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Mama Versus Taramain
I planned in great detail. It was my parents’ first visit to America, and their first time seeing me on my home turf in twenty-some years. So it had to be perfect, and perfectly choreographed. Their stay had to go without a hitch, with minimal suspicion, and maximum hospitality. I cashed in all my vacation hours. I got entirely too much Lebanese-coffee paraphernalia, set up the master bedroom for them, and ordered Arabic satellite TV. It took me weeks to de-gay the house.

If my interest in politics has taught me anything, it’s that propaganda is 98% truth. So naturally, I started seeing a shrink with Arab background to help me get a handle on the emotional aspects. I mentally prepared an answer for every imaginable query, and an explanation for every piece of furnishing or clothing. Whatever did not fit my new narrative went into storage. Luckily, I had enough time to turn the happy home of two middle-aged homos into what passed for a bachelors’ pad.

Then Mama and Baba arrived—and all controls went out the deliberately-kept-dirty window. They were on a mission to get me married, my brother had forewarned me. They pumped him for information, and when that got them nowhere, they started asking his wife for her womanly opinion on my single “condition.” I understood it is shamefully unnatural for a well-off first-born male to eschew marriage into his (very early) forties. However, I also knew that gay was not translatable into Arabic. So the charade had to go on.

I picked them up at the airport and played tour guide as we drove home. The Minnesota lakes, the rain in August, and the expansive, alien landscape were too much for them to take in at once. Yet they immediately noticed the red car parked in my driveway.

They hadn’t gotten entirely out of the vehicle when Dad asked, “Whose is it?”

Damn the famously flowery Arabic language for failing to translate a simple word: roommate.

“It belongs to the guy I live with,” I answered nonchalantly. Mama froze midway into her exit from the SUV. Her 5-foot, 2-inch, 200-pound frame utterly hovered in space, her cane and one leg touching the ground, the left foot and her backside still barely in the car. Yet she paused—almost as if calculating whether it was too late to go back to the airport, back home, as if the whole trip to America had never happened. The game was about to be over before it had even started.

The accountant in my dad saved the conversation and took it in a better direction. “Does he own a part of the house, too?” “Half,” I answered. “But he’s in Florida on business.” Finally, Mama’s left foot decided to join the family on the ground. She wasn’t about to give up just yet.

“Enter the house with the right foot,” Dad reminded her. I felt a tug as the moment of truth drowned in the backwaters of superstition. Or was it the shame of betraying the basis of every pride parade since Stonewall? Would they be less disappointed if I told the truth like they had taught me—if I came out and thus spared the mutilation of truth, my principles, and my conscience? No time for second-guessing. I moved on and took their baggage into the house. The show must go on. It was for their own good. Like all parents in the Middle East, mine had dropped their former identities when I was born. From that moment forward, they all but discarded their own first names and have been solely, proudly, and permanently known as Abu-Junior and Um-Junior. They now carried myname. Therefore, just like being the prodigal son was not an option, neither was failure. My younger brother was right. No one would want Baba to keel over from a heart attack, or Mama to slip into some inconsolable terminal funk just because junior wanted to “come out.” Besides, is that even translatable?

Hence, life back in the closet was nice and cozy. Mama packed me lunch for work every day. I got wonderfully cooked meals and often not just two but three pieces of fruit. Every day I came home to find another part of the house cleaned or reorganized. The kitchen cupboards got a makeover, Tupperware found their lids, and the spice rack sprouted newly labeled jars with expiration dates and mini directions for use, in Arabic. Baba watered the plants, pruned the shrubs, and tended the garden. He declared war on late-summer cobwebs and went after them with a handheld vacuum cleaner. They loved the house in the suburb. However, it wasn’t too long before the questions came. I diffused them, as planned, by going on the offensive. Every we’d-like-to-be-happy-for-you-and-see-you-married was met with “What! My degrees, my accomplishments, and the nice house are not good enough to make you happy?” When they brought up the subject of grandchildren, I told them facetiously that they would be welcome to stay and take care of them. Their wishes became my burdens. To their credit, they were as caring as they were relentless.

Yet I wanted my cake and to eat it too. I wanted them to meet my partner of eight years, and yes, to like him, even as a roommate. I was sure if they met him they’d fall in love with him like I had. He’s charming, witty, and wants nothing but my happiness. It was time for him to come back from Florida.

If Mama had an inkling of what was going on, she didn’t let on. My guess is that she was still hoping she was wrong. All that changed the day she met him. Up until then, playing the mother of a confirmed bachelor suited her just fine. By then she had completed the takeover of the kitchen and rearranged the closets and dressers. She made herself at home—in her son’s place. Then he waltzed in, welcoming her like he owned the place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then humanity has surely missed out on volumes for my failure to capture on film the look of disdain she shot at him when she first saw him: the ja'rah. Of course, there’s a word for THAT in Arabic. A look so laden with emotions it would take a country song to describe it to westerners. I’ll attempt to describe that ja'rah anyway. Think of the campiest rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” Now take its confidence and confrontation up a couple notches and add a slow tempo of lamentation to capture the disappointment a mother feels when a child’s taste in a mate falls, inevitably, short of her expectations. The refrain might go something like, “Honey, you ain’t woman enough to deserve my son,” but the fervor behind the words never really cools even years after the cheesy melody is forgotten. My well-laid plans started to unravel fast. Had I introduced him into the equation too soon? He and his feelings were new variables that perhaps I had not adequately accounted for.

His homecoming wasn’t at all what he expected either. His kitchen was now foreign territory. Drying bundles of herbs and garlic braids hung limply on the recently painted walls. Kitchen appliances migrated off their shelves and now took permanent residence on the previously minimalist countertop. There was even a dish rack, the epitome of clutter to his mind, by the sink. The takeover of the refrigerator was even more complete. Not one recognizable vegetable, condiment, or smell greeted him. However, the shock didn’t fully register until he opened the cupboard to find his color-coordinated antique fiesta-ware all out of place. Comically, he emitted a soft, high-pitched yelp. It was either meant as a distress communiqué to me or more likely was an escaped echo from the screaming in his head. “What’s with Taramain?” she asked rhetorically as she placed another dish in the rack to drain. Strategic realignment was in order. That night Taramain and I escaped to our usual hangout for a much-deserved beer. I hadn’t had one since my parents came over. He had only one concern. He just wanted to know if they liked him. “Well, besides the couple of jabs you heard her aim at you in English, she started calling you ‘Taramain.’ It’s akin to referring to someone as ‘buddy’ in a bar fight,” I said.

But I had an idea for a possible remedy.

“You see,” I explained, “we are locked in a classical queen-out scenario.” She called our bluff and upped the ante. While the bachelor premise is in play, it follows that no one would object to her being the lady of the house. Unless and until a deserving lady steps in, that role, and more importantly, the kitchen, are hers. Marx advocated such heightening of contradictions. When faced with a bad system, push it to its prescribed yet illogical conclusion in order to make it implode.

Like any self-respecting queen, he listened to my drivel, but he could not stop talking about losing his castle. So I laid it all at his feet. “She’s telling you in no uncertain terms that you’ve been dethroned and you’re not worthy of your title. What may have been your domain is now hers.”

Having abdicated my kingdom first and gone into self-imposed exile in the closet, I knew the pain he must have felt. However, I needed his help to recover the plot. A part of me might have even recognized I was asking him to fight my battle for me, but I still thought I could salvage the situation.

We had to redefine the terms of the game altogether. She was operating as if it were an arms race at the onset of a cold war. We would have to engage her in a way that would make her question whether her posturing was necessary in the first place.

“It’s no longer about who is the real queen,” I told him. “You just have to concede to her the royalty issue, and somehow show her that you have the sophistication and pedigree to observe the proper protocols.”

He was on board within three beers.

The next day I was to work the late shift. When he got home, he was supposed to show my parents the patently Arab trait of utmost deference and hospitality. He would confess sheepishly that he’s no great cook but would nonetheless like to treat them to a nice dinner out on the town. He would not take no for an answer—not until he had asked them politely, and with a generous show of incremental enthusiasm, at least three times. And even then, he was supposed to express more than a modicum of disappointment at their refusal. I assured him the gambit was 99% safe. The evening meal is not as important to them as it is to Midwesterners. Furthermore, their sense of adventure was a casualty of the Lebanese civil war; they really never like to go out after dark. There was almost no chance they would accept. However, his effort would register and hopefully cause the desired paradigm shift.

“Show them they are welcome in your home and in your country,” I goaded him, “and they’ll like you.” D-day came and went. He didn’t even come home. He spent the night at his friend’s place.

The next day, Mama woke me up early in the morning with a renewed sense of mission. “I have a plan,” she said. “Hamburgers and American food will dry up your intestines. Since you’re not going to find Bint al Halal anytime soon, I will teach you how to cook.”

First, I learned how to prepare maghmoor, a delicious meatless dish with Japanese eggplants sautéed in olive oil then stewed with fresh tomatoes, onions, and hulled chickpeas. She showed me how to take the skin off the chick peas, why we peel alternate lines in the eggplants, and which of her fresh spices to use. It turned out great. “Taramain didn’t show up last night,” she said in a subdued yet inquisitive tone—a style diplomats undoubtedly take years to master. “Should I set some maghmoorfor him for dinner?” “No, Ma. Like I told you before, he’s a Midwesterner. He won’t eat anything without cheese or meat.” “Next,” she commanded, “we’ll make mujadarah, baked falafel, and fattoush. Yalla, yalla.”
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