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“Why do you want to call her after me when I’m still alive and well, my dear – are you trying to hasten my death? So that the girl can take my place?” The aunt quickly corrected herself: “God forbid, that wasn’t what I meant; many people name their kids after their parents while they’re still brimming with health – far be such evils from you, Salema. Call her Miryam or Zaynab or Safiya – anything but London.” Mayya took her daughter between her hands and raised her in the air. “What’s wrong with ‘London’? There’s a woman in Ja’lan called London.” The aunt said impatiently: “You know that’s not her name. It’s just a nickname people gave her because her skin is so white. And this girl – I mean . . .” Mayya brought the girl down to her lap. “She’s not white like the family of the merchant’s son but she belongs to them and her name is London.”
Salema decided the time had come for her daughter and granddaughter to return home to al-Awafi to complete the forty days of confinement at her mother’s house and under her supervision. She said to her daughter’s husband: “Listen here, Abdullah, my boy. Your wife here has been given a daughter for her firstborn, and daughters are a blessing to the house; they help their mother out and they bring up their siblings. We want forty live chickens for her, a jar of real mountain honey, and a jar of local cow ghee, and when London is a week old, shave her head and give its weight in silver in alms, and slaughter a sheep for her and distribute the meat to the poor.” She pronounced the word “London” with distinct emphasis. Abdullah’s face changed colour, but he nodded and took his small family and his mother-in-law back to al-Awafi.
The plane was passing through thick clouds, and sleep eluded Abdullah even though it was a long journey to Frankfurt. At the time when women were giving birth at al-Saada Hospital in Muscat, black Butterfly sewing machines hadn’t yet reached Oman. So how could Mayya have been sewing on this machine? Electricity as a whole had only reached a few parts of the country. There may have been a few more hospitals actually around at the time London was born; there were definitely other hospitals around – al-Rahma Hospital in Matrah at the very least, maybe also al-Nahdha Hospital in Ruwi; so why was Mayya so set on giving birth in the mission hospital? I don’t remember . . . I
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can’t make the connection between all these events. Her mother said to me: “Have some livestock slaughtered for London, and fetch twenty chickens for your wife who’s fresh from labour,” and she pronounced the word “twenty” with special emphasis even though she knew I’d bring thirty chickens and a sheep on top. My uncle’s wife in the old house at Wadi Adi stood in the courtyard and railed at me at the top of her voice: “London? And you agreed? Don’t you have a say in your daughter’s name?” I don’t know whether they tore the house down or whether they sold it. I only saw her once or twice after my uncle died. When London graduated from the Faculty of Medicine at the Sultan’s University, she said: “I want a BMW”; and Mayya put the Butterfly sewing machine in storage when we moved to the new house. Why did she give up sewing? When did she give it up? It was after she gave birth to Mohammad, the year I took over my father’s business and we moved to Muscat. Mayya was over the moon, she said she did not want to spend her entire life under her mother’s thumb, and after she gave birth to Mohammad she gave up sewing, fifteen years ago, when they opened up the new road in the south and they had the factory built. London’s friend Hanan was teaching at a primary school in Salala when she rang up in the middle of the night to tell us that a group of teenagers had broken into the teacher’s dorms and had raped several of them, and had also raped Hanan. And Mayya threw a big feast for the new house in Muscat and invited all her friends. She spread out a long tablecloth and arranged all the dishes on it side by side. Salem was in primary school, and Mohammad looked just like any other baby. Mayya was in a joyful mood, and when night came she put on her dark blue sleeping gown. When they had gone to sleep, I said to her: “Do you love me, Mayya?” and she started. She didn’t say a word, and then she laughed . . . she laughed in a shrill voice which got on my nerves. She said: “Where’d you come up with this soapopera love-talk, man? Or has the satellite dish and the Egyptian films you’ve been watching made you dotty?” Mohammad stood on my knees and pulled hard on my beard. Mayya slapped him, and he cried and cried. I never mustered the nerve to shave off my beard even after my father died, and when they opened the new classes for the eradication of illiteracy Mayya got into sixth grade straight away because she could read and write and do some
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