|A description of Arab wedding customs in Tunisia.
Fatma, my neighbor and I were playing in the courtyard. She was wearing a green leaf printed dress which added something to her lovely figure. Her face was as round as a rosebud ready to burst open, her arms were plump, her braided long hair as black as a winter night. She exuded good health. She was carefree and embodied an innocent childhood.
While we were playing, her mother called to tell her that her engagement had just been concluded by her father and her father in law to be. She came back very upset, on the verge of tears which clouded her beautiful eyes. However, she kept her composure to tell me that we had to stop playing. She had to give up childhood games and schooling and her life changed completely. She left me brusquely and ran to her bedroom. I followed her. She was already crying. I tried to comfort her without knowing why I was doing it. “It’s over between us; we won’t be able to play anymore. I have to become a woman and later on a mother.”
I did not understand why her marriage had to put an end to our relationship. And on top of that it was hard for me to see her as a mother. She was stroking her doll as if to say goodbye. Tomorrow it would be her husband she would have to stroke submissively. How could she oppose her father’s decision? She had to obey him. She could not even give her opinion; everything was concluded between the two men, it was final and permanent. She had to love her husband unconditionally despite her youth. She was brutally torn from her childhood without any intermediary stage. I could not do anything to help. I shared her anguish. Was it possible not to see Fatma again, Fatma, my playmate and my friend? Once married, she would lead a secluded life, isolated from everyone except much older women with whom she had nothing in common.
“You,” she said, “you are lucky, you are a French boy. You will be able to see, talk to, and go out with the woman who will become your wife.” People envied her, but she was ready, if the opportunity arose, to give up that fiancé she had never seen or known. I heard the grown ups say, “She will learn to love her husband”, as if it could not be otherwise, as if love was to be learned, as if love and feelings were two different things.
Our street had been filled with joy and happiness during the seven days prior to her wedding. Carriages drawn by horses brought Fatma’s trousseau ordered by her father. The social level of the bride in those days was evaluated according to the number of horses.
Huge couscous dishes and whole sheep were brought in order to feed family members who had come from far for the wedding. All the dressmakers in town ad been hired and had been working for months on the wedding dress and those of the guests. Weddings gave an opportunity to the young ladies to parade in their long beautiful gowns decorated with embroidery. Women had their faces and legs waxed to remove hair with a mixture of warm water, sugar and lemon, the best cosmetic product known and used among Arab families. Women colored their hair with henna, manicured their hands and feet. Young girls took advantage of the situation to have their ears pierced. Before the wedding, there was the day of the Turkish bath. The morning was reserved for men and the afternoon for women. All the guests accompanied the new couple to this cleaning session.
Children below the age of ten (and I was one of them) were accepted by women. It was there that one whispered for the first time in the ears of the bride the practice of lovemaking. Experienced women quarreled over the honor of giving the best advice to Fatma, who was red with shame. She was naked like everyone else; her body was plump, her skin as soft as a baby’s. Women did not pay much attention to the young boys while we listened to what was said with innocence and did not miss an occasional glance at all those naked bodies. We thus became spies for men who did not miss an opportunity to question us on what we had seen or heard.
At the age of ten, we lost these privileges. Then, we had to go to the men’s baths where men covered their bodies with huge towels called “Fouta”. There the atmosphere was more serious, more austere at least for us. When men would tell stories, they made sure of sending us away. They thought that only they were privy to life’s secrets but of course we already knew them thanks to the women. Naturally we pretended not to understand anything, but we knew more than the men could suspect. They did not know for sure whether we were informed, in any case they preferred not to find out the truth about us. And thus lying became a part of our life from puberty.
We also had our own secrets learned at home or elsewhere which we exchanged. We were unseen witnesses and therefore we knew everything which happened. We were similar to old trees which have stood witness to so many generations. If they could speak, they would teach us so many things concerning our ancestors. Like them, we remained silent disclosing nothing to avoid confrontations within families.
Various customs preceded the religious ceremony, including that of a gold coin dipped in henna and put in the bride’s left hand. These customs were omens for happiness in marriage.
Everyone hoped to be invited to the final reception. For Fatma’s wedding we were invited as well as all the neighbors. The reception took place at the bridegroom’s parents who owned a sumptuous villa. According to custom, men were in one room and women in another. My tender age allowed me to go everywhere. My mother took me with her to the room of the women, the walls of which were decorated with flowers and embroidered tapestries. The guests were seated on beautiful rugs which covered the whole floor; they leaned on silk or velvet cushions and talked. Mint tea was served in glasses from trays resting on top of low tables, together with honey cakes, and all kinds of drinks and delicacies.
Richly dressed in silk and tulle, Fatma moved from one group to the other, as a hostess, to the accompaniment of compliments and “youyou” sounds. She was very pretty with her big black eyes expressing joy and sadness at the same time. What was she to become? What would be her destiny? Would she be happy? She was hardly fifteen, still a child, and her husband was over fifty.
Using my privilege I went to the room reserved for men: they talked with each other, some standing, others sitting; they all had tea in their hands and nibbled on cookies or other pastries. As he saw me, the bridegroom, who did not know his wife yet, urged me to describe her. “Is she pretty, tall, small, blond or dark haired?” These questions bothered me but the truth could disappoint him, so I answered “She is very beautiful, noble and as white as milk.”
Later on entertainment took place in the big illuminated garden where only men and older women were admitted. Young women and young girls watched the scene from a distance through the lattice windows of the villa. An orchestra played loudly accompanying the sensuous voices of the Oriental women. But the belly dancers were the focus of attention, wearing little and virtually naked, they wriggled their bodies to charm the audience. Men’s eyes were dazzled and overwhelmed by this abundance of female flesh.
This was the Fatma whom I had seen again a few years later when I was playing soccer. Her body had changed but her look had remained the same, sensitive and profound. However it expressed resignation. Time had not succeeded in changing her and she had become wiser and fulfilled her role as an Arab woman. She was faithful to her husband and their customs. She had kept the same smile I had known then. Her eyes had the placidity of well water. Her life progressed as if nothing of importance had happened. She had found peace and serenity in her situation as an Arab wife. Her behavior had inspired me with security and confidence. Since that time I have not seen her, or the other Arab girls I had met during my childhood.
Fortunately today traditions have changed. Young girls may discard the veil. They are the beneficiaries of an evolution Fatma would have appreciated in her own time.
Copyright 2007 Emile Tubiana