The wedding party is more or less over by the time I arrive with my friend Um Jihad. She had to be late, because she’s still in mourning for her father who died two months ago, and the singing and clapping would be a violation of her mourning. So the singing and clapping are over, and only a few exhausted close family members are seated around Um Rafiq’s living room when we enter. The lady of the moment, Um Rafiq’s daughter Asya, has stepped out for a change of clothes and a freshening of hair and makeup, and everybody is enjoying the quiet moment with a cup of minty tea.
They are, of course, thrilled to see us, leaping up and shaking our hands profusely. Um Rafiq’s sister kisses me repeatedly. Finally we all settle down into our plastic chairs, staring at each other or nothing at all, and wait for Asya to reenter.
Finally Asya strolls in, eyes watering from an over-vigorous hair-brushing. She shakes my hand first and says, “Never get married; the hairspray will kill you.” She laughs uproariously as she sits beside me and crosses her legs under her black abaaya. The women in the room congratulate her on her gold and remark on the artistry of the henna applied to her hands. In fact, the henna is very simple and looks as though it were perhaps applied by a small child. It’s an arrow-pierced heart with R and A written inside it – Asya’s husband being named Rami.
In short order someone remarks that my palms are currently henna-less. This is an unforgivable sin at the henna evening of the wedding, so even though I missed the actual henna party some henna is procured. After Um Jihad mixes it with some warm water, somebody summons Um Rafiq’s third son, Mohammad, and hands him a toothpick to do my hand. Apparently he is the most talented palm-artist in the family. At first this unnerves me, because Mohammad is roughly my own age and I’m wary of men touching me – at all, anywhere – after two years here. But he manages to decorate my hand with a beautiful and intricate design of lines and dots without ever touching me at all, with the sole exception of one nudge to adjust the position of my thumb.
While he decorates my right hand, Asya reenters the room from wherever she’d wandered off to. She laughs and says, “I’m better at this than Mohammad! Let me do your left hand!” So she sits on my other side and begins by slapping a large, flower-shaped blob in the middle of my hand. But soon she begins to work fine details around the outside that really do rival her brother’s.
As she works, the ladies in the room begin to sing. They sing a wedding song dedicated to Asya, and then, for some reason, one dedicated to me. As they’re singing, a young man walks into the room and sits down about five seats away from us. Asya perks up and points at him with her toothpick. “This is the man I love,” she says.
I’m puzzled, because I’ve met Rami, and this guy definitely isn’t Rami. So I look back at her curiously. “No, really,” she says. “And he loves me. He wants to marry me.”
I look around. The women in the room are nodding, and Asya’s brothers are sitting against one wall grinning stupidly. Her brother Bilal says, “She can’t marry this one because he’s not her cousin. For us, it’s required to marry your cousins.”
I happen to know this is baloney. Cousins are often preferred as marriage partners because they’re known quantities and require less or no dowry. But they’re certainly not the only eligible candidates. So I look back to Asya for clarification.
Asya laughs brightly. “My father wants me to marry my cousin. I think it’s a shame, because I don’t love my cousin. But my father says so. What do you think?”
“I think it’s awful,” I reply, still half-unsure she’s serious.
“Exactly,” Asya says, and nods as she returns to my hand. “Tell my mother that.”
I look at Um Rafiq and say again, “I think it’s awful.”
Um Rafiq laughs, and hearing us, Asya laughs too. “What am I going to do?” Um Rafiq asks. “My husband says she has to marry Rami. That’s all there is to it.”
Bilal adds, inanely, “Women should marry their cousins. It’s best.”
I am still not sure this is all on the level. But Asya laughs again and says, “In fact, I don’t want to get married at all, but nobody really asked me. Oh well.” Then she puts a final dot on my palm and gets up to wash her own hands.
Half an hour later, when we have managed to extricate ourselves and are walking home, I turn to Um Jihad for clarification. “Does Asya really not want to marry Rami?” I ask.
“No, she really wants to marry that other one,” Um Jihad says, more or less without emotion.
“Then… why is she marrying Rami?” I know I’m applying Western logic here, but sometimes I can’t help myself.
“Her father said she had to. When she cried, he beat her.” Again, more or less emotionless.
For a fleeting second I think, maybe I can somehow STOP this wedding. Didn’t they tell us at training about embassy assistance if we need to get out of the country fast? Would they help a Jordanian friend of mine? Could I help her get started in the US?
Then I realize I’m being an idiot. But I can’t hold my tongue. “That’s horrible,” I say. “Why didn’t her mother say anything?”
“Oh, she did,” Um Jihad assures me. “But when she told Abu Rafiq to stop beating Asya, he beat her instead.”
Again I am speechless. Finally I come up with, “In America, when husbands beat their wives, we call the police and the police take the husbands away.”
Um Jihad thinks for a minute. Then she says, “I think your way is best. Maybe even the fear of the police will keep men from beating their wives. Here, men can do pretty much what they want. You know Hibba, Um Rafiq’s daughter? Her husband used to beat her. And that other daughter, the one with the little baby? She’s married to the brother of her father’s second wife, and he doesn’t treat her very well either. It’s a shame because all Abu Rafiq’s daughters are so sweet and smart, and all their husbands are donkeys.”
I sigh. “It seems like all my friends here have bad husbands,” I say – something I wouldn’t have said even a year ago.
“A lot of men are bad,” Um Jihad agrees. “But my husband is good. And your landlord is good. There are some good ones.”
We walk on in silence. Finally, I say, “I don’t understand one thing. If Asya doesn’t want to marry Rami, why is she so happy? She looked happy and she laughed all evening.”
Without hesitation, Um Jihad answers, “She is happy. Once the marriage was a sure thing, she learned to live with it. What else could she do?”