Finalist of the “One Thousand Nights and Awakening” literary contest
Caption: Hussein Square, three o’clock in the afternoon.
The heat is suffocating. It is either that or the salt my body clings to that makes me sweat even during wintertime. My mother tells me to hurry up and so I lazily pick up my pace. I stare at the front of the modernized mosque, at the badge crowning it with God’s name, and at the electronic umbrellas that open to shelter people gathering to attend the Friday prayer from the sun. The square is divided in half by an iron palisade that opens and closes if need be. The first half bustles with street vendors putting their cheap Chinese ware on display, tramps, women painting with henna, and farmers who have traversed hundreds of kilometers to receive the blessing of the House of the Prophet. The second half, outside the mosque’s precinct, is where the tourists amble about around the coffee shops, the tourist restaurants, and the bazaars selling the antiques the place is crammed with. One of the men working at the bazaar is seduced by my yellow hair and green eyes, and speaks to me in English. However, once he sees that I am neither European nor American, he smiles and utters a gross flirtatious remark. I get nervous and hasten away to position myself behind my mother. She stops one of the passersby to inquire about where to find the lady’s entrance. I ask her why and she shoots a disapproving glance at me: “We go inside, my darling, to receive God’s blessing, things of the Lord: He moves in mysterious ways, Hussein.” She then pulls me behind her toward the door.
Inside the mosque, inner peace overtakes me and I almost succeed at forgetting the stupid business that has dragged me down here. My mother clasps the iron fence around the vault and starts mumbling unintelligible words, while I begin to recite the Fatiha for all the deceased among us, the deceased among the devotees of the Muslim faith. My mother winds up her rambling babble and pulls me behind her once more, this time toward the exit. The place is overflowing with shops selling regional jilbaabs, belly-dancing outfits, drums, and castanets. Tomorrow I will be sealed inside a piece of paper written down by the one wielding authority and the day after tomorrow I will be shipped off to a land that uses oil to water its dirt. The man becoming my husband in the eyes of the Lord and the Prophet is a man who has come to marry a woman he doesn’t know.
My mother has her own specific way to deal with me. She never forces me to do anything, but she keeps repeating herself over and over while slightly changing the way she articulates her speech until I cannot bear it any longer and end up caving in to her demands. When I made Hussein’s acquaintance and he proposed, she wouldn’t stop jabbering on about his big family, his estate, his good values . . . She was not alone: my sister, my maternal aunt, her daughters, my paternal aunt, and the rest of the females in my family all sided with her. I held firm to my will for a long while. However, in the end, unable to withstand all the pressure, I consented.
The mother of the man who is going to marry me in the eyes of God and the Prophet has asked my mother to buy me a dance garment. At the time, she bent over my mother, whispering something in her ear before they both shrieked with laughter. Who on earth does he think he is, this moron? Harun al-Rashid? My mother stops in front of one of the shops. A frock leaving little to the imagination has caught her attention.
She therefore inquires about the price, to which the chunky seller replies, “Three hundred pounds.”
My mother feigns surprise and adds, “Why? That’s way too much!”
The salesman plows on with persuasive enthusiasm. “On the contrary! This is a one-time deal! It’s the real thing! Ask anyone—I am the most famous draper around here. And this gown right here was worn by this female star . . . in the movie The Last Celebration. Exactly this one.”
I get this feeling that a huge catastrophe is about to happen, the sort of distress that is constantly haunting me. The chunky salesman continues preaching the uniqueness of the dress, as if describing the features of a Mercedes or a business jet.
“I take it for two hundred pounds.”
I think about the stranger who is going to become my husband in the eyes of the Lord and His Messenger. On the first night, he is going to profane my body. How will I be able to nestle in the arms of a man whose sweat I loathe the smell of?
My mother is still haggling over the price.
She asks me, “Darling, what do you reckon? Any objections?”
“Mother, I don’t know where to start.”
The Author, Amr Nasr Hassan:
Egyptian engineer, short-story writer, and scriptwriter. I am 26 years old and have thousands of years’ worth of dreams ahead.