Neema sat cross-legged and in silence on the roof garden of her father’s house looking through the darkness over the rooftops of Asyut town. Families and friends had gathered together on the roofs of their homes for their evening meals. An abundance of paraffin lamps scattered across the town sent their bluish light menacingly over the rooftops; their swirling misty smoke giving the impression that hundreds of blue fluttering butterflies were dancing in the darkness. Neema felt saddened in heart; she was, at 16 years of age, and for the first time in her life, alone and lost, in this world of men.
"Yallah, Yallah" (Quickly, Quickly) wailed Adel, head of the family of travelers crossing the sun beaten plains of the open desert.
"We must reach the resting place before the Asr prayer and nightfall." He called to his weary family.
The heat of the desert was at it’s highest in the afternoon and Adel knew that he and his family were nearing the end of their three week long journey across the bleak, arid, empty quarter of the desert.
He had left Al-Tawul, their small village just 26 Kilometers on the Egyptian side of the Libyan border 19 days ago with his entire family, they were heading for the town of Asyut, situated midway between Aswan and Cairo in Egypt.
This journey he was making across the Empty Quarter in the middle of summer was filled with trepidation and excitement for him; it would bring to him his third and youngest wife. He had brought with him his two wives (Jawja’s), Mona the first wife and Fatima his second wife along with his seven children, three boys and four girls. Unfortunately his first born had been a girl and was followed by another three girls from his first wife Mona. He had taken a second wife Leila in the hope that she would bear him a son and she had proved her worth to him by producing three healthy boys. Adel was a very happy and contented man, he was rich, he had three sons that would take care of him in his old age, and now he was about to marry a young girl of 16 years. Allah was good to him and he was eager, yet fearful, to meet his new bride. Rivulets of sweat ran down Adel’s body as he looked back along the trail and to his two wives. They were both walking side by side, heads down and fully covered in the white coverings of the Egyptian women, laughing and talking together like young girls. Adel looked up at the sun, shielding his eyes with his Guthra, (Head covering)
"It will not be long now before the evening stopover’"he called back to his weary family,
Adel chose the place to make camp between two high sand dunes; they would retain some of the sun’s heat during the coldness of the night and afford them some comfort and warmth in the cold blackness of the desert. His two wives busied themselves erecting the tent while the children collected brushwood for the fire. Adel hobbled the camels so they would not wander far away from the camp site during the night, and then prepared him self for the Asr prayer by washing himself thoroughly with clean sand.
"Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar" (God is the greatest, God is the greatest) Adel called the evening prayer as his family joined him on the prayer mat facing Makkah.
The fire burnt brightly in the empty darkness of the night. Bright sparks danced into the night’s blackness like fireflies and the brushwood snapped and crackled with its desert dryness upon the open camp fire. The children were all sleeping soundly, bellies full and secure in the warmth of the tent, the heavens were full of sparkling jewels sprinkled on the dark blue carpet of the silent desert night. Mona, spoke softly to her husband.
"When will we arrive at Asyut Habibi’"? (My Love).
"We have one more full day’s travel, and one more night camp to make, we should arrive at my uncle’s house within the day after the last camp fire is dead’ he replied.
"Is it your wish that I spend this night on your mat’ she inquired of him.
"This night I will spend in prayer to Allah, I will thank him for his goodness to me and my family." Adel replied softly to her.
Mona knew that he was saving himself for his new bride. At 56 years he was not a young man and needed to reserve his strength for the coming wedding
Mona refilled Adel’s glass with sweet Arabic tea then crawled onto her lonely sleeping mat inside the tent. Her usefulness as a wife was coming to an end; she would have to be content from now on with her prestigious role as his first wife.
"Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar." (God is the greatest, God is the greatest)
Morning broke with Adel calling the Morning Prayer. The wind had started to blow lightly across the desert during the night and everything was now covered with a fine layer of sand. A hearty breakfast was eaten as they would not stop for rest this day. After breakfast the tent was dismantled and packed once again upon the back of a camel, the sleeping mats and cooking utensils washed with sand and packed upon the back of another camel and the children made secure upon the backs of a third and fourth.
Neema was exhausted; she had cried herself into a state of numbness for endless days and nights. The flickering paraffin lamps and the dancing butterflies scattered over the rooftops would soon be just a memory of her past, and she would be forced to spend the rest of her lonely life in total misery.
It was late in the evening of the second day before Adel reached his uncle’s house in Asyut; he had pushed his family hard on this day, not wanting to delay his arrival any further.
"Alhamdulilah, Ahlan, Ahlan,’" (Thanks be to god, welcome, most welcome) was his uncle’s greeting as he kissed Adel on both of his cheeks and nose and welcomed him into his house. The children, along with Mona and Fatima were ushered into the separate ladies room by Adel’s aunt and his uncle gave orders to his household staff to unload the camels, then feed and water them. Hot sweet Arabic tea, bread and dates were brought into the men’s room and Adel along with his uncle and three cousins sat down on the carpeted cushioned floor and ate their fill while asking Adel a thousand questions.
While in town the following morning Adel paid a visit to the Halaq (Barber) at his Uncles request.
"You must look you best and smell your sweetest when you meet your bride to be this evening. You must make a good and important impression on the bride’s father before you meet the girl."
Adel conceded to a hot towel, shave a hair wash and cut, he agreed with his uncle when they left the shop that he felt a new man after the pampering of the barber.
The ladies room was filled with sweet smelling perfumes and flowers of all kinds. Luxurious chairs and sofa’s stood on deep piled brightly coloured carpets, there was the sweet smell of coffee mixed within the perfumed air in the room. Her mother was with her, a plump pleasant looking woman quite tall, she held her head high and her back as straight as a camel whip.
Adel stood in the doorway of the ladies room dressed in his best suit, he was feeling nervous and he could feel the shaking in his knees.
"Masa’il kher, kaeyfae haelik alyom" (Good evening, how are you today) he said nervously, nodding his head toward the girls mother, not knowing what to say or do next.
"Alhamdulilah" (Thanks be to God almighty) the girls mother replied, "Please enter and sit with us."
Adel took his offered seat opposite the girl whose face was covered with a white satin veil. He was sure that she could see him through the thin material as she suddenly clenched her hands together in what he thought was happiness.
"What if she doesn’t like me," Adel thought, ‘what if she runs away in fright and disgust at my face.’
Adel had not even considered this fact of rejection in the past six months.
Adel felt the strength of his Uncle’s hand upon his shoulder, firm and positive it held him in his seat as the girl’s mother slowly raised the satin veil from her daughters face. Adel stared at her youthful face, her eyes were large and coloured green, her lips and lower jaw quivered and there were wet tears upon her cheeks. She was beautiful, everything he had imagined she would be she was, and more. She would make him a wonderful wife, a treasure within his heart forever.
"Allah Ma’akom’" (God be with you) Adel said to the girl, and his happy thoughts turned to the many sons she would bear him.
The wedding ceremony lasted for four days and nights. There were guests Adel had never seen before but was assured by his uncle they were part of his family. He had been officially married since the dowry had been paid and the contract had been signed and registered. Adel had not seen his bride since that day he first saw her face in the ladies room. Silence reigned over the women there, not a single word was spoken by anyone as he approached his prize. Adel placing an ornate solid gold belt around her waist that cost him a small fortune, and then he looked into her beautiful face with delight.
"Why was she crying" Adel thought to himself. "Was it with happiness?’"
The tears ran as a river down Neema's face, she could taste the saltiness of her tears on her lips and tongue as she cried in vane at the event that had torn her life and dreams apart. She longingly gazed over the rooftops of her beloved Asyut town, her friends and family would soon be memories of the past and she would be a forgotten soul in the loneliness of her own mind. Tomorrow she would leave her family for ever, travel across the desert to a place she did not know and to a life, she did not want.