Mayya who had lost herself over her black Butterfly Brand sewing machine had lost herself in the ardour of love.
A love mute, yet one that would shake her thin body every night in waves of weeping and sighs. There were many moments when she felt she would die from the sheer force of her desire to see him, and in her dawn prayer, she took an oath: “I swear by God Almighty, I don’t ask for anything, only to see him…I swear by God Almighty, I don’t want him to notice me, just to see him.” Her mother believed that pale, silent had no other thought in the world beyond her fabrics and her threads, and that the only thing her ears were tuned to was the sound of the sewing machine. But Mayya heard all the sounds in the world and saw all the colours as she sat chained to her wooden chair opposite the machine the whole day long and part of the night, hardly raising her head except to reach for the scissors or to bring out some more thread from the plastic basket she kept inside the chest. The mother felt guiltily thankful for how little she ate, and she hoped in secret that someone would come along who would appreciate her flair for sewing and her sparing appetite and take her for a wife; and he came.
She was sitting on her wooden chair behind the sewing machine at the end of the long corridor when her mother came to her with a jubilant face and placed her hand on her shoulder: “Mayya – my daughter – the son of the merchant Sulayman has come asking for your hand.” Mayya’s body convulsed, and her mother’s hand became heavy as lead on her shoulder. Her throat dried up and she saw her sewing threads winding around her neck like a noose. The mother smiled: “I thought you were past the age of blushing like girls do.” And the matter was settled. Nobody opened it again after that point. Her mother busied herself preparing the wedding clothes, the incense mixes and the upholstery, and spreading the news among the relatives. Her sisters fell quiet and her father put everything in the hands of her mother, for they were her daughters after all and matters of marriage are matters for women.
Mayya secretly gave up praying; she said in a low voice: “My God, I swore to you I wasn’t asking for anything, I just wanted to see him…I swore to you I would do nothing wrong and I would keep my feelings to myself. I swore to you by everything. So why did you send this son of Sulayman’s to our house? To punish me for my love? But I let nothing show to him, I didn’t even let anything show to my sisters. Why did you send Sulayman’s son to our house? Why?”
Khoula said: “Are you leaving us, Mayya?” Mayya said nothing. Asma’ said: “Are you ready?” And she laughed: “Do you remember the admonition a Bedouin woman gave to her bride-to-be daughter, which we found in the book The Most Exquisite Elements in the storeroom?” Mayya said: “It wasn’t in the The Most Exquisite Elements.” Asma’ flared up: “And what would you know about books? The admonition was in the book The Most Exquisite Elements from Every Elegant Art, the book with the red cover on the second shelf. The Bedouin woman admonished the bride to use water and kohl and give her attention to food and drink.” Mayya said darkly: “Yes, and to laugh if he laughs and cry if he cries and be pleased if he’s pleased.” Khoula stepped in: “What’s the matter with you, Mayya? The Bedouin woman didn’t say that. You mean, to rejoice at his joy and to grieve over his grief.” Mayya’s voice grew fainter: “And who will grieve over my own grief?” The word “grief” had a strange ring and spread a jarring spirit among the sisters.
When Mayya saw Ali bin Khalaf, he had been in London studying for years and had come home without a degree. But Mayya was thunderstruck the very moment she laid eyes on him. He was so tall he touched against a swift cloud that was scudding across the sky, and so thin Mayya wished she could lend him support against the wind that drove the cloud into the distant horizon. He was noble. He was a saint. He was nothing like those ordinary people who sweat and sleep and curse. “I swear to you, God, I just want to see him one more time.” And she saw him, during the time of the date harvest, leaning against a date palm, with his skullcap off because of the intense heat. She saw him and wept, and she turned aside at the first waterwheel and burst into sobs.
Then she concentrated her mind on his spirit; she gathered together every living particle of her existence and focused it intently on his existence. She concentrated so hard she stopped breathing and her heart almost ceased to beat. She directed her spirit toward his with all the force available to her. The material world had disappeared around her as she sent it out; her body shook convulsively and came close to collapsing as she transmitted that tremendous amount of energy to him. And she waited for a sign from him, any sign that would let her know her message had been received, but no sign came.
“I swear to you, God, I only want to see him, with sweat on his brow once more, with his hand resting on the date palm, with the date between his teeth as he chews it. I swear to you my God, I won’t tell anyone about the floodwaters swelling inside me. I swear to you my God, I don’t want him to notice me. Who am I, to be worth anyone’s notice? I’m just a girl who knows how to sew and that’s all. I’m not clever like Asma’ and pretty like Khoula. I swear to you, God, I can wait a whole month, will you let me see him after a month is over? And I swear to you, God, I won’t forget a single prayer, neither the obligatory nor the supererogatory ones, and I won’t dream about things that make you angry. I swear to you God I don’t want to touch his hand or his hair. I swear to you God I don’t want to wipe the sweat from his brow under the date palm.” And she wept, she wept for a long time, and when Sulayman’s son came to their house, she stopped praying, and then when the wedding was over she started back again. She told herself these were her just deserts; God had known she hadn’t meant a single word she’d sworn, and had punished her for her sin.
When she became pregnant a month later, she wished the birth would turn out as easy as her mother’s. She recollected her words: “I was chasing a chicken around the courtyard to slaughter it for lunch because my uncle had come by unexpectedly to visit, when suddenly I felt like I’d burst and I fell to the ground rolling from pain. Your father fetched the midwife Mariya, and the moment she laid eyes on me she said: ‘It’s time!’ I leaned against her for support till we made it into the room and then she shut the door and made me stand on my feet and she lifted my hands so I could hold onto the stake that was fixed to the wall with all my strength. When my legs gave way beneath me, midwife Mariya cried out, God bless her: ‘For shame, for shame, the daughter of the shaykh Mas’ud will give birth lying down, she couldn’t stand up on her own two feet.’ And I stood up pulling tight on the stake until you slid out into my pants, Mayya, and you’d have choked to death if the midwife Mariya hadn’t loosed my hands and pulled you out. God be my witness, nothing was revealed and not a living soul saw me. The rest of you can go to the hospitals of Muskad if that’s what you like and have the Indians and the Christians make a spectacle of you. God be my witness, Mayya, I gave birth to you and your sisters standing up like a mare. God have mercy on your soul, midwife Mariya – I was holding on to the stake with both hands and she was yelling at me: ‘Not a peep from you, you hear? Women give birth the world over. A single cry from you and you’re disgraced. You’re disgraced, you the shaykh’s daughter…’ And the only word that escaped my lips was: ‘Oh my God.’ And nowadays they give birth lying down and the men can hear their screams from the other side of the hospital. No shame left in the world, by God…”
When her belly had grown so round she could no longer sleep, Mayya said to the son of the merchant Sulayman: “Listen to me, I’m not going to give birth here among the midwives. I want you to take me to Muskad.” He interrupted her: “I’ve told you a thousand times, it’s called ‘Muscat’.” She continued as if she hadn’t heard him: “I want to give birth at the hospital al-Sa’ada.” He said: “And have my child fall into the hands of Christians?” Mayya said nothing, and when she entered her nine month, her husband took her to his uncle’s house at Wadi ‘Adi in Muscat until she gave birth, in the Mission Hospital al-Sa’ada, to a diminutive girl.
Mayya opened her eyes and saw her daughter in her mother’s hands. She fell asleep and when she opened her eyes again, the girl was feeding at her breast. And when the son of the merchant Sulayman came to see the child, Mayya told him she’d like to call her “London.” He thought she was worn out from the birth and was raving. On the next day she came back to his uncle’s house with the girl and her mother, and informed his relatives that the baby’s name was London. His aunt made her fresh chicken broth, baked her flatbread and gave her fenugreek tonic with honey to drink, then she helped her wash her hands and sat by her bedside. “Mayya, my girl.” Mayya said: “What is it?” The woman stroked her arms and said: “Are you still set on giving the child that strange name? What kind of person calls their child ‘London’? That’s the name of a town, my girl – a Christian town. All of us are at a loss what to say, and I think you’re now well enough to have another think about a name for the girl. Call her after your mother, Salema.” The mother was in the room, and got angry. “Why do you want to call her after me when I’m still alive and well, my dear – are you trying to hasten my death? So that the girl can take my place?” The aunt quickly corrected herself: “God forbid, that wasn’t what I meant; many people name their kids after their parents while they’re still brimming with health – far be such evils from you, Salema. Call her Miryam or Zaynab or Safiya – anything but London.” Mayya took her daughter between her hands and raised her in the air. “What’s wrong with ‘London’? There’s a woman in Ja’lan called London.” The aunt said impatiently: “You know that’s not her name. That’s just a nickname people gave her because her skin’s so white. And this girl – I mean -” Mayya brought the girl down to her lap. “She’s not white like the family of the merchant’s son, but she belongs to them, and her name is London.”
Salema decided the time had come for her daughter and granddaughter to return home to al-Awafi to complete the forty days of confinement at her mother’s house and under her supervision. She said to her daughter’s husband: “Listen up, Abdullah my boy. Your wife here has been given a daughter for her firstborn, and daughters are a blessing to the house; they help their mother out and they bring up their siblings. We want forty live chickens for her, a jar of real mountain honey, and a jar of local cow ghee, and when London is a week old, shave her head and give its weight in silver in alms, and slaughter a sheep for her and distribute the meat to the poor.” She pronounced the word “London” with distinct emphasis. Abdullah’s face changed colour, but he nodded and took his small family and his mother-in-law back to al-Awafi.
The clouds parted and the clear sky suddenly appeared in the window of the small plane. Abdullah the son of the merchant Sulayman dozed off for a few moments before waking up mumbling: “Please don’t hang me upside down in the well, I beg you, don’t hang me upside down in the well.”
Translated by Sophia Vasalou