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"The Unhappy Women"

by Safira Zeki

"The Unhappy Women" was published in the fall of 2000 in International Quarterly, a literary magazine at Florida State University in Tallahassee (3:4, Fall 2000).

The story was inspired by two articles in Arabesque magazine: Ibrahim Farrah's film review of "A Little for My Heart, A Little for My God" (Farrah, Jan/Feb. 1995: 6-7), and "A Profile in Courage, a Profile in Compassion" (Farrah, Costanza. Mar/April 1995: 12-14), in which Swedish filmmaker Brita Landoff talks about this documentary of the Meddahat culture of Algeria.


It was in 1991, in late June, when Laurie and I arrived at my home in the North African town of Oran. In America, I had just defended my dissertation on women's roles in Algeria. It was twilight, and the heat was still present on the streets. I heard the echo of drums and more faintly, the sound of women's laughter and a flute. I remembered playing here, at dusk, when I was too young to veil. I felt that I had come home to be buried.

Moorish family of women, about 80 years prior to the setting of this story.

Laurie was excited because it was her first trip overseas, and because the CLA Journal had accepted her essay on Ralph Ellison. She climbed from the car and looked for the musicians who floated song on the air. "They're like ghosts. Where are they?" she asked. "Who are they?"

"Those are the meddahat, the unhappy women," I said.

The music died away, as if the revelers had disappeared beneath the ground.

She looked disappointed, but I didn't want to explain. In Algeria, all women are either good or bad. My mother and cousins are happy women. They are honorable, they are sheltered. But we honorable women need the unhappy women: they bring us to joy, they make us weep and dance and let our inner oppression out.

"rabia," Laurie said, "why don't you get out of the car?" She bent down to talk to me through the car window. Her face was shadowed, framed by her straight brown hair. "I can smell the sea, Mr. Rabat. Which one's your house?"

My father, in a suit and tie, turned off the ignition and stared into the back seat at my jeans. He winced. He was a round-headed man, much more frail than I, with shy eyes and fine hair. He had driven us from the airport to a row of white apartments that smelled of salt water and the fish of the Mediterranean, talking of his government job and his grandchildren. "When are you going to give us some grandchildren?" he said. "We've found a nice guy who wants to marry you."

"Another one?" I said. "All right, line them up."

But I didn't mean it, and he knew that. Nine years before, he and Mother had sent me to America for college, which would make me a valuable bride. Finally, this spring, in the middle of a cool Maryland night that smelled of hyacinths and wet soil, my mother had called, crying. She said, "I know you are never coming back."

Father stood by Laurie on the sidewalk beneath a fine web of power lines. In front was his home, once mine: a door and two shutters in a dank cement building with flaking white paint. He leaned down and looked at me, too, and said in Arabic, "rabia, come on. Your mother is so eager to see you. She's been cooking all day." He went to the trunk for our suitcases. Laurie stood alone on the street for a moment, staring at the apartment's weathered green shutters. I wondered if she was thinking of the troubadours and straining her ears for sounds of laughter.

I heard footsteps. I leaned out and saw, approaching us, the unhappy meddahat, covered in white. They were whispering among themselves. They carried musical instruments: a drum shaped like an hourglass, a flute, a huge tambourine, a violin. They passed Laurie on either side. For a moment she was surrounded by ghosts and I saw a smile of wonder come to her face. Although one of them bumped her shoulder, making her stumble, she turned to me and her eyes were glowing.

"rabia," she said, "what are 'unhappy women'?"

I answered, "Those are the bad women, made miserable by their sins."

"Why won't you get out of the car?"

"All right, I will," I said.

My parents' house smelled damp as a ship. The twilight had painted it lavender-gray.

Laurie looked tired from the long plane ride, and Father patted her hand. As he opened the door, he said to her in English, "In this house, my dear, you will always be welcome."

Inside, a lamp shone yellow. My mother's mother, Latifa, passed by inside the door in her turban and a party dress of white chiffon, the seams pulled tight over her dowager's hump. She wore her gold, too: it glittered at her throat like the autumn leaves in Maryland, where I had lived. She carried a tray of tiny coffees, waiting to serve us, and I heard her say I am so glad, so glad, but she didn't look outside.

I had the uneasy feeling that Grandmother had been waiting in a daydream these past four years, in that delicate, old-fashioned American dress, waiting for me to come home, and for the meddahat to sing, so that at last she could admit I was gone and had come back, and we could weep and dance a happiness dance.

My father had faded too much without me. And my mother, I only half-remembered. I think that was deliberate. Perhaps it was my resentment at being made to wear the veil, but I refused to remember the shape of her mouth. I remembered the shape of her hips as they moved beneath the cloth. I remembered her eyes, like mine, very black, the whites pure and unlined. I remembered that her eyelids drooped at the corners.

My mother came to the door, wiping her hands on a towel that was tied at her waist. She cried in a broken voice, "rabia habibi, you've come back to me." I saw her clearly: her flowered housedress and her slippers with no heels, called ship-ship. Around her neck, too, was gold, and her teeth were edged in black. She paused. Her smile faded.

I hugged the warmth of her shapeless breasts and her soft old wrinkled skin that swayed beneath the sleeves of her shift.

Laurie had practiced, Thank you. I am very glad to be here. Her accent made mother laugh. She examined our new Levis, our camp shirts of silk, our leather purses. One eyebrow went up.

I should not have bought clothes. I should have sent her the money to fix her teeth.

Mother reached for my arm; I let her pull me over the threshhold. Father closed the door behind us.

"You've gained weight," my mother said. "You look like a woman now. What is that on your face?"

"It covers the blemishes."

"You don't need make-up. If you were any prettier, the men couldn't bear it."

"And the flowers would be ashamed to bloom," I said. It was from a popular song.

I wondered if I could still belong in the women's world here. I missed the happy, thoughtless summers that had their own kind of liberation. There was healing in what Laurie would call 'these seasons of poignant Saturnalia:' singing and dancing in cool shaded rooms behind closed doors and curtains. Outside was the sea and the Mediterranean sun, the bazaars, the freighters, the universities, the airplanes. Sheltered from it all, the happy women drank coffee and ate crumbly, hot cookies that smelled of almond paste and honey. For a little while, they felt warm gratitude for the unhappy women who they paid to come sing.

My parents' rooms smelled of coffee and fried honeycakes dipped in rosewater and of cumin-scented sweat. Mother took my hands and pulled me down on a huge red pillow. The sitting room was of fabric and cement: the floor was covered with a carpet of rust-red wool which I remembered from childhood, with blue veins in arabesques that reminded me, at twenty-seven, of the lines on women's palms. The walls of the sitting-room, too, flaked paint, like the run-down basement beneath the apartment Laurie and I shared near the university in College Park. Curtains of flocked red velvet, faded to rose, still hid the weathered wooden shutters, which still needed paint. My parents had added something new: a saying from the Koran framed in gold: "The faithful are to one another like parts of a building -- each part strengthening the others." In the back of the room was a wrought-iron staircase that spiraled upward into the shadows.

"We're having a big party tomorrow," mother said, smiling, showing those blackened teeth. She held my hand. "Everyone wants to see you, how fat you've grown, how long and thick your hair is. We are all so glad you've decided to come back. I've invited Aisha Ahmed and her group to come sing for us--they are the best."

"The most expensive," I said.

"What, you think we're poor?"

Two nights before, Laurie and I had gone to our favorite bar a few blocks from the university. It was called the Minus Six. It was the last night, I thought, I might ever drink alcohol. Laurie and I drank on Tuesdays, sometimes Wednesdays, always on the weekend. But never on Thursday, because I was sure the women would smell it on my breath the next morning at the mosque. The jukebox filled the bar with color. The music was rich and sad, and it reminded me of home. Laurie said the singer was named Paul Simon. Usually, I pretended to study, and watched the other drinkers have fun. This time, though, a fresh-scrubbed man with red hair, very tall, asked me to dance, and I agreed. When the music grew slow, he bent his knees and stooped his shoulders and put his arms around me. Laurie told me that he would ask to take me home, and then would want to go to bed with me. I was tempted to say yes, because I really needed to decide whether I was a good woman or a bad one.

When my mother went into the kitchen for sweets, Laurie whispered, "I'm so glad I came. I wish I could talk to somebody." Her face was plain, and she was always studying, so she never put on makeup. She wore old flannel shirts that were made for a man. She was twenty-four, and she covered herself with her hair and her clothes. No men ever saw her clearly enough to ask her to dance.

Grandmother brought me coffee, made from beans ground as fine as powder and flavored with seed pods of cardamom. As I drank it, I remembered everything I had ever drank at the bar: beer with tomato juice, Manhattans, Cosmopolitans, shots of tequila. Two nights ago, Laurie had said that, in the dark, my acne scars disappeared from my cheeks and my face was round as a peach. The man with red hair, named Derek, told us that he was going to become an impressario. I thought then that I had waited nine years, and was still neither happy nor unhappy. I should do it and get it over with. Laurie took my hand and pulled me down into my seat.

At home, my grandmother sat carefully on a vinyl kitchen chair with her knees together and her dress pulled down tight. She smiled at me, and her lower lip folded against her gum. She had lost her bottom teeth. Beside me sat my sister, Nura, who stared with shy dark eyes at my haircut, my jeans.

"Aisha," said my grandmother, "is very expensive, yes. But she doesn't sing songs just to dance to. She gives us poetry."

I translated this for Laurie. My grandmother served more coffee, sweet as syrup, in demitasse cups. Nura giggled when Laurie crunched on the cardamom pods that floated in her thimble-sized cup. Laurie crossed her legs, uncrossed them, stuck them out straight, presenting the soles of her feet to my grandmother. In Algeria, this was the lowest insult, the equivalent of flipping someone off. But grandmother just watched, sipping from a cup of tea gone cold with a sludge of white sugar in the bottom. Her face was smooth and pink, the face of a woman who did not go outside.

Grandmother asked Laurie, in Arabic, if she was in love. More or less. What Grandmother said, exactly, was: "Habibi, has any tinsmith hammered your tin?" Grandmother has a musical voice. Laurie would call it lyrical.

Laurie looked puzzled as she listened to those words which must have been so meaningless and lovely. "What did she say?" she asked.

"Are you married," I translated.

I saw a hint of a smile cross her face. "They flee from me," she said, "that sometime did me seek, with naked foot stalking in my chamber."

"What is that?" I asked.

"Sir Thomas Wyatt. I think."

Grandmother turned to me with a question in her eyes.

"She claims she can get a man," I said, "but she can't keep him."

Their eyes met. Grandmother clicked her tongue in sympathy.

Laurie took off her earrings, tiny porcelain roses, and held them out in her hand. Grandmother looked confused, so Laurie put them in grandmother's palm and drew her hands away. Grandmother examined them and a smile came to her sunken mouth. Then she pulled off her own earrings, which swung from her stretched earlobes. The earrings were heavy, of filigreed gold. Laurie tried to give them back, but grandmother closed Laurie's fingers over them so firmly it must have hurt.

Mother gave Laurie and I the room she usually shared with Nura. We lay on low mattresses, weary from jet lag but jittery from that mudslide of coffee. Beyond the curtains and the shutters, I imagined that the air smelled fresher and the moon had risen from the sea, just east of Egypt. I saw Laurie's face change. She was freer, laughed more, but something was elusively different: the expression in her eyes, the gestures of her hands. It was as if I didn't know her.

"Tell me about the unhappy women," she said again.

"You're happy when you live according to God's will," I said.

She leaned forward. "More."

"Tomorrow you'll see Aisha Ahmed," I said. "She has the most beautiful voice. She lost three daughters to cholera when she was young. Now she can't bear children, and her husband divorced her."

"She's unhappy because her husband left her?"

"No, she's unhappy because we pay her group money to sing."

Laurie sat up in bed and looked across at me.

"It's like prostitution," I said. "These women sing religious songs, and then they sing songs that aren't religious at all. And sometimes, after they leave us, they play at the soirees, where the men mix with women, and with other men. So they see everything. Sometimes they experience everything, too."

"Exciting," she said.

"Pitiful."

"You don't believe that." She paused. "You have a beautiful voice, too. Like the blues."

"Sssh."

"How bad was the song you sang for me?"

"I don't remember it," I said.

After the first pitcher of beer at the Minus Six, I'd sung her one song, feeling lost and alone and doubly separated from my people, separated because I was unhappy and because they couldn't hear me. While the jukebox diffused the sound of my voice, I'd sung about love and alcohol and other forbidden things, about Laurie, who was veiled by her hair and her books. I thought that ten thousand miles away, in America, we drank too much beer and sang alone in the bars. And here in Algeria, sounds of happiness leaked out through the window shutters.

"I'm definitely a happy woman," Laurie said glumly. "Nothing ever happens to me."

"What's the very worst thing that happened to you?" I said. "Let me hear it."

She thought awhile, looking out at the sky. "Okay," she said. "Three years ago, I walked out on my mother."

"You never went back?" I said.

She shrugged. "I went to her house one morning, and she told me I ought to quit school. It was Sunday, and the spirea bushes were blooming and the sun was just over the trees. The French doors were open, and she was sitting at the kitchen table eating raspberries and drinking coffee. Her hair was all messed up, and she was wearing a housecoat made of velvet. She was very quiet, depressed. Probably about something other than me. Maybe she was thinking that she'd never had a job. At that moment, she looked up and swore to me--like it was a big secret--that I'd never make it."

She didn't speak for awhile. Then she said, "But you made it. And your mother wants you to give it up. What's it like to wear the veil?"

"It's like being tied in a sheet," I answered.

"No, really."

"Yes, really. Tomorrow I'll put one on you. We'll go out walking. Bet you've never been invisible before."

Late the next morning, I dressed myself in the long, white shroud. Laurie watched me put it on in the tiny bedroom while Nura and my mother cooked lunch in the kitchen. I tucked the veil under my left arm and held it down, then wrapped it around my body and over the back of my head. I twisted the fabric so it would lie flat around the contours of my face, hiding my earrings and my hair. As I pulled the last edge of fabric across my face, I felt, somehow, both affirmed and ashamed. I was comforted; I was a coward. "You don't have to wear one," I said. "No one expects an American to do it."

In the airport, the night we arrived, a ragged woman had thrust her baby at Laurie so another woman could steal her purse. I had stepped in front and shoved the baby aside, although I feared her mother might drop her. The woman had caught the baby with both hands, her face still covered. She had held her veil in her teeth, as if she would have injured the child rather than reveal herself. Laurie had been horrified by it all.

Laurie and I looked at my reflection in the mirror.

"I just thought," she said, "I mean, you look so mysterious. And beautiful. I thought it might make me more--" She blushed.

I taught her to twist her veil around her face, then hold it closed with one hand. "Now you're invisible," I said. "Make sure you don't entirely disappear."

When we went downstairs, I smelled the grape leaves in the oven, stuffed with ground lamb and seasoned with lemon juice. The sitting room was full of my aunts and cousins, smoking cigarettes and shouting at each other in Arabic and French. Grandmother laughed when she saw Laurie in the veil. She put down her teacup and adjusted the fabric to hide all Laurie's hair.

"That makes me look ugly," Laurie said.

My cousin Soraya went with us. She had married after high school and delivered two sons. She hugged me and examined me at the same time: "You look so wonderful; I wouldn't diet. Are you really a professor?"

I lied and said yes.

Soraya had skin as thick as the skin of an orange, but she was still pretty. Her skin was fair, her eyes dark. She wore a Rolex -- at least it said Rolex -- that clanked and chimed against three bracelets of yellow gold and she left fuschia lipstick on the filters of her Virginia Slims.

She was comfortable wearing her veil. She went with us out onto the street, where the sidewalks were glowing warm but not yet hot. Laurie couldn't walk in hers. Whenever she turned her head or moved an arm, it blew open and then enveloped her legs. She looked awkward and indecent and about twelve years old.

I remembered when I was twelve, and chubby, and had worn the veil two years. The girls at school whispered that we had to veil because "the woman has nine of the ten shares of physical desire." I pretended I was rounded, womanly, not fat, until a summer day like this one, when the street smelled like hot laundry and there was a breeze. I wore a thin summer shift and gold earrings and ship-ship. I was walking to the bazaar when the wind opened my veil and revealed everything, just as three boys were walking by. They laughed. I dieted until I lost thirty pounds.

We saw a clothing store, the mannequins in the window both headless and unveiled. Beside that was a travel agency, with photos of jets and the Taj Mahal. We passed a glass fronted shop whose windows flickered with frantic red and blue images on television screens. I tried to talk to Laurie, but she kept jerking on the veil and looking straight ahead.

"Wake up," I said. "Talk to us."

"It's so strange," Laurie said at last. "It's as if I'm not really here. As if I'm watching the world from another room."

Two men came toward us in turbans and business suits. Soraya and I moved to the edge of the sidewalk. Laurie, looking glazed, tried to pass between them in her white. They shouldered her aside. I heard her breathe a cry of surprise.

We ducked into a pastry shop, crowded past other women in white to a counter where hassled men put warm cookies, barely browned, into sacks.

"Look," Soraya whispered. She pinched my arm.

Aisha was there at the counter, covered in white, and no one would wait on her. She stood there, covering her face, while we ordered baklava and paid for it. We ate it behind our veils and licked the honey from our fingers. She kept gesturing with one thin, elegant hand toward a tray of hot coconut cookies that steamed the glass case, but the men behind the counter pretended not to see her. The cookies cooled, and their fragrance disappeared, and she still stood there, waiting.

"That's a sin," I said. "She should do something."

Soraya shrugged. "What can she do?"

I wanted to pull that veil off Aisha's head, but instead, I reached up and lifted my own veil from my hair. I felt coolness on my face, then I took the veil off entirely. I was wearing jeans and a shirt, and I felt all the women look at me, their eyes large and black above the cloth.

"rabia," said Soraya, "you can't."

Laurie whispered, "What's going on?"

I began to tremble, and ran out with the veil wadded beneath my arm. I kept trying to remind myself of who I was, whoever I was.

We walked six long blocks to my parents' home. Two women passed by. By the sag of their shoulders, the heaviness of their walk, I knew they were my mother's age. They didn't say a word until they were past. Then they put their shrouded heads together, and I could hear their voices. They knew my name. But I didn't put the veil back on, not even when a car full of men slowed down and shouted in French, "We're having a party, darling. Come on in." I showed them the sole of my shoe. Laurie's veil drooped suggestively over her hair, which was nearly as bad, so I made her take her veil off, too. Soraya walked beside us quietly, still covered.

"I hate this thing," I said to Soraya.

"You have to choose," she said.

When we reached my house, I could hear the hum of conversation and the clink of coffee cups. I snapped at Laurie, "Here you'll see all the women who are waiting to be happy." I opened the door and went in with the veil over my arm.

My mother closed the door behind me so quickly it caught my shirttail. "God is Great, Rabia, what are you doing?"

"I've forgotten how to wear it," I said. I dropped it in a corner, letting it wrinkle.

"Is this it?" Laurie whispered. There were twenty women in that small room, smoking and gossiping and comparing the styles of each other's dresses, which to my eyes were shabby and thin, dressed up with necklaces of silver and gold. The room was so crowded, we didn't know where to sit. "Where are the singers?"

Laurie cried later, after the party was over. She threw herself down on the bed that my mother shared with my sister, Nura, and just sobbed. At first she said it was because we'd served the singers no sweets. Then she said it was because they were thin and their breasts had gone flat. Finally, it was because they sang so beautifully, and that for an afternoon, everyone had understood and had loved one another. She stuck to that.

On the afternoon of my mother's party, the sun was high and bright. Inside, out of the sun, my mother served coffee to my aunts and nieces and cousins. Then she brought small trays of baklava and saffron pudding and figs. Soraya's mother, my aunt, kissed me wetly on the cheek and said, "How pretty you are, Doctor Rabat. You need medicine to smooth out your skin." Others asked me how much my jeans cost. I introduced everyone to Laurie, who looked wistfully at us as we talked.

There was a rattling on the back door beyond the stairs, as if the wind had come up, and someone let in the meddahat. I had forgotten their vibrant colors: their dresses of red and white, their rich colored skins, ivory and butterscotch and chocolate. Their dresses were low cut in front, and showed wide, bony chests, as sexless as if they were bound. They wore make-up and their hair was tucked into turbans.

Aisha looked more tired than I remembered, and the skin beneath her chin had begun to sag. Still, she looked gentle, like grandmother, and as frail, but the frailty was confined to her lips and eyes, which looked drawn and dry. She carried a drum and wore bandages on six of her fingertips.

"Do you remember me?" I said. "It was nine years--"

"You silly woman. Why did you do that thing? You think you and I are the same?" She wore the same expression my mother had.

"Well--"

"What horrible thing have you done in America, taken a drink of wine? And you think--you hope!--they'll cast you out like a devil."

I felt hurt and confused by her anger. "It's not something I did. It's what I want, what I believe and don't believe."

"You crazy woman. Cover yourself, and stop wishing. You wouldn't like our life."

She walked away.

The meddahat cleared a space for themselves in a corner. My mother and grandmother served them water in a clay jar.

One of the women had brought her little girl, maybe seven years old. The little girl was beautifully dressed with pierced earrings and a necklace and a flowered shift of gauze. Her mother, a sweet-faced woman with hair to her waist, told the girl to sit on the stairs. The little girl picked up a tambourine and shook it. Her mother laid it down. She picked it up again, gently, carefully, with a kind of reverence. Then her mother spanked her vigorously until she howled. "You don't play music," her mother whispered. "Never play. You hear me?" The girl stood there, staring at me, her big eyes filled with tears.

My mother handed Aisha a roll of bills.

Aisha began to play, striking the drum with those bandaged fingers. I saw above the surgical tape that her nails were shaped and painted red. She opened her throat and sang. Her voice was rich and rough, a thread of cigarette smoke in the thickness of the room. It had a quality of yearning, as if she were in bed with a man. Then her song grew merry, her fingers bounced on the head of the drum. We began to clap; a woman played the violin. Our sound echoed off the crumbling walls and made ripples in the coffee.

As the unhappy women played, the happy women began to dance. I sat beside Laurie and looked up at them. They danced in groups, in twos or alone, their hips shivering, making patterns in the air. They held open their arms as if they were welcoming lovers, as if beginning to pray. There was joy in their faces, but I felt only shyness. Grandmother sat in her chair, staring at the dancers with her gaze far away.

Children came running down the back stairs to watch. Someone opened the shutters and the velvet curtains moved heavily in the sound and wind. We heard traffic noises: horn honks, the braying of a vendor's donkey and the click of his cart wheels.

I heard Laurie say to my mother, "rabia has a beautiful voice."

My mother lowered her arms and stopped moving. "What did she say?"

"I can't sing."

"Yes, you can," Laurie said.

I finally had to translate it.

Aisha laughed bitterly and tossed a one-dinar coin at my feet. I think her scorn made me decide. I sat beside her and began. I sang a taksim with no melody, a call as if to prayer. When everyone was listening, I, too, made merry and beat time on the tambourine. I sang about the empty streets at twilight and the voice of lost songs. I sang about the red leaves of Maryland and the aloneness of my life, and how we travel far away and can never come back.

Grandmother rose to her feet and took a few steps, her loose slippers dragging the carpet. She held out both arms as if going to the cross. Laurie put an arm around her waist and together they danced, Laurie holding grandmother upright, and grandmother showing Laurie the steps.

I stood on my feet and sang of universities, and airplanes to far places, and the Mediterranean sea. I sang of the forbidden world outside. My mother began to cry. It meshed into a kind of harmony: the coffee, the sweetness of sweat, the tears that dampened the walls and the laughter that caught the breeze and stirred the velvet curtains.

And when I was exhausted, the meddahat took up my song. I rested in my mother's house. I knew I would go back to America, but that I would never belong fully in any place. At twilight, I put more money in Aisha's hand and folded up my veil and put it away.


This story was written and copyrighted by Safira. Please do not republish it without permission.
Image on this page is from Safira Zeki's private collection.


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