Living among foreigners most of his life had made Radouan punctual. No one else in his family was, so of course when he arrived, no one was ready and he had plenty of time to change from his gandoura into a suit; not one of his best suits to be sure, but one that would fit the occasion: meeting ‘The Keeper’. Because his mother thought marriage would stabilize him.  Ha!  As if marriage to a fifteen year old girl who recited the Qur’an night and day was going to do that!  He too could recite the Qur’an. After they were married, would she want to sit around reciting Qur’an all the time? 

          And now like a meteor falling from the sky, Delphine had entered his life and he was certain he would see her again. Inch Allah.  He had to find out where her shoot was taking place and go there, or return to her hotel that evening and wait for her.  He repeated her name as he knotted his tie and selected a pair of shoes - not his best ones as he would probably be walking through the dirty rock filled lanes of Ain-itti, a poor quarter outside the Medina where ‘The Keeper’ lived - Hafida Senhaji, Senhaji being her family name. An illustrious R'hamna family now lost in the rubble of a suburban slum. According to the Sharia, if a family arranged a marriage for a son, they bore the responsibility for what happened. Radouan closed his eyes, ‘So be it,’ he muttered, ‘Inch Allah.’

          Downstairs, his mother and Hamid, the eldest of his four younger brothers, and his sisters Majada and Salwa were waiting. Another brother, Ali, had gone to get a taxi for them at the end of the lane.

          His mother handed him the Kalb. He’d forgotten about the Kalb!  Now he would have to carry this two and a half kilo column of sugar, like a big white zahp, past the neighborhood coffee houses past all the guys sitting there who had known him all his life. And they’d be gossiping and cracking jokes at his expense, mouthing phrases of malediction, laughing at his marriage to this poor fat girl! It was embarrassing

Continuing to repeat Delphine’s name, he strode down the derb carrying the Kalb out into the busy square just inside the big gate, and after a twenty minute drive they arrived at the area where Hafida lived.

Making their way through the rutted lanes they came to a small unpainted cement house. It was hot. In his dark suit Radouan was soon sweating. Hafida’s parents came out and greeted them. The father was gone on kif and the mother looked determined. In the open door behind them Hafida appeared. She was wearing a pale yellow viscose caftan and Hermes knock-off scarf. The way she lounged against the door- jamb observing them with her large eyes, one finger poised on her lower lip amused him.  She was not as cow-like as Fouzia had said and really, the way the material of her caftan clung to her strong young body excited him. The face was plain: rosy cheeks, an unlined brow, but the smile was something else. 

          Hafida! The Keeper - what did it really mean?  He moved toward her and handed her the Kalb; the sweet zahp that someday she might get.  Hafida lowered her eyes, accepted it, and retreated inside where she had prepared sweet meats and tea. This was her final examination and every nuance of her manner, every morsel of her sweet meats, and every sip of tea would be scrutinized and evaluated.

          Personally, Radouan would have welcomed a strong Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.

          His mother talked quietly with Hafida’s mother and father about when the L’adoul would be called, and where the ceremony would take place. Or should they be modern and go to the L'adoul’s office?  Who would decide about the twelve witnesses?  How much money would be in the Dot, the bride-price which Radouan must bring to her family?  How much would be held in reserve as a cushion for her in case of divorce?  Who would read the Fatiha before Radouan and Hafida exchanged rings; and who would give the wedding party and where?

          As Hafida’s family, the Senhajis, were nearly destitute, even though they claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed through their uncle, they had little leverage.  Yet all through the tea ceremony they went on talking and bargaining with his mother, hinting artfully that although now they were poor, their lineage was very strong and should be respected as bringing good luck.   

          No one listened to what anyone else said.

          Happily, Hafida’s brothers and sisters came out of hiding and soon everyone was laughing and getting to know each other. Radouan relaxed and began to enjoy himself and although his head was modestly lowered, he followed Hafida’s movements furtively with his eyes.  How quick she was with her hands, how sumptuous her young thighs as they moved under her caftan.

          Her parents were telling his mother they had already spoken to a L’adoul and his partner who were ready to come to their house on the next full moon - of course the ceremony would take place right there in Ain-itti, why not?

          It was what Radouan had expected.  Every girl’s family wanted the formalities with the L’adoul, which according to Islamic custom unites a man and woman in marriage, to be conducted as soon as possible after this first meeting. Before the man has time to think, before he gets drunk, changes his mind, finds a different girl or runs away. Fortunately, for once, his mother was vague and said she would have to discuss the matter with her husband before things could be finalized.

          Radouan watched as Hafida bent over and poured tea, presenting her beautiful young zouk to him in a provocative way. Driven by his practical nature, however, he wondered how much she must eat and tried to calculate the cost of feeding her for the rest of her life. When she began producing children regularly, life would get expensive.  Would he be able to afford her?  How would he feed everyone? 

          On the other hand, a plain girl like this could be a great asset.  He would make love to her that she would never forget, and she would always be waiting for him no matter what he did or how long he stayed away.  Yet there was something strange about her too: her mouth with that sly smile… why?  And she seemed too relaxed, too confident for her age.  Although he was mightily aroused, the longer he observed her the more deeply suspicious he became. Something about her was really strange. Was his mother involving him in a marriage with one of her young acolytes in maji?  He reminded himself to ask his mother how long she had known this girl.

           By then, it was almost twelve-thirty. Radouan got up and moved to the edge of the gathering, entered the number of the Mamounia gym and asked for Antonia Howard. Soon Toni was on the other end, panting.

          ‘I just called your number several times, where are you?’ she asked.

          ‘Why are you breathing like that, where is Lahcen?’

          ‘Lahcen isn’t here to day... his day off, I guess.  I just finished my aerobics ... where are you?  I hear voices.’

          ‘I’m still with these people... good business deal for me if I can sort out their problems… I’ll be along very soon.’

          ‘What people?’

          ‘It’s a family... a very rich family arguing about their inheritances.  I’m advising them.  I’ll see you at the flat in a few minutes, I’m not far away.’ Fortunately, no one at the gathering understood English. He pocketed his phone and returned to the group.

His mother gazed at him and noticed him looking at his watch. They exchanged glances and she understood it was time to leave. During all the years he’d been supporting them she’d never questioned his comings and goings or his sources of income. But as he was a beautiful boy, now a handsome man, and well endowed intellectually, nothing would have surprised her. What really surprised her was that he had never come afoul of the law. 

          Indicating that the interview was over, she got up, smoothed out her jallaba, and smiled politely at everyone. Then they all shook hands and kissed each other and the whole family accompanied them to their waiting taxi. All except Hafida, who stayed behind in the doorway, her large eyes following Radouan as he walked away, her fingers tapping impatiently on the door jamb, her soul adrift on uncharted waters.


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©Elwyn Chamberlain 2006