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Sheikha Hussein Helawy | from:Arabic

A Life Made of Wood

Translated by : Raphael Cohen

Someone looking at the large photograph hanging on the spacious sitting room wall would imagine that there was something anomalous about it. An anomaly impossible to define at first glance, and perhaps not at second glance, yet there was no shame in continuing to look. Afterall, these large photographs in their carefully chosen frames hung there for everyone to look at in contemplation of their static details. This picture, however, was not like other staid and solid wedding photographs, out of which beamed smiling faces and where gazes intersected or looked straight ahead. It was an old photograph, perhaps a touch faded, and the gazes were unusual, or perhaps their interplay was unreadable.

“Can the bride please look at me. Over here, here, towards the camera. No! No, not into the corner. Yes, you, hold her hand and look into her eyes, and you as well Dear, look into his eyes. No not like that! God, what’s the problem? Please, just look at the lens or into the groom’s eyes!

 

“No, don’t look at that bloody monstrosity,” he thought to himself, then gave up.

The shutter clicked at that instant, capturing it all, sharply and starkly. A groom with frozen features looking into the space in front of him, a bride looking to her right, where the enormous wooden side of what looked like a wardrobe was visible. Time gets canned like that, without regard for a history that is out-of-date. In the frame along with it we preserve some unspoken convictions and some satisfaction, too, at days when we ask, “Has it really been twenty years? Thirty?”

 

The mirror hanging in the bedroom with the ugly scratches on its surface belies the fallacy of photographs and preserved time. In front of it, the now-elderly bride counts her new wrinkles and laments her faded bloom, then pats conviction and satisfaction on the back before their serviceability expires.

 

The conviction was that she married for cultural wealth in the shape of a giant wooden wardrobe. That conviction itself bequeathed her the satisfaction, and both together ensured her survival. She did not know how far back the history of the wardrobe went, but it had been a reason for the tranquil married life of two or three generations of women up to her mother-in-law’s time. The fourth generation had begun with her.

Some married in exchange for ten gold bracelets, others for an elegant and spacious room in their mother-in-law’s house or as a pampered rival to a barren first wife. But Warda had married in exchange for a wooden wardrobe, behind whose solid panels she piled thick wool mattresses.

 

When still a radiant newlywed, over the wall she heard one woman say to another hanging out her washing, “She got married for a wardrobe. Everyone knows it. Her mother never pretended otherwise. They say that on her daughter’s wedding day, she said between one ululation and the next, ‘My daughter the bride has something that none of you have! A wooden wardrobe that goes from floor to ceiling. A dozen men couldn’t move it.’”

A giant made of wood overshadows the bride and groom in a traditional wedding photograph. They stand next to it, adjusting their looks and their awkward poses.

She had great respect for that wooden giant. As for her husband, she was confident that she fulfilled her duty towards him, as an obedient and conscientious wife. But the two of them brooked no comparison. The former won hands down. Were it not for its towering presence in the spacious sitting room, she would have felt that she had been led to the marital home like an underfed ewe. She maintained it like she maintained her dignity. She had sold off her few pieces of jewellery, and only kept hold of a few items of clothing that had not worn out and from which the whiff of memory had not faded.

But the wardrobe however! She took care of it just like one of her four children. The rituals of cleaning it and repairing its edges, which got scratched by a blindly wielded broom or a lazy body, were rituals that emulated the celebrations of joy in her immediate family, and sometimes surpassed them. In the hidden recesses of her mind, such a comparison caused her no embarrassment.

Almost all the village houses had dispensed with wool mattresses and heavy blankets. There was no longer a need for a large wardrobe with split doors to store their bedding. Only a few houses made washing and restuffing the mattresses a time for celebration, after which, revivified, they would be put away in a modest wooden wardrobe. Her celebrations were more than the mere washing of rarely used mattresses; they were times to restore the sheen to the idea that she was a dowried bride and that her dowry was no less than that of any of her married peers.

When her sons grew up, she married them off without any great worry. Little did she know that she would be recompensed with a great deal of worry when a young man, who owned nothing more than a modest room that he had partitioned off in his family’s home, asked for her daughter’s hand, and that her daughter would fall in love and insist on marrying him, despite his scant means. Back in the day, she had not allowed the women of the district to make fun of her situation, or did not like to let the feeling that she was inferior to any of them worm its way into her heart. Now, however, when she was marrying her daughter in exchange for nothing at all, how would she protect her from belittlement by the village girls? Since this did not seem to be of the slightest concern to her daughter, how then would she protect herself, having given her daughter away in marriage for nothing?

For nothing.

In the morning hours, as the whole household was busy preparing for their only daughter’s wedding, an enormous truck pulled up at the big gates and out jumped five burly men with bulging muscles fit to burst the sleeves of their tight shirts.

Within minutes, the five men were struggling to haul the heavy wardrobe into the truck to head off to the bride’s new home as a present from her mother. The eyes inspecting the blushing bride observed the compelling scene and watched the mother as she warned the men not to scratch their load. “Slowly does it, slowly! Watch out for the edge. Wake up man, there’s a step! Oooohhh, don’t you know how much a wardrobe like this is worth?”

Perhaps she wanted to say, “Don’t you know I bargained away an entire life for it?”

Perhaps none of them understood what the woman who had bargained away an entire life was referring to. No more than a heavy wardrobe with split doors.

“Here comes the bride, or here comes the wardrobe?”

The phrase must have been on the lips of many, or at the very least come up when they tried to relate the details of the strange wedding to those who had missed it. During the rounds of morning gossip it was present with a vengeance, no doubt about it: “Here comes the bride, or here comes the wardrobe?”

“If only they’d taken the mattresses with them too. Weren’t they the pretext for keeping the wardrobe? The objects provided the rationale for their container, how unfair!”

For many days, and with a large empty space having taken over the sitting room, she was plagued by a strange question: Hasn’t the life I’ve lived also been a container? What excuses have I clung onto to keep hold of the container, I mean my life?

A few days later, her husband’s twenty-year-old sofa took up the space vacated by the wardrobe, and right above it hung the faded old wedding photograph. The husband did not ask and did not object. He sat on the edge of the sofa and shouted grumpily as usual for his coffee.

She laughed in her heart as she brought him his cup.

There was nothing more amusing than a wooden husband insisting on his sugary coffee.

 

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Hamid Farmani, Ph.D.

Great

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Prue Thorner

To my way of thinking, it is sad that a woman’s life has to be measured by material objects. A generous dowry or a pittance.
It is a story of constrained lives.

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