A Mango for a Bride
Nancy Umm Abdel Hamid
My father’s house was in a greater state of uproar than usual, and since there were six of us children – well, we’re all grown now, but when we’re home, we’re no longer truly adults – six of us and our families spending a great amount of time in the house, the level of noise and chaos was pretty amazing My infant son Adam was the youngest of the horde, and with him in my arms I sat in the kitchen, watching Mama and my oldest sister Manal coring tiny eggplants to be stuffed and trying to keep the older kids from dipping into the pots and bowls crowded on the countertops.
“Don’t eat that, you’ll spoil your appetite and there won’t be enough for everyone later.” My nephew Ali only grinned at my rebuke, and since I couldn’t chase him with the baby in my arms, I just sighed resignedly as he made off with a dripping piece of cactus fruit. I was a soft touch anyway, unable to put any authority into my voice. I had a real weakness for the luscious, refreshing teen shoki, and I had to resist the urge to ask him to bring me one. My son distracted me at that moment by spitting up on the front of my dress, so I put aside thoughts of food and reached for a towel.
“Ah, the joys of motherhood.” I really wasn’t complaining, for my son was the greatest joy in my life. The second greatest joy would be seeing my little brother Bashir get married, which was what all the hoopla in the house was about. When he returned from a trip overseas and announced that he was ready to settle down, we were all overjoyed and anxious, too. He was the youngest of our family, the only boy, so finding a suitable woman for him to marry would be a momentous task. He didn’t have a particular girl in mind, he told us, but felt that he was ready for the commitment and eager to start his own family. I suppose my getting pregnant and having the baby had something to do with that. He realized he was now the only sibling without a child, and I had seen the longing in his eyes when he held my son and twirled him around the room. He was no longer content to be merely an uncle; he wanted to be a daddy.
“Well, daddies have to be husbands first”, my mother told him when he broached the subject. “It will take some time to find the right match for you. She has to be pious, smart, and well, just right. I’ll know here when I see her.” With this pronouncement, the search was on. Initially, my mother closeted herself with my father, who spent hours on the prayer rug making supplication to Allah to help him find a bride for his beloved son. Then she burned up the phone lines calling his and her brothers and sisters, distant cousins and old friends. Girls were suggested and introductions made.
Rapid-fire questions narrowed down the field. Does she wear hijaab? Does she pray? Can she cook? Where did she go to school? No question was too minor and many “candidates” were eliminated because of seemingly trivial faults. This one didn’t eat meat, that one listened to pop music. Those who made it through the initial phase were subjected to close physical scrutiny. Hair, nails, teeth and eyes were surreptitiously examined. I half expected her to ask the girls to crack nuts with their teeth and do pushups. She was always polite but very serious. This was, after all, the woman who would inshAllah carry on the family name.Finally, after three months of calls, meetings, and many fervent prayers, my mother met the family of one lady who really seemed to stand out from the crowd. She was a raven-haired beauty with glowing golden skin, but the beauty was modestly hidden beneath a large khimar, which she wore comfortably instead of the more stylish, smaller hijaab favored by so many women. Her father was a doctor from Port Said, but the family had relocated to Cairo several years ago so his children could study at al-Azhar University. She could recite beautifully much of the Qur’an from memory but was becomingly shy and reticent to put herself in the spotlight. She cooked well enough to keep a man from starving, her father jokingly said, and she seemed physically fit, not a tiny waif of a girl, but womanly shaped. I had met her at their home when my brother went to see her for the first time, and she had an engaging wit and a confident manner that put me at ease. She fussed over my son, which of course put me on her side immediately, and acted as hostess with practiced grace. During the visit she and Bashir were allowed to go for a walk in the park around the corner, out of earshot but not eyesight so they could get to know one another with some modicum of privacy. We all trailed behind like a Greek chorus, trying to interpret miniscule changes in body language as they walked along. Their conversation was animated and friendly, and by the time we returned to the house, it seemed as though a decision had been reached They would continue to see each other, in the presence of a chaperone, of course, and continue to talk. Nothing had been decided about marriage at this point, my brother being a careful man, but we sensed the possibility and were quietly hopeful.
Bashir had been seeing Bousaina now for about three months, and he had just about satisfied himself on all points that she would be the right match for him. They had both prayed about it and had talked to an Imaam for religious guidance, and it seemed that any day now we would have happy news. In anticipation of that my mother had one final test for this girl who might be joining our family. It involved a seemingly innocent piece of fruit, and it could well be the deciding factor in the match. So, as we prepared the food and arranged the house, we were happy but a little scared, too. So much was depending on this night.
The afternoon passed and the melodic clangor of the Adhaan announced the arrival of the evening prayer. My father and brother were already at the mosque around the corner, and we put the finishing touches on the dinner tables and took our turns making the ritual ablution. My mother led the prayer for us and in the first two segments recited from surah an-Nisaa, and in the prostration she remained a long time, supplicating to Allah and seeking His blessing. Afterwards we made dhiker and waited with great anticipation. I nursed my son and rocked him back and forth in my lap, making my own du’a that he’d have a new auntie soon. The house phone rang and my mother calmly reached for it. It was Papa and Bashir returning from the mosque, and Bousaina’s family was just arriving as well. It took two trips in the elevator to bring everyone up, Bousaina, her parents, and her two sisters and one brother as well. We were quite the crowd in the living room as everyone got sorted out.
Ours was a large, old-fashioned apartment with plenty of room to separately entertain men and women, so it was easy to make a place for us to be comfortable away from the eyes of non-mahram men. After helping our cook serve the men, we retired to the women’s parlor and relaxed our hijaab, serving ourselves from the heavily laden platters on the side table. Mama noted Bousaina’s hearty appetite with approval. She didn’t like picky eaters. My sister Zainab held Adam so I could eat without fear of dripping sauce on him, and I was comfortably full by the time Mama brought out the mangoes she had stored under her bed for the last few days. We had all known they were there, but fear of a smack on the hand, or worse, had kept us from poaching. The fragrant perfume of the fruit had filled her room, a constant reminder of the test that was now at hand.
Bousaina was unaware of the nature of the test, but we all waited with eager anticipation, trying to appear no more than ordinarily interested in the contents of the big green bowl before us. Mama set two heavy fruits on a plate and passed it to Bousaina, along with a small knife. Her eyes lit up in appreciation.
“These are beautiful. You must have found the biggest, ripest mangoes in all of Cairo. And I really love this variety. It reminds me of going to the park with my father when I was a little girl. We’d gather up stones from the street and try to knock the fruit from the trees. I’d race my brother to get to the ones that fell. Not very ladylike, I suppose, but when it comes to mangoes, I have a very competitive streak,” she said with a laugh. We all relaxed. She liked mangoes! We exchanged glances and then our eyes focused on Bousaina as she picked up the first one. She quickly drew the blade of the knife around the middle of the fruit, slicing in a circle across the width. The she placed the knife on the plate an took the mango in both hands, deftly twisting the two halves in opposite directions. They separated neatly, one half coming away with the pit, the other resembling a small bowl with the ripe fruit clinging to the inside. She laid down the heavier half and then began to scoop out the flesh of the other with a small spoon Mama handed her. Totally unselfconsciously she dug into the fruit, and she let out a small sigh of happiness as she said the basmallah and swallowed the first bite.
“Alhamdulillah, it is wonderful. It’s like a taste of Jannah.” We all laughed, and Zainab handed me back my son and quietly slipped out of the room. Mama handed around the bowl and passed around plates and knives so we could all share in the delicacy. We were just making the first cuts as Zainab walked back in, nodding to Mama before taking her seat again. Bousaina meanwhile had finished the first half of her fruit, and, eyeing us with a mischievous gleam in her eye, picked up the other half, indelicately taking the pit between her teeth and twisting it to release it from the other section. Naturally, mango juice now decorated her face, dribbled down her chin, and covered her hands. She looked totally happy. Which just increased her shock at what happened next. There came a loud knocking at the door to the room. While the rest of us hastily fixed our hijaabs, Bousaina sat frozen as my brother’s voice boomed into the room.
“Salaam Alaikum! Open up! I want to ask Bousaina to marry me, but I have the right to see her first. I’ve asked her father for permission and I demand my right! Hurry up, now. Let me in!” Mama went to the door, and the expression on Bousaina’s face turned from shock to dismay. How could she let him see her like this, all covered in sticky mango juice? Her sisters were trying unsuccessfully to muffle their laughter in their sleeves, and we all moved out of the way to afford my brother a good, unobstructed look. Mama threw the door open and Bashir strode across the room, stopping in front of his nonplussed bride-to-be. He looked down on her with a stern gaze, hands on hips, one eyebrow raised as if to ask what had happened. Bousaina looked up at him, still holding half a mango in her hand, frozen in place. My brother’s mock frown melted into the most radiant smile I had ever seen as he looked from her to Mamma. “See, Ummi, I told you she was the one. She’s more beautiful covered with mango juice than any girl with tons of makeup. I’ll bet she even has the little strings from the fruit between her teeth, and that’s beautiful, too.” We all laughed as, indeed, Bousaina tried in vain to cover the smile that now spread across her face, matching his, showing the rough fibrous threads that always seemed to get caught between the teeth. In response to her smile, Bashir threw his head back and let for a great guffaw. We could hold it in no longer. We all dissolved into peals of laughter, totally losing ourselves in the moment. I laughed until my side hurt, and my son looked up at me quizzically. Wiping tears of mirth from my eyes, I hugged him close, whispering in his little ear that everything was fine, promising myself that someday when he was older I would tell him the whole story. All the men meanwhile had filed into the room, and once we had regained our composure, my brother more seriously asked Bousaina and her father for permission to marry her. Consent was joyfully given, and we passed the evening saying mabruk and making du’as that Allah would bless them and bring them much joy. That they were well matched, we had no doubt. Mama’s test had seen to that.
So, a month later my brother and Bousaina were married in my parents’ home. When the Sheikh asked about the dowry, it was no surprise to any of us that it included a grove of mango trees from the family land. And if people wondered why we all called the beautiful little girl they were blessed with a year later “little mango”, well, we would just smile and say it was a family joke.