When the afternoon call to prayer sounds over the speakers, when the day’s heat has cooled and the daily tasks finished, then the women come out of their homes. The richer women get dressed up and go visiting, or take their kids to music or art class. While sitting in the sun, some women do errands like sewing or sifting through rice. The ladies who keep a stricter purda sit by an open window or stand just outside their door. Some of us go outside to chat and get some fresh air and keep an eye on the kids, who are noisily playing cricket, marbles, tag, or catch in the empty lots.
I’ve been here in Bangladesh three and a half years, and I have moved 4 times. The moves haven’t really helped me to get to know my neighborhood! And in the previous neighborhoods, I always had friends or family to take me around. But this time, it was really up to me to fit in. And I have to admit, I’ve been sluggish.
It’s taken months for me to get over my fear of all the new people (again!) and their questions (none of them new!) , and of the cultural rules that I might inadvertently break. (Like: Why is that rich girl hanging out with those people? Or: What kind of mother is she, letting her kid play with that?) And to go by myself, unintroduced, with no purpose other than making friends? But now that I have answered the 1,002 questions, I’m in. I’m normal. They now know that I don’t have the morals of Britney Spears and that I don’t worship Mother Mary. I now know that under all their questions, they are normal women who think about laundry and what’s for dinner and whether there will be an earthquake soon.
So while Elias is chasing the goat and waving sticks around, I am learning about who lives where and is related to who. I get to listen as my new friends talk about the coming election, and what they really think of girls whose dresses are cut at the knee, or who walk out of their own neighborhood to talk to the boys. I get to taste guavas growing in private gardens . . and hear the wise Aunties teach the young girls about how to treat their husbands.
One day I went about two small blocks from home and somewhat self-consciously talked with a lady who I had seen once or twice. The next time I was in that area a few days later, the lady was there again, with her friends. She introduced me around, and then someone handed Elias a little bitter red fruit. He proceeded to get it ALL over his face and his clothes and my clothes. Everyone had a good laugh at us. With the ice broken, the lady opened to the door to her house. “Come in!” she said. “You were just an acquaintance, now I am making you my guest.”
Life is so much less lonely now.