Translator’s Note: Wajdi al-Ahdal’s The Colonel’s Wedding won first prize for scriptwriting at the Ninth Arab Youth Theatre Festival in Alexandria in 1997. At that time, its central trope—the struggle to consummate, or to avoid consummating, a marriage between two characters who are deceiving each other about their true identities—would have been obvious to Yemeni audiences as a metaphor for the deeply flawed reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990. Similarly, the play’s military allusions would have recalled the South’s subsequent attempt to re-secede, culminating in the civil war of 1994 and the brutal invasion of Aden, the South’s former capital.
But the play, like much of al-Ahdal’s work, also grapples with issues that remain relevant to Yemen and around the world today, like corruption at the highest echelons of national authority; the immunity of the powerful from prosecution for criminal behavior; and the fragility of the state in the face of unscrupulous coalitions determined to enrich themselves by any means available to them.
ASKAR, an army colonel
AFAF, daughter of a high-ranking government official
HATEM, the colonel’s bodyguard
NAWAL, AFAF’s personal assistant
Set: a darkened bedroom. Left, a sumptuous bed with red sheets, on which sit a tape recorder and speakers. Just above the bed, two rifles hang vertically on the wall, barrels pointed downward. Next to the bed, a small nightstand. Right, the bedroom door. Center, a coatrack; an imposing military uniform adorned with medals and red ribbons hangs on the rack, with an army cap above it and a long military coat next to it. Next to these, a corkboard, with photographs of varying sizes pinned to it, depicting around twenty people. Three small arrows, the kind used to play darts, protrude from three of the photos attached to the corkboard.
A traditional Yemeni wedding song plays, faintly at first but gradually increasing in volume.
SINGER Welcome, welcome to Bader Al-Tamam![*]
In the dark of night there shone a crescent moon (sound of trilling and ululation)
Dance and sing, girls, and you’ll win a handsome groom (sound of heavy gunfire)
All blessings on the bride! Keep envy and evil from her! (both sounds together: festive trills and intermittent gunfire)
The rams are on their way to be slaughtered at Al-Azhar (the sound of loud explosions rattles the bedroom walls)
The rams are on their way to be slaughtered—(the singer screams in panic. A muffled clamor, then complete silence).
The bedroom door opens slowly and carefully, and a slender column of light seeps into the room. A man in his mid-thirties enters. He is wearing dark glasses and an elegant black suit. He crosses to the left and turns on the lights, which flood the room with brightness.
MAN IN HIS THIRTIES Afaf . . . Afaf . . . (raises his voice, yelling) Afaf, come here!
A young woman wearing a white wedding dress runs in and closes the door quickly, as if being chased by a monster. She fixes her gaze on the door, her eyes wide open and glinting with fear. Her chest rises and falls heavily, her gasping breath audible from afar.
COLONEL Why are you so frightened? (lights a cigarette)
AFAF Are you kidding? What kind of question is that—and coming from you! You’re supposed to be the great military officer! (wipes perspiration from her brow with a white handkerchief) Did you not hear those explosions?
COLONEL (laughs) Oh, baby, those are just my friends—army officers demonstrating how happy they are that we’re getting married.
AFAF With hand grenades? I was so terrified I nearly fainted!
COLONEL Stun grenades don’t do any real damage (grins broadly). You’ll have to forgive them—they’re just excited for us, and this is how they celebrate. It’s festive, even if it’s a bit much (walks over to the board and picks up a dart). And in any case, you should be grateful that I didn’t allow them to come in their tanks!
AFAF (under her breath) Goddamnit, how did I let myself get dragged into this mess? (The walls of the room shudder at the sound of a massive explosion. Afaf falls to her knees and cries out in fear) What was that?
COLONEL (throwing darts at the “Most Wanted” photos, clearly enjoying himself) That’s an armor-piercing RPG, and as noted on the wedding agenda, that shell is the signal for disengagement. In other words, we’ve just let our guests know it’s time for them to leave.
AFAF (stands up, crosses her arms, and stares angrily at him) Are you trying to tell me you’re deliberately making our wedding look like some military maneuver?
COLONEL (speaks while aiming darts with great precision) I am a colonel in the army, and I thought it would be fitting for our wedding to end with a bang. To fire me up for—
She flashes him a look; he meets her eyes for a moment but then looks away, embarrassed. Afaf shakes her head as if in disbelief, her mouth wide. A pregnant pause, fraught with tension. Then Afaf purses her lips, turns her head, and approaches the dartboard.
AFAF Who are the people in these photos?
COLONEL (pauses mid-aim) Those are our most wanted criminals.
AFAF (looks more closely at the photos) Really? Why are you throwing darts at them?
COLONEL I’m working on my aim, and those guys help keep me motivated.
AFAF (walks around him, eyeing him closely) This game is giving me a bad impression of you.
COLONEL (smiles, keeps playing) That’s great. What sort of bad impression, exactly?
AFAF (stops in front of him, looks him in the eye) I’ll tell you, but promise me you won’t get angry.
COLONEL I promise. Go ahead, say it.
AFAF I think you’re aggressive, frankly, and that you enjoy violence.
COLONEL (moves her out of his way brusquely, and goes back to throwing darts) Thank you.
AFAF Thanks for what? Those are bad qualities, frightening qualities. They make me afraid of you.
COLONEL So my prayers have been answered.
AFAF You mean you want me to be afraid?
COLONEL That’s right—I like my women that way.
AFAF Are you are serious? Because unless you’re kidding . . . (walks away from him and grabs the doorknob, as though gesturing for him to leave) you’re sadistic. You’re sick in the head. You think it’s fun to torture people. Which explains why you’ve organized this whole military display—because you figured you’d enjoy watching me scream and shudder. Every bone in my body is shaking with shock at the horror and the din!
COLONEL (indifferently) It’s good you’re seeing who I really am, right from our first night together. That way you’ll never be disappointed.
Afaf opens her mouth, searching for a response, but remains silent, except for a heavy sigh. She perches on the bed and examines the tape recorder. When she presses the play button, soothing music plays, slowly diminishing the tension.
AFAF (biting her lower lip) Darling.
AFAF (poses seductively on the bed) Shall I turn off the lights?
AFAF (surprised) Why not?
COLONEL (turns and the dart falls from his hand. He bends down to pick it up.) Sorry, but I can’t see my targets without the lights. How am I supposed to aim in the dark? (laughs curtly, throws dart).
AFAF (looking down at herself, smoothing her dress, with mounting excitement) Great colonel—
AFAF Why don’t we entertain ourselves?
COLONEL Entertain ourselves how? You want to play “bride and groom” games?
AFAF No—get those dirty thoughts out of your head! Come over here, and I’ll explain what I have in mind.
COLONEL (suspiciously) Just innocent entertainment?
AFAF (crosses her legs, rests her hand on her thigh) Of course! Now come over here!
COLONEL (sticks the darts in the corkboard) Fine . . . but (approaches the bed, cautiously) but . . . (sits on the edge of the bed, visibly tense) Don’t you . . . I . . . I’m warning you . . . I—
AFAF You what?
COLONEL (gulps and blushes, suddenly shy) I . . . Listen, you shouldn’t be afraid of me . . . Um, what was the entertainment you were talking about?
AFAF Ahhh, I was thinking we should tell each other about our dreams. You tell me the most wonderful dream you’ve ever had, and I’ll tell you mine.
COLONEL But I’ve had so many dreams.
AFAF Pick one—the best, the most beautiful one!
COLONEL All right. But on one condition.
AFAF (sweetly) What condition?
COLONEL Nothing too sexy.
AFAF (exhales, irritated) I don’t have the patience for this.
AFAF (clasps her hands, petulant) Fine, go ahead. You first—tell me your smarmy dream. I mean “charming.” Your charming dream.
COLONEL (bows slightly to her, as though responding to a command from a superior) At your service. (happily, as though recalling a fond memory) About three years ago, I had a dream that I was a passenger on a cruise ship docked in the Fiji Islands. We were on a lush green island with beautiful tropical weather . . . (lights fade slowly to blackout)
We hear the roar of ocean waves, the cries of seagulls, and the sound of a ship’s horn.
The lights come up slowly, and rhythmic music plays.
Four young women enter carrying a throne, which they place midstage. A man enters, masked, wearing a regal robe and a golden crown, and holding a scepter adorned with precious jewels. He sits on the throne. The young women begin to dance. The colonel joins the women, dancing with them.
After a short time, the colonel approaches the king and shoots him in the head. The dancers scream in shock and grief. The music stops.
The colonel takes the crown and places it on his own head. He pulls the king’s corpse off the throne and throws it to the ground. He sits on the throne, holding the scepter, and rests his feet on the king’s body.
He points his pistol threateningly at an unseen target, and the music comes back on. Then he aims toward the dancers, who begin to dance again.
Lights fade. We hear the roar of ocean waves, the cries of seagulls and the sound of a ship’s horn.
Lights come up slowly.
COLONEL Oh, what a fantastic dream! It felt like I spent ten years there, in total happiness, ruling those lush, gorgeous islands, reveling in women, wealth, and absolute power.
AFAF My dear colonel, my stallion, would you mind if I try to interpret your dream in psychological terms?
COLONEL I don’t mind at all. Proceed. And take your time.
AFAF Your dream is a reflection of the evil urges that you repress, like your desire to act violently toward others. Your subconscious mind burns for revenge against society, so your dream shows you the fulfillment of your urge to destroy things that are good and just and humane. Your dream reveals your twisted soul, and its secret desire to sabotage people’s normal existence, and to sow seeds of conflict among different parts of society. Your dream demonstrates that there’s a dangerous criminal lurking in the deep recesses of your psyche.
COLONEL (smiling) What have I done to deserve such praise?
AFAF (stares at him with disgust) What the—I don’t think you’ve heard what I’m saying. Let me boil it down for you: I think you’re a criminal. One hundred percent, a criminal.
COLONEL No, my naive little bird—I am a colonel. When people call me a criminal, I take it as a compliment. I’m proud of it—proud as a peacock. (paces, thoughtfully) You must be able to see how calling me a criminal is like a promotion. Like brigadier general.
AFAF I don’t feel proud to have a criminal for a husband.
COLONEL I, on the contrary, am quite proud to have a criminal for a wife.
AFAF (stunned) I—I don’t know what to say to that. Are you on drugs? You must be either drunk or high, because no one in his right mind would spout this sort of nonsense. (comes close to him, to smell his breath)
COLONEL (backs away from her) Please, don’t get so close. You’re getting on my nerves.
AFAF (follows him, tries to hold on to him) I just want to smell your breath. I want to know what you’re using.
COLONEL (retreats to a corner) Request for proximity denied. (glances at his watch) It’s time for you to live up to your part of the deal. I told you my dream. Now it’s your turn.
AFAF I don’t know what to tell you. I feel like you’re trying to run away from me, my sweet little colonel.
COLONEL Don’t try to get out of it. Tell me your favorite dream. Now.
AFAF (rests her chin on her hand) Give me a minute to remember it . . . Right . . . A couple of years ago, I had a dream that I was living in the Fiji Islands. I was the wife of the ruler.
COLONEL (skeptically) What a bizarre coincidence—I had a dream about Fiji, and you did too. And I dreamed I became the ruler, and you dreamed you were the ruler’s wife . . .
AFAF Look, buddy, this is my dream and I’m free to talk about it. So listen and don’t interrupt me. (He covers his mouth with his hand, as though promising not to speak.) I dreamed I was living a life of pleasure, comfort, and extravagance. I was spending money without ever having to think about it . . . (lights down slowly)
Festive sounds of music, fireworks. Lights up gradually. Four girls carry in a couch and place it midstage. Afaf stretches out on it. The girls place a crown of gold on her head and dance around her.
AFAF I am the First Lady. My days are filled with parties, dancing, and singing. And when the people protest (sounds of an angry crowd chanting), I just give them one of my dancing girls. (points to one of the young women. The others seize her. She resists, but they drag her offstage.) They’ll tear her to pieces, because they think she’s the wife of the ruler. They think she’s me. (laughs)
The dancing continues; the angry crowd screams again, and another dancer is sacrificed. This series of events is repeated until Afaf remains alone.
The music stops, and the lights go out.
AFAF What do you think of my dream, my splendid colonel?
COLONEL You—in your dream, you sacrificed those poor girls to save your own skin. It’s too vile a dream for a woman like you to have. Your face is like an angel’s—there’s no way there could be thoughts like these behind it.
AFAF My dream contains a message for you. Did you not understand it?
COLONEL (turns and paces with great anxiety) I don’t know what message you’re talking about. But I need you to do me a favor.
AFAF Just ask.
COLONEL My dream has an ending I didn’t share with you. Can I tell you the rest?
AFAF The night is ours, colonel, and you’re my knight in shining armor. Do as you like!
Lights brighten gradually throughout the scene.
The four girls enter and dance to the music. A soldier enters, carrying the throne, which he places midstage. He stands at attention next to it.
The colonel approaches, dressed in his royal robes, wearing the crown and carrying the scepter. The soldier salutes. The colonel sits down and crosses his legs, enjoying the music and dance. The soldier stands guard just behind the colonel.
Suddenly we hear the sound of an exploding bomb. The music stops, the lights flicker, the colonel falls from the throne, the dancers drop to the floor. Only the soldier remains upright.
Hearing the sound of gunfire, the soldier takes up a protective stance in front of his ruler, who is still lying on the ground. The gunfire stops and the colonel stands up. He takes off his royal cape and drapes it over the soldier. He takes the crown from his head and puts it on the soldier’s. Then he hands him the scepter and seats him on the throne.
Again the sound of gunfire, much heavier than before. The colonel gets down on the ground, crawls toward the bed, and hides beneath it.
The high, screeching sound of an explosive shell. The soldier dies, as do the young women, all killed by the shell.
The lights fade to black as the gunfire continues.
Bright light. The colonel comes out from under the bed.
COLONEL So . . . what do you think of my dream?
AFAF What do I think? I think you’re an asshole. You just abandon the people you rule at the first hint of danger? Your bodyguard did his duty; he acted with honor. Why didn’t you?
COLONEL (laughs) You’re really taking this seriously. It was just a dream!
AFAF (sits and fixes her gaze on him) No. Your dream wasn’t just a dream. I feel like . . . like you’re trying to tell me a secret. Like you want to send me messages in code, through your dream. It’s clever.
COLONEL (throws a dart at the corkboard, misses by a mile, grunts) Don’t let your imagination run wild. If you do, you’ll spend your whole life tormented by doubts and little voices in your head.
AFAF (falls silent. Fidgets, watches the colonel, and sighs) So . . . are you just going to keep playing?
COLONEL (aims again, with his back to Afaf) I’m not playing.
AFAF What are you doing, then?
COLONEL I’m thinking.
AFAF What are you thinking about?
COLONEL (smiles): The same thing you’re thinking about.
AFAF (with a coy laugh) That’s good. Why don’t you come over here, so we can think together, out loud?
COLONEL No, sorry—the army taught me to keep things top secret. Confidential.
AFAF (sighs) Hmmm . . . I may have misjudged you—perhaps I’ve been too hasty, assumed too much. But now I’m getting a better read on your personality.
COLONEL I hope one day you’ll understand me completely, little lamb.
AFAF (gets up from the bed, goes toward him) I think I should play with you. It’ll help bring down the psychological barrier between us.
COLONEL (eyes her as she approaches. Holds up a dart, threateningly, as though to throw it at her if she comes any closer) Retreat. Back to where you were. I’ll be the one to come to you . . . once I’m through.
AFAF (retreats, puts her hand on the bedpost) Through with what? Your game?
COLONEL No—I told you, I’m thinking. (wipes his brow with the sleeve of his jacket) I’m devising my strategy.
AFAF What strategy?
COLONEL (turns his back on her, throws a dart) For the . . . invasion.
AFAF The invasion?!? (sits on the bed, uneasy) Our relationship isn’t a guerrilla war! You don’t need a strategy, you’re not invading. If it helps, I’ll wave a white flag. I surrender, unconditionally.
COLONEL If I weren’t such an experienced soldier, I’d believe you. But I can sense an ambush.
AFAF (sighs audibly, exasperated) Fine. Have a good night. (lies down, covers herself with the red coverlet)
COLONEL (lets out a sigh of relief) Good night to you too. (Sticks the darts in the corkboard and tries to tiptoe out of the room)
AFAF (sits up) Where are you going, Colonel?
COLONEL (dances around, as though he needs to pee) Um, I need to use the bathroom.
AFAF Shall I come with you? Do you need a hand?
COLONEL (panicked) No! And don’t go snooping around here while I’m away.
The colonel leaves the room, closing the door behind him. Afaf lies down again, but feels something unusual under her pillow. She lifts up the pillow and finds a revolver. Examining it, she realizes it is loaded. Her expression changes; she clearly has had an idea. She gets up quickly, strides over to the light switch, and turns off the lights. The colonel opens the door and pokes his head through.
COLONEL (speaking in a low voice) Afaf . . . Are you asleep? (She does not respond.) That’s better. (He shuts the door slowly, but just before it closes, Afaf taps on the bedroom wall. He freezes, his hand on the knob, and listens. Afaf taps again, louder this time) Afaf . . . Are you making that noise?
The colonel enters and moves toward the light switch. As he turns the lights on, he feels the barrel of the gun pressed against the side of his head. Right next to him, her back pressed against the wall, Afaf looks at him seductively.
AFAF If you don’t obey my orders, I’ll be forced to shoot you.
COLONEL (raises his hands in surrender) Damn. Who’d have guessed that my wedding night would end like this—with me a prisoner!
AFAF (in a brusque military tone) Face left.
COLONEL (obeys) Exactly the ambush I was afraid of!
AFAF Forward march! (The colonel takes a few steps forward. Afaf prods him till he reaches the bed) Steady . . . At ease . . . Steady . . . Lie down!
COLONEL I’m truly sorry, but that’s the one order I can’t carry out.
AFAF Why not? Did you tear a hole in the back of your pants during the wedding ceremony?
COLONEL Don’t joke. I won’t sleep with you. My honor as an officer is at stake.
AFAF That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Now get into bed and let me get on with it.
COLONEL Before I do, there’s something I must confess.
AFAF (raises an eyebrow) What must you confess?
COLONEL I can’t perform. And I don’t love you.
AFAF (starts to lose her grip on the pistol. Thinks for a moment, then digs the barrel into his back, angrily) Then why did you marry me?
COLONEL (indifferently) Because everyone gets married.
AFAF (disgusted) So you don’t need me—you just want to conform to social expectations?
COLONEL (sighs with relief) Exactly . . . So you have understood what I’ve been trying to tell you this whole time.
AFAF (walks around him, watching him with disgust) So I’m just a mask—you’re just using me to cover up your inadequacies? Is that what you’re telling me?
COLONEL (looks down, as if embarrassed) The truth leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. But I’ve consulted doctors about it, and I’m confident that they’ll be able to solve the problem soon.
AFAF (walks away from him slowly, upstage) Is this why you’ve been acting so weird? You thought if you frightened me, that would distract me from your . . . problem?
COLONEL (sighs) Yeah, but my strategy failed. Instead of sowing terror and doubt in your heart, I’ve just made you feel pity for me.
AFAF You think I’ve taken pity on you?!? Absolutely not. I loathe you, more than I’ve ever loathed anyone in my entire life!
COLONEL Pity or contempt—look them both up in a woman’s dictionary and you’ll find their meanings are exactly the same.
AFAF That’s a nasty lie . . . Where’s the phone?
COLONEL In the next room. Why? Who are you calling?
AFAF (walks backward, carefully, toward the door) None of your business, you impotent jerk.
COLONEL (sees that she has opened the door and is about to leave) If you’re thinking of calling your father, I’d advise against it.
AFAF (looks at him with scorn) Save your advice for the doctors who can’t figure out what’s wrong with you.
COLONEL My dear, if people learn that you went back to your family’s house on our first night, you know what they’ll think: that I discovered you weren’t a virgin. (shakes his head as though in sympathy, as she gazes at him, stunned)
AFAF (slams the door violently) Shut up, you piece of garbage! (tosses the gun aside, covers her face with her hands, and sobs)
COLONEL (sits on the edge of the bed and lights a cigarette) If you think crying is going to cure my . . . problem, you’re wrong.
AFAF Goddamn you. (walks over to the bed, perches atop her pillow) You should douse yourself in kerosene and set yourself on fire. Rid the world of you.
COLONEL I had the same idea.
AFAF (looks into his eyes, interested) Have you really thought about setting yourself on fire?
COLONEL No, but I’ve thought about setting you on fire (laughs).
AFAF (punches him in the back) Wretch. And put out that cigarette. The smell is unbearable.
COLONEL OK, OK. (puts out the cigarette and stares at the bedroom wall).
AFAF (watching him, perplexed) Hey! Why are you staring like that at the wall? It’s like you’ve never seen it before.
COLONEL I’m thinking, Afaf, my dear—I’m thinking.
AFAF (leans over and grabs him) You’re only thinking about one thing: how to avoid looking in my eyes!
COLONEL (moves away, still sitting on the bed) I’m afraid you’re like the sun: staring at you could make me go blind.
AFAF (moves toward him again) I swear, I think that’s the first true thing you’ve ever said to me. (The colonel stands up, alarmed. He faces the audience; his lips move in confusion, as though he is trying to say something.) You’re in love with me.
COLONEL (struggling to control his emotions) No.
AFAF You love me, but you’re resisting it. (stands up, walks over to him)
COLONEL (sotto voce) This is a disaster. (moves away from her) So tell me—what did you study at the university? What was your major?
AFAF Why are you trying to change the subject?
COLONEL I’m not changing the subject. I just want to know something about the woman standing in front of me.
AFAF That makes no sense. How could you have married me without knowing the most basic facts about me?
COLONEL Your father’s to blame for that—he’s still living in the Dark Ages. Wouldn’t even let me see your face. Not once. How could I have learned anything about you?
AFAF You’re a colonel in the army. You could easily have gotten information on me.
COLONEL (paces aimlessly around the room, trying to control his anxiety) I admit I thought about it, but your father’s a powerful member of the government. If he’d ever gotten wind of the fact that I was spying on his daughter, he’d have hit me where it counts. Everyone knows he’s malicious and won’t let go of a grudge.
AFAF (angrily) My father is a successful man, so of course envious men like you try to slander him.
COLONEL That’s an empty defense. What excuse can you make for him marrying you off to a man you’ve never seen, and know nothing about? (She sits down on the edge of the bed, silent.) Nothing to say to that? Your father told me how he treated you when you begged him to at least show you a picture of me. (walks toward her, raises his voice) He brought out a blank piece of paper, drew a bird and two stars on it, and told you (imitates the father’s voice) “Look, there’s your future husband.” Isn’t that right? (Afaf stretches out on the bed and pulls the coverlet over her head. He chuckles.) Nighty-night! And by the way—I know you graduated with a degree in psychology. (Afaf pulls the coverlet down, revealing her face.) Ha! The price of a girl with a degree is pretty cheap these days!
AFAF (disturbed) What are you talking about, you moron?
COLONEL (smiling sarcastically) Hmmm, how to put this? You’re perishable merchandise, and your vendor was worried about your expiration date. So we were able to make a deal fast, your father and I. One phone call was all it took.
AFAF (doesn’t believe him) You clearly suffer from some mental illness.
COLONEL (in a firm, serious tone) Nope. I know you’ve studied psychology and want to analyze me, but I’m just giving you the facts, pure and simple: it took a grand total of three phone calls for your father and me to come to an agreement on every last detail of your marriage to me. (Afaf shakes her head in denial) At this point, I’m sure you see how little you mean to anyone.
AFAF (weeps) Are you throwing it in my face that I had to marry you?
COLONEL (puts his face right in front of hers, as if to provoke her) Like you threw it in my face that I’m impotent.
AFAF (stares at his crotch) Except you’re not! (This startles the colonel, who turns his back on her in confusion.) Why turn your back on me? What are you afraid of? Why spend all this time jumping around from one topic to the next, trying to ensure that we don’t get close to each other? If you have some sort of phobia, tell me what it is and maybe I can help you. (He puts on his military coat, which comes down to his knees.) And what the—why are you putting your coat on? Planning to go out?
COLONEL (trying to avoid her gaze) No, I’m just a little cold.
AFAF (sweetly, coaxing) If you’re cold, why don’t you stretch out here on the bed, and warm yourself up under this nice thick quilt? Come on, take off your coat and some of those clothes, and come over here.
COLONEL (turns his back on her again, suppressing a nervous laugh) You’re a clever little witch.
AFAF (with a broad smile) And you’re trying to keep a secret from me—but I promise you, it won’t take me long to figure out what it is. Come over here.
COLONEL (trying to hide his anxiety) Give me just a minute.
AFAF Never in my life have I seen a colonel disobey so many orders. (gets up, picks up the gun, and aims it at the colonel) Come here, and don’t try any funny stuff. (She pokes him in the back with the gun, and he puts his hands up, as though by reflex. He takes a few steps back to the bed, until he is standing beside her. She prods him with the pistol) Come on!
COLONEL Damn it, what am I doing?
AFAF (jabs him again with the gun) Strip down.
COLONEL No—I can’t. Honestly—I’m a very shy man.
AFAF What if I turn the lights off? (moves toward the light switch)
COLONEL (with an unexpected degree of fright) No! I . . . I’m also terrified of the dark.
AFAF Then I’m afraid we have no choice, Colonel. Come on, clothes off. (She presses the pistol into his back and he squirms.)
COLONEL All right, all right. Can you just give me five minutes?
AFAF What for? You need to do some warm-up exercises?
COLONEL No . . . but (takes a book out of a drawer in the nightstand) I have a book here that provides tips about what to do on your wedding night, and I just want to skim through it again. I’ll be quick.
AFAF Oh for God’s sake. You’re already in the middle of this exam—if you pull out a book now, you’ll be cheating.
COLONEL Yeah, I know, but (sweating profusely; pulls a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and wipes his forehead) if I don’t do at least a quick review of the information, I’ll go blank when I see the . . . when they pass out the exam!
AFAF (tries not to laugh) All right then, reread your lessons. Maybe they’ll remind you what “virility” means.
The colonel pages through the book quickly and nervously, mumbling to himself in a low voice. Afaf paces in a circle around the bed, then sits by her pillow, still training the gun on him.
AFAF (harshly) Sit there and reread quietly. You’re getting on my nerves!
COLONEL Sorry. But don’t interrupt me; it breaks my concentration.
AFAF (fiddles a bit with the gun, then looks at her watch, irritated) Your five minutes are up.
COLONEL All right . . . Will you allow me to take just a short walk, to the next room?
AFAF No. If you leave this room, it’ll be over my dead body.
COLONEL But there’s an important text there that I need to consult before I take any further action. Otherwise, I might do something I’ll regret.
AFAF You’d spend days, years, poring over your “texts” . . . While you’re at it, why don’t you write a dissertation on how you manage to keep putting me off?
COLONEL (the ghost of a smile on his lips) That’s a great suggestion.
AFAF (pulling the book out of his hand) Arrrgh! I’ve been much more patient with you than you deserve.
COLONEL OK—could you give me just one minute (pulls a pile of papers, held together with a paper clip, out of the nightstand drawer) to quickly skim through this summary?
Afaf lets out a cry of intense distress. She rips the papers out of his hand and tears them into pieces, then looks into the drawer, where she finds more instruction booklets.
AFAF All these manuals?!? (picks them up and throws them into a corner of the room, then strides over to him and digs the gun into him) This time, I swear, I’m going to shoot—you’ve hit my very last nerve. I gave you an order. Follow it. Now.
COLONEL Easy . . . easy, my love . . . Remember, you haven’t figured out the secret yet. Aren’t you dying to know what it is?
AFAF Liar. There’s no secret here except the mystery of your lack of . . . a spine.
COLONEL Oh, there’s a secret. A dangerous secret. A secret that forced me to invent all of these silly tricks, just to keep me from responding to you.
AFAF (removes the pistol from his back) I bet this “secret” is just another one of your tricks, but what difference does it make? Go ahead, I’m listening, you weirdo.
COLONEL (breathes a sigh of relief) Five months ago, my love, I got a tip-off about the location of a gang of thugs who were blocking roads. They were near our camp, and our security forces weren’t able to take care of them, so I had to send a battalion of my soldiers to attack the gang on their turf. We killed two and captured nine of them, but the rest escaped. Unfortunately, the gang turned out to be much stronger than we realized. After just a short time they busted the nine prisoners out of our camp prison. They killed a guard, and then assassinated the officer who led the operation. And now they’re trying to take me out.
AFAF I don’t believe it. Your men killed two of theirs, and they killed two of yours. Problem solved. It was a blood debt, but now the score is settled.
COLONEL They used to think like that, but lately they’ve been watching Hollywood blockbusters and it’s gone to their heads.
AFAF So you’re saying I could be a widow any day now?
COLONEL You could become a widow on your wedding night.
AFAF Are you serious? Are you telling me the truth?
COLONEL I thought it was better for you not to know that members of an armed gang were planning to assassinate me during the wedding ceremony.
AFAF You are seriously demented.
COLONEL No, I’m not. I was given top secret information, just three days before our wedding date, that the gang had planned to assassinate me during the wedding. I did everything I could to convince your father to push back the date of the ceremony, so that I could take additional precautions and countermeasures. He investigated the matter, but then absolutely refused to delay the wedding—which forced me to take steps that I would never have imagined.
AFAF You mean those crowds of soldiers and their weapons?
COLONEL No, my love. I’ve taken steps to disguise myself from this gang that would never even cross your mind.
AFAF Tell me what you mean, and fast—this is making my head spin!
The deep voice of a man issuing orders.
COLONEL Oh, thank God. Do you know whose voice we hear, roaring out there?
COLONEL That’s your husband. (calls) Colonel, sir! (bows to Afaf politely) Excuse me, ma’am.
Afaf puts her hand over her mouth, trying to rein in her astonishment. The decoy colonel takes off the military coat and hangs it up, heads toward the door and opens it, and then stands at attention, prepared to salute. The real colonel can be heard speaking outside the room.
COLONEL’S VOICE They’re in my grasp. And when I get through with them, they’ll wish they’d never been born.
The real Colonel enters, wearing an elegant black suit. He is around fifty years old.
COLONEL (addressing the decoy colonel, who is his bodyguard): Ah, Hatem. Is everything all right?
HATEM Sir, yes sir!
COLONEL And you didn’t lay a hand on her with corrupt intent? Or even with virtuous intent?
HATEM If my actions had in any way transgressed the boundaries of my mission, I would dispatch myself on the spot, sir.
COLONEL (as though a dark cloud of anxiety has been lifted) Good man, Hatem. Expect a promotion in the near future. You may withdraw.
HATEM Thank you, sir, and good night. (leaves, closing the door behind him)
AFAF (lifts the gun and aims at his face as he approaches) Who are you?
COLONEL I am your husband, Colonel Askar. Did my bodyguard not explain to you that I asked him to stand in for me during the wedding ceremony in order to protect myself?
AFAF (her face burning with anger) You asshole—you protect yourself, but you leave me and that poor guy exposed? We could have died! We could have been shot!
COLONEL Don’t be so melodramatic. The gang’s snipers are highly skilled, so the only way you would’ve been in danger is if they sent a suicide bomber. But they weren’t interested in you.
AFAF I’m being melodramatic? You’re the one doing despicable deeds like a cartoon villain! You put me in danger! You turned me into a human shield! You used me as bait for your enemies! How dare you? You know who my father is. And I swear to God, I won’t sleep till he puts you in prison!
COLONEL (tries to approach her, but she moves away from him toward the bedroom door) Try to see things from my perspective. I was with the two of you for the whole ceremony, buzzing around you like a bee, with my soldiers—all in plain clothes—and we succeeded in arresting numerous suspects. So it was impossible for anything bad to have happened to you.
AFAF (suddenly realizes that he has come closer and closer to her while speaking the previous lines. Opens the door, and prepares to leave) No, what’s impossible is me agreeing to remain married to the biggest coward on the face of the earth. I want a divorce.
The colonel pretends he sees someone behind her who is about to strike her.
COLONEL Nooooo . . .
Afaf whips around in fear, and the colonel seizes his opportunity. He grabs the pistol with his left hand and strikes her hand with his right. Afaf lets out a loud cry of pain and drops the gun, which the colonel catches with a practiced motion.
AFAF (falls to her knees in pain, clutching her hand) You broke my hand, you son of a bitch!
COLONEL I’m only going to say this once: insult me again and I’ll rip out your tongue and give it to my soldiers to use for target practice.
AFAF (terrified) You’re a monster!
She tries to run but he grabs her left hand (not the broken one) and throws her onto the bed. He closes the door, then turns to the light switch and turns off the lights.
AFAF By all that’s holy—on your mother’s soul—or what would you swear on? On your T-72 tank?—you need to hear about the mistake your bodyguard made.
COLONEL (hesitates for a moment, then turns the lights back on) You’re a little snake, aren’t you, trying to turn me against one of my loyal soldiers? I assure you, I trust my men completely. And to prove that, I’d take out all the women in the world, if I had to.
AFAF (sits on the edge of the bed) His extreme loyalty to you caused him to betray us both.
COLONEL Your words are like poison in my ears—but by God, I won’t fall for any woman’s tricks!
AFAF Well, you’re the one who concocted the poison, so don’t pretend this isn’t your fault. Aren’t you the one who left me alone with your bodyguard, who impersonated you so well that I fell in love with him? He stole my heart, and now he burns like fire in my blood!
COLONEL (devastated. Sits on the bed) You slut—you just sit there and admit that you’re in love with my bodyguard? You just say that, to my face?
AFAF And you gave me the poison yourself. You ordered him to treat me politely and respectfully; if you’d told him to behave violently and cruelly toward me, I’d hate him every bit as much as I hate you. With all my heart.
COLONEL Enough. That’s enough. Say another word and I’ll kill you on the spot, you cheap whore.
The colonel buries his head in his hands, while Afaf starts to cry silently, wiping away her tears with a blue embroidered handkerchief. The colonel stretches out on the bed, pulls up the covers, and stares at the ceiling.
COLONEL Get out of my room. I never want to see your wretched face again. Get out.
AFAF (gets up reluctantly, opens the door as if to leave, but hesitates) You’re a powerful man, Colonel. If you treat me a little better, I could be a loyal friend of yours.
COLONEL Well, well, well—look how quickly this chameleon changes her colors!
AFAF Sometimes friendship is more powerful, and more enduring, than love.
COLONEL What are you suggesting? That we should just be friends?
AFAF Anyone can get married—but true friendship is a rare thing.
COLONEL Oh, great—so we’ll be friends, and you’ll save your love for my bodyguard? That’s ridiculous!
AFAF Look, I realize I’ve wounded your pride, and I’m prepared to keep apologizing until you forgive me.
COLONEL Save your apologies for your father. I divorce you!
AFAF (closes the door, stands next to the colonel, and smiles at him) Thankfully, sir, you can’t really divorce me.
COLONEL (dumbfounded) The insolence! I said I divorce you. So we’re divorced. You think you’re immune to this? You’ve been vaccinated against divorce?
AFAF No, but it seems my father was smarter than you in planning for these disasters.
COLONEL (sits up) Planning for these disasters? How?
AFAF When you asked my father so urgently to delay the wedding date, he suspected something. So he asked his personal contacts to find out what the emergency was.
COLONEL Aha! So your father had heard they were threatening to assassinate me tonight?
AFAF Yes. He’d also heard about all the steps you’d taken to protect your own safety.
COLONEL (grumbles) Goddamn security forces. Can’t keep a secret.
A cheerful knock at the door, like a drumbeat.
AFAF Do you know who that is, knocking at the door?
The colonel is speechless. He gestures toward the door with his hand.
AFAF That’s right. It’s your wife Afaf. The real Afaf is the one who’s knocking—I’m just her personal assistant.
The colonel stands still for a moment, stunned. The decoy Afaf shakes her head.
More rhythmic knocking at the door. The colonel opens it, and a beautiful young woman enters, wearing a white wedding dress.
AFAF Good evening, Colonel. (shakes his hand, self-possessed)
COLONEL (dazzled by her beauty) It’s a beautiful evening, ma’am. Majestic.
AFAF (strolls around the room, examining its contents) I hope my personal assistant Nawal hasn’t won too much of your admiration, Colonel.
COLONEL (following her around, like a child trailing after his mother) No, no—on the contrary, she made me detest her so much I divorced her. She executed her mission perfectly.
NAWAL I would be honored to consider you a friend, Colonel—and I do hope you don’t disapprove of my love for your bodyguard Hatem.
She heads toward the door, while the colonel pulls his bride toward the bed.
COLONEL Not at all—I’m delighted to have made such a clever, loyal friend. Consider yourself a part of our new family. And as for Hatem, I’ll throw him a real wedding ASAP.
NAWAL (beaming) Thank you, sir. And a very good night to you both. (exits, closing the door behind her)
AFAF I think, sir, after everything that’s happened, you can’t really blame me or my father for what we’ve done.
COLONEL (euphoric) Of course not. In fact, I can’t think of a more fitting family for an army colonel to have married into!
AFAF (nods her head) We could actually turn out to be quite compatible.
COLONEL Yes, I think we could. (glances at his watch) Uh-oh, we only have fifteen minutes till prayer time at dawn. What do you think we should do?
AFAF Well, let’s not waste any more time with small talk. The only thing we’re missing is a crowd of well-wishers.
COLONEL And in any case, it’d be wrong for us to accept congratulations for a wedding that didn’t actually happen. Right?
AFAF (coyly) That’s right.
COLONEL So let’s get to it!
The colonel and his bride jump on the bed and begin to undress. The colonel takes off his jacket and tie; the bride takes off her gloves and her gold bracelets.
Two men armed with automatic rifles crawl out from under the bed. They are dressed alike in striped, knee-length sarongs, bare-chested except for bandoliers bristling with ammunition. Cotton scarves cover their heads, turban-style, and partially hide their faces. One is fat; the other is thin. They take up positions to the right and left of the colonel and Afaf, pointing their guns at them menacingly.
SKINNY THUG (sarcastically) Hello, Colonel. You’ve been looking for us all night, while we’ve been right here, waiting for you.
COLONEL (angry) Goddamnit! Couldn’t you have waited a few more minutes?
FAT THUG Actually, we were going to wait till you were right in the middle of things—you know, to make it as embarrassing for you as possible. But then you tipped us off that it was almost daybreak.
SKINNY THUG (sees that the colonel is moving to pull out his pistol) Put your hands up. (The colonel puts his hands in the air; the Fat Thug strips him of his gun) Too slow, I’m afraid. Maybe you’re getting too old for this?
FAT THUG I’ll just take my picture back, if you don’t mind. (pulls his photo off the corkboard) Hey, someone put a bunch of holes in it—I can’t use it like that! (turns angrily to the colonel) You know what? I’m going to put a hole in your skull. Just one tiny little hole. One little . . . endless . . . empty . . . space. (scowls at the colonel and Afaf) Stand over there by the wall.
The colonel and Afaf take a few frightened, unwilling steps toward the wall. Afaf covers her face with her hands, weeps, and babbles inaudibly.
SKINNY THUG (to his partner) I’ll kill the colonel; you kill his wife.
The thugs get down on one knee to take aim.
COLONEL Wait . . . I have an amazing idea. An idea that’ll make you two of the richest, most powerful men in the world—if we can come to an agreement.
SKINNY THUG (doesn’t lift his gaze from the machine gun sight) Go on—we’re listening.
COLONEL You know if you kill us, you’ll be wanted criminals for the rest of your lives, and the state will hunt you down. But if you’ll agree to be my allies, we’ll use the army to overthrow the government. I’ll give you powerful positions in the new government, and you’ll have more money than any bank can hold.
FAT THUG (still aiming) Ambitious plans, particularly for a guy with a gun to his head. It’s like watching an ostrich try to launch an election campaign with its head still in the sand.
COLONEL Maybe. And I may be crazy. But I assure you, I can turn this dream into reality. With my forces and your gang, I can execute a successful coup. And if we succeed, I’ll appoint one of you vice president, and the other prime minister. You have my word as a military officer.
SKINNY THUG (addressing his partner) What do you think?
FAT THUG Sounds good to me.
SKINNY THUG Let’s give ourselves a minute to think it over.
Lights down gradually, accompanied by the sound of a ticking clock, quiet at first, but rising gradually to a terrifying volume. Curtain.
© Wajdi Al-Ahdal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Katherine Hennessey. All rights reserved.
[*] For a performance of this song, see for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNL3Sfw40AI.