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The Hajja is Dying

I have come to Tweisi village on a Dragons trip every year for the last four years, sometimes twice. During my first summer, it was Ramadan and hot as hell; I wrote this piece during that first trip. Everyone gets grumpier as the day progresses and their dehydration hijacks their brain. We were using the living room of our homestay coordinator Khawla, a truly special woman, as our classroom space. Baked by the sun with no air conditioning, we held classes here for eight days in the peak of July. This room was also where I slept, sharing the space with my female co-instructor Britt. We spent most of our time in this room, sprawled out, seeking solitude and rest in each other’s company, and adjusting to the pace of life in the village.

At least once or twice a day, an old woman would find her way into the room. She was shriveled, not reaching 5 feet. Her face was a shade of brown that looked like an acorn baked in the sun, and lined with wrinkles like I’d never seen. She had one good eye, wore a black head covering and black robes, and trudged around on strong, shuffling feet. The most interesting thing about her was her hands: though she was tiny, they were the hands of a strong, large woman. Her body seemed emaciated, but her fingers were gnarled and strong, her hands massive. She carried her 85 years of life all in her hands, it seemed.

I named her Grandma Raisin. She would wander into our class, sit down with some mumbling, and listen for a while. She would sometimes call out comments or questions that were unintelligible to me. Britt and I, and later Ruth and I, would look at each other uncertainly, try to answer, and smile awkwardly at the group before proceeding with our lesson. Eventually I could make out whenever she asked for Khawla, but the rest was lost on me. I asked the family about her, and she is Khawla’s mother-in-law and was in her late 80’s. She didn’t hear or see well, but she got around on her own two legs and a strong will to keep on living. They called her the hajja, which is an affectionate word for an elderly women, usually someone who has made the trip to Mecca for Hajj.

This is my 6th trip back to Tweisi. The most striking thing about how the town has changed since my first visit, besides how much the kids have grown each year, is that this year, the hajja is dying.

Her hair is completely white. Her bony white legs poke out of from under a thick blanket, stirring every so often. She sometimes moans or mumbles and then squeezes her hands, as if in pain or trying to grip something. Her hair has turned from the deep red of henna dye to white. She is never awake anymore. I keep hearing, “I wish she would rest in peace” and her room is constant pity and care.

It reminds me of when my grandmother was dying. Nana clung to her last unconscious weeks of her mortality, I think out of sheer terror for what lay beyond. She had a death grip on life. The hajja, however, has never appeared afraid of anything. On the contrary, it seems that her will to live keeps her from the afterlife, hung in a painful and unintelligible in-between. Her purgatory is taking extra long. They say we’re all dying, but for her dying is an active verb, not passive.

I feel lucky to have dipped a toe into the fabric of this community enough times and with enough consistency that I also share some of the village’s grief. I am sad and moved that the hajja is dying. She has been a pillar of my days here, although one that was confusing and difficult to understand. When I notice my breath catching in my chest as I watch Khawla’s sister-in-law change her diaper, I realize that part of my heart is here with Khawla, her family, and the extraterrestrial mountains of Wadi Rum. It is a token of how much this community has let me in, and how much I’ve let them into my heart.

It’s our second and last night in Tweisi, my shortest visit yet. Khawla has now invited me back as a friend, to come stay with her and “stop worrying about work. You’re always staring that laptop!” It strikes me that I have grown to measure time in the village by the pace at which the kids approach adolescence and the hajja approaches death. I almost expect her to still be around next year, when I hope to return again. May she and the family find peace whenever the time comes.