The bride wore . . . I forget

DECIDING to marry in Egypt took me three years. When I had finally laid to rest my British qualms about being a permanent expatriate, my Egyptian fianc'e was drafted, and we had to defer receiving the blessing of the state another year. So when Essam was released from the Army it was impossible for either of us to be dewy-eyed about the ceremony. The traditional fripperies of flowers, photographer, and white veil seemed a costly irrelevance.

We went to the British Consulate, where a very young official explained, with obvious concern for my own untried innocence, that our intended match was ``potentially polygamous,'' and hence invalid in British law. Essam listened seriously while he further warned us, ``In the event of hostilities with the United Kingdom, you would of course, if in the U.K., be interned as an enemy alien.''

We applied for a consular certificate of my ``good character'' and lack of any previous criminal record. We spent three days trailing about the grimy landings of the Alexandria Records office, sweating, signing, and swearing, filling out forms and stamping them, having our pictures taken, photocopying documents, being told the copy was unclear and required to do another.

On February 4, 1978, we set out from Essam's house. The bridegroom wore jeans and a white, open-neck shirt. The bride has to admit to not remembering what she wore. Soon thoughts of marriage were submerged in navigation of the thronged streets, dinning with taxi horns and the clank of accelerating trams, as we prodded and bumped our way along to the city registry office.

Essam's father, whose insouciant disregard of convention often scandalizes his family, led us to his favorite men's caf'e conveniently near the registrar's. I'd been five years in Egypt then, yet never dared to venture into one of these male fortresses.

As Essam scraped back chairs for us over the sanded floor, faces stared up from their chess and backgammon, incredulous. A sober-suited old gentleman lowered the edge of his newspaper and peered over it intently. He disappeared again with an irritable crackle of pages. Essam's father pretended not to notice.

Essam came back indignant from next door. The registry office had rejected his homemade translation of my consulate certificate. It had to be done officially, they said, by the approved translator a hundred miles away, in Cairo. Essam pointed out that if in spite of the certificate I should turn out to be a bad lot after all, that would be his hard luck, not theirs. They yielded.

Outside the registry office we were met by Essam's uncle, our second witness. We all crowded into a tiny box of a room, further shrunken by dust-opaque windows. Behind the battered desk a small sandy-haired man stood, stiff with patience, until all four of us were properly grouped around him. The marriage contract lay on the desk ready for signing.

Now I have a translation, but then I could only guess the meaning of those broken blue squiggles I knew had to be read off from the right-hand side of the page. Details of our separate pasts and united future, and a solemn undertaking to which I would shortly put my name.

``Would you, Mar-gareet Katreen Jones, repeat after me . . .''?

I felt grateful for the gentle courtesy of the registrar as, haltingly, I tried to do that string of sounds the uneven justice of my shaky pronunciation and reverent will. The abracadabra repetition somehow seemed more binding than any comprehensible oath. Later Essam told me, ``That contract makes you my personal private property till death us do part.'' I almost threatened divorce, until he admitted that was his idea of a joke.

We signed at last, amid handshakes and smiles of my new in-laws.

``It's a foreigner!'' a stranger's voice reported from the knot of hangers-on round the door as we were launched back into the churning sea of Mansheyya Square at noon.

At home there were kisses from female relatives, and a quick rice and vegetable lunch. In the evening Essam's small nieces and nephews lit candles and formed a straggling procession in our honor, tramping round the house with trills and shouts. They borrowed an old mosquito net from my trunk for a bridal veil, and played at weddings for hours.

I went off in my wedding clothes to teach my 7 o'clock class at the Oxford Language School.

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