Thomas Nelson / W
They call it the cradle of Islam. A land covered by a white sand that hides vast reserves of black oil. A country where wealth is measured by the number of palaces a man owns. A kingdom ruled without a constitution, by a king and a thousand princes who hold all the positions of power. A society that guards dark secrets covered up with rubies and diamonds and black veils. A world stuck in time like a fairy tale gone awry.
The country is Saudi Arabia and it is heaven and it is hell, depending on the name of your father. Depending on your loyalty to the religion. But mostly depending on whether you were born male or female.
Miriam was born the latter, the daughter of a prince named Salman bin Fahd, and today the sounds of hell floated through the palace, mocking the thousand or so female guests whod gathered for her friend Sitas wedding.
Miriam swept the purple velvet drape to one side and gazed through the window to the courtyard. The marble palace had been completed just last year and was easily the grandest of her fathers residences. She hadnt visited all of them, but she didnt need to. Prince Salman bin Fahd had four wives, and hed built each of them three palaces, two in Riyadh, and one in Jiddah. All four wives had identical dwellings in each location, as was the common practice, although to say his wives had the palaces was misleading. Father had the palaces, and he had wives to put in each.
This, Salmans thirteenth palace, hed built solely for special events such as todays, the wedding of his friend Hatam.
Outside, the sun glinted off a spewing fountain in the center of a large pond. Bright red petals from two hundred dozen roses flown in from Holland blanketed the water. Evidently the groom, Hatam bin Hazat, had heard that his young new bride liked red roses. Upon seeing the extravagant display two days earlier, Sita vowed never to look on another red rose in her life.
Dozens of Filipino servants crossed the lawn, carrying silver trays stacked high with every imaginable kind of food prepared by eighteen chefs brought in from Egypt. Roast almond duck, curried beef rolled in lamb flanks, liver-stuffed lobsterMiriam had never seen such an extravagant display of food. And this for the women only. As at all Saudi weddings, the men would never actually see the women. Custom required two separate ceremonies for the simple reason that women attended weddings unveiled. The true path of Islam forbade a man from seeing the face of a woman unless she was a family member or tied very closely to his family.
Sounds of music and drums and gaiety drifted through the window, but really they were the sounds of death. Miriam once told her mother that a Saudi woman dies three times during her span on earth. She dies on the day of her first menses, when she is forced to don the black veil and slip into obscurity; she dies on the day of her wedding, when she is given as a possession to a stranger; and, most mercifully, she dies when she finally gives up her ghost. The statement had earned her a slap.
Best be a good woman and accept your fate.
The women in Miriams life had always said that. The whole world seemed to say that. Miriam had studied in America for three months one summer, and she found that even the Americans said that, not about themselves, of course, but about foreign women. Best be a good woman and accept your fate. Not in so many words, of course, but those few who took the time to hear her stories just attributed the horrors to cultural differences. What Saudis called social pressure, Americans called political correctness, and questioning anothers cultural practices was clearly not politically correct.
Perhaps if the Americans knew Saudi history better, they would rise up in outrage and wave that flag of human rights they took up now and then. But after her brief exposure to the Americans, she doubted they wanted to hear the truth.
Miriam let her mind drift over the events that had placed her and her friend Sita here, in this magnificent palace, where they awaited the ceremony that would end Sitas life as she knew it.
The kingdoms first king, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, conquered Riyadh in 1902. He was in his early twenties then, and he swung his sword until he ruled most of the Arabian Peninsula. The four kings since his death in 1953 were all his sons. But when Miriam looked down historys foggy halls, she decided it was the kings women, not his sons, that truly delighted Aziz. Hed shown his appetites by taking over three hundred women as wives and perhaps over a thousand slaves and concubines as lovers, often sequestering them in a windowless basement. To keep other lovers out, he said.
Yes, Aziz liked his women. But hed often treated them as animals, and to Miriams thinking the treatment had stuck. Women were barred from a host of activities common to men. Driving, for example. Driving gave the female too much freedom and required skills not natural to the woman, men said. Neither was a woman allowed to give testimony in a dispute, other than the word of the last man she had spoken with. Evidently a woman could no better steer her tongue than she could steer a car. Women were muzzled with black hoods and held captive in their own homes by husbands who ruled with iron fists.
It was a kind of death.
Today it was her friend Sitas turn to die.
Miriam took a deep breath and bit her lip. In one sense, weddings did represent life. They were the one time when thousands of women gathered and shed their black abaayas and veils for colorful dresses. For a few days, the nonperson of the Saudi culture could become a real person, allowed to be viewed by other real persons before being forced back into their abaayas. Like many daughters of royalty Miriam had received a classic English education in Riyadh and at every opportunity experimented with Western ways and clothes, everything from jeans to bathing suits. But here in the kingdom, those opportunities were few and never in the public eye.
"I cant believe its actually happening," Sita said from the sofa.
Miriam let the curtain fall back in place and turned around. Sita sat like a small doll dressed in lace and pink Her eyes were round and darkso very sad. Miriam and Sultana had rescued Sita from a flock of aunts busying her for the final marriage ceremony and brought her here, to this room theyd dubbed the piano room for the white grand piano sitting to their right. The carpet, a thick Persian weave with a lion embroidered at the center, swallowed their feet. Evidently someone liked big cats; the walls of the room formed a virtual zoo of cat paintings. It wouldnt be her father, Salman; the old bull didnt have a creative hair on his head.
Sitas lips trembled. "Im scared."
Sultana, the third in the inseparable trio of friends, ran her hand over the younger girls hair. "Shh, shh. It wont be the end of the world. At least hes wealthy. Better to marry into palaces than into the gutter."
"How can you say that?" Sita was squeaking in desperation, and Miriam felt her own throat tighten. "Hes old enough to be my grandfather!"
"Hes younger than my sisters husband," Miriam said. "Saras husband was sixty-two when he snatched her from the cradle. I understand that Hatam bin Hazat is no older than fifty-five."
"And Im fifteen!" Sita said.
"And Sara was fifteen too," Miriam said. Shed always considered the tradition of old men snapping up young girls cruel, but in the face of Sitas unavoidable predicament, Miriam desperately wanted to offer hope.
"What about Haya?" Miriam continued.
That got silence from both of them. Her father, Salman bin Fahd, had taken Haya as a bride two years earlier when Miriams mother died. Fine enough, except that his new bride was only thirteen at the time. As was customary, the thirteen-year-old girl took over the duties of the wife in their household, even though she was younger than those under her charge. Miriam had been nineteen.
At first the notion had infuriated Miriam. But one look at Haya's trembling lips after the wedding changed her heart. The girl was terrified, a condition that only grew worse when Father ignored his other three wives for a full month in favor of his new young bride. Haya played the submissive wife and survived the ordeal.
But Sita was not Haya.
Miriam looked at Sita's frightened face. Her friend was still a child. Seeing her round eyes, Miriam wanted to cry. But she could never cry, especially not now, just minutes before the ceremony.
Sultana looked out the window, fire in her eyes. Of the three, she was perhaps the boldest. She was twenty-three and barren. But she was married to a good man who treated her well and turned a blind eye to her outspoken resentment of their societys ills. Both Sita and Miriam found her and her candor welcome companions. The three had formed a tight bond of friendship, and if the group had a leader, it was Sultana. Shed been to Europe with her husband many times, and although her black veil imprisoned her, too, she was never physically mistreated or forced beyond her will like so many women.
"Haya was two years younger than you," Miriam said.
"Im not Haya!" Sita returned.
"This is ridiculous and you know it, Miriam," Sultana said softly, casting a glare.
Miriam sat next to Sita and stared at Sultana. "Of course I know it. But its also unavoidable. What do you suggest, that she just walk out of here and make a run for it?"
"I saw him," Sita said softly.
Miriam glanced up, shocked. Sultanas mouth fell open. It was highly unusual for a man or a woman to have seen the one they were to marry before the actual wedding.
"You saw the groom?" Sultana asked. "You saw Hatam?"
Sita nodded, her face wrinkled in distress.
"How?" Miriam asked. "What is he like?"
"Two weeks ago, at the Souq Market." She looked up and her eyes flashed. "Hes a pig!" She turned to the side, crying. "An elephant! Hell kill me."
Miriam knew she should say something, but words escaped her. Shed never seen Hatam, but her younger brother, Faisal, once joked about him being a large man. Evidently, Hatam was powerful in Jiddah but few knew him in Riyadh. The marriage was tied to a business deal between Hatam and Sitas father, himself a wealthy developer.
Sultana stood and stormed across the room. At any other time she would be spitting contempt for a womans place in Saudi society about now, telling them they should slit Hatam's throat or something.
Absurd. But today the die had been cast Sita would marry this pig who had paid his dowry and waited to collect his new pet. There was nothing any of them could do about it.
Sita sniffed and wiped her nose with a frail, shaky hand. She spoke quietly. "I make a vow," she said. "I make a vow today to refuse my husband. He will not touch me while I am alive."
Miriam reached out a hand. "Please, Sita. . ."
Sita rose to her feet, suddenly red in the face. "You do not have to marry him, Miriam I do. I'm not ready to marry." She trembled, nothing more or less than a desperate child. Miriam felt her stomach turn.
"I swear he will never touch me, not if I have to claw his eyes out!" Sita said.
Miriam stood. "He will only hurt you!"
"No," Sultana said, walking back. "She's right, Miriam This marriage is a sick perversion of the prophets intention. If no one ever fights back, our children will face the same."
"But this isnt the time to complain," Miriam said. "This is Sita wedding! Who will pay the price for her intolerance? She will!"
"And who will pay the price when the big fat pig goes after her?"
They stared at each other, silent.
"I swear it," Sita said, and Miriam did not doubt her. She might be only fifteen, but she was a fighter to the bone.
Miriam made another plea. "Maybe hes a loving man."
"Thats easy for you to say," Sita snapped. "Youre almost twenty-one and youre still not married. And you have this secret love with Samir. I hate you for it!" She turned away and crossed her arms, and a fresh tear slipped down her cheek.
"You dont hate me, Sita. You better not hate me, because youre like a little sister to me and I love you dearly."
Twenty and not married. Rumor had it that dozens of suitors had approached Father for her hand and hed turned them all away. It was a sore subject that Miriam had warded off a hundred times with various excuses. In fact, she herself had not known the truth until Samir had confided in her just two years ago. It was the only secret she kept from her two friends. Soon enough they would know the truth.
"What is worse, to suffer punishment because you refuse your husband," Sultana asked, "or to suffer at his hand? You wouldnt know, Miriam. Salman protects you."
Heat flashed up Miriams spine. "My father protects me? Believe me, theres no love lost between Salman and me. He doesnt know how to love a woman."
"Maybe, but hes still protecting you from an early marriage," Sita shot back. "So how do you know how it feels to be given away like a rag doll to an ugly old pig?"
"Both Haya and Sara were married"
"Sure, your mother and sister were married early, but not you!"
The door suddenly flew open and they turned as one. "Sita!" Her mother stood in the doorway, white as a sheet. "Where have you been? They are ready!"
Then she saw Sita's tears and she hurried in, her face softening. "Please, dont cry, child. I know you are frightened, but we all grow up, dont we?" She smoothed Sita hair and looked at her lovingly.
"Im afraid, Mother," Sita said.
"Of course. Its a big step, but you must think beyond the uncertainty that you feel and consider the wonderful position that awaits you as the wife of a powerful man." She kissed her daughters forehead.
"Hes a wealthy man, Sita. He will give you a good life, and youll bear him many children. What else could a woman ask? Hmm?"
"I dont want to bear his children."
"Dont be silly, Sita! It will be a great honor to bear his children. Youll see." She paused and studied her daughter tenderly. "God knows how much I love you, Sita. I am so proud of you. It seems that just yesterday you were still a child, playing with your dolls. Now look at you, how youve grown into a beautiful young woman." She kissed her again. "Now, come along. The drummers are waiting."
She slipped Sita's black veil over her face. Just like that Sita was a faceless one again, emotions covered, bundled in her black body bag, although today the body bag had been fancied up in pink for its new owner, Hatam bin Hazat, the old, fat pig.
Miriam joined a thousand other women in the great hall and watched with growing dread as the drums announced the grooms arrival. As in all Saudi weddings, the only men present were the brides father, the grooms father (who in this case was dead of old age), the groom himself, and the religious man who would execute the marriage.
Hatam walked out alone, and Miriam nearly gasped aloud. Blubber sat like a bloated inner tube around his stomach, sloshing with each step despite his attempt to hide it under a tent of a tunic. The fat under his chin hung like a reservoir of water. To say the man was large would be a horrible miscalculation. He was an obese ape.
Beside Miriam, Sultana groaned softly. Several women glanced at her, but she ignored them. Sultana was right. This was a gross injustice, and they should rush the man and claw his eyes out before he had a chance to lay eyes on dear young Sita.
The drums beat again and Sitas mother and her aunt led her out. The black veil hid her face, but Miriam imagined she was already spitting at the obscene sight before her. A sweat broke out on Miriams brow, and she began to mutter prayers under her breath.
Hatam grinned at his new child bride, and when he lifted the veil, a sickening glint filled his eyes. Sita stood staring at him blankly, and in her cloaked defiance, she looked more beautiful than Miriam could remember.
The ceremony lasted only a few minutes. The actual marriage had been performed hours earlier, first with the bride and then with the groom separately, signing documents that affirmed the agreed upon dowry and terms of marriage.
Now the religious man looked at Sitas father and spoke the token words that confirmed Sita's marriage to Hatam. After a nod, he glanced over at the groom, who replied that he accepted Sita as his bride. A thousand women broke the silence, shrieking and ululating with their tongues. It was a sound meant to express joy, but today it sent chills down Miriams arms. Hatam walked past his new bride, tossing coins to the women. Sita hesitated, then followed.
He led Sita from the room, and Miriam saw that her friend walked unsteadily, like a lamb still searching for its legs, now being led to the slaughter by this monster.
The women began to move outside where more food and celebration awaited them. Music wavered across the room again. They would celebrate for another two days after the groom departed with his new bride. Celebrate what? Sitas death? Still, it was the way it was. Like Mother used to say, the sooner they got used to it, the easier life would become.
Miriam felt like she might throw up.
Blink by Ted Dekker, copyright 2002. Used by permission. All rights reserved.