Masked Monotonous Marriage
“Put this on to make you blend in with the women of our town.” Her brother had after handing her a sandwich and a can of cold soda opened the trunk to get the plastic bag he was now referring to. This was his first words since they had left Teheran many hours ago. Now there was less than an hour to the little Gulf coast town where they were heading. Yousef starts the car again and they continue. Hoda is especially thirsty after sitting long in a hot car wrapped in the required chador and having to wait in the car while he rested, ate and drank in the small roadside coffee shop unsuitable for women to enter. Hunger satisfied and can empty Hoda puts the contents of the bag on the seat beside her. It is mostly clothes nearly all made of the same piece of fabric and then there are some items of leather – boots, gloves and a mask. It looks like the traditional dress of the Gulf coast. After driving in the hot sun through desert most of the day Hoda is happy to take of her black chador if only to be unclothed for a minute. This is acceptable because it’s her brother and he has his back towards her and they are driving in open country where passing cars at most gets a short glimpse of her. After taking her slippers off as well she is just in underwear. She puts the soft black leather boots on her bare feet and laces them tight halfway to her knees. Then she puts on the loose trousers with elastics at the waist and the ankles. Then it has to be the gloves which matches the boots both in color material and length. But where a reduction of movement and tightness is ok for the boots, having her hand movements restricted is not so nice. Immediately her hands gets warm and swell which makes the gloves even tighter. But now she can put on the shirt made from the same fabric as the trousers and with elastics at the wrists. But even though the ties at the front of the neck are thick it’s difficult closing the shirt. But now she is not naked although having the head uncovered is improper. But before covering the head there is a skirt with a belt both of the same material as the shirt and trousers. The skirt is easily fitted and reaches her ankles from what can be judged when not being able to stand. Now remains two pieces of the fabric of dark gray opaque cotton with stylized flowers in various pale colors. A smaller piece to cover the hair, neck and chin and a very large piece to wrap around head and shoulders and cover the arms. She has seen pictures of masked women and knows the chin has to be covered not to reveal any skin below the mask, so she carefully lets an edge of the cloth come nearly up to her lips. Then she lifts the mask to her face, but seeing the inside she stops. “The mask has a protrusion going into my mouth that seems to make me mute,” she says loud to be sure to overpower the sounds of the car and attract the attention of Yousef. Her brother without taking his eyes of the road says “It’s an old custom of our town. Women are mute. Farah, my wife, doesn’t mind.” Hoda having understood the masks of the Gulf are worn all waking hours has to revise her learning as this must mean the women of this town only wears them in public. Women raising their voices in public are improper all over the country, but directly preventing sound she has not heard about. But as Yousef and herself are not in the mood for talking during this trip she opens her mouth wide and puts the mask to her face. Fortunately it’s fastened with straps with buckles which are a little easier to handle with her gloved hands than tying knots. It feels a little strange having to bite a leather knob, but it’s covering the skin of the face which is unpleasant. Exchanging the thick heavy black cloth of the chador with light soft cotton all over the body was nice, but Hoda is not used to having her face covered. It’s like with the gloves, her skin immediately gets warm and the moist generated can’t get away. And breathing is either through a small hole going through the protrusion in her mouth or up along the sides of the nose through the small circular eye openings. But being totally unaccustomed to having the face covered she does not know if this is any worse than wearing a niqab or other kinds of face covering. But now she can finish her dressing by wrapping the large piece of cloth around her head and upper torso hiding her hands and arms completely as long as the hands are resting on her stomach. She leans forward and moves her head around to get an impression of her looks in the rear view mirror. A pair of eyes as only identification would only result in recognition by those knowing her closely and seeing her at close range – maybe. Hoda is not sure she would recognize herself, but she likes both the feeling and the looks of the clothes. And the mask is a traditional accessory with a special kind of beauty. Dressed like this she can stay with her brother for some time without offending or bringing her brother’s honor at risk. There is still a small thin black piece of cloth left from the bag, but she is fully covered and can’t find any use for it. Perhaps it’s just something accidentally being folded inside one of the other items. Hoda leans back in the seat longing for cool shadow, more to quench her thirst and a proper meal. Some minutes later she is taken out of her doze by Yousef saying in a loud voice “Hoda, I can see in the rear view mirror that your eyes are uncovered. Isn’t there a black face scarf?” Hoda straightens in the seat. So that’s what the thin black piece of cloth is. She unfolds it and finds it quite large for just covering the eyes. Yousef glancing in the rear view mirror when traffic permits sees she is not really acting and then says “The black scarf must cover the opening in the headscarf, placed innermost and covers the same area as the mask. It has an opening for the mouth and just placing it right it should be self explanatory.” Hoda uncovers her head again. She finds a circular opening in the black scarf and places it over her head. With great difficulty she succeeds in tying the scarf at the back of her head. Next time she dresses the scarf will come on before she puts on gloves. But soon she is wearing all the items. Now the sharp sunlight has disappeared. She sees without problems but there is a slight blur in front of her eyes. But seeing in the rear view mirror the mask eye holes are just covered by black. Nothing is seen of the person behind. It could be anybody inside these garments. It’s a little frightening being totally anonymous. But then Hoda notices a positive change. The thin fabric between the mask and her skin doesn’t make her as warm as before. The skin can breathe better making the mask more tolerable. Hoda leans back again. She really needs to relax. The last four days have been tough. She had lived a quiet happy life for eight months with her husband when suddenly she was told to go to a hospital. Her husband has suffered a car accident and was in coma. Four days later his heart stopped. Hoda had become a widow and immediately her brother, her only family, had invited her to stay with him, as custom demands. Yousef had arrived to participate in the traditional male only burial the same evening and in the morning she had left the physical results of her marriage to go with him. A man had been hired to sell most of it and pack and send the rest.
The less intensive light, little sleep the previous days and the long ride has made her doze off. She suddenly discovers it’s nearly completely silent because the car is parked. Seconds later Yousef says “Hoda, are you sleeping? We are as close as we can get with a car.” Hoda looks out seeing they are on a bare piece of land with walled houses on one side and a small alley going in between the houses. Hoda’s belongings are coming by truck in some days. They have nothing to carry except the plastic bag now holding Hoda’s dress from Teheran. Yousef says “You walk a little behind me only looking at my shoes.” They walk up the alley for less than five minutes. Hoda hears a door knocker and they enter a door in the walls of the alley. Inside is a small bare tile covered yard and a single-story house with four windows and a door facing the yard. Standing in the open door is a woman dressed like Hoda, but with the fabric a little differently colored and patterned. Yousef puts a hand towards her saying “My wife, Farah.” Then he stretches the other hand towards Hoda saying “My sister, Hoda.” Meanwhile Farah has come up to Hoda and hugs her tightly. The women follow Yousef into the house where he sits down in an armchair. Farah hurries out back while Hoda keeps standing in the middle of the room as her brother just sits back in the chair without taking interest in her. In less than a minute Farah is back with a bowl of heated water and some towels. She hands a damp towel to Yousef and bows down and unlaces his shoes. While Yousef washes his face and hands, Farah washes Yousef’s feet. Then she leans forward to take a pair of slippers waiting next to the chair and places them on his outstretched feet. She gets on her feet and exchanges the damp towel in the hands of Yousef for a dry. Shortly after Yousef passes it back to her saying “Is dinner ready?” Farah nods showing five fingers. Farah takes the bowl and turns around signaling Hoda to follow her. They enter the quite large kitchen where Farah gesture Hoda to sit down on a carpet on the floor. For the next minutes Farah is busy with the meal. Eventually she has filled a tray and leaves shortly. Coming back she sits down on the carpet facing Hoda but nothing else. After a couple of minutes Hoda points to her own mask and makes a gesture as if she would unwound her head covering. But Farah shakes her head. Nothing happens during the next minutes. Then suddenly Farah gets up as something has struck her mind. She shows a large partly filled bottle of cola to Hoda. Hoda nods and Farah puts the bottle down in front of Hoda and shortly after sits down again with two glasses with straws. Hoda finds out she can drink fully masked with a straw through the hole in the mask. Two minutes later a bell breaks the silence. Farah gets up to serve Yousef. A couple of minutes later she places two filled plates on the carpet, but not between them. One is placed close to the wall Hoda is leaning against and the other at the opposite corner next to Farah. Farah makes Hoda turn around facing the wall before she places herself next to her facing opposite. Then Farah unbuckles her own mask but due to the knob in her mouth it stays on. She hands Hoda a note she has just scribbled reading ‘Welcome to our house. Women are always masked and never speak here. We eat back to back. Don’t speak while eating. If shortly turning around to get something first pad my shoulder so I can mask and bite your own mask while we may see each other.’ Hoda read it twice before putting it down and nodding to Farah. While Hoda unbuckles her mask Farah moves back to back with her, puts her mask in her lap and starts eating. Hoda starts eating as well thinking this is much stricter than she ever heard about. Will she ever be able to speak to Farah – and to Yousef, her own brother? And will she ever see Farah or any other woman in this town for that matter?
A week later Hoda is quite sure the answers to her questions that first evening are all No. They had partly cleared a small room, until then used as store, to make room for a mattress for her to sleep. Inside here and in the bathroom with door locked are the only places she is not fully dressed. Except the mask is taken of during the three daily meals in positions where no other women are seeing her. Immediately following each meal all women go to the bathroom, the bedroom or their own chamber while biting the mask to buckle the mask and properly fitting the head scarves, loose while eating. She haven’t even met Yousef since. When he is at home only Farah enters the living room shortly to serve him. He never enters the kitchen and Huda has gone to her own room to sleep before Yousef goes to bed. Farah assures Huda is up in due time before Yousef leaves the bedroom and she stays in the kitchen until he leaves the house.
Some neighbors arrived late morning the first day. With less than five words from each on a note block they had exchanged information about each other. It took less than half an hour including finding out why one wrote two lines. Hoda found out she was describing both herself and another women, probably elderly, who is illiterate. Then for about an hour they sipped tea through straws with nothing else happening. Then Farah showed them the leftovers of the bread from breakfast. They were invited for lunch. After twenty minutes of praying they all got a plate and then found an unoccupied corner in the living room or the kitchen to sit down facing the corner while eating. Then the guests left. Everybody had to be home soon to prepare dinner. There was no more bread. Hoda gestured to Farah if they should go buy some more. She had got a firm shake and Farah wrote ‘It requires a specific permission from Yousef to leave the house. I never leave without him. Some guardians allows especially older women to visit within the neighborhood. Our visitors were all above forty.’
Hoda hadn’t thought of age or looks. She had just assumed their visitors were young women like themselves. She is twenty two and she thinks Farah is less than a year younger. But of course young women should have children to take care of at home.
When there are no chores to attend to and no visitors they either pray or doze. There is an old television in the living room, but when Hoda gestured Farah if they could turn it on, Farah clearly shake her head pointing to the armchair. Only Yousef watch television. There is no more work to be done than Farah could easily handle on her own. Now Hoda does half the work and no matter how particular they are in cleaning vegetables, washing the floors or sweeping the yard they have plenty of time left. Of course they then pray five times a day between a half and a full hour each time and they make their own clothes, but still there’s time to kill.
Hoda has found an old tray in her room which she has filled with the fine sand constantly filling the air and giving them opportunity to spend a lot of the time when the sun isn’t baking in the yard sweeping. With the tray of sand and sticks they can communicate without using paper and pens which can only be renewed by Yousef. Of course they can only write a few words without erasing. One of the first things Hoda wrote was children. Farah erased and answered we try. Some days later she wrote why masked and mute. Hoda answered good tradition, hiding beauty, men not tempted, women avoid envy or bragging, voice awrah, part of beauty, reach where cannot see. Then Hoda waited with her follow up to another occasion. She wrote little cheat remove mask shortly. As expected Farah got very upset and quickly erased her words to be sure nobody else saw such a horrific suggestion and let her write fast next life hell, if caught dishonor, punishment, divorce. Hoda realized the consequences of deviating from tradition and dress-code even for just a few moments could be far worse than her current situation. From then their sand tray communication was only to clear up small daily things like the menu or make fun of recent visitors like Aminah pattern like clothes stained or Ghazal orange swim with gold fish.
Hoda had totally submitted to the strange customs and dress-code required here. As a woman she could do nothing to change her situation and day after day just passed doing a little housework, praying and dozing. Then one day Yousef asks her and Farah to join him in the living room. This had never happened before and of course they are not invited to a chat. They both enter with their heads bowed and as soon as they have passed the doorway Yousef starts saying “Stay there and listen. I have inquired about possible husbands for Hoda. It isn’t easy when what you have to offer is someone who has passed twenty, has been brought up in the immoral city, has little dowry and is not a virgin. But I succeeded in finding two men. One has just passed forty, has one wife, but wants a second because they have no children. He sells cars and is middle-class with an income much like me. The other is just twenty five and was promised to marry a cousin a year ago, but she died shortly before they got married. He has a little religious education, is very poor, but devout and knows the entire Quran by heart. His small but stable income comes from cleaning and maintenance at a local mosque. Because you are my sister and not my daughter, having had a life away from me, I’ll let you decide who you prefer. I’ll call you in here in exactly one week again to give me your answer. You may both leave. I want coffee at the usual time.” They go back to the kitchen, where they sat doing nothing before being summoned, and they just sit down again. Having done nothing for long it’s overwhelming having to take such a serious final decision. Hoda stares at Farah’s mask which is blank just like her own mind. At the usual time Farah gets up to make coffee and the rest of the day goes on like the days before. Hoda doesn’t sleep much, but she never does because they doze so much during the day. Her only thought this night is that now her stay here will come to an end, but she can’t think about her future life. Over the next days some words come up in the sand tray for each choice like old, secure, sharing bed and sleeping alone for the car salesman and tight budget, strict, inexperienced and handyman about the mosque worker. Hoda can’t make up her own mind and Farah doesn’t favor one of them either. Soon a week has passed and late in the afternoon just before they have to prepare dinner Hoda just writes in the sand HELP!. Hoda can’t look behind Farah’s mask to see if she is pitying her, but the word makes Farah walk away shortly. She returns with a coin and Hoda realizes she has to let fate decide and flips the coin. After dinner Yousef calls them and says “Hoda, I have promised those interested in marrying you about our decision tomorrow. If you haven’t made a decision I will have to flip a coin, because I can’t have you staying here much longer. Have you made a decision?” Hoda nods. “Will you marry the car salesman?” Hoda shakes her head. “Ok, to be absolutely sure as this a serious matter I then ask, will you marry the mosque worker?” Hoda nods. Yousef says in a relieved voice “Hoda, I’m so happy you’ve decided on your own for a new marriage. It’s a good choice with a husband your own age and no other woman to have superiority over you and to quarrel with. I wish you a long happy life with him and will do my best to get a good marriage contract. You’ll probably be married Friday in a week. You may both leave now.”
The next week life goes on as normal except Yousef on Tuesday summons them to tell them a Mullah has suggested a contract which he has negotiated with her soon to be husband and his father. The contract has been agreed upon and will be signed on Friday. Further because Yousef is much better off than the groom and his family he has offered to celebrate the occasion by inviting the two for dinner at a local dining room. Then they will come with him afterwards to take Hoda to her new home.
Friday evening Hoda and Farah have been eating on their own without having to wait for or serve Yousef. Afterwards they just sit on the kitchen carpet as so many times before, but tonight they lean shoulder to shoulder and hold hands. They just listen waiting for the door to the street to be opened. When it happens and they hear male voices they both get up and hug tightly for half a minute. Then Farah takes a piece of bright red satin with a little gold embroidery, unfolds it and drapes it over Hoda covering her roughly to her ankles. Now she is dressed for her wedding, blind and guided through the doorway. A male voice says “I’m Ali your husband. I have prayed for Allah to give us a long and happy life. Please come with me to your new home.” At the last words Hoda senses a hand on her shoulder and starts walking. Soon, for the first time since coming to her brother’s house, she is outside the yard. She walks down the alley the same way she came long ago. She is guided into the back seat of a car and from the voices and the talking she understands Yousef will drive her to her new home with Ali and his father.
The drive is less than five minutes. Then she walks for just as long until a door is opened and she is guided across a dirt surface into a house to sit on a carpet. For long she can hear the men talk outside. Finally the talking stops and just one man approaches her. Ali says “Welcome to my house dear wife. I’m not much of a talker and believing male and female are created with different biology to be able to do different tasks in the society, I won’t interfere much with your world if your tasks are done well. But I shouldn’t really talk to you and I don’t think we should see each other until our marriage has been consumed. Move a little to your right then there is a mattress to make it more comfortable for you, while we do what husband and wife are supposed to do.” Soon Hoda has to lift a little to allow her red satin veil to be folded at her waist and her skirt and trousers to be removed. It’s nice again to have a male inside her, perhaps Ali enjoys it too. She stays on her back passively afterwards. After a few minutes a blanket is put over her exposed lower body. Then she smells a cigarette. Perhaps ten minutes later Ali says “Please sit Hoda.” She does and then the red satin veil is removed. A quite handsome face with a shy expression, short black hair, mustache and ? beard is seen through the light haze of her black veil. He is well groomed with clean but not even new clothes on his wedding night. Hoda takes a short glance around the room. It’s very small, the mattress covering nearly a quarter of the open floor, and along the far wall is the kitchen table. But a closer look has to wait because Ali says “Please take your head coverings off.” Hoda would like starting with taking her gloves off, but until she knows Ali better she finds it best to do exactly what has been asked for. Off goes the large wrap, the smaller headscarf, the mask and her black face veil as quickly as her gloved hands can work. Ali gets an astonished expression partly opening his mouth without saying anything. Hoda realizes it’s very long since she has seen another human with clear sight. Ali after half a minute staring says “A woman’s hair looks like a young girls, but the overall impression is much prettier.” Hoda realizes he probably haven’t seen a female above six without scarf and perhaps not a female face above twelve if he hasn’t got any sisters. Hoda is not sure, but thinks only loosing virginity in marriage qualifies to wear mask. But if girls above puberty has to go in public their large wrap is pulled up to their eyes and they only face down. Ali takes hold of her head gently putting all fingers on both cheeks. The fingers rub a little up and down her cheeks to sense her soft skin before his face approaches hers and a clumsy kiss is placed on her lips. Hoda embraces Ali and slowly opens her mouth to reciprocate the kiss, but suddenly Ali pulls away saying “We shouldn’t enjoy all sorts of intimacy on the same night. I think I’ll enjoy your uncovered head each Thursday, but now let’s have the final prayer of the day and then sleep. You use the bathroom first and should come back fully covered as always in my presence if not told otherwise. But first let me put your clothes along with a new mask my family has made as a wedding present out there, then you can use your hands to hold the blanket around you while walking. Just take your time.” The bathroom is as small as possible to hold a sink, a toilet and a shower to be sourced from the tap of the sink. But it’s clean and with new towels. It looks like some females from Ali’s family has taken care of the house. A quarter later Hoda is nearly ready to leave the bathroom taking the new mask. She is shocked. Over each eye opening is a small leather half dome like an eye lid only open downwards with a small slit towards the chin. And the strap to hold the mask is much wider to include a pad covering each ear. Hoda opens her mouth to let the protrusion, which haven’t changed, into her mouth. To her relief she is not blind. She can see an ellipse of the floor less than one meter from side to side and a third meter front to back. There’s absolutely no forward view and she has to tilt her head fully back and further bend her back a little to see her own masked face in the mirror. But for sleeping it might be a good idea. It’s more difficult to discover how her hearing is affected by the ear pads. Hoda can’t hear a thing, but it’s late in the evening with little noise. Hoda shortly turns on the tap to find out the sound of running water has gone, then she puts on the large wrap and enters the main room. She has to tilt back her head and look around the little room to find Ali. She notices he has put another mattress next to the first and placed two prayer mats nearly completely covering the remaining floor. Ali isn’t going for the bathroom but standing at the uncovered area along the kitchen table. With a raised voice just discernible to Hoda he says “Come here. Can you hear me?” Hoda moves towards him and nods. Ali continues “In my family women are reminded of their ?subordinate position by wearing a few extra items. First to walk around this little house and the small yard large steps are not needed. A chain between your ankles will allow tiny steps while reminding you that a woman’s reign is within the walls of her home and she should not strive for more.” Saying this he bows down into Hoda’s field of view holding a pair of cuffs, and soon her ankles can’t be separated more than ten centimeters. Then Ali talks again “When not working praying is best. For this your hands should be folded and hidden under the wrap and stay there until necessary for work again. Connecting your wrists your hands will naturally take that position.” Soon the wrists are cuffed as well. While Ali turns towards the table and starts talking again Hoda finds she can move the hands a little away from each other, but relaxing one arm down the side means the other has to cross her chest making it most relaxing to fold her hands on her chest. Ali says “Like this your hands can move from between your legs to above your head, but for praying they should stay on your chest.” Saying that he pulls Hoda’s right wrist to her belt and with a small padlock holds the cuff chain to a belt strap. Ali then says “Now follow me to your prayer position.” With her now tiny steps Hoda takes the direction where Ali’s feet disappeared out of her field of view to see them again together with his hands at the end of one prayer mat. He is bowed down holding the ends of another chain going through a ring in the floor. Hoda steps onto the end of the prayer mat and then the chain in Ali’s hand is taken around her ankle chain and closed with a padlock. Ali’s hands gets out of her field of view as he straightens and says “Start praying on your own while I wash” Hoda then starts praying standing right on the spot as her tied ankles and the chain to the floor does not allow her to get on her knees and up again repeatedly. And she does not dare testing how much she can move as she can neither see nor hear if Ali is still in the room. After perhaps ten minutes she faintly hears Ali start praying informing her he is back. The praying goes on for long perhaps half an hour. Hoda has just perceived the chanting has stopped when she senses her chain to the floor being unlocked and then she is guided down on a mattress and gets a thin blanket over her body. She doesn’t sense Ali anymore that night. They sleep separately.
She is shaken and as the first thing notices her cuffs are unlocked. As she lifts her head she faintly hears Ali say “Good morning. You use the bathroom first. Then you can make breakfast while I use the bathroom. The cuffs requires no key to be closed, you should close them yourself from now on. Just take your time. It’s early and I’ll sleep for at least an hour more.” After a long bath not needed for cleaning or freshening, but because she enjoys some minutes without being covered Hoda dresses except mask and head wrap. Before masking she puts on the ankle cuffs, which are annoying, but are as Ali said more a reminder than an obstruction. The house is so small tiny steps doesn’t really matter. Without the mask she thinks she can hear if Ali is awake in the other room, but she hears nothing. Then she just do nothing for some minutes enjoying an only scarf covered head. But the day has to start and she puts on the mask and the head wrap. The wrist cuffs are placed in her belt now that she will be working. In the main room she first notices that Ali is still sleeping. The she sees a foldable table against a wall which will probably have to be swapped with the mattresses and as such can’t be put up until Ali gets up. So she prepares the breakfast on the kitchen table. As she is about finished Ali is beside her saying “It’s a small house and you have plenty of time for everything. You can easily work with your wrist cuffed as well.” Hoda reaches for the cuffs in her belt while Ali continues “You have probably noticed the table along the wall which during the day is placed where the mattresses are. While I’m in the bathroom you take care of this and lay the table. Then you put the prayer mats like they were last night and lock yourself at the prayer position and starts praying.” Hoda now with wrist chained starts doing as told. It poses no problems except her reach is a little limited. But to see what she reaches for she has to move a lot anyway. And then it’s annoying both arms have to move when she only needs one hand. Soon the breakfast table is ready and the prayer mats laid out. Hoda haven’t found out the purpose of being chained in the prayer position, but she has to obey her husband. She squats down to put the chain through the ring in the floor and around her own ankle chain and closes its padlock. Then she connects her wrist chain to a belt strap with another padlock and starts praying. In only a few minutes her prayers are interrupted and she gets a small chock as she suddenly hears Ali beside her saying “Excuse me. Interrupting prayers should be avoided. But first let me say I’m pleased to find everything including you as it should be. But the reason I interrupt is that I know because you are a woman and did not have a very religious upbringing your knowledge of the Quran is lacking. Fortunately you are now married to someone who can make that up for you. Each day here at the morning prayer I will repeat a sura for as long as possible in about a quarter of an hour. Then you can try repeating it to yourself in your prayers during the day and then I’ll repeat it again at the evening and night prayers to allow you to find out if you got it right and perhaps learn what you missed. With a new sura each day then in about six months you’ll know the entire Quran, and then we can start all over just to please Allah and enjoy this most beautiful book ourselves.” Then Ali takes his position on the other prayer mat and starts reciting the first sura.
Suddenly Ali is beside her unlocking the padlocks. He takes a seat at the table while Hoda gets the coffee being kept warm on the stove. After some minutes with Ali eating and drinking where Hoda just sits from time to time tilting her head backwards to get glimpses of what Ali is doing he says “I’m sorry because now it’s too late, but you should have taken off your mask while unchained in here before going to the bathroom and then eaten something. Now you can only get a straw and have coffee with me. But if you prefer having breakfast with me in the future then you can make some kind of blended food which you can take from a glass with a straw.” Hoda shortly tilts her head to see Ali has taken his cup indicating he has finished speaking and then goes to get a straw. A few minutes later Ali says “Usually I would have been at work at this time, but my boss, the mullah of the local mosque, will accept me coming late as a sort of wedding present. But I will be back at the usual time just after the afternoon prayers. It’s a small house and it has just been cleaned thoroughly for our wedding, so you don’t need to clean much especially in the beginning. Working can wait until I get home. Now you clear the table and the kitchen while I get ready for leaving and take a smoke. Then you should only pray and relax until I get home. I have arranged with an elderly widow that she comes and prays with you at noon and at the same time delivers groceries and gets lunch. Free lunch and a little food for herself now and then is a fair price for her services and within what we can afford from my salary. It was a nice breakfast. I’m full thank you.” Ali leaves the table and by turning around and tilting her head Hoda can see he goes out in the yard to smoke. She manages to have the kitchen cleared in less than ten minutes despite her limited sight and restricted arms. As she turns away from the kitchen table Ali is watching her. Has he been waiting for her to finish? He says “The prayer mats need rarely to be removed. The widow will need the other one during her visit. You take your prayer position. I’ll just use the bathroom before I go. You’ll get a goodbye to know when I leave.” Hoda is not happy. There’s no doubt that ‘take your prayer position’ means she must chain herself to the floor. But she has to obey her husband. If she is wrong about this he will surely correct her. She walks to the prayer position, squats, locks the floor chain and locks her wrist chain to her belt. Like this she waits to hear what Ali will say when he leaves. In less than a minute his voice close behind her says “I’m so happy I now have a family of my own to intensify our prayers. And although I’m fortunate to spend my day at a holy site and be able to pray more than most, there is foremost work to do. Women can spend much more time praying. Think of our morning prayer a little while ago to get the first sura right. See you in the afternoon.”
Hoda keeps standing unmoving for some minutes then she turns a full circle with her head tilted back to find out she is really alone. The chain connected to the floor just behind the mat allows her feet to stand a few centimeters inside the mat. Then she can move just as long to the other side out on the floor behind the mat. And the same in any other direction from the ring in the floor. That’s all. With her chained ankles and hands locked to her belt getting down on her knees and further lying down isn’t easy and getting up again might be impossible. But she has to try. If she can’t get up on her own she just has to stay down until the widow arrives. She can always explain she got so absorbed by her prayers that she without thinking about it dropped to her knees like she used to do. She gets down on her knees. And she rolls down on her side, and then on her back. Here the floor chain restricts her as the legs automatically lifts. But although the floor is a little hard she can actually rest on her back on the mat. Then she reverses the procedure. It’s much harder, but she can do it. On her feet again she considers if she should immediately lie down again for a nap daydreaming or whatever will happen or she should pray as she is supposed to do. Not being sleepy she decides to pray. After all it will be three to four hours before the widow comes. She might as well pray as long as her legs are not tired and her mind can think. She takes the right position and starts reciting the first sura to herself. Being one of those she knows best it doesn’t pose her any problems. After repeating it four times she deserves a rest. She would have liked something to drink now, and thinking of such matters she can feel she haven’t had breakfast. But she can only lie down and let her body and mind relax.
Her back is aching from lying only on a thin mat on the hard wooden floor. With limited hearing there isn’t much to disturb her sleep. She gets up and looks around the room. She is still alone. She looks out the small window that just shows an empty corner of the yard. But the light outside has changed. She has been sleeping. There’s no clock on the walls to tell the time, but it can’t be far from noon. Hoda takes the prayer position again. Of course she ought to say some kind of universal prayer like reciting the Quran, but her mind asks for the widow so she can get drink and food. After a while she is shocked. A woman is standing right in front of her. She tilts her head back to see what’s above the knees. It’s like a copy of herself when she was staying with her brother. Or a copy of Farah for that matter. A subdued patterned dress, leather boots, gloves and mask. A mask with black cloth covered eye holes. It could be an elderly woman like Ali has said or a young woman like Farah or herself. The woman hugs her, then she points to Hoda’s mouth and Hoda nods several times. Shortly after a glass of water with a straw is held to her mouth hole. After what Hoda finds to be too few sips the glass is removed again. Shortly after the woman is back and shows her folded hands to Hoda. It must be time for the noon prayers. Hoda places herself correctly on the mat facing the right direction, folds her hands and bows her head. After a minute she tilts her head back and turns it towards the other prayer mat to be confirmed that the other woman is praying. She then goes through the first sura again with her head bowed. She continues like that until a hand touches her chest, which is the only thing she can see with her head bowed. Lifting her head a glass with blended fruit is held in front of her. The woman patiently keeps the glass in position while Hoda slowly sucks its contents. It’s fresh local fruit and very delicious. As the glass is empty Hoda feels she can manage until Ali is back. It’s probably less time than her morning alone. But the woman doesn’t leave. She sits down on the floor at Hoda’s feet and gestures her to sit down as well. Although it looks a little clumsy compared to the unchained woman Hoda gladly joins her. Sitting shoulder to shoulder she then puts a magazine in Hoda’s lap. Hoda sees it’s a religious pamphlet about the virtues of Paradise and probably how to get there. But the woman doesn’t want her to read. At least not the content as it is. With a straw she points to a letter in a headline. It’s a ‘l’. Then follows ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘l’ again and ‘a’ again. Then she puts the straw down and lets her pointing finger down in Hoda’s lap point towards herself. Hoda realizes the woman has spelled her own name and nods while lifting thumb and index finger of her most movable left hand to ask for the straw. Hoda then finds the letters of her own name and follows with the digit ‘2’ which she finds twice. Then Laila takes the straw and finds the digits ‘3’ and ‘7’ and after that ‘widow’. Hoda nods, gets the straw, repeats the letters ‘widow’ and then finds ‘yesterday’. Then Laila hugs her. But she doesn’t continue. She gets up and helps Hoda on her feet. Hoda tilts back her head to see Laila put the straw on the kitchen table and place the pamphlet on a shelf. Then Hoda gets another short hug and Laila leaves. Hopefully Laila will keep coming back each day. She thinks about all the questions she would like to spell to her. And then she repeats the first sura again.
Suddenly Ali is in front of her. He removes her belt lock and her floor chain while saying “My work day is over. It’s around half past three. I’d like to eat at half past six and then we pray before that of course. But there’s plenty of time for other than preparing dinner I should think. Perhaps you like to put the boxes with your own clothes in the closet and you are free to go wherever you like within the walls. Normally it’s necessary to sweep the yard every second day, but there has been nearly no wind for the last couple of days and I think my family did it yesterday anyway. I have clean clothes for a week, so if you haven’t any urgent tasks yourself you can do as you please. Perhaps you could spend half an hour in the yard getting some fresh air.” Hoda has nodded now and then to signal Ali she understands. First she goes to the bathroom. She would like to get the mask off for a couple of minutes, but realizes unbuckling and especially buckling the mask with her chained hands will be very difficult. Fortunately using the toilet is within the reach of her hands. Then she goes to the kitchen table to drink again. She looks at what Laila has brought and decides what they will have for dinner. Then she walks out in the yard. There’s nothing to see. Rough clay walls and clay ground. It’s completely empty but burning hot. The only thing she finds out right now is that sweeping the yard should be as late in the afternoon as possible, preferably after dinner. Then she goes inside and shortly tilting her head to see that Ali is reading the pamphlet Laila used for their communication. Hopefully he will leave it when finished reading, because she haven’t seen any pen or paper and the only other printed item is the Quran, which is only in Arabic. Then she looks at the closet. She puts all her clothes from Teheran in a big drawer at the bottom without rearranging the bundles it has been packaged in. Here she can only use the clothes she got at her brother’s house and this is placed on shelves. She could wait another half an hour with the cooking, but there’s nothing else to do so she goes to the kitchen table. After making the dinner she makes some glasses of blended fruit if she will get hungry during the evening or be unable to eat bread in the morning. She can always have it for lunch so Laila doesn’t need to make it. Perhaps this will allow Laila to communicate a little longer with her. She hears Ali say “It’s prayer time.” She walks over to the mat and places herself ready to be chained, but Ali just starts reciting. She is allowed to pray without being chained to the floor and having her hands held at her belt. But as she just stands like when she was chained, it’s obvious that Ali doesn’t need to bother.
She has laid the table for two and made food for two. But after filling Ali’s plate Hoda realizes she can’t eat masked and sits down sipping her glass of water unsure if Ali will allow her to eat or she has to drink her blended fruit. After ten minutes where nothing happens except Ali eating he says “When I’m finished I will have a smoke in the yard. You can eat at the kitchen table while I’m out there. We’ll do like that every evening.” Something like ten minutes later Ali is suddenly beside her unlocking her right cuff and saying “When I knock at the door you mask and put the cuff back on. You’re a good cook. Enjoy.” Hoda gets up, turns around and tilts her head back in one movement to see if Ali directly goes outside. Immediately following her hands are behind her head unbuckling the mask. His cigarettes must have been in his shirt pocket because she can take the mask off as soon as it is loose. There’s no time to enjoy a just thinly covered face, she must eat. Hoda fills her mouth as fast as she can. Soon her stomach is filled as well. She gets a couple of minutes unmasked and not eating, during which she says to herself that Ali was right, the food was delicious. Then there is a knocking, which Hoda finds extremely loud, after being nearly deaf for so long. In five seconds her face is masked again as she holds the mask to her face with her mouth while buckling it. But even if Ali enters the moment after knocking the door he won’t see her not completely covered as she leans over the kitchen table with her back towards the room while reestablishing her covering. A minute later as she walks over to clear the dinner table Ali is again sitting reading the pamphlet. He says “These pamphlets explaining the Islamic view on various subjects are really good. I’m as good as finished with this one. Would you like to read it after the kitchen is cleared?” Hoda turns her head towards Ali nodding. Any diversion from praying is welcome. Her brain gets new input, and after meeting Laila most important , she might be sure the pamphlet stays in the house to have a means of communication.
After the kitchen is cleared Hoda finds the pamphlet on the free chair. She sits down and starts reading. Her eye veiling makes the pages dark and the black haze in front of her eyes makes the text fuzzy, both making it difficult and tiring to read, but in half an hour she gets through a couple of pages. What Ali is doing she doesn’t have a clue, as he isn’t making any noise she can perceive and getting him into her field of view requires her head tilted way back. Perhaps he has been watching her, because as she holds her head straight for some minutes just to relax, she suddenly hears his voice “Hoda, if you have finished reading for tonight perhaps you should go praying until tea time in half an hour. You can pray without further chaining.” Hoda gets up and puts the pamphlet on a kitchen shelf to increase the likelihood it stays in the house. Then she takes her prayer position and starts with thinking about what she has read before reciting to herself. Then she makes tea and after tea there is evening prayer with Ali. Here she is chained as she is put to sleep afterwards.
The following days are extremely close to the first. Laila comes each day, but Hoda soon realizes she doesn’t stay much longer than needed for eating. They only exchange a few words most days mostly about what to buy and what to eat and many days Laila leaves without any conversation except a few gestures for hello and goodbye.
After weeks without any changes, except some uncovered minutes each Thursday night, Hoda realizes the only thing that might change her life in years to come will be giving birth. And then she fears it will only be a few different days until Ali hands the child over to a wet nurse to allow Hoda to continue her modest pious life without a baby to disturb her prayers. Their, at least to Ali, perfect marriage can continue completely unchanged for decades. In only eighteen years the possibility of a yearly change for a few days while giving birth stops, and twenty or more years with each and every day all year round nearly identical starts.
But after that comes eternal happiness in Paradise.
Copyright © 2008, Bo_Emp