i work with a wonderful person named Nabeeyah Saeed. We just call her Bea. Bea was born and raised in Michigan but her family is originally from Yemen, and that's where her husband was born. Alot of their family lives in India, particularly in and around Hyderabad and Madras. Last sunday they invited us over for dinner.
When we first got there, Mr. Saeed treated eliot and i to a nice, cold XXs. apparently, he's crazy about mexican beer. i can empathize. we talked alot about the trip, his family, our family. we had some chili / lime fried chips (also from mexico). as we munch down and knock back beer it occurs to me that mexico and india have a lot in common. deeply religious, traditional older folks set against the modernization of the young, post colonialism and (as i've mentioned here) a love of mixing sweet with spicy. also, dancing.
mr. saeed talked a lot about his time in madras as a young man. about brahmans looking down on those lower than them (in the caste system, that's everyone else), about Sikhs hating muslims ... some strong words were exchanged. at the end of each assertion, though, Mr. Saeed would sweep it away. "Do what you want to do" he said later in the evening. "if people don't approve, then to hell with them. Go somewhere else." I guess that's how he ended up with Bea, in America.
Bea is a perfectly western woman. She lied to her mother to play soccer, hid her intentions to join the FBI and ended up working as a director of nurses at a hospice taking care of the dying. she does what she wants, says what she thinks and has one of the biggest hearts in the world. Mr. Saeed is a blessed man, and he knows it. As much as Yemenis extremists have been in the news, here are two wonderfully loving Americans, sharing food and wisdom with a couple of wide-eyed american-born idiots. Mr. Saeed left Yemen, then India, married a strong, independent woman and settled down with his family.
Bea makes Yogurt curry, rice, green beans and tuna curry. There's chutney, and chili sauce and something i can't identify - another chutney maybe? It's green and spicy and tastes good with everything. Me and eliot eat two plates before taking a break. I want more but i'm stuffed. I drink the rest of my beer to calm my stomach down. Everything tastes amazing.
He beams when his sons are in the room - he has 3. He scolds one of the young ones who is playing his video games upstairs too loud. he tells us about the food in india, how he loved curries and hot arabic dishes ... about how madras is the perfect city for vegetarians. He tells us that when he got married, bea told him she'd cook dinner on the first night. She made sloppy joe's. He was expecting curry and rice. Bea didn't know how to make curry (she grew up in Michigan - remember?).
Later we're in the garage. Mr. and Mrs. Saeed are smoking. Bea is sitting on an old bow-flex machine and Mr. Saeed leans on a desk. Eliot is in front of a heated and i'm in a plastic lawn chair. It's so cold we can see our breaths. Their cigarettes look warm.
"My sister was the third woman in Yemen to drive a car," Mr. Saeed is saying. "And you know, nowadays, that's okay. But then it was a big deal. It was Ramadan and you know, you're not allowed to eat all day. So people go out, they go for walks, they drive, they go to the market or the mall. So we were out driving and this guy, he stops us because my sister is driving. I get out and we start talking ... he says this ... I say ... I said a bad word. And it was Ramadan so I can't say these words. He pulls out a J-knife, a big knife, you know a j-knife? And he comes at me and I grab a rock and I hit him in the face." Eliot and I share a look.
We're back inside and the Saeeds are telling us about places to go, people they know we should look up. Mr. Saeed makes chai - we each have at least two cups. The tea is strong - and perfect. Mr. Saeed tells us to eat "paan" whenever we get a chance but to be careful where we spit - the treat turns your saliva red. He says to stay away from "sooka." It's like paan but stronger, made with some kind of tobacco or cannabis that will "turn our heads," he says. He says even indians won't touch it, the smart ones anyway.
We shake hands about a dozen times, i'm writing everything on my phone. We say goodbye five or six times and finally, four hours after arriving we walk out to the car, leftovers in our hands.