conservatism in both Islam and Christianity. But that is a discussion for another time that will probably never take place. For now, the excitement is over, and Laila returns to the mechanics of paragraphing and punctuation. As she watches her students take meticulous notes—something she taught them and insists upon—she paces between the aisles of desks, gazing through the windows at the back.
The school, built to stay cool, now houses three times the number of students and staff it was constructed for. As the lesson continues, the air grows stale, and Laila feels herself becoming sluggish. She nearly yawns but catches herself—like a contagion it would travel up and down the aisles. By insisting they review the lesson again, she wills herself into a state of alert wakefulness. Some of her best teaching is through example. If she is fully engaged, her students will be too.
They answer her questions about composition. However, they are less successful in the spelling of simple words they were supposed to have memorized. Laila doesn’t want to lose her temper, but when the smartest girl in the class misspells “sincerely,” she slams a ruler down on a desk. It cracks as sharply as her disappointment. She is tired of feeling bad about herself, her family, and her students. Irritated, she orders them to pay attention as she decodes the English words on the blackboard for them again. She is still assigning homework when the bell rings, and she gathers up her papers and books for her next lesson to a roomful of eighth graders on the school’s other side.
A strict timetable has been imposed on pupils. After intensive study periods, they are allowed an elective: art, music, or gym. Whenever parents seek Laila’s opinion on which is appropriate for their daughters, she always makes a point of urging physical education for those not artistically or musically inclined. She has noticed that the girls who take the opportunity to play volleyball return to the classroom with renewed vigor. Physically they have settled down and mentally they are pliant. Sometimes, traditional parents find exercise unbecoming. There is an unspoken fear that a daughter’s innocence, hence marriageability, would somehow be threatened. To convince them, Laila usually quotes a Hadith, or saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: “Refresh your mind from time to time, for a tired mind becomes blind.” By using this as her guide, the teacher impresses Muslim parents with her wide-ranging knowledge and reminds Christian ones of the importance of an inclusive education within a government-run school. Today she feels she would do well to heed her own advice, shaking off stupefaction and moving energetically toward her next classroom assignment.
Excerpted from Mother Of All Pigs by Malu Halasa. Published by Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2017 by Malu Halasa. All rights reserved.