The great Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim was born on this day in 1898, right in the middle of Nobel season. Although he died in 1987, the year before it went to Naguib Mahfouz, he surely otherwise would have been a candidate to receive the prize; indeed, he was mentioned in recently unsealed records as up for the award as early as 1969.
To celebrate his birthday, we share a Tawfiq al-Hakim story from our Fall 2022 WEDDINGS issue, translated by James Scanlan.
The Wedding Night
By Tawfiq al-Hakim
Translated by James Scanlan
The final zagharid of that blessed union rang out at two in the morning, and the newlyweds hurried to their room. They’d already been sprinkled with salt against envious eyes, and now, with the door closed, they were alone at last.
They’d crossed many a threshold to reach this moment. The moment created unlike any other. The moment that glistens as a pearl in the crown of time. The time of every person on this Earth, from the Mamluks to the Sa’alik.
The moment when what was expended was expended, for which acquaintances and friends gathered and family and relations rejoiced. Where tables were erected, toasts raised, and heads were giddy with warmth and delight. Where the dancing was frenzied, the singing loud, and the guests bathed in an abundance of bliss.
That moment came. The climax of the evening, the dome of the do, the mihrab of the night. The moment of solitude between bride and groom.
And what a moment!
Every husband doubtless remembers hopelessly searching for what first to say when alone with his bride. Does he begin with something profound, humorous or, perhaps, romantic?
And every wife doubtless remembers how she felt in anticipation of her groom’s first word.
But tonight’s bride did not appear to be in anticipation of anything. No sooner had the door of the marriage suite shut than she’d left her groom for the dressing table, where she sat with her beautiful head in her hands as the groom watched.
“Are you tired, my darling?” he asked. “I expect all that din at the wedding has upset you.”
She didn’t reply. And the groom couldn’t see her face, as she’d hidden it in her hands. Though before long, he spied a tear escape from between her fingers and drop onto her white wedding dress.
“Are you crying, Souna?” he asked, a quiver of affection in his voice.
But he heard only her faint sobbing. He felt for her, then; he knew the reason. Seniyya was all her mother had after losing her father a few years before. Her beloved mother was everything, and it would be no small matter to part from her.
Presumably, it had been this thought that had preoccupied her throughout the party. She’d been downcast and distracted, her head bowed, saying little and smiling less.
He leant towards her and pressed his cheek against her face.
“Don’t cry, darling Souna,” he said. “For you, I’ll be a mother, a father, a husband and a brother. I’ll never make you feel you’ve lost anything or been separated from anyone.”
She pulled away and wanted to speak, but tears got the better of her.
“Don’t talk; I know what you want to say,” he said. “Cry, don’t hold back the tears. It’s natural. Let them flow. I’m only worried about what it might do to your lovely eyes.
“But crying clears the mind in a situation like this. You’ll feel better in a minute, and then your face will shine like the sun after a welcome spot of rain.”
She shuddered as if a battle raged inside her. But she found her courage and, eyes wet with tears, said:
“Please, let me be frank with you.”
“Of course, Sounti, of course. Speak openly about anything. We are married, aren’t we? We shouldn’t keep anything from each other.”
“Yes. I have to tell you—and please don’t be hurt or get angry—that I love someone else.”
She said it quickly and firmly, then broke into tears.
Her words resounded like a bomb in the groom’s ears. In a state of shock, he felt neither hurt nor angered. He was unaware of himself, let alone anything around him. Nor was he conscious of the time that passed before he came to his senses, realized the significance of what he’d heard, and could think of what to do.
He was a staid and rational man of around thirty-six, and the demands of his respectable job had taught him to weigh things with care. So he soon gathered himself and, in a calm voice, albeit one laced with bitterness and (well-mannered) reproach, said:
“It’s a bit late to announce this, don’t you think? What prevented you from telling me when we were engaged or, at the very least, before we’d signed the contract?”
“The marriage had to go ahead to please my poor mama. I tried to persuade her to break off the engagement, but she became the most miserable creature in the world whenever I did. Her life’s dream is to see me married to a man like you. My courage failed me, and I didn’t dare spoil her wish, especially as she’s old and sick.
“God knows I’ve fought hard to repress my feelings, to suppress my love. And God, I wanted to make myself see that the past has ended in marriage.
“I thought my heart had come around to reason at last. But, tonight, my heart screamed when all was done and everything had become a reality. I could hear it. It was almost tearing my soul apart. It was then that I knew I couldn’t carry on deceiving myself. And it would be dishonest of me to continue deceiving you,” she said, fighting back sobs.
The groom lowered his eyes, considering all she’d said.
“It was the correct thing to do,” he said eventually, “and I’ll do all I can to help you get what you want, be sure of that. You have the right: you shouldn’t deceive yourself; you should listen to your heart. And as long as your love is sincere, no one can stop you.
“Your freedom is in your hands now, and I am at your service. Let’s solve this together.
“First, how are we to get out of this predicament? Suppose I divorced you tonight; what would happen? It’d cause a scandal I’d never want for you and lead to incessant gossip and rumor. Also, it’d be such a shock for your mother, and you were worried about how she’d take something much simpler. What are we to do? Think with me a little.”
“You’re right. There would be a scandal if you divorced me tonight.”
“So we need a different solution. Come on, think.”
They both sat in thought. The groom held his head in his hands. After a time, he stood up with a cry:
“I’ve got it!” he said, “Okay, while it may be for the good, it will require you to be patient and me to be able to act: I’ll divorce you after a month or two and, in the meantime, in front of everyone—and mainly your mother—I’ll pretend to be horrible and rude and mistreat you.
“That way, we’ll be discreetly preparing your mother to cope with the divorce. Though her patience may well run out first, and it may be her who gets you to ask for a separation before the time’s up. If that happens, I’ve no doubt she’ll find the groom of her dreams in the person your heart has chosen. What do you think?”
“It’s magnificent,” she said, attempting to dry her tears and wipe her nose, but finding only the hem of her dress.
“Hold on,” the groom said at once before she could blow her nose on the dress, “Use my handkerchief, don’t dirty your dress. Look after it for that other wedding.”
“You’re a gentleman,” she said, taking his handkerchief. “I’m sorry, you’ve done nothing to deserve me ruining this night; for your bride to make you so unhappy. For all I know, you may have had high hopes for this marriage.”
He was lost in thought for a moment.
“Don’t remind me,” he said, as if to himself. “I mean, forget it; it’s not important.”
“It’s just… I feel bad for you.”
“No need. I’m okay. At any rate, you aren’t to blame for what’s happened to me—it’s just my luck. The truth is that, yes, I had put my hopes on this marriage. But I’ve always been too frugal with my emotions and so focused on work that I’ve hardly seen much of the good things in life.
“I’ve never given a woman anything that’s precious of myself. I stored away all my heart’s love for that predestined wife. And, in my spare time, I’d picture her beside me and imagine how I’d tell her softly of all the love I’d saved up for her over the years, like some hoarder and his pile of coins.
“But fate saw fit to wreck what I’d saved, as it does on occasion to the miserly and their riches. Fate enjoys mocking people who fix their worries to a goal. It lies in wait, sees they’re almost there, then destroys everything with the mere touch of a finger, so that all efforts dissolve into thin air.”
“All of this because of me. I’m a criminal.”
“Not at all. It’s got nothing to do with you. I’m just like someone who’s saved up all their money to buy a property, and then, once they’ve bought it, they discover it’s already been occupied or pledged to someone else for all eternity.
“Who’s to blame? The property? No, the blame is that of saving. Of parsimony. If only I’d lived by the motto: ‘Spend what’s in your pocket now, more will come from the unknown.”
“Your words cut deep. I have no idea what I can do for you. Maybe fate will compensate you well for me, who knows, and the unknown will bring you the wife of your dreams. I don’t deserve you.”
“That’s very kind of you, Sou–, Seniyya, Madame Seniyya. Sorry, I don’t know what to call you anymore.”
“Oh, call me as you did a moment ago!”
“I’ll do that when your mother’s around, of course. But when we are alone—impossible.”
“I no longer have the right to use a pet name. As I said, you’re a stranger to me now. Though I don’t know what we should do here—your mother’s in the house, but we have to stay in the same room. Listen, you take the bed and I’ll take the floor. There, by the door, in that far corner. Come on, up onto your bed. You must be exhausted after all this.”
“You’ll sleep on the floor?”
“There’s nowhere else.”
“True, regrettably. But please, do forgive me. I’m making your wedding night so wretched.”
“What of it? It’s fine. Doesn’t every groom get a wedding night like this? Still, I’ll cherish the memory forever. Believe me.”
“You want to deny me any responsibility. Be that as it may, now’s not the time to argue. I’ll make up somewhere comfy for you to sleep. It’s you who must be exhausted, what with this dreadful surprise.
“Right, there are two mattresses on the bed. I’ll lay one of them on the floor, and we’ll flip a coin to see who sleeps where. What do you say?”
“Agreed,” he said, smiling, “I’m content with my ill luck.”
She stood up straight away, and so did he, and they helped each other carry one of the mattresses to a corner of the room.
She set about placing the pillows and making a bed on the floor. When she’d finished, she asked him for a piastre coin, and they agreed that if it landed picture-side up, whoever called it would win the actual bed.
She tossed the coin in the air, and she won.
“Told you so!” he said. “I know my lot!”
“I threw it wrong. Let’s do it again.”
“No, no, please, stick to your principle—be honest. No deceit. You won; I lost. No cheating.”
She grudgingly accepted, and he left the room so she could undress and slip into bed. Then he came back, took off his clothes and went to his mattress.
“Shall I turn off the light?” she asked as she reached out a soft, alabaster arm to the switch beside her.
“If you like. Sleep well. I wish you a happy future with the person your heart has chosen. I’m sure you’ve picked well, although you’ve told me nothing about him.”
“He’s an officer. A first lieutenant.”
“A handsome young man, no doubt,” he muttered to himself. “And at least ten years younger than me—so no use competing, no hope in putting up a fight.”
“What did you say?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing. Turn off the light. Good night.”
The days went by, and the husband played his part well, gently coaxing his mother-in-law into suspecting he wasn’t the ideal husband she’d dreamed of for her one-and-only daughter.
Yet the issue of the shared room still eluded him.
This situation between him and his false wife couldn’t go on as it was. He could not sleep in the same room as her, just like that, as if they were strangers, with a lustful beast between them bellowing in need and roaring with desire.
Her warm breath seared his face, and her every movement drove the sleep from his eyelids. Whenever she’d cough, he’d rip off his blanket to cover her with it. If the moon’s rays shone through the window, he’d be up on his toes to peer at her sublime face, bathed in the light, before drawing the blinds so it wouldn’t disturb her.
If she rolled onto her side, he’d roll too.
If she needed to get up at night, he’d pretend to be deep in sleep, holding his agitated breath so she wouldn’t know he was awake.
She was a perpetual, sleeping temptation on a bed. Yet, inside him, she was awake and rousing. Everything she did deprived him of sleep, wrecked his nerves, shattered his will, and left him restless as a feather on his mattress.
The smell of her body. Her sweet sighs as she slept. Her light, intermittent snoring. The funny way she lay on her front while sleeping, her hair hanging loosely down. Her bare neck. And the pillow she clutched in her arms.
For a man of flesh and blood, this was torture. He lasted one, two, three, four nights. The week was almost at an end. He didn’t have the stamina to carry on like this.
What to do?
There was nowhere else to sleep in the house save the office, the drawing room, the hallway to their room, or the other room taken by his mother-in-law.
Should he sleep in the dining room? But what might the servants or his mother-in-law say at a recently married man doing such a thing?
His mother-in-law would never leave them; her daughter was her only refuge. As he saw it, the only thing to do was to remain patient. That, and to hasten the conclusion of his task.
Day by day, he stepped up displays of his rudeness, but his mother-in-law turned a blind eye, caring only for her daughter’s happiness.
On the other hand, the daughter was not playing her part well.
She didn’t appear to be angry at her husband’s feigned persona. She knew that when they were alone at night, he’d apologize for all his wrongdoings of the day.
And eventually, like a child, she came to enjoy the act, almost laughing rather than getting cross. At which point, he’d wink at her, urging her to scowl.
She’d occasionally get it wrong, too, and defend him in front of her mother or visitors if they criticized him. And the words, “But he’s been treated unfairly,” would spill from her lips.
In time, the husband thought of a cure for his lack of sleep: he’d head to an old bachelor friend’s house and rest there from afternoon until evening.
He told his mother-in-law and wife that some work had come up that forced him to be away. And so he began not returning until ten or sometimes midnight. But, no harm in that. It all fell under playing the role of an odious man, probably.
Then one night, he returned home at two in the morning after attending a friend’s birthday party, which had been an innocent affair of music, singing, and laughter.
He was surprised to find his wife awake in bed, greeting him with a furrowed brow. Yet this was no act. The scowl was genuine and furious. He gave his excuses and reasons, and she, skeptical and dissatisfied, said nothing.
Weeks passed until, one day, she asked him to take her to the cinema.
“Yes, my son,” said his mother-in-law, going along with the idea. “Take your bride out and enjoy yourselves like newlyweds are supposed to.”
He was duty-bound, he felt, to be rude.
“That’s the last thing I need, to take your daughter to the cinema,” he said.
“And why not? Isn’t she fun and pretty? The finest of grooms would be honored to have her as a bride.”
“That’s how you see it. And you alone.”
“Shame on you.”
“Anyhow, I haven’t got the time to waste on taking your daughter out.”
At this, the wife’s face turned red with anger.
“But you have the time to waste on staying up past midnight?” she said.
“That’s nothing to do with you.”
“I’ll never go out with you, ever,” she said and stormed off to her room while the mother-in-law hung her head in despair.
He left and went about his business, as he did every day. He didn’t concern himself with what had happened, like an actor who exits the stage where he’s just been knocked about and beaten.
When he returned that evening, he found his wife in bed, her face buried in her pillow, sodden with tears. She didn’t stir when he entered. He presumed she was asleep until he noticed a faint intake of breath and a soft whimpering. He went to her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She lifted her head from the pillow and turned to him, lines of tears glistened on her cheeks. She didn’t answer.
“I’ve not seen you cry like this for a long time,” he said tenderly. “Is it him?”
“What lieutenant? …Oh,” she said, correcting herself before promptly adding, “No, don’t try to wash your hands of your vile behavior,” she said bitterly. “Your repeated vile behavior. I can’t put up with any more from you than I already have—it’s too much for me. What kind of woman would stand this from a man?”
“What have I done?”
“Do you deny you hurt me today?”
“I was acting, obviously.”
“Ha! That’s a tired excuse. Your acting is just to mask your hatred of me.”
“Praise the Lord!”
“And now you avoid seeing me as much as possible––do you deny that, too? You leave early in the morning when I’m asleep and don’t come back until lunch. Then you go out again, and I don’t see you until ten, eleven, or midnight.
“What is it about my face that repulses you? What is it about me that repels you? I’m asking myself as much as I’m asking you.”
“Are you serious?”
“You swear I don’t repulse you?”
“It’s never even crossed my mind, I swear.”
“You were charming, in the beginning. All affectionate and doting.”
“I am now as I was then. I’ve not changed.”
“Yes, well, sometimes when we’re alone in this room you are nice to me, but in front of other people… ”
“Well, of course, I must be rude in front of other people. According to the plan.”
“What plan? This has all become some nasty game. You do realize that?”
“It had to be like this.”
“I enjoyed your acting at first. But now I see just how serious you’ve taken it, so much so it seems real.”
“Practice makes perfect!”
“I’d have preferred it if you hadn’t perfected this particular role. Then I wouldn’t be so worked up with suspicion. Everything you say now is like a stab wound, so be careful. I don’t see this as an act anymore. All your loving talk has gone.
“And why doesn’t ‘perfecting your role’ also include things that make me happy? You used to call me ‘Souna,’ and sometimes even ‘Sounti’ when my mother was around. What’s happened? Why have you stopped?”
“The plan has changed due to… time constraints.”
“Don’t you see? Today we’re in our seventh week. There are only a few days left until we split up.”
“As quick as that? Are you sure?”
“I am. I’ve been counting the days meticulously.”
“Counting down the days until your liberation.”
“We’ll be separated in a couple of days, and look how thrilled you are! Tell me, what will you do afterwards? Where will you live?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t made any plans for my future yet.”
“I do hope you’ll be happy. Will you look back fondly at our time together?”
“And you’ll think of me as someone dear to you?”
“It’s past time you were in bed. Sleep now, your mind at rest.”
He pulled the covers up and tucked her in. Though as he did this, his hand chanced to stroke her face, and she rubbed her cheek against it like a cat brushing up against its owner. He felt the warmth of that smooth, velvet cheek and gently withdrew his hand. He turned off the light and went to his mattress without a noise.
The remaining days flew by in an atmosphere that was far from ordinary. She talked little and barely smiled. She was visibly sullen, as if a cloud of suppressed sorrow had settled over her face. If he said anything, she’d reply with a look of things unsaid. But he’d understand, even so, and be moved deep inside as if she’d uttered some eloquent poem.
His task exhausted him as he hammed up his mistreatment of her whenever her mother was watching. But, at long last, the stage was set for him to make that ultimate announcement without causing the mother too much hurt or sullying the wife’s reputation.
On the final night, he deliberately returned in the small hours so his wife would be compelled to sleep out of sheer weariness. Nevertheless, he found her awake in bed, lying on her back.
The glow from the lamp shone on her pale face, and she appeared to be staring at the ceiling.
“Still not asleep?” he said, surprised.
“I was waiting for you to come back.”
“If I’d known, I’d have come earlier.”
“Why do you sound so down? And what’s with the sad face?”
“I’ve no cause to be happy.”
“Quite the opposite; you should be in high spirits tonight. Tomorrow you’ll be free and able to marry the person you like.”
“You’re talking of your feelings, not mine.”
“Please, my feelings are none of your concern. Ever since I’ve been alone with you in this room—from our first night—I’ve cared only about your feelings. About your predicament. I promised you as such. And, as I see it, I’ve kept my promise.”
“Yes, you’ve been an honest man.”
“Praise be to God.”
A heavy silence fell between them. Words she didn’t dare pronounce lingered on her lips, restive, until she eventually found the courage.
“The time has come, then,” she said.
“I believe so.”
“Wou–, would you care to hear how I feel now?” she asked. “Or is it more convenient for you to ignore my feelings?
“I find your discomfort unbearable, trust me. I think it’d be best if I ask you nothing. Better to let what’s in my heart stay where it is, hidden. I’ve aroused your generosity enough already.”
“Speak plainly and be frank, always.”
“If you divorce me, I’ll die.”
She said it quickly and then hid her face in her hands. But there was no doubting her sincerity. If sincerity had a tongue, she was its voice.
Her husband sat on the edge of her bed and took her hand.
“Listen… Seniyya,” he said. “It’s not easy for me to forget you loved someone else. I saw the traces of that love on your face on my wedding night.”
“I know you’ll never forgive me for that. And feel free to punish me as you like, but trust me when I say my feelings toward him were those of a child who knew nothing of love.”
“I’m not saying you’re a liar by any means, but I’m sure you appreciate my position.”
“I do, just as I know what’s in your mind—the question you won’t ask me out of courtesy. But, I swear it, nothing happened between us that could cause embarrassment or disgrace.
“He was our neighbor when we lived in Abbassia, that’s all. And like every young girl, I was dazzled by his military uniform and his body. Whenever we saw each other in the street, he’d say ‘hi’ and I’d say ‘hi’ back. And we’d talk on the phone.
“But I never once went out with him, and we never met up alone. I promise. I swear by all that is holy. Someday you’ll see the truth of what I’m saying.”
“I can see the truth of it in your eyes. And that’s enough for me. But are you sure how you feel about me is genuine? That’s what troubles me.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“You doubt it only because you don’t know love. I’ll tell you what it is. Love is not about being dazzled and blinded in an instant. Love is not some fleeting thrill in your heart. No. Love takes shape slowly, like an embryo. Love is built and bound thread by thread, knot by knot, like knitting—by which two hearts may form a lasting connection.
“However much you don’t believe me, I can never give you up. I need you, flaws and all.
“I can’t be without you. Just you being here in this room. To hear you cough. I can’t sleep when you’re away, and I’m so happy when you come back, even after midnight.
“How you make me laugh in the mornings when you look for your socks under the carpets and your shoes under the furniture. And how your face gets covered in soap when you shave and how you nick yourself with your razor.
“The way you forget your handkerchief before you leave and need me to remind you to take your wallet, which you’ve left, discarded on my bedside table.
“Your adorable, innocent smile when I stretch and yawn in the morning. How you pretend to be angry and shout in front of my mother. How you talk to me about your work as if I understand all its intricacies.
“How you suddenly remember I’m not truly yours and put up a pretense. But then you forget and become friendly again—spoiling me, being lovable, saying nice things about my new clothes.
“I know all your eating habits: bread must be toasted, and rice is to be eaten with vegetables. Even your sleep: I know at what hour of the night you’ll be on your left side.
“How do you want me to give up all this? All these trivial details. These are the small, sturdy loops of thread that knit together marital love.”
“Ha! Knitting—what a way to put it! Don’t forget that long needle; it could cause mischief in your hands!”
She laughed a sweet laugh before adding more seriously:
“You needn’t fear anything from me, ever.”
He considered this for a moment, then raised his head.
“Souna,” he said, “give me some time to think.”
“It’s been a while since I’ve heard you say ‘Souna.’ Why are you so afraid of me?”
“I’m not afraid of you. I’m afraid for my riches, the riches a miserly man has stowed away in his heart. Now sleep, Souna. And in the morning, we’ll think, and perhaps our happy ending will come.”
He tucked her in, as he usually did, before he switched off the light and retired to his mattress on the floor in the corner.
Though no sooner had he drawn up the covers than he heard Souna leap from her bed. And then she’d made her way to his mattress, slid under the blanket, and entwined herself around his body.
“You are my husband before God—before the world and my heart,” she said. “I’ll never let you go.”
As she held him tight, it occurred to him that he’d become the pillow she’d normally clutch as she slept.
This was their wedding night.
And likely, it was the first time in the history of marriage that the bride and groom abandoned their bed to sleep in each other’s arms, on the floor.
Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898–1987) is considered to be the founder of contemporary Egyptian drama and a leading figure in modern Arabic literature. He is the author of Ahl al-Kahf (The People of the Cave), Awdat al-Ruh (The Return of Consciousness), the autobiographical Yawmiyyat Na’ib fi l-Aryaf (Diaries of a Country Prosecutor), and many other plays, novels, and essays.
James Scanlan is an Arabic-to-English translator based in Dahab, Egypt.