This is the first chapter in Lulu and the Very Big Meanies, which tells the reader about my life and family. My tale about the Very Big Meanies is very interesting, I think, because well, hey, it is all about me! Not only that, but it deals with some Very Mean Bullies and kittens. Who doesn’t like kittens?
My name is Laila, but my friends call me Lou. Mama calls me Lulu, and the neighbor calls me Ladybug. Baba calls me Habibti, which means “My Love,” and sometimes he calls me “Habibi Baba,” which means “Daddy’s Darling.” Call me what you’d like– just not late for supper, insha Allah, because I love to eat!
My family and I are American Muslims. We live in a small town in southern Virginia, where there are a lot of farmland and churches all around. We have some very nice people around us, but not many Muslims. Our neighbors aren’t Muslims, and my Tutu and Poppop aren’t Muslims. Mama’s sisters and brothers are Christian, so they’re not Muslims. Mama used to be a Christian, too.
Not everyone likes Muslims around here, but mostly, people put up with us. Mama says the media give Muslims a bum rap. I believe that, because I don’t think I’m an evil person. Mama and Baba aren’t evil, either, even when Mama is yelling at me to pick up the towels off the floor, put my clothes away, clean up my bedroom or stop eating the cookies she bought for school lunches.
(To be fair, she didn’t hide the cookies very well. MOST people put stuff where it won’t be found. FYI, or For Your Information, inside the entertainment center is not a great place to hide cookies, even if your kid doesn’t watch baby videos anymore. Your kid will find it. Better to hide cookies in the Chores Jar. I mean really. Who would look in the Chores Jar?)
Baba has a restaurant where he makes the BEST PIZZA IN THE WORLD. I can say that because it’s true. Baba is a most excellent cook and pizza man. I love him especially much because he gives me anything I want. Almost anything. Unless it’s haram, (which means “not allowed”) or “too old for me” or Mama says no, if I want it, Baba does his best to get it for me. And I have my ways of getting around the Mama restrictions.
Baba is an Egyptian American. I’ve been to Egypt once, so I got to meet all my uncles and aunts and cousins on Baba’s side. They are so nice to me. Mama says that’s “Arab hospitality,” and not to start acting like a spoiled princess, because it’s not becoming– becoming what, she won’t tell me, ha ha. She also says that when they make their way to our home, we need to be sure to show them the same hospitality, because our deen, or religion, requires it. No problems there, as far as I’m concerned. My Baba’s family are all kinds of nice.
Even Uncle Abdel Fatihah, the Cairo taxi driver, is super cool, even if he does drive like a maniac. I love him like a maniac. There are not many people in this world that surprise Mama, but Uncle sure does. When he was young, he had an accident and lost his left arm. That wasn’t what surprised Mama (though I’d never met anyone who was missing an arm, and I thought that was unusual). When we first came to Egypt, he and Baba’s sister, Amitoo Wafaa, came to pick us up at the airport. Uncle’s car is a tiny little Italian car, with a stick shift and a small trunk. We wondered how in the world a man who was missing an arm could drive a stick shift, but he picked us up at the airport, so maybe Amitoo Wafaa helped him? No. He drove and shifted by himself, driving through Cairo like the rest of the crazy taxi drivers. And Cairo doesn’t have any stop lights! Mama was so scared. Plus, we kept on hearing someone honking at us. It turns out, it was actually Uncle honking at everyone else, that is, while he wasn’t steering and shifting. Oh, and talking on the cell phone to Uncle Mohamed, my Sitoo, Baba’s Auntie Fatima and Cousin Hameda. Amitoo Wafaa held the phone up to his ear every time the phone rang.
Mama loves Uncle Abdel Fatihah very much, but won’t let him drive me anywhere. I guess that’s for the best, but it was a fun ride.
Baba and Mama got married about a hundred years ago and had three kids. I’m the youngest– Mohamed and Shawky, or Mo and Sho, as I call them, are my twin brothers. They aren’t quite as good in school as I am, but they are awesome soccer players and they give me whatever I want, just like Baba does. Therefore, they are acceptable to me. Baba taught them that it is sadaqa to be kind to little sisters. Plus, I’ve got skills and I’m not afraid to use them. I can make their lives a living you-know-what if they aren’t nice to me. Let’s just say that I have pushed that envelope. My brothers are tall for twelve-year-olds, Mama says. They haven’t even hit their “growth spurt” yet, but they look just like two matching pimply giants to me.
What can I say about Mama? Mama is the cranky one in the house, but she has her good moments. Once in a while Baba gives her a little kiss on the cheek and she actually smiles! Mama makes sure we pray, eat, get to school on time, have clean clothes and gets us to our soccer games. She’s not a great cook like Baba, but heck, who is? She does make the best cheery pie in the whole world, though. (Cheery pie is kind of like cherry pie, only better, and especially ala mode, which means with ice cream on top. Trust me. Much better.)
Mama calls herself a part-time lawyer, but she doesn’t do very much legal work at all. She says that’s because she’s too busy taking care of us. As if! If she stayed busy all the time, she’d clean our bedrooms and clean the bathroom floor. Instead, she tells us to clean our own rooms and says things like “presumption of culpability” and “de facto disaster area.”
I brace myself when Mama starts talking fancy because that means a storm is brewing in her head, and I don’t dare move. I told her once that I had to run for shelter because she was going to start one of her long windstorms. The details of that incident are ugly. Let’s just say I never made that mistake again.
As for me, I am tall for my age, too, which is nine. I skipped a grade because Mama made me– she said I needed to be challenged. What that actually means is more homework and reading.
Tricky how something that sounds like it should be a pretty good deal, because it’s one year less of school, is actually a bit of a bummer sometimes.
On the bright side, Baba thinks skipping a grade will look good on my record for when I want to go to med school. “Eyes on the prize, Habibti,” he tells me, “eyes on the prize.” I try to remember that when I have to read an extra boring book. Mama says sabr should be one of my personal jihads. I agree in theory, but I just don’t have the patience. Mama shakes her head when I tell her that, because “sabr” means “patience.” Baba laughs so hard every time I say that. He laughs a lot for a grown man, and alhamdulillah, I’m so glad for that. Baba is a fun guy.
My best friend Toni is ten and in fourth grade just like me. Toni is not a Muslim, but she’s been my best friend since we were babies. Now that I’m in her class, though, she’s “redefining and placing restrictions on our relationship.” That’s what Mama calls it. I call it being bossy. She doesn’t want me to laugh in class, raise my hand too much, or tell her fart jokes any more. I understand that she’s just trying to help me fit in, but gosh! School’s hard enough. We have to find fun where we can get it, ya know?
The good thing is, Toni changes back to her regular old self after school. We have a lovely time once we’re back home. We jump on the trampoline and roller skate on the driveway. We also pick on her little brother Spencer a lot– it’s just so easy to do. Once in a while, their mom, Miss Abigail, invites me over for dinner when they’re having kosher, or halal hot dogs. Good stuff, Baba Ganoogie.
Sometimes Mama invites Toni over for dinner, too. This usually happens when my brothers are at my cousins’ house. (Mama says she’s worried about my ability to socialize, or some crazy something like that! I socialize just fine. I think Mama just misses cleaning up after Mo and Sho.)
This weekend, though, Mo and Sho will be home and it’s supposed to be business as usual.