And most people were glad that Muhammad was rising. I watched him passing in and out of her gate in the days before the ceremony. Being a beggar, I have a high opinion of him. He’s never thrown a pebble down my throat to see if I’d choke and get a bit of a laugh, like some others. One day he struck a filthy boy who was about to drop a ball of dung in my mouth.
Naturally, I expected much from the wedding of a man like that. I arrived at the bride’s house a few days early. Mostly women came by, always giggling. I turned my face away. It hurts to see the face a pretty woman makes when she sets eyes on me. Next was a young man in dirty sandals carrying a bolt of fine woolen cloth. I seized his leg and held on tight.
“Let me go,” he cried. “You’re crazy, not blind. Can’t you see I’m only a servant?”
But I didn’t let go until he shook his leg and hopped up and down like a nomad bitten by sand fleas. It was funny, really, because he didn’t dare drop the bolt of cloth to beat me. After that little prank time hung heavy. I got hungry sitting there with my mouth open, until a large ripe date dropped in. Opening my eyes, I saw Muhammad.
“May Allah give you joy,” I murmured, rolling the sweet fruit around on my tongue.
Muhammad was in a rush, but he paused with a curious look on his face. “Does the name of Allah help your begging? I wouldn’t think so.”
I fawned, hoping for another date. “God shows me who is his son when I am fortunate enough to see one.”
“So Allah is just one of your tricks, to see who can be flattered?”
Muhammad didn’t say this in an insulting tone. He was smiling and at the same time he pulled another date from his sash, putting this one in my hand. A proper and decent gesture.
I bowed. “I’ll tell you my secret, sir. I speak of Allah, because I am practicing to be a fool. When fools speak of God, people are more likely to be superstitious about them.” Muhammad shook his head with amused wonder and went on his way.
If I heard the tinkle of ankle bells but no giggling, it was usually Khadijah herself bustling past me on her way somewhere. She is always in motion. A rich woman must work twice as hard as a man to keep thieves from her hoard. In summer her caravans are headed for Syria, in winter for Yemen. She paces around the camels at dawn, inspecting every bale and sack. But Khadijah isn’t pinch-faced and shrewd, if that’s what you think. She wraps her head in black to go out at night, and many a poor wretch cowering from the cold and damp has felt her hand on his shoulder. She brings soup and a cloak, even to strangers. She busies herself behind the scenes to marry off her poor relations and drops gold in their dowries, so that the girls won’t wind up with a crook-backed bully no respectable woman would touch.
When she passes me, I murmur ameerat, or “princess.” Khadijah smiles. She’s heard that kind of flattery all her life. More than most, she actually deserves it.
One thing about her is resented, though. When feast days come and the other women observe the tradition of running around the Kaaba, she closes her shutters and stays home. The Hajj is not for her, and Khadijah has enough money that she can make no bones about it. Behind closed doors, say the gossips, she doesn’t fondle Muhammad’s beard. They sit together and mock the idols. Who knows what trouble it may get them into one day.
As the wedding drew near, the groom’s visits became more frequent. Sometimes he was too preoccupied to notice me, but if he did, he had a scrap or two to spare. One morning he caught me hobbling to my place by the gate.
“How did you become lame?” he asked.
“My toes were bitten off by dogs,” I said.
I peeled the rags off my feet and let him see the ragged row of toes and stumps where curs had chewed on me.
“Is your pain severe?” he asked.
“Not enough to make me kill myself, but too much to laugh all day,” I replied.
Our eyes met. He could see that I wasn’t whining to cadge a bit of bread, and I could see that he was actually interested. I wasn’t lying at all. My mother made a bad marriage to a drunkard. To make matters worse, her mother-in-law hated her. One day I was left in her charge when I was still a baby in swaddling clothes. Out of contempt, my grandmother left me under a tree while she went to the town well for water. This wasn’t in Mecca, but in one of the hill towns surrounding it, on the edge of the wilderness. My grandmother knew very well that packs of wild dogs roam at will, making so brave as to wander into town. Two of them found me under the tree and began to gnaw at my feet, which were sticking out of my bundled clothes. My screams brought a man running, and with a stick he beat the dogs off, but not before they had taken a few toes from each foot. They say when my grandmother returned, she didn’t wail. Out of spite, it cost her nothing to see me maimed. Not that I remember anything about it. But one imagines.
You should not suppose that Khadijah spotted Muhammad in the marketplace and felt herself swoon. Nor did he leave love poems pinned to her shutters comparing her almond eyes to a fawn in the moonlight. They were both sober people. She knew two things about Muhammad that anyone in business would be intrigued by. First, he was not all that experienced, having left Mecca on small caravans such as his uncle, Abu Talib, could afford. Second, he could be trusted. Once the Arabs pin a name on you, it travels with you the rest of your life. I will always be “the chick,” and Muhammad expects always to be Al-Amin, the one you can trust.
Khadijah sent her steward Maysarah to greet Muhammad and formally make him an offer. He was to oversee one of her caravans to Syria, and in return the lady would pay him twice the commission she usually offered. You’d think that Al-Amin, the “trustworthy one,” wouldn’t need such an extravagant bribe, but Khadijah understood that a woman must be prepared to pay enough to discourage thieving from her agents.
The caravan came and went. The steward Maysarah was sent to keep track of the trades and balance the books, but he was also part family spy. Having been with Khadijah since her father and mother died, he had his mistress’s ear, and over the years Maysarah had never betrayed her. When he came home with glowing words about Muhammad’s character, Khadijah broke her vow never to marry. Passion didn’t carry her away. She waited some months. She continued to line Muhammad’s pockets. He rose in her esteem, and one day she sent a messenger, her intimate friend Nufaysah, who touched Muhammad’s hem with her forehead as if he was the master, offering Khadijah in marriage. A flurry of negotiations started. Uncles got involved, haggling over details like men with a thousand camels to lose or gain. Two clans, the Hashim and the Asad, came together on the suitability of the match, and thus it was.
That’s the story as I heard it from servants who squat in the courtyards and gossip with other servants.
Does a woman’s heart melt over balanced accounts and good behavior? You know the answer as well as I do.
It would have been auspicious for rain to fall on the wedding day, but it dawned bright and hot like every other day. The first to arrive were young male cousins, loose and wild. Being without women, it suited their mood to kick me, as if to prove that someone in this world was more miserable than they. I closed my mouth when they passed, just to be safe.
But I was also sunk in thought. I must find special words for the groom when he came in procession. It served me well to impress him; he was about to be rich. I kept turning over the same question in my mind. What would a fool say? For Muhammad, the best tactic was to babble about God, since I knew he had a weakness there. The crowd was growing thicker now. Like civets, the guests left a perfumed trail behind them as they entered the bride’s house. Rich robes swirled in the light wind. The richest women had seed pearls dangling from their gauzy veils. Someone dropped a coin in my mouth, and when I looked closely, it appeared to be silver.
At last Muhammad arrived. He smiled to the left and right, but his eyes looked pensive. He shuffled his feet the way he always did, not lifting them high to protect his new sandals from the dust. When he came abreast of me, a dozen hands were reac
hing for him. I didn’t raise my voice, but quietly said, “Lucky is the man who marries God today.”
I was in luck. He noticed me and looked down. “I marry a good woman today, not God,” he said.
“She might as well be a bad woman,” I said. “Allah is in all creatures. “
Guests who were close enough to overhear us began to mutter angrily. I was taking a risk if I kept talking such blasphemous nonsense.
“Your sons will be sons of God, even if they turn out to be drunks and cheats. Do you believe me?” I said.
“I do,” said Muhammad, which caused gasps around him.
“Then you are a bigger fool than I am,” I said.
“Because all words about God are lies. The Infinite is beyond words.”
A few feet reached out to kick me, but not Muhammad’s. He didn’t smile or frown, but only betrayed sadness with his eyes. Murmuring softly to himself, he tossed me a coin and entered Khadijah’s house. A burst of laughter and applause greeted him inside. One Qurayshi came very late, an old man without companions. I was surprised to see Waraqah. His weakness for God is worse than Muhammad’s. It has lost him most of his respectability.
“Allah has truly blessed this house,” I said, rising on my knees as he rushed through the gate.
Waraqah grimaced. “Forget your tricks. I’m the bride’s cousin. I have to be here.”
“For the joy of the occasion,” I murmured, to get back at him. Everyone knew that old Waraqah hated leaving his house and the mystical studies that devoured his days and ruined his eyes.
“Joy is the fruit of wine,” said Waraqah. “I have no use for it. She wants to talk business after the ceremony.”
With that, he rushed inside. Don’t be amazed that a rich man would waste so many words on a beggar. Waraqah’s God loves all men, which shows you how far this religious fever might spread.
THE ANGEL’S EMBRACE
KHADIJAH, THE PROPHET’S WIFE
We had no idea. There should have been omens. There were none. God is as unexpected as lightning in the desert. Before he strikes, the sky is as blue as on any other day.
Muhammad and I had been married in peace for fifteen years under that sky. It was a household of women, four daughters and a wife. There were apricots soaked in rose water on the shelf. When a caravan came home from Syria, each of our girls got a precious little bell to hang around her ankle. When my girls walked, a silvery tinkling brightened the path before them.
Muhammad could have acted like a king behind these walls, or a beast. It was common enough. But I had watched him closely before I unfolded my heart’s desire. I wasn’t born a fool. He wasn’t the only young man who listened to the poets in the bazaar and sat in the shade on sweltering days talking with his cousins. People ridiculed me for offering myself to such a young man. “It’s like buying a camel and refusing to tie it up,” they said. “It’s in an animal’s nature to stray.” My money ensured that none of them laughed to my face, though. I didn’t care that Muhammad had asked his uncle, Abu Talib, for his daughter’s hand. The girl was sleek as a cat with eyes as soft as a deer’s. Old Talib refused him, because he had set his sights on a better marriage with one from the Makhzum clan.
When Muhammad was new and shy with me, he nervously confessed this failed proposal. I burst out laughing. “Not at you,” I said, seeing his crestfallen look. “My first two husbands came from the Makhzum clan. They left me twice rich. Is that revenge enough for you?”
He paused, weighing his words. “You will lift me far above any life I’ve ever known. My grandfather Muttalib was the last elder in my clan to hold sway. I’m a wanderer among men. I listen to songs, but cannot sing. I hear the poets, but cannot read what they say or write better words if I could think of them, which I can’t.”
He was surprised when I shrugged this off. “Two kinds of people can’t read, the illiterate and royalty. We’ll just pretend you’re a king. My foreman will read for you.”
If Muhammad had turned into a tyrant after we married, I would have had only myself to blame. No one in Mecca saw what we did the day before the wedding. They would not have believed it. We bartered over our future. Well, I did.
“How do you intend to treat me?” I asked.
“How would you like to be treated?” he said. Caution. I like that in a man. He smiled. “They call you a princess, but I was born too low to be any good as a courtier.”
“Treat me like a beautiful young girl,” I said. “But never let me guess what you really think.”
“That is what I really think,” he said, as soberly as if he were assessing the weight of a Byzantine gold piece.
We were lying on a couch—not touching—with the shutters closed and all the servants ordered from the house. It does no good to hide behind doors. They always eavesdrop, just as they always steal from the olive jar and pretend that yesterday’s lamb has gone bad.
I remembered how I looked in the mirror that morning. I said, “Never be tempted by other women. Betrayal would shame me, and shame would kill me.” Without thinking, my fingers traced a wrinkle around my eyes, still a shallow wrinkle. Before long it would be a crease.
“There’s no reason to be afraid. I am betrayed every day. I know shame,” Muhammad said.
I couldn’t hide my surprise. “Who betrays you?”
“My tongue, which is why I rarely speak.” Muhammad meant his accent, which, to tell the truth, everyone notices. He spent too much time with the Bedouin because of his timid mother, who postponed the day he would have to breathe filthy city air. Twenty years later, he sounds faintly as if he just stepped out of a sheep enclosure in the hills. We were comfortable together, lying there, each lost in a dream of what this marriage would be like. His accent was charming to me.
Finally, and with a blush I didn’t know I possessed, I said, “Don’t reveal any other women you’ve been with. But I have to know that you aren’t sick.” If I had picked the right suitor, he had to be pure.
“But I am sick. Some days I think it’s fatal.”
Muhammad rose and walked to the window, peering through the cracks in the shutter. His face was streaked with light and shade, like the image of a zebra my father brought back from Abyssinia when I was a girl.
“Mecca is my sickness,” he murmured. “I get infected again every day. Sometimes with fear, sometimes with rage. On the streets I see the walking dead, and my clan, the Hashim, are almost beggars. I may never recover.” He turned around and saw my mystified look. “As for my body, it has no weaknesses. You could store wine in my belly and load my back with saddle bags like a camel.”
An Arab cannot consider himself respectable unless he has skill in lying. Our life is haggling. We barter to stay one step ahead of drought, famine, and the malicious gods. This back-and-forth with my fine young Muhammad could have been the prelude to disaster. I knew that it wasn’t. Not from woman’s intuition. I knew because Muhammad passed my tests. He asked nothing for himself. He didn’t insinuate that I should pity him for being an orphan. He didn’t sit in profile so I could admire his curved nose or carelessly dangle a curl over his forehead. Not that a woman doesn’t notice.
Even so, I hesitated. My father taught me a saying: “A chameleon doesn’t leave one tree until he is sure of the next.” I had the cook put rare dishes on the table—roast duck bathed in pomegranate syrup, deep-sea fish so delicate that the skin glistened like a rainbow. I did this to see if he salivated. A poor man cannot help but drool, and if he drools over a duck, how secretly he must be drooling over my money. Muhammad’s eyes didn’t even wander to the food. He kept his gaze on me. A woman can resist anything but attention.
It wouldn’t surprise me to know that Allah watched our every move, heard our every word. They were probably his words in some way, fated and sealed. All my life, I assumed that my will was mine. I had more strength than ten other women. I was called “princess,” not “surrender.” It�
�s a shock to realize that all this time my will was God’s.
It was his will that our two baby boys died in the cradle. I awoke one morning before dawn. It wasn’t the hour when a baby usually cries. On that morning, when the first boy died, the silence in the house was different, as if the angel of death had whispered overhead. I couldn’t bring myself to run into the baby’s room, but sent a servant. And the second time? I had a dream of a boy running after a flock of sheep in the mountains. He looked down at his feet as he ran, and he saw the shadow of a wolf. Before he could cry out, I awoke.
Muhammad didn’t want any women to wail over our babies after they died; he forbade mourners in the house. When I asked him why, he said, “If an orphan can’t handle grief alone, he won’t survive.” Rarely did he speak of his past that way. No matter how deep into his eyes I gazed, I never saw scars on his heart. Strange, given that this life is made of scars.
But it wasn’t in me to wail, either. I had married off three grown children before I ever met Muhammad. My new babies were precious, but if one died, a part of me wasn’t ripped away. I kept this a secret, but Muhammad sensed it. He was unhappy when I ordered two animals to be sacrificed in the Kaaba. It was considered only prudent to appease the gods after any kind of misfortune. I was dressing in a black veil when he appeared at the bedroom door, tight-lipped. His face was pale.
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