Their eyes met—Mahgub’s and Ihsan’s—in silent astonishment. Each recognized the other and was overwhelmed by discomfort, feeling distraught. When Mahgub saw her, he almost lost his senses. Ihsan felt stunned when she saw him, because she remembered Ali Taha, the student hostel, and the past that she wished to flee. Glancing around, Mahgub saw Uncle Shihata Turki in a new overcoat and also a plump lady he realized was the man’s wife. Al-Ikhshidi perceived the group’s bewilderment and said, with a smile, “Perhaps you don’t need any introductions.”
Uncle Shihata said, “Mahgub Effendi has been our neighbor for the last four years.”
This did not come as a surprise to al-Ikhshidi, and that was his reason for making a point of concealing the identity of the two parties from each other before this surprise meeting. He proclaimed, “This is a delightful coincidence. People say, ‘Better a devil you know than a stranger.’ Shake hands and sit down, Mr. Mahgub.”
The young man roused himself from his stupor and approached his new family, greeting them one by one. Ihsan held out her hand but lowered her eyes and pearly face. She had wanted to drape a thick curtain over the past and to escape from it forever. Fate had thrown before her a person intimately linked to that past. It seemed that fate did not feel she had suffered enough. Al-Ikhshidi wished to lighten the tense atmosphere by chatting, but Mahgub ignored him. How could his attention be drawn for a moment from the miracle standing before him? Here was Ihsan Shihata in person! Was this the secret cause of Ali Taha’s tragedy? Amazing! How had she strayed? How had the bey managed to seduce her? Ali had trusted her blindly. Was this what had become of Ihsan? Even he, who had never entertained blind trust in anyone, would not have been suspicious enough to predict what had happened. The Ihsan whom Ali Taha had loved no longer existed. That old love was finished. Here was a different, new Ihsan who was holding out to him her hand as their marriage contracted was signed. He had desired Ihsan for so long with such resentful torment. Wasn’t the truth stranger than fiction? He realized that al-Ikhshidi was chiding him, “Won’t you wake up?”
So he gazed up at him with blank eyes and stammered, “I’m astonished by this coincidence.”
Smiling, al-Ikhshidi asked, “How do you like it?”
Without any hesitation Mahgub replied, “No two ways about it—this is a happy coincidence.”
Al-Ikhshidi began to discuss the coincidence philosophically, and Umm Ihsan said a word or two. Uncle Shihata thought that he had summed it all up when he said, “The coincidence is God’s handiwork and decree. Glory to God.” Despite all this, the bridal couple remained sunk in their own reflections, and an apprehensive discomfort dominated the gathering. Then the doorbell rang. Al-Ikhshidi rose, liberating himself from the tension surrounding him, and exited, saying, “Perhaps it’s the marriage clerk.”
Their hearts were all pounding. A shaykh entered the room trailed by al-Ikhshidi. He greeted the party and prayed that God would bless his presence there. The shaykh sat down at a table, rolled back his sleeves, and set about his simple but all-important task. His hand, which was covered with thick hair, moved across the paper while Uncle Shihata and al-Ikhshidi looked on. Mahgub frowned a little and tried to force himself to pay attention, setting his reflections aside. Ihsan lowered her dull eyes and looked quite pale. The decisive moment arrived when the marriage clerk turned to Mahgub Abd al-Da’im and instructed him, “Repeat after me: ‘Now I accept in marriage Miss Ihsan, daughter of Mr. Shihata Turki, an adult virgin of sound mind …’ ” Mahgub repeated this statement with a calm inflection and a clear voice that displayed no emotion even when he pronounced the word “virgin.” It sounded odd to him and woke his latent sense of sarcasm and his deep-seated rancor. He remembered what al-Ikhshidi had said when he asked whether the bride was a virgin. The libertine had replied contemptuously, “She was.” Yes: was. Why didn’t the marriage clerk write, “Who was a virgin”? This constituted fraud in an official document. His marriage was a fraud. His life was a fraud. The whole world was a fraud.
The marriage clerk delivered a sermon that began, “Praise God who made marriage licit and forbade fornication.” He carried on with his memorized texts as Mahgub continued his reflections, telling himself: But the bey forbade marriage and legalized fornication! He was endorsing this doctrine by signing a marriage contract that was actually a license for fornication. They were becoming a married couple before God and man. The young man stole a look at his bride and found that her eyes were red and that she was close to tears. He told himself sardonically: A downpour starts with a single drop. Congratulations were exchanged and soft drinks were handed around. It was an unusual wedding; everyone taking part in it felt he was performing a troublesome duty he wished to conclude in the shortest possible time. The bride’s parents were relieved but not over-joyed or delighted. The newlyweds sank into their gloomy reflections as anxiety and embarrassment overwhelmed them. At first Ihsan had been amazed when she learned that her hand was sought in marriage. She had asked herself anxiously who would want to marry a bride like her? Then, remembering her respected father, she realized that nothing could be ruled out. Her father had turned a blind eye to her fall. He had handed her to a lover, not to a husband. So why shouldn’t there be other people like him? Such a man did exist, and here he was, sitting beside her as her spouse. She certainly did remember him. She remembered how she had rejected his affection back when she could. She despised him but not to excess. She told herself resentfully: Am I not like him or even worse? Each of us has sold himself in exchange for status and money.
Yes, they were married.