Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
April 2012


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Not for the Faint Hearted

As a young girl growing up in Sydneyís western suburbs I longed for Mondays. Every Monday morning, before the bell rang, I would listen intently as my friends told me stories about their weekends spent attending extended family social events. I imagined them all sitting around an enormous dining table, breaking bread together amid a cacophony of slurps, burps, laughter and tears. Unlike them, I never had a favourite uncle, a fat aunt who hugged me so hard that I couldnít breathe, a cousin born in the same week as me, or a grandmother who spat into a handkerchief to wipe my face. It was just Mum, Dad, my two siblings and me - nobody else. My family had migrated to Australia when I was two, leaving behind a legion of aunts, uncles, cousins, half aunts, half cousins, second cousins, aunts in law, uncles in law, cousins in law, great aunts, great uncles and someone who was once married to my second cousin twice removed by marriage!

When I returned to my homeland, Egypt, more than 15 years later, I prepared to meet my extended family for the first time. According to Egyptian customs, I was, at 18, of marriageable age but I was not prepared for the barrage of suitors I was about to receive. It is not uncommon in Egypt for relatives, neighbours or even colleagues to occasionally take on the role of matchmaker (although there are also professional matchmakers available should one wish to engage their services). My own parents met through a neighbour, an elderly Greek lady who lived in the apartment above my fatherís in a suburb of Alexandria.

The quest to find me a suitable husband took on the magnitude of an Olympic event among my aunts and uncles, who competed ruthlessly in the marry-her-off-before-she-gets-too-old race. Doctors, of course, were considered to be superior contenders and highly sought after. Engineers were also highly regarded followed by lawyers. But should one manage to snare an ex- pat who worked and lived abroad, then it didnít matter what he did for a living, what he looked like or, apparently, how he dressed.

For my own part, I became highly skilled at disparaging any potential suitor to my parents. The brain surgeon my aunt bragged about for a week became a psychopath who spent all night showing me pictures of bloodied craniums and brain matter - I feigned illness for three days claiming that the pictures were so disturbing to my delicate stomach that I could not bear to see this man again. The financier my uncle was sure would be a good match was, in fact, so careful with his money that on our first date he took me for a walk along the Nile and fed me peanuts purchased from a street vendor for a mere five pence. My father was so furious that he disqualified my uncle from the marry-her-off race on grounds of his complete inability to judge character.

Then there was the ex-pat who either owned limousines or drove them in London (exactly what he did was unclear and, of course, irrelevant) and introduced himself as Mr El Humor- which in Arabic translates to Mr El Donkey! El Donkey was nice enough. True, his head was a little large and his glasses a little thick but he smiled approvingly when he saw me and tried to hold an intelligent conversation. Things were going well and I feared that there was nothing I could pin on this man to turn my parents against him until I caught sight of his shoes: a dazzling pair of silver vinyl boots with neon pink shoelaces. Apparently El Donkey was quite the shoe connoisseur! On the occasion of meeting his future wife, he carefully selected his best pair of disco shoes to match his conservative grey double-breasted suit and silver cufflinks. Needless to say, it didnít take much to convince my parents that El Donkey simply would not do.

In the end I married at 21, having spent three years fending off a multitude of suitors in the marry-her-off race. My marriage was not arranged. Despite the best efforts of my extended family, I met and married a man of my own choosing. It is true what they say: you canít choose your family; but you can certainly choose your husband!

Anne Aly