Though the wedding was months off in the future, the first thing to do was to take a piece of my Mother’s tent and sew it into one of my own. All the woman of the tribe gathered at my Mother’s tent one morning and with singing and playing of the bendir, a frame drum, we cut out a large piece in the back of her tent and started stitching the heavy cloth woven from goat hair. It was long and tedious work, but we ate dates and millet puddings and drank mint tea and told stories. For a fortnight we worked on my marriage tent. The east side would be for Hasim, and the west side for me. I would have our marriage bed and our stores, musical instruments and rugs on my side. The marriage bed would be a day couch for my children and me. Hasim would fill the west side with his weapons and saddles. By tradition, after the marriage, Hasim would sleep outside, part of the guard men protecting our settlement from raiders across the mountain and from the desert. By custom, the tent, the bed and everything in it, except the weapons and saddles would be my property.
Our settlement was in a large oasis, nestled at the foot of a mountain range. It was lush and shaded in parts by woods and orchards and streams running through the land. We tilled the fertile earth, made so by the runoff of water from the mountain, and fed by the snows of winter. It was a beautiful site for our nomadic people, and we defended it fiercely from others who would drive us away. I walked to a little plot of land with my father and decided this would be the place for my tent.
There was much more to do, but the next task was to build my marriage bed. This was to be the most important piece of furniture a woman could have, and each was done differently according to the skills and imagination of the carver. My father hired the best carpenter and carver around to build it. It would be big and wide and would not be too high off the carpets paving the floor of the tent. My father went with the carpenter to pick the wood, and he obtained some beautiful, scented cedar to make the bed. When it was carved and doweled together, it took six men to carry and place in the tent. It was so beautiful, but of course, I was not allowed to lie down on it, or even to sit upon its frame. I would have to wait for the wedding night with Hasim before I was even to touch it. But I did peek in the doorway before the divider between sides was hung and saw the beautiful symbols of fertility and good fortune carved along with flowers and palm trees. In the middle of the back of the bed, was a large and flowing palm tree, with its roots extending outward towards the side posts. Little pigeons and doves were being chased by two hawks and some of the doves were hiding in the tree.
Next was the sewing of the mattress. My mother and her kinswomen sheared sheep and stuffed the thick wool into two large sheets of thick and coarse cotton. We spread it out on a carpet and during the night, my kinswomen, young girls to elderly women, my cousins and great aunts, would sit around the heavy mattress and we would all take up our bone needles and stitch carefully across and down the mattress. This would be laid upon the woven ropes that were stretched from one side of the bed frame to another, and woven back and forth until there was a tight foundation for the mattress. Our tradition said that a tightly woven bed frame augured well for a marriage. Loose or slack weaving would let the attentions of the husband sag and the wife would stray in her affections.
As the wedding approached, I was bundle of nerves. I had not seen Hasim, except from a distance. We were watched very closely, for there was to be no contact before the wedding day. I was not allowed to venture to the river without another woman with me, and I believe Hasim was told he could not approach me when his tribe came with herds of goats or to discuss shared pasturing with our men.
All seemed to be going according to plan, when the demons of Death took matters into their own claws. I say Death for nothing but that could have caused such a reverse of fortune and happiness in my life. We Berbers believe strongly in malicious spirits, and they seemed to hold their own festival with my wedding plans.
One day, very close to the time of the wedding, when already there were preparations for the five days of celebration planned, I heard some women in my mothers tent crying and went to see what had happened. As I neared her tent, two of my favorite Aunties ran out and threw themselves upon me.
“Aicha, Aicha,” said one fat old auntie, panting in her excitement. “You must prepare yourself! You must be strong and comfort your parents!”
“What? What? What has happened that I am to be ‘strong’ as you say?” I started to run towards her tent, and since I am tall, my legs were long, and my Aunties could not keep up with me. I heard them wailing behind me, yet I did not heed their cries.
I made it to my mother’s tent and entered her western side, where I found both my parents in her quarters. My father looked somber, and my mother was rocking back and forth, like she was in grief.
“What has happened? Has something happened to Hasim? Tell me, oh, tell me now!”
My mother, beside herself, had thrown a cloth over her head as we do when a kinsman dies. This is to blot out the sight of any happiness and is one of our forms of our mourning. I was white faced with fear and was sure that Hasim was dead!
“My daughter, my daughter,” began my father, with tears in his eyes. “Our family has been tricked, we have all been betrayed. Even though our gifts were returned this morning, it is not to be borne. Hasim has contracted to marry another and has left to go to her tent.”
I was told I stared like a dead person, my eyes empty, my mouth open without sound. Then, one long wail came out of my throat before I collapsed on the carpet at my father’s feet.
Three days later I had recovered my senses under the loving care of my kinswomen to sit up in my mother’s bed, for she would not have me leave her. I drank mint tea until I was tired of walking out into the desert to squat down. I thought my senses had taken leave of me, for one night I started to walk outward, after dark, when the desert turns dangerous, even more so than by day. The old women told me there were Zars out there, waiting to claim my liver, but I knew there were desert snakes and scorpions and these alone were trouble enough.
I did not care. I was torn between love, a pitiful, self-effacing sentiment where I cried out for the man I had never really known. But then, like a limb that has fallen over a high rock, and teeters, first one side then the weight of it on the other, I fell to hating Hasim with all my heart. My hatred for him made my fingers curl and a lump of burning pain in my stomach rise up to my throat. If he were before me now, I would be savage and kill him with my bare hands. He had brought shame on my family, but mostly he had disgraced me, the woman who was his intended, the woman who was to bear his many sons.
Until a new moon rose in the sky at night, I walked a part each night in the desert, tailed by the girl Takama, who was sent by my mother to watch me. I bore her presence until finally annoyed, I yelled for her to go to the devil. Takama was a good girl, a slave in our family, and she fell on her knees and threw her apron over her face. I took pity and told her she could follow, but only at a distance of three camels. I turned and continued to pace out in the desert, always in a wide circle around our community’s many tents. I was trying to make up my mind what to do. I knew my parents would take some kind of action, but I had my own to deliver.
On the third night of my pacing, I went out into the desert, and forbade Takama to follow. I had bathed myself in a ritual bath in the river that ran through our oasis, and had thrown off all jewelry. I unbraided my long black hair and drew on a white cotton dress, and barefoot I went into the desert. There I chanted and prayed to my goddesses for I wanted their help in deciding my course.
Isis was the first goddess I prayed to, lifting my hands to the heavens and imploring her. It was Isis who gave justice to the poor and orphaned, and though I was neither, I knew she would hear my plight. Isis was all-seeing, but apparently busy.
I next prayed and chanted to Tanit and Tinjis. I needed all the answers and ideas I could find. They were silent, but suddenly I shivered, and I knew that one of them had listened.. Or perhaps it was a Zar that tickled my spine, for Zars were known to attack a woman when she went alone in the desert. They delighted in that. It made access to souls so much easier.
But I was looking for a stronger solution. I was enraged at the treatment of that man. By now my anger was such I could not speak his name.
I closed my eyes, threw out my arms to the heavens, to the moonless sky above me and into the revolving vortex of stars. I flew my misery to the black night. I turned myself inside out with the intensity of my pleadings. Ayyur, the Moon God was one I exhorted, and then Ifri, the war goddess. I needed some answers, some plan of action. I mumbled and prayed and exhorted them all until the constellations above me circled with the passage of hours.
Finally, it came to me. I knew what I would do when I heard the haunting sound of the imzad, the violin only a woman can touch and vibrate. I heard its sad sound floating over the desert in the evening air. My destiny was staring me in my face.
Copyrighted, 2009, 2013
Tags: "Tin Hinan" the novel, Aicha, Ayyur the Moon God, Berbers, concluding Chapter 1, desert, Egyptian Goddesses, imzad, Isis, Jane Kohut-Bartels, love and betrayal, marriage preparations amongst desert Berbers, Tanit and Tinjis, Zars