Five sets of eyes were looking at me with horrified fascination. The silence seems to last a millenium.
“No marriage contract?” gasped Latifa. “How can this be? We have met your parents! You are from a good family, a religious family! How could you have no marriage contract to protect you?”
It isn’t often that I am at a loss for words, even though we are all speaking in French, often times a comical method of communication, as I normally speak English and they normally speak a Berber Arabic. Words sometimes elude us, and now, words are very elusive.
Fortunately, they all started talking at once.
“Don’t you know, dear one, that a man’s heart is not always constant!”
“You must make him give you gold, and property, to protect yourself and your children!”
“You must be investing for hard times to come!”
One by one, they shared stories of how women had been left by fickle men, or widowed, and how only by the grace of material wealth gathered from dowry, from wedding gifts, from gifts on anniversaries, from gifts when babies were born were they able to maintain themselves, and to provide education for their children.
“But none of you are divorced!” I cried out. “You have faithful husbands.”
Warning glances, barely perceptible, were exchanged, and their voices turned soothing . . .”Yes, dear one, for now. But we all protect ourselves against a future that only Allah knows . . .”
I was barely thirty years old, with a very young child, and these kind women surrounded me in my villa in suburban Tunis. We had worked very hard to develop a relationship, all of us, in spite of early discouraging events.
This was my first time living in an Islamic culture. They would send dishes of food to my house, to make me welcome in the neighborhood, and I would wait until a decent hour – maybe 10 a.m. – to call on them to return the dishes, only to find that not even the servants were up when I rang the bell. They would call on me at 5:30, as I was in my bathrobe, drying my hair for some event at the embassy that night.
Thank God we didn’t give up on one another! Finally, one time they called on me, the mother, the grandmother, two college aged daughters and a small child, one afternoon when my husband was out of town and I didn’t have any engagements that evening. After all our meetings, with the sense of failure to communicate, this time they called when my maid had gone home and I knew I had to serve tea, and something to eat. But that would mean leaving them alone in the salon . . .what to do?
After visiting for ten or fifteen minutes, I confessed I wanted to make them tea, but also didn’t want to leave them. Would they like to come into my kitchen and keep me company?
Who knew that such a simple, desperate request would be the key to unlocking the friendship we had all been seeking? They came into my kitchen, but instead of sitting around the small table while I fixed tea, they began looking into all my cupboards, pulling things out, exclaiming, asking questions. We were suddenly all fluent enough, no longer so self-conscious.
Things were never the same after that. They enjoyed dragging me along, pretending to others I was some long lost cousin from southern France, covering me in their sefsari’s, taking me with them to weddings. My husband objected to the “maquillage” and I told them that because we were religious, I could not wear so much make-up, and they relented. At Eid, I was allowed to peel and crush the garlic, while they cleaned and prepared the slaughtered lambs. Their friendship turned an isolated and intimidating experience into a warm, laughter filled time in my life.
I know they influenced me, changed me in subtle ways, some of which I probably don’t even know. I think it’s like CSI, where they say the primary forensic law is that in every interaction, you leave something behind and take something with you. My husband and I started seriously investing, and if today we are comfortable, I smile and think of those sweet women, and their horror that I would be unprotected by having no marriage contract.