Excerpt: 'Constellation' by Adrien Bosc
Retro Cell Phone, Mike Kline, 2010
From A Forbidden Love:
My first mobile phone was a silver-colored model with rubber keys. When my sister Hanan pressed the phone into my hand, neither of us knew that it would open the gates of the world to me.
Hanan had been given the phone as a wedding present, and didn’t really know what to do with it. She thought the landline should be enough for a married woman. But I, a student of Qur’anic studies, could for example call home if the driver who collected me from the university every day didn’t turn up on time.
So for the first time I now had an autonomous connection with the world outside of my parents’ house. In my home country, Saudi Arabia, where young women are guarded like crown jewels until their wedding, that was extremely unusual. Too much freedom is seen as a risk. And in fact from now on risk would become a fixed quantity in my life, which had been so placid until then.
I had been a student of Qur’anic studies for the previous two years, although without any great ambitions. Getting a job after university was not part of my life plan. My father is affluent, and a career for his daughters or wives is out of the question as far as he’s concerned. We just don’t need it. He is one of the local dignitaries of my home town of Jizan, and makes so much money from his furniture business that he has no trouble keeping a large house and two families: he has eleven children with my mother and another four with a younger woman. It’s not proper for his daughters or wives to work outside of the house.
But since I now had a mobile phone, my sister Egbal advised me to register with the employment authorities. “At least try to get a job. If you give them your mobile number, Ensaf, no one at home will know if they actually call you. And in any case there’s so much unemployment you’ll wait years for an offer from them.” Egbal is twelve years older than me — and already a widow, which forces her to live at home with us again, under my father’s custodianship. No wonder that she nudged me cautiously in the direction of financial independence.
The only job that my father might have allowed me and Egbal was as a teacher in a Qur’an school. According to Islamic values the education of girls is an idle task, and in my family teaching is more or less the only acceptable job for a woman. That was fine: after going to such a school myself — and studying Qur’anic studies — I wasn’t suited for another job in any case. So I registered as a teacher of religion looking for work. But I didn’t really expect that filling in the forms would have any consequences. And in fact I didn’t want it to: I had no professional ambitions or dreams. Living from day to day in my parents’ house was quite enough for me.
When Egbal and I came home from our trip to the author- ities in the afternoon, I threw my abaya, the shapeless black garment that we have to wear outside the house, in a corner, and took off my full-face veil, the niqab. Under that black uniform I wore a flowery summer dress, better suited to the temperatures in Saudi Arabia. I took a Coca-Cola from the fridge and withdrew to my room. There was a Turkish soap on television, and I eventually dozed off in front of its family dramas. When I woke up again I saw that I had missed a call. It could only have been the employment agency. The woman from the office had said she would call if a job came up. But things were going far too quickly for me. In fact I had already prepared for several years’ holiday: watching televi- sion until the small hours, sleeping late in the morning . . .
Enjoying my time until my family married me off and I had to fulfill the duties of a wife.
So I waited until the end of the day before calling back, and just planned to leave a message on voice mail. At twenty past five I dialed call-back.
“Hello?” said a male voice.
“Oh, erm, hello,” I stammered. “Your number showed on the display. Did you call me?”
“No,” said the young man at the other end of the line. “Not that I’m aware of . . .”
“OK. Well in that case I’m sorry. Goodbye.”
I hastily hung up. I was consumed with shame. I had phoned a male stranger! Just like that. What in heaven’s name would he think of me?
While I reproached myself, the phone rang again. I stared at the display — and my heart skipped a beat. The same number.
Had he not just said he hadn’t dialed my number? So why was he doing it now? I automatically took the call.
“Hello,” he said again. His voice sounded nice, soft and full.
“Hello,” I replied coolly.
“You have a beautiful voice,” he said shyly. “Might you be interested in talking to me on the phone for a while?”
“Of course not!” I said furiously. My worries had been justified. He already saw me as a frivolous woman, I was sure of it. “I said I called by accident. I apologize.”
“Oh, come on. Just for a few minutes,” he asked. “No, definitely not!”
I resolutely ended the call. The phone rang again. I hastily silenced the ringtone, so that my family wouldn’t be aware of what was going on. My brothers would have been far from happy if they had known that a stranger was pestering me. To be quite safe from them, I cautiously locked my door.
Now my phone started flashing: I watched with fascina- tion as the display lit up with every suppressed ring. Like a torch sending Morse signals: “SOS. PLEASE PICK UP!”
I spent the whole evening watching the light messages on my phone. The man — whoever he was — rang me twenty- five times in all. He refused to give up. And of course I was impressed by that.
In Saudi Arabia we normally have no opportunity to come into contact with the opposite sex. From puberty we girls can only leave the parental home veiled from head to foot. And we must never travel on our own. Schools — and all other areas of daily life — are strictly segregated by gender to prevent the possibility of unmarried women having chance encounters. So in my parents’ house, for example, there are two sitting rooms: one for men who visit, another for women. If my father or my brothers expected visitors, I withdrew to another room so that the men didn’t catch sight of me. The only men I had spoken to until now were my father and my seven brothers. Even in my dealings with my relatives — my cousins, my uncles or my sisters’ husbands — I was always extremely reserved.
Small wonder, then, that I found it exciting when this stranger rang me up. His obstinacy flattered me. Hadn’t he said he liked my voice? Perhaps he had fallen in love with the sound of it. That had happened between a man and a woman in an Egyptian television series.
Who was he, and how had he got hold of my number? A day before, my younger brother Yassir had borrowed my phone. Could it be that Yassir had given one of his friends my number, and he was now ringing me up? Would my brother be as careless as that? I had heard of cases in which young men played a joke by secretly recording the voice of a woman they had illicitly telephoned. That’s extremely dangerous for the woman: the caller could blackmail them with the record- ing at any time. It’s like owning a naked photograph of her. Such proof of premarital contact can send wedding plans up in smoke and lead to divorce.
In spite of this risk, in the end I couldn’t resist temptation. When my mobile lit up again just before midnight, I pressed the green button. I tried to make my voice sound strict and seductive at the same time. “What’s going on?” I challenged the stranger. “How dare you terrorize us like this?”
He was probably a little surprised. Before he could reply, I said, “Please stop this nonsense,” and ended the call. But of course he called again about a minute later. And of course I went back to the phone.
“What do you want?” I asked him angrily.
“I just want to talk to you,” he pleaded. “Please!” “Who are you, anyway?”
“My name is Raif Badawi.”
While by now the whole world knows who Raif Badawi is, at the time, of course, the name didn’t mean a thing to me. But that was about to change. Raif took my question as a challenge and, without being asked, started telling me his life story.
Raif was eighteen, and originally came from the Ha’il region in the northwest of the country. He had lived in both Riyadh and Jeddah, then in Al Khamis, and last of all here in my home town of Jizan, right in the south. He lived with a friend, and owned a share in his construction company. The two of them bought and renovated houses, before selling them on at a profit. Clearly this friend, Turad, was an acquaintance of my brother. And as they all used each other’s phones all the time, the names had probably got muddled up.
I listened with fascination to Raif as he lifted the curtain on this strange world: the world of men, who were allowed to travel around independently, work and in his case even move away from home. For me, as a woman, that was completely unimaginable. And I liked the sound of his voice, speaking to me kindly and gently.
In response to his questions I too started talking about myself. I told him my name, revealed who my father was and where my family lived. Somehow I just had to take the risk.
As our phone call is a criminal act in Saudi terms, I was terrified of being caught. At the slightest sound I broke off our conversation. “Shhh, one moment,” I whispered, hid the phone under my pillow and held my breath. Was someone listening at the door of my room? Was my mother about to come in? But luckily every time it was a false alarm.
Apart from those interruptions we talked all night. About the things we liked best, our inclinations and our favorite music. I told him I liked the love songs of the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum. Raif knew immediately what I meant. He loved the diva as well. He particularly liked “Sirat al hob” — the way of love. My favorite song was “Al hob koloh” — all the love. Raif asked me to sing him the song. He claimed not to know it, which I believed for no more than a second. None the less, I played along: I would sing if he sang too. Raif gulped, he hadn’t expected this. After he had recov- ered from his alarm, he asked me to start.
I actually did: I pulled the covers over my head and started singing quietly for Raif, intoning in the style of the great performer. In my most seductive voice I breathed in his ear that all my love had only ever belonged to him.
Raif was completely entranced. But now I insisted that it was his turn. Raif is rather shy. So it was difficult for him, and he didn’t really sing. But he recited the lyrics. He knew the words of his favorite song by heart, and spoke them as if they were a poem.
When I heard him swearing eternal love to me, describing to me how I had remade his world, and saying he would wait for me as long as he lived, I lost my heart.
We didn’t say goodbye until the birds started twittering outside. And as soon as I woke up in the morning Raif called me again. After that first night together we had no doubt. The two of us belonged together.
I spent the next few days on a big pink cloud. Outwardly I went through my normal daily business. As always I watered the roses in the back garden, flicked through my fashion magazines, helped my mother cook, served my father his lemonade in his office, met my school friend Wahiba for tea at home in the afternoon, and ordered a romper suit from the tailor for my sister’s baby. But everything suddenly felt different: the roses smelled sweeter, the colors were brighter than usual. I looked at the fashion models according to whether Raif would like them. And always, constantly, I was thinking about Raif. RAIF — in Arabic it means “the sympathetic one.” That matched the gentle voice on the phone.
Of course texts and phone calls soon weren’t enough. Raif was determined to know what I looked like, and unfor- tunately our phones didn’t have cameras. Meeting up was of course completely unthinkable. So we made other plans. At the time I was living with my family in a big, three-story house in the center of Jizan. My three older sisters had already married, but often visited us. Of my seven brothers the younger ones still lived at home. And my father had married twice more after my mother. He divorced his second wife so quickly that I barely got to know her. But the third one and her little children lived very near us, in the back part of the house. On the ground floor was his furniture shop. So people were constantly coming and going and you were never really alone.
Like all the women’s rooms, mine faced away from the street. No one could see in from outside. My brothers’ rooms, on the other hand, faced the front. In my brother Yassir’s room there was a window that looked out onto the street, and the lower half of it was decorated with wooden arabesques which made it difficult, but not impossible for curious neigh- bors to peer in. If I wanted to show myself to Raif, it would have to be from that room.
The appropriate opportunity came one Friday. When I saw that my two brothers Yassir and Adil were leaving our house for the mosque, I sent Raif a text: “Are you nearby?” He answered straightaway. “I’ll be standing in front of your house in five minutes.”
“Please, Allah, don’t let us get caught!” I prayed to heaven. Even though Allah was more likely to be on my father and my brothers’ side. I feverishly looked for excuses in case Yassir came home early. But I couldn’t think of anything convincing. I was simply insane, taking such a risk!
And my phone rang. It was Raif, of course. “I’m nearly there,” he announced cheerfully.
I glanced critically at my reflection in the mirror: I was wearing a long, flowing dress. My hair was tied up at the back. I had taken my glasses off so that my profile would be prettier. Would he like me at all?
“I’m just turning into your street,” he said on the phone. “OK, then I’ll come to the front of the house,” I promised, sounding cooler than I felt.
I took a flower from a bunch of red carnations that my school friend Wahiba had brought the previous day. When I went into Yassir’s room I could already hear the sounds of a car parking in front of our house. Raif’s car? My heart turned somersaults at the thought.
He got out and vigorously closed the door. Now he was standing right in front of our house, staring up. Because of the arabesques that ran across the windowpane, and because of my shortsightedness, I could only make him out vaguely: a young man with a slight build and shoulder- length black hair. “Where are you?” his voice asked from the phone.
I stepped shyly toward the window so that at least my head was visible from below. “Is that you?” asked Raif. “Is that really you? You look stunning!”
“You can’t even see me properly!”
“No, I can see that you have beautiful eyes,” he stated boldly.
Whether it was true or not, I liked it. I opened the window and threw the carnation down to him. Raif picked the flower up, smelled it and hid it quickly in his jacket pocket.
“Thank you, my darling,” he said raptly. “I will carry it with me always.”
I hastily closed the window. “Now drive off again,” I urged.
“Yes, of course . . .” He gave me one last, yearning look before getting into his car again and turning on the engine.
“Ensaf, do be careful!” my mother snapped when I spilled the marinade that was meant for the chicken legs on the table. Since we’d seen each other I was all over the place. My poor mother, who had firmly planned to teach me how to cook before I got married, complained bitterly — “What’s up with you lately?” — and handed me a cloth to get rid of the mess. “Do you think you’ll ever get a husband if you can’t even cook?”
Raif and I were completely mad about one another. That was what was up. We must have spent several hours a day on the phone at that time. If we couldn’t talk for some reason, we sent each other texts full of hearts, flowers and I love you stickers. I was totally fixated on my mobile phone: as soon as it made a sound, I pounced on it to read Raif’s message. It couldn’t stay hidden from my family, either. My sisters gave each other eloquent looks when they observed me. Hanan in particular, who was heavily pregnant at the time, wanted to know what was going on. And in a way she was right. After all, she had given me the phone.
After the birth of her first son, Hanan moved back in with us for a little while. Tradition demanded that my mother and we, her sisters, should look after her while she recovered from her exertions. We also set up a room for her so that she could receive well-wishers. So there was even more of a hubbub in the house than usual. But eventually Hanan and Mariam managed to find me alone in that room. “Why are you always looking at your phone?”
I fidgeted around. “Come on, out with it,” said Hanan. “You can’t pull the wool over our eyes.”
After carrying my secret around with me for several weeks, I was ripe for a confession. And I trusted my sisters. So I told them everything.
They hung on my every word. “And when will he ask Father for your hand?” Hanan was keen to know.
“We haven’t talked about that yet.”
Mariam, who was older, frowned. “Just be careful,” she warned me. “You know your reputation’s at stake.” I think she saw it as her duty to bring me to my senses. Otherwise it would fall back on her, if she was revealed to have been an accomplice. So she looked me severely in the eyes and said: “If Father finds out about this, he’ll kill you.”
Once that had been established, they both subjected me to a cross-examination. They wanted to know who Raif was, what job he did, what city he came from, how many brothers and sisters he had, what position his family held. I answered to the best of my knowledge. But I could tell even by my sis- ters’ reactions the difficulties that lay ahead. There were a few things in Raif’s life that my family would find unsettling: the fact that he lived with a friend because he had had a row with his father, for example. In our society that’s very unusual. So might it be better to say in future that he lived with his uncle?
“I’d so love to meet him one day,” I said.
They looked at me in horror. “Don’t do anything stupid!” Mariam warned me. “You’d ruin yourself and our family.”
I looked guiltily at the floor. “I’d just like to see him properly so that I can be sure that I love him. . . Not alone, of course . . .” I saw them exchanging glances. “Of course,” I added, “you would both have to be there.”
“How do you imagine that might happen?” Hanan turned on me.
“Couldn’t you invite him to your house?” I knew that Hanan’s flat was empty during the day: her husband worked, the baby slept. “Just a short meeting . . .”
“Absolutely not,” she replied categorically. But her voice suggested something else. It told me that Hanan was just as curious as I was. She looked at Mariam for support.
“Out of the question,” my elder sister confirmed. “Hanan can’t just let a strange man into the house. What would we say if her husband suddenly came home? Have you thought of that?”
“Only five minutes,” I begged.
“You’re so selfish,” Mariam chided me. “Get that idea right out of your head.”
I pulled a moue. But I understood my sisters: they were afraid of doing something wrong, and thus drawing the wrath of our parents or their husbands. I had to accept that. At least I would have to give them some time before trying again.
When I told Raif about it on the phone, he went com- pletely crazy. “If I’m able to look you in the eye only once, I will shower you with flowers and jewels,” he promised. I told him he would have to be patient. “If it has to be,” he said, “I will wait for that moment my whole life long.”
About a week later Hanan moved back with her baby to her own flat in an apartment building. Mariam and I went with her and helped her to settle in. Mariam’s Filipino maid and her two little children were there too. It seemed to me to be a good opportunity to try again. “Raif would like to give me a present,” I said, looking as innocent as possible. “Do you think he might bring it here, Hanan?”
She looked at me suspiciously. “Didn’t we talk about this before?”
“It’s just because he’s nearby . . .”
“He can’t come to my house under any circumstances.” “Not even to the door?”
Hanan looked uncertain. Part of her, the old, unmarried Hanan, couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than get- ting a glimpse of her sister’s heartthrob. Another part, the wife and mother, thought it was too risky. “What do you think?” she said, turning to Mariam.
Mariam didn’t say anything for a while. Then she decided. “He’s supposed to be bringing a present— and leaving straightaway.”
Hanan said she agreed, even though she didn’t exactly look delighted. “But if anything goes wrong, it was Mariam who allowed it,” she clarified, “and not me.”
I beamed. “Nothing will go wrong,” I promised.
I texted Raif the good news — and told him Hanan’s address. He called me straightaway. To escape the eyes and ears of my sisters, I darted into the bathroom with my phone. “Is that really true?” he asked in disbelief. “Can I see you?” “Yes,” I whispered, “Come quickly, before they change
their minds . . .”
“I’ll be with you straightaway, my darling!” he promised. “In a quarter of an hour.”
It was the longest quarter of an hour in my life. And I spent all of it in the bathroom. Even today I remember very clearly what I was wearing that day: a tight, white blouse with almost transparent sleeves and white baggy trousers which — in line with European fashion— I allowed to slip to below my hips. I had bought the outfit shortly before in the new shopping center. It was quite risqué and sexy. But that was exactly how I wanted to present myself to Raif.
My sisters eyed me critically. “Don’t you think you should perhaps wear a thin veil?” Mariam asked when I came out of the bathroom in that outfit.
“Why?” I replied. Why should I greet my beloved in a hijab? My long, dark curls were held up in a clasp. Surely that was enough. What we planned to do was so forbidden anyway that such a detail didn’t count for much.
I gave a start when I heard the bell. Raif was already standing at the door. My sisters were so excited that they broke into a fit of hysterical giggles. “Open the door!” Hanan urged, and nudged me toward the hall. Mariam dragged Hanan with her into one of the back rooms. I was surprised: she really wanted to leave me alone with Raif! She just left the door open a crack behind me. From there my sisters had a view of everything.
Tensely, I walked to the door and opened it. There stood Raif — looking completely different to how I had imagined him after glimpsing him from a distance and without my glasses. In front of me I saw a delicate, not especially tall man with relatively light skin, black hair, full lips and pitch- black eyes. I couldn’t say whether the man I had imagined was more or less attractive. My fantasy figure had been handsome — and the real Raif was handsome too. But he was totally different. That was why I found it difficult to recognize him as the person I had already had the most intimate con- versations with. Only his voice was familiar to me.
Raif was even more intimidated than I was. He had no idea what to say or do, but just stared at me. “You’re so beauti- ful,” he stammered, “exactly as I imagined you. . .” Well, that was something at least.
“Thanks,” I replied in embarrassment.
Then we escaped into the ritual of handing over presents. He spread his gifts out in front of me: a chain with a purple gemstone as a pendant. And in matching color, a bracelet, earrings and a ring for my finger as well. He had also bought me some trousers: a white pair, a brown pair and a lilac pair. All far too big. But I reassured him that I could have them altered at the tailor’s.
When the handover was complete, he stepped toward me. He probably wanted to give me a hug. But I recoiled instinc- tively. At that moment I became aware of Mariam tugging at my sleeve from the crack in the door. “Stop now,” she hissed, “that’s enough!” I blushed to my roots.
“I think you’d better go,” I said to Raif.
“Yes, of course. I didn’t know . . .” He broke off. “I was about to go anyway.”
“Thank you very much for the presents. They’re lovely. You’ve caught my taste exactly,” I said woodenly as I ushered him from the house.
As soon as Raif was out of the door, my sisters charged over to me. They immediately wanted to see the presents. They were both very impressed by Raif. “He’s really very cute,” Hanan had to admit. “And charming. Just look at all the things he’s brought you!”
Mariam encouraged me too. “Go the whole way,” she said. “Marry him.”
Easy for her to say.
During Ramadan I often slept till midday. I didn’t see the point in getting up any earlier. Why should I drag myself through the day, only ever thinking about eating, when I wasn’t allowed anything until the evening? It made much more strategic sense just to cut the waiting time. A lot of people do that.
Then, at sunset, it was suddenly very cozy at home. The intoxicating smell of a warm meal wafted from the kitchen, which my mother had strictly guarded all day. My favorite was the thick, oily noodle soup with a hint of peppermint that she normally served at the beginning of the fast- breaking. For me it marked the return of life to our houses. Because during Ramadan we only really lived at night. By day we just waited.
One evening shortly after the end of Ramadan, my mother came into my room, wearing an expression that did not bode well. “Your father’s sent me,” she said irritably. I had heard them arguing in the kitchen a little while before. Since my father had founded his new family a few years ago, the atmosphere at home was often tense. But this time it plainly wasn’t about the painful theme of jealousy.
My mother didn’t beat around the bush. “Do you know someone called Raif Badawi?” she demanded to know. I blushed to my roots. It was slowly becoming a habit.
“Raif?” I stammered. “Erm, never heard of him. . .” “Excuse me, then, but how has this man happened on the
idea of asking for your hand in marriage?” she screeched. “Can you explain that to me?”
“How should I know? Who is he anyway?” “You know very well who he is.”
“Don’t lie.” She gave me a sound clip around the ear. I started crying.
“Shut up! Crying won’t help you,” she said furiously. “Give me your mobile phone right now!”
“Because I want it.” She stretched out a hand. I gripped the phone with both of mine. I thought with horror of all the loving texts that Raif and I had sent back and forth. All the long calls that were neatly stored in the phone. My mobile was bound to give me away.
“If you don’t hand it over yourself I’m sending Yassir,” my mother threatened. She swept from the room. About two minutes later — I had just enough time to highlight all my texts — I heard my brother coming upstairs. With trembling fingers I pressed “delete” and stuffed my phone in between my bed and the mattress. My seventeen-year-old brother was already standing in the room. “Give me the phone, Ensaf,” he said pleadingly.
“Why should I? What has it got to do with you anyway?” I flashed my eyes furiously at Yassir, but he wouldn’t give in. “Just stop this nonsense,” he warned me. “Father is really angry . . .”
Yassir looked around the room. “So, what’s it to be?” he asked. “Are you going to hand it over voluntarily? Or do I have to turn the place upside down?” I didn’t reply. I watched in silence as he opened the door of my clothes cupboard and looked in all the drawers. I tried to pretend I wasn’t bothered, while inwardly I was clenching my fists with rage. Unconcerned, he inspected my bedside table and the chest of drawers. He rummaged through the drawers where I kept my underwear. When he asked me to get up, I stuck out my bottom lip. But I obeyed. Yassir lifted first the bedcover, then the mattress. In the gap was the phone.
“Just take it away. I don’t need it anyway,” I said defiantly. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Ensaf. You’re sully- ing our family’s honor,” my brother answered. He took the
phone and disappeared from the room.
I didn’t collapse until I was alone again. Sobbing, I lay down and pulled the covers over my head. I found it par- ticularly depressing not even to be able to tell Raif what had happened.
My portal to the world had closed again.
Of course I knew about Raif’s conversation with my father. After two months of obsessive secrecy we had decided to become a couple officially at last. But for that to happen my father had to give his agreement. In patriarchal Saudi society there is no way around that. Because in our country, until she gets married, by law the father is the guardian of the woman, regardless of how old she is. After that her husband assumes the role. If her husband dies, her father is in charge again. Or some other male relation, one of her brothers, for example, or even her son, even if he is still a minor. A Saudi woman is never her own ruler. And the men who define her life look on her more or less as their property. As I had grown up in that system, at the time I didn’t question it. I was just determined to switch from my father’s control to that of Raif, whom I loved. That was why I had encouraged Raif to take charge of things.
The end of Ramadan struck him as an ideal time to do just that. During Eid, the Sweet Festival, people are particu- larly sociable. My father always moves some furniture from his shop into the street — and welcomes friends and acquaint- ances for long, cordial conversations with a glass of tea and cakes.
Normally suitors go and see the bride’s father with a large entourage. “He came with so many relatives that they didn’t all fit into the house”; that was what people liked to say after such a visit, because the size of the group expresses the power and influence of the bride’s future family. Raif couldn’t pro- vide that: as his family lived a long way from Jizan, the only person he had by his side was his business partner, Turad. In order to look more serious, Turad presented himself as Raif’s uncle. Raif said straightaway that his father, with whom he had been on hostile terms since childhood, had passed away some time ago. Understandably, my father found all of this neither serious nor attractive.
He said neither yes nor no to Raif. Neither did he ask him any questions about who he was, what he did in his life and how he knew me. Worse than that: he said nothing at all. He simply ignored Raif completely. Even though several witnesses were standing around them, he pretended Raif didn’t exist. Translated, his silence meant: “I’m not even going to talk about my daughter to people like you. You are not worthy of my family.” It was the worst possible reaction. When Raif told me about it on the phone I knew that we had a fight ahead of us if we wanted to have our way. He had a more optimistic outlook. “Your father just needs time to get to know me better,” he thought, “then he’ll change
Raif planned to make friends with my brothers so that they would put in a good word for him at his next attempt. What would he say if I told him how Yassir had just behaved? I hoped that now that the phone had gone he wouldn’t write me any more revealing messages. When my family understood how intimate our relationship had become, I was pessimistic on behalf of both of us: my father was seething with rage. He and my brothers felt that their honor had already been sufficiently insulted by our secret relationship.
I went on to become a prisoner in my parents’ house. I never got my phone back. I wasn’t even able to use the land- line unchecked. And all excursions outside of the house were strictly monitored by my brothers.
My elder sisters Mariam and Hanan, who had initially supported me in my romantic liaison, now tried to persuade me to give the whole thing up: my father would never accept Raif as a son-in-law. Our secret relationship had disqualified him once and for all. But I wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re talking to me like that because you’ve never really been in love,” I barked at them. In fact, however, I wasn’t half as strong as I tried to look in front of them: at that time I was boundlessly lonely, unable as I was to have any contact with Raif.
But I did find one possible way of communicating with him, through my youngest sister Hanan, who came to see us with her baby. When no one else was in the room I bewailed my suffering — and complained about my parents’ limitless injustice.
“So what do you plan to do now?” she asked me, when I had finished. She really seemed to be moved by my story. Like so many women who had married in line with their parents’ ideas, she herself was neither happy nor unhappy with her marriage. But she was very familiar with romantic love from the television. So she was impressed with how Raif supported our love in the face of all opposition. She also thought he was nice.
“I love him and I’m going to marry him,” I said resolutely. “Whatever it takes . . .”
She nodded respectfully.
“Hanan, could you do me a favor?” “What?” she asked, slightly nervously.
“Could you call Raif for me and tell him what’s happened?”
“Are you crazy? Father will kill me if he finds out I’m talk- ing to him behind his back!”
“I just want him to stop trying to call me.”
Hanan got that. And it also struck her as morally inof- fensive. She jotted down Raif’s number and promised me she would call him as soon as she was home. “I’ll explain everything to him and tell him not to call you for the time being,” she said.
I waited impatiently for Hanan’s next visit. While we sat with our mother in the sitting room and drank tea, she looked very mysterious. I think she enjoyed prolonging my torment and being part of our romance.
I ambushed her when we were alone at last. “Have you talked to him?”
“Yes,” she smiled conspiratorially. “Several times.” “And what does he say?”
“He sends greetings. And says he loves you. And that you’re not to give up hope.”
My eyes filled with tears.
“Be patient for a bit, sister darling. It’ll all turn out fine,” she comforted me.
Over the grueling weeks that followed, Hanan became our loyal messenger. Raif would call her regularly — and then Hanan would call our house on a second phone that she had at home. Sometimes, when the situation permitted, she even allowed me and Raif a conference call, holding the two receivers together: then I could hear Raif’s voice, if only from a distance.
One Friday, a month or two after Yassir had blocked direct communication between me and Raif, Hanan called us with excitement in her voice. “Are you alone, Ensaf?” she whispered.
“Raif just called. He’s on his way to your place . . .” “What?” For a moment I thought she was pulling my leg.
But Hanan was seriously alarmed.
“I tried to talk him out of it,” she said excitedly. “But he wouldn’t listen. He wants to drop off a present for you.”
“Has he lost his mind?”
“He says you’ve got to look out the front door in five minutes.”
My heart was racing. I didn’t know whether to be shocked or delighted. Was it possible that Raif was already very close by? Should I go to Yassir’s room and try to catch a glimpse of him? No, that was definitely too risky. My brother and my father might come back from the mosque at any time.
I decided not to do anything for the time being. Feeling tense, I sat by the phone and listened to the sounds around our house. Wasn’t that the sound of a car being parked? I held my breath until I heard the car driving off again. A minute later my sister called again. “It’s outside the front door,” she said. “Come on, hurry up!”
I hastily pulled on my abaya. I opened the front door and looked around. There was no sign of anyone in the street. To the side of the door was an unremarkable looking parcel. I hastily grabbed it and ran up to the first floor with it.
When I opened the parcel in the safety of my room, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was a brand new mobile phone, a Baby Nokia. And a SIM card and a battery. But no personal message. Presumably Raif had been afraid that the package might fall into the wrong hands. I frantically read the instructions and put it all together. I discovered that the phone had already been set up. His number was programmed in.
I pressed the green button. “Thanks,” I whispered. “How did you do that?”
He laughed. “At last I can hear your voice again, my beloved.”
“No, I’m just in love with you.”
“I love you too.”
We swore to one another that we would allow no one and nothing to tear us apart. “I promise you I’ll manage to win your family’s trust,” he said.
“And I’ll never marry anyone else. My parents can do what they like!”
When I met my mother in the sitting room later on I tried not to look too cheerful, keen not to give myself away. I set the new phone to silent and hid it under the big built-in shelf in my room, which was directly connected to my bed. Luckily there was a plug there, so that I could hide the cable to charge it. I decided only to take it out at night, to talk to my beloved. We had to be very careful.
In the meantime Raif did everything he could to get closer to my father. He tried to spend time near his shop, and even befriended my brothers. Particularly Anwar, who is a year younger than me and three years older than Raif. He often lent Anwar his car. Anwar liked that of course. In return Raif hoped my brother would put in a good word for him with my father. He wanted to lose the stigma of being a stranger, and win a position of trust in the family.
But my father ignored him completely. He refused to meet Raif under any circumstances, and didn’t even think it nec- essary to give him a formal answer to his marriage proposal. I think he was too preoccupied with his new wife and her family at the time. That was why he only paid halfhearted attention to what we were doing. That was particularly prob- lematic for my mother and me, because he was our legal guardian.
The situation came to a crisis for me when I noticed that Raif had lost hope. He expressed his discouragement more and more often. When he admitted to me on the phone, “There’s no point even trying with him. Your father just pre- tends I’m not there,” I knew I would have to find a way out if I didn’t want to lose him.
If my father, for whatever reason, failed to perform his duties as guardian, my brothers had to assume the task. My eldest brothers, Mohammed and Khaled, had the most authority within our family. As they had already married and no longer lived in the house, I normally had little to do with them. When they came to visit, they spent most of their time in the men’s living room. But there was a way to them, and it led via my sister-in-law Ashwaq.
Just to get it out of the way, my brother Mohammed’s wife is a formidable woman. She orders everyone in her immediate environment around, and since her baby died on a pilgrimage to Mecca, she has pursued religious aspirations. But my brother loves her. In fact he’s devoted to her. If she said Coca-Cola wasn’t black, but white, Mohammed would believe her. He’s completely under her thumb. This woman, it was suddenly clear to me, could open all kinds of doors to me if she wanted to. I just had to get her on my side.
So I adopted a strategic approach. First I tried to become Ashwaq’s friend. That wasn’t particularly difficult: she likes people who agree with her. So that’s what I did. I flattered her and reinforced her views. Once we had a fairly close relation- ship I started introducing her to my secrets and sharing my intimate concerns with her. Things that women like talking about. I told her about my great love, about my father’s hard- heartedness and our fading hope of happiness.
In spite of all the romance, this was a bit much for Ashwaq. She is a strict Muslim, you can’t watch satellite television or listen to music in her house. And in the street she only ever appears clad from head to toe in black, complete with eye-veil and gloves. On the other hand Ashwaq is only a woman. And like all women she has a weakness for love stories. That was why she couldn’t close herself off emotionally from my point of view, even if it struck her as morally reprehensible.
She looked at me sympathetically. “I’ll put in a good word for you with your brother,” she promised.
It was exactly what I wanted to hear. “Thank you,” I said from the depths of my heart.
And then I brought out my strongest argument, which I had saved for the end: “You know, I’m really worried that I might do something forbidden out of sheer despair.”
She looked at me in alarm. “Heaven forbid! It would bring your family into disrepute.”
I nodded in contentment. Ashwaq had understood my implicit threat.
Over the next few months we played Chinese whis- pers at home: I wept on Ashwaq’s shoulder, she worked on Mohammed. He in turn talked to my father and tried to bring him around. The argument that I would cause a scan- dal if I ran away with Raif was a powerful one: that wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest.
Everybody knew that I was still in contact with Raif in one way or another— even if they didn’t understand exactly how I managed to do it in spite of all the security measures. Sometimes my brothers took my whole room apart to find the phone that they suspected was hidden somewhere in there. When that happened I hid it in my underwear. Once the vibrating alert went off when they were on one of those mis- sions; the phone rattled away like mad in my trouser pocket.
I drew my knee up and had to summon all my strength not to burst into hysterical laughter.
Eventually they worked out that I was carrying the phone on my body. “OK, let’s have the thing,” my brother Mohammed demanded. “I know exactly where you’ve hidden the phone!”
“Really? Then come and get it. Go on, search me,” I replied undaunted. I had just been to the toilet and left the phone on the windowsill, so I had nothing to fear from a body search. Of course I didn’t always emerge victorious from these little battles. My brothers caught me with the phone four times in all, and each time they took it from me. But every time Raif replaced it in the same tried and tested way. Our relationship was indestructible. It annoyed them terribly.
But, stubborn as we were, Raif and I wanted to say: We’re not going to give up! We insist on getting married.
Luckily, at the time we hadn’t guessed that our battle was only a kind of rehearsal for the battle for Raif’s life.
One evening my brother Mohammed came to my room. I was already in my pajamas. As I feared another inspection, I immediately looked around for my phone. But this time Mohammed seemed to have something quite different in mind. He was carrying a big book and sat down with it on the edge of the bed.
“Could you please sign here?” he asked, after he had opened the book.
“What is it?”
“It’s the Milka document.” That’s the name of the register office in our country. It was about my marriage contract. I almost fainted with surprise and joy. Was it really possible? Had Raif and I prevailed? Had we attained our goal?
I could hardly have dared to hope as much. Because just before, there had been renewed dissension at our house. Since my father consistently refused to see Raif, my beloved had asked my brothers Khaled and Mohammed for an official date for an engagement, and had brought it about with the help of my sister-in-law Ashwaq. But none of the men invited to the ceremony were particularly sympathetic to his inten- tion. So the engagement party waited in the lower rooms of our house. But my father didn’t even bother to turn up. That was hugely embarrassing for everyone involved. At the time I stayed, as I always did, upstairs. On the stairs I could hear my parents arguing. “Go downstairs, will you, everyone’s waiting for you,” my mother scolded.
“And see that common good-for-nothing? Why should I?” my father replied.
“Because otherwise you’re leaving our sons high and dry!
What will people think?” “I couldn’t care less.”
“You don’t care about anything! And if Ensaf runs off with that fellow, you won’t care about that either. Let her marry him, for heaven’s sake!”
But my father remained stubborn. He didn’t go downstairs. He stuck to his guns: he wasn’t going to say anything at all on the subject. Meanwhile my brothers were concerned to avoid a scandal: after a year of arguments and what had become open discussion about my love affair, it was my father’s atti- tude that threatened the honor of the family. They wanted to clarify matters before anything really serious happened and the reputations of their own families were damaged.
In the end Mohammed performed the engagement ceremony. But no one knew whether it was valid in the circumstances. That was why I was so surprised when he turned up a few weeks later with the official marriage doc- ument. With trembling hands I picked up the ballpoint pen that Mohammed held out to me and signed the paper.
“Congratulations,” he said curtly.
“Thank you,” I replied in confusion. Was that all? It felt completely unreal.
The signing of the marriage contract is normally a solemn act in our country. I had a father and seven brothers who were supposed to be present as witnesses. But only one had come. The rest didn’t even think it necessary to congratulate me. That gave the whole business a stale aftertaste. I wanted to cheer and cry at the same time. Still, I said to myself, Raif and I had done it now.
But my family didn’t think of taking the usual route from here. In the months between the Milka and the official wed- ding party Raif and I were only allowed to see each other one single time. My brother Mohammed invited us to his house, and we met in his living room. It is furnished in the tradi- tional style with colorful carpets and floor cushions. Raif was wearing the traditional white garment worn by men. He came in through the guest door and sat down on the floor next to it. I entered the room from the other side, the side for family members. I wore a brown cotton blouse with an African pattern and long sleeves. I had blow-dried my long, dark hair into a flowing wave.
Raif just stared at me when I sat down on the other side of the room. I think his first impulse was to dash toward me and hug me. But I was so cool that he lost his courage and paused mid-movement.
“Hello,” he said shyly. “Come a bit closer.”
“Come closer yourself!” I replied cheekily.
It was a very tense situation, because my brother Khaled was constantly going in and out. He acted as our respectabil- ity guard dog — and he did his job very thoroughly. We didn’t feel unobserved for a moment. Even though we normally talked for hours on the phone, at that moment it was hard for us to find a shared topic of conversation. Again we took refuge in the formalities of exchanging presents. Tradition demanded that Raif should bring me gold jewelry. In former times expensive jewelry was probably a kind of insurance for the wife, in case her husband died or something went wrong with the marriage. Raif brought me a gold ring, linked to a bracelet by a chain. I put it on my right hand. The right side represents betrothal.
“Do you like it?” he asked. I nodded shyly. I could sense it very clearly: he would have given anything to hug me at that moment. But in these surroundings that was impossible. So instead we fell back into a tense silence. After about a quarter of an hour the whole thing started to get too much for me. “Why don’t we meet another time?” I suggested. “I don’t really feel at ease here.”
“No problem, Ensaf,” he said, sadly but sympathetically. “I’ll yearn for the moment when I can hold you in my arms at last, undisturbed.”
We had to wait a whole six months for that moment. That was how long preparations took for the official wedding feast, for which the bride’s family is traditionally responsible. And of course my family weren’t in a hurry.
As in the previous few months, my brothers kept Raif waiting. The feast required careful planning, they said— and they kept putting Raif off with later and later dates. If he sent me sweets or anything they said, “What’s going on? Can’t you wait? Soon she’ll belong to you!” As primitive as it may sound, I think it was their last chance to take revenge after losing out to him in the argument. Raif really took enormous trouble with me and with them, but the feeling of not being quite welcome in my family wounded him deeply.
But eventually even my brothers couldn’t come up with any more excuses, and the wedding day was fixed once and for all. We had hired the wedding room in the Soal Hotel, one of the best places in the city, and invited 350 guests. I was content: my wedding to Raif would be held in an appropriate setting.
In the Arab world wedding feasts are largely a matter for women. Men have only walk-on parts. I too had invited only women to my wedding. We began the two-day party with a henna evening: over soft drinks and delicious snacks we painted each other’s hands and feet.
My sister Hanan covered my arms with a skilful, swirling pattern. “Are you excited?” she asked me. I understood that she was referring to the wedding night.
“Not at all,” I claimed. “After all, I’ve been waiting for almost a year and a half.”
“It’s not so bad. Particularly with a good-looking man like your Raif . . .” She giggled.
“I’m sure he can’t wait,” Mariam joined in.
“He’s talked of nothing else for weeks,” I confided to them. Then, on the second evening, the climax of the party came, the Sefar. Until then we women had stayed among our- selves. We had talked, eaten and drunk, listened to a singer performing and danced with each other. But now, just before midnight, the ladies quickly veiled themselves: glitter and evening dresses disappeared under the black abayas. It was the moment when the men would join the party.
Our male relatives, Raif’s and mine, stood at the door waiting to accompany the bridal couple as they processed into the hall. Raif wore a fine black silk gown. I was dressed all in white, like the women in foreign films. I had also pow- dered my face a chalky white, so the contrast with my dark hair and my red-painted lips was particularly striking. The women whistled and trilled when they saw us.
We just stood there for a while and let them cheer us. Meanwhile the band that we had hired for the occasion played their first song.
I gulped. It was the song that I had sung for Raif under the bedcovers during our first conversation. How had Raif engineered that?
As the second song began we moved slowly and solemnly into the hall. We sat down on a sofa decorated with lots of flowers, which stood on a pedestal at the end of the hall, the kursi. The men danced casually. The women sat wrapped in their veils on the benches, watching them and clapping.
When the band took a break, Raif brought out a wedding ring before the eyes of all the guests. It was the same ring that had been linked to the bracelet with a gold chain, which I had already worn after the Milka. But now Raif put it on my left hand, the hand that represents marriage. And with that we were married.
A short time later he left the hall, with all the other men. The women took their veils off again. I stayed alone on the kursi and accepted their congratulations. All my friends and relations came to me, brought their presents and told me how pleased they were for me.
“You did that very well,” some of them whispered. “Many congratulations, little fool. Now be happy with your Raif,” my mother said.
I opened the buffet. After all the excitement I was incredi- bly hungry. But before I could go and get any food I had a text from Raif. “Where are you?” he asked impatiently.
“We’re having the first buffet,” I texted back.
“Come on, hurry up. Let the guests party on their own!”
I asked Hanan whether it was all right to abandon my wedding party. “If that’s what the groom wishes,” she replied with a grin.
I asked my mother to walk me outside. Raif was wait- ing there with Mohammed. My brand-new husband was a bundle of nerves. “There you are at last,” he said, and he gripped my hand.
We had actually booked a suite in the hotel for the wed- ding night. But I was very keen to see the flat that Raif had set up for us. I already knew that it was directly below the one where Mohammed lived. So the four of us drove there in the car. Mohammed and my mother sat in the front seats; Raif and I were allowed to sit in the back. That was so unfamiliar that we were almost ashamed. Throughout the whole journey Raif didn’t let go of my hand.
Our new, shared home was a three-room flat. Raif had taken a lot of trouble with the furniture. But at that point I couldn’t really pay it proper attention. I was just glad that there was a place at last where we could close the door behind us.
He led me into the bedroom. He had spread out presents for me on the marriage bed: clothes, jewelry, perfume, posh bath oils and a prettily decorated wooden box. “Look inside,” he said.
I opened the box and gasped. Inside was the red carnation that I had thrown from the window into the street at our first meeting. He had dried it and preserved it. “Yes,” I thought, “we’ve done everything right. Our love is worth the endlessly difficult battle we have fought for it.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed. Raif knelt in front of me and put his head in my lap. And then we both started crying: with exhaustion, with relief and with joy. We had survived. Everything would be fine in the end. At least that’s what we thought at the time.
Excerpted from Constellation. by Adrien Bosc, published by Other Press on 10 May 2016. Copyright © Adrien Bosc. Reprinted by permission of Other Press. Translated from the French by Willard Wood.