x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fourth place: The Turning Point by Shahd Thani

Shahid Thani writes about an occurence closer to home: how an arranged marriage can be a daunting affair for the bride and groom equally.

I wait for my future to step forward in his bisht. I imagined the black fabric flowing behind him like a wraith. The gold trim did nothing to lessen my feelings of foreboding.

I was sick at heart, waiting for the executioner who would slay my dreams and leave my hopes in tatters. My Prince Charming. My Grim Reaper. They were one in the same to me.

Up on the dais, my thoughts whirled madly though I kept my face as serene as I possibly could. Friends and family clamoured over my attention. I had my hands squeezed. The breath embraced right out of me. My sore cheeks wobbled with the exertion of keeping a smile firmly placed. The scent of henna was on my arms was nauseating and my bouquet felt leaden in my arms. The ring on my finger was large enough that my hand could not comfortably close around it.

“Mabrook, habibti!” A girl whose name I had forgotten sat next to me to have her photograph taken. She lifted her phone to take a picture of my hands clutching at my bouquet. She gave me a final kiss and swept away in her ornate abaya and bold dress to make room for the next girl.

I have never felt more alone. My thoughts kept taking me back to the beginning.

My proposal had been a punch in the gut. My bones had felt as if they had crumpled in on me. I lay in my empty bathtub sobbing. I could not breath. I faltered hopelessly needing someone to talk to but there was no one I could unburden my soul to.

I tried to put my doubts to my mother, but she and my aunts were relentless as they catalogued the virtues of this stranger who asked for my hand in marriage.

“You will grow up together.”

“He’s a good man.”

“He’s respectable.”

“He’s educated.”

“Where are you going to find a good man like this?”

“You have no other proposals. Think. Don’t turn a good man away. You will end up alone.”

“Do you really want to end up being a spinster?”

“Boys need women to raise them into men.”

“I don’t want to raise a full grown man,” I dared to say, but no matter what objections I had they were quickly dismissed.

Throughout that time, I also had to endure my cousin’s sullenness. Her refusal to speak about my proposal except to offer criticism about my waistline and whatever she could throw stones at. She picked at me like she would unfurl the threads of my being. It made me draw further into myself.

My cousin ended up getting engaged a month later. She threw her arms around me with a childlike exuberance, “It’s a mercy from Allah that we’re getting married!”

She was only a year younger than me. At 29, I certainly did not feel like I was an old maid no matter how many people had previously asked me if I thought about getting married. I knew I would have better luck arguing with a wall. Her capering delight shamed me, somehow. It felt undignified, tinged with desperate triumph over having conquered singlehood. Her joy was a strange counterpoint to the melancholy and defeat that filled me. She charged on to her fate while I bowed my head to it in surrender.

A camera flash shook me out of who I had been thinking about and I looked up to see her. My cousin was dressed simply to the outward eye, but I knew how much her dress cost and what brand it was. Her hair tumbled around her shoulders in soft waves. She wore only her engagement ring, a sapphire pendant framed with diamonds, and matching earrings. She had chosen to do her make up herself. Her mother hovered close to her as well as her husband’s family. I could feel the impatient anticipation in the way she held her spine straight like an arrow about to be let loose. She was very conscious of being watched and speculated over. She bore it better than I have. She had insisted on coming to my wedding even though they had all admonished her that brides should not attend events. She caught my eye and gave me a smile before turning back to something her mother was saying.

I wondered sadly if we would ever stop being under a microscope? Would we ever learn to walk without feeling the prickle of eyes going over us like fat cattle judged for either slaughter or breeding. I wondered if I was the only one who felt that my flesh was found wanting.

“The groom is coming. Ladies, please cover up. The groom is walking into the hall.”

There was a flurry as black abayas and sheilas were flung over the bright-coloured fabrics. All the faces turned to watch the procession of the groom walking in to claim me.

I managed to stand though the wedding dress’s weight almost prevented me from standing. I have watched this moment from the outside looking in a thousand times before. I remembered sighing when the groom would kiss the bride’s forehead.

I lifted my head up and rolled my shoulders back to stand up straighter and taller. I have not met my husband before this. There was a First Impression meeting where his mother had assaulted me with the cloud of pungent perfume reeking off her. Her hands were sticky as she patted my hair before I wore my scarf and went in to meet my betrothed. Walking into a sitting room with the weight of family expectations upon me, I had trembled. I knew I was being unfair. His mother was trying to be kind but I quickly silenced the thought. I was being sentenced and all around me my executioners offered no mercy. My betrothed spoke to me and I found myself jarred with his deep baritone.

“Forget marriage,” I thought as the black figure loomed closer. My heart beat against my rib cage like a bird capering about in a cage.

I have seen grooms walk in a furious march, almost running in the haste to get to their brides. My own groom’s pace was stately and measured. I resented him for the small steps he took towards me. His beard was shaved in the style of the modern Bedouin. Hamdan’s dark eyes were warm like the oud oil I favoured.

Not now, I begged my memories as my past suddenly rose up to drown me. I could not breathe. It felt like my soul was rushing to break free of my body. I had the treasure box of my moments with him shut tight.

I remembered my bones melting with tenderness when he said my name. His voice had held a contagious note of joy that had made me smile giddily. He was warm. He had been mine. I chose him, and yet I could not keep him.

Muhannad had been dramatic with over the top gestures of love. The cadence of his voice like waves, lower, deeper, as he said the words mesmerised me. I still do not know if I loved him or that he made my heart pound with passion. In his presence, I was alive.

The closer Hamdan stepped towards me, the more I marked the differences between him and the man I once loved.

“Forget marriage!” I had screamed at Muhannad towards the last of our moments together. “Why would you want it anyway? I cost less than a wife and children. “

“You have me,” I begged him.

“You were born to be a mother,” he whispered.

“No,” I lied, grieving over children I would never have with him.

“I will not allow you to regret the time you spent with me. You will forget me, someday, you will have a husband and children. You will have stability instead of snatched moments,” Muhannad promised me with earnest hazel eyes.

The flush that usually suffused his cheeks had been drained as his eyes held mine. His hair was a tawny scruff and he rubbed his forehead wearily as he spoke. It was always the same fight. The same wave ebbing and falling, but it felt like my tears were always new, hot and feverish as I buried my face into his chest to muffle the sobs.

I closed my eyes against the memories that tumbled. I breathed deeply and exhaled the tightening of heartbreak and loss. I had hurt and I had healed. In Muhannad, I had found my dreams of love and passion. He had been the thrilling rollercoaster and he had encompassed my dramatic tears and wayward tears. I breathed again and felt my heart find a touchstone to peace. I had searched for love, escaped into love, only to find myself back to the very beginning. All those tears I had shed bringing me more firmly into who I was always meant to be.

Hamdan was standing right in front of me. His hands were warm as he placed them on my shoulders. I felt the tremor in him run through us both and looked up at him in surprise. He gazed upon me with an uncertain smile tugging the corners of his lips.

We took our places on the Kosha, his shaking hand wrapping around mine. My grim reaper fidgeted nervously. He was no longer an undefined wraith but a real human presence beside me. I found myself giving his hand a reassuring squeeze despite myself. He was like me, scared of this journey, but maybe we could be scared together.

Shahd Thani, 28, is an Emirati marketing executive in Dubai