More than Cousins

Arabic vocabulary:

Binti: my daughter (term of endearment)

Jid: Grandfather

Jadda: Grandmother

Na-am: Yes

Hijab: Headscarf

‘Um: Mother

As she lay taking chemotherapy in room 12B, Mary thought of the beautiful Icon of Kazan.  Years ago, she had had it framed in an elegant gold frame, mounted on a rich velvet background.   She visualized it on her living room wall and drifted back 40 years ago to Morocco – to the caves in the Atlas Mountains where she went with her roommate, Beverly –  young women then – Now Beverly sat by her bedside – pain etched on her face as she watched her friend from her youth.

                         Bev do you remember Morocco?

Mary’s voice was high in her mouth and full of breath…

do you remember the story of how I came to own the Mother of Kazan Icon?  You and I were traveling in North Africa, I was living in Saudi Arabia and you had met me in Egypt.  And in Rabat, they had a wonderful Russian Orthodox convent up in the Atlas Mountains where the women were quite famous for their singing of vespers.  One of the women had done some painting of icons and sold them.  She actually had painted the mother and child in the grotto in the caves.  Remember we went to visit her and you bought one of her icons.  

Bev nodded.  She waited while Mary rested and then began to talk again.

She was old and sick – we had to go up the mountain to a little house behind the convent to find her and she was walking us over to where she did her painting.  And when we walked out the door, it was really quite chilly so I took off my coat and put it on her and took her arm and started walking with her because I didn’t want her walking alone.  So when we got there, we went in and you bought one of her icons and we started to leave.  She kept saying, “Miriam, Mary, Mother of God”.   And I said, “No, not me.”  Remember Bev?  She went to an old trunk and pulled out of that trunk, from the bottom of the trunk, this icon.  She gave it to me.  So I paid a small fee to the convent and took the icon.  And I was just stunned that she actually gave it to me.  But, she said she wanted me to have it. 


The two friends sat, each remembering their shared past.

I know, said Bev

she wasn’t speaking English and the priest was interpreting for her.  

Mary took a deep, ragged breath

Well over the years I kept that icon.  Bev – I want to pass it on to the church.  I want them to enjoy it and to use it.  So it can be a treasure of the kind of commitment and involvement that she had brought with her.  I want it to go on and be a part of a living spiritual life – maybe help us learn to live together. 

Bev reached over and held Mary’s hand as Mary’s eyes closed and she slept through the last bit of  her chemotherapy.

Next door in 12C, Nadia A-Alkroumi felt the solution running through her veins.  She closed her eyes and remembered the garden in her grandfather’s home – high in the Atlas mountains.  It helped to think of her grandfather  – in this foreign world.  Nadia felt the cold and pulled the blanket up over herself.  She listened for her grandfather’s voice.  Yes, there it was.  She could hear him, holding her on his knee.

See binti – up there – there is where the Christians live – they are people of the Book – like us.  We must always remember that.  There were women there who helped us a long time ago.   

Nadia had heard the story many times,  but said,

What happened, Jidd.  Tell me please.

It was a long time ago and the French had taken all our grain.  We didn’t have enough to eat.  Then one day, the sisters came down

                        What happened? Jidd.  Tell me.

                       It was a long time ago and the French had come to take our grain.  We didn’t have

enough to eat.  Then one day, the sisters came down carrying baskets of food and

oil.  They helped us.  We are cousins, binti – Muslims and Christians.  We are


Nadia  kept her eyes closed and in her mind’s eye went to the mountains to the grey mountains where long ago the sisters came down.  She watched them walking down.

Mrs. Alkroumi?

Nadia came back to M. D. Anderson with a jerk.


Are you cold?  Do you need another blanket?

Nadia heard the words but didn’t understand.  The nurses eyes were kind – her dark skin glistening in the hospital light.  She wore a brightly colored top.  Nadia shook her head.

Katherine Johnson looked at her patient.  Poor dear – so far from home.  Where is her son? 

She checked the chemo running through the line – “About 10 minutes more”.  She smiled.  Katherine never knew how well her foreign patients understood her.    She left the room to check on her other patients.

Nadia closed her eyes and returned to her childhood and the Atlas mountains.  Jidd took her to the Christian place on the mountains.  She remembered the old woman, wearing a hijab like mama – but this one was black with white around the edge.  Nadia watched the old woman as she sat in a chair painting on a small piece of wood.  The gold paint was so beautiful…

Nadia’s eyes closed and a poem ran through her mind..


      The Healing Touch


A Shaman’s shadow dances

over rivers of lost time

drumming the truth buried in our ageless minds,

to cast out demons

struggling for our souls.

A medicine man in feathered

mask reflects in our primeval

memory to rattle beads flickering in jungle fires

and conquer evil spirits

hovering over our hearts.

Stethoscopes drawn, an army of

whitecoats advances to offer

algorithm armor wrapped in mystery tonics,

to kill assailants

of our body’s cells.

An oil-covered thumb traces

a cross across our foreheads,

emblazing a shield of faith that calls the eternal

to step forth in light

and vanish the devil’s work inside.

A chorus of exaltation,

an a cappella healing

choir of raised voices, sing and praise God’s power filling

your heart with its hymn.

Held by echoes of loving embrace,

the healing begins.  

(Poem by Mary Elizabeth Archer, 2001)

And she slept until her son came in and kissed her on the cheek and whispered,  “’Um – good news.”

Katherine walked next door into 12B.  She looked with compassion at the older woman laying in the bed – her friend holding her hand.  Katherine sighed and smiled at the friend, but 15 years in rooms like these had honed her sense of the disease’s power. She added a blanket to Mary’s feet and left the room.

Months later, Nadia walked through the garden and looked up at the Atlas Mountains.  How often in that hospital so far away she had come in her imagination to this spot.  And yet now, as she stood in her grandfather’s garden with the crumbling wall, looking up at the convent, she felt a vague yearning .  She was a part of something bigger now – much bigger than her grandfather’s garden – much bigger than who she once had been.  She stared up at the convent.  Nadia, looked down at the small black eyed girl who held her hand Jadda – tell me the story.  It was long ago in a place far from here.  And people gave me hope and life.  At first I thought they were so different from us, but I learned we are more alike than we are different. You see, binti, I know that we are more than cousins, we are the daughters of Ibrahim.

And far away, the Icon of Kazan gazed sorrowfully as an elderly woman wept for her own Mary while sunlight wrapped them both in a warm embrace.


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