Story-The Stronger It Gets

The longer the bamia stews, the stronger the flavor gets, Isra’s mother always reminded her.

From the first time Isra’ cooked with her mother when she was just ten years old, she was amazed by her mother’s patience. Her mother could spend hours preparing food, taking only the tiniest of bites and sips a few times over the course of her preparation to make sure her vision was coming to life correctly. Her tactics were so gentle, Isra’ always thought, though her criticism of her own cooking was always harsh. 

As she cooked, she would hum. Her mother would sing softly, as if singing to someone. Isra’ never knew to whom she was singing. While cooking, Isra’s mother would also pray. She would recite Qur’an and bless her children, her husband, and each member of her family and friends. In many ways, cooking was the backdrop for a full day of other activities.

Cooking was the language of love for Isra’s mother, and she spoke it with striking fluency. Anyone who walked through the doors of Isra’ and Ahmad’s home was overwhelmed with love in the form of dishes spread wide across the main table.

For years, Isra’ tried to mimic her mother’s patience in the kitchen, and in all things. She rarely succeeded. 

“Time is flavor,” her mother would tell her, stirring, sniffing, watching countless pots on the stove with unearthly patience. Isra’ loved to cook with her mother, but she could not rival her patience.

“The longer it stews, the stronger it will taste. And you’ll keep tasting it long after you’ve cleaned your plate.” 

To a girl of fourteen, such phrases in those intimate kitchen moments felt sacred; they were memorized and as critical as scripture.

That phrase—the longer it stews, the stronger the flavor gets—rang frantic yet soothing in Isra’s mind for years, even years later when she would try to recreate her mother’s recipes.  

What did she mean? Did she mean something more? Isra’ wondered, and still wonders. 

Her mother was the wisest person she knew, yet her subtlety often made it difficult to know the extent of the treasure that lay beneath the words she spoke on the surface. 

As time went on, those simple words took on a deeper meaning. Isra’ had never asked her mother if there was some hidden meaning, some veiled wisdom behind what, when she was young, was considered just cooking advice. Whatever her mother meant, for years Isra’ guarded those words closely, reciting them over and over as she tried to let go of enduring hurt, pain, and sadness.

When in the kitchen together, Isra’ would often catch her mother closing her eyes and smiling, each smile birthed from a distant memory, from something far beyond the present time. Perhaps she was conjuring visions of meals past, still able to taste what her mother had cooked for her, and her grandmother before that.

While Isra’ never articulated her impatience in the kitchen, her mother knew. Her mother knew Isra’ did not like the wait. 

“Patience, my dear” her mother would tell her.

“Waiting is just a test of hope” she added. “And you are hoping for good food, yes?” And with that, Isra’s mother would close the lids across the burners. In ritual predictability, she would then continue humming or singing softly across the kitchen, offering a lullaby to escort the moment, the feeling, of cooking with her daughter into memory.

The longer it stews, the stronger the flavor gets. The longer it stews, the stronger it gets. Isra’ would never forget that phrase.

What was true in the kitchen was true for much of Isra’s life. 

Since the earliest incident of insult when she was just eight, Isra’ let her feelings stew. Since that first moment of tightness in her chest, of feeling teased and rejected, she dwelled on her height, on what she saw as a permanent flaw. 

And so, her feelings towards others and herself simply stewed like bamia, getting stronger over time. She let her mistrust grow. She let her fear of people’s judgment grow. And those feelings grew stronger with time.

Since third grade, Isra’ had avoided those girls who had teased her. They were from several minutes’ walk away. At the time, the kilometer between Isra’s house and those girls’ house seemed far. When Isra’s world was small, it was possible to avoid them, to treat them as foreign, to a certain extent.

Over the years at school, as they all transitioned from grade to grade together, Isra’ did her best to forget them, to cast them out of her mind, her thoughts, her activities. She instead clung to a small group of friends she had known from the neighborhood, to Marwa and Mariam and Sara—faces she did not doubt. Faces she need not fear, and whose words never hurt her.

But beyond her circle of close friends, Isra’ was hesitant to trust. She had few friends. She trusted her closest friends, her mother, her father, her brother and sister, and no one else. She trusted them not necessarily because they did anything to earn that trust, but because they knew her weaknesses. They knew her sensitivities. They knew how much certain words could hurt her, and they never spoke those words.

Isra’s eyes and ears cooperated with her sensitivities. They had grown in line with her feelings. 

Just as had happened in the third grade, Isra’ had learned over the course of many incidents to listen closely to what people said. Those years ago, in the third grade, she was barely within earshot of those girls who mocked her. Yet she heard them. The simple, passive act of hearing them started a chain reaction of listening day after day, listening from farther and farther across the room, preparing herself earlier and earlier to ward off any impending feeling of shame, of embarrassment, of disgust.

Her constant need to listen to those around her had its advantages. Isra’ knew how to pay attention, and she learned to use it strategically. She was a brilliant student. She knew how to listen. She could retain facts as easily as she could retain insults. Isra’ rarely forgot what people said—forgetting was weakness.

Remembering was protection.  

The longer it stews, the stronger the flavor gets. That phrase would pop into Isra’s mind at the strangest of times. 

Isra’ would often hear it, like a whisper, when she began to get angry, or when someone mentioned her height in passing. She often heard it in her mother’s voice.

And in those moments, she would shut her eyes, as she did those years ago in the classroom, and try to dismiss the surge of thoughts that would inevitably arise.

Let it go, she would tell herself.

The stronger it will get, she thought.

And in those moments, she would breathe deeply and shut her eyes even tighter, until her thoughts calmed and her heart slowed. She tried not to let the hurt stew. She tried to react the same way. She tried her best to prevent words from growing in strength.

As a teenager, Isra’ tried her hardest to emulate her mother’s patience. She tried her best to calm her heart when she felt pain and anxiety. At the time, Isra’ had no idea how patient she would have to be, and how much her heart would need her calming voice to guide it through challenges she never expected during those peaceful days of cooking with her mother.