I was finally back home after five years abroad. The first thing I asked myself was who would accompany me to the “ Hammam” to wash my back. Khaled, my cousin, who came to find me that morning offered to go with me, surely he just wanted to listen to my stories about Europe, where he had always dreamt of living.
Once we arrived at the Hammam we began to exercise, and in keeping with social mores everywhere we gave a helping hand to the old people who were also warming up, prior to their bath. All of a sudden a wedding party came in, the groom had to be cleansed and purified before his “ final night celebrations”, this is also a Muslim tradition. However, everything seemed strange in that celebration, the songs they were singing were old and sad it reminded us of another age. None of the people were at all young, we found out that the groom himself was handicapped with only one leg. I thought to myself, here we are another girl has been sold to a rich old man. I must have been thinking out loud as one of the men heard me speaking to my cousin and he looked at me as if to say “shame on you!” He smiled and said to me,
“ You are completely mistaken.”
I felt so embarrassed and I told the man,
“I was joking, normally it’s true that if the groom is old then his bride must be poor or young.”
“ Not in this case, do you know who the couple are?”
“No,” I said “ I’d like to know, I’m so curious.”
The man carried on telling me his story.
“ He is Ahmed, the cigarette seller, the one who used to sell cigarettes singly at the market and his wife will be Zohra. She’s fifty and still a virgin! She was once the most beautiful girl in the quarter, but of course now she’s dried up…” “…ah destiny is a betrayer!”
I knew from his eyes that the old man had so many things to say and I asked him if after the bath he would like to have a tea in the Hammam yard. He then asked us kindly if one of us could wash his back. He then lay down on his stomach and we proceeded to wash each side of his body. Once relaxed he began to talk about the couple in such a way as if they were his own problems.
Zohra had been promised to her cousin Ali in matrimony, therefore no one from the quarter had ever been able to ask for her hand in marriage. Her cousin had gone abroad when he was seventeen, the same year she had left school at twelve years old. Zohra had then thought that within five years she would be a housewife, married to a well off man. The five years became ten,then fifteen and her “husband” never returned to his promised wife. People who knew him and kept in touch with him retold stories about his new life and it became known that he had suffered culture shock and deteriorated into alcoholism living his life as a vagabond in the streets and parks of Paris. Zohra and her family just gave up, thinking that he was a lost cause.
One day Zohra’s father began once more the search to find his beloved daughter a suitable husband telling everyone “Zohra is free!” She was still young, only twenty- seven years old. Zohra had always accepted what her parents had proposed for her, all except the first choice of husband after Ali. The new choice of husband she rejected violently for several reasons; firstly, because he was a low-life builder who would never be able to satisfy her dreams of Ali coming back from France and providing for her financially, secondly he was not as physically attractive as Ali had been.
The old man sighed,
“ I remember very well Zohra sitting in the living room of our house telling my sister how even the sound of his motorbike had made her feel sick.”
My cousin and I liked the story so much that we were laughing, despite it being quite a sad tale. The old man seemed to be making the story last forever, so detailed, probably in order that we would continue washing him. He succeeded anyway! We had just started washing his front when we asked him, “ What happened after that?”… “ How do you know all this?” He closed his eyes and whispered,
“ I was her third fiancée” he continued, “ even though she was ten years younger than me and also my sister’s best friend I fell in love with her the very first time she came to the house I just decided from that point to marry her, even my family liked her.” Still being washed, the man told us more of the story,
“ So I went to ask Zohra’s father for her hand in marriage. First of all he went mad telling me that she had only gone to the house to see me and not as a friend of my sister. Zohra’s father beat her and kept her like a prisoner in their home. That same year I married my wife we have five children now. At our wedding I knew that Zohra and her family were invited and later I saw her there crying.”
“Was she jealous?” I asked him.
“In my generation there was no love, some people only meet their husbands at the wedding. I think she was crying because she felt she’d been left behind all the other people she new who were married by now. One year later my sister got married and I met Zohra again. I asked her when it would be her turn to get married and she threw her hands in the air and exclaimed, “God knows when!”
The man paused and sat up resting his chin in his hand he revealed more of the story,
“She was so unlucky, Zohra had found a man to marry, a primary school teacher , then her father died and she was plighted with tragedy as tradition says you should mourn for one year. During this time she was left for another time when the teacher married someone else. At this point Zohra really gave up, leaving all to destiny.”
“But how did she decide to marry Ahmed?” I questioned.
The man responded,
“ I think even in this situation she didn’t decide, it was the “ Imam” of the quarter who advised them to marry one another and as you see that’s why now they are all here.”
At that point, my cousin and I felt that we should contribute in some way and we started to drum on the Hammam buckets, singing lively songs and at that moment I realised nobody had washed my back. There was now a queue of women waiting outside to come in and be washed. As we left I saw the woman who I assumed must be Zohra, small tears welled up in her eyes.