Archive for March, 2010

Aleppo Wedding Chapter7 (Aleppo is in the north of Syria and is where our large rugs are made)

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Standing with his hands splayed flat on the glass topped counter in front of him, he stared through the glass at the rows of hand creams and toothpastes without seeing them. His mind’s eye was busy with pictures of Sarah’s straight fair hair – she hated the word ‘blonde’ with its association of ‘dumb’. He remembered her laughing at jokes, being serious about politics and sentimental about anniversaries and animals. The little black kitten she had adopted must be a mature cat by now. The reverie ended when a woman walked in with a spotty teenager, needing his advice about acne treatments.
The days passed. He told his mother that a friend from England was coming and he wanted to invite her to dinner, and kept his voice and manner cool and casual. This was a useless strategy. His mother’s psychic maternal antennae, tuned to the sound of anything female in the vicinity of her son, picked up what he thought was hidden excitement, which made her both inquisitive about and hostile to this perceived threat. Nury understood the reaction and let it pass over him. He managed not to hear remarks about ‘foreign girls with no morals’, and answered blandly the pointed questions designed to discover his real feelings. The thought of a family dinner was daunting but unavoidable, it would be extremely difficult to explain to Sarah why, after she had crossed Europe to see him, his mother did not want to show her the Arab hospitality he had boasted of. On the whole he was reasonably sure that his mother’s good manners would prevent her from being unpleasant.
After several days of rain, welcome but messy in an arid region, the thirteenth was a bright sunny day, quite typical of the Syrian winter. The clear blue sky was like a picture postcard, and the stone buildings looked clean and pale grey after the rain. The same rain had washed the dusty trees, and the evergreens added to the freshness. The tour bus was due at 2.30pm from Palmyra, so he had time to shut up the pharmacy for lunch and walk up to the Emir Hotel to meet it. The rest of Wednesday and Thursday were dealt with by a small sign on the door “Closed due to sickness”, and Friday was his holiday, so he would be able to spend all his time with Sarah.
He had to avoid puddles, patches of mud and splashes from cars, but reached the hotel unscathed and rather early. The time passed slowly after he checked that he had the right date and that they had not arrived yet. He stood by a large marble trough in the foyer, watching fat goldfish flipping about, and he was as bored as they by the time the bus arrived at almost three o’clock. Sudden nervousness kept him inside the foyer, but he recognised Sarah through the window as soon as she swung down from the bus, her head turned back to talk to someone behind her. Quietly he stood looking as she walked into the hotel, waiting for her to look round and notice him.
She saw him very quickly and left the group to come across to him. The others were being herded into a corner of the foyer to be welcomed with orange juice or beer, but Sarah and Nury stood a little apart from each other, looking at each other long and rather shyly.
“Hello, Nury, it’s good to see you. I wondered if you had got my letter.”
“Yes. Well, it was easiest just to be here. You look very good. Are you enjoying your trip?”

Aleppo Wedding Chapter 6

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

He asked politely but without any undue warmth if they had enjoyed the visit, but was alerted by his mother’s reply, a firm negative, as she poured her breakfast tea. Sensing a more interesting story, he raised an enquiring eyebrow at his father; already well on with his breakfast and clearly trying not to laugh. Now intrigued, he asked about the family but again the answer was uncharacteristically brief. Knowing his mother, he decided to say no more, and after his father had finished and left the table he had only a few minutes to wait before it all came tumbling out.
“What sort of an aunt does she think she is, I ask you? I knew my brother should never have married her. She hasn’t the brains of a hen!”
“Oh, yes?” put in Nury helpfully, to fill the gap.
“She took me to see that girl – white as snow and eyes blue as blue indeed!” She bit vengefully on a green olive, then proceeded. “I wouldn’t have thought even your aunt could have been so stupid. Of course she knew, that’s why she was so cagey about the girl – thought with her looks we’d have her anyway.” She had been helping herself to apricot jam, and here she paused and pointed the spoon at him before continuing. A drop of jam dropped onto the dish of small slices of white sheep’s cheese, it looked rather pretty he thought. His mother noticed first his glance then the jam, made an irritated “Tchah” noise and replaced the jam spoon. Dipping pieces of the thin bread, called khubs, into the jam on her plate, and taking alternate bites of that and pieces of the cheese she continued:
“You know who she is, of course?”
“Well, no, not really,” answered her son. “You told me which family, but I don’t know any more than that. She isn’t a friend of one of the girls, is she?”
“Certainly not!” snapped his mother. “Anyway, she was in a different class from your sisters. She was between Rula and Rana, which makes her about nineteen or twenty now. She’s doing Arabic Literature at the university. But,” she added, “That’s not the point.”
“Oh, no?” encouraged Nury, by now getting really interested as to what the point could possibly be.
“No,” said his mother firmly, “the point is this, and mark you that your aunt knew this all along, her mother is Shiran!” She sat back triumphantly and sipped her tea. Nury was puzzled.
“Shiran?” he said, then his eyes opened wide and a grin split his face. “You don’t mean Shiran the dancer, do you?”
“That’s just what I do mean. She was married to this girl’s father a long time ago. She mustn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen at the time. I expect her family wanted to see her safely married off before she could get into trouble, but they were wasting their time. She had this baby girl, then she started dancing – at women’s parties at first and then in public .I remember she was on television once, and after that no–one could stop her. Her father and brothers did what they could, one of her brothers even threatened to kill her, but she wouldn’t listen to reason. He didn’t dare try it either, because by then she’d got the kind of friends it’s better not to cross.” She gave him a look full of meaning over the top of her cup and continued: “Of course, he divorced her very quickly. He married again, much more sensibly, and she’s never been back here, but he has to put up with her flaunting herself on the television all the time.”
“What’s the daughter like?” asked Nury casually. At this his mother put down her now-empty tea glass and looked him full in the face.
“It doesn’t matter what she’s like,” she said very firmly, “it’s what her mother is that counts. She seems a nice enough girl, but the idea of dancer in the family! Really! I told your aunt that if your grandfather had not already been dead, God rest his soul, that would have surely killed him.”
Nury had been eating steadily throughout the recital, so now he excused himself and left the table. During the morning at the pharmacy he had a quiet smile to himself several times at the thought of his mother, who considered herself too far above the common herd to have to mention the fact, coping with a dancer’s daughter, however virtuous and well brought-up.
At lunchtime he arrived at their gate just behind his father, and caught up with him as they entered the building.
“Your mother had quite an experience last night. Did you hear about it?” Nury nodded and his father continued, “I don’t know what my sister was thinking of. She’s always been silly but she’s never suggested anything as bad as that before.”
“I’m sure Auntie meant well.”
“Yes, perhaps.” Then a gleam of humour from the older man, “But I wouldn’t mind seeing the girl. Her mother still dances, but not like before. When she was younger she was something really special. I wonder if the girl takes after her for looks.”
Nury stopped in his tracks and stared at his father in surprise. Abu Nury walked on a few paces, then noticed and turned to smile at his son mischievously.
“Come on, boy,” he said, “We’ll be late for lunch, and I don’t think that would be too diplomatic today. What are you looking so surprised at? I haven’t always been this age, you know.”
The smiled at each other and went up the stairs companionably.

Aleppo Wedding Chapter 5

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

The next girl was called Ranya, and the proceedings were almost identical except that in this case one of his sisters had been to school with one of hers. The chief thing he remembered afterwards was that she was the one who dropped the crystal dish of sugared almonds while she was passing it round. It missed the thick Turkish carpet and shattered on the shiny marble floor, scattering sweets and splinters of glass over quite a wide area, and she ran out of the room and wouldn’t come back.
Lamisse was a pleasant surprise. She and her family all wore scarves, but she looked into his face and smiled as she served the coffee. Then she sat down by his mother and chatted politely to her, her hands folded in her lap and her ankles demurely crossed, but her eyes sparkling and her face animated. Nury was startled by her voice, which seemed to have a lot of Sarah’s cadences, and he began to concentrate on listening to her. Afterwards, under pressure from his mother, he admitted that she was the most attractive girl so far, and his mother, with a somewhat simplistic view of life and marriage, prepared to set the wheels of the great marriage-making machine in motion.
Before any more steps could be taken, that is, before his mother had phoned Lamisse’ mother and formally asked for her hand (she was not a person who could imagine anyone refusing), an aunt of Nury’s rang in great excitement. She wanted to tell them of the most wonderful girl – skin as white as milk and eyes as blue as blue. His more practical mother enquired if she was a well-behaved girl from a good family. By this she meant, as Nury already knew, that they were from the right social group, with no cases known of madness, alcoholism or congenital illness. His aunt was most emphatic:
“Of course. Would I want anything but the best for my own brother’s son? She’s from the Medni family. Don’t you remember, your uncle Ahmed married their Sabina? Well, her brother Khaled is married to this girl’s aunt. And then your uncle’s wife’s sister is married to one of her uncles. Everybody knows them.”
It was difficult for Im Nury (Nury’s mother) to stop the flow of family history, and she ended by agreeing, although reluctantly, to go with her sister-in-law to make an ‘informal’ visit, although she wouldn’t raise the girl’s hopes by taking her son with her. It would be a women’s meeting with the gloves off, where pertinent questions could be politely asked and answered, or discreetly sidetracked. They would cover important ground about her education, whether she wore a scarf and prayed, whether she went out in the evening other than with her family, where she got her blue eyes from, and all the general background of who had married whom between the two families and their connections, together with their addresses, jobs and children.
Nury might have been more interested in the discussions before his mother went to see this new girl – Rula, her name was – but the winter had arrived with fierce rainstorms and he was very busy at work. There was a sudden demand for cough mixtures and medicines for colds and flu, which he had to restock hurriedly, while the diarrhoea medicines, in demand all summer, had to be pushed into one corner of the shelves. Then on the evening of the visit he was out himself, having supper with friends, and when he got home everyone was in bed, so it wasn’t until the next morning that he had the chance to hear all about it.

Aleppo Wedding Chapter 4

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

In the event, it turned out to be quite a pleasant experience. The first on his mother’s list happened to be related to an old friend of his, who was waiting for them in the front room when they arrived, his mother preceding him into the room with three of his sisters in a cloud of French perfume and accompanied by the subdued jingle of heavy gold bracelets and necklaces, and the twinkle of diamond earrings.
After handshakes and greetings all round, everybody sat down on the gilt and velvet imitation Louis Quinze furniture, and the usual polite enquiries were made about the health and general wellbeing of various members of both families. So far, Nury had not seen the girl, Fatma, but her mother was there, dressed for visitors in a rather bosomy dark blue dress and a grey scarf. Like his mother, she was wearing generous amounts of both jewellery and perfume. One of her rings particularly caught his eye, it was a big solitaire diamond which picked up gleams of light from the enormous, sparkling crystal chandelier whenever its wearer moved her hand. The effect was as if its size were changing according to the angle, which he found mildly hypnotic.
About fifteen minutes later, Fatma, whom he mentally tabulated as Candidate A, brought in a large, heavily ornamented silver tray loaded with cups of Turkish coffee. As she went carefully around the room, serving Nury’s mother and then him and his sisters before her own family, he had time to notice that she was quite pretty. Her hair was very long and dark, falling far below the scarf with which, like most of the other women in the room, she at least conveyed the idea that she was covering her hair. As soon as the coffee was served she sat down and Nury’s mother attempted to put her at her ease by asking her how her studies were going, (she was somewhat unsuccessfully trying to study Maths at the local university). However the poor girl was so embarrassed at being the centre of attention, and at knowing herself to be ‘on trial’, that she made little sense.
Very soon the conversation settled into the usual topics of the marriages or deaths of various neighbours (the women not knowing each other well enough to share scandal), and the price and availability of various items in the shops, so Nury was free to let his mind wander. He watched Fatma as discreetly as he could as he sipped his coffee, and tried to imagine her face at the breakfast table, the way he often remembered Sarah. It was impossible. He couldn’t do it. He wondered what their faces would be like if he stood up and said,
“I’m sorry, but Fatma can’t possibly replace the girl I used to live with. Goodbye.”
His mother spoke his name quite sharply, and he realised he had not been listening, so he quickly pulled his face into a suitable expression because goodbyes were being said. He joined in correctly, not forgetting to invite the whole party to their house at some unspecified time in the future, as etiquette demanded.
As they went down in the lift his mother told him off for daydreaming, but before they had reached the main door of the building she and his sisters had turned to the much more entertaining task of discussing the occasion. They dissected Fatma (a nice girl with a good reputation, but so dark, poor thing), her mother, her sisters (one of them looks like a troublemaker to me, don’t you think so?), and every one of her relations that anyone had ever met or heard of. Now the ordeal was over, Nury felt sufficiently detached to wonder what Fatma’s family were saying about him.

Aleppo Wedding – Chapter 3

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Some weeks later his mother announced, over lunch as usual, that she had found a suitable flat for him nearby, and he must take time to see it. She had also arranged for him to see four girls, any one of whom she would be happy to have as a daughter-in-law. Nury had a strong feeling that anyone he married would all too soon be revealed to his mother as unsatisfactory in one way or another, but he held his tongue and agreed to spend the next few weeks in active search of a wife.
His eldest sister, Selwa, visited in the evening, accompanied by her inoffensive husband, who had been picked out as suitable by his mother but whose charms had faded rapidly, at least as far as Im Nury was concerned. Poor Hanni became quite tongue-tied in her presence these days, as he was always aware that she was taking critical notice of him, and would soon be asking whether Selwa was pregnant yet. Over the five years of their marriage the questions and remarks had become less general and more pointed, with illustrations from their own family to show that it couldn’t be Selwa’s fault. As Hanni came from a family of eleven children, he was inclined to believe that shortage of children wasn’t hereditary in his family either. However the knowledge that nothing short of high explosive would stop her combined with a disinclination for open warfare to keep him quiet, at least in her presence.
Sometimes Hanni had opened up a little to Nury, over a cup of coffee at the pharmacy, and Nury had been able to divine some of the trials he endured from remarks like,
“Your mother, a very good woman of course, but she does make an issue of things, doesn’t she?” delivered in an apologetic tone. Now Nury watched his mother and sister talking together and realised with something of a shock that they seemed to be growing more alike every day. It occurred to him to feel rather sorry for Hanni, and the same train of thought led him to think that he had better have a good look at the girls’ mothers to see what the future could hold for him.
That had been Tuesday, and it was the Friday of the same week that Nury was taken by his mother to make the first formal visit to see a ‘suitable’ girl. Until now he had maintained an air of detached amusement towards the goings-on, but it came to him as he was knotting his tie that this was serious, and he was really going to have to share his life with someone else. It suddenly seemed very close, and he felt a sense of imprisonment and lost opportunities so strongly that he was tempted to tell his mother that he had changed his mind. The thought of what his mother would say, and at what length she would say it, soon routed the temptation, and he decided that no harm would be done by going with her just this once.

Aleppo Wedding – Chapter 2

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Taking lack of opposition for encouragement, his mother went right on to talking about how soon they could find him an apartment (nearby), how much his father would have to pay for it, and how many rooms it must have. By the time his youngest sister had been sent to make the coffee, his mother had got as far as listing the various furniture makers from whom one would be chosen to make the furniture for the elder son of Mustapha Bey. All this time, his father had continued with his lunch, apparently barely listening to what his wife said, as he usually did. However Nury knew that his father was not as absent-minded as he liked people to think, and not for the first time he wondered what was going on behind the calm, broad face, dark brown eyes and neat white moustache which was presented to the world.
Later in the afternoon during a quiet spell in the pharmacy, Nury began to think about Sarah, who had been his girlfriend for his last two years in England. She had been quiet and fair-haired, and had clearly found him good company, but neither of them had wanted to live in a foreign country so when it came time for him to go home they had made light of it, and settled for sentimental goodbyes. He had occasionally thought since, that if she had pushed him a bit more he might have stayed, and wondered at the same time if he could have put more effort into persuading her to come. Still, it was all history now, no sense in looking backwards.
A harassed woman carrying a sick baby distracted him with a prescription to be made up, and after that he had no more time for nostalgic reflections because the doctors’ clinics were beginning to empty out and he was busy until it was time to close.
It took his mother and sisters only a few days to start on what was, for them the most exciting part of the business of finding the right girl. Having, through listening to the coffee-morning gossip and consulting with friends and relations (female), eliminated all but a ‘short list’ of girls who could be considered possible, they started visiting the families of the girls, to get a good look at the girls themselves, their relations and their style of life. It involved much preparation of makeup, jewellery and smartest clothes beforehand, and almost unlimited discussion afterwards. As Nury had said no more than ‘Hello’ to most of the girls when they had visited his sisters, and there were on the list several he had never seen, he was able to take a detached interest in the proceedings which quite surprised him.

Aleppo Wedding 1

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Nury was nearly thirty years old, five foot eight in his socks, with wavy
brown hair and a good-tempered face. He was quiet, but pleasant and often
amusing company so he had had no difficulty picking up the threads of schoolboy friendships since his return four years ago from studying in England. His life revolved, quietly but very comfortably, round his own small pharmacy, his parent’s home and those of his relations, and the coffee houses where he met his friends to drink coffee, gossip and play backgammon.
The only changes which the last year had made to his routine had come about because one after another of his friends had abandoned the male stronghold of the coffee house and got married, whereupon they had taken to spending their evenings at home. His mother was also beginning to eye him speculatively, and he knew she was looking out for a suitable girl for him to marry. As for himself, he could appreciate the advantages of having a wife to come home to, but his imagination refused to make the leap from the general idea to any particular girl. There were plenty of pretty girls about, but none of them had yet triggered in him the rainbow-in-the-sky-accompanied-by-heavenly-voices reaction, which he secretly believed would herald the arrival of True Love.
He did not dare to discuss his feelings with anybody for fear of being laughed at, so in the end he did not positively object when, over lunch one day, his mother announced it was time he got married. He looked at his father to see his reaction, but Abu Nury, who had a forkful of food half way to his mouth, continued to eat, carefully chewing, swallowing and finishing with a sip of water before acknowledging the idea with a non-committal ‘Humph’. His two unmarried sisters were watching him with interest, and he knew that as soon as lunch was over they would be telephoning his married sister to spread the news and to start discussing potential candidates for the job.