An Awkward Talk
with Mariam and
Naa'il Dhar





Mariam invited me to tea this afternoon. Ok, I invited myself. Mariam graciously agreed to talk with me in her apartment. Naa’il’s first wife is the most elegant woman I have ever met. That’s saying something. Half my family is from Charleston, South Carolina, and Georgia. My grandmother was one of the last of the southern ladies. My grandmother, Ma, never wore pants. Ma always wore her hair up, and not a single hair was ever out of place. Ma’s manners were always gracious. Most of all, my grandmother was wholly devoted to her family, so much so that she never remarried after her husband died. Mariam reminds me of my grandma, except Mariam wears bright-colored silk Ottoman trousers with a matching tunic and a l ong coat. Her knee-length hair is arranged in an elaborate bun. Her wrists, her fingers, and her neck are adorned with gold and jewels. Like Ma, Mariam is devoted to her children.

We’re sitting on cushions in her apartment, waiting for our refreshments to be delivered.    
Josanna: Thank you for meeting with me today.

Mariam: Of course. How can I assist you?

There’s a knock at the door before I can answer.

Mariam: Enter.

Servants enter Mariam’s apartment carrying a silver tea set and bowls of fruits and nuts.
Naa’il: Mariam (he says sharply as he follows the servants into the apartment.)

I jump to my feet.

Naa’il: Josanna, what are you doing here? (His tone softens a little.)

Mariam: I invited Josanna for tea. She wanted to ask me a few questions.

Josanna: Good afternoon, Your Excellency. I tried to get an audience with you, but I was told that your schedule would not allow it.

Naa’il: I am an important man. There are many demands on me.

Josanna: I understand.

Mariam: Now that you’re here, will you stay for refreshments?

Josanna: I promise that I won’t take long.

Naa’il: Very well (he says gruffly before taking a seat beside his wife.) I am very displeased with you. I would add you to my harem if you were not so old.

Josanna: I am not that old. I could pass for your m… aunt. (Though I would never admit it to Naa’il, he’s right, I am older than the women in the harem. Naa’il’s concubines range from 18-23.)

Naa’il: Yes, I know. That is why I do not sell you. Why do you not have a male escort? Do you not have any honor?

Josanna: My husband could not join me today because he is working.

Naa’il raises a brow.
Naa’il: I do not approve. Is your husband an infidel?

Josanna: I suppose he would be considered as one in your world.

Naa’il: You should bring him the next time you come.

Josanna: Nice try, but you are not going to enslave my husband.

Naa’il: Did I say that I would enslave your husband?

Josanna: I created you, Your Excellency. You enslave all infidels.

Naa’il: I have not enslaved you yet.

Josanna: You won’t enslave me because you know that I can leave anytime I want.

Naa’il leans against the wall and crosses his arms.

Mariam: Why did you wish to see me?

Josanna: A Maiden’s Honor is going to be released at the end of next month. I am interviewing the characters to see if they have favorite scenes.

Naa’il: I do not like your story. You are most unkind to me.

Josanna: You are the villain.

Naa’il: I am not a villain. (He snaps and purses his lips.) I am a man of honor.

Josanna: Excuse me, but I made you very human in this story. You are also in some of the best scenes in this book. 

Mariam: I agree with Josanna, and I thank you for depicting my husband as a good man. Husband, do you have a favorite scene?

Naa’il: I like the scene when I am with our children.

Josanna: Interesting (I mumbled.)

Naa’il jumps to his feet.
Naa’il: That is my favorite scene, and I will say no more about it. (He storms out the room.)

I bite the inside of my mouth to stop from laughing. My smile fades when I spot tears in Mariam’s black eyes.

Mariam: I thought Naa’il would choose another scene.

Josanna: Do you know what that tells me?

Mariam: What? (She wipes a tear from the corner of her eye.)

Josanna: His Excellency’s choice tells me that he loves you and his children deeply.

Mariam nods.

Josanna: What scene do you like?

Mariam: I like that one too.

Josanna: I think we’re all in agreement. Thank you for meeting with me.


Naa'il leaned against the arched doorway with a broad grin on his lips as he watched Mariam hold court with his daughters. Their youngest, Zeba, sat on her lap. She looked up at her mother as if she were an angel while her sisters stood around them. For as plain as she was, Mariam’s face was radiant when she spoke to her daughters in her usual loving tone. She listened to their every word with her undivided attention. For as little or as much as she was to him, Naa’il couldn’t deny that Mariam was a good mother to his children, perhaps even the best.

“Babba,” his second oldest daughter called out. Laila was the most outgoing of her sisters.

Naa’il squatted on the floor and held out his arms to his daughters.  “Come here, my darlings.” Laila was the only one to run into her father’s arms.

“Go to your father,” Mariam said sternly when Laila’s sisters didn’t budge.

The oldest, Yasmine, took her sister, Nahla’s hand and pulled her towards their father. Naa’il pursed his lips when he spotted his daughters’ reluctance.

“Forgive them, my Lord. It has been a long while since the last time they saw you,” Mariam explained.

“They are right; I have been neglecting my children. I promise to change my ways.” Naa’il stood aside as Mariam’s attendants filed out of the room.

“We missed you, Babba,” said Yasmine.

“And I missed you, my darling.” Naa’il kissed his eldest daughter's forehead. Squatting in front of them, he wrapped his arms around his children and pressed them against his chest. The girls squealed with glee as they tumbled onto their father.

“Now, children, let your father stand,” Mariam said in her matronly voice.

Propping himself up on his elbow, Naa’il studied his wife as she gently pulled his daughters off him. He had forgotten how beautiful Mariam’s smile could be. When she smiled, she smiled with her whole face. Taking her slender hand, he pulled himself to his feet and wondered if he could be contented having only Mariam and their daughters for his family. This morning, his answer was yes. 

“Let me have a look at you,” Naa’il continued. Mariam had already lined his daughters up in a row in front of her, ranging from the eldest to the second youngest. Yasmine was nine and was quickly growing into an Arabian beauty. His eight-year old, Laila, was still a little girl, and yet it wasn’t hard to imagine her growing into a beautiful woman. Nahla, his second youngest was five. She also had a sweet face and her mother’s reserve. Finally, his three-year-old Zeba’s playful demeanor always made him laugh. At that moment, little Zeba hid behind her mother’s green and gold hirka. Ignoring his youngest, Naa’il continued his inspection. “You all have grown since the last time I saw you. It won’t be long before I need to find husbands for you.”

“Not yet, Babba,” Laila insisted. “I want to be with you a while longer.”

“That pleases me more than I can say.” Naa’il caressed his daughter’s soft cheek.
The Dey straightened his back and pretended not to notice his youngest peeking up at him from behind her blue blanket with her thumb in her mouth. “Now, where is my little Zeba?”

“She is still a little shy,” Mariam smiled apologetically.

Undaunted, Naa’il strolled behind Mariam, looking everywhere in the room but at his daughter. “Where oh where is my little Zeba. My heart is so saddened that I cannot see her.”

She tugged on her father’s maroon pant leg and looked up at him with a playful grin. “Here I am.”

Naa’il’s face lit up with a bright smile when he looked down at his daughter. “There is my precious, Zeba.” Naa’il scooped up his youngest into his arms and hugged her. “How pleased I am to see you.”

Zeba giggled and hugged her father back.

“Let us adjourn to the garden,” Naa’il suggested as he looked to Mariam for her approval.

“Of course,” Mariam said. “I will send for refreshments.”


***

Naa’il spent the whole day with Mariam and his children. They talked; they told stories; they ate; they laughed. Naa’il couldn’t help thinking that Cora would be pleased to see him passing a perfect day with his wife and children. Then it ended when the governesses came to collect his daughters.

“Thank you for taking time away from your work to be with our children. It meant the world to them. I am certain that they will remember this day fondly for the rest of their lives,” Mariam said once they were alone.

“So will I. It has been too long since I passed a morning or a day with our children. I apologize for being away.” Naa’il squeezed his wife’s hand.

“You have had much on your mind during these past few weeks.”

“There is no excuse for ignoring my children. I shall not do it again.” Naa’il slid his arms around Mariam’s waist. “I know we have not always agreed on matters.”

“No.” Mariam laughed faintly.

Naa’il looked thoughtfully at his wife. “You understand me. I think we should try to make another son. I still need an heir, and I want you to give him to me.”

“What about Samina?”

“I care for Samina, but you are a better mother.” Naa’il kissed her.



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