2011 Short-Story Contest
Published: January 13, 2012
Holly S. Warah
My Brother's Wife
by Holly S. Warah
(Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
When Mama came into the courtyard, her frown was deep. I laid my jump rope down and sat next to her. “Your brother, Tariq,” she began.
I perked up at the name of my big brother—my only brother—who lived so far away. I looked into Mama’s weary face as she told me the news: Tariq had married a girl in America when he should have been studying. I nodded grimly and turned to the jasmine blossoms by the gate. Yet a tingle ran up my spine.
The next day, I carried this news to school. I waited through Arabic, English and Islamic studies. I sat on my secret, imagining the reactions of my classmates. At lunch, I blurted it out. Then I listened while every girl told me about a cousin or uncle who had married an ijnabia. A foreigner.
My friend Wedad was a know-it-all. “Men who marry foreigners,” she said. “They don’t come back to Jordan.”
“That’s not true!” I glared at her. In that moment, I hated Wedad.
At home was an eerie silence. In the salon, Mama and Baba sat, staring at nothing. The only sound was Mama fingering her prayer beads.
Just before Tariq went off to study in America, she told him, “Whatever you do, don’t marry an ijnabia.”
This I heard when I was in the kitchen. If I’m quiet, I can hear bits of conversation in the salon. Once I heard which cousin Mama hoped Tariq would marry. It was Eman, the oldest daughter of Mama’s sister.
For the next two years, I waited for Tariq’s phone calls, always good news. He graduated from university. He got a job. “A big, big job,” Mama told the neighbors. And then—his wife was carrying a baby. His wife gave birth to a son. Finally, the best news: Tariq was coming to Jordan!
It was only for a visit. At the airport, my eyes fell instantly on Baby Yusef, his round face and long lashes. Then I saw her—Tariq’s ijnabia wife. I could hardly stop staring. She was tall with red hair and freckles all over; she wore jeans and didn’t speak Arabic.
At home, Tariq reviewed our names. First my older sisters’, then mine. He winked at me and said in English, “This is Raghda. The youngest.”
When she tried to say my name, she choked it out, not soft and smooth like it was meant to be, but tangled and hideous.
Tariq nodded to her, “It’s OK. You’ll get it.”
I nodded, too, but I knew she would never get it. I understood then why Mama had been so upset. Why she had spent months squeezing her prayer beads. This ijnabia wife would never be right for Tariq. Or for us.
Then Mama appeared with a dishdash. It was a beautiful blue with gold embroidery across the front. “Put it on,” Mama told Tariq’s wife, who hesitated at first, but then took the caftan.
When she returned, the dishdash was too short and hung wrong. Mama tugged at the shoulders and pulled at the sleeves. And then—to my disbelief—she knelt on the floor and stretched the dishdash toward the ground. It was hopeless.
If that wasn’t enough, Mama pulled out three gold bracelets. Real gold! She slipped them on the wrist of Tariq’s wife, patted her hand, and smiled. I watched, my mouth agape at this show of fakery.
Day after day, relatives came to hear Tariq’s news, congratulate him on his son, and stare at his ijnabia wife. The shoes piled up by the front door, and cigarette smoke filled the house.
When there were no visitors, my sisters and I watched Egyptian soap operas. Sometimes Tariq joined us, me leaning on him. But his wife never did. Even when her baby slept, she preferred to be in her room alone, reading a book.
Each day my English got better as I overheard the real-life soap opera in our house. Behind their closed door, Tariq and his wife bickered, his voice faint but hers clear. She told him she had to get out of the house. I wanted to tell her to be thankful. After all, she had Tariq.
Between these moments, Baby Yusef was lifting himself up, reaching for tea glasses. My brother’s wife followed him around, pulling his hands away. Mama said she was a nervous mother, and nervous mothers made nervous sons. Tariq told this to his wife, who rolled her eyes.
Mama complained that Baby Yusef didn’t understand Arabic. This I heard when I was drying coffee cups.
Baba said, “He’s just a baby. He doesn’t understand anything.”
Mama said, “Soon he’ll speak only English.”
No matter. My sisters and I ate up Yusef like a piece of chocolate. “So cute!” we said. “Mashallah!”
One day my brother’s wife planned a trip to the balad. Baby Yusef’s seat appeared—a special seat for riding in the car. It had so many belts, like he was going to the moon. She wanted Yusef in his seat, but Tariq wanted him on his lap—probably to squeeze in more people. With raised voices, they argued in the street as the family stood by.
Baby Yusef was screaming in Mama’s arms. She said, “A seat cannot protect a baby. Only God can protect your baby.”
Tariq translated this, and his wife’s face twisted up. She shot back words I couldn’t understand, grabbed Yusef from Mama’s arms, and left us standing in the dusty street.
I turned to Tariq. “All you need to do is—” Everyone stared at me, but I continued anyway, “stop telling her what Mama says.” It was so clear. He should’ve thought of it himself.
Tariq laughed at this, but Baba glared at me sharply. Mama grabbed me by the wrist and jerked me through the gate.
The outing was dropped until the next morning, when Tariq’s wife made new plans. This time she asked me to watch Yusef. Just as she and Tariq were going out the door, Uncle Majed from Madaba called to say he was coming for a visit.
My brother’s wife took this in, her eyes flashing. “But our plans are made!”
“I can’t leave the house,” Tariq said. “He’s on his way.”
I thought his wife might crumple into tears, but she held herself together. Tariq told her to go ahead without him, and he assigned me to go with her.
That day with my brother’s wife began in the taxi, where I got a close-up look at her, this woman who had pulled Tariq away from us. She wiped a tear from behind her sunglasses, and I wanted to say something but was unable. In the souk, we went from shop to shop, me following along, and she accepting prices too soon. Into her backpack, she stuffed cross-stitched pillow covers, leather sandals for Baby Yusef, and for Tariq, a checked kuffiyah.
We ate in a felafel shop, where she asked me, “And what would you like?”
She tilted her head. “Tell me what you want.” She looked at me expectantly, but my mind drew a blank. Of course, what I wanted wasn’t in the souk. He was at home, sitting in the salon, drinking tea with Uncle Majed.
At last, she said, “Let’s go sight-seeing.”
Soon we were in front of the Roman Theater, its steep steps looming before us. She insisted we go to the very top. I obeyed—despite the chill of fear in my middle. Halfway up, the stones turned slippery, and my heart pumped double-speed.
At the top, we sat and caught our breath. “You’ve been here before?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“But you live here!”
I shrugged, feeling foolish.
She turned and we looked beyond the theater. I took in the rooftops of the balad, the minarets rising up and the hillsides beyond. I found myself smiling, and I stole a peek at my brother’s wife. She had a little smile on her lips, too.
“You like Jordan?” I asked.
She caressed the stone step beneath her. “It’s OK.”
I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Can you live in Jordan?”
She chuckled at my question, and I stared at her freckles, illuminated in the sunlight. I waited for her answer, but she said nothing more.
Then we eased our way down, one dizzying step at a time. At the bottom, we looked at each other and laughed. I praised God we had survived.
She turned to me. “Have you been to Abdoun?”
“Yes,” I lied. I had only heard of that neighborhood.
The taxi ride took us through three traffic circles and onto a tree-lined boulevard, where we stopped in front of a foreign-looking bookshop. Inside, she selected Arabic stories for Yusef and paperbacks in English.
Finally, long past the afternoon prayer, we headed home. In the taxi, she placed three books in my lap. “My gift for you.”
I blinked. “Thank you.” I scanned their covers. The Wizard of Oz. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Catcher in the Rye. I glanced at my brother’s wife smiling back at me as the grime and bustle of East Amman slipped by the window. We drove past blackened buildings, through one poor neighborhood after another, and I knew. She would never live in Jordan.
At home, Mama was waiting at the door. “You’re late!” With those words, that day with my brother’s wife had ended. Inside, the house was heavy with stale cooking odors. We had missed the mensef meal with my uncle. As Mama ranted, Tariq's wife gave me a secret smile as if there was a joke between us. For a second, I understood why he had chosen her.
A few days later, it was time to say goodbye. At the airport, we kissed them one by one. Mama was crying hard and pulling out tissues. I blew kisses to Baby Yusef as they disappeared out of sight. When we drove home without them, I had a sick feeling deep inside me.
During the next year, Tariq sent photos of Yusef. I read the books Tariq’s wife had given me—every word, slowly, painfully. I yearned for Dorothy to escape Oz and find her home again. I wondered how Huck could survive without his family. One thing I knew—that boy Holden was lost because he had lost his brother.
Another year passed. The photos stopped coming. Whenever I looked at those books, I remembered that day with my brother’s wife.
One more year and the details of that day grew blurry. By then both my sisters had married and left home. My longing for my brother turned into a painful ache. For a while, I hated his wife. Then I hated him. Finally, I felt nothing.
I busied myself with high school and pushed away thoughts of Tariq and Baby Yusef, not a baby anymore. When I couldn’t stand the sight of those books any longer, I flung them into the garbage.
One day, I heard Mama say my brother’s name in the salon. I stopped drying the tea glass in my hand and took in Tariq’s latest news. I let out a gasp, and the glass shattered on the tile floor.
When Mama sat me down in the courtyard, I knew what she was going to say. I wondered if this bad news of my brother and his son could be good news for us. I breathed in the scent of the jasmine as she told me: Tariq and his wife weren’t married anymore.
Unexpected tears sprang up in my eyes. I blurted it out, the question that had possessed me. “Is he ever coming back?”
“Inshallah,” Mama said. God willing. Then a look of sadness came over her, and I put my arm around her. We sat like that together, hanging on to our tiny hope.
An appreciation of the winning story from judge Michelle Wildgen
This year's judge for the finalists in our short-story contest was Michelle Wildgen, author of the novels You’re Not You and But Not for Long (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She is also a freelance writer and executive editor at the literary journal Tin House.
Here are her comments on the winning story:
“My Brother’s Wife” was one of the first stories I read, and it stayed with me for a long time afterward, with its deftly drawn characters and its humane treatment of both sides of a divide.
This story keeps its narrator, Raghda, and its reader a touch off-balance the entire time. Even good news is never an unalloyed source of pleasure here: Tariq’s success in the U.S. and his falling in love (with a dreaded American) mean the family may never really have him back.
When this woman does appear—and the story wisely devotes most of its space to her
visit—she is captivating but uncertain and imperfect, sympathetic but also frustrating, and her day out with Raghda is an especially well-rendered balance between social unease and unexpected intimacy, cultural distance and flashes of insight.
There are few failures more uncomfortable to read about than social and familial failures, and the writer chooses the battlegrounds with great intelligence. No one is arguing—not directly—about the theft of their favored son, but about dashed sightseeing when a relative announces his arrival or the use of car seat.
There’s a subtle humor in here as well, in Raghda’s solution to the Arabic-English bickering between her mother and Tariq’s wife (“Stop telling her what Mama says”), and the world in Jordan is made vivid with a confident, restrained clarity, in details like the stone steps of the Roman Theater, the ill-fitting blue and gold caftan, and even the gift to the bride of three gold bracelets. They sound as dense with meaning as a gift in a fairy tale, weighted with expectation and thwarted intentions.
The melancholy undertones of the ending felt just right to me: The marriage fails, and the family is still telling themselves they just might get Tariq back, but the writer’s done too good a job tracing all the rifts between spouses and parents and siblings and children—we know this is really a tacit acknowledgement that they already lost him, years ago.
More about Holly
Holly S. Warah's short story was the winning entry from among 950 submissions. Besides publication of her story in the magazine, she will receive $1,000, an online class from Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and a one-year subscription to the magazine.
“My Brother’s Wife” is Holly’s first published piece of fiction, and reflects her interest in writing stories about culture clash featuring Arab and American characters. She recently completed a novel set in Seattle and the Middle East that addresses similar cross-cultural themes; it won first place in two regional literary contests but is, as of now, unpublished.
Raised in Washington State, Holly first traveled to the Middle East in 1986. During that two-year journey, she met her Palestinian husband and married him in Jerusalem, linking her life forever to the region.
She currently makes her home in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where she has lived for 10 years with her husband and their three children. She has a master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages, and taught English as a second language for 11 years.
“My Brother’s Wife” grew out of a conversation. “I got the seed for this story when I was sitting with a sister-in-law and she referred to me as ‘my brother’s wife,’ ” Holly said. “This term was nothing new, but that day it struck me as a subtle but telling cultural difference.”
In early drafts, the Jordanian girl narrator was just a passive observer and the American wife not very likable. Holly revised the story many times until she was pleased with the characters and their story. “When I realized the story was about longing for a loved one,” she says, “then everything fell into place.”
Her website, arabiczeal.com, shares, as she puts it, “her zeal for all things Arabic, however big or small” and “explores the books, food and culture of the region.” In her own small way, she says, she “hopes to bring down barriers between Arabs and non-Arabs.”
Second and third place in the short-story contest, carrying $300 and $200 awards and other benefits, went, respectively, to Adele Gibson, from Gin Gin, Queensland, Australia, and Kevin Warren, of Cora, Wyo.
For details about the 2012 short-story contest, go to writermag.com/storycontest.