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A Marriage Proposal Turns Sinister in this Excerpt from Jonny Steinberg's New Book, A Man of Good Hope

A Man of Good HopeRead an excerpt from Jonny Steinberg’s eagerly-awaited new book, A Man of Good Hope.

The extract concerns Asad Abdullahi, a Somali refugee who made his way to Johannesburg, South Africa, and a proposal of marriage he makes in order to take revenge on a woman with beautiful eyes.

Read the excerpt:
 

* * * * *

Asad has little memory of the wedding in Addis Ababa where he met his future wife, but he remembers every moment of the car journey home. The imam who performed the ceremony was in the passenger seat. Three people were in the back: Asad in one corner, a friend of Asad’s named Abdirashid in the middle, and a friend of the bride’s, a woman named Foosiya, in the other corner.

The imam was boisterous and talkative. He was turned in his seat, facing the back, and remarking at length on Foosiya’s beauty. He spoke also of the bride – wealth he would pay for her – camels, horses, guns.

‘Foosiya stayed in the same house as Ahmed’s new wife,’ Asad tells me. ‘We were very interested in the comings and goings of that house. We spent hours discussing each woman who lived there. Foosiya stood out among then. First, it was because she was amazingly beautiful. She had a long, powerful face and green eyes. Her eyes were very strong. She carried herself with independence, with confidence. When I watched her I would sometimes think of Nasri in Wardheer: a young woman alone, making her way with no doubts. But Foosiya was older than Nasri had been when I was in Wardheer. Foosiya was maybe twenty‐eight, twenty‐nine. That made her even more powerful. We discussed her often. Who would she marry? Would she even marry anybody? Who was big enough for her? She was an Isaaq woman from Somaliland, the traditional enemy of the Ogadeni. This made her even more powerful in my eyes.’

And so the imam spoke of the camels and horses and guns he would pay for the gorgeous Foosiya.

‘You are too old for me,’ she said coolly, and turned her face and stared out of the window.

The imam smiled and pointed at Asad.

‘Marry this one, then,’ he said.

Foosiya turned to Asad, examined him for a moment or two, as if she was taking him in for the first time, then stared out of the window again.

‘He is kurai,’ she said matter‐of‐factly. ‘I cannot marry him either.’

Asad leaves the word untranslated. Literally, it means ‘small boy’. But its full import has no direct equivalent in English. ‘Runt’ perhaps gets close. This beautiful and haughty woman had settled her gaze just once upon Asad, long enough to flick him away like dirt from under her fingernail.

Everyone in the car fell quiet. Asad stared ahead, avoiding everybody’s eyes.

The imam broke the silence; he laughed and slapped his hand against the car seat. ‘I’m too old and Asad is kurai,’ he said, shaking his head in mock disbelief. ‘Nobody in Addis Ababa is just right for Miss Foosiya. She will have to travel far to find a man.’

Asad felt the heat rising from his body. His clothes sat heavily on him, irritating his skin. He found, to his surprise, that a bead of sweat was rolling down the bridge of his nose. Were he to speak, he would only draw attention to his discomfort. And yet neither would silence restore his dignity. All he could do was to sit out his shame.

When the journey finally ended, he climbed out of the car, put his head down, and walked. He wanted to storm Foosiya; he wanted to grip her by the arms and shake her hard. He imagined her composure collapsing in shouts and protests, perhaps even in tears. But that was a kurai‘s way of seeking attention. He kept walking.

Over the following days, he felt Foosiya’s growing presence under his skin, teasing and agitating him. He believed that her image of him as kurai was somehow contagious, that, by now, every woman in her house saw an insignificant child whenever they laid eyes on him. The injustice of it grieved him. After all, he was the one supporting his entire household. What more did he need to do to prove himself?

His feelings confused him. Why was he so upset? He had survived a childhood of hell; he had needed to grow four or five skins to fend off the world. Yet an idle comment uttered by a woman he barely knew had felled him. An old taste settled in the back of his mouth, one he had almost forgotten. It was a taste he had slowly spat out during the two years he spent with Rooda on the truck. What was it? He had no words for it. He remembered it in his mouth as he watched Nasri and Rooda disappear into Nasri’s house in Wardheer. They were inside together and he had felt very alone. He remembered swallowing hard and feeling in his throat the endless miles of desert beyond the boundaries of Wardheer.

A week or so after the wedding, Asad announced to Abdirashid that he was going to propose marriage to Foosiya.

Abdirashid raised his eyebrows. Then he whistled through his teeth.

‘You’ll never do it,’ he said.

‘You’re advising me not to do it?’ Asad asked. ‘Or are you saying you do not believe that I will do it?’

‘I am saying that you don’t have the courage.’

Asad stared hard at Abdirashid. He was a good ten years older than Asad. He was wise, self-assured. He knew what he knew.

Abdirashid smiled mischievously. ‘Like I say, I don’t believe you’ll do it. But if you do, I will back you. I will come with you. I will help you through it.’

That very afternoon, the two of them called at Foosiya’s house. A young woman received them and invited them to sit in the front room. Abdirashid said that they had come to see Foosiya. Asad was silent.

The young woman left and came back a few minutes later. Foosiya would see them, she said, but they must be patient. Foosiya needed to wash, then to pray. Only then would she receive her guests.

They waited almost an hour. Two or three women joined them and asked oblique questions; they were curious why these men wanted to see Foosiya, but they would not ask directly. The young men were nervous and answered the questions posed to them in riddles. The conversation grew more and more awkward.

When Foosiya finally entered the room, she nodded a polite greeting to both men and sat down without saying a word. Abdirashid took command. After a few pleasantries, he told Foosiya that he was there merely as an adviser, that the visit was Asad’s, that Asad was interested in seeing her again. She nodded and looked at her fingernails, then took a long glance around the room, before finally settling her eyes on Asad. The sun was shining directly at her through the window and her green eyes looked quite translucent. Asad returned her gaze without flinching. The imperious expression she had worn when she had looked him up and down in the car was gone. Her face was quite inscrutable. It seemed to Asad that perhaps she was curious, enquiring, but he could not be sure. In any event, she said that if Asad were to come again, alone, she would see him.

Sitting in my car outside his shack in Blikkiesdorp, Asad is bracingly candid about his intentions. He wanted to marry Foosiya, certainly, but he did not like her, and he did not want to spend his life with her. The way he saw it, the marriage would last a few weeks. He would win her and fuck her and divorce her. She had humiliated him. One of her eyes for one of his.

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