“Has he changed, Khalto Nafisa?”
“He is still very handsome, ya Binti.... from what I could see, of course.”
“Why would he be suffered? You forget, ya Aziza, men do not suffer as we do... and certainly not for love.”
“You sound bitter, Khalto,” Aziza retorted, “men suffer no different than we do.”
“Ya, salam! But tell me, ya akhti, why should I not be bitter? I am most certainly bitter, but I speak the truth." The older woman wore the black of widowhood with her gray hair covered by a black veil covering her head and shoulders. “Remember, I am not bitter because my husband left me for another, I am bitter because he was a stupid man who thought too much of himself.”
Aziza burst out laughing but stopped herself out of respect for her dead uncle. Her aunt looked up from her embroidering and also laughed, "Do not stop yourself from laughing, ya Binti, it is sad, but it is comical. When Abu Hamza looked at himself in a mirror, he did not see the thin, frail man he was but Hercules.”
“Ya, haram, Khalto, poor Khalo. He was only trying to defend that poor woman’s honor.”
“What honor? She was a prostitute!”
“Prostitute or not, she was a woman who deserved respect. I am proud of him, and wallah, you should be too, Khalto. Your husband died an honorable death.”
“Yes, very honorable. Dead in the gutter with a sword in his back and his throat slit like that of a goat.”
“What matters is that he loved you, and when you were ill, he worried for you. Remember, when you traveled to visit Sit’ty in Antioch, and stayed longer than expected, Khalo was frantic. You even said he looked as though he aged twenty years. That is love, Khalto.”
The older woman looked back down at the black material in her hand, and although she had smirked and waved away her niece’s words, she knew Aziza spoke the truth. Abu Hamza had been a good man, a good husband, and a good friend. Aside from that, Nafisa did not know how to answer Aziza’s question; Did Marcus look suffered?
Nafisa had focused mainly on Marcus' handsome face and his tall, stately figure; those had not changed. What Nafisa had noticed was the new gait in his walk. Marcus walked with a slight limp, favoring his left leg, perhaps an injury he had suffered during a battle while in Briton or a fall from his horse.
Aziza sat on her bed, quiet, head lowered, hands clasped, and when she spoke, she said: “Khalto, will Marcus believe I have changed? I look in the mirror, and I no longer see the girl he first saw or worse yet, Khalto, what if he no longer loves me.”
Nafisa stood and moved to sit beside her niece, pulling back the silk veil that had fallen forward hiding Aziza's face from her aunt's eyes, "Why would he not love you, ya Binti? For Marcus, the sun rose and set within your eyes. Nothing or no one could come between the two of you, Aziza, and you are as beautiful to behold today as you were the very first day his eyes first looked upon you.”
And that moment, Nafisa remembered well.
It was summer, the uprisings were far behind them, and the days were long and hot. Aziza had accompanied Nafisa and Abu Hamza to a celebration at the home of a family member who had given birth to a son. The birth of daughters was never a celebrated event. Still, the birth of a son signaled the family name would live on, and that was worth celebrating.
Marcus was standing near the elegant villa conversing with a group of soldiers when Aziza first saw him. The Roman was tall, his frame defined as that of a soldier, his skin bronzed, his smile bright, and "as handsome as a god," or so Aziza thought. Aziza turned her eyes away before the soldiers noticed her staring, but from the windows high above, she kept a secret vigil.
Of course, Aziza did not dare tell Khalto Nafisa about the attraction she had developed toward the Roman soldier. Still, she did share it with her cousin, Basima, who, apart from being blood, was Aziza's dearest friend. It was Basima who set a plan to try and get the Roman to notice Aziza.
The plan was this: Aziza and Basima would go for walks every afternoon, near the market square not far from the villa where Roman soldiers would congregate. Basima was familiar with the Roman that had captured her cousin’s attention and had seen him there several times, so they did as planned. Every afternoon, at the same time of day, Aziza and Basima strolled through the marketplace sometimes. They would sit near the fountain, while other times, they would indulge conversation with other women familiar to them. The one thing that remained constant was the presence of Khalto Nafisa since it was unseemly for young single women to be seen without a chaperone. Their reputation depended on it. A young woman who took to the streets alone was a girl who needed to work to support her family, or girl who no longer had a reputation worth saving. Both girls stood no chance of ever marrying a man from a good family.
Nafisa was no fool! It did not take long for the woman to realize the reason behind her niece's daily walks. The handsome Roman's stature and good looks were enough to steal any woman's attention. However, Nafisa hoped her niece had not forgotten the way of things. Aziza would marry her uncle's son, whether she wanted to or not. Still, for the time being, Nafisa would play the fool and allow her niece to daydream if only for a little while.
The walks in the marketplace happened religiously for nearly a month, but there was no sign of the handsome Roman. Aziza sadly accepted perhaps the Roman had been sent back to Rome, and she would not see him again. Basima tried keeping Aziza optimistic. “My cousin, always the cynic! Perhaps the Roman is touring the Galilea or in Caesarea enjoying the cool sea breeze. They do these things.”
And perhaps Basima was right, but Aziza refused to accept false hope, it did not matter anyway. In the end, nothing would come of it since it was not as though the daughter of Sheikh Aziz ibn Adel ibn Sofyan, the richest horse breeder in all of Arabia, could marry a Roman, not were he Caesar himself! The Arabs were not blind to the fact that even if they were rich beyond any Roman’s imagination, Romans deemed themselves superior to them as they did to everyone. To Romans, Arabs were nothing more than wealthy barbarians, and no Arab man would hand their most prized possession to anyone who thought of them in that fashion. Besides, it was not as though Arabs considered Romans much better; to an Arab, a Roman was worth nothing.
"Romans are like pigs dressed in finery," was a joke Arabs enjoyed. Still, Aziza felt there was something different about the particular Roman who had caught her attention. There was something about his face, his eyes. He seemed kind, although a bit haughty, but then most Romans carried that trait. But she had seen him flash a smile at playing children and even throwback a ball that had accidentally rolled near where he stood. Many times' Roman soldiers would strike children or push them away from their path so hard that they fell and hurt themselves, but he was different. Aziza could feel it in her soul!
Several weeks passed with no sign of the Roman soldier, and by then, Aziza had come to accept that her assumption had been the correct one. The handsome Roman was gone back to Rome, perhaps never to return. Basima was to visit her uncle in Hegra with her mother and father. A match had been set between her cousin and herself, and they were to become betrothed. Basima was not overly pleased, for she, like Aziza, had often dreamed of falling in love, but marriage for love did not exist. "Love comes with time," was what old women said to the young, and that was all they could hope for.
Basima’s departure meant Aziza was alone. Of course, there was Khalto Nafisa, but Aziza would never have confessed her feelings toward the Roman to her aunt. By the end of summer, Basima and her family had left Jerusalem. Aziza spent her days sitting in the enclosed garden listening to the water flow in the grand marble fountain while reading or embroidering, and then it happened. Unexpectedly and much to her happy surprise.
Khalto Nafisa invited Aziza to accompany her to the home of the family member who had given birth earlier that summer. Aziza did not feel up to it, but it was far better than sitting in the garden listening to the fountain, so she went. As they walked toward the family member’s home, Khalto Nafisa tapped Aziza's arm, motioning for the girl to move aside as not to be in the way of the approaching soldiers. Aziza, who had been lost in thought as she walked alongside her aunt, looked up, and suddenly her feet stopped moving.
“Aziza!” Khalto Nafisa called to her niece, who was frozen in place. "Ya, Aziza, what is the matter with you?” Khalto Nafisa spoke in Arabic so as not to be understood by the soldiers for Romans in Judea understood Aramaic.
“Yallah, yakhti, walk, walk before these animals trample us!” But when Nafisa followed her niece’s line of sight, she understood the girl’s reaction.
The handsome Roman, walking on the outside of the group, looked up, and his eyes locked on Aziza's. He almost seemed to stop in his tracks. Still, he continued walking alongside the other soldiers, seeming to appear unobvious and unaffected, but his eyes betrayed him. They seemed to want nothing more than to look in the direction of the girl.
“Marcus? Did you hear what I just said?” The officer who walked beside him.
Marcus tore his eyes away from Aziza and looked back at his commanding officer, unsure of what to say since he had not heard a word the man had spoken. Not after having locked eyes on the most beautiful girl, he had ever seen: tall, slender, olive-skinned, and eyes like a dove, innocent, curious, and angelic. Even after walking passed the women, Marcus turned back for one final look only to find the girl had turned back to look at him.
They both smiled.