6TH SEPTEMBER 1961.
A Town On the East African Coast.
Hayaat could hear great aunt Noor’s voice. She leaned her head towards the door her ears perked up.
Was that Khala Salma laughing? The last of the evening’s sun’s rays struggled through the wooden crevices
of their bedroom window making patterns on the concrete floor.
More voices. More laughter.
Sarah burst into the room with all the energy and enthusiasm of a six year old. “Hababa Rgeye is here!
Hababa Rgeye and Amme Khadija also.”
Hayaat smiled and gathered the little girl into her arms. She stroked the hair that only this morning she had
combed and twisted into thick long plaits.
She could hear the voices. She wondered why they were all coming in one after the other.
The grandmothers from across town. The aunts from beyond the creek across the bridge.
She wondered why Mama had been coming in and looking at her with sad eyes all week.
Why Baba had beamed at her and patted her head. Why he also had sad eyes.
She had stopped asking about the other thing. She had stopped peeking out of the window whenever she heard
Muneera and Rashid every afternoon as they headed towards the city square.
“Someday,” Hayaat vowed to herself.
But the dreams? She could no more silence them than she could forbid herself from breathing.
They were a part of her.
Sarah grinned. “It’s funny when they do that,” she spoke showing the gap in her mouth where some of her teeth
had once been.
Hayaat froze. Ululating women. That could only mean one thing.
Sarah, as if sensing her sister’s distress, hugged her tight.
The door to the bedroom burst open and there was Amme Khadija larger than life.
“My brother’s daughter!” she boomed.
Dutifully, Hayaat got up and kissed the older lady’s hand. “So pretty, like your Mama, mashaAllah!”
She fumbled about in the bag she had come in with. “Give me your right wrist,” she instructed.
Six gold bangles with beautiful filigree and intricate carved stars were slid over Hayaat’s slender fingers to
settle perfectly on her wrist.
Hayaat blinked, passed her sleeve over her eyes, swallowed the lump in her throat. She turned away as her heart
screamed a tight, muffled, helpless, hopeless NO!
By the time the men left the masjid after ishaa prayers, the Jabir’s house had filled with more guests and
Hayaat could smell the heena that had already been prepared with the thick tea leaf water and, at Hababa
Rgeye’s insistence, lemon juice. She didn’t know who had summoned her friends and agemates but here they
were in her room now.
Muneera was there as well. While the other girls giggled, whispered and peeked outside the window she sat
next to her friend and squeezed her hand.
Hayaat supposed she ought to consider herself lucky. At least she had had some clues as to what was coming
her way. The ululations. The gold bangles. The fitting for new clothes.
Others, she knew, had been taken by surprise and shock. Hayaat had no doubt still more would meet with the
same fate. Would Sarah’s destiny be similar? Hayaat felt sure that Sarah would not take it laying down.
She would fight for herself.
Then she heard it. The drumbeat that caused her heart to race until she felt as if she was suffocating, drowning.
The clap of the wooden ‘maragiys’ startled her out of her frantic frightened thoughts.
Amme Khadija was standing over her with that beautiful green striped sarong with the velvet trim used for this
purpose and this purpose only.
Hayaat closed her eyes and let the soft fabric cover her head and fall caressingly to her knees.
She felt Amme Khadija put her arm around her and lead her, like lamb to the slaughter, to the courtyard where
she had seen earlier they had set up a pavilion and spread out mats.
“Ya ahla wa ya sahla,” the women sang in Arabic. Amme lowered her down and placed her head on someone’s
lap. She knew it was Hababa Rgeye’s. She could smell her oud and the scent of jasmines.
She had seen this scenario many times in her young life. She knew the women were showing off their long hair
and their dancing skills in her honour. She also knew why she had been placed at Hababa’s lap and no one
Hayaat wanted to shout STOP!. She wanted to ask who her groom was. She wanted to know if, at the very least,
he was young. Raadhiye, her friend and neighbor, had not been so fortunate. Mahfudh was good looking but
ancient at twenty five years old!
The drumbeats, which she usually enjoyed hearing, and the clack-clack of the maragiys which, when she was
Sarah’s age she had enjoyed playing with, were deafening to her at such close quarters.
And then it was all over and she was being led back into her bedroom.
It was the same room she had been living in all her fifteen years but somehow it was different.
She was different now.
She felt a hand squeeze her own but she couldn’t meet Muneera’s eyes. She had let her friend down.
Muneera was strong, mashaAllah. She spoke her mind clearly and loudly. And her father listened.
Hayaat had difficulty speaking up. Voicing her opinion. Saying no. Expressing her needs.
Even though her father was a kind and generous man.
“I want to go to school.”
She had practiced saying this from the time she knew what school meant.
She had enunciated the words silently as she helped Mama cook and carried her baby brother, May Allah rest
his soul, around on her back. She had wanted to say them afterwards, after Mama had stopped crying, after she
had given away little Umar’s clothes, after she had started to smile again.
Hayaat found it strange that at a time like this she was thinking of her brother, his sallow complexion,
his stick like arms and his luminous smile. A charming little fellow destined to bring nothing but joy to his big
sister till the time he had breathed his last as she tucked him in to sleep.
She had not had the heart to bring up school; not wanting to add more grief to her already distraught parents.
She watched with hungry eyes as Muneera, holding hands with Rashid, left for a few hours of school every day
after their Quran lessons with their father.
She pored eagerly over the books that Muneera snuck in to show her.
“Hayaat, I will come every day to teach you.”
“I want to go to school.”
Words she had never said and wouldn’t ever now.
What she said instead was: “Who is my ‘kilaan’?”
“I asked your Hababa Rgeye,” Muneera said defiantly. “It’s Mbarak.”
Hayaat smiled in spite of herself.
Mbarak the Show-off.
Mbarak ‘I-don’t-have-a –single-serious-bone-in-my-body.’
Mbarak Mr.Moneybags who everyone knew as kind, respectful and ……..well educated.
At least he was not old.
Had he had any say in the matter? Hayaat wondered. Had he articulated his desires?
Perhaps there had been another young maiden he had wished to be betrothed to instead of her?
Or had he stood, head lowered, yielding to his parents’ wishes?
Had he gotten to choose his jalabiya and his uqaal? Had he polished the ceremonial wedding sword himself?
Or had they been thrust at him much like the way her wedding ensemble had been handed to her?
In that moment of helplessness; of their complete and utter deference to their parents’ design for their lives,
Hayaat felt a kinship with the young man who, she suspected, in spite of his outer happy go lucky demeanor
was just as bewildered as she was.
September 12, 2001.
Hayaat knocked and then walked in.
She took in the bright coloured walls, the wide French windows which framed the view of the Indian Ocean
below, the desk with the knickknacks.
Hayaat smiled when she saw the poster of the Bollywood star still hidden in plain sight.
It was old and tattered but still part of the family.
The bedroom closet was open and clothes, shoes, bags, trinkets were strewn all around on the bed, over the
dressing table chair, in the open suitcase on the floor.
“Mum. I don’t know what to take with me and what to leave behind”.
Hayaat sat down on the floor next to the young lady. “Khala Sarah is coming. She will help you figure it out.”
The hall was filled to capacity. You could hear the maragiys from the street. Some of the street urchins, across the
road from the hall, delighted with the exotic sound had begun dancing to the beat of the drums.
Hayaat stood at the entrance, a soft green striped sarong with velvet trim in her hands.
She could see the car from where she was.
Mbarak got out and opened the back passenger door. A petite young woman emerged, fully cloaked in an abaya,
her face covered. Mbarak hugged and placed a kiss on the top of her head.
He was reluctant to let go; wanting time to stand still; wanting his little girl to remain his little girl; afraid for her
and what the future held.
Overcome with emotion, he stepped back and let the women get on with it.
For a long while he sat in the car, his forehead on the steering wheel until he finally backed up the driveway
Hayat looked into the young woman’s eyes. She could see nervousness, excitement and a sense of wonderment.
She pulled away the niqaab. Her face was glowing, a shy nervous smile on her lips.
Hayat held tight her youngest child and only daughter.
“Ready, my precious?”
Dr. Muneera Mbarak Al-Ahly, PhD in Social Sciences, nodded.
Hayaat slipped the green cloth over her head and led her to the circle of women singing “ya ahlan wa ya sahla.”
Hayaat placed her daughter’s head on her own lap.
She had come full circle.
- Hababa: grandmother
- Amme: paternal aunt
- Khala: maternal aunt; also used to address ladies senior to one’s self whether related or not.
- Maragiys : wooden pieces, the size of a hand, used in Yemeni weddings as accompaniment to the drum
- Kilaan: bridegroom
- Ahlan wa sahlan : welcome
- RUBUUT: ceremony to ‘inform’ or introduce the bride to the larger society.
In the past, used to announce to the young girl that she is getting married.