Out From the Shadow of Men
That evening, while the sun prepared to set, we followed the daily mealtime routine. Around the dining table, we settled into the seats our father had assigned. With Rawyia to my right, I sat as rigid and brittle as an old piece of wood. Hala, our fourteen-year-old sister, who always chewed her fingernails, sank into her chair to my left. Hady and Samir, the two youngest, laughing discreetly, scrambled to get the seat closest to Mama. Facing us was our older brother, Reda, and our cousin Ahmed. Ahmed’s mother had died giving birth to him. When his father, Papa’s stepbrother, had passed away two years later, Ahmed had come to live with us. Our parents treated him like a son.
Silence shrouded the room, except for the occasional sound of Rawyia’s exasperated breath. She was annoyed by Ahmed’s spiteful stares. Rawyia maintained an unyielding animosity toward Reda and Ahmed. She rejected their control and the privileges our parents gave them.
We waited for our father before we could serve food onto our plates. All of us had learned to accept the rules. No other family functioned like ours.
Rawyia and I read books about freedom of speech and expression of opinion, yet Papa forbade the use of those words in our home. Our father controlled every move we made, every breath we took.
Moist, heavy air fogged the mirror of our mahogany buffet. A lazy breeze tinkled the crystals hanging from the three-tiered chandelier, announcing yet another silent mealtime with Papa. The signs of summer permeated the atmosphere.
Mama stood at the door in a loose, light cotton dress. Our father’s deliberate footsteps echoed down the hall from his bedroom. Mama confirmed with a hand signal that Father was approaching. We all stood.
Papa entered the dining room like a general who had come to review his troops. He concealed the fatherly warmth we craved behind his austere facade. We had been trained to accept our father’s stern appearance. It was his way to enforce obedience and respect.
He stopped, his hands behind his back, and drew his short frame to its greatest height. His upper lip twitched, and his chest rose and fell behind his starched white-collared shirt, still with its morning creases. My father’s hawk-like eyes darted left and right, before fastening on my face. I shivered.
The three female servants scrambled to perform their last-minute tasks before he would sit down. They polished the wood of his armchair. The older maid, Om Zoubeida, kept a sharp eye out for flies and buzzing mosquitoes that might trigger our father’s anger.
Mama followed the routine. She served Papa the best helping first. Her sad eyes revealed a dejection I had not seen before. An ominous feeling filled me. I rested my hands on the back of my chair and hoped dinnertime would be short and Papa would not announce new rules. I could not wait to escape into my fantasy world with Ghassan.
The gentle heat of the Alexandria sun still warmed my skin. I dreamed of the next day, when I would plunge again into the lapis lazuli waters of the Mediterranean. While I dreamed, I could neither escape nor ignore the frown on Papa’s face. My heart expanded with joy, then constricted with anxiety as I recognized Papa’s tense look. It was the kind of tension that preceded serious announcements. I turned my gaze to Mama, standing behind him, but she avoided my eyes and moved to her place at the table opposite Papa. Papa sat down, and we all followed.
We grew up with our father’s detachment and unfriendly demeanor. But that evening, something in his behavior seemed different. His aloofness lasted longer than usual. An ominous feeling warned me that Papa would impose new rules for our beach excursions. I took a deep breath and waited for his lips to move.
Two male servants stood behind Reda and Ahmed, ready to take their orders. For the simple event of having been born boys, our brothers and Ahmed enjoyed a privileged treatment, almost as special as Papa’s.
My aunt Akeela and her adult daughter, Fareeda, sat on the sofa in the glass-covered balcony adjoining the dining room. They always ate their meals together there and never joined us in the dining room.
We waited to hear our father say Bismillah—“in the name of God”—so we could eat. Mama cleared her throat, a gesture she used to break the silence and prompt my father to eat so we could begin our meal. Nothing happened. The air felt stifling and hard to breathe. Loula and Calipso, our puppy and our black-and-white cat, stopped playing with Rawyia’s and my feet.
I looked at Papa, alarmed at how he clenched his facial muscles. My heart raced beneath my ribs, and sweat broke out on my forehead. We had not started eating dinner yet when Papa gave my sister and me a most challenging look.
“Next Thursday, you and your sister”—he pointed at Rawyia, then me—“will be betrothed.” He cleared his throat and took a sip of water. “Your wedding day will be decided later.” Papa blinked with every word of his announcement.
His voice sounded like the hissing of a cobra, and his tone felt as sharp as a bee’s sting. My alarm was realized. When Rawyia’s hand squeezed my leg under the table, I knew what I had heard was real and not a dream. My father’s face looked as if carved from stone—not a trace of emotion, grave or spiteful, except for his blazing eyes. Those eyes were the only thing that told me my father was still a man and not entirely devoid of human feeling. Now they burned into me, yielding no sign of fatherly love.
Betrothed? How? And to whom? Those words kept ringing in my ears. Although I saw my father’s lips continue to move, I could only hear his pronouncement tolling again and again in my head: “Next Thursday, you and your sister will be betrothed.”
Rawyia and I sank deep in our seats, unable to do more than stare up at him. After a moment, we glanced at Mama. She lowered her head and left the room.
“Five years ago”—Papa’s voice echoed again, crushing our already-shattered world—“I promised Laila to Farook and Rawyia to Gamal. I honored my word with the recitation of Al Fatiha, the opening words of our holy book.”
Panic tightened in the pit of my stomach. I tried to make eye contact with Rawyia to get some idea of what all this meant, but I could not connect with her. She had an intense look on her face. I sank deeper into fear.
Across the table, Ahmed smirked. Reda nodded, as if pleased with the announcement. The whole room seemed to shimmer and waver. A rush of emotions consumed me. The announcement left an acid taste in my throat. I wanted to scream and tell my father, You cannot decide for me whom I will marry. You cannot force me to marry someone I have never seen or heard of before. But the determination in his eyes paralyzed my thoughts and my voice.
My dreams of education and summer on the beach with Ghassan vanished in a second, and a dark cloud of despair enveloped me. My entire future had been shaped. My father expected me to accept it. Sick to my stomach, I sobbed and ran to the bathroom. Rawyia trailed me. Mama joined us. Papa followed her.
“Minak Lillah ya, Kamel!” Mama said, giving Papa a look of blame. “May God be your judge, Kamel!”
“I’m all right,” I said, but my head ached and my heart pounded. My ears rang, and my pulse seemed to repeat my father’s word in cadence: betrothed, betrothed.
Mama stroked my brow. I reached for her hands. A strange new sound reached my ears. Papa’s face was red, and his eyes glistened. He reached inside his pocket for his handkerchief and blew his nose. In my mind, I saw love in his teary eyes. It hurt me to see my father cry.
This was the second time I had seen his tears. The first time he wept was when Rawyia and I had a tonsillectomy. I was five years old, and Rawyia was six. After the surgery, Papa stood weeping at the recovery-room door. He could not bear to see us in pain. I loved my father and trusted that he would never do anything to hurt me, but today, he had betrayed me. I wanted to ask why, but I knew better than to question his word. So, hungry for an answer, I looked at Mama.
“Your father loves you. Trust his decision, my love.” Mama saw the disappointment and mistrust in my eyes and shook her head. She had no choice but to support my father’s decision. “Many parents choose husbands for their daughters,” she said. “Girls live a happy marriage.”
Mama’s words sounded empty and void of conviction.
“How do you know, Mama?”
“This is our culture,” she stressed. “You have to live by its rules.”
Mama had no better answer. She always used culture and religion to legitimize our father’s control.
“I promise you, Mama,” I said, shooting my father with eyes full of anger, “I will not follow this culture with my children. They will have the freedom to choose whom they marry.”
Mama shook her head with a wry smile. I knew she did not believe me.
For a moment, I thought of standing up to my father. But I feared that behind his show of sadness, rage brewed, and it frightened me. Without uttering another word, Papa turned and headed toward his room.
The sudden loss of my dreams and aspirations gave me enough courage to voice my anger for the first time.
“I hate you, Papa!” I yelled. Mama covered my mouth with her hand.
“Accept your fate, my dear,” she pleaded. “It is the will of God.”
“Mama, don’t blame God for Papa’s decision.” I held Mama’s hands and faced her with a desolate look. Even though I felt her pain and torment, I could not give her the compassion she expected.
“It has been as hard on me to accept your father’s order as it is on you,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. Mama was always honest with me. In this case, I knew she told me the truth. I loved her dearly.
“Laila and I,” Rawyia spoke up, “will challenge our fate.”