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Published on July 13, 2002

The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie

Many extra kilos, a nose that approached grotesque proportions, crippled movement, shortness of breath after uttering three sentences, and taking to sleeping on one side to throw some of the belly weight on the mattress (when not sleeping in sitting position to avoid feeling like a dragon spitting fire from the chronic heartburn) -- these are some of the better aspects of my nine months of pregnancy. And one day, just like that, the cooking stage is complete and it is time to deliver it from the oven. I find myself in a hospital room with many people who find something amusing, if not hilarious, in everything I say; which leads me to conclude that I must look as terrible as I feel.

I am given my son to hold for the first time. I know everyone expects me to say masha'allah and cry, like all mothers do, but I do not say a word. I cannot say a word. I only look at him between my still uncertain arms and a smile that I had never smiled before takes hold of my whole being, not only my face. The longer I silently look at him the more I feel my heart aching -- with joy, fear, pride, relief, tenderness, confusion and so much love. It is dawning on me that these four kilogrammes nursing between my arms represent an irreversible step in my life. I am also hit with the sudden, instinctive, awareness that I will never love anything like this brand new person I am responsible for delivering into this world. A world I know will often bring him harm, and among people I know will sometimes break his heart. And I am realising, in my still fuzzily sedated mind, that there will be times when I will not be able to protect him.

Nurses are handling my hours-old baby as though he were made of plastic, making my heart drop with every diaper change. My hormones crash back to normal like a roller- coaster ride, causing one of the worst cases of post-baby blues ever known to womankind. Everything makes me weep. The baby is out and I feel like an empty shell. I am terrified of the responsibility and I am overcome by a possessive feeling (sometimes even wishing the baby could come back inside), one that overwhelms and confuses me, amuses some and angers others.

But most of all, I am proud. Proud of myself for having produced a healthy baby and proud to be the mother of such a beautiful thing -- for he is really beautiful.

During visiting hours my hospital suite looks like Tahrir Square. People I have never seen before are suddenly allowed to stand and watch as I breastfeed my baby. I never felt more like a mammal. Visitors walk in and out, laughing, commenting on my nose, wondering at the divine miracle that erased all the months-long pimples from my face. I bear it all with dignity and pride, consoling myself in the fact that they would shut up if I should produce a photograph of them when they were in my shoes. That is, of course, if they fitted in the camera frame.

A new flock of visitors has just arrived and begins munching on their hazelnut chocolate (having inspected the wrapping first to check whether the source was "chic" or "yay baladi") while they wait to see my son. Minutes later the little prince's grand arrival is heralded by my beaming mother. "He's on his way! The nurse is bringing him now!" and, as soon as they see him, in a collective voice they exclaim: "Ouuuuhhh!!! How ugly he is!!". All my muscles freeze. My eyes express nothing more than disbelief. They could not possibly have said that.

I wait for a reality check, someone to tell me I had misheard, or that this was only a bad post-anesthetic dream. Yet as they draw closer to him I hear it again: "My god what ugliness" and, turning to me, "how could you have produced a little ugly thing like that although you and his father are both good- looking?". Excuse me???? Ugly??? He is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen, and even supposing he was ugly, how could anyone say this to me, to my face?!

I fidget on my bed. If looks could kill, a massacre would have been reported in my suite. I choke on my tears. I look at my father in desperation, my eyes pleading "say something". The charming visitors finally notice my state and one of them exclaims: "What? Do you expect we will tell you he is beautiful? Well he is not. He is an ugly baby indeed." At this point, I simply decide that this is in fact not happening and that these people are the uncomfortable hospital chairs in human form, part of a hideous dream à la Herman Hesse and David Lynch.

I swallow, with difficulty, and feeling a golden halo descend around my head, I calmly try to analyse the situation. My logic: these people cannot all be devoid of tact, tenderness, manners and compassion. They cannot all be cruel, heartless and rude as their behaviour showed. There must be more to it.

It is only then that I realise that they all share a common understanding of this delivery situation which my personal upbringing did not expose me to -- upon seeing a new-born baby they must claim it is ugly so as to reassure me that my son will not be hurt by their evil eye. It is done in kindness, almost as a favour. Relieved at the revelation and in my eagerness to boast of, and use, my newly-acquired wisdom, it was my turn to be part of this unspoken code of conduct.

One of the ladies is wearing a gorgeous dress. I love it. But I cannot express that lest she think the power of my admiration may cause her coffee to spill and stain it forever. I look up at her, smiling, and say: "I hate what you're wearing. How could you appear in public dressed in such trash?"



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