The Orange Pouch
I reach the threshold of my teens without displaying any signs of normalcy defined by the image that Father imported from his native provincial town in Historic Armenia, now Eastern Turkey. That image has been frozen in his memory for forty years and at this time I have to live up to it as a young girl in Cairo - a bustling, Westernized, modern city. The generation gap, in our case, is an abyss. Is it any wonder that whenever we meet, we collide?
Cairo is a cosmopolitan city. Store windows display the latest fashions from Paris and the most recent magazines from America, England, and France, among others. The movies are as varied. We have English, French, Italian, Arabic and sometimes Indian films. Intercultural sports like football, basketball, rowing and ping-pong, to name a few, are organized year round. It rarely rains in Cairo. The city offers a variety of diversions, like music halls, exhibitions, charitable events, and excursions to the beaches, sailings on the Nile, visits to industrial centers and other recreational areas like the Dam on its outskirts and the surrounding parks. It is a far cry from what Father is accustomed to for family entertainment but he regards anything, other than what he experienced in his hometown, as distracting and sinful.
“What is the world coming down to? Back in our time we didn’t think of fun. We helped our parents . . . ”
At each mention of “back in our time . . . ” I cringe.
The presence of the British Army creates another cultural imbalance. Local young girls, as well as young men, are recruited as civilian workers. The soldiers date the girls. Father cannot accept such changes in lifestyle.
“How shameful. In our time, we didn’t see a girl until our wedding day”! Is he going to use the same methods on me? I shudder at the thought of being given away to a man I have never met. I certainly would like to measure his ability to think and feel before saying “yes”. I am like a mouse trying to hang a bell on a cat; all protests and no solution.
Father expects me to be an accomplished housewife like Mama; sew quilts, cook dolma, make preserves, and raise children, even though this is a gross underrating of her qualities. I have no interest in such homely occupations in Cairo, which offers more options than domesticity. I want to go to school and read to my heart’s content.
“What do girls need an education for?” Father repeats often. “Once a woman earns money, you can’t control her.”
“Control” irks me to no end. It is demeaning to be controlled like an inane person. I wish Mama were alive to defend me. She is probably turning over in her grave now. What happened to the promise to Mama to educate me?
"You should learn how to keep house,” Stepmother rubs in. "How will you ever be ready for marriage?"
Sure, I think. It suits you fine.
I already provide mundane daily services and, whenever we have an occasional maid, train her to Stepmother’s directives.
"She used the same sponge for the fatty dishes as for the water glasses," she complains one day. “You didn’t teach her properly!”
Mea Culpa! We are taught to respect our elders and serve them. How can I train the maid? Each newcomer is older than I am and turnover is high. Progressively their services are curtailed in favor of mine. If only I could leave the way they vanish!
“Do you see what I have become?” I confide in Kev, “I’m no better than a maid!”
“What do you think I do?” he replies, “I have to be in Papa’s shop during all my free hours! He uses me as a delivery boy.”
“Why can’t she do some of the work?” I complain. “She’s supposed to be our Mama!”
“She’d drown in a cup of water!” Kev remarks with disdain, and adds, with a sour note, “Papa pays his help weekly. I work there for free.”
His and my concepts on lifestyle differ distinctly from our parents’. Kev occasionally escapes to the Armenian Fine Arts Club where he enjoys playing ping-pong or socializing with friends. I love reading and bury myself in books, anything I can lay hands on; novels, non-fiction books, anthologies, and dictionaries. Even the labels on Quaker Oats tins that come in several languages are not immune to my voracious appetite for the printed word. I read books secretly, for a long time after I go to bed, in the shadow of the hall light, by moonlight, or by the light of the street lamps shedding pale beams through the window. I slide them underneath my notebooks at my desk whenever I hear footsteps. I read them walking to school, in the classrooms, at recess, in the restroom. It is an addiction all right. My parents cannot tolerate this abnormal attraction to the printed word.
“Those books are raping your mind!” Father yells with exasperation.
I’m not going to give them up whatever you say! I determine. Without a real mother, whose advice I can trust, books are my guiding light and my fantasy world. They provide excitement, exhilaration, dreams and a bridge to the outside world. They teach me high aspirations like the ethnic poem “Rise and raise others with you,” or excerpts like,
“Always target the summit
In trying to reach your goal.
Even if you don’t reach it,
The effort prevents your fall…”
I am fascinated by new words. I entertain myself for hours looking up synonyms. One summer, I decide to learn the whole French dictionary by heart.
The past year has been particularly enlightening. English has been introduced into our curriculum - the fourth foreign language to ingest. The teachers encourage me by giving additional reading assignments to test my progress. English opens up new vistas for exploration and it is very convenient. Since my parents don’t understand a word of it, I can pass off the extra reading as course study. Under the circumstances, how can I waste my valuable “homework” time doing dull needlecraft?
“Who will want her with her nose always buried in books?” Father worries. “If she would only make some effort at keeping house!”
“She’ll have books in her bed, instead of a husband,” Stepmother predicts.
I’m not going to sit home and listen to this! I decide. I’m going to work and get out of this hell! But who will hire me at twelve?
“Eli has already a few pieces of embroidery to her name.” Stepmother can certainly provoke me by referring to the neighbor’s daughter.
“Eli’s mother helps her with needlework,” I protest.
“Nonsense. Eli does all the embroidery.”
I don’t want to add that Eli does not have responsibilities at home. She does not have brothers to take care of. Besides, her Mother supplies Eli’s hope chest with additional purchases from a peddler, on an installment plan, to increase her chances at marriage. My parents fear I will have nothing to show. What is stored in my brains does not count on the matchmaking scoreboard.
While we each reinforce our positions in our rooted opinions, I am well aware I have fallen behind in needlework, a required course - or rather curse - in this instance.
Embroidery does not stimulate my mind. I might have developed a knack for it, were I left alone in my developmental cycle. Mama used to embroider in a relaxed atmosphere and that picture of serenity is etched in memory. Now Stepmother’s remarks, “All girls learn needlework. You should have started on your trousseau already!” sound like I am a hopeless case.
The phrase “all girls” always gets to me. Who are these virtuous girls with nimble hands that put me to shame?
My needlework lies around untouched for days on end. It has an interesting design - a basketful of flowers, printed on linen, containing a variety of colors and stitches. In an effort to protect it from dust, I fashion a string pouch from two pieces of orange silk left over from Mama's days. Always trying to be original, I cross-stitch my name on the pouch in a surplus length of pink floss, the way Mama taught me. The pink and orange combination does not produce the artistic effect I had in mind.
Dangling from the S-shaped hook of our mirrored coat hanger in the hall, that eye-catching horror jiggles and sways at the lightest touch, doubling itself in the mirror. It is the first item to attract anybody’s attention, even the devil's, should he choose to cross our threshold. Father sees the pouch the moment he steps into the house. I can tell if he has had a bad day at work.
"Did you work on your needlework today?"
His green eyes bulge out of their sockets.
I really want to yell, “I don’t like it, damn it!” but I don’t want to precipitate my funeral. Instead, “I had a lot of homework,” I say.
"I don’t give a damn! You could have done it if you wanted to. You always have plenty of time to read those stupid books!"
The scene continues at the dinner table.
“I work so hard all day and nobody around here gives a damn! I see other children how good they are, how they help their parents, never answer back! Why can’t my children be like them? When will you learn to behave?”
Kev and I sit there like convicted felons, eyes nailed to the dinner plate, waiting out the storm.
I am really sorry that I do not measure up to Father’s expectations. He is indeed a hardworking man who does not see much of daylight. Unfortunately, he does not see much of life either, beyond his tunnel vision. Since I have never seen the small town he came from, nor do I care to, I have a hard time understanding his irritations.
“Teacher said it’s all right to read. It’s good for us.”
“To hell with your teachers! You should listen to me! Everybody gives free advice, but I am the one who pays your bills!”
Most surprising of all is his reaction to my report card. Father flings it into my face.
"Why do you have eights and nines?" he bellows. "You should have ten in all subjects. After all the money I’ve spent is this what you end up with?”
Before I can offer an explanation, he yells in a crescendo; “Six for needlework? Of what use is your going to school when you fail at needlework! Why can't you sit down and do something worthwhile for once instead of reading those stupid books!"
I am not sure if Father understands that there are no perfect grades beyond kindergarten. I am top of the class. My teachers prize me. My classmates envy me. My relatives support me. In fact, my reputation as a smart girl puts me under pressure to face more challenges than I care for. Why doesn't he understand that I am doing the best I can?
After a while, Father’s misgivings become normal fare in life, the bitter pill before dinner. I have no intentions of giving up my books! They are my lifelines.
Perhaps I am as unflinching as Father, waving the orange pouch at him as my first symbolic banner of revolt, followed by many more acts of irreverence against the Establishment, as my teenage years wear on. The readings teach me character, change my fatalism into realism, inspire me to be pro-active, and to fight for my rights. And fight I will, if Father does not thaw his image of “all girls.”
To be treated as a valueless human being, fit only for the background of family life, without any voice or rights, conjures nothing but indignation. Perhaps my power struggle, symbolized by that orange pouch, originates from the collective consciousness of women aspiring to a voice in their own right. Perhaps I am a maverick. I want to break the shackles of tradition that keep girls servile and ignorant. I feel something is unleashing in me. I want equality, the recognition of my emerging self and the preservation of its dignity.