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Lady in Waiting 1 January 2009

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture, Relationships.

Neela toddles across the bridal suite, and finds my makeup bag. At three, she is old enough to unzip; a gray kohl pencil, a strand of pink pearls and a collection of pins spill onto the floor. From these she extracts the pearls. Looping them around her neck, she shuffles in the direction of the windows.

Her presence is a relief. I didn’t know what to do with myself, waiting here alone. There are steps which must be taken: changing clothes, arranging my scarf, making wudu, praying. Perhaps other things must be done, but I do not know what they might be. Moreover, there is nowhere to hang my things. My wedding dress stretches along the floor, crepe over satin. White. I kneel on the floor by the collection of pins, pursing the carpet in my hands. One, two, three. One has a head of white, another of pink. The third is slimmer, black. I stick them through the makeup bag’s thin plastic sides. There they wait, like three exclamation points, ready to punctuate something.

The toddler drifts back toward me, singing Twinkle-twinkle ABCs. “Hi Neela,” I try. She waves her hands, around the beads. “Mine.” I make no move to remove them. They hang long around her neck; they fall almost to her feet. You can keep the pearls if you will stay. I catch my insides pleading.

Neela’s mother smiles. Hafsa, thank God for Hafsa, settles onto her knees by me. “I’ll get dressed, and then you can help me with the hijab,” I make my best guess. Is this what brides do? The scarf is simple and blue in my hands, with thin hooks of white lace along its face. I fold it into a rectangle, conscious of its lack of weight. Hafsa takes it from me and nods. “Sure, habibti. Take your time.” I collect my dress from the floor.

The bridal suite, normally the nursery, is attached to the sisters’ shoe racks and wudu station. I imagine a porcelain trough, at which women will wipe their feet. I have never performed ablutions here; the mosque has not long been open. Mine is the first wedding in this masjid. For a moment, alone between rooms, I wonder what I am doing.

I have never seen a nikah ceremony, and no matter how many times it is explained to me, I cannot play out its form in my head. Objectively I know that I will mostly sit. There will be no music, no exchange of rings. I have memorized my only line. Yes, I give my consent. I open the door to the changing room. It holds a sink and a toilet, a small rectangle of carpet, a pot on the floor holding water, and a pair of plastic shoes.

I unwind my scarf in the mirror, and pull off the underscarf tube. A short bob of hair, ginger brown, crackles with static electricity. The bangs stick to my forehead. My cheeks are splotchy, and my eyes too big. Little Red Riding Hood looked no more surprised than I, on my wedding day, do. I try saying my line in the mirror. “Yes, I give my consent.”

I wash my hands, my mouth, my nose, my face. My arms, my head, my ears, my feet. In two minutes, I am dressed. Isn’t this supposed to take more time? I tie Hafsa’s good white underscarf back behind my ears. My shoes are with my parents, driving lost along the river. I stick stockinged feet into the bathroom flipflops and pad my way to the entrance of my room.

Hafsa draws in her breath. “Beautiful,” she says. “You look beautiful.” She unfolds my scarf. “Come here. Closer to me.” Her toes point the way to Mecca; I settle against her, knees touching knees. She holds one end of the hijab under my chin, and winds the other around my face. Then begins the pinning.

First the white pin, head like a pearl, is woven through the top of the scarf. I am conscious of too many worries for my heart to settle on one. Orange-flower water, the arrangement of tarts. Flower girl bouquets. Has anyone found the milk for the tea? Where shall I sit? What of the imam? What of the non-Muslims? As she works, I try not to breathe. I am conscious, in my stillness, of sweating. Getting married, I decide, is like life in a spacesuit. No matter how you approach, there is no way for you to touch.

Hafsa rolls the scarf tightly against my cheeks. She studies my pins for a moment, and whispers two of Allah’s names. The pink pin is rejected as others are found; she finishes, and studies me. “Do you want to put the kohl?”

Other ladies have begun to arrive; the door opens and closes like the mouth of a fish as they enter, smile, and leave. Salaam, salaam, salaam; I am stuck on greetings. My mouth is dry as saltines. “Yes. Kohl. Please.”

I close my eyes as her hands touch my face. She is solid and warm. She holds the pencil against my brow, hesitates. I feel the temperature change as she moves her hand away. Can she tell that I already tried with the kohl, but that I do not know what I am doing? No matter how old I get, makeup always makes me look like a girl who has snuck into her mother’s handbag. I thought I had wiped my efforts away.

Her laugh is almost as warm as her touch. I open my eyes, and she pats her lap. “Please, come down here,” she says. “I know it seems strange, but it is the best way.” I stretch my dress down around my legs. Hafsa, if you told me to fly… I rest my right cheek against her knee, and curl my side against the carpet. The floor is reassuring.

Neela comes over to watch her mother’s work, while Hafsa’s hands play at my face. I am terribly tempted to sleep. In the spaces between talking, my worries make seltzer inside me. Where will I sit, when it is time? Where should I look? Shall we finally shake hands?

The crowd in the ceremonial room has reached critical mass. I can hear the sounds of people, padding back and forth along carpet, talking in twos and threes. Are my friends out there? I imagine Sue and her baby. Alison, Rene. They have never been in a masjid. How are they feeling, along about now?

And then I remember what I have tried to remember since the wedding planning began. My friends want this to succeed. Our guests whom I do not know also want this to succeed. Everyone gathered at the masjid today is here because they wish to be supportive. If there is no tea, they will not care. If the lemonade is too flowery, or if it is not flowery enough, no one but me will notice. If I do not know where to sit, someone will tell me. If I forget my line, I will be reminded.

I smile up at Hafsa, who smiles down at me. “Okay?” she asks. “Okay,” I answer. From the downstairs musalla, the call to prayer sounds. “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.” The sun has set, and the time has arrived to pray. Here at least is one thing which does not depend on me. Hafsa and I stand and join our shoulders and feet. Two points determine a line. As the imam begins to read Surat al Fatiha, I am as at home as I have ever been. The wedding moment creeps closer, but I know how to pray.



1. Kelly - 2 January 2009

Wonderful! I was totally engrossed. More please!

2. Specs - 2 January 2009

SubhanAllah! The beauty with which you described your feelings is…breathtaking. I’m at a loss for words.

It is really the little things that give us a place to hold onto and stabilize ourselves in times when we feel uncertain and nervous.

3. Priscilla - 2 January 2009


What a surprise this was. And what a good reason for being recently absent from your blogs. I hope your marriage becomes a home to you.

4. manu - 5 January 2009

Allah is the Greatest

5. Baraka - 9 January 2009

Salaams dear Anna and mubarik!

May Allah bless you & your partner with peace, serenity & beauty in this life and the next, ameen!


6. null - 13 January 2009

Wow! Congratulations! May Allah bless the both of you, in this life and the next.

7. ABD - 20 January 2009

as-salam alaykum,

congratulations! to repeat priscilla’s wish: i hope your marriage becomes a home to you. as for my favorite lines in the essay:

“I stick them through the makeup bag’s thin plastic sides. There they wait, like three exclamation points, ready to punctuate something.”

ps. i wonder who the lucky groom might be…
pps. and does this mark ANNA’s return to othermatters.org?

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