Fathi-al Murzim is the heir of a powerful and prosperous business who is married to his work, much to the annoyance and irritation of his grandfather — who wants grandchildren to spoil — and his secretary Ece, who has been working industriously to catch the attention of her boss. To no avail, as Fathi has no interest in women or marriage, either for his grandfather’s sake or his secretary’s whims. Unfortunately for Fathi, his grandfather has conveniently remembered a sworn oath made betwen himself and a Bedouin chieftan before Fathi was even born, promising Fathi a Bedouin bride. Fathi might have looked for an ally in his twin brother, but Rayyan thinks this is all too funny for words.
Ikraam din Abdel has been living a lie. From the moment he was born, his eldest sister has demanded that he live his days as a woman, dressed in a chador and veiled. Had it been known that Ikraam was a son and not a daughter, leadership of the tribe would have fallen to him rather than Bahiyya’s easily-led husband. Due to the tribe keeping men and women are strictly segregated, his sister was able to keep this ruse. Now, though, she has a chance to be rid of Ikraam for good.
For Ikraam, this marriage means, at the very worst, an end to the lie he’s been living all his life and at best, provided his betrothed is a man of honor, freedom from his sister and her tyranny. With his sister holding the life and happiness of his beloved neice over his head — the neice he’s raised since her infancy with Bahiyya too busy managing her husband and the tribe — he has no choice but to go along with this farce and hope for the best. However, when Fathi sees his new bride for the first time, he feels something he hadn’t expected to: interest. Fathi has known all his life that he’s attraced to men, but something in Ikraam’s face, his manner, the sweetness and kindness of the “woman” call out to Fathi. Perhaps this marriage can be one of friendship if not love. For Ikraam, his betrothed is handsome, handsome enough to make him wish he could be a true wife, which makes having to tell Fathi the truth all the more painful.
This is a silly, sweet, and charming story taking someplace in the middle east. It’s full of the classic misunderstandings, evil villains, noble heroes, and a desert leopard snuck in for good measure. It’s a romance with a happy ending and a respectful approach to the cultural mores of the characters.
Fathi, as many of his culture do, attended college abroad. While his twin brother went to London, Fathi went to New York and learned not just how to run a business, but that he was gay. He feels no shame in this, though he respects his grandfather enough to make himself a comfortable closet to stay in. He devotes himself to his grandfather’s company and, dutiful grandson that he is, agrees to accept the wife his grandfather has chosen for him. There’s an unpleasant edge to that loyalty. He will agree to take a wife and never have anything to do with her out of his respect for his grandfather’s wishes and the oath he signed with a Bedouin chieftan as a young man, feeling only a slight niggle at the life he’s consigning this woman to. Even so, he’s determined to be kind to her, buying her jewelry and other items he hopes will please her. After all, she’s from a desert tribe; it’s more than just a marriage that will be new to her.
Ikraam’s life has shaped much of his character. As a child he hadn’t understood that he wasn’t a girl. He was kept with the women of his tribe, segregated from the men, dressing as women do and living among them, weaving and sewing and performing other feminine arts. When he knew, when he realized what had happened and what he was forced to do, it was too late to tell the truth. Why, after all, had he stayed for so long? Was he a pervert, or a madman? Would they kill him if they knew the truth?
All the ingredients for a fairy tale are very much there. Sweet, simple characters and villains with dark hearts. When Fathi and Ikraam first meet, the chemistry between them is instant and innocent. Both of them have secrets they need to share: Fathi is gay and will not be a true husband to Ikraam, a secret he also feels he must reveal to his grandfather. And Ikraam needs to let his betrothed know — before the wedding night — that he is, in fact, a man. When all is revealed, it’s a sweet and perfect storybook ending. In Ikraam, Fathi has the answer he so desperately needed: a wife to satisfy his grandfather, and a lover to satisfy his own needs. For Ikraam, Fathi is freedom from his sister and a home of his own.
While I had some minor quibbles with the practical parts of this story, it was easy enough to brush those aside and enjoy this book for what it was. A love story between the billionaire (though we are never told the name of his business or even what sort of business it is) and his Bedouin bride.
I truly appreciated the respect the author showed her world. There was no judgement, no castigation or even opinion when Ikraam wore his chador or when a Ece wore a headscarf. And for all that Fathi and Rayyan attended schools in more liberal minded countries, this did not affect their beliefs or behavior. Spoiler: I also appreciated that Ikraam, who has lived all his life as a woman, didn’t immediately cast off his woman’s clothing and embrace his masculinity. He still had to get used to living in his new home with his new husband, let alone making such a life-altering decision.
I look forward to reading other books by this author.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.