If you’re currently looking for a good, semi-short work of fiction, I’d recommend The Wedding of Zein by acclaimed Sudanese writer, Tayeb Salih. With a light-hearted spirit reflective of oral tradition, this novella packs some unexpected punches even from the beginning.

The story opens with news spreading person-to-person that the village idiot, Zein, is getting married. The first few scenes are fantastic, both for their folklorish tone but also for their comic illustration of what happens when good news comes to town.

At noon the courtyard of the Intermediate School was quiet and deserted, the students having gone to their classes. From afar there appeared a young boy, Tureifi, hurrying along breathlessly, the end of his outer garment tucked under his arm, till he came to a stop in front of the door of ‘the second year,’ the Headmaster’s form.

‘You ass of a boy, what’s made you so late?’

A look of cunning flashed momentarily in Tureifi’s eyes.

‘Sir, have you heard the news?’

‘News about what, you animal of a boy?’

The Headmaster’s anger, however, did not shake the boy’s composure. Checking his laughter, he said: ‘They’re marrying off Zein the day after tomorrow!’

The Headmaster’s jaw dropped in astonishment and Tureifi escaped punishment.

The news of Zein’s wedding causes a ceasefire, or at least distracts the headmaster long enough for the totally tardy Tureifi to squirm to freedom, completely unscathed. The news continues to spread.

And in the market Abdul Samad advanced towards Sheikh Ali’s shop, his face flushed…. There was a debt owing to him from Sheikh Ali, the tobacco dealer, which the latter had put off paying for a whole month. He was determined to have it settled that very day by hook or by crook.

‘Ali, do you really think you’ll do me out of my money, or what is it you’ve got in mind?’

‘Hajj Abdul Samad, just put your trust in God and sit down and have a cup of coffee with us.’

‘To hell with your coffee. Get up and open this safe of yours and give me my money. If you’re determined not to pay, just say so.’ […]

‘I swear your money’s here safe and sound. Come along and sit down and I’ll tell you the story of Zein’s marriage.’

‘Whose marriage did you say?’

‘Zein’s marriage.’

Abdul Samad seated himself and, placing both hands on top of his head, remained silent for a while. Sheikh Ali regarded him, elated at the effect he had produced…Abdul Samad did not settle his debt that day.

Like Tureifi, Sheikh Ali gets off scot-free. It’s good news indeed for any villagers running late to class or in debt up to their eyeballs, but it’s bad news, isn’t it, for Abdul Samad, or anyone else who has a stake in retribution. Zein’s wedding profoundly impacts the villagers because it is a brutal disruption of the social order, something that everyone is invested in.

Law and Gospel reminds us of the importance of ‘news’:

News is something which cannot be discovered or tested by the scientist, or by anyone else. It will not add much to the store of human knowledge, and often it is totally insignificant. But news is defined by its peculiar relation to the well-being of the hearer.

Because everyone has a different opinion of Zein, whether domineering or approving, the news of his wedding disarms them. L&G continues:

It is vital that the news comes from somewhere external to us. A broken machine cannot fix itself nor, as theologian Rudolf Bultmann once observed, can someone sinking in a swamp pull himself out by tugging upward on his own hair…When the problem is the self, help must come from outside: must be News that we cannot manipulate (because we would botch it), but is objectively true.

Zein himself, being ugly and silly, the chair of the outcasts, has no pretensions about his ability to fix himself or pay back whatever debt he owes society. He is simply trying to have a good time.

Tayeb Salih, the author, seems to wax mystic in his own unorthodox vein of Islam, so it’s no surprise that Zein befriends the local mystic, Haneen, who represents the spiritual outcast, the person who can’t seem to find a place in institutional religion. Salih explains, “Zein had numerous friendships of this sort with persons whom the villagers regarded as abnormal, such as Deaf Ashmana, Mousa the Lame, and Bekheit who was born deformed with no upper lip and a paralysed left side.” It’s natural to befriend people who are like you, and that is why Zein, bald, thin, with a concave chest and long fingernails, is so attractive to anyone who feels a little abnormal. But in a twist of events, he marries up:

Zein’s wedding was an occasion that silenced the tongues of the malicious–and Zein was marrying no woman from the common people, but Ni’ma, daughter of Hajj Ibrahim, which was synonymous with noble birth, virtue, and social standing.

It’s a disruptive and joyful story of union, of love crossing the great social divide and impacting everyone who hears about it. That’s what’s special about the Christian story, too–that God himself became man and ran around the Middle East to initiate another peculiar wedding, the “sloppy wet” re-smashing-together of ourselves and God, finally together at last, all because of his unabating love.

And it’s not an invitation so much as a revelation: the wedding is already happening. This is what Peter means in his sermon in Acts 3:20, when he promises that “times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” The very presence is here, and that’s good news. The effects of which are similar to that of a wedding: love, spontaneity, humor, freedom (L&G 75-80). Sheikh Ali, narrowly escaping his debt, has the right idea: “Just sit down and put your trust in God and have a cup of coffee with us.”