“A Wedding in Aleppo” by M. K. Martin

22 May 2020 on Fiction   Tags: ,

We are having a wedding in our restaurant. All morning, my younger brother, Hamid, has been scampering like a skinny, tail-less monkey, hanging lights in our cypress trees. We have the last standing cypress trees in Aleppo, so says my father. Baba spent the morning moving tables and chairs, dividing the main dining room so the women can be on one side and the men on the other. I help by hanging flowers and streamers from the walls. I hang stars and moons and suns from the ceiling. They’ll look down on us and bless my best friend’s marriage. At least they’re happy for her.

Mara’s two years older than me, sixteen now. She’s been coming to our house since the local girls’ school was bombed. My mother can’t teach at the university anymore, so she teaches in our backyard and the dining room of the restaurant. Every day, even when the shelling is very close, she conducts lessons. Mara came for school and she and I became best friends. She’s like a sister. Better than my sisters.

She told me she was getting married when we were working on our math exercises three weeks ago. We sat together on a cushion in the corner of the restaurant dining room while my mother listened to my sister, Fatima, recite her history lesson.

“My father met with Samir’s family,” Mara whispered, her eyes sparkling.

“He’s probably just going to join the fighters.” I bit down on the end of my pencil until the eraser popped off in my mouth. I spit it into my hand and rolled it back and forth, watching the slim trails of saliva shine and then dry in the heat.

“No, he won’t. He’s working in his father’s shop.”

“Are you going to go live in that junkyard when you’re married?”

Mara laughed. “It’s not a junkyard, habibti. It’s a repair garage.”

“What about school?” I said.

She nudged my shoulder with her head. “We’ll still see each other all the time.”

“I know.” I pulled up my cheeks into a smile. “I’m so happy for you.”

This morning, Fatima, who is two years younger than me, dances in the open space in the dining room. She’s supposed to be helping me. When I was her age, I always helped Omi with her housework. Fatima doesn’t care. She twirls and sways, her hands flutter up like sparrows, her fingers snap to the music. She’s still getting used to wearing the hijab and she constantly fidgets with it, tucking and pulling, dislodging strands of hair until it’s puffed around her face like a flower’s petals.

A car horn honks from the street, two bleats.

“The lamb!” Fatima spins to a stop and rushes for the front gate.

“Fatima.” Baba’s voice is sharp. He drops the stack of chairs he’s moving, and they clatter across the floor, plastic legs twisting together. My father leaps them in a stride and catches Fatima by her wrist. She yanks to a stop, her face clouding up, confused and hurt.

“You don’t open the gate.” Baba shakes her shoulders. “Ever.”

Great shiny tears pearl in Fatima’s eyes and her lip quivers. Baba pulls her to his chest, her hijab falls back as he strokes her head and kisses her dark, curly hair.

“Don’t open the gate, yes?” Baba takes her chin in his hand. He is still in his white t-shirt and American basketball jersey, his favorite clothes when the restaurant is closed. He pulls off the jersey and dons his conservative button shirt, the color of dust.

Fatima smears her knuckles across her face and nods. “Yes, Baba.” She hiccups.

My father looks at me. Of course, it’s my fault for not watching her. Fatima never gets in trouble. My shoulders sag. “Fatima, come help me with the balloons.”

“I want to help with the lamb.” She pouts.

“We have some with sparkles.” I try to tempt her. “Where should we put them?”

“Help your sister, sweetheart.” Baba pauses at the door to shake a finger at Fatima, but he’s smiling a little as he turns back to the front gate. It is painted like a sunset on the inside. At the bottom the slats are pale yellow, then orange and pink fading to blue and at the top it is black and spangled with stars.

Once, when I was very small, my mother took me out of the city at night to see the stars. We drove up into the hills and stopped in a field. Omi gave the shepherd some money and he took his flock away a little so we could spread our blanket and lay down to see the heavens. The night was cool, the winds down from the hills smelled of terebinth trees and olive groves. Underneath us, the ground was still warm. It felt like climbing into Baba and Omi’s bed in the morning just after they’d gotten up for the day. Of course, that was back when they shared a bed.

“Do you see that star, just under the moon?” Omi pointed. “It’s the planet Jupiter.”

“Is it a star or a planet?” I asked.

“We used to think it was a star, but now we know it is a planet,” Omi said. “Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, the Persian astronomer, was observing the night sky while people in the West were all dying of the Black Plague.”

When I was little, I thought my mother knew everything. She was a university professor. She taught history and she was happy. That night under the stars she was the mother of two girls, Noor and Fatima, and one boy, Hamid. She was carrying another boy, but he never got a name. My other brother died before he was born. After him there was another not-quite-brother and by then Omi and Baba slept in different beds. Omi hung their bedspread across the room. It was red like poppy flowers, embroidered with gold thread patterns of birds and soft waves like dunes in rows. It was part of my mother’s bride price, so why should it be surprised to hang forever between husband and wife as if it was always their wedding day but never their wedding night?

Before the war, when Omi was still a professor, we used to gather in our parents’ room. I sat on the floor with Hamid, rolling a ball between us. Fatima sprawled on our mother’s bed, sorting buttons. Omi sat at her desk and worked on her computer.

“Omi, why do you have a curtain between you and Baba?” Fatima asked.

“Because if your baba sees me, he might want to make more babies with me,” Omi said. Her back was straight and she didn’t turn or look at us. I knew she still cried about her dead boys. She typed fast for a minute, then said, “We don’t want more babies.”

The curtain didn’t keep Baba from seeing Omi because just before the protests in the Sakhour district she told us she was pregnant again. We were in the restaurant kitchen, stuffing leaves with rice and spiced goat meat for yabraq.

“Maybe this time it will be a girl,” Fatima said.

“Sons are a mother’s glory.” My mother ran a hand over her stomach, still flat and cozy. My sisters baked inside my mother like loaves in Baba’s oven. Outside Aleppo baked in the heat of more protests and rallies. Angry people spilled out of the demonstrations in Saadallah al-Jabiri Square and blew down our neighborhood’s streets like a storm from the desert. Baba had to close the restaurant. “Just for a short time,” he said, but there were more protests and then the markets started closing. The restaurant stayed closed; the big clay oven went cold for the first time in my life. That was almost more frightening than the rumors of fighting because it was in our own home, change in a place that had always seemed eternal and safe.

The twins, Yana and Rima, were born between the car bombs at the Military Intelligence Directorate and the one in the Sulaiymaniyah district. Omi’s leave of absence from the university for Yana and Rima’s birth extended on and on. It was too dangerous to cross from one side of Aleppo to the other. In the west the rebels might sell you to Daesh. In the east the soldiers might take you away for being a rebel.

Three months after the twins’ birth, we stood in the backyard, watching Baba clean out the oven. The restaurant had been closed for weeks and Baba joked that it gave him time to finally do all the projects he’d been too busy for. He knelt in front of the oven and scraped out its insides with a wire bristle brush and a handful of twigs gathered from under our cypress trees. Omi fed Yana while Rima slept in my arms. Fatima squatted next to Baba, watching him closely, while Hamid lay on the grass, staring up at the cloud shapes. I don’t remember smoke that day, so there must not have been any bombings close by. At night sometimes we’d hear the thump and roar of them. “Pretend they’re earthquakes,” Omi had told us, but I didn’t see how that would make the feeling of our house shaking around us any better.

“I’ve been thinking,” Omi said. Baba sat up and pushed his hair back. His hand was covered in black and gray ash, like he’d been digging through rubble instead of our restaurant’s oven. He left a dark streak across his forehead.

“Have you?” Baba smiled so Omi would know he was teasing only, but she was looking over the wall and didn’t see him.

“I have a lot of time to think since they’ve officially suspended classes.”

“It’s official now?” Baba leaned back on his heels and Fatima picked up the wire bristle brush and ran her thumb across it, flicking ash everywhere, like dirty snow.

Omi looked at him then, frowning. “Yes, I told you.”

Baba held up his hands. “Ah, yes. I must have forgotten.”

“Are you going to open the restaurant again soon?” Omi asked.

Baba sighed. “For who? No one can come now, and we hardly have anything to cook with the blockades.”

“I want to open a school then. We can use the dining room space.”

“None of your students can make it here,” Baba said. “Besides, what about the babies?”

“After Hamid, I was back teaching after only two months. The girls will help. They need to learn to change diapers anyway.” Omi didn’t remember that I changed the twins’ diapers by myself already. “And the school won’t be for university classes. It’ll be for our girls and anyone else in the neighborhood who wants to send their girls.”

Baba looked at her quietly for a little while, then he poked Fatima with the bundle of twigs and took the bristle brush away from her. “Anything for our girls.”

“Thank you, Baba. I’ll be Omi’s best student!” Fatima giggled and hugged him.

But Fatima wasn’t the best student or even one of the best. Mara was the best student. She started coming after the first month. At the time, she was 13 and I was 11, but she had been out of school for longer, so we shared lessons. When the shelling was very bad, she stayed with us overnight. If the bombs woke the twins, Mara helped me soothe them while Fatima slept carelessly, her arms and legs thrown across the bed, taking up all the space we were supposed to share. On the nights Mara stayed, I slept on the mattress on the floor with her. Mara never kicked me in her sleep.

Today, Yana and Rima run shrieking across the backyard, trying to strangle themselves in the cords of the electric lights Hamid is wrapping around our cypress trees. The lights are red and blue and green, white and yellow. They blink in a sequence, first from top to bottom and then they all flash at once.

“Don’t pull down Mara’s lights, you little dervishes,” I call to the twins. Yana waves at me and Rima sticks out her tongue.

“Noor,” my mother calls through the open space between our house and the restaurant. “Mara’s mother just rang. They’re on their way. Go make sure her dresses are ready.”

“Watch those two,” I tell Fatima. She should know that, but she’s busy winding a pink streamer into a rose in her hand. I tug the end of the streamer as I walk past her and the rose unravels.

“Noor!” She pouts.

I snap my fingers and point out to the backyard. “Watch the twins. I’m going to help with Mara’s dresses.”

“Oh, I want to see her dresses.” Fatima somehow manages to stick her lower lip out even farther.

“Omi said for me to.” I glance over at Baba. He’s preparing the lamb on the cement countertop between the brick oven and the sink. He’s not looking at us. I reach out and pinch Fatima’s big fat lip and twist it. “Stop being a baby, Fati. People are dying all over Aleppo and you’re whining. For shame.” I walk away before she can say anything back.

For four years, since the bombings started, my mother has kept our windows closed, curtains drawn, and shutters locked. Maybe it will protect us from barrel bombs, or maybe she just doesn’t want to see them coming. Today, Omi has opened up our house. The breeze blows through filling every room with light and air. The gauzy curtains, green as the first leaves of spring, flutter and stretch. They are happy to be moving after so long in stillness. Omi has been dusting and sweeping, mopping and polishing like a demon all day. Some of Mara’s relatives arrived this morning to help her. They are all clustered in the living room, drinking sweet mint tea and admiring Omi’s framed diplomas and certificates. There are photos of my mother shaking hands with other professors.

“Such a famous family, Noor.” Mara’s aunt, Asil, smiles as I make my way through the women. The room is full of the smell of flowers, mostly roses. Each woman is her own blossom, gilded in her own marriage jewelry and trailing a cloud of perfume.

“Yes, Auntie.”

Asil turns back to my mother. “Remember when those American journalists came all the way here just to have a bowl of ful?”

My father’s fava bean soup is famous throughout Aleppo. People would travel across the whole city and wait for hours to have it for breakfast. Today he’s managed to get the ingredients and outside a pot is bubbling – a special wedding treat.

If my father were less well known, less connected, we might not be able to have Mara’s wedding, but when people heard there was to be a wedding and that Abu Hamid was going to open his restaurant again for only one day, they brought over what they could spare.

“Just a little something for the bride.” A sack of Aleppo red peppers and some eggs from their surviving chicken.

“We can’t use all this before it goes bad.” A kilo of flour and a bottle of oil. Of course, this is a lie, but Baba accepts and invites them to the feast after the wedding. And of course, they’ll come. When was the last time we celebrated anything?

So all week food has arrived like a slow, steady rain a few drips at a time until we have what seems like a feast. The most food the twins have ever seen at once.

“I can’t wait to get married so we can have another feast,” Yana says.

“I’ll get married, too, and we can have two feasts.” Rima claps her hands.

All week Mara and her family had been bringing over her dresses. She has five. It’s a good amount, respectable, especially during a war. Five dresses and a white wedding dress like a Western girl with a veil and a tiara. I check that each dress is still wrapped in the long plastic bag from the tailor.

“When Samir sees me in this, he will want to make so many babies with me.”

I peeked around the rack of dresses. Each one is like a beautiful bird, something you’d see in the zoo with little signs that say Amazonia or India or some tiny island far from all land. Mara could live on a tiny island. Her face is like a heart and her hair is heavy dark silk. She could be one of those girls in a grass skirt with little white flowers in her hair and falling over her body.

“He will.” I agree.

Mara reaches out and runs her hands across the rustling plastic bags. She looks at the white dress. “When I take this dress off, I’ll be a wife and…” She bites her lip and looks at me under her lashes.

“Do you know about sex?” I ask. Mara pulls down the white dress and holds it up before her as she faces the mirror. She shakes her head just a little, her cheeks rosy.

“I know about sex.” I unwrap the first dress. It’s creamy peach with white lace and buttons. It looks like baklava dusted with powdered sugar.

“Of course, you do. Your mother’s very modern.” Mara is nearly naked and she holds up her arms for me to pour the dress over her.

“Does Samir know?” I ask. Mara laughs. Samir is 25. Of course, he knows. He was studying economics before the war and now he repairs diesel engines in his father’s shop. That way he can stay in the back of Abu Samir’s shop and doesn’t have to join Assad’s loyalist army.

Behind us a door opens and the women descend upon us, bearing make-up and curling irons. They swarm Mara and I’m shuffled out, a little girl with no place among the women.

Baba directs Fatima and Hamid setting out the food and plates, the heavy serving dishes and the boxes of scented tissues for the wedding guests to clean their fingers. Yana and Rima slither under the trestle tables and steal figs and fingerfuls of pistachio paste when they think no one’s watching.

In the house, Mara will dress and change, dress and change every hour to show off her new wardrobe. At Samir’s house, his friends will be a quiet arada, the troop of men that comes to take the groom to his bride. They can’t risk carrying Samir through the streets, singing and drumming, so they will celebrate in his father’s garage.

Night comes and the feast is ready. Meat with mint, green olives with pomegranate molasses drizzled over it, spiced lamb with sweet cherry sauce, seven kinds of kibbe, and nine kinds of hummus. There’s sweet mint tea and sugared coffee and all kinds of soda. Baba even keeps some cold bottles of beer and two bottles of wine under the counter. It’s not halal, but it’s a wedding in the middle of a civil war, so people shrug.

“It’s time,” Fatima cries.

Mara stands in the doorway from the house, the flock of women behind her. She’s like a cloud hovering inches from the Earth. She takes a deep breath and smiles. Smiles at me. Outside, there is a knock at our starry gate and her groom arrives.

My father opens the gate and lets the men in. They mill around in the front yard, while Samir approaches Mara alone. He wears a traditional robe and offers her a pillow covered in a folded silk cloth. Mara’s wedding jewelry is wrapped in the silk. A gold necklace with linked hearts. Gold drop earrings set with pearls and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Three rings, one gold, and two silver.

Since we can’t risk traveling through the streets, the men of the arada raise Samir on their shoulders and tour our yard while the women swoop in to examine Mara’s wedding jewelry and silks. Mara ducks her head as her mother fastens the necklace and kisses her. The gold looks strange against her chest. It looks like it would be cold.

“Noor, come help with the food,” Baba calls from the restaurant. I turn away from Mara and hurry to fetch the warm lakhma, fresh from the oven.

“It smells different without all the ash,” Baba says. He hands me a pile of the flat bread and pats my shoulder. I slip through the curtain from the kitchen into the women’s side of the dining room. Mara is seated at the head table, surrounded by her family and by Samir’s sisters and female relatives. She doesn’t notice me as I lay out the food.

From the men’s side, someone starts singing and then a drummer joins in. Fatima grabs Rima’s hand and they dance around, weaving through the small spaces between the tables and women. Yana wiggles into Omi’s lap and fills her mouth with halva. Sesame paste and crumbs are already smeared across her cheeks.

Outside the lights in the trees blink and cascade. The last time our restaurant had so many people was years ago. I close my eyes and listen to the clatter of dishes, the soft sop of bread on plates, and the chatter of people. This is a dream I could live in.

There’s a knock at the front gate – bang, bang, bang! I look at Omi. All the guests are here. She stands up. “Go get your father.” Rima runs to the kitchen. I look around for Fatima, but I don’t see her.

I hear the sound of the front gate opening just as Baba comes from the kitchen. Omi and I both hurry to the front of the dining room. The guests fall silent, seeing our faces.

Our starry gates are open, my sister stands there and in front of her, three men with rifles. They wear the uniforms of the loyalist army. One is an older man, a little fat, the second is short and thin, the third has a fancy bit of gold cord on his uniform. Must be an officer.

“The famous Abu Hamid restaurant,” the officer says. “I always wanted to eat here but I never could afford it before the war.” He looks around. “All these lights and noise. It’s dangerous. The rebels might attack.”

“Noor, go get some food for our guests,” Baba says. He doesn’t look at me, just watches the soldiers. Omi grabs Fatima and pulls her away from the gate. Omi looks at me and her eyes are huge. Her mouth is a thin line.

“Come on, Fati.” I take my sister’s hand and lead her to the kitchen.

“I didn’t know it was soldiers,” Fatima says.

I lay out a tray with three bowls of ful, some bread, and several pastries.

“I thought it was guests,” Fatima says.

I pour three cups of tea and set a pot of thick, dark, wild honey beside them.

“I was just trying to help since Baba was so busy,” Fatima says.

“And now there are soldiers and you let them in.” I hear my words. They fly like stones. They could break my little sister, shatter her bones.

“What if they arrest Baba? What if they take Omi away for being a lady professor?” I feel a rush of power as I look at her. She twists her fingers together, rocks from foot to foot. Her lip quivers.

“Do you want us to be war orphans, Fati? Maybe Mara could adopt us since she’s married now. Should we ask her if she wants four children and one useless donkey?”

“I’m sorry.” Fatima ducks her head.

“Now you’re sorry. You never think until it’s too late.” I grab the tray and carry it out of the kitchen. At the door I have to turn to back out through the curtain. My sister stands in the middle of the kitchen staring at her dusty feet. She’s wearing her best hijab, a pink scarf with blue and white roses. It used to be mine. My sister doesn’t have new clothes to wear for a wedding and I once went with Omi to see the stars.

I carry the tray to the front of the restaurant where the soldiers wait. The officer and the skinny soldier are smoking. Omi has rounded up Yana and Rima and taken them inside with the other women. Our guests talk in nervous, soft voices, trying to pretend they’re not afraid, trying to be happy for Mara and Samir while my father buys off the soldiers with bowls of soup and cups of tea. It’s what we have. It’s all we have. It has to be enough.

*

M. K. Martin is a Minnesota born and raised author and editor. Her novel Survivors' Club was published in 2017. Her short stories appear in 0-Dark-Thirty, Wanderlust Literary Journal, and in several anthologies. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in the Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Between Minnesota and Vermont, Martin was an exchange student in Paraguay, joined the Army, got deployed to Afghanistan and to Iraq, got a BA in Linguistics from the University of Oregon, and developed a deep love of tea. You can find her at https://mkmartinwriter.com/

"Water abstract" is a photograph by Kevin Dooley. You can see more of his work here.

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