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A Village Wedding
HAD HE KNOWN that on this evening, on the hill where the village held its celebrations, an evening suffused by the scent of a fig tree bent over the table like another, venerable guest, he would again be struck-but powerfully-by a sense of failure and missed opportunity, he might have more decisively made his excuses to Samaher, his annoyingly ambitious M.A. student, who, not content with sending him an invitation by mail and then repeating it to his face, had gone and chartered a minibus, after first urging the new department head to make sure the faculty attended her wedding. It wasn't just for her sake, she said. It would be a gesture to all the university's Arab students, without whom-the cheek of it!-the department would count for nothing.
His wife, Hagit, who knew all too well how weddings had depressed him in recent years, had warned against it. "Why do you need the aggravation?" she had asked. "But they're Arabs," he'd answered mildly, with the innocence of a man pursuing an academic interest. "As opposed to what?" she had wanted to know. "Human beings?" "On the contrary...on the contrary..." he had tried defending himself, at a loss to explain how Arabs, although not among the many objects of his envy, could be more human than anyone else.
Yet the snake of envy, his companion of many years, had slithered after him here too, to the little village of Mansura high up in the Galilee, near the Lebanese border. It had lain coiled in the incense of the glowing grilled lamb and writhed to the Oriental music that, despite its sobbing grace notes, secretly aspired to the savage disco beat of a Jewish wedding party-and now, as the student bride presented him not with the seminar paper she was a year late in finishing, but with her groom, it injected its venom.
Many hands had done their best to beautify Samaher, causing him to wonder for a moment whether he was looking at the same woman who had taken nearly all of his courses for the past five years. High heels and a swept-up hairdo had made her taller, and her usually restless eyes, chronically resentful when not anxiously scheming-the eyes of an active member of the Arab Student Committee-were smiling and relaxed. She was also without her glasses, and her eyes were heavily made up with a kohl so unusually tinted that he suspected it of having been smuggled across the border from Lebanon. A bright rouge masked the pimples that wandered as a rule from her cheeks to her throat and back again, and her long wedding gown bestowed a harmony, if only for a single night, on a figure not known for its sartorial coordination. Brimming with pride at having enticed him, the most senior and eminent of her teachers, to honor her and all Araby with his presence, she extended a hand quivering with excitement to his wife.
"So this is the teacher who's so annoyed at you," laughed the groom, pumping his hand in what could have been either an acknowledgment of Samaher's flightiness or a warning that she now had a protector. It was the same young man-taken by Rivlin for a maintenance worker rather than a future husband-who had stood every day last winter in the corridor outside the classroom waiting for their seminar to end. As if to atone for an error of which he alone was aware, he rose from his seat and congratulated the new husband cordially. Yet even as he did so, the cruel fate of his son, the young husband rebuffed, stung him sharply. So strong was the surge of resentment and jealousy that he at once sought out his wife-who, however, was laughing gaily at some remark. Such sentiments, although by rights she should have shared them, were unknown to her. Her glance, when he finally caught it, conveyed not so much sympathy as vague reassurance, plus a warning that he had better not get into one of his bad moods among all these people trying so hard to be hospitable.
It was being slowly spun out, Samaher's wedding, on the twilight of a bashful summer night, to the friendly warmth of young Arabs, many of them students from his and other departments at the university, who had gathered in their little autonomous kingdom, the borders of which were being drawn, stealthily but steadily, amid the pinkening hills of the Galilee. Now, telling a bearded young qadi in a gray cloak that she didn't want her Jewish guests to feel deprived, the bride asked him to repeat a shortened version of the wedding ceremony-which, they were surprised to hear, had already taken place in the bosom of her family a few days previously. It was an opportunity to still the wailing music, leaving the hill so shrouded in silence that the distant boom of an artillery shell fired across the border in Lebanon sounded like part of the reenacted rite.
AS THE EVENING deepened and the music resumed its beat, and little lanterns were hung from grapevines trellised above tables spread with colorful piles of appetizers that were followed by copper trays of juicy, red-hot lamb, he was overcome by regret, not so much for having accepted Samaher's invitation as for having willingly surrendered his freedom of movement for the convenience of a prearranged ride. Two hours had passed, and none of the faculty showed the slightest sign of wanting to depart-least of all their organizer, Ephraim Akri. He was the new department head, a swarthy Orientalist who, though forced by the religious scruples proclaimed by the skullcap he wore to forage carefully through the little plates in search of kosher morsels, was so full of high spirits that he demanded-whether as a gesture to his hosts or as a boast of his own fluency-that even his Jewish colleagues speak to him only in Arabic. In fact, they were as taken with the bucolic atmosphere as he was. Hagit, always quick to adjust, was genially absorbed in the conversation around her, following it with interest and laughter and occasionally making a remark, or even uttering a single word, that was sure to leave an indelible impression.
Fated to spend more time at the wedding than he had intended, he decided to go for a walk-the sooner the better, before any more of the tender meat with which his plate kept being piled metamorphosed into his own flesh. He ambled over to the sweetly smoking spit to inspect the remains of the incandescent lamb, then joined a line of guests waiting by the rickety door of a makeshift outhouse. A nattily dressed young man, introducing himself as a construction worker who had labored on the professor's new duplex apartment in Haifa, tried escorting him to the head of the line. Before they could reach it, however, Samaher, who had been keeping him under surveillance, came to rescue him from the indignity of queuing up for an outdoor toilet by leading him to more dignified facilities.
"We live right near here, Professor Rivlin," she cajoled him, as if his presence at her wedding would be incomplete without a home visit. Before he knew it he was being led by the bride, hobbling on her unaccustomed high heels, past houses and courtyards and down a dark, narrow dirt lane. Her wedding gown showed signs of disarray, and its lace ruff, which had slipped from her slender shoulders, smelled faintly of fresh perspiration. In the pale moonlight, the polished nails of her hands and feet looked like large drops of blood. Barely two years ago, he recalled with amusement, this same vivacious young lady had had an attack of religion and sat sternly through his seminars in a long-sleeved black dress and large kerchief. It had been only a passing phase, however.
A horse whinnied. Once again he felt the ache of that other, wasted wedding that had come to naught. It made him want to rebuke his student guide.
"It embarrasses me, Samaher, to hear you tell people that I'm angry at you without your also explaining why."
She stopped in her tracks, blushing with pleasure. "But how can you say that, Professor? You're wrong. I not only explain why you're angry, I tell them you're right."
She studied his face and added with a smile:
"But so am I."
"You are?" he marveled bitterly. "How can you be right, too?"
"I can be right because how could I finish a seminar paper with a sick grandmother to take care of? And then, on top of it all, this wedding."
"That's enough excuses, Samaher," he said, loath to give this devious Arabic-studies major standing beside him in a wedding gown the chance to extort a new postponement.
Her smile brightened even more, as if she not only had been granted a postponement but had also been offered course credits for her wedding. Taking hold of his arm, she steered him with dexterous confidence toward an iron gate blocked by a large black horse.
Samaher scolded the horse in Arabic. When this made no impression on it, she seized it by its bridle and in her wedding gown, high heels and all, wrestled it out of the way. The battle was quickly over and left Rivlin struck by her determination. Raising her head proudly, she pulled the horse after them into the yard, shut the gate, put on her glasses after extracting them from a previously hidden case, and led him up the heavy, dark stone steps of her home.
He now found himself at another celebration, this one for women only. Squeezed together, in bright dresses, they sat on pillowed divans in a large guest room whose walls were covered with photographs of ancient elders wearing fezzes. A few old crones in a corner were puffing on glass narghiles. A younger, heavily adorned woman hurried over to him with a smile. "Professor Rivlin!" she exclaimed. This was Afifa, Samaher's mother, who long ago-back in the nineteen-seventies-had been a first-year undergraduate in the Near Eastern Studies Department. She had taken an introductory survey course of his and might have gone on to get a B.A. as her daughter would, had she not broken off her studies to have her.
"You know," Rivlin told the handsome woman, "it's not too late for you to go back to school. We'll readmit you. You can continue from where you left off."
She replied with an embarrassed laugh, as if he had made her an intimate proposition. Dismissing with a charmingly sinuous gesture the possibility of recovering lost time, she took possession of him from her daughter and led him to a large, spotless bathroom where he was given, as if he had come not just to relieve himself but also to take a leisurely bath, two fresh towels and a new bar of soap.
There was no lock or latch on the door. Quite apart from not wishing to worry his wife by his disappearance, this was sufficient reason for leaving the bathroom's contents uninspected, despite the opportunity afforded him to learn more about the private side of Arab life. He urinated in silence, washed his hands and face, took a large green comb from a shelf, rinsed it carefully, and ran it through his silver curls. Then, picking up a small bottle, he studied its Arabic label until satisfied that he understood it, and daubed a few drops from it on his forehead to sweeten the relentless bitterness assailing him.
The bride had returned to the wedding party on the hill without waiting for him, leaving her friendly mother to guard the bathroom door. It was an appropriate moment, he thought, to pay a sick call on Samaher's grandmother.
"Sick?" Afifa was startled. "Who told you she's sick?"
"But of course she is. The poor woman is bedridden." He deliberately mimicked Samaher's manner of speech.
"But who told you? She's not sick at all!" Triumphantly, Afifa pointed to a gaily dressed old woman puffing heartily on a narghile with her friends. Samaher's grandmother smiled back with a mouth full of smoke.
And yet, he decided, as Afifa-fearful he wouldn't find his way back by himself-went off to look for an escort, you didn't upbraid a lying bride on her wedding night. Samaher's mother returned with the bride's grandfather, a sturdy, taciturn old man in a gray satin robe and white kaffiyeh who stood waiting by the gate with his head bowed respectfully. Noticing the horse in the yard, he commanded it to join them. The three of them walked back up the lane, the solemn grandfather in the middle as he gallantly struggled to understand the Arabic of the Jewish professor.
The lit-up dance floor was now crowded with youngsters gyrating to the music. The Oriental wail had been replaced by Western tom-toms. From afar, Rivlin cast a yearning glance at his wife. She was where he had left her, seated beneath the fig tree, with her slender legs stretched in front of her, intent on the conversation. As always, especially in moments of distress, he was aware of how perfectly true and unquestioning was his old, faithful love for this woman, who was now engaged in tempting with a pack of cigarettes two departmental secretaries who had attached themselves to her. He knew that from now on, whenever they saw him, they would remember to send their special regards, coupled with words of admiration, to this woman whom they had just met, who sometimes said to him only half-jokingly:
"You're a lucky man! Luckier than you deserve to be."
"YOU'RE FEELING BETTER."
It was a statement of fact, not a question, uttered with the precision with which she always diagnosed his moods. "You needn't be ashamed to admit that you're having a good time like the rest of us."
Admitting enjoyment, however, did not come easily to him-certainly not at a wedding, even an Arab one. Instead, omitting his visit to Samaher's bathroom-an episode that might strike his colleagues as unintelligibly bizarre-he began to relate with an odd relish his encounter with their old student Afifa. His proposal to reinstate her in the department met with cautionary remarks from the two secretaries. He should not, they warned him, arouse false Arab hopes. The Law of Return did not apply to abandoned studies. Afifa would have to start again from scratch.
"Sit down," his wife said good-naturedly. "Standing will get you nowhere."
She was right. It was pointless to hope that remaining forlornly on his feet might persuade anyone to set out for home. The refusal of their Arab hosts to be insulted by a premature departure was only part of the reason. The Jews, too, had lost all sense of time and of the long ride back to Haifa still ahead of them. Basking in the Oriental languor of the spring night, they were awaiting a final course of homemade ice cream. It did not escape him that his wife-for whom dessert, especially if it promised to be exceptional, was the raison d'être of every meal-had become the secret ringleader of a sweet-toothed conspiracy.
"I wish you'd sit down," she chided him again. "Stop making us nervous. You're not the driver. No one is leaving this wonderful wedding without dessert."
He sat, forced to yield to the popular demand for ice cream while attempting to follow, above the pounding of the rock music, an argument between the department head and some of the Arab students. Tensely but politely, the latter were listening to Akri's heated exposition of a theme that pained them despite its delivery in flawless Arabic-namely, that ever since the Arab world had been conquered by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, Arab intellectuals had failed to confront the inner dysfunction of their society. Rivlin knew well that Akri, a Jew of Middle Eastern origin, was gracious to his Arab students, whose weddings he attended and whose language he went out of his way to speak, although less from admiration for their culture than from despair of it. Not that he had an aversion to Arabs. He felt no contempt or disdain for them. He simply had arrived at what he believed to be a scholarly conclusion: that they could never understand-let alone respect, desire, or implement-the idea of freedom. This was a theory, which Akri supported with an odd and astonishing assortment of facts morbidly assembled from the gamut of Arab history, that Rivlin firmly rejected. It smacked to him of racism, and he scoffed vehemently at it whenever it was mentioned by his colleagues. And yet tonight, whether because it fed or was fed by his own gloomy associations, he, too, felt Akri's despair, felt it to the point of paralysis. He sat there silently, one hand on the shoulder of his wife as she awaited her dessert.
The Arab students from the department, however, having listened respectfully to a man who was both their guest and their academic senior executive, were running out of patience, especially since they had been joined by other students who neither knew Akri nor needed to defer to him. Akri, continuing to deride the Arabs' history in an impeccable display of their language, was now surrounded by a shocked circle of listeners. The prospect of a row hung in the soft, mild air and threatened to spoil the gesture of their coming. Just as Rivlin, a full professor, was about to pull rank on Akri and nip the quarrel in the bud, there was a flurry of excitement. A chilled, glittering serving bowl was placed on the table while crystal dishes and golden spoons were handed out. How, Rivlin wondered as he tasted his first spoonful of the ice cream, could this remote little village, a bastion of chickens and donkeys, have produced such a magnificent last course, so lavishly creative in its flavors and deliciously chewy in its texture that he had to keep an eye on his ravenous wife, who had put on not a little weight in recent years? Not that this bothered him. He liked her company in any shape or form.
© A. B. Yehoshua and Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Me'uhad Press 2001
English translation copyright © 2003 by Hillel Halkin
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