La Bella Donna

“La Bella Donna” - from Untitled Manuscript in Progress

One summer when I was ten or eleven, we drove out to visit a Syrian family we knew in Colorado and side-tripped to see the Grand Canyon. We walked along the sidewalk that goes around the rim and found a nice spot to look around, half way down a flight of stairs to another lookout. Me and Ayman leaned on the rail, my dad fiddled with the camera, and my mother was holding our chubby little Usama, who was maybe two and was tired and fussy, on her hip. Her dark blue jilbab swept the reddish earth and her white crepe georgette headscarf outlined her head against the Colorado sky. She was singing soothing things to Usama.

This elderly white-haired man in an old-fashioned suit, he had this sort of distinguished European gentleman look, was walking up toward us from the stairs below. He stopped short halfway, staring up at my mother. Not like the people in Indiana stared. Different, somehow. “Santa Maria!” he blurted. He took the rest of the stairs slowly, his face all lit up, not taking his eyes off my mother.  Approaching, he gave her a sweeping, gentlemanly bow. “You are beautiful, like the Lady, like Ma Donna,” he said in a gravelly, accented voice. My father looked bemused. My mother looked flustered, like she didn’t know what to do, and said, “Oh! Thank you, sir,” and looked away sternly.

Later in the day, we heard sirens. A police car circling the rim came up behind us and slowed. We scurried to the side of the road to let it pass but it stopped. “Would you come with us, please,” the cops said to my mother. We all clambered in the police car, baffled. They took us to a lookout point, where an elderly man had climbed out to the edge and was poised to jump off. He was going to kill himself. The only person he would talk to is “My Lady Madonna, in the blue robes. Madonna with the child. Madonna of the mountain,” and they finally figured out somehow—bystanders described seeing her in the area— that he must mean my mother.

The suicidal man did talk to my mother and he finally did come down on safe ground. He was the white-haired gentleman from before. “My Lady, you are Beauty itself,” he cried, and before she could stop him he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it.

“No, no,” she said, all flustered again, because she didn’t even shake hands with men, and now her ablution had to be remade, of course. “Peace be with you.”

“What did you say to him up there?” my father asked her later.

“He said he just wanted to go to God,” my mother said. “He said he loved Him, and he just wanted to be in His Beauty forevermore.”

After a moment of silence my father said, “Well? And then what happened?”

“I told him, you don’t choose when you go to God. That’s not pleasing to God. If you love Him, you must do what is pleasing to the One you love, not whatever pleases you. God chooses you. You must wait until He chooses you.”

Because of my mother’s long scarves and gentle ways, I know how to lift my eyes to beauty.
                  —Mohja Kahf


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