Six pieces jewelry (22K gold) per annum
Three pieces jewelry (precious stones) per annum
Two holidays per annum - at least one outside the Emirates - length to be specified later
Monthly spending allowance of 5000 dirhams, separate from household allotment
Car and driver
One live-out maid after marriage, and one live-in maid per child thereafter
No other marriages shall be entered into while the current union is still valid
Relocation to a villa - with at least one bedroom per family member and appropriate guest quarters - after birth of the second child
Annual wardrobe stipend, separate from monthly spending allowance, of 50,000 dirhams
Option of full- or part-time employment
Alia had added this last item, knowing she would probably never use it. She had no real desire to work, but she wanted to consider every possibility. Once the marriage contract was signed, it was binding. Anything left out was open to interpretation, and the husband’s decision would be favored. Alia requested more than she wanted and waited to see if Farouz would bargain.
The arrangement was made through intermediaries, of course. Alia had barely spoken to her future husband before the wedding day. She married him for all the right reasons: it was time; he was clean and fine-featured; he came from one of the best families in Dubai; and he seemed ambivalent. This last reason was the most important. Love was not a factor in arranging Emirati weddings. Alia’s dream of being the exception disappeared when her cousin Tariq - whom she loved - was matched with a Sheikh’s oldest daughter.
Alia overheard her mother telling an aunt about the wonderful match and hoped it was another Tariq, perhaps a neighbor’s son. When she met her Tariq later that day, as planned, he tried to explain but she wouldn’t listen. It was for the family, for his father. He said that nothing had to change. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We can arrange it.” They could still meet, but Alia knew she’d never do that. She had given herself to Tariq out of love, thinking it would be made right when they married. But she wouldn’t wear the shame of adultery.
It was fruitless to ask Tariq to give up the match since Alia knew he would never disgrace the family. However, disgrace played only a small part in Tariq’s decision. He knew he would receive a high ministry position. His family’s allowance, generous for a bachelor living at home, wouldn’t support a Sheikh’s daughter. Tariq didn’t possess the necessary skills or ambition to find suitable work on his own. He was kind and charming, but he wasn’t serious. Even Alia knew he needed direction.
Since the Sheikh’s daughter, Fatma, at twenty-six was older than most brides, certain concessions were made. It would be embarrassing for Fatma’s younger sisters to marry before her, and the second youngest was anxious to form a union. The two families agreed on a modest mahr for Tariq to pay. The new law forbidding dowries of more than 35,000 dirhams made this easy to accept. The mahr - which acted as a type of insurance policy for brides should the marriage end - was simply a nod at tradition. If Tariq and Fatma were to divorce, her family could easily support her.
Emirati tradition also dictated that the groom pay for the entire wedding. For the upper crust of Dubai society this could reach 1,000,000 dirhams. The government, to promote austerity, discouraged excessive wedding expenditures. A couple could be fined up to 500,000 dirhams for conspicuous consumption. After learning that some wedding parties involved the slaughter of more than ninety camels, a limit of nine adult camels and twelve baby camels was imposed. Only the wealthiest families could afford camel meat. Of course, these rules would not necessarily apply to a family of power, such as the Sheikh’s, but it was a convenient way to save face.
Tariq’s family, although well off, was not wealthy by Dubai standards. He wouldn’t be able to pay for an extravagant wedding. The Sheikh’s desire to marry off his daughter outweighed his desire to promote a privileged image. He used this as an opportunity to set an example. Even the Sheikh would follow the new laws. It would be good for the country, helping to maintain national purity.
In recent years young Emirati men had begun taking foreign brides. Western influences effected some men’s idea of beauty, often preferring flashy Europeans or other Arabs to the chaste local girls. Some could not afford the high cost of marrying an Emirati girl, and many were unwilling to begin married life in debt. Some men spent years paying off their wedding loans. Easier to marry a foreigner.
Emirati women, however, were not allowed to marry foreigners. They risked losing their citizenship and their children, should the couple divorce. This discrepancy led to an increased number of spinsters and a decreasing population of nationals.
The leaders saw intermarriage as a disintegration of national values and unity. To help rectify the problem, a matter of great concern, they established The Marriage Fund. Any Emirati man planning to marry an Emirati woman was given 70,000 dirhams for wedding expenses. There was a 20,000 dirham bonus for marrying an Emirati woman over age thirty.
Since the Sheikh would not allow Tariq to apply for The Marriage Fund, certain marriage expenses - Fatma’s gown, some of her wedding jewelry, and the couple’s new lavishly furnished villa - became wedding gifts. These details were not public knowledge.
Feigning happiness at Tariq’s wedding was unbearable. Alia sat quietly with her mother and sisters while the bride, Fatma, paraded around to each table. Her gown from Arushi, Dubai’s most exclusive wedding couturier, revealed an ample bosom and small waist. Since the bride and groom had separate wedding parties, the women could shed their abayas and shailas. Some women still wore their black robes, but kept them open, sharply contrasting the colorful gowns beneath. Sequins, beading, and rhinestones were abundant. One guest’s dress - Versace couture, everyone whispered - was adorned by artfully placed peacock feathers. The women, laden with jewelry and makeup, talked and ate for hours, waiting for the groom’s arrival. After this they could go home.
Before Tariq could enter the great ballroom, all of the women - except the bride - covered up. The long black abayas extended to the women’s wrists and ankles, as shailas masked elaborate hairdos and jewelry. This covering, a sign of modesty, also served to highlight the bride. She glittered like a diamond set against black velvet. The guests watched as Tariq gilded Fatma with wedding jewelry - thick yellow-gold necklaces and bracelets, ruby and diamond earrings with a matching 4-carat ruby ring, and a gold tiara encrusted with precious stones. Alia thought the effect garish since Fatma had already been sufficiently jeweled.
Unable to watch any longer without screaming, Alia slipped off to the bathroom. Closeted in a stall, she ran the bidet hose to mask her tears. When she finally returned to the party, the new couple had left and the guests were nearly gone.
Alia waited, hoping the marriage wouldn’t work, that Tariq would realize he’d made a mistake, that Alia was the one he loved. Alia imagined him breaking the union, saying, “I divorce you.” There would be the required attempt at arbitration and the three-month waiting period. After that, if Fatma was not pregnant, the union would be dissolved and Tariq would once again be Alia’s. He’d pledge his love, his life to Alia. It could happen, she convinced herself.
Within months of the wedding, however, Fatma was pregnant. Tariq was ecstatic, and Alia’s hopes disappeared. The day after she heard the news, Alia accepted a match with Farouz.
Farouz Mohammed Bin Waleed was older than Alia, exactly how old she didn’t know. He wasn’t particularly attractive, but he appeared well mannered. He also had a good job in the Ministry of Labor. Farouz agreed to all of Alia’s demands in the marriage contract. This was promising. Alia liked getting her way.
Alia’s mother had discussed the shortage of marriageable men. Farouz might be the best, perhaps the only, choice. To reject him could mean a solitary, childless life for Alia. She wasn’t willing to take that risk.
For the first year, little changed for Alia. Farouz’s family was ultra-conservative, so she had to wear the veil in addition to her abaya and shaila. Farouz wasn’t particularly concerned about other men seeing his wife. He simply followed his family’s traditions, never considering change. The one time Alia mentioned the matter, Farouz questioned her fidelity. He would not listen to practical concerns, and Alia conceded.
The veil - a thin piece of black fabric covering her entire face - made it difficult to see. She no longer felt comfortable driving since the veil limited her peripheral vision. This was disappointing because driving had been a source of power. It made her feel strong, independent and in control.
When she went out now, she felt anonymous, almost invisible. Shop clerks seemed embarrassed to serve her and Westerners, especially the women, averted their eyes when they noticed the veil. Alia thought how strange it was to feel so isolated in the middle of crowded City Centre shopping mall. People walked past her without looking at her, like she was part of the architecture.
Eating at restaurants was also challenging. When possible, Farouz liked to sit in a curtained booth, to ensure privacy. For Alia, this eliminated the best part of dining out - people watching. The one benefit, the only one really, of wearing the veil was that she could watch others undetected. She caught bits of conversation and imagined what the strangers’ lives were like. However, she couldn’t do this in a curtained booth. If she was going to be shut away from the public, Alia thought, she might as well eat at home.
Eating in public, although more enjoyable, had its difficulties. Negotiating food beneath the veil without exposing her face to men took some practice. Alia had rehearsed before a mirror at home for several hours to perfect the new skill. When out, Alia opted for drinks with straws and food eaten with a fork. Sandwiches and soups were out of the question. She would not risk the embarrassment of soiling her veil.
The other change was moving from her family’s expansive home into Farouz’s 3-bedroom flat. Alia had never lived in a high-rise building and she missed the privacy of a garden. As Farouz had promised, the building was luxurious and the flat well appointed. Indeed it was much more elegant than her family’s home. Still, it lacked something that no amount of house plants or flower arrangements could replace.
Even though Alia thought the flat was small, she insisted on maintaining her own bedroom. Farouz was granted access to her room three nights each month during Alia’s fertile time. These exchanges were quick, furtive and unproductive. Farouz barely looked at her and kept physical contact to a minimum. So different from Tariq who had reveled in her body. His attentions had made Alia feel sensual and alive. Tariq had been reluctant to let her leave each time, wanting to hold her, smell her, feel her skin against his. Farouz, however, would escape to his room after each visit where Alia could hear him bathing.
The novelty of being a wife quickly disappeared, and Alia longed for a child. She felt powerless and she needed a distraction. She was also tired of hearing her mother and mother-in-law comment on their lack of grandchildren. The looks of disappointment made Alia angry. You’re failing in your only duty, they said. Alia began to dread family gatherings. Tariq’s wife had already given him two sons and was pregnant again.
Although Alia hated Fatma, she was gracious and overly kind in her presence. She would not let Tariq see her true feelings, to know how much she hurt. Fatma was quiet and plain, but she bore children effortlessly, never losing her trim figure. At family gatherings Fatma’s boys were fawned over, but Alia could barely look at them.
“The bugs are back,” Alia said as soon as Farouz closed the flat door.
“The bugs. I saw three in the hallway and one in the maid’s room.”
“Did you kill them?” Farouz was looking through his mail, only half-listening.
“Of course. You need to do something about this.”
“Have the maid scrub the walls.”
“She did that yesterday. It’s takes too long and it doesn’t help.” The flat had been infested by tiny black bugs that clung to the walls. They moved slowly, easily mistaken for specks of dust, unless one looked closely. When Pest Control came to spray, they discovered thousands clinging to the walls near the ceiling. The building manager assured Alia that the bugs posed no threat. They wouldn’t bite or show up anywhere but on the walls since they fed on mold growing undetected beneath the paint. His assurances, however, did nothing to comfort Alia. She felt her skin crawl and relentlessly checked the walls, squashing anything that moved with her finger.
The bugs, just the thought of them, made the nausea worse. This was a new development, one that she’d been trying to ignore. It would come upon her suddenly. Certain smells - the neighbors’ cooking, the maid’s cleanser, even the expensive and familiar oud she had anointed herself with - became unbearable. She knew she couldn’t stand another extermination, the sickly sweet chemicals clinging to every inch of the flat.
The maid, who came three times a week, had spent two hours scrubbing the walls, the whole time listening to Alia’s complaints. Rashni scrubbed and nodded, knowing that Alia didn’t expect conversation. She knew her place, never letting on that she’d heard Alia vomiting in the bathroom.
Alia was disappointed that Rashni couldn’t stay on indefinitely. Her contract with the cleaning agency was finished, and she was going home to Pakistan. Alia would miss their conversations.
Since she’d gotten married, Alia felt like she had no one to talk to. Every visit to her mother involved advice on how to get pregnant - have intercourse every day, eat mango and coconut for breakfast, drink chamomile tea with wild honey, and pray fervently to Allah. So Alia visited less frequently. She was tired of feeling like a failure. Her sisters were no better, only concerned with themselves.
“Then have Pest Control spray again,” Farouz said.
“No. They’ve sprayed twice already and the bugs keep coming back. It’s disgusting. I can’t feel comfortable here.”
“I’ll talk to Mr. Ahmed.” Farouz looked impatient. Alia could tell he was annoyed, but she didn’t care. She was the one who spent all day in the flat.
“I already did. He’s useless. He says they’re coming from the vents and the A/C company will deal with it.”
“So, then it’s settled. Hallas. Let them do their job. No problem.” Farouz brushed past Alia and closed himself in his bedroom. This was normal. Farouz liked solitude, especially at the end of the day.
Alia followed him and knocked gently on his door. When Farouz answered, it was with a look of consternation.
“I went to the doctor today.” She paused noticing a new mole above Farouz’s left eyebrow. How long had it been there? Alia didn’t know. She rarely looked at him.
“Yes?” Farouz’s tone was always even, carefully controlled.
“I’m pregnant.” Alia said this with no trace of sentiment.
“Fine. Ah, very good.” He looked smug and highly satisfied that his efforts had finally proven fruitful. “Is there anything you, ah, anything you need?”
Alia had anticipated his question and already compiled a list. The most important, most pressing item being, “A live-in maid.”
Preethi, the young Sri Lankan maid, left after one week. Alia came home from shopping to find her gone, her room cleared out. Alia quickly checked the safe and tallied all the valuables, but nothing had been taken. So strange, she thought, why would the maid just leave? Alia called Farouz at work - something she had never done - to tell him. He didn’t sound surprised. He just said he’d look into it and, if necessary, find a new maid. It was never mentioned again.
The next maid, Olive, was hired through a local agency. She came every day to cook and clean. Farouz didn’t like her, but Alia did. Olive was an older Indian woman and a hard worker. She didn’t speak much Arabic, so their conversations were limited, mostly in English. Alia knew it was only a temporary situation since they would need a live-in maid when the baby arrived. Olive lived with her husband and wasn’t interested in changing the arrangement.
Farouz finally found the new maid, an Indonesian woman who looked young enough to be a girl, a few weeks before the baby was born. She apparently came from a highly-recommended and reasonable agency in Jakarta. The visa said Sari was twenty-one, but Alia doubted this. She looked too fresh and innocent. Alia was only twenty-three but felt like an old woman compared to Sari. People age more quickly in the desert. Sari was quiet and respectful. She didn’t look Alia in the eye and barely spoke. When she wasn’t cooking or cleaning, she was in her room.
The maid’s room was the size of a large closet. It was cramped with a mattress and small bureau. Sari ironed her clothes early each morning, before Farouz and Alia rose. Her few articles of clothing wrinkled easily and Sari prided herself on neatness. There was little she could control, so she focused on something she could - her appearance. Sari wasn’t vain. She was the picture of modesty with her shaila always securely covering her hair, her arms and legs hidden beneath trousers and long sleeves. She never wore makeup, perfume or jewelry. Her only indulgence was brushing her long dark hair each evening. The time between prayers and sleeping was devoted to this.
She washed her hair twice a week after everyone was asleep. Alia would not let her use one of the family bathrooms, so Sari had to wash in the guest bathroom with the bidet hose. This had been difficult at first, since there wasn’t any tub or shower, but Sari had worked out an arrangement. She filled the sink with warm water and used a washcloth to soap herself. Then, standing over the floor drain, she rinsed using the bidet hose. It was also tricky to clean herself in the small bathroom without getting her clothes wet, but she got used to it. After bathing, she quickly wiped down the bathroom and dressed. Sari used the same washcloth for both, then hung it carefully to dry. Alia had given her only one towel and washcloth.
Sari was technically working as long as one of the family members was awake. Alia went to bed late and Farouz rose early, so Sari had little time to sleep. After the baby arrived, there was even less.
Alia gave birth to a girl and spent one week in the hospital recovering. Her room was always filled with visitors, so she had little time to rest. She couldn’t wait to go home, to spend time with her baby and to sleep. Her homecoming was quiet compared to the days in the hospital, and Alia felt grateful. It was hard to be polite when she was so tired. The effort it took to smile and make small-talk exhausted her.
As soon as Alia walked in the door she handed the baby to Sari, who accepted the bundle tentatively. Alia went to her room and slept for fifteen hours. She woke feeling disoriented but better. When she opened her bedroom door, Sari crept out of the baby’s room anxiously, like she had been listening and waiting for this moment.
“What is it, Sari? How is Khulood?”
“Sleeping, Mum.” Sari looked nervous, like she wanted to say something but was afraid. She unconsciously twisted the baby blanket in her hand.
“Do you need something?” Alia’s energy was fading and she knew she should sit down.
Sari hesitated and glanced quickly at Farouz’s bedroom door.
“Well?” Alia followed Sari’s glance. She knew that Farouz would be at work and she was glad.
“I should eat. Please bring me some hummous, vine leaves and heat up a cheese manakeish. Oh, and some Nescafe.” Alia wasn’t hungry but she knew she should eat something. Her body was shaking slightly.
“Yes, Mum.” Sari went to the kitchen and began preparing the tray.
For a moment Alia thought she saw nervousness, but dismissed it. What could Sari be nervous about? Alia trusted Sari, never imagining the girl had lied about her experience. Since Alia had no idea how to care for Khulood, she relied on the maid’s expertise. She looked competent enough. Anyway, how hard could it be to care for a small baby? Khulood slept most of the time, waking briefly to eat. Sari still had ample time to cook and clean.
When Alia felt well enough to leave the flat, Farouz suggested Friday brunch at Shakespeare & Co., a new café near the building. He was impressed by the décor and especially wanted to show her the aviary. For a while, Farouz had been thinking of getting a bird, something exotic, beautiful and quiet. He could not abide a noisy animal. Whenever he mentioned it, Alia tried to discourage him. Birds were dirty and smelly. She thought it would be unhygienic for Khulood.
The weather was cool enough to sit in the outdoor garden. Luckily two tables near the aviary were free. Alia, still sore from the birth, eased herself onto a soft couch while Farouz sat in the armchair across from her. As is the custom, Sari sat at the next table with the baby.
“You’re right. This is nice furniture,” Alia said. “Where do you think they got it? Pinky’s? Marina? It looks more like Marina, the dark wood and carving.”
“I don’t know, but I’ll speak to the manager. This would be good in the garden when we move to a villa,” Farouz said.
“Yes. That may be a while, though.” As outlined in the marriage contract, they would move to a villa after the birth of their second child. Alia was in no rush to get pregnant again.
“What will you take?”
“Café and some crepes with haloumi,” Alia said. She indulged Farouz’s desire to order for her.
“As you like. And you?” Farouz half-turned to Sari who was rocking Khulood in the pram.
Alia watched Sari closely, thinking she detected discomfort. Sari did not answer, perhaps not hearing.
“Sari, will you eat something?” Alia had no patience for timid women.
“Anything, Mum. Thank you,” Sari said, never lifting her eyes or turning.
“I will choose for you,” Farouz said. Alia thought his eyes lingered a bit too long on Sari whose shaila had slackened, exposing a strip of glossy dark hair. Alia wondered for a moment if this indiscretion were intentional.
After a few weeks Farouz began talking earnestly about having another baby, a boy. He was quick to say that he loved Khulood, but Alia could read a sense of failure in his face. She wasn’t sure if he blamed her or himself. Alia had also wanted a boy. A woman’s life was not easy.
Alia got a letter from her doctor saying that intercourse was prohibited for three months. She would use this if she had to. In the meantime, she ate and slept well, only awakened occasionally by the baby’s wails. Sari was usually quick to respond.
One night, however, Khulood kept crying and crying. Alia waited in bed for Sari to quiet the baby. Eventually, Alia took care of it herself. The baby’s face was red from crying, and her tiny fists were clenched. She calmed down when Alia rocked her.
Alia marched down the hall to Sari’s room and was about to knock loudly when she heard noises. She couldn’t place it at first, but it sounded familiar. Breathing and bed springs followed by deep exhalation.
Alia froze, unsure what to do, unable to move. The baby squirmed and began sucking her hand. Alia crept quietly to the kitchen and prepared a bottle. She took Khulood to bed with her and they slept curled together until morning.
Farouz had already gone to work when Alia woke. Sari was scrubbing the kitchen floor when Alia came in with the baby. She put Khulood on a quilt in the living room and returned.
“Sari, I had to feed Khulood last night. You’ve been neglecting your duties.”
“Sorry, Mum,” Sari said rising. She had dark circles under her eyes and she looked smaller than usual. She kept twisting the rag in her hands.
For the first time Alia looked at Sari as a person, as a woman, and noticed how lovely she was. Even sleep-worn, with her hair covered, she was a true beauty. Her skin was perfect and her body trim. Much different from Alia’s postpartum figure. How had Alia missed this? She felt foolish, and suddenly angry.
Without warning, Alia slapped Sari in the face leaving a red mark on her cheek. “Don’t let it happen again.”
Alia’s hand stung. She felt equally alive and ashamed. She had never struck another person before, so the feeling was unusual. She felt some of her power, her strength, returning.
Copyright © Maura Madigan. Title graphic: "Wedding" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.