Alice and I have been summoned to Namus. It is unusual for the Namus families to use the phone, so they only did it once: they called Alice, and asked her to call me and tell me the big news. Enas is getting married! At our last visit there had been significant eyebrow-raising and nodding in her direction, so we’re not completely surprised, but we are relieved: she didn’t finish high school and didn’t go to college and, at twenty-three, is a bit older than most other unmarried women. But we love her and want the best for her, and here, that’s a good husband and a solid household. Now here we are, grubby and dusty but bubbling with excitement, walking the last several blocks to Um Shakur’s house.
Technically, this weekend isn’t the actual wedding. As far as I’ve been able to work out, weddings go in two stages. First, a groom expresses his intent and is approved by the bride’s family. Then there’s an “engagement” party, at which the legal marriage document is signed, dowry gold is exchanged, dancing occurs, and a sheep probably meets an unfortunate end as a plate of mensaf. Thereafter the bride and groom are technically married, but they don’t move in together. They can, however, get to know each other a bit better without anybody’s reputation being damaged. In more progressive areas they can even do scandalous things like go out to dinner, hold hands, and even kiss. For most of my acquaintances, this period appears to have lasted about a year, during which time the groom stockpiles household goods, with or without his bride’s input. At the end of the year, there’s another party with the same gold presented again, more dancing, and more sheep meeting unfortunate ends.
Should things not go well during this “engagement” period, either the bride or the groom can call the whole thing off. This requires a technical divorce and a division of marital resources as per the terms of the marriage contract, including the return of the dowry. Because one never knows exactly what sort of hijinks a couple might have gotten up to when they weren’t quite as rigidly supervised, the couple is subsequently considered divorced. More specifically, the bride is considered divorced, or not necessarily a virgin. But I have been assured by everybody with whom I have raised this delicate issue that a divorced but pre-real-wedding woman is almost as good as a real virgin, because she probably didn’t do anything too shocking. So she doesn’t have to worry too much about the damage to her prospects.
As far as prospects go, Enas’s look about as good as we could have hoped. The young man is a cousin from Mafraq. Better yet, he’s a policeman, meaning a steady income and a pension when he retires, and he’s Enas’s age. These facts are related: as a cousin, Yusuf will be asked for a lower dowry price, and for a civil servant the price will be even lower. It can take some men a decade or more to put together the material possessions they need to offer for an unrelated bride, which is one reason that men here are often fifteen or twenty years older than their wives. I’m glad for Enas that this won’t be the case for her.
After dinner, Um Shakur looks at Enas and says, “Okay, now you can show them.” Alice and I assume we’re the “them” — that’s usually a good assumption — and indeed Enas comes scurrying back from a brief trip to the bedroom and squeezes down between us with a box. Inside is gold: bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings. The pile isn’t offensively oppulent, but I guess it’s worth about $1,500, more valuable than anything else in this house. We admire each piece individually and try them all on. Lastly Enas digs out a small signet-style ring and hands it to her mother, who says “Yusuf has to buy me something too. Isn’t it pretty?” as she slides it onto her finger.
After the gold is all safely stored back in its box, Enas returns with her arms full of clothes, and she and her sisters display each outfit in turn as we all make appreciative noises. The sisters try on all the headscarves despite Enas’s protests. Finally, the girls all flop down on their fershas, exhausted and happy for Enas. Enas says, “There’s more, too — there’s fershas and dishes and a proper living room furniture set. But that’s all in Mafraq.”
I ask if Yusuf has a house. Enas’s face clouds for a split second, but then she says, “He has a room next to his mother’s house. But we’ll get our own place very soon.” Then she smiles softly and her eyes slide off into what is clearly a daydream. Whether it is of Yusuf or of arranging her own cabinets I can’t tell.
“Okay, big day tomorrow, it’s bedtime,” Um Shakur says, standing up and clapping her hands. Alice and the various children associated with her portion of the family head up the hill and I try to be useful as Enas and Asra herd their siblings to bed and lay mats out on the floor. It is very hot tonight and I’m delighted when Um Shakur tells Enas that she and Asra should sleep in the living room and take me with them. It isn’t the formal furniture that’s delighting me, either; it’s the small stand fan that I know lives in a cabinet in the living room. Airflow and fewer mosquitoes!
Unfortunately, there’s another small appliance in the living room: the telephone. We have all just dozed off when its loud bell wakes us all back up. We look at each other but nobody moves until Abu Shakur rushes into the room and steps awkwardly over me to answer.
It’s obvious that whatever the whoever at the other end is saying isn’t good. The soft-spoken Abu Shakur is curt as he speaks and then he hangs up abruptly. He leaves and speaks heatedly to Um Shakur. Enas, now sitting bolt upright on her mat, bursts into tears as her mother starts screaming at her father. I don’t understand what they’re saying, as obviously nobody is taking the time to speak slowly and clearly for my benefit, but I sense that Um Shakur is yelling at her husband but not at her husband at all. She’s clearly yelling at whoever was on the phone.
Now she too steps over me on her way to the phone. She even pushes the buttons angrily as she dials. When the line is answered, she doesn’t bother to confirm to whom she’s speaking or to offer any sort of introduction, but launches directly into scolding, chopping her free hand violently through the air. Enas cries harder and Asra scoots to sit next to her, one hand reassuringly on her sister’s leg. Everybody is awake, and I see sixteen-year-old Bakar peeking around the door corner, his face alight with curiousity and a bit of mischevious delight.
It continues thusly for an hour. Um Shakur hangs up angrily, but it’s barely moments before the phone rings again. She yells into the phone and hangs up again. Sometimes she calls them back. Sometimes Shakur yells into the phone instead of his mother. Enas alternates crying and trembling like a Victorian damsel in distress. Bakar dances oddly in the corner, looking very like he’s trying not to laugh. I’m quite sure the back room is full of very awake children, but nobody else emerges. Like them, I hug the wall and keep my mouth shut. Something is very wrong, and I can understand that in any language.
Suddenly there is a flurry of activity. Um Shakur hangs up the phone with rather more force than is necessary and turns and marches out the front door. Wordlessly, Shakur and his father follow her, and moments later we hear the old car’s engine turn over and see the three of them driving, perhaps faster than they usually would, off into the dark desert night. The engine noise fades and a heavy silence descends on the house… for about ten seconds. Then children spill out of every doorway, exclaiming and analyzing and debriefing. Enas makes a half-hearted effort to shoo them all back to bed, but everybody knows the rules are off the table tonight. Everything is upside-down.
In the chaos I manage to catch Asra’s eye and ask her “What was that?” She sighs heavily and thinks for a second as she puts together words I’ll understand. Finally she says only “There will be no wedding tomorrow.” At this, Enas bursts into violent sobbing once again and throws herself dramatically out the front door and onto a cushion on the veranda.
When things calm down a little, Asra and I join Enas on the porch. Children doze off draped over various pieces of furniture, but the three of us are very much awake there under the grape leaves. After a while, Bakar wordlessly brings us a huge pot of tea and three glasses. I have seen Bakar in the kitchen before and know he’s capable of basic cooking and tea-brewing, but tonight it’s clearly a loving gesture from an impish younger brother to a hurting sister. After setting out the glasses, he leaves as silently as he came.
The tea is sweet, and the night is beautiful. And we wait.