Fahd bin Abdul Aziz
Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz
Naef Bin Abdul Aziz
Salman Bin Abdul Aziz
Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz
Something was dead in each of us
And what was dead was Hope.
|THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON, Kareem and I were sitting
together with our children on the verandah at our villa in Cairo. An im
maculate flower garden encircled the large covered porch, and the sweet
scent of roses and honeysuckle permeated the air, bringing to mind the
wealthy British presence that had once occupied the unwelcoming city. My
husband and I were savoring the coolness of the spacious and shaded area,
for there was not a hint of an afternoon breeze, and the concrete
structures of the populous city had retained the oppressive heat of the
day, dulling the senses of Cairo's eight million occupants.
Our three children whispered among themselves, claiming that we had once
again been forgotten by "Forgetful Fatma," as they often
called our Egyptian housekeeper when she was out of earshot.
I warned my children not to make fun, that Fatma was no longer young and
her feet had difficulty moving her abundant body. Still, I stifled a
smile, thinking that the children were probably right in their assessment
of the situation. Fatma had more than likely begun some new chore,
entirely forgetting her employers as they waited impatiently for a cool
drink. Fatma was absentminded and did have a consistent inability to
remember why she left one room to go into another. Many times Kareem had
complained, saying that Fatma should be let go and a younger, more
energetic woman hired in her stead, but I resisted his urgings because the
woman was depend able and had always displayed a genuine love for my three
Kareem accused me of being unable to part with Fatma's lively tales of
Cairo scandals. But that was not the case.
Fatma has been employed as our permanent, live-in housekeeper since we
purchased the villa many years before. Abdullah was only two years old at
the time she came into our lives, and our girls were not yet born, so
Fatma was a constant in their young lives.
Just as I pushed myself from my chair to go and remind her of our earlier
request, I heard the familiar scraping of her loose sandals as they struck
the marble floor of the interior hallway leading to the veranda.
I looked at Kareem, and he gave an irritated shake of his head. My husband
had no understanding of why he should be inconvenienced by the aging of a
Feeling mischievous, I said, "My husband, do not forget that God is
Kareem tartly replied, "Sultana, do not concern yourself with my
relationship to God."
The children thought we might slip into an argument and ruin the
afternoon, so Amani wrapped her arms around her father's neck, while Maha
began to rub my shoulders and begged me not to lose my temper.
I felt too good to fight and said so. About that time, my attention was
drawn to Fatma. Recalling the graceful and slim woman of years past, my
eyes affectionately followed her heavy figure as she painstakingly opened
the double glass doors that led from the villa onto the veranda. Fatma was
enormous and had great difficulty balancing the tray stacked with crystal
glasses and a matching crystal decanter filled with freshly squeezed
Like many Egyptian women, Fatma had struggled with a weight problem from
the moment she bore her first child. With each new addition to her family,
she had grown larger and larger, until a childish Abdullah had fearfully
questioned me, asking how Fatma's skin could continue to hold her figure
Slowed by her weight, Fatma took many moments to walk the few steps from
the door way to the table of white-painted rattan.
Abdullah jumped to his feet and took the tray from her, insisting that he
would serve the family.
Kareem and I exchanged glances, and I saw that my husband bit the inside
of his lip to keep from protesting. Ever since he was young, Abdullah was
easily affected by the suffering that comes so often undeserved to
mankind. I felt proud of my son's sensitivity, but I knew that his father
had no desire for him to do the work of servants.
To distract Kareem, I asked Abdullah to tell us more about his experiences
in Lebanon, for since we had met him in Cairo, we had enjoyed little
private time to hear of his ad venture. I remembered that in Kareem's
youth, he had spent many happy times in the beautiful city of Beirut,
where large numbers of the Saudi royal family had gone for rest and
relaxation before the days of the mad and senseless war that had destroyed
the once lovely land of Lebanon.
Abdullah saw hope where Kareem said there was none. Abdullah said that he
had been impressed by the Lebanese spirit, marveling that the Lebanese
people had not only survived, but had endured a most vicious civil war
with their optimism intact, refusing to acknowledge that they could not
surpass their brilliant past. Abdullah thought that given half the chance,
the Lebanese would once again rise to claim an exalted place in the Arab
Abdullah paused and looked at his father. He wondered if Kareem might be
interested in investing money in that country.
Kareem rewarded Abdullah with an approving smile. My husband is a man who
seeks economic opportunity at every chance, and our son's previous lack of
interest in such matters had always been a weight on his mind. But
Kareem's smile quickly vanished when Abdullah added that the
infrastructure of Lebanon was almost completely in ruins and that there
were many good causes to which Kareem could donate funds.
I almost dissolved in laughter when I saw Kareem's face. He sat up
straight and tried to show some interest, but my husband had difficulty
concealing his desperation; he looked at his son as if seeing him for the
I knew that my husband had not yet recovered from Abdullah's proud
announcement that he had donated the bulk of the one mil lion dollars he
had taken from our safe to the hospital that housed Jafer's older brother.
My husband had no heart to reprimand his son for such a good deed and had
gazed at Abdullah with sad affection, in spite of his dismay at losing one
Kareem confessed to me later that in his mind donating money to Lebanon
was equivalent to tossing good money after bad, for who knew when the guns
of destruction would once again flame across the Lebanese sky. Let the
Lebanese show that they were serious about peace, and Kareem would look
into the possibility of assisting his fellow Arabs.
Abdullah had been stricken by the lack of facilities at the institution
that housed Jafer's brother, and now he spoke again of that place. He said
that he could not forget the wretched condition of the war-wounded who
lived in the hospital. Abdullah's eyes welled with tears as he told of men
and women with out limbs, confined to small rooms, for there were no
prostheses or wheelchairs. Abdullah had discovered men tied to wooden
tables, men who had no movement in their bodies, men stoically accepting
the idea of a life de void of any pleasure.
Abdullah said he had learned a tragic truth, that a large number of the
Lebanese wounded had no surviving family members to provide funds for
In anguish, he asked, "Does the world neither know nor care about the
damage done to that country?"
I reminded Abdullah of a happy thought, that Jafer's brother had been
luckier than most, since Jafer had routinely sent money for his medical
expenses. But even his situation was bleak when compared to the advanced
health care facilities our oil wealth guaranteed the inhabitants of Saudi
Arabia. Jafer's brother would now enjoy the latest treatment available,
for Fouad had insisted upon taking his son-in-law's brother home with them
to live as one of his family.
Now our son wanted his father to distribute more of his personal wealth
for the needy of Lebanon. Abdullah thought that a new hospi tal supplied
with the latest equipment would be an auspicious beginning.
I leaned forward, interested to hear my husband's reply, for I knew it was
painful for Kareem to refuse any wish of his beloved son.
Kareem had closed his eyes in concentration and was beginning to rub his
forehead with his hand when without warning our family gathering was
interrupted by a most pathetic howling.
Baffled, we looked at each other and then realized that the strange noise
was coming from inside our villa and that the sound was made by Fatma!
A look of relief flashed across Kareem's face, for his son's interest had
been diverted. Abdullah was the first to move inside. My daughters and I
quickly followed, leaving Kareem alone on the veranda.
My first thought was that Fatma had burned herself, for she was standing
over the kitchen stove, frying beef and onions for our dinner. But I
quickly saw that her weeping had not interrupted her cooking, for she
continued to stir the ingredients in the pan and seemed not to realize
that her wails had penetrated the stone walls of the villa.
"Fatma! What is the problem?" Abdullah asked.
Like the voice of doom, Fatma replied, "Oh, Abdullah! The female most
blessed is she that has never been born! Next to her in happiness is the
female who dies in infancy!"
Bereaved to madness, Fatma began to thump her chest.
Maha grabbed the wooden stirring spoon from her hand, while Amani began to
console the poor woman with soothing sounds and comforting words.
Abdullah gave me a questioning look with his brown eyes.
I shrugged, as confused as he. I had no thought other than that Fatma's
husband might have divorced her and taken a younger wife, though they had
seemed a well-satisfied couple in the past.
Fatma's husband, Abdul, doubled as our gardener and family chauffeur, and
the couple had often said they considered themselves fortunate to work for
wealthy people who paid a good wage and who were rarely in the country.
They were guaranteed plenty of free time to spend with their children, who
lived in an apartment in Cairo with Abdul's mother. Yet, I knew that by
law Egyptian men, like Saudi men, have full power over their women, and it
was not unusual for an old man to take a second wife, or even to divorce
his first wife and take a younger, more attractive woman into his home.
The experiences of my life have taught me that men are generally at the
root of female grief. Thinking of Fatma's bitter words of fe male
misfortune, I imagined a man as their cause, for nothing is more
demoralizing to a woman of Fatma's age than to be abandoned by a husband
of many years.
Abdullah, Amani, and I led Fatma to a chair in the sitting room, while
Maha tended to her unfinished tasks.
Fatma moaned as she walked, holding her hand on the top of her head, like
someone trying to stop the pain.
Wanting to get to the cause of her grief, I waved my children from the
room and asked her point-blank, "Fatma, has Abdul divorced you?"
Fatma raised her head and looked at me, her languid eyes blinking at my
question. She repeated my words, "Abdul? Divorce me?" She then
smiled, but only with her lips. "That old man? Let him try! I will
crack his bald head like an egg and fry his brains on the sidewalk."
I had to struggle to keep from laughing aloud, for in the past, Kareem had
often commented that in his opinion Abdul lived in fear of his wife, and
that there was at least one married woman in the Arab world who had no
need of feminine advice from me.
Abdul was half Fatma's size, and once Kareem had come upon the couple
unexpectedly and had seen with his own eyes Fatma strike her husband on
the back with a large board.
I asked, "Then, if it is not Abdul, what is the problem?"
Fatma's heavily wrinkled face fell, and she became lost in her own morose
thoughts. She sighed so heavily that I knew her sadness had a heartfelt
source, and I asked myself with dismay what could be the cause of her
"Fatma?" I reminded her of my presence.
Suddenly her face turned bright red, and Fatma's despair burst forth.
"It is my granddaughter Alhaan! Her father is an evil being, a donkey
of a man, that Nasser! I would kill him with my bare hands if my daughter
would allow it! But no! She says she and her family must live their lives
as they see fit!"
Fatma's eyes flashed with anger, and her huge bosom heaved with
indignation. "My own daughter demands that I stay out of her family
matters!" She looked at me aghast and asked, "Can you imagine
that? To have no say in my own granddaughter's life?"
Feeling utterly bewildered, I asked, "What has Nasser done to his
child? To your grand daughter?"
Surely, I thought to myself, if the mother of the child has no objections,
the harm to the child must not exist.
"That Nasser! He is from a small village. What does he know?"
I drew back in surprise as Fatma spat upon our newly carpeted floor.
Fatma was talking in every direction, cursing Nasser, crying out for her
daughter, and begging God to help her grandchild.
I lost my patience and, raising my voice, demanded to know. "Fatma!
Tell me, now! What happened to your granddaughter?"
Disconsolate and at a loss, Fatma tightly squeezed my hand and said,
"Tonight. To night they will make Alhaan into a woman. They have an
appointment with the barber at nine o'clock. This ritual I do not believe
is necessary. None of my daughters were so treated. It is that Nasser! Can
you help me, mistress, please .
The past surged up in my mind. How well I remembered the horrible story
told to me by my oldest sister, Nura, when she too had been made into a
Kareem and I had not yet wed, and I was young, only sixteen years old. My
mother had recently died, and Nura, as the eldest daughter, was instructed
to answer my questions regarding female circumcision. I had not known
until that time that Nura and our two sisters closest to her in age had
endured the horrific rite, and as a result had been subjected to lifelong
pain and suffering.
In Saudi Arabia's not so distant past, circumcision of women had not been
infrequent, with each tribe following a different custom. Just this past
year, I had read a book my son had purchased while in London. The book was
titled The Empty Quarter; by St. John Philby, a respected British desert
explorer. With assistance from my grandfather, Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the
founder and first king of Saudi Arabia, St. John Philby had carried out
extensive explorations in Arabia in the 1930s.
I had taken the book from my son's room and derived great pleasure from
reading this man's history of the Arab tribes that make up the population
of Saudi Arabia, until I came across a section of the book that told of
the Englishman's findings concerning female circumcision. I had imagined
the brutalization of my own sisters and had cringed and cried out when
reading about a conversation Philby had documented with the Arab men of
But his strong subject was sex, and he loved to poke fun at Salib by
dilating on Manasir practice in the matter of female circumcision.
"Take it from me," he said, "they let their women come to
puberty with clitoris intact, and when a girl is to be married, they make
a feast for her circumcision a month or two before the wedding. It is only
then that they circumcise them and not at birth as do the other tribes-Qahtan
and Murra, Bani Hajir, ay, and 'Ajman. Thus their women grow up more
lustful than others, and fine women they are too and that hot! But then
they remove everything, making them as smooth as smooth, to cool their
ardor without reducing their desire. . . . The girls are dealt with in
their tents by women who know their business, and get a dollar or so for
the job. They are expert with the scissors, the razor, and the needle,
which are all used for the operation."
I could not help wondering at this information. It struck me as strange
that men thought of complete women as lustful, yet condoned the barbaric
procedures performed on these women in order to "cool their
ardor." From my own readings, I had learned that female circumcision
caused women to dread any intimacy with their husbands, and I came to the
conclusion that there is no rational thought or pattern when it comes to
the mutilation of females.
My grandfather, Abdul Aziz Al Sa'ud, was a man who was ahead of his time,
and he looked for better ways in all matters. Coming from the Najd, he did
not believe in the circumcision of women, or in the flaying circumcision
of men, which was as terrifying as female circumcision.
In the flaying circumcision of men, the skin is removed from the navel
down to the inside of a man's legs. On witnessing such brutality, our first
king forbade the practice. But in spite of my grandfather's decree, the
old ways died slowly, and people were willing to risk punishment to carry
on with what they had been taught by the ones who came before them.
While some tribes forbade circumcision of their women altogether, others
excised the hood of the clitoris only. The cutting of the hood of the
clitoris is the least common method, and is the only procedure that is
analogous to male circumcision.
Then, there were those poor women who belonged to tribes in Arabia that
removed all of the clitoris, along with the labia minora. This is the most
common method of female circumcision and is comparable to removing the
head of a man's penis. My own mother paid no heed to the new ruling, and
three of her daughters were subjected to the cruel practice of female
circumcision. The remainder of the women in our family had been spared the
rite of circumcision due to the intervention of a Western physician and
the insistence of my father to my mother that circumcision of females was
nothing more than a pagan practice that must be stopped. Strangely enough,
it is the women in Muslim countries who insist upon the circumcision of
their female offspring, fearing that their daughters will otherwise be
scorned for being different, resulting in husbandless futures. On this one
topic regarding female sexuality, educated men have advanced beyond their
There is another, more atrocious and dangerous method of female
circumcision, named the pharaonic circumcision. I could scarcely imagine
the pain experienced by the women who received the pharaonic circumcision.
This process is the most extreme, and after the rite is completed, a girl
is left with out a clitoris, labia minora, or labia majora. If such a
procedure were done on a male, it would involve amputation of the penis
and the scrotum around the testicles.
How barbarous were these old customs that still lingered in our present
day! In Saudi Arabia, much had been accomplished to eradicate the
tradition, and most women of my land are no longer subjected to this
terrible experience. The men of my own family had forbade the pagan
tradition, but still some families of African descent who lived in Arabia
were prepared to risk punishment rather than forgo the rite, swearing that
nothing other than the reduction of female plea- sure will preserve female
I had known that the practice of female circumcision was thought to have
begun along the Nile Valley, and I had speculated in my mind that the
barbaric ritual might end where it had begun. Yet, many women in Egypt and
throughout the continent of Africa were still subjected to this most
Over the years, as my own family no longer practiced this rite, I had been
successful in pushing the thought of female mutilation from my mind.
Now Fatma tugged on my arm. Her imploring gesture brought me back into the
present. With great sadness, I recalled the face of the young girl, Alhaan,
for she had visited her grandmother in our villa on many occasions. She
was a pretty child and had seemed bright and happy. I created a vivid
mental image of the girl being led to the barber, undressed by her mother,
with small legs spread before the man with the sharp razor.
I recoiled in horror. In disbelief, I wondered how the mother of that girl
could con done such evil inflicted on her beautiful daughter. Yet, I knew
that many mothers were allowing such intolerable practices, for it is
estimated by world health organizations that female genital mutilation has
affected between 80 and 100 million women world wide. So much pain
inflicted on little girls!
With hope in her voice, Fatma examined my face carefully and asked,
"Mistress, can you save my granddaughter?"
I moved my head slowly and heavily. "What can I do, Fatma, that you
cannot? I am not of your family. My interference would be resented."
"You are a princess. My daughter, she has respect for someone who is
I had learned long ago that those who have no wealth believe that money
has provided wisdom along with economic freedom, but this was a matter of
deeply ingrained culture. Instinctively, I knew that Fatma's daughter
would not welcome my intrusion.
I waved my arms helplessly. "What can I do, Fatma? Since I reached
the age of under standing, I have wanted female freedom from such
practices." My voice fell low, along with my spirits. "Now, it
seems that the world is becoming darker and darker for those of our sex.
Fatma remained silent, and a sorrowful look came into her black eyes.
"If I could, I would help your granddaughter. But I have no authority
to voice my opinion."
Fatma looked disappointed but spoke words without reproach. "I
understand, mistress." She stared at me from half-closed lids.
"But I beg you to come with me. To try."
Surprised at Fatma's stubbornness, I felt my resolve melting away. I felt
a shiver run through my body and asked in a weak voice, "Where does
your daughter live?"
Fatma's thick lips exploded with her excited reply, "Very close, not
more than a short ride in an automobile. If we leave now, we can arrive
before Nasser comes home from work."
I summoned all my courage and stood. I told myself that in spite of almost
certain failure, I must make an effort. I knew that I would be forced to
lie to my husband, or he would forbid me to go. "Fatma, go and get
your things. And say not a word to anyone of this matter."
"Yes, mistress! I know it is God's will that you help me!"
I watched her as she hurried away, moving faster than I could ever
remember. Despite our vastly different worlds, the two of us had become
comrades fighting for the same cause.
By the time I combed out my hair, applied lipstick, and located my
handbag, I had decided to tell Kareem that Fatma had just that morning
learned her daughter was ill with a rare female disorder. But her daughter
had refused treatment, saying that if it was God's will that she die, she
would not reverse his decision by accepting treatment from any man. Fatma
had pleaded with me to go and convince her daughter that she must fight to
live for the sake of her own children. To be more convincing, I would
complain that I did not want to go, but how could I forgive myself if the
woman died and I had made no effort. It was a weak scenario, but Kareem
shied away from female problems and would more than likely grumble but
make no move to stop me.
As it turned out, I was not forced to tell such a wild tale, for Abdullah
said that his father had received a telephone call while I was speaking
with Fatma. Kareem had asked Abdullah to tell me that he was going to join
one of his royal cousins in a Cairo casino and would not be home until
later that evening. I knew my husband wanted to put time and distance
between himself and his son's earlier request to donate millions of
dollars to a failing Lebanese economy, and I had a sense that his excuse
to leave our home was as dishonest as the lie I had been prepared to tell.
Kareem shares a common trait with most Arabs. My husband cannot say no,
but would rather speak a small lie and disappear from the sight of the one
who requires an answer.
"Good!" I muttered under my breath. Kareem's discomfort at being
around his son had come at an opportune time.
After advising me of his father's message, Abdullah turned his attention
back to the television set, and I saw that he was mesmerized, watching an
Egyptian soap opera that was greatly favored by Arabs from many lands. I
noticed that Amani's lips had formed a disapproving pout. My daughter was
not pleased at her brother's selection, for that particular show was not
allowed in Saudi Arabia because of its many scenes that hinted of sexual
"Abdullah, I need you to drive me to the home of Fatma's daughter.
Can you come?"
My son looked for any opportunity to drive the new white Mercedes Kareem
had purchased and shipped into the country for our Cairo home. I knew from
past experience that Kareem would have taken the older Mercedes into the busy
district of downtown Cairo, since he greatly feared the taxi drivers in
that teeming city
Abdullah flicked the remote button shutting off the television set and
gallantly leapt to his feet. "I will get the car."
The Cairo streets were crowded with vehicles of every description, and the
traffic was almost at a standstill. Pedestrians threaded in and out of the
traffic. People hung onto the sides of buses already packed with humanity;
they clung precariously to the doorways or windows as if it were the most
natural way in the world to travel.
As our car inched through the city streets, I gazed in amazement at the
mass of people who had descended on the city of the Pharaohs and
shuddered, for it was easy to see that Cairo could not continue to exist
as it was.
Abdullah interrupted my thoughts, asking me the point of our errand.
I swore him to secrecy. When I told him of Fatma's source of sorrow, a
flash of anger swept over my son's face.
Abdullah said that he had heard of such things but had thought such tales
were exaggerated. "Is it really true?" he asked. "Are such
things done to young girls?"
I thought to tell him about his Auntie Nura but reconsidered, for it was
such a private matter, and I knew my sister would be keenly ashamed if my
son knew of her mutilation. Instead, I told him the history of female
While my son was pleased that the custom was ending in our own land, he
felt sickened that so many women still suffered unnecessary pain.
We were silent the rest of the trip, each of us awash in our own thoughts
of the evening's business.
Fatma's daughter lived in a small alley that branched off from a main
shopping road in the city of Cairo. Abdullah paid a shop owner for the
privilege of parking our car on the sidewalk in front of his clothing shop
and promised the happy man a generous bonus if he would ensure that no
damage occurred while we were away.
Abdullah guided Fatma and me, hands on our backs, as we weaved through the
pedestrian traffic and entered the alleyway that led to our destination.
The alley was too small for automobiles, so we walked down the middle of
the stone-paved street. Strong cooking odors drifted around us as we
passed a number of cafe's specializing in Arabic dishes.
Abdullah and I exchanged many glances, for we had never visited the poorer
sections of Cairo. The close living quarters and the poverty of the
inhabitants were a shock to us both.
Fatma's daughter lived in a three-story building at the center of the
alleyway. The building faced the neighborhood mosque, which looked worn
and was in urgent need of repair. The bottom floor housed a bakery, while
the two top floors were rented out as apartments. Fatma pointed up and
said that her daughter, Elham, lived on the top floor. Incredibly, Elham
must have been looking down at the crowd from the flat-roofed building,
for she recognized her mother, and began to yell Fatma's name, which we
could barely hear over the loud noise of city life.
Abdullah did not know that in this particular family women were permitted
to meet men not of their family (in Egypt the custom varies from family to
family) and told me that he would wait in a small cafe' we had passed that
served shawarma sandwiches, which are thin slices of lamb that has been
turned and cooked on a split and placed into a piece of Arabic bread, with
tomato, mint, and onion for added taste. Shawarma sandwiches were a big
favorite of all my children, and Abdullah said that he was becoming
Elham and three of her four daughters met us on the stairwell, all four
speaking at once, demanding to know if there had been some illness or
tragedy in the family.
My first thought was that Elham looked identical to a young Fatma.
She gazed at me in fascination when Fatma introduced me as her employer, a
princess from Saudi Arabia, for I had never met this particular child,
even though I had met most of Fatma's children and grandchildren. I grew
extremely conscious of my showy jewelry, for in my haste, I had not
remembered to remove my large diamond earrings or my opulent wedding ring,
which I realized were more than conspicuous in such poor surroundings.
Elham's youngest daughter, a girl of only six, was slapped by her mother
as she rubbed her small fingers across the stone in my ring.
At Elham's insistence, we were led into her small sitting room, and she
left us for a short time to go and boil water for tea. Fatma had two
granddaughters in her lap and a third at her feet. Alhaan was nowhere to
I examined my surroundings and could see that Elham lived a simple life. I
tried not to stare at the threadbare floor coverings and the torn
slipcovers, for I did not want my attention to be misunderstood. There was
an open brazier in the middle of the room, and a square table pushed
against the wall was piled with religious books. A small gas lamp hung
down from the ceiling, and I wondered if the apartment was not supplied
with electricity. I noticed that Elham's apartment was spotless, and it
was evident that she was a proud woman who took great trouble keeping the
dust and bugs out of her simple home.
Elham soon returned, serving sweet tea and small almond cookies she said
she had baked herself for the family celebration they were having that
evening. She mentioned to her mother that Alhaan was excited over the
event and was on the rooftop, reading the Koran and quietly preparing
herself for the most important day in her life.
The atmosphere remained cheerful until that moment, as Fatma brought up
the topic on our minds, pleading with her daughter to cancel the planned
ritual, to spare her child great pain and suffering.
Fatma talked in a rush and, seeing that she was making no dent in her
daughter's determination, pointed to me and said that if Elham would not
listen to her own mother, perhaps she would pay heed to a woman who had
been educated by bright minds, a woman who had learned from respected
physicians that the mutilation of girls was not encouraged by our religion
and was nothing more than a custom with no basis or meaning in modern
The tension built, and though Elham was polite and listened to my thoughts
on the matter, I could see that the lines of her face were set and her
eyes were glazed over with stubborn determination. Knowing from Fatma's
confidences that the family was notably religious, I shared my knowledge
of religious thought, saying that nothing in the Koran spoke of such
matters, and that if God had considered it a necessity for women to be
circumcised, then surely he would have given that message to Prophet
Mohammed when he revealed his wisdom to his messenger.
Elham admitted that while female circumcision is not mentioned in the
Koran, the practice was founded upon the customs of the Prophet so that it
had become Sunna, or tradition for all Muslims. She reminded me of a well
known hadith, or tradition, addressed but not recorded in the Koran. This
hadith says that Prophet Mohammed one day told Um Attiya, a matron who was
excising a girl, "Reduce but do not destroy."
It was this tradition that Elham and her husband were going to follow
regarding female circumcision, and nothing I could say would alter their
We discussed the issue until I could see the light begin to leave the
room. Sundown was approaching. I knew that Nasser would re turn soon, and
I had no desire to confront the man of the house over such a delicate
matter. I made some small mention that it was time for me to return to my
Fatma, sensing failure, began to wail and slap at her cheeks until her
face was completely reddened.
A look of distress flickered in Elham's eyes at her mother's grief, but
she said that the decision had been reached by her husband and that she
agreed with his thinking. All four of her daughters would undergo the rite
of circumcision when they reached the proper age.
I could see that Elham wished for my departure. Understanding that I could
do nothing to erase the frightening shadow cast over the lives of the
female children of this home, I stood and said my farewells.
With quiet self-assurance, Elham's eyes met mine, and she politely bade me
good-bye. "You have honored my home with your presence, Princess
Sultana. Please, come again another day for a longer visit."
Against her daughter's wishes, Fatma insisted upon staying for the
ceremony, saying that if the evil deed was going to be done, she wanted to
supervise the barber's work to make sure he cut nothing more than the tip
of her granddaughter's clitoris.
I submitted to the inevitable, leaving Elham's home without accomplishing
my goal. My feet felt leaden as I walked down the long staircase. In an
effort to give myself time to calm my nerves, I stood immobile on the
steps and recited aloud a verse from the Koran, 'Tou cannot lead aright
whomever you wish, it is God who leads whomever he wishes."
My son was waiting, sitting at a small table in the front of the cafe. His
questioning gaze followed me as I made my way to his side.
My son peered at me expectantly. "So?" he asked.
I shook my head. "No. There is nothing to be done."
Abdullah's face clouded as I admitted my failure.
"Come," I said, "let us return home."
I glanced over my shoulder as we left the small alley, gazing into the
night. Elham's home had melted into the darkness as though it had never
When my son began to talk, I urged silence with the press of my hand
against his lips.
I was unable to control my weeping.
Without speaking, my son drove his sobbing mother home.
As soon as I arrived back at our villa, I called out for my astonished
daughters to abandon their current activities and pack their belongings.
Our family would leave Cairo as soon as their father returned from the
I whispered to Abdullah that the city I had loved since childhood was in
danger of losing my affection, though I hoped our evening's experience
would not result in my vigorous dislike of everything Egyptian.
Abdullah's eyes flashed with understanding, and I was gratified to see
that my son appreciated the reasoning behind my words.
Kareem soon arrived with the odor of alcohol spread about him, which
brought on a sudden and prolonged prayer from Amani for God to look past
her father's sinful acts and restore Kareem to the status of heaven's most
favored. In the context of her plea, Amani began to describe the burning
agony of hell that awaited members of her family.
Already in a foul mood, I quickly wearied of Amani's enthusiastic
fanaticism. I was in censed that she would take it to the point where she
spoke critically of her family. Face- to-face, I told her in no uncertain
terms that I had not yet received notification that God had appointed my
daughter to the sacred role of frightening mankind into decency.
I reached across to pinch the skin on her face, but Kareem grabbed my hand
and held it tight to his chest, ordering Amani to leave our presence,
suggesting that she complete her prayers in the privacy of her room.
Kareem then became noisy in the irritating manner of a drunkard, saying
that he had often observed my inability to control my destructive temper,
and he thought the time had come to teach me a useful lesson.
We looked at each other for a time. Kareem stood still, waiting for my
response. His lips were curled with contempt, and it was easy to see that
he was in a rare mood to fight.
I quickly scanned the room for a weapon with which to bang my husband's
head, for I am a woman who meets threats with violence, but Kareem knows
me well and placed himself between me and the brass pot I had decided to
use against him.
The will to battle left my body in a rush, for there are times when I can
think reasonably, and Kareem is twice my size. Without a weapon, I am at a
notable disadvantage and once disarmed can be quickly overcome. Be sides,
it was best not to escalate our disagreement into a brawl, for past
experience had taught me the impossibility of winning an argument with a
drunken Kareem. But my thoughts were filled with scorn, and I had
difficulty remembering why I had ever loved Kareem in the first place.
Wishing to avoid a useless confrontation, I knew that I must recapture the
I laughed, and said to Kareem, "Look at you! You resemble an elephant
who is threatening an ant!" I then smiled at my husband and said that
I was more than pleased he had returned early, that I yearned for his
companionship at a time of great sorrow.
Kareem was not at his mental prime and -was easily bested. Bewildered for
a short moment by my change in tactics, he eased into my trap and became
overly remorseful for his unthinking words, patting my shoulder, offering
apologies, and wondering why his dear wife was distressed.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was nearly nine o'clock. Half insane
with the knowledge that the innocent child, Alhaan, would soon undergo
female mutilation, I instantly forgot all thoughts of myself, and with
tremendous sadness told my husband that there is no loveliness in life for
women and that in my mind it would be advantageous for all females to die.
Kareem could not fathom the reasoning be hind my dark ideas. He asked, was
my life not perfect? Was there anything I desired that my husband did not
Knowing that my main source of distress is the social injustice directed
toward women, he reminded me that together we had ensured that in our
home, our daughters felt little of the prejudice that exists against
females in our land. What more could one man do, he wondered, than to
guard those he loved.
Kareem smiled sweetly and tenderly brushed my lips with his fingers.
I had a quick thought that Kareem was en owed with a winsome charm that
atoned for his less admirable traits.
Unsure how to address the ambiguous is sue of my general dissatisfaction
with the status of women, Kareem announced that it was my inescapable
destiny to be born in Saudi Arabia, and in the end women must accept the
limits imposed by our culture. My husband reminded me that God knew all
things, and his purpose in planting my feet in Saudi soil had not been
made known to those bound on earth.
My emotions in a whirl, I once again felt dislike for Kareem, regretting
that all men could not be turned into women and live in our limited and
often cruel world long enough to attain understanding. I wanted to rage at
my husband's distance from my knowledge of the pain that women endure.
How can woman bind man to the grief that walks the earth and settles at
the feet of each woman by turn? Sensing the futility of longing for men to
suffer women's position in society, while women enjoyed the status of male
rank, I told myself that I was too keyed up to be capable of a normal
conversation and suggested to my husband that we go to sleep early, then
rise refreshed to a day of new thoughts.
Because he follows a set pattern of fighting and then sleep after
alcoholic drinking, Kareem agreed and willingly prepared him self for bed,
while I located the children and gave instructions for them to eat their
evening meal without us and to be available with bags packed to depart
Cairo in the morning.
By the time I returned to our quarters, my husband had begun to breathe
the deep, peaceful rhythms of one already at rest.
With my mind in conflict between my own rebellious thoughts and Elham's
traditional beliefs, I considered what Kareem had said, that I was a woman
at odds with my fate. Yet, in spite of my second-class status, I knew that
I could never yield to meek acceptance of female circumcision.
Before falling into a troubled and unsatisfy mg sleep, I vowed to myself
that my fury over the fate of girls such as Alhaan would outlive the
barbaric custom that had aroused it.