#43 of 2011 • The Wedding of Zein, by Tayeb Salih.
→ translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies; with illustrations by Ibrahim Salahi and an introduction by Hisham Matar.
Two opening acts, so to speak, [touted] two of Salih’s finest short stories welcome us before we get to the title novella. Though I am itching to talk about the eponymous Zein, well, well:
“The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid,” is, I am almost certain, metaphorical. That the doum tree stands for the old ways. As this is a story of advice for the future and passing information on their cultural traditions, this is definitely metaphorical. Hm. “A Handful of Dates,” on the other hand, is kind of awesome—once I succeeded in asking myself to stay still and internalize. A young boy worships his grandfather, and then he realizes that his grandfather isn’t perfect, that gramps isn’t the hero he’s always seemed to be. It’s not so much that he’s a greedy man—he’s just a shrewd and cunning businessman. Poor kid, still—disillusioned, still unaware that he ought to be confused.
Whoever is reading is, forgive me for being so abrupt about these two stories. [Sasha, if you’re reading this sometime in the future and happen to need any notes on these two Salih stories, you are out of luck, so shoo.] Let’s go to The Wedding of Zein, which is a bafflingly funny novella—though at times you’re tempted to brand this a parable, not least because it is set in the desert, you narrow-minded person.
* * *
So. Zein is getting married. Zein, who was born laughing. Rather homely Zein, with only two teeth (one on top and one on the bottom), who grew marginally more handsome because he was bonked in the head. Zein is getting married, and the town is in an uproar. This is their Zein.
Whatever people might say about Zein they acknowledged his impeccable taste, for he fell in love with none of the most beautiful girls, the best mannered and most pleasant of speech.
Zein, he fell in love often. “Zein became an emissary for love.” Zein, who likes to announce, with much pomp and theatrics, “Oh, she has slain me!” And the girls he fell in love with become the most eligible girls—how can you not look at a girl and find her beautiful in contrast with Zein’s marked homeliness?
. . .the mothers of young girls woke up to his importance as a trumpet by which attention was drawn to their daughters.
But when the girl inevitably marries someone else, Zein moves on: “From each romance Zein would emerge unscathed and, to all appearances, unchanged: his laugh unaltered, his tomfoolery no less lessened, and his legs never weary of bearing his body to the outlying parts of the village.” A hardy boy, that Zein.
Zein grows to wear this charm, his role as town character. But.
Yet with all this, there was one girl in the district about whom Zein did not speak and with whom he never played the fool. She was a girl who would observe him from afar with beautiful, sullen eyes and whenever he saw her approaching he would fall silent and leave of his raillery and buffoonery. If he spotted her from far off he would flee from her presence, leaving the road to her.
Yihee. Ni’ma—“this girl with the grave countenance and the sullen eyes”—is wealthy, beautiful, quite willful, and devoted to a life of religious scholarship. She comes upon Zein one day and declares that they will marry. Well.
Village-folk, village-folk, village-folk. Everyone on this dot on the desert has an opinion about the wedding of Zein and Ni’ma. It’s a veritable survey of town staples—the scholar, the priest, the merchant, the busybody, the ne’er-do-well, the rejected suitor, the politicians.
But what about Zein and Ni’ma? Also, Sasha, what the bleep kind of reading journal entry is this?
I bought my copy of The Wedding of Zein from the Cubao branch of National Bookstore for PhP495 if I remember correctly.