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My Muslim Mama’s Engagement, 1948

Selma sat in a corner of the big couch in her parents’ living room, hands folded neatly in her lap. Her father stood in front of her, stern and larger than life. 

“If you marry him you can never come back,” he said. 

“Yes, Baba,” she said, the earlier triumph of choosing her own husband leaking away. “I understand.” She looked around the large and comfortable room, a testament to her father’s great ambition and wealth. Its colorful pillows, covered in fine silk. The polished copper trays on their carved wooden stands, glowing in the late morning light. Through the open windows she saw the pomegranate and fig trees, ringed with flowers, and instinctively breathed in their scent from the shady courtyard. Her mouth suddenly watered as the smell of lunch - grilled lamb with mint and fat green peppers stuffed with pine nuts and rice - drifted in from the kitchen where the servants were cooking. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, not really, had never even been anywhere else except for a few weeks each summer in her family’s summer house in the mountains. The cool mountain air was always a relief from the stifling summertime city. Would she really never see any of this again? She fought down sudden panic. 

“It’s not too late to change your mind, Selma" he said, studying her closely, catching the scent of her fear. "Your cousin Ahmet wants to marry you. His family is rich. You’ll want for nothing and you’ll always be here in Izmir, close to home.”

Selma frowned at the thought of Ahmet’s flat, empty face. Surely she was destined for something more. She deserved more adventure than the lifetime company of a bland cousin she had shared her childhood toys with. He was more like a brother than a cousin. Certainly nothing like Abe, the handsome military officer she had wanted to marry from the first moment she saw him in this very room. On that day he sat a little awkwardly on the couch where she was sitting today, his pressed uniform and shiny medals reflecting his handsome face. He smiled eagerly, hoping to convince her rich and powerful father that he, a soldier, was worthy of claiming the rest of his daughter’s life. Her father was polite and attentive, the perfect host, an Ottoman gentleman to his core. But she knew what he really thought - that Abe was reaching beyond his grasp by asking his beautiful 19-year-old daughter trade her upper-class comfort for the nomadic austerity of a soldier’s life. 

“Where will you live?” her father had asked that night, his famous ice-blue eyes watching Abe over the gold rim of his tea glass. “How will you support Selma?”

“We will live first in Erzurum,” Abe replied, leaning into her father’s space, more of a supplicant than she wanted to see. He could just as easily have said the moon as the name of that remote eastern outpost, little more than a poor backwater pushing hard up against the Iran border. “But of course that will be temporary. As I’m promoted we’ll move to a larger area, maybe even back here to Izmir.”

Now, weeks later, having granted Abe permission to take ownership of his daughter’s life, her father was delivering the last advice he would ever give her. After tomorrow’s wedding, she would belong to another man. 

“You’re absolutely sure?” he pressed. “Remember there’s no coming back.”

“I’m sure,” Selma said, sounding more confident than she felt. She reminded herself that she was leaving for the free, modern life of a married woman. She would never become her mother, an Ottoman ghost of a woman who sat endlessly praying in her worn muslin head scarves and downcast eyes. No, never like her mother. Selma would wear what she wanted, walk wherever she pleased, her face open for all the world to see, on the arm of her husband. This was the new Turkish Republic and she was part of it, its proud first generation. 

But for today, for this last day, she was still in the old world before her father, who would not forbid her to marry Abe but was still urging her, one last time, to change her mind. He didn’t want her to marry Abe, he thought she was making a mistake. It was bad enough that he was a soldier, little more than a poor bureaucrat in her father’s eyes, but he wasn’t even Turkish. He was Muslim, of course, but his parents had arrived in Turkey on foot from the Caucasus as penniless refugees in the first decade of the last century. Abe and his family had fled a few steps ahead of the revolutionaries, sacrificing gold and gems from their jewelry business piece by irreplaceable piece, bribing their way into Turkey—a backward, almost medieval place in their Russian eyes. Today his parents were penniless, dependent upon Abe and his brother for everything. Selma’s father understood very well that these realities promised a hard, difficult life for his oldest daughter.

Resigned, her father appeared to reach a decision. He considered himself modern enough to allow his daughter to choose her own husband, but he wanted to make sure she understood that she alone would bear its consequences. 

“Just so you understand,” he said finally. “After your wedding you may only return to this house as your husband’s wife.” 

He put down his tea glass and looked at her searchingly for a moment longer before turning and walking away, leaving her sitting small and alone in a corner of the couch. 

* * *

Selma spent most of that long night staring at the ceiling, willing the time to pass. The weight of the old house with its sleeping generations of her family pressed down on her. Close to dawn, she finally slept. 

Selma’s mother, her Anne, came to wake her as the house’s first morning sounds came from the kitchen. Selma marveled for the thousandth time at how tiny her mother was, how little space she took up as she perched, light as a bird, on the side of her bed. This morning she looked down at her oldest daughter with great kindness, her wrinkled gray eyes full of love beneath the perfectly tied white head scarf that covered every inch of her long gray hair. She reached under the blanket and took Selma’s hand. 

“Today is a very important day for you, Selma,” she said. “By this time tomorrow you will be a married woman and begin a family of your own.”

“I know, Anne,” Selma said, sitting up and putting her arms around her mother. “I’m excited, but I’m scared, too.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Anne said automatically, smoothing her daughter’s dark, tangled hair. “Allah has written this day as your fate. Remember to pray, go to mosque, teach your children and obey your husband. He will be the head of your house now.”

Selma felt a surge of love for her mother, along with a stab of guilt for the many times she had silently judged her for her old-fashioned beliefs, her endless prayers, her veils, and the old-fashioned clothes that looked more like rice sacks than real dresses. And didn’t Atatürk himself, founder of the new Turkish Republic, hero to everyone, say that women were now free to walk anywhere they wanted, without a male relative, their faces uncovered? 

“But what if my husband does something wrong?” Selma asked, thinking of the rumors of the mistress her father kept in faraway Istanbul. She had never breathed a word of it to her Anne, of course. The maid who whispered it to her more than a year ago had sworn her to secrecy. But surely such a thing was a sin, wasn’t it?

“Only Allah can judge another’s sins,” Anne replied softly. “Your job now is to obey your husband and follow the holy rules of the Koran.”

Looking suddenly uncomfortable, Anne continued. “It is also my duty as your mother to tell you to never refuse your husband when he wants something from you in bed. Refusing your husband is a sin.”

Selma looked at Anne with surprise. What could her husband possibly want from her in bed? “What do you mean, Anne?” she asked. “What will he want from me?

“He will show you,” her mother said, pulling at her scarf as she rose to go. “Just remember it is a sin to refuse him. Now come have your breakfast so you can get ready for your wedding.” 

* * *

Selma sipped her sweet breakfast tea and nibbled at her bread and beyaz peynir in the kitchen. Additional helpers had been added to the regular household staff to prepare for her wedding. A lamb was roasting in the courtyard outside the kitchen door. Two women stood at the stove, one frying rounds of striped eggplant and one adding mint and onion to the simmering pot of pilaf that would fill the peppers, eggplants, cabbage, and zucchini that were being cleaned and seeded at the far end of the long wooden kitchen table. Another woman mashed chickpeas, soaked overnight and cooked to softness before dawn, into a paste with garlic, sesame, and lemon in the kitchen’s largest stone mortar and pestle; Selma’s mother’s hummus was famous in the family. Rounds of elastic dough, shiny with olive oil, were topped with the chopped lamb, peppers, and onions that would transform it into lahmajun in the baker’s wood-fired oven down the street. A line of bakers and delivery boys wound around the corner of the house outside the kitchen door, dropping off the few wedding dishes that were not cooked at home: crisp, buttery baklava and kadayif; trays of pita bread, still warm from the oven; cheeses cool in their brined water; bottles of raki to toast the bride and groom. The familiar kitchen had become a kind of bustling mini-city as the hour approached for the afternoon wedding.

“Come, Selma,” her mother said, pulling her gently from the kitchen. “It’s time for you to get ready.” They walked hand in hand to her mother’s room, where Selma’s favorite maid Ayshe was waiting for her. 

“Come, child,” Ayshe said, her kind, familiar eyes crinkling at the corners like they always did when she smiled. “Today you will be a beautiful bride, the most beautiful woman in the room.” She gently pulled Selma’s gown over her head and wrapped her in a thick white cotton towel before leading her over to the bath, already drawn and waiting for her. It smelled like roses, Selma’s favorite scent, and she deeply inhaled its sweet, steamy fragrance. She sank gratefully into the hot water, stretching her legs out nearly to the end of the huge enameled iron tub. Ayshe washed her carefully from ears to toes. “You must be soft and fragrant for your husband tonight,” Ayshe said as she scrubbed her warm, pink skin with a rough cloth. “And remember not to scream when you’re in bed with him.”

“Why would I scream, what’s he going to do to me?” Selma asked, suddenly afraid. “Why would he want to hurt me?”

“Ah, child, he doesn’t want to hurt you, he only wants to please himself, just as all men do. You will get used to it, but the first time always hurts. It’s a woman’s fate. Your husband will show you what to do.”

Climbing out of the bath, Selma tried to push this puzzling advice out of her mind. Ayshe began to work on her long, chestnut hair, pulling out the tangles with a wide wooden comb. When all the tangles were gone she gathered her hair into two wide rolls and twisted them together into an elaborate knot at the back of her head. Then she pulled over a tray covered with powders, tubes, and brushes. It would be the first time that make-up touched Selma’s smooth olive skin. 

“Ayshe, the powder stings my eyes,” Selma complained. “Why do I have to wear it?” 

“Hush, Selma,” she said. “After today you will be a married woman. You will no longer be able to complain about uncomfortable things like a child.” Selma sank lower into the chair with a resigned air as Ayshe carefully lined her lips with the scarlet lipstick that was all the rage since the end of the war. Looking in the mirror, she was startled by the grown-up-looking stranger staring back at her.

Next came the dress, creamy white silk with puffed sleeves and tiny pearls sewn into the collar and bodice. Then finally the matching shoes, simple soft leather with low heels.

“Ah, you look like an angel,” Ayshe said. Let me get your Anne. She stepped quickly into the hall, returning moments later with Selma’s mother, now dressed in a new, perfectly pressed and folded headscarf and loose, long-sleeved shirt over pantaloons and delicate, embroidered slippers with pointed toes. Anne caught her breath when she saw her daughter, now looking every inch the married woman she would soon become. 

“You look like a princess,” she said, slowly turning Selma around in a circle to admire her from every angle. “May Allah bless your new home and grant you healthy children. Now come, it’s time for you to serve tea to your new family, your husband’s family.”

Selma followed her diminutive mother down the dark hallway to the house’s main salon, taking small, careful steps in her new shoes. As she entered the bright afternoon light of the salon, she saw Abe’s mother, father, and brother pressed together on the low couch reserved for honored guests. They looked very foreign beside Selma’s devout, modestly dressed Turkish family: Abe’s mother wore nylon stockings and high heels, and her face was pasty with thick make-up. Though the women in Selma’s family were no longer veiled, they still looked old-fashioned alongside such modern, immodest female fashion; Selma’s traditional family was still in its cultural transition from the Ottoman Empire to the newly created modern republic.

Selma’s many siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins sat on brightly colored couches and soft, stuffed chairs around the rest of the large, sunny room. Selma tried to imagine what life would be like in a family as tiny as her new husband’s: just three people, soon to be four with her. Her own extended family filled every room in her father’s big, rambling house, and on holidays it seemed to scarcely contain them all. 

Selma’s first official duty was to serve tea and sweets to her husband’s family. She walked across the thick carpets, carefully stepping over the tasseled edges she had tripped over so many times as a child. She gripped the sides of the polished copper tray and kept it as level as possible to make sure the tea didn’t slosh out of the delicate etched tea glasses. She served Abe’s mother first before serving his father, his brother, and, finally Abe himself, whose approving eyes reflected a strangely intense yearning. Each took a tea glass with its saucer and Selma used tiny silver tongs to grasp sugar cubes for them from a gold-rimmed glass bowl. She gave each a spotless embroidered napkin and dessert plate before, balancing the wide copper tray on her left hand. She put several pastries on each: buttery baklava, sticky in its rose-water syrup, brightly colored lokum under its powdered sugar dusting, cookies decorated with almonds and pine nuts, and cubes of sweet semolina, cut into perfect diamonds. She served her own parents and grandparents last. When her new family and her own parents had all been served, Selma quietly sat down with her parents as the women in her family rose to serve the other visitors in the room. 

The next hour seemed interminable as her parents made small talk with Abe and her future in-laws. Selma saw suddenly that they had nothing in common. Abe’s parents were poor refugees from the Russian Revolution. They had lost their home, their jewelry business, everything they owned, barely escaping with their lives before finally crossing, on foot, penniless and exhausted, the border into Turkey. Abe supported his parents and brother on his meager military pay. His mother, father and brother would continue to live with him when his new bride, his Selma, joined them after the wedding. Selma’s family was rich, supported by her ambitious father’s rice and grain distribution business, housed in vast warehouses throughout the city. They had a summer house in the mountains, servants, and even fame through her father’s heroic military service in the south of Turkey during the First World War. As Selma watched her family, sitting side-by-side in the opulent house of her childhood, a tiny seed of how different her life would become germinated and took root in her heart.

One Comment

  1. Fred Gardner August 21, 2023

    To be continued, I hope.

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