Revisiting an Old Libyan Friend
In 2002, I wrote a tribute to my dear Libyan neighbour and friend, Najiyah. The Tripoli Post, which was the sole English newspaper in Tripoli at the time, published my story and I later put it on my original website. I decided to dust it off and post it on my blog. Enjoy!
My Missing Link
By: Therese Martin 'Khadija'
I came to Libya in 1989 and for the first year lived with my husband's family. We had an apartment of our own, but it was in very bad condition and needed to be completely renovated. Finally in 1990 all the repair work was completed, and my husband dropped me off at the flat to clean things up so we could finally move in.
It was a happy day for me. I was glad that soon we would be living in our own place. I hadn't been to the flat while the workmen had been there and things were quite a mess. Paint spills needed to be cleaned up and spatters of plaster were everywhere, not to mention the accumulated dust! I decided to open up the windows and balconies to let in some fresh air and sunshine while I worked.
While opening the back balcony, I noticed a woman watching me from her window. I smiled and said "Assalamualaikum". I wasn't sure how my new neighbor would receive me. I'm American, and though I'd been in Libya for a year, I never had to deal with anyone besides my husband's family before this time. She smiled back and replied, "Walaikumasalam. Kay fahalik?" I expressed that I was fine and inquired how she was. "Qwise", she replied. She informed me her name was Najiyah and asked me mine. I told her my name was Khadija. She nodded and smiled and I went back to work.
It was a busy day for me. Every time I would pass by the window or balcony, I'd see Najiyah. One by one, each of her six children came peeking out at me. All of them wanted to introduce themselves.
Over the years Najiyah and I became very good friends. Her balcony faced mine and we visited while hanging the daily laundry. The two of us shared our favorite recipes, and she explained many things about Libyan culture. But most of all, Najiyah kept me informed about what was going on in our community. She told me who was getting married, and who had had a baby. If one of the neighbors were sick, Najiyah would share the news. She was my link with the neighborhood.
While watching Najiyah's children grow up over the years, I added to my own family. Najiyah often had advice on how to raise my little ones. She was alert to what my children were doing, and quick to notify me if they were doing what they shouldn't. I always felt my home was safe with Najiyah nearby. She worried over my children and me as though we were her own. Najiyah became a special friend.
One day Najiyah told me she had a small growth in her mouth. She wasn't quite sure what it was and planned to see a specialist about it. Over the next few weeks she was back and forth to the doctor. She was so busy getting medical care that I didn't see much of her on the balcony. Deciding to look-in on her at home one day, I found her in a very depressed state. She said the doctor thought it was an infection, but she believed that it was more serious than that, because her husband had decided to take her to Tunis for another opinion.
When she returned from Tunis, it was with sad news. The doctors had diagnosed her with oral cancer. Everyone was very upset. I spent hours researching the subject on the Internet and urged her to have the tumor removed as soon as possible. Her husband quickly took her to England for specialized treatment.
While she was away, the balcony became a lonely place. Najiyah's children were busy with their studies; thus her windows and balconies were usually closed. I would occasionally go to her house to ask her daughters for any news. The news was not favorable. As a result, Najiyah and her husband had decided to leave England and go to Tunis for treatment so they could be closer to Libya and their family. Everyone was worried.
It just so happened that I'd be traveling to Tunis. I told Najiyah's oldest daughter that I planned to visit her mother while there, and needed the address of where she was staying so I could find her. I swore her to secrecy, as I wanted it to be a surprise.
The capitol of Tunisia is a ten-hour drive from Libya. My husband and I planned to stay only for a few days. We stopped at the train station to pick up a map of the area. I had the address with me from Najiyah's daughter. Tunis was a big, crowded city, and the streets were confusing because the names changed every few blocks. Finally, I found the street on the map...now the challenge was to get there in the car!
We drove around for over an hour, finally finding the street but unable to locate the number. I was determined not to leave Tunis without seeing my long-time friend. We inquired at different houses on the block. "Do you have a Libyan couple staying here? The wife is seeking medical treatment,"we'd ask.
At last we found a woman who informed us that Najiyah and her husband were staying in a small apartment behind her house. She showed us where to park our car and how to get to the flat. The landlady knocked on their door and called out, "You have visitors!" Najiyah's husband came out. He looked astonished to see us. My husband was busy speaking with him while I sneaked inside.
Najiyah was sitting on a cushion on the floor. She looked up, amazed to see me there. I ran to her and we hugged each other. Both of us were crying. How good to see Najiyah after so long, but also how sad to see her looking so ill! Quickly regaining our composer, we sat close and both started talking at once.
It was a pleasing feeling to be able to visit with my neighbor once again. We talked about how her children were handling things while she was away, and I shared with her what little news of our community that I knew. After all, Najiyah was my link with the neighborhood, and she wasn't there. Najiyah told me how her treatment was progressing. The doctors wanted her to have chemotherapy and radiation treatments to shrink the tumor before they tried to surgically remove it.
She wasn't sure how much longer it would be until she returned home. The tumor seemed to be getting larger, not smaller. Only too soon our visit was over, as my husband said it was time to go. We clung to each other. She didn't want me to leave.
When we got back to Libya, I looked in on Najiyah's daughters to tell them about my visit with their mother. I told them that their mother would be home soon, and that she was in good spirits. A few weeks later, my neighbors returned. They had decided to complete Najiyah's treatment in Libya.
Over the next few weeks Najiyah's health became worse. The tumor was growing and the treatment was making her very ill. She was put in the hospital, as she was too sick to stay at home. The balcony was empty now. It seemed an unfriendly place to be. Every few days I would see one of her children and inquire about their mother's health. At first they were optimistic, but as time progressed, they would just shake their heads and look very sad.
During this time, I only went once to visit Najiyah in the hospital. Every day I'd tell myself to go, but something kept me from going. I felt like an intruder. It was time for Najiyah to spend time with her children and siblings. I didn't want to get in their way. Also, I couldn't bear to see my friend suffering. Denying that she was so sick, I kept telling myself she would get well again, that soon we'd go back to our usual chats over the laundry.
Early one morning, about 6 o'clock, I was awoken by the sounds of a tent being put up. The tent-poles made an unmistakable hollow metalic clang as they were assembled. I put the pillow over my head to block out the noise, telling myself I was dreaming, or possibly someone was putting up a tent for a wedding. I squeezed the pillow tight over my ears, but by then I could hear women crying. I knew that my friend had died.
I went to the cupboard; pulled out a stack of bed sheets and hung them on the balcony clothesline, to hide the view. I closed each window and door tightly, to try to create a barrier from the commotion outside. My husband said, "You have to go there", but I replied, "I can't."
All morning I listened to the sounds of Najiyah's funeral, unable to bring myself to except that it was finally happening. I wanted to believe it was all a very bad dream. My husband came home for lunch and asked me why I'd still not gone to the funeral. "I'll go when the noise stops... when things have settled".
My husband shook his head, "In Libya you have to go to a funeral as soon as you hear about it,"he replied. "I'll go when I'm ready," I told him. "Do what you want." he said with a sigh. Knowing I had to go but dreading it, I waited until after they took my friend to the cemetery. By then, the women were not crying as much.
Najiyah embraced me as a friend, even though we were so unlike one another. I was American and she was Libyan. There were never any hard feelings because I was an American. Our cultures were so vastly different, yet we both accepted each other as equals, sharing the bonds of womanhood and Islam.
It's been over a year since Najiyah died. I see her girls from time to time while I hang the laundry, and we chat. But it's not the same. My balcony used to be a special place, but it's lost its magic. I never know what's happening in my neighborhood anymore, for my link to the neighborhood is missing.
"God bless you and have mercy on you, my dear friend Najiyah. May you be rewarded for all your kindness and for the friendship you gave to me."
Published in The Tripoli Post - Monday, November 4-7, 2002