Her Man

Ahdaf Soueif

Zeina sat on the bed in her room on the roof staring out of the window. The sun had set, but there was still some light left in the pale blue sky. Clouds were gathering, and she could see the clothes hanging out to dry on the neighbours’ rooftop blowing in the rising wind. It was time to call Sa’d in from the street and give him his supper. She sighed. What bent luck, Zeina, she thought. Young and full of youth and pretty with eyelashes black as night even without kohl and a face fair and full of light and hair smooth as silk. What thighs. What legs. The men are always looking at them as you walk down the street, your melaya draped tightly round your body but showing one full straight leg with a dimpled ankle adorned by a thick silver anklet. Like that boy, what’s his name, the greengrocer’s apprentice ogling you till you had to chide him. ‘What’s wrong with you, boy? You’ve never seen a woman before?’ And he said – curse his cheek – he said: ‘I’ve seen women, Set Om Sa’d, but by the life of Seedna Mohammad, the Prophet, I’ve never seen one with legs like yours.’ A crazy boy. Of course you told him off, pulling your melaya across your face to hide your smile. ‘Shut up, boy. You must be mad or something’s gone wrong with your head. Don’t you know what my husband would do to you if he heard what you said? Haven’t you heard that his anger is worse than that of Iblis, the Devil?’

My husband. She sighed again, her hand restless on her thigh. Life without a man was worth nothing. It was no life at all. The days were long and heavy now that she had no man to look after, to cook for, to clean and adorn herself for. And at night she fell, alone, into a thick, deep sleep from which there was no urgent hand to wake her. Pull yourself together now, Zeina, she told herself, and go and get your son from the lane. All the other children must have gone home by now. Go on.

She got up slowly and walked out of the room closing the door carefully behind her. The wind was getting strong now, blowing her shift as she walked across the roof and to the door leading down into the heart of the building. She walked down the dark, familiar stairs, past her sister’s quarters and her aunt’s and grandmother’s quarters and out into the street. The wind was whipping up clouds of dust which blew into her mouth and eyes as she looked for her son. ‘Sa’d,’ she called, ‘Sa’d, where are you, boy?’ She saw him at last at the end of the lane, in a doorway, sheltering from the wind. He came running as she called, and held tightly onto her hand as they walked up the lane and back to the house. ‘I was scared of the wind,’ he complained. She felt a surge of tenderness. He was nine years old. Born just one year after her marriage. The girl that had followed him two years later God had seen fit to take away and there had been as yet no others. And now, perhaps there never would be. And yet one never knew how things would turn out. ‘Faith, faith, Zeina,’ she reminded herself. ‘Have faith in God and it will all turn out to the good.’

She took Sa’d into the large communal kitchen where his cousins, her sister’s two sons, were already eating. He joined them on the floor at the low, round wooden table, taking possession of a loaf and dipping his bread into the large bowl of stew in the middle. The men were out for the evening, and her sister and grandmother sat on the straw mat at the far end of the kitchen drinking coffee. Zeina walked over and sat down by her grandmother, folding her legs.

‘Well, he should be back tomorrow,’ said Hekmat, her sister, immediately.

‘Who should be back tomorrow?’ asked Zeina blandly.

‘Who should it be? The Djinn? Sobhi, your husband, woman.’

‘Oh.’

‘Well, what d’you mean “oh”? Aren’t you happy he’s coming back?’

‘What’s it to do with me?’

‘What’s it to do with you? How can you say that? Isn’t he your husband?’ Then, as she understood, ‘You’re not going on with that game you’re playing are you? Setti,’ turning to the old woman, ‘see what this madwoman here is thinking of. The man’s been away for ten days and he’ll come back to find his wife not speaking to him. Does this make sense?’

‘Let his other wife speak to him,’ said Zeina before her grandmother could answer.

‘Why of course she’ll speak to him,’ began her sister, ‘and not only will she speak to him – ’

‘That’s what we’re afraid of, child,’ cut in the old woman, carefully swirling the coffee dregs around and upturning the cup onto its saucer. ‘If you keep away from him long enough he’ll grow used to being without you and cleave to her completely. What will you do then?’

‘Kick yourself,’ supplied Hekmat. ‘Beat yourself with a slipper most likely and then he won’t care.’

‘Remember the proverb, child: “The shade of a man is better than that of a wall.” And he hasn’t done anything that other men don’t do. He’s still your husband. He hasn’t left you nor neglected you. He still supports you and brings you meat and fruit, even though you’ve not been speaking to him. He still holds you dear. But you’re hurting his pride and manhood. Take care what you’re doing lest you drive him away.’

‘Drive him away?’ cried Zeina bitterly. ‘How can I drive him further away than he’s already gone? To marry on top of me? Why? Am I old? Or has my hair gone white? Or am I ugly? Or have my teeth fallen out? Or don’t I please him any more? Or am I not a good housewife? Haven’t I borne him a son and a daughter, may God have mercy on her? What’s wrong with me that he should marry on top of me?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you, child, and a thousand men would desire you. But these things are in the hands of God. Doesn’t the Koran say: “and you may hate that very thing which is best for you”? You know Sobhi’s always been impulsive. He acts first and regrets later, and if he’s not already regretting this he will in a while.’

‘The girl’s a dope,’ said Hekmat. ‘Why, she can’t even put two words together and always staring like she’s in a daze. He’ll soon get bored with her.’

‘Maybe he doesn’t want her to talk to him,’ said Zeina. ‘Maybe the other’s enough for him – ’

‘How d’you know she’s good at the other?’ asked her sister. ‘She’s not even carrying yet. I know because before she went to her mother’s I saw her washing out her curse cloths, so she’s not carrying and she’s already been married four months.’

‘Has it been four months?’ asked the old woman. ‘So it’s already been six months since Sheikh Sama’n died. Eh, the days pass and life runs by. The train waits for no one. Sobhi thought he was doing right marrying the girl when her father died. God commanded us to protect our neighbours’ honour and the girl has no brothers, no uncles, no menfolk. He preserved Sheikh Sama’n’s honour by marrying Tahiya.’

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