The caged bird
Two weeks more… Zeinab thought as she sat down before the laidout dinner on the dining table. Two weeks, and she will be tied to a man she could hardly bring herself to think of as a life partner.
Most of the formalities had been discussed and arranged between her father and uncle — Zeinab is for her cousin Ahmed — and this would be announced officially in an engagement within two weeks. The wedding would take place within a year.
Zeinab was informed rather than asked. Arranged marriage they called it. She never knew what Ahmed thought about the whole thing but to her such a proposal was far from appealing. What was worse, that after marriage, she was to settle down in the country where Ahmed worked as a teacher.
Giving up city life, family, friends, and relatives was another issue worth consideration.
She had just graduated with a degree in History and was looking forward to pursue higher studies and…
“A penny for your thoughts!” said her sister Huda as she sat next to her. Huda was two years younger than Zeinab, and a student at the English Department. The two sisters resembled each other a great deal. Without her thick-rimmed glasses, Huda was always mistaken for Zeinab.
While their youngest sister, Salwa, still at high school, was quite different both in looks and manner. She had a chubby face and Zeinab loved the dimples that appeared whenever she smiled. Salwa, the favorite chatterbox of the family, was with their mother in the kitchen receiving some formal training in household matters.
In a few minutes, they came out drenched in perspiration, and Salwa proudly laid down a plate full of fried fish—their father’s favorite dish. She joined the two sisters while their mother went to knock at the bedroom door, “Dinner is ready,” the mother said softly.
Their father walked into the living room and sat down at the table. Then their mother sat down. They started eating. Since talk about her marriage had started, Zeinab had lost all appetite. She sat there forcing food down with water.
There was an obvious uneasiness in her manner that her mother and sisters noticed, but which escaped her father. He sat swallowing the fish with an exceptional appetite. And, Zeinab kept struggling with the feeling of blurting out the words that surged within her—no matter what I would not marry my cousin.
She must do that tonight—now! If her father left for the café, he would not be back until midnight and then head straight for bed. And, she would lose another chance.
Normally, her father went to the café—a place mainly for men—where over a cup of tea or coffee and a game of dominoes he sat for hours with his friends talking about important matters such as politics, inflation, football, and God knew what else. Zeinab must catch him before he left for the café.
The mere thought of such a confrontation sent a shiver through her spine. She looked up at her mother who avoided her eyes. Zeinab had tried, in vain, to make her mother talk to her father, but she had been as passive as a wall to her appeals. She loathed her mother’s submissive and passive nature before her father.
In her twenty-five years, Zeinab could not remember a day when her mother had raised her voice or argued with him. When Zeinab had said to her that she would rather die than marry a man she had no feelings for, the not unexpected response was, “Ahmed is a nice man… He is a teacher with a good salary and a house of his own. What else would a girl want?” What else would a girl want? The words echoed within Zeinab. It would be utterly useless to explain to her mother—what else would a girl want!!
“Pass that plate, Zeinab!” Her father’s voice cut into her thoughts. Her hand trembled as it reached out for the plate, but Salwa was faster and handed it over. Having done with his dinner, he got up, leaving his empty plate behind. Zeinab’s eyes followed him as he washed his hands, wiped them on the towel and retired to the bedroom. She got up and made sure to avoid her mother’s eyes.
There always dwelled that plea, “Don’t Zeinab. Please, don’t stir up…problems!” But, this was her life and she would not allow any meddling. She dried her hands and walked towards the bedroom. She stood before the thick closed door selecting her words and arranging her thoughts—I’ll not marry Ahmed. I’m sorry father.
It was very simple language. And, before hesitation would overtake her, she tapped on the door, turned the knob and entered. Her father was fastening his wristwatch and a strong scent of cologne wafted through the air. He always cared about appearance. “Father. Can I talk to you for a while?” Her voice wavered as he lifted his bushy eyebrows and fixed his gaze upon her.
“I…” She looked away at her feet and felt the words stuck in her throat, “I’ll… I’m… invited at my friend Samira’s party tomorrow and wish to go.” Courage failed her, once again.
“As long as you’re home by 7:00 and go with one of your sisters, I don’t mind.” Defeated, Zeinab walked out of the room. She met the inquiring eyes in the living room, but without a word flung herself on the sofa.
Nothing would stop this marriage. She felt like a bird trapped in a net and however hard she struggled she would never escape.
She shot her mother a reproachful look and then hid her face in her sleeves. Her mother looked away. Her father left in haste and without a word. Obviously,he was getting late.
As he slammed the door behind him, a disconcerting stillness settled upon the house. Zeinab heard the door shut and with it the hope to escape this marriage was blocked.
For a while, she stared in the direction of the closed door in utter disbelief. Finally, she gave vent to the emotions of wrath and indignation surging within her. Tears gushed out of her eyes.
Salwa and Huda exchanged a concerned look, but remained quiet. No one spoke. They seemed to have run out of words. Silently, they got off their seats and cleared the table.
Except for their father’s plate, the others were still full. The two sisters disappeared into the kitchen to do the dishes making as little noise as possible. It was very unusual for them to go about in such a somber silence.
It was probably due to the tense atmosphere these days within the house. The melancholy had penetrated deeply into Zeinab. She shuddered under its pressure and gave her mother the same reproachful look. Her mother’s face was etched with deep lines and her eyes held a distant look.
She took a deep sigh and with some effort lifted herself off the chair. Household responsibilities and daily chores had weakened her before time. Her life, since marriage, had been devoted to her home and children. The world beyond her household walls was a strange domain. Now, she took out a pile of clothes from a basket and quietly sat down on a chair folding them.
Zeinab wiped her eyes on her sleeves and advanced towards the window. She threw it open. The fresh breeze that greeted her was a relief. She took a deep breath and looked up. There was an eerie washed-out moon in the sky. She stood at the window looking up when angry clouds raced across the face of the moon and obscured it.
This only fueled her frustration. Should she accept her destiny? After all, Ahmed was her cousin and maybe when she got to know him better she would see in him the Mr. Right of her dreams. But, what if she didn’t…. “You better close that window or else put a scarf on your head,” she heard her mother say.
“There’s no one watching.” Replied Zeinab, indifferently. “
You never know whose eyes are watching you.” The eyes of a dark uncertain destiny, thought Zeinab, with a contemptuous smile. Her eyes swept over the semi-illuminated street and rested upon a house in the far corner. She could see that Tareq’s window was lit. He must be home.
Tareq and Zeinab had been playmates and recently he had got a very good job in a company. He had even given her a gift of a beautiful watch when he had received his first salary.
“Mother!” Zeinab spoke without turning from the window, “What did you tell Tareq’s mother when she had expressed her desire to have me as a daughter-in-law?”
"Nothing! That you are officially to be engaged to your cousin on the 20th of this month.” “You know very well how I feel towards Ahmed. I’ve always considered him as a brother and never a husband,” turning around she faced her mother, “And you know my feelings towards Tareq. I have never hidden anything from you.” Her mother kept quiet. Zeinab resented her mother’s expressionless eyes and sealed lips.
Before she could give outlet to her resentment, which would have hurt her mother, her sisters entered the room. Huda turned on the TV and the star of the East, Umm Kulthum, flashed through the screen, her melodious voice penetrated the gloomy atmosphere:
… if a day passes without seeing you, I feel…
For a few moments, the Diva of the Arabic song managed to cheer up the gloomy souls. But, this bliss was splintered by a fumbling heard at the outside door. It was only twenty minutes since their father had left. He could not be back that early, thought Zeinab looking earnestly in the direction of the door.
Her mother and sisters’ gazes, too, turned towards the opening door. The door opened slowly with a creaking sound. Her father appeared in the doorway and slammed the door shut.
At his sight, a voice screamed within Zeinab—I’ll not marry Ahmed. I’ll not marry him—and it grew louder and louder but never too loud to be heard. “Damn! I left my wallet behind.”
He stormed and went towards the bedroom. Drawers were yanked open. After a while, “Where’s my wallet?” He snapped. The mother threw away the pile of clothes on her lap and rushed towards the room. This was not an uncommon scene… sometimes it was a sock, a handkerchief or a missing button. Today, it was the wallet. In the background Umm Kulthum’s voice could still be heard. She had switched to another song:
… Give me my freedom and unshackle my hands…
Zeinab felt as though being mocked. She got up and was about to leave the living room when she heard her father’s fuming voice, “What do you mean she doesn’t want to marry Ahmed!”
For a moment, Zeinab remained stunned—nailed to the ground—not knowing whether she really heard those words. She could not hear what her mother was saying for her voice was drowned by her father’s loud angry voice. “Zeinab…Zeinab!” He growled.
Zeinab looked at her sisters and exchanged a frightened look. Then, she hurried towards the bedroom and entered. Her mother was seated at the edge of the bed. Zeinab hated to have put her mother in this situation, but she couldn’t help it.
“Ye…yes, father.” She tried hard to control the tremor in her voice. “What’s this that your mother is saying?” Her mother cut him short and softly said, “My daughter will not marry Ahmed. She has just been proposed by our neighbor Tareq and she doesn’t mind.”
Zeinab could see her father heaving with bewilderment and disbelief as he gazed sharply at his wife. Turning towards Zeinab, he asked, “Is that true?”
“What do you people take me for?” He yelled out. “I will not allow this... I’ll not back out on my word.”
“I’ve given Tareq a word, too.” Her mother lied. “And, I’ll not back out, either.”
“I’m the man here …” “You are a God fearing man. You know well enough that a bride’s consent is a must for a marriage to be complete and legal before God and the world.”
She got him. Zeinab could see that her father’s voice was lower this time.
“Why didn’t you speak up before?” “You never gave us the chance. You never give anybody any chance. Did you ask our opinion? Did…” Her mother went on. Zeinab was filled with astonishment and admiration as she quietly tiptoed out of the room. Was this her mother?
A childish picture crept up before her of a bird sitting protectively over her nest not allowing anyone, whosoever, to get near.
Zeinab felt a desire to bend over and kiss her mother’s hands and apologize. Maybe later, she would.