And of his signs is that he created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and he placed between you affection and mercy …
qur’an chapter 30, verse 21
The smell of hot clarified butter. Nutty and heavy in the air. Almost heady. Yellow gold. The sweltering sun. Khadeega takes the heavy pot from the stove and holds it over the large stainless steel bowl of flour and sesame seeds. Her firm grip tilts the pot, slowly pouring into the bowl as she whispers bismillah irrahman irraheem – in the name of god the most gracious the most merciful. Khadeega is 72 years old. I was surprised when she told me this. There are few lines on her face. Her back is straight and her shoulders are not hunched. No arthritis in her hands and her hips and knees are the ones she was born with. Unlike Khadeega. Habeeba’s arthritic fingers are stirring the flour into the butter, careful not to burn herself. She tells Khadeega to prepare the yeast, and don’t forget a pinch of sugar she says. Last time she forgot the pinch of sugar. It is the nineteenth day of Ramadan and they are making kahk – cookies to celebrate when they end their 30 days of fasting. Legend has it that palace kitchens in tenth century Egypt made buttery cookies at the end of Ramadan and some had hidden gold coins gifted to the poor. Today the kahk are still gifted, but the fillings are more modest.
It’s cold and the yeast will take longer to rise, so Habeeba and Khadeega set it out on the back porch in the sun. Back in the kitchen they melt more clarified butter – to mix with a little flour, honey and walnuts to make the ‘agameyya. Translucent and gooey, ‘agamayya is the filling they will use for half the kahk. The other half will be filled with dates. Habeeba assembles the pieces of her electric grinder and the quiet is broken by the motor and whirl of the blade. As she pushes the dates through the funnel, out come strands of smooth paste she’ll mix with more butter and a pinch of cinnamon. The date-filled kahk are my favorite. Date-filled anything is my favorite. Medjool dates. Those are the best. Yesterday Habeeba sent me to get dates from Mahdy, the Lebanese guy she gets her cheese and bread from. He had medjools from Saudi Arabia and from California. Women can’t leave Saudi Arabia without a male guardian’s permission, so I didn’t want the dates that left Saudi Arabia. I got the Californian dates. Large, soft, succulent, a perfect sweetness. Khadeega and Habeeba are fasting and cannot taste what they’re cooking. They look at the date paste, and look at each other. “A little more cinnamon,” says Khadeega.
Khadeega Karam, born in the city of El Mansoura, in the Nile Delta about 120km north east of Cairo, was named after the first wife of the prophet Mohammad, Khadeega bint Khuwaylid. A wealthy merchant, reportedly 15 years older than Mohammad, she was his boss, and she’d already been married three times before she proposed marriage to him. They were married for 25 years and had six children.
Khadeega Karam is the eldest of six children – two boys, four girls. Rheumatoid arthritis crippled her mother’s legs and feet, and Khadeega tells me she had no interest in school, so at the end of her elementary education she stayed home to care for her mother and siblings. Aunts, uncles and cousins often stayed at the family’s large home for holidays and to celebrate religious feasts. When Khadeega was 19 years old, her 31-year-old maternal cousin Muneer didn’t go home after the end of Ramadan feast. He took a few days off work and hung around. Everywhere she turned, he was there, and when her father took her and her eldest brother to see a movie at the local cinema, Muneer tagged along. It was 1965 and the actress and singer Shadia was starring in aghla min hayatee – more precious than my life – opposite heartthrob Salah Zulfikar. They played Mona and Ahmed, in love but unable to marry when Mona’s father refuses to give her hand in marriage. Heartbroken, Ahmed marries another and leaves Egypt for Europe. He has two children and names his daughter Mona after the woman he can never forget. Years later he returns to Egypt with his family. He adores his children, but his wife is a pain in his ass. Between manicures and ordering around servants, she nags – Ahmed you’re always late, Ahmed you’re always forgetting things … Then, one day, Ahmed, on a busy street in Cairo, walks past Mona. It takes a second before he stops and turns, his eyes widen in disbelief. She stops and turns, her bosom rising as her heart pounds. They walk towards each other …
Marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one …
qur’an chapter 4, verse 3
Khadeega watched the simmering onscreen. She was sitting next to her father, who sat next to her brother, who sat next to Muneer, when her father leaned close to her to whisper in her ear: “Muneer wants your hand in marriage. Think about it. If you want him, tell your mother.” Khadeega didn’t think about it. She shook her head and continued to watch as Mona became Ahmed’s second wife in secret. Then, his children began to notice – whenever Ahmed vacationed with his family they would see Mona on the same flight, booked into the same hotel, dining at the same restaurant, …
Habeeba’s brow winces. Pain radiates along her lower back as she pushes her hands into the dough and kneads. She can’t sit. She must stand to reach into the large stainless steal bowl. She won’t stop. She must have kahk for the end of Ramadan. Her husband walks into the kitchen to remind her he likes them plain. No filling. Just a dusting of icing sugar. Those are for another day Habeeba tells him. Tomorrow in sha allah. He turns and goes back to his room where he’s been watching Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi”s sermons on YouTube. I know because he’s been spamming me and others on WhatsApp all morning with links to sermons about the need for an Islamic economy and the Muslim conquest of Rome and Europe. I checked out one link where the Sheikh explained that polygamy is a moral way to address the excess of women in the world, which made me wonder what planet he lives on because there are more men in the world than women.
The dough is ready. Khadeega and Habeeba pull up the shades in the living room so the sun shines on them as they sit and work. A stack of trays lined with baking paper is at one end of the low table before them, the bowl of dough at the other, and the fillings in the middle. Khadeega takes the dough and rolls it into small balls. She flattens each one and hands them to Habeeba who spoons ‘agameyya into the center, folds the dough around the filling, rolls it back into a ball, then uses pincers to make what looks like a starfish pattern on top but with eight arms. Trays go into the oven as they finish the ‘agameyya and start filling the dough with date paste. Habeeba’s husband is back. He’s invited two of his friends to break their fast with them that evening. He’s letting her know. Habeeba stops to think. Leftovers won’t do. In the few weeks before Ramadan she prepares and freezes – breaded fish, triangles of phyllo stuffed with cheese, artichoke soup – she takes out marinated chicken, and okra with tomatoes. She puts rice in the cooker and she’ll make a salad just before the sun sets and it’s time to eat. Stay for iftar she tells Khadeega. Khadeega says no. She doesn’t want to be a bother. Habeeba raises her voice. “You’re going to go home and eat alone? You’re staying for iftar.”
When Khadeega walked home from the cinema that day, she was alone. Her cousin had to return to Cairo for work and her father and brother went to their local coffee house for backgammon and shisha. Muneer returned though the following weekend. He wanted to know why. What didn’t she like about him? Khadeega shied away from answering and would only shrug her shoulders and look away. His father was the one who wanted the marriage, she thought. She was an obvious choice because they grew up together, she thought. But he kept returning, every weekend, for months, until Khadeega went to her mother and said, “Ok, I’ll take him.” The kindness she saw growing up around him will continue after their marriage, she thought. She knew him well, she thought. He’s family and she can trust him, she thought. Khadeega’s father took her to Cairo to pick out the fabric for her wedding dress. All the en vogue brides were wearing lace. Knee-length, A-line. It would be a winter wedding, but indoors and Khadeega wanted sleeveless with a high round neck. Back in El Mansoura the local dressmaker took Khadeega’s instructions and measurements and after three fittings, her dress was perfect, paired with open-toe off-white three-centimeter heels. The groom was not tall.
Khadeega had never left her family and was nervous. She knew where babies came from, but not much else about what to expect on her wedding night. Years later she overheard her mother tell a friend, “We don’t speak of such things in our family. That’s the husband’s job. What he wants his wife to know, he’ll tell her.” But Khadeega’s husband didn’t say much that night. Khadeega’s mother did tell her what all mothers in El Mansoura told their daughters: the pill can leave you infertile. If you are going to take it, take it after you’ve had your first child. Just in case you can’t get pregnant again. Married in the second month, Khadeega gave birth to her first child in the twelfth. Mothers always nursed their babies. Fathers never got up at night, never changed diapers and never prepared their own breakfast before leaving for work so mothers could catch up on sleep. They never cleaned while mothers settled colicky babies or hand washed soiled cloth diapers while mothers took ten minutes to shower. They came home from work hungry, tired and irritable. In the movie Ahmed was never irritated with Mona. She smiled all the time. She always cooked his favorite foods. If Ahmed could only give fleeting moments and kisses, Mona was happy. But Khadeega was wife number one. Like eating, breathing and sleeping in a court of law. That’s how she describes her marriage. Did she allow the children to run amok and disturb his afternoon nap? Yes, she did and she was sorry. Was she too busy to visit his mother and help her with her cleaning and her laundry? No, she was not. She was sorry and would get to it right away.
First Habeeba’s phone, then Khadeega’s – prayer time alarms. They’ll finish the date filling first. Only a few more left anyway. Khadeega and Habeeba continue to roll, flatten, fill and fold, but the patterns Habeeba is now making on top of each kahk are different. With a fork she crisscrosses the tops to distinguish date-filled from ‘agameyya. I see kahk in the oven firm and brown, just slightly. Hot trays come out. Cold trays go in. I don’t feel the morning chill anymore. Khadeega takes off her cardigan.
Habeeba’s husband is back. “Have you prayed? It’s time to pray.” Habeeba washes for prayer, tells me not to let anything burn, then reaches for one of the prayer scarves she keeps in a basket in the far corner of the living room. Khadeega hasn’t removed her scarf since she arrived and won’t in front of Habeeba’s husband. He starts:
Allahu akbar (God is great). Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar.
The women take their places several feet behind him, shoulder to shoulder.
Ash hadu an la ilaha illallah (I testify that there is no deity but God)
I see their lips move with whispers:
Ash hadu anna Mohammadan rasulallah (I testify that Mohammad is the messenger of God)
Khadeega bint Khuwaylid, the first of Mohammad’s wives, died in 619CE, leaving her husband, who had begun preaching Islam, a wealthy merchant. She had not shared her husband with any other woman. But later that year Mohammad married Sawda bint Zama’a, then Aisha bint abu Bakr. Five years later he married Hafsa bint Omar, then a year later Zaynab bint Khuzayma then Hind bint abu Omayya. Zaynab died though, about two years after the nuptials, so he married another Zaynab. With five wives in tow, Mohammad married Juwayriyya and Ramla, then Rayhana and Safiyya, then Maymunah and Maria. 13 wives in total, 11 for much of his married life. Once Mohammad died, his wives, the mothers of the believers, were not permitted to marry again. No one knows why Mohammad got to keep a harem of more than four.
I take trays out of the oven and line the cold ceramic floor to cool.
In the early 1970s, Australia was handing out visas to migrants from all over the world to fill the pretty much empty sunburnt country. Habeeba and her husband migrated, happily, for better-paying jobs. When Muneer told Khadeega they were migrating, she begged to stay behind with her sons, close to her family. If she wanted to set foot outside their apartment, her husband would need to know to where, with whom and for how long. Then he might give his consent. He would not watch their three boys for her and her right foot needed to step back over their threshold before the sun went down. Khadeega imagined a life without him. But he insisted. As the father of her children, he could take them and leave. She had no right to stop him. Then Khadeega found herself pregnant a fourth time. Wanting another baby, wanting a girl, she was smiling when she told Muneer. But Muneer told her: keep the baby and I leave you here and take the boys. Have an abortion and you can keep the boys and I leave on my own.
Soon Muneer was on his own in Australia, but the night before he left he insisted Khadeega fulfill her wifely duties. Two months later she was pregnant again.
Men are in charge of women by what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist] forsake them in bed; and [finally] strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.
qur’an chapter 4, verse 34
When Muneer returned to Egypt to visit his sons, he would not speak to Khadeega and he would not look at or touch his daughter. Living in the same apartment, Khadeega cooked for him, cleaned his room when he stepped out for the day, and still asked his permission before she went out for groceries. Muneer wouldn’t look at her when she spoke to him. If he remained silent, she assumed he did not object. Khadeega named her daughter Omneyya – a wish, a hope, a fancy – a name he disliked. He insisted on changing it to Rafeedah – helper, giver, supporter – a name Khadeega disliked. Only when her name was changed did Muneer pick her up and play with her. Muneer was lonely on his own in Australia, so towards the end of his stay he told Khadeega – leave Egypt, or he would not only take their daughter, he would take another wife and take her to raise their children in Australia instead. Khadeega had no right to stop either.
First Habeeba’s phone, then Khadeega’s. Habeeba’s husband walks in reading tweets. Egyptians have been trolling footballer Sergio Ramos for dislocating Mohamed Salah’s shoulder just weeks before the World Cup – ibn el weskha they’re calling him – son of the dirty woman. “Are you ready?” he asks them. “Let’s pray.”
Ten kahk on each tray. Eight trays. Two in the oven. Six cooling on the floor. As soon as they cool, kahk are stacked into plastic containers and hermetic jars. Then trays are refilled and wait for their turn in the oven. I’m guessing each tray has been in and out three times. That’s 240 kahk and counting. Khadeega and Habeeba are in a hurry, in opposition to their tiring limbs. The sun is slipping and guests will arrive to eat. Habeeba washes and packs away while Khadeega clears and wipes down.
Living in Sydney cost much more than living in Cairo. Muneer always complained about money. So Khadeega baked and sold Egyptian sweets and made curtains for neighbors and uniforms for her children’s schoolmates so long as this didn’t get in the way of her “duties at home.” She made enough money to buy her own car and pay for her own driving lessons. Muneer would not teach her. She could deliver her goods so long as her right foot crossed their threshold before the sun set and dinner was on the table when Muneer arrived home shortly thereafter. But once the children had grown and left home Muneer stopped complaining about money. He wouldn’t talk about money at all. He wouldn’t give Khadeega any either. She’d never had access to his bank account or even knew how much money he made. Muneer told her if he allowed her to work, why should he have to pay for everything?
Hot-sweet-buttery kahk now compete with the smell of okra simmering in tomatoes, and chicken on the stove-top grill. I’m disappointed. I want the scent to linger as long as possible and I don’t want the men to arrive. The storytelling will have to end. The space will be eclipsed by them.
The morning of Khadeega’s fifty-first wedding anniversary she was woken by her alarm clock. She turned it off and went back to sleep. Not wanting to get up half an hour before Muneer to turn on the air conditioning in the living room, make his Turkish coffee and set it down with a tall glass of cold water and his medications on the table in front of the TV for when he woke, she slept in. When he woke and nudged her, she slapped his hand. “Don’t touch me. I’m sleeping.”
Muneer took his things and began sleeping in the spare room. A few days later he told Khadeega – he would take another wife in Egypt and live with her there for half the year, then return to Australia to be with Khadeega for the other half of the year. He was 82 years old. Who, she wondered, would want to marry an 82-year-old man? “Go ahead,” she said. “Go find someone. If you do, you have to divorce me.” Muneer refused to divorce her, but would travel to Egypt searching and not finding, then returning to the spare room. Their sons had married and Omneyya (she refused to call her Rafeedah) was working abroad. Still, she did not want a divorce to embarrass her children. Khadeega knew in Australia, unlike in Egypt, she didn’t need reasons to divorce nor would a judge be the person to decide if she deserved one. If her husband found someone, she would not remain wife number one.
Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire …
qur’an chapter 4, verse 129
He found someone. No joke, her name was Mona. Khadeega filed in the Family Court of Australia to become wife number none.
It is hoped that, if he divorces you, Allah will give him in your place wives better than you, submissive to Allah, believing, devout, penitent, steadfast in worship, fasting, previously married and virgins.
qur’an chapter 66, verse 5
Mona was 55 years old and widowed. She had one son who was a university student. Home for the summer shortly after Mona and Muneer married, three was a crowd. Her son had been the man of the house since he was 12 years old and didn’t seem willing to cede his status or territory. Muneer divorced Mona before the end of the summer.
Four months later he found Salma – 51, divorced, two married daughters and three grandchildren. Salma’s daughters lived in the same building. One upstairs and one downstairs. Salma was always upstairs or downstairs. Muneer divorced Salma.
The following year in April Muneer met Ranya, a 45-year-old forewoman at a textile manufacturing plant. She’d been divorced three times because she was unable to have children. The plant was shutting down and she was going to lose her job. After they married Ranya spent much of her time at home preparing meals while watching TV, sewing while watching TV and entertaining friends while watching TV. It was how she became acquainted with the preacher Islam Ahmed Abdullah who convinced her that her simple headscarf and long skirts were not pious enough. Soon, when Muneer brought friends over for Turkish coffee and backgammon, Ranya would appear clad from head to toe in black, face-veiled, gloved, and unwilling to shake the guests’ hands. She would set down a serving tray, nod, and scurry back to her room so as not to join in men’s company. She was divorced in August.
By January the next year, Muneer found Hoda. Never married, at 36 Hoda was living with her brother, his wife and their seven young children. Her parents had passed and she worked as a dental assistant. Hoda was keen to have her own room in her own home, and her own children, even if the only option was to have them with Muneer. But Muneer assumed she would know he was too old for kids and Hoda assumed he would know that of course she’d want kids, so he divorced her in March.
In August Muneer’s youngest brother introduced him to his secretary, 33-year-old Manal. She had no kids and her husband left her six years prior for the United States. He’d divorced her telling her he was going to marry an American woman, file for a green card, get his citizenship, then divorce the woman, remarry Manal, and bring her to amreeka. He married the American woman, filed for a green card, but then had two kids and told her a divorce was going to be more complicated than he thought. Manal was depressed and needed someone to help her forget her ex-husband and move on. They married in September. But Manal had a hard time forgetting. As soon as she came home from work she put on her pajamas and crawled into bed to watch movies on Netflix. Muneer divorced her in November.
Muneer took a break from women and joined friends on a trip to Aswan in Egypt’s south. He stayed at the Old Cataract Hotel where every evening a lovely chambermaid by the name of Hasanat turned down his bed and would ask with a shy smile before she left the room, “Any other service, sir?” Muneer is currently married to Hasanat. She is 29 years old.
Khadeega’s friends tell her now they always disliked her husband. He hears through the grapevine that people make fun of him and his in-an-out marriages, so he hasn’t returned to Australia. Her children have a hard time talking to him. This upsets Khadeega. No matter what he does, he is their father. She insists they speak to him, and when they’re in Egypt, she insists they visit him. So Omneyya refuses to go to Egypt. She doesn’t want to upset her mother. Until her father is buried, her feet will not touch the desert sand of the Land of the Pharaohs.
The table is set and the doorbell rings, then first Habeeba’s phone, then Khadeega’s – it is sunset – maghrib – time to break their fast and pray. Habeeba chops tomatoes, cucumbers and leaves of romaine while Khadeega mixes olive oil, vinegar and lemon. Habeeba’s husband greets his friends and directs them to the bathroom so they can wash for prayer. A plate of dates is on the dining table for them to break their fast. Each of them takes one then a glass of water. I take a bite of kahk, filled with date paste. Habeeba catches me – “You couldn’t wait, you thief?”
Habeeba turns to Khadeega, “What if he divorces this one the way he divorced the last one? If he realizes how stupid he’s been and there’s no one as good as you – if he comes back to you and apologizes – could you forgive him? Could you take him back?”
Khadeega answers, “Not one no. Sixty nos!”
Habeeba’s husband’s voice starts:
Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar.
The men stand shoulder to shoulder. As Khadeega and Habeeba leave the kitchen to take their places behind the men, I ask, “Would you consider marriage again? Someone other than him, of course. For company?”
Marriage? I hate marriage and anyone who speaks of it.