Okay, I don’t want to leave you in too much suspense, Dear Reader. There was actually no reckoning.
In fact, the post-wedding evening was pretty anticlimactic. After our cake and cleaning we all went to sleep just like usual. In the morning, newly-married Enas made breakfast and managed her siblings just like she did every day. Presumably her new husband was, somewhere else in Jordan, also going about his regular business. It was all a little peculiar, in fact, as nothing at all had changed. Enas was a bit richer and we were all a bit sleepy. That was all.
We knew it was going to be a shorter engagement than usual, because Yusuf is family and so much of the dowry had already been procured. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when my phone rang only six weeks later and Shakur gruffly informed me that I was to appear the next day and would I please bring Alice. At least they thought to take turns with their notification process! So Alice and I packed up our same dresses and headed off to Namus as instructed. This time I have left my jewelry at home.
When we arrive, we’re surprised by the subdued situation. We’ve been in Jordan long enough to know that the actual, handing-over-of-the-bride section of the wedding is just as frenetic as the engagement. But Alice’s family isn’t even at my house, so she heads off alone to trudge up the hill to find them. I join Enas and Shakur sitting calmly on the front porch in front of the ubiquitous pot of tea.
“No party today, huh?”
Shakur grunts into his tea and Enas jerks her nose up in the unspoken Arab gesture for “no.” Now that I think about it, they both seem a little annoyed. Maybe petulant.
“But there is going to be a wedding, right? No late-night trips to Mafraq?”
They both glare at me.
It’s only when Asra joins us that I finally get an explanation. Yusuf is a cousin most closely related to the family via Uncle Mohammed, who lives up the hill. Someone — I’m not quite clear who — in Uncle Mohammed’s family back in Mafraq has died. Usually this would be cause for nothing more than a moment of silence or tut-tutting, but because of the new closeness between these branches of the family, our little group is technically in mourning. Wedding festivities can still occur, but they have to be shorter and more subdued than they would be otherwise.
“But don’t worry,” Asra reassures me. “We’re still totally having mensaf for dinner. In fact, Shakur, go kill the goat.”
Shakur rises and wanders off and I definitely do not watch where he’s going.
“Where is everybody?”
Enas sighs. “One of my cousins is getting married. They’re all at that wedding.”
“Two weddings on one weekend?”
“It’s my father’s family. And I’m not allowed to celebrate anyway. In fact, I can’t even go. Brides can’t go to each other’s weddings. People would want to congratulate me and ask me about my situation, and that’s not fair to my cousin. So my mother and her sisters went but nobody younger.”
I nod. I also understand that she means her mother, her aunts, and Uncle Mohammed. I’m struck again by how this family seems unusual, in my admittedly limited understanding of Jordanian culture. I’m not sure how they ended up in Namus because they’re not from here, and that makes the situation even stranger. At some point, one of the sisters moved here with her husband. Since then the other three sisters have all settled here, and their widowed mother to boot. With Abu Shakur gone almost constantly at work and Abu Ali having unfortunately passed away, Mohammed is the only husband and father in the family most of the time. He’s got a strong personality but he’s also clearly outnumbered.
Just before the mensaf is served, little Hamza is dispatched up the hill to tell his cousins to come down if they’re hungry. They all come and we find ourselves with quite a little party, including at least two people interested in eating the brains. Shakur makes a loud point that Alice and I should have first dibs if we want them. We don’t.
The tween-aged sisters clear away the dishes and sweep up and the older cousins lean back contentedly on their fershas. It isn’t until the greasy rice has digested a little that we all look around and notice that the little party here is all under 25. And we can all sense a restrained, excited disappointment that the evening is so uneventful. Nothing is really spoken, but somehow we all decide to celebrate Enas our own way. Bakar pushes aside the coffee tables as Shakur sets up the rented sound system and asks Alice if we brought any western music to add to his pile of cassettes. We turn over the tapes we use on the long bus ride down and for the next twenty minutes the village is treated to a happy combination of singers from Amr Diab to Elton John. You can actually do a pretty good traditional dance to “Bennie and the Jets.”
Then it’s over as suddenly as it started. Shakur quickly cuts off the power to the stereo as we hear Mohammed yelling his way up the stairs. He stands in the front door and reads us a riot act about respect and propriety and he will not have it. The family reputation is on the line! What do we think we are doing! They can hear us all the way at the other wedding! He’s still riot-acting as he stomps back out of the compound and off to the other festivities.
Once he leaves, there is giggling. But the music stays off, and Alice’s family goes home.
In the morning, Um Shakur provides what I have come to think of as the “emergency breakfast”: yesterday’s leftover bread. The bread is baked fresh every day and has no preservatives, so yesterday’s bread is usually at least dry and sometimes absolutely impossible to chew. This is actually why it’s one of my favorite breakfasts. Leftover bread comes with tumblers full of tea specially mixed with heaping spoonfuls of Nido powdered milk. Stale bread rehydrated by dipping into that ambrosia is absolutely delicious.
Nobody’s cooking because there are Things To Do. Shakur and Bakar are busy recreating their throne platform — this time with only one throne — and the younger girls are moving furniture and hiding other decor in the back rooms. Enas, Asra, and their mother have gone to a real salon in Madaba and to pick up the new wedding dress from the rental facility. When everything is ready, we get dressed, and fifteen-year-old Basma makes sure I have an appropriate amount of gold jewelry. Then we sit. The whole village knows we’re in mourning, so they won’t be showing up as early or as eagerly. We can’t provide the same caliber of snacks in mourning and there won’t be as much music.
While we sit and wait I have ample opportunity to observe that this time Shakur has managed to procure a string of Christmas lights that play music. The tinny, repetitive tune is well on its way to driving me completely insane before the first guests arrive. Because our “mothers” and older sisters are missing, Alice and I end up addressing more unbridled curiousity from our neighbors than we ever have before in Namus. We refuse on principle to discuss our sex lives, but field questions about our incomes, our parents, and whether we’d like to marry someone’s nephew before things really pick up. Finally the number of women reaches a critical mass and the older ladies start singing traditional wedding music and clapping and we can fade into blessed, if relative, obscurity.
It is approaching 4 p.m. when the dark sedan pulls up in front of our house and the process of removing Enas from the back can begin. This time her skirts are even hoopier and her bodice is even plungier and the dress itself is white. Her hair is just as high and her makeup just as sparkly as it was two months ago, but the cheering and clapping to greet her is even more excited. After she is successfully removed from her automotive prison and escorted to her chair I notice that the person with her whom I hadn’t recognized is actually Asra. Asra looks gorgeous. I know I keep trying to apply Jane Austen to these very non-British women of the twenty-first century, but I wonder if this is part of her assuming the title of oldest (and therefore most marriageable) daughter. I don’t get to ask, though, because she’s busy waiting on Enas, never leaving her sister’s side.
Enas looks a little less terrified today, but only a little. She returns blessings to every woman in the room, as the blessings of a new bride are particularly coveted. The women sing and a brave few dance. The room is crowded, but only the one room. Outside, most of the men appear to actually be sitting in the plastic chairs and I hear no drumming.
That is, of course, until the Mafraq crew arrives. And they announce themselves not with drumming but with gunfire. Once again the sedan leads the procession and Yusuf’s closest friends and relatives shoot gleefully out the windows at nothing. The buses vibrate with the sound of drumming, clapping, and singing as they pull up in front of our house. Most of the guests stay on their buses, but several of Yusuf’s friends disembark from their sedan and climb onto the bus behind them. I’m busy wondering why and don’t notice at first that Enas is standing and that she looks more terrified than ever as she gazes over my shoulder out the front door. I am absolutely positive she’s going to barf and wonder if Asra is prepared for that eventuality.
But she doesn’t barf. In fact she holds it together as the crowd jostles itself into a path again. At the far end of the path I see Abu Shakur, Shakur, and cousin Ali standing in the front door. Abu Shakur is holding a kibr, the traditional brown cloak of the Bedouin men. The three cross to behind Enas and then spread the kibr between them and wrap it gently around Enas, over her head and shoulders like a comforting blanket for a baby. Some of this is because she’s dressed the way she is and she’s about to go out into public. But it’s more than that. Right now, Enas’s father, brother, and cousin provide her shelter and protection, and their cloak is the symbol of their love and support enveloping her as she leaves them, in a sense, forever.
Enas bursts into tears.
The men gently escort the wrapped-up, weeping bride down the path of women whose singing and clapping escalates with their every step. They escort her down the stairs and out of the compound. And then they gently, lovingly deposit her into the back seat of Yusuf’s sedan. Or as gently and lovingly as those hoop skirts will allow.
While his sons fight with their sister’s skirts, Abu Shakur returns to the house in search of his wife. The lady in question has thrown herself down across Enas’s throne in what is unquestionably the most emotion I’ve ever seen her show and is sobbing vigorously into her own sleeve. She only lets herself go for a few moments, however, and allows her husband to scrape her up and half-carry her out to the sedan in which Enas arrived earlier. She is wiping at her own cheeks as they pass me, but they pass closely enough that I am able to see her husband’s cheeks are wet as well.
After Enas is safely deposited in the figurative arms of her groom, his convoy screeches away towards Madaba. Because the groom’s family is from so far away, they have rented a wedding hall in town where they will host all the guests and not impose on the bride’s family. Our guests leave in a flurry; some of them will join the party in Madaba. The house is suddenly, starkly empty. The Christmas lights sing their tinny song. For a moment, we are bereft and quiet.
Eventually we cram an impossible number of people into Um Shakur’s car and Shakur drives us to Madaba. There is cake and soda and a videographer who shoves his camera into everybody’s face. We each pose for photographs standing between Yusuf and Enas on their elaborate wedding-hall thrones. Asra and her siblings sit glumly at a table in the corner and I know their mood has nothing to do with being in mourning. We don’t stay very long.
But this family is naturally exuberant and this wedding is, after all, a good thing. Our evening meal is cheerful and as normal as it can be without Enas presiding over the teapot. We watch tv. Um Shakur sews. We go to bed.
The next morning also features emergency bread, and when I’m done with every last molecule of Nido-tea I pack up my backpack to start my trek back to Irbid. When I enter the front room, Um Shakur looks up and shakes her head at me.
“Don’t leave yet. If you wait an hour, I’ll take you in to Madaba.”
“That’s okay. I’m meeting Alice.”
She smiles into her own lap and says only “I think Alice will be coming in to Madaba with us too. Just wait, we’ll all go in.”
I start to protest again but Asra takes pity on me and says “Don’t you want to say goodbye to Enas?”
I’m shocked. “I said goodbye to her yesterday! Didn’t they leave last night? What do you mean?”
Asra grins. “Come on. You wouldn’t want a bride and groom to have to drive two hours after their wedding, would you? They’re in a hotel in Madaba. We’re going to go have breakfast with them. It’s tradition.”
I’m flooded with thoughts. I suspect I can guess what tradition this is that has morphed into a civilized breakfast. At least I hope it has morphed. It had better have morphed. But I can’t for the life of me figure out a way to ask for further details without opening up a can of worms I do not want to open. So I just sit right back down and wait until I’m told to get into the car.
Alice is, in fact, waiting for us as we pull up in front of Um Ali’s house to collect Ali and Um Ali. When we arrive at the hotel in Madaba, we find Mohammed and Hala there as well, and we all walk together into a sort of parlor where tea and biscuits are arranged on the table. After a few minutes, Enas and Yusuf join us. Enas is fully dressed in a new but totally ordinary outfit. She is wearing an ishaar and the way it looks so odd on her causes me to realize I have very rarely ever seen her outside her own house before. She looks grown-up and awkward. Yusuf is wearing what I believe are pajamas, although they could be an interpretation of an old-school smoking jacket and pants. He projects his usual cocky confidence and pats Enas’s shoulder as often as he can contrive to do so. Alice and I try not to make eye contact, because we know we will giggle.
It isn’t until we are well out of Amman and headed north to Irbid that Alice shares her nugget of treasure-information.
“I found out what it was, the night of the whole thing with Mafraq. At least I think I did.”
“You what? Oh my god. Tell me.”
“As far as I could understand it, it was all Grandma. She has some old beef with Yusuf’s family. She couldn’t say much about it during the negotiations but she called Mafraq and said something that upset them.”
I let this settle for a minute, but it doesn’t make sense. “I don’t get it. What do you mean she called Mafraq? Is there a phone in her house?”
We sit in silence. I realize that I haven’t seen Grandma this weekend. In fact I can’t remember seeing her at the engagement party either. Grandma doesn’t socialize much so this hadn’t seemed weird at first, but now it kind of does. Then I think about that night. I think about how late at night the phone had rung, and that the person on the other end was clearly in the throes of a reactionary anger. I think about Grandma, mother of four unusually autonomous daughters. I picture a tiny, bent old woman, clad in a black blouse under a black jumper-dress, tiptoeing her way into her daughter’s house after everyone has gone to sleep, and dialing a number nobody knew she knew.
“That is maybe the best thing ever.”
“Yep,” Alice agrees.