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Sunday Journal

A young girl's prison

By AMANDA LUCHSINGER
Published July 17, 2005


We met first in a lopsided cinder block house in Yengema, heart of the diamond mining district of Sierra Leone. She was a scrawny 12-year-old with a mop of dirty blond curlicues on her head, and a big, toothy grin.

I was brought to visit by her feckless, but handsomely mustachioed brother Mounzer, who wasted his Beirut American University education on odd jobs and alcohol, and drove 200 miles from the capital city to bring his near-destitute upcountry family supplies and a little money. Age 18 and English, feeling my way through a complicated Arab world, I pushed aside the beaded curtain and walked into Marwa's sheltered life.

Those were the halcyon days, before Lebanon's civil war, when its expatriate Muslim and Christian citizens still fraternized with one another. Thus, when we gathered at 1 a.m. to eat a dinner prepared by Marwa's weary mother and older sister, Christian and Muslim men alike puffed on their Marlboros, scattering ashes over the coagulating hummus and goat cheese until the glimmer of predawn. The women yawned, thankful to be released to their beds, as the mournful voices of the Imams crackled over the loudspeakers of the towns' mosques, summoning the diurnal faithful.

I learned to make sanbusak from scratch on a scarred wooden table, squishing thick green oil into hillocks of white flour with my bare hands. I sprang backward in horror when curiosity led me to lift a pot lid, revealing the grin of a steaming goat's head, engendering much giggling from Marwa and her sister. I squatted with their toothless, gray-haired, worn-down, 50-year-old mother over a charcoal fire on the dirt of the back yard, grilling kibbeh, which I was uncomfortably sure had been made from the rest of the goat smiling in the pot. Marwa sidled up to me, questioning me in very broken English, fascinated by a glimpse of female freedom, blown-dry hair and makeup. "You too fine," she beamed shyly.

Two years later, we met again; now in the capital city, where Mounzer had moved his family to yet another fragile cinder block house, toward which I drove my ancient Morris Mini with trepidation, over a road literally filled with rocks. Fourteen-year-old Marwa was unfolding into a beauty: an exotic face with pale blue eyes, a rarity, even in the Christian Lebanese community. Mounzer had removed his sisters from school, amid complaints that boys were "looking at them."

Marwa begged me to teach her some of my language, and we would squeeze ourselves into a quiet corner of that noisy home, where she struggled to close her guttural Arabic voice around the Queen's English, and held her tongue between her teeth, as she coerced her hand to write from left to right. In return, she taught me how to write my name from right to left, and how to insult her relatives in Arabic, howling with laughter until the tears streamed down her face as I obediently repeated that I admired her uncle's reproductive anatomy. The look of bemused horror on said uncle's face, when I, in my ignorance, actually told him this, sent her into such paroxysms of laughter that we feared for her respiratory health. The men, meanwhile, continued to smoke, and to drink their whiskey, casting the occasional sidelong look at the budding girls.

A day came, when Marwa was 16 and greeted me at the door with a more somber face; in the living room was a smoke-stained, strained silence. When I inquired as to the problem, she told me, in her now marginally improved English, that her 25-year-old "cousin" had "asked for her." I voiced my concern, but was dutifully told that he was a good man who would help the family, as she parroted the persuasive statements of her brothers. She did not meet my eyes. The only drawback, the family agreed, was that the cousin lived in neighboring Liberia, which would take their blue-eyed darling far away, with little hope of a visit.

Within weeks, wedding plans blossomed and fruited, and I watched numbly as 16-year-old Marwa, her curlicues and tears streaming under a white veil which framed her beauty, was married to a short, sandy-haired man with a caterpillar mustache and a slightly pouchy stomach. At the wedding feast, I sat opposite an angelically pink-beribboned child, whose pointy teeth tore ferociously at a stuffed goat intestine of matching hue. I felt bereft and miserable.

The last time I saw Marwa, as she hugged her friends and family goodbye, she tried to smile through tears streaming down her cheeks. I do not think that they were tears of joy.

- Amanda Luchsinger lives in Palm Harbor.

[Last modified July 14, 2005, 12:53:04]


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