Doll Tale 4 : In every shade
17-30 October 2014
Faten grabbed her veil and feverishly pulled it over her head as she heard her husband closing the gate and nearing the entrance door. I stared at her puzzled as we were only females save for a young teenage boy who had come with his mother, one of the ladies seated in the midst of our group. She gave me a half-warning half-pleading look and then rushed to the entrance door to welcome her husband.
When Mounir entered the house, all the ladies pulled their scarves over their heads and some even partly over the side of their faces holding the scarf in check with their mouths. I was almost the only one who was not dressed for the occasion it seemed save for one of the ladies who had brought me there the first time and who wore a headscarf that was tied towards the back instead of the front unlike the other ladies whose scarves were tied elaborately to cover the ears, full hair and neck. Mounir looked around approvingly as the women cowered shyly bidding him welcome back to his home and apologizing for keeping his wife so busy with their “idle talk” that she could not tend to her husband properly. His gaze slowly reached me and his smile turned into a sullen frown as he took in the uncovered hair and my western attire. He turned towards his wife and looked at her disapprovingly as she took his jellaba and his bag while he removed his slippers and proceeded into the dining room for his meal. Faten turned again with the pleading look and I reluctantly stood up to leave as I was visibly not welcome anymore in this house.
As I started out from the room, I sensed more than I saw the ladies disapproving look follow me. Just minutes before we had been friends, united in the bonding of our shared stories of how Tunis used to be, of tales of the elders, of times when women were free because Bourguiba had given us the freedom and a voice to reckon with and of the wonders that Tunis had ahead if only things would finally settle down. Of course we did not agree on everything but it was fantastic to be able to share with these ladies a part of my own history while we tried to adapt as much as we could to the foreign country that we were in.
Faten was the second of the Tunisian ladies I had got to know through Houria, the lady who had brought me over the first time. She and Mounir had been married for a few years and she was a little concerned as she was not able to bear him any child, let alone a son. The doctor she had gone to see as per Mounir’s instructions had informed them that because of her heart condition combined with her anaemia she would not be able to bear a child without a high risk to her health. Besides, as there was a history of trisomy 21 or Down syndrome in the family, Mounir finally decided it was not worth the hassle to try. Ever since the doctor had given them the news about her condition, however, Mounir had never been the same with Faten.
When one looked at Faten today, one would never imagine that this was the same girl who had fought with her classmates in barricades against the uprising Islamists called Ikhwan Jihad in Tunisia when Bourguiba was still ruling. Head uncovered, wearing western attire which was quite close to the body, she had claimed angrily in the face of the Ikhwan her right to continue studying in the attire she chose to wear. Like many of us, she too had believed that nobody had the right to force us to wear what they thought was decent attire for a woman in order to be allowed to study alongside the young boys at the universities. The Ikhwan used to abuse us verbally and some even threatened us in the faculties if we showed up at class wearing western attire that they deemed unfit for a proper Muslim. After the initial stages of threatening, they had taken the habit of making barricades in front of the university sections and stopping any girl wearing “unfit attire” from going to class. Many of us had created identical barricades to breach their barricades (as they usually did not want to have women touch them) and forced our way through to be able to attend our classes. Soon enough some of the encounters had started becoming physical and often the police was called to separate both sections and this could end up in some form of violence or the other. Hence, Faten’s parents who were a very progressive lot had sent her to Geneva before the time I had gone there to pursue her education unfettered. I had decided through similar reasoning, although other circumstances had also played a part, that it was time for me to leave the country as over and above wearing the “unfit attire”, I also had a very Hindu name.
When Faten and I had met the first time, we had shared those stories and grown an instant liking of each other because of that bond although she was fully veiled by then. She had shown me pictures friends had clicked of her facing the barricades and it had been quite hard to equate that beautiful slim girl with the dancing blond loose curls, close-cut dress stopping just above the knees and perfectly made up face with the veiled and stern-faced woman in front of me whose face was devoid of any make-up. When she removed her head gear though, one still could see the resemblance although her body and face had become quite voluminous.
She always kept preciously hidden those pictures of the times before in a drawer where Mounir could not see them as they angered him. Only pictures of them together, she wearing her head gear, adorned the walls and even in her wedding pictures she had her head gear on save for a few which were hidden in the bedroom and where one could still see the Faten of the barricades. Apparently Mounir had made it a condition of their marriage that she would start wearing the veil as befitted a Muslim woman, especially in a foreign country where everyone had looser values and men were more pressing with women unlike “back home” as far as Mounir was concerned.
When Faten and Mounir had got married, she had been in the country for quite a few years and had by chance been able to get a good job so she had a proper residency visa. I personally believed that that was the main factor in determining their marriage as Mounir had been visiting trying to land an engineering job and take up residency in Geneva which he was refused when he then met Faten and courted her for a short period after which he had asked for her hand without even meeting her parents. It was only after they both agreed on the terms that Faten and he had made the trip back to Tunisia where they got married despite Faten’s parents’ fears. Indeed, they were quite concerned because of Mounir’s insistence that she be veiled even for the wedding ceremony while they believed their daughter to be free-spirited and especially given her prior experience with the Ikhwan. Faten, however, seemed totally smitten by Mounir and was willing to do anything he would ask of her. The rush in going ahead with the marriage had been such that Mounir had not met with some of Faten’s family, namely her brother who had Down syndrome and whom the family did not readily introduce to others and a few cousins who also had the same syndrome. Upon seeing them at the marriage, Mounir had only scowled at them but decided it was better not to say anything. Shortly after the marriage, Mounir and Faten had quickly done with all the formalities at the Swiss embassy and travelled back to Geneva where Mounir had applied for a residency visa under the spousal unit rules.
Initially Faten had been able to work after the marriage – although Mounir had made her stop wearing make-up to work – and had to continue anyway as that was one of the governing conditions of her being able to maintain her visa but shortly she was told that if she applied for the permanent residency visa (type C visa) she would get it because of her good position and the time she had spent in the country and she of course informed Mounir. With a permanent visa, it was no longer required for a person to justify having reasonable means to stay in the country and she could even apply on a long-term basis for unemployment benefits. Shortly after Mounir found a job and was confirmed in his position, he had asked Faten to resign from her job and stay at home as he convinced her it was more befitting for a woman to take care of her husband and avoid exposing herself to the looks of her male colleagues. He had attended a work party and had seen how many of Faten’s male colleagues looked at her despite her veil as they had known her before with a different attire and had found her very attractive. This probably was the decisive factor and he could not just ask her to change jobs as it would not be possible for him to offer a plausible explanation of why he would want her to do that. Shortly after she had stopped working, Faten had started putting on quite some weight but Mounir did not seem too concerned until the point in time that she had a health scare because of her heart condition and they had found out that she had to be careful with her weight while also finding out that it would be better to avoid having children. From then on, Mounir chose what she would eat as well like he had already chosen before how she would dress, whom she could be friends with and where they would spend summer vacations, etc.
When I had first met Mounir through Faten it was a total coincidence as she had not meant for me to meet him. We were both sitting having tea and sharing memories when all of a sudden the front door opened and Mounir entered with Faten immediately going into an agitated state and fussing around him as he eyed me warily, not able to remit my origins clearly. Faten then told him my name and his face took on a peculiar look while he asked her how come he had never met me before and how come she had met me as I was visibly not a Muslim Tunisian lady from the mosque where she went. He was totally taken aback when I started answering him in the Tunisian dialect that we had met at ladies section of the small place adjacent to the mosque where Arabic lessons were taught and where some Tunisians would meet to have a cup of tea. Of course I did not tell him that I had actually been to his house several times before and played the role of someone who had just arrived there for the first time. Faten gave me a grateful look and carried on tending to Mounir while I stood up and started bidding farewell before Mounir stopped me and said that I should carry on as visibly I was going to get a good view of what it meant to be a good Muslim and he thought it would be fantastic for his wife to be the one converting a non believer. I was about to voice that my mother was a Tunisian muslim but was stopped by Faten’s warning look so I just left it at voicing that my mother was a Tunisian. Mounir automatically assumed that my mother was one of the rare Christian or Jewish Muslims in Tunisia and I did not correct him either way and thankfully did not have to continue the conversation as he was hungry and Faten whisked him off to have his meal while I finally made it to the door after hurriedly saying goodbye. It was only later on that he had found out about my origins and like many others made it a point to always ask me all sorts of pointless and tasteless questions about my origins, my parents, the reasons for the choice of my name amongst other questions that seemed to trouble immensely many people who did not understand how my siblings and I could have come about to exist. Mounir was in two minds always about my friendship with his wife as on the one hand he believed that she would be able to “convert” me properly in case I was not a proper Muslim and on the other hand he was afraid of the bad influence I could be for her. Therefore, depending on his mood and often upon my attire, I was either welcome or unwelcome in his house.
After I left the house, I went to the park to play chess as I often did when I needed to sort my thoughts. It annoyed me to see Faten so submissive and subdued while I knew from some of the times we had spoken that she still had that fire in her and missed working, the interaction with the western world and the possibility of doing something meaningful with her life. In the beginning she had been able to cope with the situation as she had hoped to be able to have children and dedicate herself to their upbringing but with that possibility out of the way, she felt useless and forlorn before Mounir had come up with the solution of having her give Arabic lessons to foreign women converting to Islam.
Although it was not exactly what she had hoped for, Faten was happy with this part-time opportunity which allowed her to breathe a bit and leave the sphere of her house to meet with others and interact with them. It was a limited interaction though as the ladies converting to Islam were also entering a very self-limiting phase of their lives, not because of them taking up Islam but because of the beliefs of the men who were marrying them and the way they interpreted the teachings of Islam. For example Islam did not require a woman to be fully veiled including covering the face, nor did it require women to stop working as even the prophet’s wife had been a businesswoman and worked freely in a male environment. However, these men had persuaded their would-be Swiss wives that this was the only way they could be good Muslims and for some of us Tunisian women who believed in a different form of Islam, it was always surprising to see these blond blue-eyed or green-eyed girls coming in fully cloaked and lifting their veils to be able to sip their tea when they were in the Café outside with their husbands and not in the female section of the Arab Cultural Centre. From what happened with most of those marriages later on, it was easy to understand that the main reason for the marriage was getting permanent residency or the Swiss passport as shortly after obtaining those, the men usually had divorced their wives and brought a precious virgin from their home towns whom they had wedded shortly after their divorce.
I thought about how Faten had come to be so submissive and I felt anger well in me, replacing the irritation I had felt before. It had taken a while for her to confide in me but after she had found out that I helped as a volunteer in a shelter for women who had been subjected to different forms of abuse, she had started telling me her story but always refused to come to the shelter or take any form of legal action. Apparently shortly after they had got married, Mounir had been quite rough with her as he had found out that she was not a virgin. Had he asked her the question before their marriage she would have of course told him but as he had never asked her this because he had been so keen on getting married quickly, she had never volunteered the information upfront. In reality, it probably had not struck her as important at all as her parents were not very conservative and she had been raised in a way that allowed her to keep her free-spirited nature throughout the years of growing up. Somehow, Mounir interpreted it thinking she had tricked him into getting married with her without giving him access to this knowledge. I thought wryly that that was a good tit for a tat if she had done it on purpose as he certainly had not let her in on the fact that he was tricking her into marrying him under the pretext of love while visibly all he wanted was to secure his residency visa in Geneva and land a job there. Unlike the others who were willing to marry a foreign woman if need be, he on the other hand had probably deemed himself lucky to have a woman from his home country offering him that possibility. After he had found out and the initial roughness, he had however accepted the fact and was not really rough with her but shortly after they had found out that it was preferable to avoid having children, Mounir had gotten rougher with her.
Faten had also found out that he had started asking around for a second wife and though it was not allowed in Tunisia where the law did not permit a man to be legally married to more than one wife, he had apparently the intention of getting married in Tunisia and having children who would be raised there. The first time he had made a trip to Tunisia without her one summer, she knew that it was probably to go get married. There were always mouftis willing to marry a man to more than a wife and even if it was not subsequently registered in the official records, many in villages were willing to get married to a man who already had another wife as long as the marriage was celebrated grandly and everybody throughout the village was aware of it. It was fine even when the first wife was in the country so obviously a man with a first wife who was not even in the country was even better as long as he could pay the mahr and maintain his wife. I suspected that it was probably to face the additional expenses that Mounir had arranged for Faten’s part-time job as he took her whole salary, was the one who decided what she was to spend for their household and was very tight with the money.
The winter after what she had assumed was the trip for his second marriage, he had decided to go unexpectedly to Tunisia without her and she had told me that she had understood and accepted with a heavy heart that it was probably because of the birth of his first child. Neither of them voiced anything about the matter although each knew the other was aware that the secret was no longer a secret, nor had it ever really been one. Faten bore the pain of this double blow of fate with resignation and silence somehow deeming it a necessary evil to redeem her own incapacity of birthing a child. After the birth of his child, however, Mounir had become more abusive with Faten and while she did not understand why as she had expected this would make him a happier and less abusive person, I suspected the reason but kept it to myself as she needed more a shoulder to cry on than someone who would explain things to her. I had already seen on various occasions that it was pointless to try to make her see things the way they were as that only depressed her and it was therefore better just to be there to comfort her and assist her with her other day-to-day administrative matters.
I marveled at her dedication and capacity to love Mounir despite all what was happening as she was doing everything she could to make sure that Mounir too would get the permanent residency visa like herself. It was not an automatic process as you did not get a permanent residency visa C when you were married to someone who had it but stayed on the B permit for a few years after which you could apply for the C permit. She was therefore diligently processing all the required documentation to ensure that Mounir would get his C permit. I shrugged my shoulders and proceeded with the game as my chess partner nudged me to carry on with my move and stop day-dreaming.
After that afternoon, it became more difficult to meet Faten as she usually told me she had other events planned and it was difficult to get her attention when she was teaching or to get her to stay back for a cup of tea at the centre. I also sensed that people at the centre were less welcoming with me than they had been before and attributed the change in attitude to Mounir’s influence. Being the stubborn person that I am, I still carried on anyway going to the centre’s small outlet and having a cup of tea there all the while trying to have some time chatting with Faten or checking on her indirectly. One week, however, I neither saw her at the centre nor was anyone able to give me news about her so I called her at home and found a neighbor there who told me she was at the hospital. Fearing she had had a heart attack I rushed to the emergency section only to be told that she was in another section and was recovering well. I went to meet her and my heart welled with sadness as I realized that she had just gone through a severe beating and I knew instantly who was the culprit as I held her hand and squeezed it. Tears rolled down our faces as we looked at each other in dismay, her for me seeing her in the state she was in after all the times I had told her it could finally come to a very serious situation if she let the smaller abuse carry on while she kept shrugging that possibility off as being unlikely and me for actually seeing it had happened to her. Neither of us said a word but just stayed holding each others’ hands for a long while and shortly after that it was not visiting time anymore so I left after leaving near her bedside the flowers I had quickly grabbed on my way to the hospital and kissing her on the forehead as her cheek was swollen.
During my subsequent visits I saw that she was slowly recovering not only her health but also her free-spirited ways. She told me that she was going to file for a divorce as this was anyway what Mounir wanted and had caused the argument between them. Only, she would not divorce in the way he wanted where he had been trying to persuade her, blow aiding the persuasion where words lacked it, to renounce her alimony rights. In fact, she would hire a lawyer to ask for the highest alimony rights possible and her only regret was that he was now on final track for getting his C permit, which she then realized was the only reason he had continued to stay with her despite his marriage to the other woman and the birth of his child. He had apparently always had the intention of getting his C permit and then divorcing her to make his marriage legitimate in Tunisia so that he could then file the papers to be able to bring his wife and child to Geneva.
Her body shook and her voice was full of rage as she described how he first tried to persuade her that according to sharia she should not ask for alimony because she had not borne him any children. When she had first refused and mentioned that not only had she given up her mahr when they had got married but she had also given up a really well paid job and could not survive on the part-time job she had at the centre, he had asked her to go back to her parents who surely were wealthy enough to take care of her. Upon her insistence that it was his duty to take care of her as her parents’ duty had ended when she got married to him, he had carelessly replied that she could just sort herself out and find another job. He had added jeeringly that surely some of her previous male colleagues would be happy to help her out although she would have to lose a few kilos if she wanted to still interest them. From one escalation to another, he had ended up using what he thought was the infallible persuasion of the physical blows but this time she did not bend and by the time they had finished the persuasion session, the police brought over by the neighbours alerted by the initial cries had had to rush her to the emergency ward given her state. I listened quietly steeling myself inwardly not to say a word, suppressing my urge to tell her that I had warned her that this could happen. I felt ashamed at the urge to tell her this like I felt ashamed that I had not just told her at that time how I suspected him of only staying married with her for the papers.
When Faten finally left the hospital a couple of weeks later, she very quickly filed for divorce and with all the testimonials of the neighbours and the police complaint, she had no problems in getting a clean-cut divorce with a proper alimony settlement in her favour. She could have stayed on in the house they had shared if she had wished to but she felt that the place would bring too many bad memories to mind and chose a small one bedroom near her new job instead. Several friends from her previous job stood in for her so she never needed to lodge at the state’s expense or go back to her husband’s house while her divorce was being sorted out. Faten’s lawyer had informed her during the divorce process that she could actually oppose the procedure for her husband to get the C permit even though it was in its final stages but she thought it better to just get on with her divorce, forget the whole matter to turn the page and start her life over again. She probably also did not think it a good idea to make things difficult for him as he would then be in a vindictive mood towards her and her family back in Tunisia and God only knew what he was capable of doing if he lost the opportunity of getting his C permit because of her.
As it turned out later on, there was one final requirement and that was the signature of the wife on the document confirming that they were still married, which she obviously could not do as they were filing for a divorce so Mounir had gone back home empty handed from his final meeting despite the paper that he had received congratulating him that his papers were approved for getting the C permit. Therefore funnily enough after all that waiting through a marriage he had planned just for getting residency in Geneva, Mounir did not get his C permit through his marriage with Faten although he had got his B permit through it but he eventually did get the C permit at some stage later on as Faten had not pressed charges that would have sent him to jail. I thought he was very lucky to have got away with that as I believed he would never have been able to get a C permit if he had done jail time.
The last time I met Faten in Geneva, she told me she had been dating one of the westerners in her job, Hans, who was an expatriate from the Netherlands. She believed he cared a lot for her and would want to get married to her as he would be shortly moving back to the Netherlands and wanted her to accompany him there. Being the spontaneous person I am, I blurted out the question that was burning my lips “Do you love him?” as I knew she was a very sensitive, emotional person and needed a lot of warmth and affection in her life. She looked at me with a mixture of sadness and defiance and said softly “No I don’t. I have seen love in its every shade and am not willing to be in that state anymore. Hans loves me and that is enough for me. I only need to be loved now”. She stopped as she saw my pained gaze as I realized the sorrow that accompanied the words and put her hand on my shoulder adding “Who knows? Maybe in time I will love Hans. He is after all a loveable person”.
Hans and Faten had a quick civil marriage and left shortly after that. In the beginning we emailed each other frequently but then as time went by, the emails were less frequent until they became purely conventional exchanged only for the holiday season year after year. One day, though, I was surprised by a couple of radiant attachments that accompanied an email from her out of the holiday season. The first was a full length picture of Hans, Faten and a child in a baby stroller who was apparently their own. I gazed at the three of them smiling, holding hands with the baby girl in the middle and felt such happiness transpire through the picture. The second was a picture of Faten with the baby in her arms visibly shortly after the birth as she was wearing a hospital blouse and she looked tired but happy and the third was a picture of Hans and Faten smiling and kissing each other on the lips over the head of the baby girl who seemed to be cooing.
Faten wrote that she was sorry she had not written earlier but it had been difficult for her as she had had so much to do during the pregnancy and after the birth. Lina, the baby girl had Down syndrome and as they had gone through the possibilities, the risks when speaking to the doctors, Hans had told Faten that he wanted to have a child with her and that it would not matter to him if the child had Down syndrome so Faten had been encouraged by his enthusiasm and they had gone ahead with their trials. When they found out during the pregnancy that the baby would have Down syndrome it was a shock for Faten nevertheless but Hans had coaxed Faten into not having an abortion as she would have wanted initially because she was not sure either of them could handle such a child. After the birth of the child, it had been a very difficult time for Faten while she tried to accept the baby despite the fact that she had grown with a brother who had the same syndrome but Hans was always there to take care of Lina when Faten could not bring herself to tend to the baby because she was submerged with sadness. A couple of weeks afterwards, Faten was however fully attached to her child and marveled at every progress the baby girl made. I read with awe and admiration as well as respect for her honesty what she recounted of her battle with her beliefs as her parents while being open-minded had still hidden her brother often because they were not sure how to handle the social interaction he would have with others in Tunisia. I read on with tears of how the love of the child had grown slowly inside her heart and how her love of Hans had grown slowly together with the love for her child as she saw how selflessly he devoted himself to both of them. One particular set of sentences caught my attention and I often think of it when I despair about the lack of love in the world “I thought I had seen love in its every shade but now I know that it is not true. It is limitless and every day I discover with Hans and Lina how you can always find a new side to it, a new shade. As long as Hans and Lina are by my side, I know I can spread my wings and fly because they are my strength and my peace. I want to find new ways to love them every day, in every shade”.