As told to Donia Jarrar
He came to my father on a quest for young bachelorettes. “There is a young man from Amman looking to get engaged.”
My father owned an electronics store in downtown Jenin at the time, mostly selling radios and furniture.
This was before television.
Wikalit Boutaji, it was called.
He requested the presence of the young man from Amman the following day. “Have him come to the store and meet us there. We’ll arrange to have the girl come in at the same time, like any other customer. He can have a look.”
The girl my father was speaking of was my best friend and cousin Siham. The keeper of all my secrets.
The following day I was at home when the phone rang, my father’s voice on the other end of the line.
“Go over to Siham’s and get dolled up.” He ordered. “When you’re done come down to the store.”
I headed over to her place and told her of the seemingly rich prospective husband. As for me, I’d been promised to my father’s brother’s son for years, since I was a young girl, but he was finishing up his studies at a university in Syria, and I was growing impatient waiting on him. I felt he was only hanging on to my engagement to benefit his own interests, as my family supported him through college, and that his interest in me was limited. I’d always felt it.
He didn’t love me.
Siham pulled and tied back my golden brown locks, along with my insecurity, into a red ribbon. “You’ll be getting married before me, having children, and I’ll still be waiting on my cousin!” I laughed as she wrapped the red ribbon into a bow.
I wore a white dress with blue butterflies hand-sewn onto it. At that time we used to have our dresses designed and sewn to look like the feminist Egyptian actress Faten Hamama’s. It was the sixties. The veil was still unheard of.
There was a fashion designer and seamstress in Nablus who is likely very old by now. She walked with a limp.
I wore a white shawl and white sandals and a small white purse. Short sleeves. Low cut. No hijab.
When he saw me, he didn’t even notice Siham.
The Bachelor in the Black Cadillac
Perhaps if he saw her alone, he would have taken to her. But he saw me, and that was it.
That day was a day like any other day, only on this day a black Cadillac pulled up in front of the store, longer than the store itself, and a young man stepped out. It was as if Shoukry Sarhan, the greatest Arab actor of all time, had just entered Jenin.
The bachelor wore a black suit and a red tie with his black hair swept back.
It drove Siham and I crazy!
The Pink Cabinet
Siham’s face was turning yellow to red. She wanted to buy a radio, but we pretended we were just having a look around. Siham was very shy. I was much more confident than she was or ever would be.
I was the one who was engaged, after all.
“This cabinet is prettier,” I spoke loudly, to make sure the bachelor could overhear me. “No this one. This pink one.”
“Is this for you or for her?” He asked as he approached us. I responded with confidence. All the while flashing my engagement ring towards him.
When we made to leave he asked us to stay for some time longer. And I liked him. I wanted to stay. Why shouldn’t I stay? Was I really expected to sit and wait on someone else with the bachelor in the black Cadillac in town?
So I sat and spoke with him. And Siham didn’t say a word.
“Will I see you again?” He asked before we left my father’s store.
“Inshallah.” I smiled.
All the while Siham didn’t say a word.
“Listen, even if I had gone down to your father’s store alone, he wouldn’t have taken an interest in me, Sania! Sania, forget about your cousin in Syria, God knows what’s up with him. Just wait and you’ll see, this guy will ask for your hand.”
My father confirmed it a couple of months and several more visits to his store with Siham later.
“Yes. He wants your hand in marriage, not Siham’s.”
My mother was understanding at first. “It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have sent you with Siham.”
It made me feel safe enough to tell her how I really felt. “Listen Mama, every time a good prospective husband comes to ask for me, my father sends a message to my cousin Ghazi. And Ghazi ends up telling him ‘Don’t speak to me of this, or I’ll kill myself!’ But then when Ghazi comes to visit us, he won’t even do so much as glance at me.”
But I was wrong to trust my mother.
"Why did you have to flirt so much anyway?” She reprimanded.
The bachelor had offered me a dowry of 500 dinars, which at the time spoke a thousand words in and of themselves. The guy was a millionaire with a Cadillac at a time when there weren’t even any cars in Jenin.
I was determined not to let my mother win.
“Listen, you promised me to my cousin since I was a little pea, without even asking my opinion. But to be honest, I took a liking to him – this man - and I don’t care for my cousin. Why should I pass up this opportunity? If you want my opinion, I like this man.”
My mother went crazy. “You’re going to destroy your cousin’s future! He’s in his last year of college and now he’ll be depressed and fail. You scandalous girl! Shut up. You want to sell yourself for 500 dinars?”
“Well then if you love my cousin so much, Mama, if you’re really so concerned for him, you go marry him!” That’s what I told her that day. “You’ll see, once he’s done with what he needs from us, he’s going to break off the engagement.”
And so the other man, the Shoukry Sarhan look-alike, left town, and there I sat and waited while more bachelors passed me by. Two years later the Shoukry Sarhan look-alike returned, and there I sat still waiting.
All the village started speaking of me:
She waited for eight years and then her cousin turned his back on her.
Waleed, my husband, had heard about all this nonsense and came looking for me in Jenin. He taught as a teacher at the Coptic School in Jerusalem after graduating from the University of Alexandria’s agricultural architecture program.
It had been six months since my cousin broke off my engagement. I didn’t care about him but I was depressed that I should be left to such circumstances. I blamed my mother and fell into a deep depression. Why should this happen to me? And you know how the people talk. “Her cousin left her, took a Syrian woman.” Just to show you the ignorance of family.
And people started saying that I was ruined.
Then Waleed’s mother and him came to ask for my hand.
No love. Traditional arranged marriage. And here we are 45 years later.
My husband’s dead, and I’m telling stories about the man in the cadillac.