A Short Story
By Ahlam Hassan
I never believe in arranged marriages, I myself was married for love and it is still thriving. But, somehow, I have been constantly approached to bring couples together with the aim of matchmaking. The idea is to use artificial ignition, so to speak, until it touches the real heart cords and the rest is left to intuitive reactions and proceedings. But, it has never been as simple as it appears. I remembered how my parents got married. It was an arranged marriage, blessed by the two families, and lasted a lifetime, at least until my father passed away. Mother still, however, talks with love whenever his name is mentioned. My grandparents too seemed to have had a marriage of convenience, something that was accepted by both parties at the time, though looked at it now it is quite intolerable. They were first cousins and that was one of the reasons of being accepted in our family. However, granny worked and was treated as a slave as she lived with the whole family, serving and obeying everyone. I thought of her when a marriage was about to be arranged.
The idea started when I was visiting one of my friends who was just about to be divorced from her husband. I was trying to soothe and comfort my friend, telling her that he was not a good match for her, that she ought to marry someone older and wiser, someone who would pamper her and understand her nature. Though I did not want to compare between my own beloved husband and her ex-husband to avoid hurting her feelings, I found myself defending men when she started accusing all men of being self-centred, arrogant and cruel. Her mother came to my aid by adding that she had never seen the likes of him and by asserting that her daughter could marry a much better man, a person who would really care and know her value and her prestigious family.
“Look at your father, would he ever leave his home on any pretext? And your brother, he’s really a well-mannered person who would never be as rude or irresponsible as your ill-mannered husband. Unfortunately, we were deceived in him.”
She shouted at her daughter, then she stared at me for a while and asked "by the way, is your younger sister engaged? This time I'll not let him choose for himself, I'll choose for him. The young are hasty and easily deceived. They never know what is good for them". She was talking of course about her son.
My answer that my sister was spoilt, being the youngest, and that she was still at school anyway, did not dissuade her from asking me to find a good bride for her son; while promising in the meantime to find a good husband for her divorced daughter.
I became interested. I have studied psychology and one of my main interests is to analyse people's characters with an attempt to reach their innermost selves and to appraise them in general. I thought I could do it. I also had to meet her son several times to know the kind of person he was and to find him a suitable match. Though he disapproved of the whole thing, he agreed to meet me. He was a doctor, a G.P., working at a government hospital in the morning, and in a private clinic in the evening, while spending the afternoon in the library or at his university preparing his M.D. thesis. He suggested to meet him at lunch in a restaurant near the hospital which was too convenient for him. When I said I could meet him after his lunch, he insisted more that I have lunch with him to have more time to chat. When my husband argued with me against meeting this young man, I laughed, felt flattered and thought of how sweet he was and how jealous.
The first restaurant meeting was very successful since I could gather something about his character and the kind of woman he would like to marry, though he believed he was too busy to be really involved in such an old-fashioned marriage arrangement. However, he phoned the following day to ask about my impression and to suggest another meeting at his private clinic to have a chance to see him at work. When I was there, there wasn't a soul in the clinic and the nurse said he was waiting for me. Like a child, he was so proud of his new clinic furnished with the latest equipment, donated to him by his own mother. I liked his natural childlike behaviour and felt how his prospective wife would be happy and I set out to find the appropriate one.
“Tell me about your ideal woman, the person you really like to marry. You know I can’t tailor someone exactly as you wish, but I’ll try to see if I happen to know someone close to your ideal woman or the wife of your dreams”.
“Let me see. I’d like her to be dark-haired, olive-skinned, and medium height. But what’s more important is that she should be attractive and intelligent”.
While I was thinking of a suitable match, he surprised me with his question,
“What’s your husband doing?”
“He’s in business.”
“You stay a lot by yourself, then. You feel lonely sometimes?”
“Oh, no! I always have something to do. Besides, I’m a school teacher.”
“Is he good to you? Does he know your worth?”
“Come on, I’m here to talk about you and the bride-to be, not about me.”
He smiled in such a way, but I couldn’t understand his smile.
My husband refused to remain at home when he knew the arrangement I had made with a friend of mine and the young doctor. I had invited them both to come for tea just before going to his clinic. I thought she would be ideal for him as she was a bit dark-skinned, happy-go-lucky young woman who came from a good family. She was also interested in marrying a doctor. Both came on time and chatted and laughed about the most trivial matters. I was so pleased with myself that I decided to find a husband for his sister, after the inevitable divorce, of course.
A week later, the young doctor phoned to say how he missed talking to me and when I asked about the impression he got from meeting my friend, he said that she wasn't his type. He wanted someone like me! Disappointed, I went to see his sister to know her opinion about marrying a widower who happened to be our neighbor and who was looking for a wife after the sudden death of his diabetic wife. I went to her mother's place, however, my friend was not there to be sure. She went to her own apartment. She was suddenly reconciled to her husband and no longer asking for a divorce!
I thought I would never again be involved in people's lives in such a way. After all, people are unpredictable. It seems that our studies of psychoanalysis are obsolete now. People never stop surprising you with their capricious behavior. However, I sympathized with the widower who had to do all the house chores and cook for himself after his return from office. I happened to be working at that time in a private school as a social worker and had a chance to have a heart to heart chat with a young woman teacher. She complained of the meager chance for a girl of her circumstances to get married. Her parents had too many children and would not afford to buy her good furniture, their part of the marriage bargain. I said that I had a neighbor who owned a furnished flat. He was not too old, but mature enough to take marriage seriously. She would find him acceptable and her problem would be solved. She was overjoyed. Of course she would see him first. After talking to my widowed neighbor, she didn't turn up at the school. I later learned she was "sold" to a rich gulf Saudi Emir who offered expensive presents and who married her to be his second wife! How come?!!
I accepted my husband's reproach silently and this time I was adamant to abandon the whole matter, nothing was going to change my decision. But then there was my cousin who just came back from the States and needed a wife. What could I do then, except help the poor fellow who had been abroad for a while and did not know many Egyptian girls? Of course I hastened to help. There was the problem of language as well. As he spent most of his formative years in English speaking countries, he couldn’t speak Arabic well.
Sometimes, he could not express himself well in Arabic and he looked miserable. He needed someone who would understand and who could communicate easily in English or French or even Italian. In fact, he had a flair for languages, but not Arabic. As I was an English school graduate, I thought of my school mates and I remembered Sonia. Yes, I thought she would be a good choice. She usually had the highest marks in English, her mother was a teacher of English, and she had been visiting her aunt in Australia. When I phoned, she wasn't there. Her mother said she was honeymooning in Sharm El Sheikh! This upset all my plans, but not my enthusiasm. I soon recalled a colleague of mine who came first in her final and who was appointed as a demonstrator in the Department of Psychology. I had been jealous of her at the time of graduation, but then I surrendered to my lot and soon afterwards I was married and forgot the whole thing. I was hoping she would still be unattached.
She was. When I briefed her about the reason of my call she was thrilled and asked excitedly:
“Will he be going back to the States?”
“ I think so, because he came specially to find someone to marry”.
“You are an angel, a real friend. Sure, I’m very much interested, particularly since he is working in the States. I like to travel, you know”.
She asked me several times if he was going back to the States or staying at home, and every time I would assure her that he had to go back because of his business transactions. She seemed to agree about everything even without seeing him. So far, so good. I was almost certain that my cousin would like her at once, then love would come later. She had a lovely heavenly face, was neither tall nor short and her clothes, if not very elegant, always neat and trim. She wore her hair quite short and never changed her accessories which consisted of a pair of pearl earrings, a golden heart attached to a neck chain and a pearl ring.
I breathed a sigh of relief after bidding them goodbye on their way to the States. Everything went so well I felt ashamed of myself for my misgivings and my lack of trust during the four years of study. I had always thought she was an opportunist, using people for some personal benefit and that she cared for no one but herself. But she seemed so agreeable and pleasant, never attempted to contradict him in anything and she was even more ready to fly to the States than he was, which astonished everybody. When my cousin went out with her to buy some warm clothes, she wasn't particular about what to buy. She didn't care whether they were fashionable or out of vogue. She was keen on practical and casual wear. That pleased my cousin since he was aware that if a woman was too elegantly dressed she would be too conspicuous by the people. This way would make her easily adapted to the way of living in the foreign land, he thought. However, her luggage was surprisingly heavy. She said she was taking things to keep her busy at her spare time when her husband would be at work.
Two years passed with very little news about the couple. It was understood they were so happy together and had no time for others. Her letters to her mother were so brief, business-like, but reassuring of a prosperous, complete life, at least on her part. His letters to his family were likewise brief and contrite, but they seemed to betray a sense of disappointment and an acceptance of fate. So when the news about their homecoming reached the two families, everyone was just eager to see them, to learn of any development, of any changes and to see a baby or at least to see her big tummy.
I was one of the first to go to the airport to receive them. After all it was due to my matchmaking that they were married, due to my intimate knowledge of human nature! A mere look at them would tell you they were made for each other. They were a perfect couple. His dark complexion made a good contrast to her fair and angelic face. How perfect! Their children were going to inherit the best features of both of them, perhaps the boy would take his father's features while the girl would take her mother's. For I imagined they would have a girl and boy.
Both of them were too civil to me and met my warm welcome with cold, polite words betraying a sense of unfamiliarity or detachment. She said the journey was too tiresome and desired to go home to rest. He said he would be busy for a few days and so suggested postponing visits till he finished pressing matters. We all felt disappointed.
It was revealed later that she only accepted him because she wanted to get her M.A. from the States. She knew it would save her the trouble of studying and doing research in Egypt for at least five years while in the States she could finish her M.A. in one academic year. But she did not want marriage. It was not in her agenda, it was a means to an end, a ladder to get to a higher place to be discarded when its purpose was over. Now, she wanted divorce. They had fought hard over the question of children. She did not want any, at least not before her Ph.D., which she intended to start at once. My cousin was not getting any younger, his parents were eager to see their grandchildren before their death, but she would not hear of such a thing. So, my last attempt at matchmaking has collapsed.
Disappointed, I went to Alexandria to relieve my nerves and relax and forget about the whole matter. I was persuaded by my dear husband to have some time off and think of our life and future together. It’s time to think of having children and living as a family instead of thinking of others all the time. He also promised to give me more of his valuable time because after all life is not all work. This pleased me and I started to imagine a better future with lovely children all smiling at me, willing to please their mom at any cost. Lovely, lovely children. However, a knock on the door brought me back to earth and to my senses. Who could it be disturbing us now in our vacation? It was my husband’s friend who was staying in Alexandria and who knew just by chance of our visit. I knew him from his voice over the phone for he frequently consulted my husband about his private affairs and his relationship with his wife. This time he was again seeking his advice whether to divorce his wife or to simply send her to her parents. His wife is barren and is not expected to get any children. He intends to marry again but cannot find someone who would accept to be a second wife.
I was so moved by his desire to have children and his right to get a second wife according to Muslims’Shari’a that I timidly told my husband I’m ready to help!