I ran, breathlessly, to take the best seat at the decrepit dinner table before my brother could get to it.
“Afshaneh, let the men eat first,” my mother briskly sneered at me, aggressively nodding her head. I made my way into the kitchen.
Friday dinners at my uncle’s house were the happening hotspot for heated debates and political discussions. Differing opinions would be thrown from one end of the table to another, while simultaneously stuffing a handful of Basmati rice soaked in Korma daal hurryingly in their mouths. But, it was always the men at the table. Always the men of the family in discourse. On the opposite end of the house, in the stuffy kitchen were the women : flipping one piquant golden Bolani after another to ensure they were served piping hot to the hot-headed disputants. It was the unspoken tradition. I was the server, bringing the dishes from the kitchen and placing them in front of my uncles. Listening in on their conversations intently but never uttering a word out loud.
“That argument is not based on any factual evidence.”
“ The statistics show otherwise.”
“ It was clearly a case of vindictive litigation so it isn’t even worth discussing.”
“ That is the politically incorrect way of saying it.”
“ Uncle’s wrong again.”
These thoughts would flood my head after every plate I set on the table. I would think to myself. But I always kept my opinions to myself. Always. We weren’t expected to participate in their deliberation. Until that day.
My uncle was jokingly rating his wife’s cooked dishes and I blurted out, “How can you be the judge when you don’t even know how to cook?”
A rush of instant regret overcame me. I took my eyes off the tray, only to receive terrified yet simpering smiles from my aunts and a visibly perplexed look from my uncle.
“What did you say?” the awakened menace in his voice prevailed over the unwavering throatiness of it this time.
He seemed startled by my out-of-place input; angry and maybe mortified too.
Dare I repeat myself? I wondered for what seemed like an eon while the others watched in silence, none touching their plates anymore. No one wanted to make a sound in the terror of the deafening silence that hung in the air while my uncle stared piercingly at me. He had never been challenged like this before- the eldest of all his siblings, the sole breadwinner of his house – his say was the first and last.
The crispy Copan kababs were getting cold and limp as no hands flew to grab them before they were gone unlike usual, the stove was left on, unlike the regular rush to turn it off at the earliest to save gas, as none of my aunts moved a muscle; everyone was petrified for me. I had done the unthinkable. Questioned the question-maker. Challenged the undefeated. Disputed the uncontended.
“I just asked how can you judge something you are not an expert at?”
My uncle blinked his heavy-lidded, umber brown eyes twice, slightly twisting his head toward his left shoulder, in disbelief. “Aren’t you getting a little too smart for your age, little girl?”
“So, you’re saying I’m smart?” I replied almost instantaneously and regretted almost instantaneously.
Aghast gasps echoed throughout the damp, cramped dining room, one exclamation louder than the other.
Answering back to your elders was almost as sinister as going out after dark for girls in our locality. If you did either, you were immoral, disobedient and shunned by everyone and their mother. My mother quietly but hurriedly grabbed my arm and pulled me away, whispering hasty, muffled words into my ear but I knew what they were. The usual. The rudimentary. How rude I had been. How much I had shamed her. How I had no manners and how I wouldn’t be allowed to go to the bazar with Razeda later that afternoon. No sooner had my mother rushed me into the kitchen through the huddled hush hush of the other spectators, my younger cousin informed us of my uncle urgently summoning me back into the common room. By this point, a sudden, gnawing dread started weighing me down as I made my way back with the same stony stares insistent on being affixed on my every move. Had I really crossed a line? What if he was furious and never lets me have dinner with the family again? Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Innumerable thoughts engulfed my mind and none were solutions to the unnerving state of affairs I was about to find myself in.
“Come here, smart girl, have I got some questions for you.”
He didn’t sound entirely angry but you could never tell with him. So inscrutable; one instance he could be serenely phlegmatic and the next hair-raisingly petrifying. Who was he going to be this time?
“Tell me, now, what do you think of the new driving law that was passed in Saudi?”
“Give me your opinion, child.”
“I – I think it’s a great law and every girl should be able to do what every boy is able to do everywhere in the world.”
“Do you now? Hashar, move over.” He gently ushered my elder brother up from his seat, whose face was painted with a shade of discernible dubiety.
My uncle sedately signaled me to take his place instead to which I shared my brother’s perplexity but did as I was told.
“Now, I don’t think it’s a good law so, debate with me why you think otherwise.”
As vastly flummoxed as I was, I iterated my points as I had often done with my friends at school. Debating came natural to me. My uncle was unflinchingly composed and listening to every word I said as if he were watching the 9 pm political talk show on Shamshad TV. I couldn’t understand what was happening and visibly, no one else in the room could either. A communal confusion was shared by the family and the debate continued back and forth.
After a few rounds of humorous contention yet no reasonable resolution reached, the unspoken words were spoken and the unbroken tradition was broken.
I became a regular in the following debates and my opinions were heard loud and clear.