Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Golden Triangle

Hans Ulrich Obrist on the Bidoun Courage: Sophia Al-Maria, Binyavanga Wainaina, and Etel Adnan.

The quality that attracts me to the three visionaries I have chosen to introduce here is the same quality that makes Bidoun such an extraordinary, urgent project. This is the quality of multidimensionality — of creating connections across many fields.

Etel Adnan once told me that “there is something that links all the different things. It is what we call our person. It’s there — it’s your sensitivity, it’s your identity, really. It’s one person in different rooms.” Art is a window into these different rooms. Bidoun’s intellectual curiosity — its commitment to philosophy, literature, art, politics, activism, sociology, anthropology and many other disciplines besides — allows it, allows us, to move between rooms, open up new windows.

Rather than retreat into silos, we must be prepared to share ideas, to go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge, and to create new connections. For this we can look to Etel Adnan, whose work I have been obsessed by since my first encounter with her long Japanese folding book which combined handwritten poems and signs. Masterpieces like Sitt Marie Rose, The Arab Apocalypse, and Seasons extend literature beyond the page.

Her works — cartographies, drawings, notebooks, paintings, poems, political journalism, tapestries, teachings, murals — exude energy; they are like talismans. She has described her public works as ways to humanize the environment, which seems to me a good way to describe her entire practice. Her extraordinary conversation with Lynne Tillman, published in Bidoun, is a magnificent introduction to one of the most vital writers and artists of our time.

I see the same determination in the work of writer, journalist, activist, Binyavanga Wainaina, the author of an extraordinary autobiography, One Day I Will Write About This Place, as well as a number of essays in Bidoun How to Write about Africa II: The Revenge was a sequel to the extraordinary work of satire that so brilliantly analyzed and dismissed lazy portrayals of African society and culture. Wainaina reminds us that politics, culture, society, and community are not separate fields of knowledge, but interlinked. The magazine and curatorial platform he founded, Kwani?, embodies the same determination to provide a platform for new voices that makes Bidoun such an important part of the cultural landscape.

Like Sophia Al-Maria — performance artist, filmmaker, memoirist, novelist, activist, another visionary who determined to use every tool at her disposal. Her stunning essays on her family life in Qatar (The Way of the Ostrich; Or, How Not to Resist Modernity) and on the equally fraught and funny subject of weddings in her family (Paths of Glory) revealed on an exceptional artist, whose work I discovered first on the pages of Bidoun.

Jean Rouch, with whom I used to lunch in Paris, once sent me a postcard. It wished us all “immense courage.” These artists, writers, and activists — and the magazine that has published them, put them in dialogue — are united by their immense courage.

Etel Adnan

Children of the sun

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Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg

In the late 1980s, I was phoned by poet and critic Ammiel Alcalay, who urged me to hear Etel Adnan read the next night at the Graduate Center. He told me Adnan was an Arab-American poet, writer, playwright and painter, born and raised in Lebanon. Since he had never urged me to attend an event before, I decided to go. The lecture hall was filled. I remember Edward Said and his wife were in the audience. Adnan took her seat behind a table at the front, and, from the moment she began reading, her passion, great intelligence, and sensitivity to language and form felt palpable. It was a rapturous night, during which I said to myself, I’m so glad I came. Imagine if I’d missed this.

Adnan writes about exile and place, women and men, war and nature, paying homage to the beauty, complexity, and even the horrors of our lives. She is a philosophical poet. She is the author of, among others, the acclaimed novel Sitt Marie Rose, which has been translated into ten languages, including Urdu and Bosniac, and the epic poem, The Arab Apocalypse. Her paintings have been exhibited internationally and are included in various museums and collections. Adnan’s plays have been produced in San Francisco, Paris, Caen, Dusseldorf, and Beirut, her poetry set to music by composers such as Gavin Bryars, Henry Threadgill, Tania León, Annea Lockwood, and Zad Moultaka. Her latest books are In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country and The Master of the Eclipse.

After I heard her read that night, I made contact with her. I saw her twice in New York City, when she was on her way to Paris. I phoned her there a couple of times, and we maintained an infrequent correspondence. I read her books. Her partner, Simone Fattal, who is the publisher of the Post-Apollo Press, always sent me her new books, and Etel always signed them affectionately. Having the chance to talk with Etel Adnan for Bidoun, at length and in her home in Sausalito, was a gift.

Lynne Tillman: You’ve written that you can never separate experience from theory.

Etel Adnan: We don’t just speak out, we order our thinking. If that’s what’s meant by theory, then you can’t escape it. If one means, rather, that any time one speaks, what one says is predetermined — for example, this is my way of speaking, I will conform everything to that style and approach — it is not only bad, but it also doesn’t work. It is why, sometimes, my work seems to go in many different directions. It could be harmful, but I can’t do otherwise. But to do that doesn’t mean not to have direction in one’s thinking or to be lost. I want to accept things as they come and see what to do with them.

LT: One’s own experience of the world might always fall into a category or theory one believes.

EA: I accept contradiction when it happens. Today I may say something philosophical — if I can talk of the idea of “being” separated from objects, then I can also say there is no “being” outside manifestation. One month later I might write its opposite and be aware of it. That doesn’t bother me, because I seek new connections. Of course, you must have some points of reference in your life.

LT: War is an enduring point of reference for you.

EA: I have become politically nonviolent. I’ve reached a point that this feels right. I will not compromise that. On other matters, I feel a kind of absolute, if we can use that word—I do not accept the sexual abuse of children. But I have very few of those absolutes. Everything else is in flux.

LT: I admire writing when I feel there is an intelligence behind it, that the language is closely handled, in whatever form the writer happens to choose.

EA: I don’t privilege one approach over another. I don’t privilege it within my own works. Some people are prisoners of the decisions they make.

LT: It’s fascinating in Sitt Marie Rose, your novel about the Lebanese Civil War, the variety of styles and forms you chose. First, what does “sitt” mean?

EA: “Sitt” is an Arabic word, used in Lebanon and Syria mostly, and Egypt, to mean “madam.” It’s not formal. A girl of five years old in conversation can be “little sitt so-and-so.” “Sitt” can also be for married or single women. It’s a colloquial way to address a woman. It carries some respect.

LT: How did Sitt Marie Rose come about? When did you write it?

EA: I wrote it before the end of 1976. The event it’s based on occurred in early ’76. The Christian Phalangists kidnapped a woman whose real name was Marie Rose. People immediately recognized her when the book came out.

LT: You wrote it in French.

EA: I was in Paris and had read in Le Monde about Marie Rose Boulos’s being kidnapped. I knew she was already dead. I became upset, and wanted to write it down. You are a writer, you know one discovers through writing matters that wouldn’t occur to you otherwise. I wanted to find out — all cultures include violence — which forms the Lebanese culture has taken. We don’t know any human group in history that hasn’t been violent. I don’t believe any nation is better than any other on that score. But what attracted me to this violence was my knowledge — the young men who kidnapped, tortured, and killed her, I had grown up with them. I knew Phalangists, and she was Christian, too. Through her they wanted to teach a lesson to the various factions.

People use religion to excite people and send them to war, like Bush with the word “democracy.” It’s dogma misuse. The Phalangists were, in their minds, defending Christian values, but in fact they were defending their power against the Muslims. There are Orthodox Christians in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon. The majority of Christians in Lebanon are Catholic, so they had links with Rome, and the French, a Catholic nation. The French created a place where these Christians would have their own country — after World War I, when the big powers carved up the Middle East. But if everybody were Christian, the new country would have been too small. So they included territory inhabited by Muslims. This is the key to the Lebanese problem — the Christians of Lebanon say, and it’s true, the country was created by the French for them. But after two generations, the Christians found they were no longer a sizable majority. Today they are not the majority. It’s the source not of hatred but of the antagonism in Lebanon.

LT: Your novel shifts and flows, from politics with its varied discourses, through voices and styles. One of its brilliant inventions is the deaf-mute schoolchildren.

EA: What you call a silent majority.

LT: [Laughs] They are taught by Sitt Marie Rose. They don’t speak — she is the only one who is kind to them. The four male characters, who represent various factions of the Christians, speak — they are all anti-Muslim. Sitt Marie Rose is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

EA: Which was why she was killed.

LT: The deaf children are presented “speaking” in the first person. Throughout all the formal changes, I was able to understand where I was, who was speaking; you included politics but didn’t re-create politics. You re-imagined everything — desire, impressions, feelings.

EA: And the description of the state of war in a specific place. Politics is such an important part of our lives, whether we like it or not. Why shouldn’t it enter novels? In poetry, people mostly avoid politics. They think it’s not poetic. But The Iliad is a political work. I became an American poet by writing against the Vietnam War, I joined the movement by writing against the war, spontaneously.

I feel the first thing is to be true to oneself. Now you will say, what if you are a monster and are true to yourself? [Laughing] If you’re a monster, you’re going to be true to that self anyway. But a movement of poets against the war didn’t happen with Iraq, which is as monstrous a war and as long. Why? We are in a period when there is, funnily enough, more poetry being written in proportion to the population than during Vietnam. Poets have followed the general apathy of the Bush and Reagan years.

LT: Maybe that speaks about where poetry is in terms of its relationship to society. Some writers may feel themselves at a great distance.

EA: It’s because of the kind of poetry they are writing — a very abstract poetry. They are discovering new forms, by complicating form and by avoiding anything that would smack of a message. And, like all great writing, it can defend itself beautifully.

LT: In Virginia Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth,” she observes a day moth — which lives twenty-four hours — and watches it die. By looking at it, she understands the struggle to live, the finality of death.

EA: You’re right, one can express anything, in the most unexpected way.

LT: What I want to suggest is that fiction and poetry need not be specific to a political event to embrace the effects and depredations to life because of war, violence, injustice.

EA: No. I went to Iraq twice, and, in spite of Saddam’s dark side, there was great vitality, artistic vitality — it had the biggest readership of contemporary Arabic literature. Iraq had great painters, musicians. It was the most dynamic Arab country for some thirty years, with an excellent medical system, the best in the Arab world. So the destruction of it…

Simultaneously, Saddam was an excessive character. You were for him or against him, no in between. In that sense, he was a total dictator. Still, something was happening there. There was the same oppressive rule in Syria, but without the counterpart in culture Iraq had. When America attacked Iraq, each time they moved, they destroyed it. I didn’t feel my best friends, poets or non-intellectuals, really cared. Though when you think about it, there is so much going on in the world, and Americans cannot care for everything. But this is something that America started and did.

LT: There’s a passage from Sitt Marie Rose, which, though it came out here in 1982, could have been written now: “In this society where the only freedom of choice, when there is any, is between different brands of automobiles, can any notion of justice exist and can genocide not become an instable consequence.” It articulates the horrible sense of possibility of genocide.

EA: Hatred can lead to genocide. You don’t win, so you will tomorrow, or after tomorrow, but you’ll keep going. There is no real rationale to it. The US is not immune, but prosperity made America relax. If this financial crisis goes on, ten people will fight for one job, and race or religion might lead to, “How come the Chinese and the Latinos have a job and I don’t?” To a degree, American prosperity created a certain benevolence.

America is interesting — everything is true about it, and its opposite is true. There can be an atmosphere of benevolence, but the word “socialism” is taboo. In one way, we have a people’s country, there’s no aristocracy. We have a democracy in many ways, really. But people are horrified by universal health care, which Europe and Canada have as a matter of course.

LT: I believe that existentialism as a philosophy is important to you.

EA: Yes, I went to Paris as a student in 1950. Sartre was the great thing, and I had not heard of him in Beirut. It was like a miracle. I had come from a culture where we lived on a more basic level.

My father was highly educated for those days, my mother was not. We had no books at home. My mother had the Gospels, she was a Greek from Smyrna — Greek Orthodox. My father was a Muslim from Damascus in the Ottoman Empire. He had the Qur’an, he knew it by heart. Amazingly, the books existed on a shelf next to each other. So I have no problem with coexistence. I grew up with it. People finished their education — if they were lawyers they went to law — but that generation didn’t have books in the home.

In Paris, everything was new, astonishing, until I was thirty. I was in a stage of discovery for thirteen years, until I started teaching, which gave me a distance from reality. I was immersed in reality until I was thirty.

LT: How do you mean, “reality”?

EA: In the present — that type of reality. When I read Sartre, I was floored because I’d attended French Catholic schools, they were the only ones you could go to, and they hammered us with religion — you’re moral because you follow religion. Sartre said you could be moral without being religious.

LT: Did you hear Sartre speak?

EA: No, but his philosophy changed my life. Its second idea was about responsibility, and that is empowerment. I didn’t have the word or concept then, but it’s what existentialism offered people. Coming from a Catholic school, I know firsthand that you are meant to follow the church, the priest — then you are a good person. You go to confession. By saying you are responsible, you are your decisions — I think that’s liberation. It’s not, “Obey and shut up.”

LT: I’m curious how your parents met. A Muslim from Syria, a Greek Catholic from Smyrna.

EA: They met during WWI, in Smyrna, in the street. He followed her. They got married. He already had a wife and three children in Damascus, but he didn’t tell her. She was so poor that, for her, it was a fairy tale. He was governor of Smyrna, a top officer; he’d been Atatürk’s classmate, because though my father had been stationed in Damascus, the sole military school was in Istanbul. Then the war was lost, and my parents went to Beirut. From there it was downhill.

LT: They were poor, but you were well educated.

EA: I was educated because I went to a French school. But about my social class — I didn’t identify with the rich or the poor, though my father’s family in Damascus were among the top families. My mother was extremely poor when she grew up. She used to say there were only two jobs in Smyrna for women — to pick grapes for raisins or be a prostitute.

LT: You often write about prostitutes.

EA: If my mother hadn’t married my father, she may have been one. She was sixteen when he met her. Then the Greeks in Turkey were in concentration camps. Not like the German ones, more like the Japanese camps during WWII here.

LT: Were they comfortable letting you go to Paris?

EA: My father was dead by that time. It broke my mother’s heart. I was twenty-four when I went. I had a French government scholarship for three years.

LT: How did that happen?

EA: I worked from the age of sixteen. I was the only child. We needed money. I cut school for a year, and one day I was crying in the office, and my boss, a Frenchman, asked, “Why are you crying?” “Because everybody goes to school and I don’t.” He said, “Why not? I’ll help you.” But I said, “I work all day, there are no night classes. But I could take morning classes.” He let me come to the office at 10am instead of 8 — I made it up at night. I finished the whole program in two months instead of eight and received a baccalaureate, which allowed me to go into the third year of a French school that specialized in literature. I quit the first job and found one doing almost nothing, for a man who wanted to write a novel. He thought if I just sat there, he would write it. He didn’t, for two years, but I was paid every month. I read books in his library. [Laughing]

In the French school, Gabriel Bounoure taught us Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. He wanted literature to be free from the Jesuits, and he taught poetry. Thanks to him, we got an enlightened education. He’s the one who encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to Paris. I told him my mother didn’t want me to. When I told her, she went crazy. I was her only child, and I’d be in a foreign place. But I went.

LT: You were very brave.

EA: Brave in many ways, but also brave with no sense of the future. It was day-to-day bravery.

LT: It raises the question of developing character, your character, and how you respond to others, and fashioning characters in fiction.

EA: Some people have hardships that kill them. Others are made so bitter they have no hope. But hardships can also, in some cases, become experiences one can grow from.

LT: Often in your writing, there are questions of liberty and madness. In Of Cities and Women, set in Barcelona, in the Ramblas, a woman walks down the street completely naked: “After she passed me I saw her from behind, and was wondering if she was really naked. She was. She continued down the avenue probably heading for the red light district… . Was this a scene of absolute liberty or of insanity?” I don’t know, sometimes, what I’m seeing.

EA: That’s interesting, to say you don’t know what’s happening.

LT: I’m wary of making judgments, generational ones — “In our day, this or that.” Nonetheless, what is being free or crazy? What’s possibility or breakdown?

EA: They’re both such flexible notions. We don’t know completely what we mean by freedom, especially when freedom is used as a nuisance to others. We also don’t really know what insanity is.

LT: We don’t know what the benefits or disadvantages of certain behaviors are or will be.

EA: Insanity, as a category, has mostly disappeared. But how do you run a society between these two notions, both boundaries, which in effect include disorders? To implement law, what do you do when you have power? How do you use it? Stop? How to integrate contradictory rights?

LT: In your poetics, you are very free. In Of Cities, you employ the epistolary form.

EA: Because it gives one freedom. I wrote it because my friend Fawwaz wanted me to write a paper on feminism.

LT: “Several questions come forward at the same time, pushing each other. Calling us or escaping us. Should we wish for the acceleration of this process, which is that women become more like men, or should we rather hope for the metaphysical distinctions…” You’re so succinct, discussing a complex issue that’s still very much with us. I’m not an essentialist, but how do we maintain differences and reduce inequality?

EA: I have no answer, but it is a genuine question.

LT: It’s also similar in regard to varieties of cultures and societies, religions — can we respect differences amidst, for lack of a better word, globalization?

EA: The trend is toward uniformity. Obviously women have been acculturated to use their femininity, men their masculinity. I don’t think that we want to keep everything we have called “the feminine.” We need societies to maintain what I’d call a metaphysical balance, the different qualities of masculine and feminine. Aggression is part of life, but we also need a counter aggression. We need men who are against war as much as women — though there are more and more women for war. We need diversity and balance in the sexes.

LT: It’s in your writing, though I don’t know if I’ve read the word as such: forgiveness.

EA: Goodness of the heart. That is the core of Christ and Christianity. Everything else is an invention of his followers. When Jesus said, “I am the Son of God,” he didn’t mean it the way it’s interpreted. In Semitic languages, in Arabic, to be a “son” is an everyday expression. For example, a man might say, “Young man,” take him by the hand, then say, “My son, do you know what time it is?” To be the son is to be accepted. It’s a friendly word. When Jesus said, “I am the Son, Father,” he meant “I am accepted, and what I say is agreeable to the Father, to God.” He spoke in Aramaic, older even than Arabic.

LT: In The Arab Apocalypse, an extraordinary epic poem, I noticed the word “sun” throughout. I’d never encountered “sun” presented in so many ways.

EA: As a child, I had a strong sense of the presence of the sun. In the summer, the sun is very vivid in Beirut. I was fascinated by the shadow my own body made, when going for an afternoon swim. In my twenties, I heard the French say that Arabs were the children of the sun, les enfants du soleil. It was said with disdain — Arabs were irresponsible, grown-up children. And I remember walking into the mountains of my village, never wearing a hat, being very aware it was hot, feeling surrounded by the sun like a thief by the police. As I said, we didn’t have many books, and not having brothers and sisters, I was more involved with noticing what was around me.

LT: In all of your work there’s a strong emphasis on nature and relationship to a sense of place. It’s as if to lose one’s place, to feel in exile or be in exile, focused you.

EA: You’re absolutely right. My relation to place is also a desire to know where I am. When I arrive somewhere, I want to know, where’s south? My partner, Simone, asks, “Why do you bother?” I like to be oriented. I grew up as an anguished child, partly because of not having brothers and sisters in a society where I was marginal. My father, an Arab from Damascus, living in Lebanon — I was born and raised in Lebanon, my mother was Greek. The French were ruling Lebanon, so we were also marginal in relation to a colonial power. And my parents were a mixed marriage — there were few. I think I compensated by trying to know always where I was.

LT: The Arab Apocalypse takes a unique approach to writing on the page — you use signs, lines, curves, symbols.

EA: The signs are there as an excess of emotion. The signs are the unsaid. More can be said, but you are stopped by your emotion.

LT: The word “stop” is in capital letters throughout. As in, “Stop This War.”

EA: I wrote The Arab Apocalypse when Tel al-Zaatar was under siege. Tel al-Zaatar is a neighborhood in Beirut, where twenty thousand people, not all Palestinian but mostly Palestinian, lived underground. The Phalangists and their allies attacked in ’76. Maybe the fighters in the camp had some advance notice and left. But the women, children, and old people who remained were slaughtered. It was worse than Sabra and Shatila.

LT: Worse than Sabra and Shatila?

EA: It was as bad and worse. There was only one well, so women would go there for water. Maybe twenty, to make sure one got back. They were surrounded by snipers. The Arab Apocalypse is about Tel al-Zaatar — the hill of thyme — but its subject is beyond this siege, which was the beginning of the undoing of the Arabs. This war was the sign of disaster coming, that by mismanagement and mistakes, the Arabs would undo themselves.

LT: The form and content of The Arab Apocalypse are imaginatively fused: “A sun and a belly full of vegetables, a system of fat tuberoses. A sun which is SOFT. The eucalyptus. The Arabs are under the ground. The Americans are on the moon. The sun has eaten its children. I myself was a morning blessed with bliss.” What’s produced is a sense of survival, even in the midst of atrocious conditions and behavior.

EA: I started this book when I lived in Beirut. It’s fifty-nine poems, the same number as the days of the siege. I could hear the bombs from my balcony. For fifty-nine days, they didn’t let any food in, water, nothing. I saw a manifestation of pure evil. In metaphysics there is no word for that. I saw evil.

LT: In Paris When It’s Naked, you quote Delacroix, who said he had to satisfy “something black” in him. It relates to your saying that violence or evil has no one country.

EA: We have institutions, we try to control it. Or we decide to unleash it. But there is evil in every person to different degrees. Evil is part of being.

LT: I think of it as cruelty to other people, to life.

EA: And oneself. Power creates a temptation to be abusive. Nations that feel immune, or superior, sure to win, are not wise. Like the Bush administration, a folly of arrogance. In nature, there is danger, too. Because the sun is dangerous. It can kill you, burn you. But the sun is also life.

LT: The Arab Apocalypse is a superb example of a poem that pays attention to poetics and place, war, politics — literally, what happens in the city.

EA: There is the presence of war in almost everything I write. Beirut’s importance is because of war, it’s a child of WWI. In 1920 we had refugees from Armenia. WWII brought foreign armies, not bloodshed. Beirut profited, because when armies are around, there’s money. In ’58 a little civil war started. In ’67 another batch of refugees. In ’71 the Israelis bombed the airport. In ’75, the start of fifteen years of civil war. In 1982, the Israelis entered Beirut. There were other Israeli incursions, constant bombing of the south. Beirut was done and almost undone by war.

LT: The Arab Apocalypse is like a jeremiad.

EA: Yes. It’s pessimistic. I sometimes think I’m an optimist because I always advise myself to go on, overcome. But my vision of the world is pretty dark. I try not to forget the good of this world — not only good people, but the sunshine, the trees. There is also happiness in this world.

LT: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country is written in paragraphs: “A person. People here to portray there is a person who loves me to death. Not to my death or hers, but to the death of the person I loved… . I wonder who invented the ugly word punishment. It was probably God, who established the word and the deed.” From the word “person,” the paragraph leads to an unexpected end, to the possibility of people hurting each other.

EA: Not the possibility. My heart had been broken. It’s full of allusions to my biography.

LT: In the paragraph “Place,” you wrote, “I moved from city to city, traveled from person to person and then I tried to define myself through writing. But that doesn’t work. No, not at all. It adds fiction to the fiction I became… . I’m in a disorienting wilderness.” I want to focus on fiction itself. I think you’re trying to make a place from writing.

EA: There is a sense of exile in everyone. We are exiled from each other, to a point. It’s what relationships are about — to close that gap as much as possible. Writing is a dialogue with that deep feeling. Some feel they came from somewhere. They have a strong illusion of belonging. Other people, or groups, have a special restlessness and understanding, a nomadic spirit. We’re so used to it, we don’t know how to be without it. Everything has its advantages. I don’t envy a French peasant in a village — I’m happy that she’s happy, but I can’t figure out that happiness.

LT: You’ve said history is incorporated in individuals.

EA: We are the result of history, more than we know — we think we are free from it. Nietzsche said, If you believe in freedom, you are stupid, but if you don’t feel freedom, you’re doomed. You function in relation to the entire moral code that is based on responsibility and, therefore, freedom of choice.

LT: In Sitt Marie Rose, your protagonist maintains her freedom by not trading places with her Palestinian lover. She won’t let him be killed instead of her.

EA: She chose to die, she didn’t want to die. The Phalangists offered to trade her—that would have been treason to her.

LT: Sitt Marie Rose was an extraordinary woman. You represent women and their place in the world — not just in the Arab world — and also in terms of their feminism.

EA: I am a feminist, first because I was a rebellious child. I was not a conscious rebel, but an instinctive one. I couldn’t get along with my mother. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, like taking a taxi in Beirut when I was sixteen — girls didn’t take taxis. I took a particular pleasure in it. I wouldn’t walk in the streets, I’d always run. I didn’t want to get married — I thought marriage was a prison. I became more politically involved when I attended Berkeley. Society is conservative, you always have to behave. I was a natural rebel.

LT: I was intrigued by a statement of yours, that you fear Western civilization.

EA: Conquering is always at the expense of somebody else. Western civilization behaves as if it offers redemption — the Israelis were the last example of that. They came as Westerners, Europeans, but Western civilization, like all civilizations, had invaded others. But most of the other civilizations tried to integrate the indigenous people — the Romans had emperors who were Arabs, Alexander wanted to join East and West. The Chinese had many ethnic groups. The West is the most racist of civilizations. It eradicates the conquered people. For example, Belgium was responsible for twelve million Congolese deaths. When the West couldn’t eradicate outside its boundaries, it eradicated within, as Germany did. Western civilization speaks about itself as a model, but it has a very dark side.

LT: You became a pacifist. What other great changes have you undergone?

EA: I had no interest in politics until living in Paris in 1950. Israel was just being created, it didn’t exist in my head. In 1956, at Berkeley, I joined the Arab Students Association and met a young Palestinian woman, the first I knew. My position then was that Palestine had to be liberated, in any way — we had to win that war. This was the case until the Oslo Accords, ten years ago, when I decided I was not against peace. Oslo was a turning point — it made me a pacifist. I still believe the Palestinians have a cause, but I believe it is natural that we live together and build anew.

Writing also changes me. I don’t lie when I write. Something happens, and I must discover it. Writing forces one to go to the bitter end of what one thinks.

Click here to read Etel Adnan’s musings on the life of small magazines.

The Way of the Ostrich

Or, How Not to Resist Modernity

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Collages by Babak Radboy

…[to] all the Youth of the Al-Murrah who face probably the greatest changes of any people in the world.
— Donald Powell Cole, dedication to Nomads of the Nomads, 1975

In a darkened room of the Qatari National Museum, three screens play silent films of Bedouin life. The images are washed out and damaged from thirty years of continuous play. On one screen, my grandfather stands with a group of men squinting into the camera, raptors flapping. The men are falconers, and their birds cling blindly to their forearms. The corners of the images have collected a grainy residue; sometimes the picture skips. On another screen, an elderly woman, face veiled in black, two long braids swaying down her back, waddles across the frame behind a small herd of goats. This room is an anomaly in a museum dedicated to pearls and oil and dioramas. Amid the sample oil drills, limestone cross sections, and restored pearling dhows, it is strange to see the disintegrating footage of the Al-Murrah proudly bearing their swords and rifles, posing as though for a still photograph while the camera pans up and down their straight-shouldered frames. No one visits this room. No one seems to visit the museum at all. The films play on repeat, wearing out their images.

The museum was an ambitious project conceived and completed by Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani in 1976. It was built to represent 200,000 years of human history and fifteen centuries of Muslim values in the Persian Gulf. The structure of this history-palace is a refurbished complex of royal residences. The castle is uncharacteristic of modern Gulf architecture, which reflexively replaces decaying buildings with bigger, shinier buildings; Khalifa was a traditional leader, concerned with the welfare of Qatar’s values against the dizzying g-force of sudden wealth and foreign infiltration. He seemed to be grasping for an authentic Qatari experience that could resist the onslaught of the oil conglomerates and the largest Dairy Queen in the world. So he did two things to ensure that Qatar would not lose its cultural heritage. He built an ambitious museum of the state and sea, and he strengthened his military by drafting the symbolic old guard of Arab honor, the Al-Murrah Bedouin: my family.


It is weighty, this name. I come to it the old-fashioned way, by my father, a modernist. He left the Empty Quarter to go to college in Montana. The Saudi government paid for him to learn business, while he secretly made plans to become a long-haul trucker. He was one of the first of our clan to go to America, and he was the first to marry a white woman. The first to marry outside the family, even, though there would be others. It continues to be scandalous.

We are a fierce and honorable people, we Al-Murrah, at odds with the world and the desert and the people of the towns. I know this to be true, because I read a whole book about it. About us: Nomads of the Nomads: The Al-Murrah Bedouin of the Empty Quarter. Though by the time I found the book, browsing the picked-over offerings in the library at the American University in Cairo, many of us, including my siblings and our extended family, were living in Qatar. By the time I read the book, in fact, many of our men were in jail in Qatar. Or, like my father, in exile.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

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We acquired our reputation in the desert. The most deserted desert in the world, a vast sea rippled with ridges and waves and islands of sand. The Rub el Khali, we call it — in English, the Empty Quarter. Desert people do desert things, like herd goats and ride camelback and plunder the occasional village for essentials, while finding ways to work around the sweltering heat and aridity and the delirious hallucinations that ensue. At some point, we stopped pillaging the towns and started offering “protection,” although there were always broad-backed men with black camels ready to take up arms for glory or profit. In this way, the Al-Murrah were crucial to the success of Prince Abdul Aziz al Saud, a ruthless raider whose exploits along the Gulf’s coast emboldened him to create the Saudi kingdom as we know it today. In this way, too, the Al-Murrah and other Bedouins became the core of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. We would play this role for decades. For our fine work, we were rewarded with Land Rovers and houses and passports. Perhaps these were “the greatest changes” faced by any people in the world? In any case, at the age of twelve, my father went to town for the first time to buy his first pair of shoes, and at the age of twenty, he was sent with a cousin to study in America on scholarship.

He returned, but not to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of us — and there were only thousands of us to begin with — had moved to the country that likes to think of itself as “the finger of Arabism in the Gulf.” Newly minted Qatar (est. 1971) was fast becoming one of the wealthiest plots of sand on earth, and Sheikh Khalifa naturally moved to consolidate his regime and demonstrate to neighboring emirates that tiny Qatar would nonetheless possess an outsize and formidable military. More than half of the men in my immediate family found work in this way, where the sheikh’s generosity (and racism) helped them get promoted ahead of the Pakistani and Yemeni fighters who made up the bulk of the Qatari army. It may have helped that we were coreligionists, as well: like the sheikh, the Al-Murrah were fervently Wahabi. Various Al-Murrah tribesmen became military colonels or police captains. Great Uncle Hadi, my father’s uncle, became a pilot. We had influence, free healthcare, a small share of the country’s wealth, and a big share of its pride. For two glorious decades, all was well between the Al-Thani royals and their Al-Murrah loyalists.


In June of 1995, Sheikh Khalifa flew to England on his private jet for a shopping spree. While cruising the streets of London, Sheikh Khalifa was dethroned by his son Hamad. The newspapers hailed the “bloodless coup” as a “civilized overthrow.” It was clear to many that the younger, more corpulent sheikh, who had been educated abroad, had become frustrated by the slow pace of change in Qatar. Inspired — or, perhaps, humiliated — by the United Arab Emirates, which was expanding in every direction, from architecture to tourism to political clout, Hamad wanted more for Qatar than concrete castles, pearl diving, and isolationism. He saw Doha as the next Dubai: a haven for “forward-thinking” Arabs from across the region and America’s right-hand peninsula in the Gulf. He saw a new world of glass skyscrapers, sleek minarets, and lots and lots of high-end shopping malls. His father was not part of the plan.

And nor, it must be said, were the Al-Murrah. It is difficult to say what would have become of my family in the Doha of the Future, had we embraced it. Although what remained of Bedouin ways would likely have been further eroded by the gale winds of progress unleashed by the new sheikh, in retrospect things could not have gone much worse.

The “bloodless coup” was not without its critics. Some argued that the younger sheikh had behaved ungratefully, a traitor to the ancient codes of paternal respect and decorum. Perhaps others were offended by the bloodlessness. I cannot say; I was twelve years old and living in Washington State at the time, and I am female, so what I know about the momentous events of these days comes two or three times removed, from overheard conversations between my grandmother and my aunts and the gossip of the prisoners’ children I’ve since met. What I do know is that for some of the men of the Al-Murrah, the young sheikh’s coup was an affront to honor and the harbinger of a future they wanted nothing to do with. And far be it from the Al-Murrah to allow their legacy to go down without a fight.


It ended badly. A dozen army officials imagined a glorious and bloody overthrow that would change the fortunes and legacy of the Al-Murrah and bring glory back to the people. Passing whispers in the mosque, covert meetings in the Majlis, secret handshakes, and military bravado — maybe too much bravado. One or two or half a dozen informers passed hints of unrest on to the new sheikh’s men. Before it really began, the counter-coup was over.

It was never clear how many Al-Murrah men were involved. Several of them are still in jail twelve years later; some of them, close members of my family, sit on death row to this day. There have been allegations of torture. In any case, it was not long before the authorities had acquired a list of names that comprised much of the male Bedouin population. Over the next year hundreds of men were rounded up, while thousands more were exiled or blacklisted.

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By the time I came back from the States in 1999, the only Al-Murrah left free in Qatar seemed to be elderly men and women, although most had had their citizenship revoked or suspended some years before. One great uncle had fled across the border to El Hassa in Saudi dressed in his wife’s Burqa. Dressing as a woman was a stroke of genius for the old timer. But it was also emasculating, and he is still spoken of within the family as a joke, not as the daring practical thinker he proved himself to be.

The nomads of the nomads have been tamed. Under Sheikh Hamad’s direction, Doha can now boast the WTO Conference, the largest American military base outside the US, the 15th Asian Games, Al Jazeera, a female parliamentarian, and the biggest concrete shopping cart in the world. And he has been kind if not magnanimous in the later years of his victory; today most of us are once again Qatari citizens. Grouped together in government projects just west of the wretched Doha International Zoo, the Al-Murrah spend their days looking toward the Saudi border, dreaming of the past.

Sometimes on a Friday afternoon after prayer, my great uncle takes the younger children across the highway to break zoo regulations and feed the sad menagerie. He laughs at the way the boys and girls dote on the ostriches and insists that they haven’t lived until they’ve hunted a wild ostrich of their own. Like most kids these days, they ignore the old man, pausing barely a second to look the ostrich in the eye while feeding it sugar cookies. The unsuspecting heirs to our great loss trot off to chuck potato chips at the chimpanzees until sunset, leaving Great Uncle to the contemplation of the molting ostrich in her chicken-wire cage, mulling the greatest change of all: irrelevance.

Paths of Glory

At the wedding party

My little sister Sarah got married when she was seventeen.

I expressed some doubts to my mother. She defended my sister’s decision. “Honey, your sister is on a different path. She’s always wanted a home and family. You want glory and riches.” I was hurt at the time, but I have since decided that it was not a judgment, merely a statement of fact.

Being half American and half Qatari my sister and I are very lucky to have had so many paths to choose from.

If you ask my littlest sister El-Bendari what she wants to do when she grows up, she will tell you without hesitation: marry a boy from our tribe. El-Bendari is five years old this year. Already she has decided that her wedding will be the high point of her life, the funnest and best thing there is. El-Bendari wants a wedding, not a Shetland pony or a career in finance.

There are no astronauts or doctors in my family.

As teenagers, my Qatari cousins and I spent most of our time knee-deep in discussions about our weddings, drawing designs for fantasy gowns and tossing coins over which no-good cousin we’d end up marrying.

I was officially understood to be betrothed to my eldest uncle’s eldest son. I discovered this the first time I came to Qatar by myself. My uncle took me aside for a chitchat. “You know, you are going to need to get married one day,” he said, “and your choices are — my son Amer Jaber.” I was the oldest daughter of my father, Amer Jaber was the oldest son of my father’s older brother; it made sense. Later I confronted my father. Was I really betrothed to my cousin? “Well, yeah, kind of,” he said. “We always match up that way, as long as your blood is compatible.”

My beloved presumptive, Amer Jaber Al-Marri, was known to everyone in the family as Godzilla. I sometimes imagined (not without pleasure) a King Kong–type scenario in which Godzilla clutched me in his chubby fist as I channeled Fay Ray in my black abaya. He squeezed me with his sausage claws as he swatted buzzing helicopters out of the Doha skyline. I had a great view, but I didn’t marry Godzilla. His father, my uncle, a powerful local imam, became impatient.

Godzilla ended up with my cousin Moza.

I worried about them. Godzilla was clearly going to be a lot to handle. I had always liked him well enough, mostly because he was in possession of what seemed to be the only (pirated, of course) English copies of The Smurfs in all of Doha, or at least our tiny corner of it. But his VHS collection did not stop with the Smurfs. One time I peeked into the salah at my uncle’s house to find Godzilla and his brothers watching a video of women practicing all-nude calisthenics before a hairy man in a jumpsuit. I think it was called Gym Nasty, though perhaps I am making that up. But Godzilla definitely had a reputation as the town perv.

I danced at their wedding with extra abandon, having dodged the fastest bullet of my young, eligible life. But everyone knew it was supposed to be me looking elated and nervous and miserable in a spumescent white dress. Only later did it occur to me that each dramatic swerve and hair-flip generated gossip about poor terrified Moza.

Sure indications that a wedding is imminent are the squeals of pain ripping through the cement houses of the lucky bridal family. A shrill female howl of “M-Hagg-Sanaa!” means the halawa lady has arrived.

“Halawa” means sweet. The sweet is a golden glop of boiled sugar water the consistency of thick honey. When the halawa lady rolls in, agitated and late, neighbors in their droves descend on the bride’s house, hoping to get a wax, too. The lucky lady comes first, though, and her waxing is extra-sweet: for her wedding she is allowed her first-ever full-body wax. This takes place offstage, in a side room, with the door locked and the key hidden. But the screams make it exciting for everyone. As do the probing questions from the halawa lady, when it is your turn: “So, are you getting married?” And if that answer is negative, an implied “Then who are you doing this for?” buffeted with a harrumph.

Nowadays some girls do a certain amount of auto-depilation with razors, but this is still controversial. When I moved to Qatar I brought a pink Bic razor with me from Washington and promptly caused a scandal. My grandmother made me take it out of the bathroom and hide it. (Who was I doing this for, indeed.)

After the halawa, the bride has to get the henna. Usually the henna lady is different from the halawa lady. And there are different styles of henna. North African henna is geometrical and closely resembles fish bones. Indian henna is darker (if you mix the henna paste with lemon, it gets dark) and has feathery motifs, like peacocks. Gulfi henna is more rounded and organic. There must be no hint of an image, so it tends to be more floral.

For her wedding the bride gets the whole deal: head and shoulders, knees and toes, all the way up her thighs, like stockings. Her sisters and cousins get hands and arms and sometimes, more recently, an American-style tramp stamp on the lower back. When we talk about our weddings, we are only barely talking about our marriages. The marriage ceremony is a modest affair that usually takes place in the home of the bride, so she doesn’t have to move. It is essentially the signing of a contract, witnessed by family members, sometimes with an imam present but usually not. Tea is served, and cookies. The last marriage I attended was for my stepmother’s brother. Sweetly he brought his bride a pair of lovebirds in a cage, but the poor little budgies died a week later.

When we talk about our weddings, we are mostly talking about the parties. The dueling receptions, male and female. Usually there are two tents set up next to each other on one of the huge swatches of empty lot near where we live. Sometimes they take place at a wedding hall. My sisters dream of having theirs at the Sheraton or the Four Seasons, the men and women in separate air-conditioned ballrooms. But we have never been to such a wedding.

The best wedding I ever went to involved a whole baby lamb splayed out over a hill of rice. The lamb still had its eyes. Out of its back rose a tier of trays with condiments: yogurt, pickles, pepper, salt. The meat was buttery, butter soft; you tore pieces you wanted off with your hands. Usually the food at weddings is disgusting. Gahawah: yellow coffee made from unroasted beans with lots of cardamom. Sour grape leaves. Tasteless rice in hillocky clumps. Cellophane-wrapped wedding favors with shriveled pistachios and sugared almonds in nougat, which sometimes breed tiny worms. Plasticine fruit tarts.

But El-Bendari loves wedding food, especially the tarts. She loves everything about weddings, lives for them, though she won’t be allowed to dance until she’s a teenager. My five-year-old sister’s thoughts about weddings aren’t so very different from those of the eager old women who array themselves about the stage at the women’s tent. A child has the same voyeurial lusts as a widow, we just don’t call them lusts yet. On wedding nights my sister stays awake long after the bride has bid the party goodnight, watching from our grandmother’s lap as the older girls display their tail feathers. This is the main event: nervous virgins and divorcees take their places on a catwalk that is at once auction house, runway, soundstage, and wilderness. Black-robed mothers of marriageable sons move in close in anticipation.

Each eligible girl clambers onto the stage and is announced by the wedding singers, who are always Sudanese. The singers are called daghagat, and they play drums and sing into battered microphones, feedback issuing from the cheap speakers. All the songs sound kind of the same, and yet people have favorites. I have a favorite, but I have no idea what it says or how to ask for it, as the words are almost unintelligible through all the static.

The serious matchmaking happens after dinner, after the bride has been whisked away by the groom and his family. (When the groom comes everyone covers back up and the newly amalgamated family dances around together, the mother of the bride throwing riyals in the air, on her daughter, or on herself, depending on which way the wind is blowing.) Earlier in the night is when the “practice girls” dance, girls who are not especially eligible, or do not wish to be taken seriously. I always dance early, to the consternation of my grandmother.

The female hemisphere of the wedding party is always well lit and bustling long after the men say goodnight. Flesh bursts the seams of silk dresses; the party bursts the woolen tent. The goat-hair flaps can barely shield their glittering secret from the lazy male gazes that peer out from behind the headlights of idling Land Cruisers. It’s a feast for the eyes, all the lacy borders and receding hemlines.

If you were to whip out a camera in the middle of a wedding, the done-up dolls of Doha and their honor-obsessed mothers would gore you quite mercilessly. Security would be called, your film torn out, your memory card burned with a hot incense coal. When I was little there were no photographs at all; the bride had to go to a photography studio, where a woman whose job it was to do so made sure that no one did anything funny with the negatives. These days there are official wedding photographers, usually Filipino ladies. There are no group photos. After the photographer has finished with the bride, unmarried girls swarm to get their picture taken, something to send to their secret cellphone boyfriends.

Last February, before being frisked by the stern security mama at the entrance to my cousin Jameela’s wedding, I slipped my palm-sized digital camera into my underpants. Over the last five years, my family’s wedding festivities have grown grander, more flamboyant, and more revealing, while my shrinking camera phone has become nearly undetectable. I’d smuggled it countless times before, always to good effect. Sometimes the most perceptive girls would pull me behind the stage and ask to be photographed in awkward glamour-shot poses (pinky finger under chin or head cocked into plastic rosebush). After all, my photographs were free, while the Filipino photographers charge five riyals a pop! But this time I felt an unfamiliar twinge of guilt as I aimed my Pentax camera lens out from under the arm of my abaya at a trio of unsuspecting second cousins.

Each of them was resplendent in carefully chosen colors. Afra swayed back and forth in a beaded tunic that quit mid-thigh and rained glass droplets down to her French pedicured toes. Abrar lounged in a golden tiger number, striped spandex stretched taut over her arms into fingerless gloves. Abtihal, who was turning out to be the belle of the ball, stood tall and slim, her torso and hair littered with crumpled purple ribbon rosettes, misted with lilac scent. All three were wearing colored contacts (blue, yellow, purple) and deep red henna all the way up their arms. I had to suppress an awe-filled sigh at their finery. I photographed them as they commented sardonically on the young and unmarried unsheathing themselves for the delectation of the shrouded older women.

As she stood between her sisters, I noticed that Abtihal had an unusual glow about her festooned head. Just as the strangeness registered, her violet eyes flashed an unfamiliar warning — she’d spotted the metallic gleam of my camera. We all used to laugh at the ugly girls who made such a fuss about the stray snapshots that sometimes circulated around the tribe. Now, suddenly, Abtihal stood there, petrified, stock-still as her sisters gesticulated around her. Meanwhile, shameless in the tall grass, I poached the pristine reputation of my beautiful cousin with every snap.

But every photograph I took of her was inexplicably blurry.

A few weeks later I learned that Abtihal had gotten engaged to our cousin Dheeb (Arabic for “wolf”) that very night. This news explained both her glow and the imperceptible twitching revealed by my photographs. Full to the brim with promises, Abtihal was too bright for me to capture. Lashed to her dignity by the braided ropes of fate, she had been petrified of being photographed and risking the honor of her new family. The official photos of my cousin Jameela and her sisters folded neatly into a pocket-sized memory book from the Al Saad Ladies Photography Company. The bride’s mother took me aside recently to show me the album. Her daughter is unrecognizable behind layers of white foundation and raver-girl glitter. The bride’s face is further masked by the romantic sheen that has been airbrushed on by the professional photographers; I swear the curve of her smile is artificial. In the cover photo, Jameela squints out of a heart-shaped cutout. She almost looks like she’s crying through the Gaussian blur. My aunt dismisses the tears with a wave. “Her eyes were watering from the huge lights — we were lucky her mascara didn’t run.”

As she beams down at the collection of her daughter’s “memories,” she confides in me how happy she is that her daughter’s new husband loves her so much. She tells me about how on the wedding night, as they prepared to leave, the groom removed Jameela’s rhinestone necklace and kissed her powdered neck. “Such tenderness was proof!” she exclaimed. “He loves her so much!”

I wonder briefly about my aunt, her marriage to my uncle. We flip through the rest of the photos.

My aunt sighs again and mumbles something about the Allah-given gift of love. “Aagbalish,” she whispers, giving me a matronly squeeze. “You’ll be next.”

Maybe. But probably not. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but I no longer seem to be attracting suitors (or rather, their mothers). I have been to scores of weddings by now, and I know when I’m not welcome on a dais.

The first time I danced at a wedding I was fourteen years old and wearing a red Chinese dress with a shocking slit up the leg. My hair was tied back into Chun-Li style buns, so I couldn’t do any of the “sexy” figure-eight-style hair-flipping moves I had practiced at home with my cousins. Thus restrained, I resorted to a mixture of Egyptian-style belly dance and Midwestern clod-hopping. The mothers-with-sons who lined the stage clapped and squawked in their hoarse gravelly voices, “The American dances!” At first I felt embarrassed to be introduced as “the dancing American” instead of “Safya! Daughter of Mohamed,"or "Safya! Granddaughter of Amer!” But when my father heard about my debut, on the other side of the tent, he seemed proud. Which in turn made me feel triumphant despite my humiliation.

I realized that this was what weddings were for: generating gossip and cultivating infamy.

As my mother might say, my kind of glory.

The Last Rose of Summer

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Recently I went back to Al-ب

The bougainvillea-draped, marble-tiled, baked-stucco compound where I gave my first blow job. It had been years since I’d spent dusk on a school night sprawled in the gravel and wet grass of one apartment’s back garden, testing out my gag reflex.

As I pulled up to the coppery gate, the tinted window of the security kiosk slid open. A familiar Indian guard with epaulettes on his short-sleeved shoulders leaned out the window, belly and all, to squint into my vehicle. He looked exactly the same, except his thin mustache had gone gray.

At sixteen, this was the guy I was most terrified of. I was sure he was going to rat me out to my brother sometime when he came to pick me up from my “study session” with the French girls. “Oh that girl,” the guard would say. “She’s the compound slut.”

I was in a fragile state of permanent alarm. Each time I’d be driven up to the speed bumps in front of the gate, this guard would grill me.

“Which number are you going to? What family name?”

And once, upon seeing a towel hanging out of my purse: “You can only use the pool if you live here, Miss.”

I just knew that he knew my towel was actually intended for spreading out on a dusty back balcony in one of the unlocked vacancies and rolling around in various states of undress with my first and (I thought) only love. I couldn’t distract myself from the guard’s stern stare of disapproval. I tried to convince myself that the stare had just been blank, and that his judgmental chin-set was merely an expression of terminal boredom. My boyfriend repeated, “Nobody knows, no one can see us,” to soothe my quaking nerves whenever I went down on him in an overgrown driveway or under a dried-out hedge.

In retrospect, the guard was probably more wary of my surly brother, with his heavy beard, than of my gawky teenage self.

This time I had every right to drive on Al-ب’s streets, all cactus and palms, and park next to the dimly lit playground rimmed with impossibly green grass. This time he waved me through with a respectful nod. My hosts were a married design team who had been living in the compound since before I was born. I didn’t know them back in the day, but they and their ilk were the architects of my sixteen-year-old Eden. The lax, mostly Euro, parents of Al-ب let my friends — their children — throw house parties and ride in taxis and date. Karl’s parents never bothered about why two Arab kids were scrambling over their back wall into the unkempt garden next door; Paula’s mother just giggled when she noticed my hickeys. Back home I wove long and complex lies to explain my need to stay so late after school, why I didn’t answer my phone on the first ring, and how a lead necklace had left circular discolorations all over my neck.


If you ever speak to a girl about dating in the Gulf, she can confirm that the process involves some, if not all, of the following tactics (a few of which are international tricks of the sneak-around trade for those born into strict families).

There’s the old switcheroo. Convince your chaperone to drop you off at a sympathetic girlfriend’s house. Leave with her driver, cover your face, and voila! Daddy won’t ever know he’s been duped!

There is the dangerous but rewarding trunk-dunk, which involves smuggling a boy in the trunk of your car. Back up to the ladies’ entrance of your house during Friday prayer or a big sale in the souk. Note: Stay on the phone with him while driving, to be sure he’s not suffocating.

Then there’s cross-dressing. This is self-explanatory, though I’ve never tried it. Dressing down is an approved variation. If your boyfriend can pass for Indian, make him wear a T-shirt and dirty baseball hat. To anyone who asks, reply indignantly: “What? He’s my driver.”

Having an active sex life in the Gulf is a multilevel, multiplayer, impossible to control (or beat) game of sexual espionage, riddled with gun-slinging religious police, car chases by angry relatives, and a terrifying Qur’an- and/or sword-wielding imam and/or executioner at the end of every level. The hypertension that leads up to every carefully arranged meeting, the glimpse of one another from across a crowded intersection, the gift delivered to your door by his clueless little sister, a kiss stolen behind a dumpster at the back entrance of a Fuddruckers… all are worth the risk, even if it means game over.


But back to my raging hormones.

I was sixteen.

I was in love.

I was religious.

I was in way over my head.

I was prepared to do anything, really anything, for my one true love.

But so was every other girl in my class. The week before school let out, I conspired with the daughters of various ambassadors to smuggle our respective boyfriends into a safe house while their parents were away in Mecca. We settled on ج’s place. ج was the daughter of the Saudi ambassador. Her two younger sisters wore flannel pajama sets and lurked behind low cushioned couches, observing the four of us, dolled up under our abayas, drinking Nescafe and exchanging “How far have you gone?” stories while we waited for our cue. Their house was grand, with marble floors and mirrored windows and three stories of parlors and guest rooms, opening up onto a circular pool that was half indoors and half outdoors. The pool was the only place in the house free of surveillance cameras and staff at 8pm on a Thursday night. The back entrance/escape route was a ten-foot concrete wall with a camouflaged door that could be accessed by parking at one of the fish restaurants on the beach and mincing along the gravel seashore for a quarter of a mile.

Our signal to flip the surveillance cameras on and off came when ج’s boyfriend called as he was just out of range of the cameras. ج ran to the fuse box and doused the lights for no more than twenty seconds — enough time for ف and I to open the secret door, flag the boys in, and slam the door shut again. Here they were, our ragtag bunch of beaus, looking terrified. These were very possibly the four young males our families would least like us to see, and they were valiantly risking their lives to make out with us. For س, the Iraqi straight-A student — the class-A drug-dealing dope. For ف, the aristocratic Kuwaiti — a skeezy mall rat. For ج, the Saudi princess — a Sudanese DJ. And for me, ش — a devout Muslim, who was always rebuking himself (and also, me) for our furtive encounters. None of the boys had known each other before, and I rather doubt they stayed in contact.

There was the grating tinge of danger clouding the meeting, along with the equally uncomfortable hint of “orgy” wafting in the air as freshly waxed thighs were spread and saliva swapped and fingers banged. Each couple retired to an unsurveilled corner, getting comfortable on countertops and cardboard boxes and deck chairs.

But the night came abruptly to an end when a bumbling handyman came upon me in the darkened storage room where ش and I had taken refuge. I rose from a squat from behind a stack of broken-down boxes. He let out a yelp — of surprise or fear, I couldn’t tell.

“I thought you were a jinn, Miss.”

“Haha, yes. Well, I was just looking for some Fanta!”

ش hid behind the open door. I led the handyman over to a refrigerator in the stairwell and asked him to look inside for Fanta. I was practically pushing his head into the refrigerator as I jerkily motioned for ش to make a run for it. It was all very situation-comedy, in a very unfunny way. He scurried out just as the handyman gave up searching for the orange soda bottles. I don’t know how they all managed it, but by the time I had dispatched the intruder and returned to the pool area, all the boys were gone. Of course, the cameras had been left on.

ج didn’t show up at graduation. ش and I spent our last few liaisons in the back gardens of Al-ب. The summer was approaching, and with it the broiling sun, making our usual hideaways on balconies and back patios impossibly hot. (I had only to lay my bare buttocks on the glaring white cement for them to sear with a pitched hiss.) Salty sweat dripped into our eyes and mouths as we kissed. Whenever I looked at ش, trying to memorize how he looked before I left for college, I’d half-faint from the psychedelic floaters taunting me and obstructing his face.

By the middle of July, we’d given up on liaisons. There was no shady place to seek refuge, and I couldn’t stay out much later than sunset prayer. We said goodbye in a silver shop where he’d had two rings engraved, one with my name on the inside and one with his. The silversmith rolled his eyes as we awkwardly exchanged them. ش promised he’d visit in ط City, and I promised to be faithful and return to him after college. I left first to go find my driver; he waited behind five minutes before leaving the jeweler’s. Later that night I received a text while I sat weeping on my roof: “Wait for me in ط City.”


I spent the better part of a year waiting in ط City, chained to my phone. I almost never left the female side of the dorm. After a few harrowing trips downtown, with a near-constant array of men making rude comments, I avoided the city as much as possible. I didn’t even go to see the spectacular ن Mosque until May of that school year. Instead I watched the “community activities” going on in the courtyard below through my ornamental window grate. There was no one at the college who knew me to take me aside and tell me what a scrooge I’d become. I reported every prank call I received to the reception desk and called the floor manager if the fat-assed Kuwaiti girls blasted their Gulf-pop past 1am on a school night. They clobbed back and forth in their heels both on my floor and on the floor above, coming home from dates at the Hard Rock Cafe, squealing into their cellphones. I hated them.

Luckily, I shared my tiny tiled dorm room with an equally bitter person, a veiled Jordanian girl from Sheffield who used to cut herself along her stomach with plastic knives before bed and then tell me over cornflakes and canned milk the next morning, “We have a jinn in this room — look what it does to me at night!”

My weekdays were a simple trajectory from bed to desk to library to bed. Though ش called less and less, I didn’t want to meet anyone new. I hadn’t learned to trust myself. I was afraid of liking someone a little too much and so spent my free time composing elaborate love letters to the ever-receding boy back home. Every Friday night I lay in my twin bed, belly-down on my sheepskin, reading Isabel Allende novels. It was self-imposed mental and physical isolation.

I was confirmed in my solitary habits by my new best friend, ک, a princess with thick streaks of Wahhabi running through her. I’d met her during Ramadan that year, during an Iftar I’d tried to avoid in the cafeteria. She was intimidating, gorgeous, with long black hair that she oiled regularly. She wore high-waisted mom pants in 1996 and somehow managed to pull it off. She had a pear-shaped body — like literally resembling a pear, her thin torso and tiny belly giving way to smooth, sloping, fleshy hips and thick thighs. She always covered her tight jeans and permanent camel-toe with long flowing tunics and the ends of her hijab. But I remember ک best in her Garfield pajamas and matching slippers, which she always wore to relax in her room. The prank callers I used to tattle on had started to call her room just to hear her husky, sophisticated, French-accented voice. We worked together, got waxed together, ordered in Mehndi together, rode to school together, prayed together, and fasted together. To ک, everything was borderline haram, including the fact that my beloved ش, spelled his name without capitalizing the “Allah” in it.

But that spring ک got a full scholarship to go to Cambridge, and as I thought about living in the dorm without her, I realized that I was restless, tired of hiding away. (I was getting tired of waiting for ش too, though I couldn’t admit that.) When I decided to move out of the dorm and get a place of my own, I justified it to myself with the idea that I was doing it for ش too — when he did come to ط City, we’d have a lovely little nest just for the two of us. But even then the ring with his name inside had turned my finger green, and the skin underneath was dead-looking and translucent.

I moved into an old art deco apartment with two bedrooms, a long dark corridor to a kitchen, a sideboard full of someone else’s family photographs, and five couches in the living room, two of which didn’t have any cushions, which I repurposed as bookshelves. I couldn’t really afford the place by myself, so I got a roommate. A revolving cast of improbable people traipsed through my extra room (and expanded my universe). First there was an American girl, who taught me to “do the shag” our first week together, before we discovered we didn’t get along. There was an Italian girl who claimed to be dating a local pop star; a Japanese girl who turned out to be a nudist; a Macedonian who ate only canned peaches and left the cans in the sink; a Jordanian whose unfortunate habits taught me what “freebasing cocaine” meant; and a young German divorcee who’d moved to escape her motherly duties. Some stayed only a few weeks, some a few months. Sometimes I was alone in the house. It didn’t matter so much, actually, because usually I was upstairs.

It all started when I met ص in our wobbly two-person elevator with the broken mirror and swinging doors. He invited me up to listen to music. ص was from Alaska and had bright green gecko eyes that wobbled back and forth unsteadily. His arms were covered with self-inflicted burn marks and branding. He was in ط City, as he said, to “study his Deen.” But along his path there was hash to be smoked and prolonged circular debates to be had with the other men he shared his apartment with. The mu’mins, or “dudes,” were writers, roustabouts, and law students who went by nicknames like Sunny, Mido, and Bo. They were smart and incredibly serious about their observance, and they thought it was funny to call me “unclean” to my face while getting high and listening to Leonard Cohen. It later emerged that two of the men I used to mull over “Everybody Knows” with went on to be jihadis, a strange disconnect I could never really reconcile with their personalities. But that’s another story. This is about the unwaged battle for my flower and the secret I tried to keep everybody from knowing.


As Ramadan began, the dudes became more agitated about my presence among them, ruining their fasts with my unclean self. So I spent more and more time where I was wanted, in ص’s room, soaking up long meandering anecdotes about burns and hobos and high-school kids and American life. I prized from him every remembered detail of his three-year journey hitching his way down the West Coast, bussing tables at random greasy spoons and diners and blowing all his money on drugs. He regaled me with stories of his old girlfriends: broad-shouldered hippie chicks, pixieish punk girls, bottle blondes, Mexicans, drunk girls, stoned girls. It sounds like a catalogue, but every woman on his list had her love story, an elaborate drama that I listened to with amazement. The concept of being in love with more than one person was still baffling to me. ص told me about the girl he had left back in Anchorage. He told me about her curly golden locks, and how she taught their parrot to swear, and the name she called his dick — and how she always went to sleep at 9pm, but if he put in a tape of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America she’d wake up and watch attentively through the whole thing. Most of all, he told me how much I’d love her someday if we ever met. She hadn’t accepted his conversion to Islam, so they’d separated. Now here he was, a twenty-nine-year-old ex-punk convert with an extremely confused teenage girl practically living in his bedroom. He started asking me to stay over during our late-night conversations, and after a while I started accepting his offer. Nothing happened for a long time. He remained on his side of the bed, and I’d be lulled by his breathing, woken by his comforting snore or the occasional straying hand or leg.

One evening just after sunset, I fell down a flight of stairs. The stairwell light had gone out, and I slipped and landed on my knees, my hands scraped and bleeding from clawing at the rough concrete wall. ص heard the crash and came running down. He held me in his arms and told me it was going to be okay, and took me to a hospital where they pumped me full of muscle relaxants and painkillers. The doctor inquired about our relationship but dropped it when I started weeping hysterically. We were there for a long time, waiting for the radiologist. As it happened, I hadn’t broken anything. Any bones, at least. But while we were sitting there, ش called for the first time in almost a month. He had big news: he’d gotten into a fancy university in Canada, and he’d decided to go. And he was coming to visit me. I had been waiting for ش in ط City for a year and half, and he’d never visited. Now he was going to be there in a week.

I didn’t really know what to do with that information. What I did know was that I felt almost completely out of body. ص took me home and laid me tenderly in his bed. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, of course, and had broken my fast with a horse pill that made me drool on myself. One of the dudes yelled into the room — “respecting me” by not looking around the doorjamb — “Did you break anything, unclean one?” It was a classic dude moment, and it pissed me off even through the veil of my drug-induced haze. What had I done to deserve such bullshit? The dudes, the men on the street, and even ش tried to make me feel that I was to blame for… for what, exactly? For exposing them to the feminine mystique? For opening some locked door where they kept their boners? For luring them into dangerous situations in the Saudi ambassador’s house? It was the final straw on my hymen’s back. When ص came back with tea and juice and a plate of rice, I looked him in his bright green eyes and asked him to have sex with me.

I think I asked him to “do it to me.”

ص was stunned. He looked like a little boy, not believing he’s finally been given the toy he’d been begging for for months. He looked suspicious, even.

“Really? Are you sure?”

At that moment, I had never been surer of anything in my life. I could barely move, so he ceremoniously undressed me and himself, his scarification ridging down his forearms and across his back. There was a one-eyed rattlesnake, its head at his right shoulder blade, its body curled across his back and its tail kinked at the top of his left ass-cheek. ص asked again if I was sure. He lit a cigarette and drank my tea as I lay there prone. He sat down naked and cross-legged next to me and told me the story of his first time. How he was thirteen and she was older, the lodger at his friend’s parents’ house, and how she had huge saddlebag boobs, and how it hadn’t lasted long. Almost on cue the brassy keyboard warble and husky baritone of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” came rumbling up through the parquet floor:

If you want a father for your child Or only want to walk with me a while Across the sand I’m your man

It didn’t last much longer than ص’s first time. And I didn’t feel much of anything, with all the painkillers, though I bled a small oblong heart-shape onto the sheet. He helped me out of bed, took me to the bathroom, and washed me off with a washrag while I sat on the toilet. I ran my finger along the inside ridge of the snake scar, and we sat in silence for a bit, listening to the athan ringing from the loudspeakers on the mosque across the street. After rinsing out the washrag, he put his cheek on my knee and said, “Thank you.”

The stereo was silent downstairs. The dudes had obviously left the apartment. I was certain that everybody knew what had happened, and this time, I was glad.


Naturally I fell in love with ص. A desperate, clinging, guilt-wracked love, but love nonetheless. We spent most of the following week in bed, me trying out new roles as an invalid and as a girl who has sex. ص set about his task with gusto. He used a jewelry-box mirror to watch from different angles, and tied me up with an old shoelace, and carried me back and forth to the bathroom, where he bathed me and shaved me and told me I was destined to become a sex ninja, though I’d never felt less sexy than strapped naked to the rack of guilt and self-loathing.

The sun rose and set, and the athan crackled through the clogged mosque speakers, and the dudes flipped the Cohen cassette and ص humped away, and I took note of the street crud in the treads of his shoes and the cobwebs in the corners of room, and without my noticing it, the week passed and ش was due to arrive. I didn’t sleep the night before he came. I wasn’t worried­ — I couldn’t process much, let alone a complex feeling like worry. I waited for the sun to flap in through the dirty wooden shutters and slowly came out of my drowsy misery as I watched a big daddy-longlegs-type spider crawl toward me on the rumpled linen. ص awoke and palmed my breasts and threatened to give me a hickey if I didn’t stay in bed with him, but I mustered all my energy and left for the first time since that first night. My fall had left me sedated in every way.

ش arrived wearing his dad’s oversize leather bomber jacket, and when he hugged me it creaked. He was happy. He was going to go to Montreal! His excitement had nothing to do with seeing me after over a year.

I noticed he wasn’t wearing his ring.

But then again, neither was I.

We were finally alone with no authority figures, no uncles or silversmiths or compound guards between us.

It was terrible.

It was weird, actually — fraught and empty at the same time. The distance between us and accumulated anxieties of years of covert courtship had made even the idea of holding hands in public nerve-racking, let alone the thought of sleeping alongside one another. All that, and the possibility of running into ص loomed ever larger in my mind. When ش suggested we take a trip to ت Town to look at the ruins, I immediately agreed.

We didn’t speak much on the train to ت Town, and I measured our progress by the number of times the tea-man shuffled past, balancing stacked towers of thick glass cups full of sopping tea grinds. The mountains jolted past the window at high speed, and we arrived at the old station in a daze. A taxi took us to the corniche, where we strolled up and down until we found a hotel that would let us get a room together without a marriage certificate.

We checked into a musty old place on the fourth floor of a stately resort building, with a windy balcony overlooking the waterfront. We stood on the threshold. A twin bed on a rickety short bed frame sat in the middle of the room. It was covered with an itchy-looking wool blanket. A wardrobe with one leg propped up on a stack of newspapers stood beside the window, while a painfully bright neon light with a pull-string flickered next to the door. The room was anonymous, the ideal location for young lovers to obliterate themselves into nowhere. But we weren’t ready to go there yet.

So we went out.

It was stormy and cold. ت Town seemed surreal after ط City; it was like the entire place was on mute. The waves crashed against the barriers, but there was barely a sound, and our heels didn’t clack against the pavement. There was no honking of horns, no shouting or radio or TV blaring. The town was virtually deserted in the evening. Shadowy figures ducked into alleyways, doormen eyed us silently, and waiters didn’t seem to notice us when we entered.

We were out to find a fish joint, the kind where you get to pick from amongst the day’s catch, where morel and crabs and all sorts of saltwater seafood are lined up, gutted and finned on a bed of ice, and you check for clouded eyes or bloody gills and say “I’ll have him fried” or “Let’s eat that one grilled.” Then you wait at a plastic-covered table until they lay out tahini and hummus and pickled peppers and soft round pitas that steam when you rip them open, and after ten minutes the fish arrives, kitted-out on a bed of lettuce and tomato and tin foil, the meat curled back and crisped around the slits in its side. ش was a fish lover, and with a swift swipe had split his open and flipped it in half, removing the spine and ladder of ribs from the black-specked and thread-veined flesh.

He dug in while my attention alternated between the TV tuned to Rotana and a loud family of middle-class locals sitting beside us. The dad wore a heavy mustache and leather jacket like ش’s, and the kids climbed under the table and around the chairs in sand-blasted jeans and jackets printed or patched with nonsense English words. The mother was done up in a peach-toned hijab and matching lipstick that made her look peaked. I realized I felt a little ill myself.

I excused myself and dashed across the street to the wall of the corniche and took a few deep breaths of the frigid night air. While leaning over the cobbled wall fighting off nausea, I had the distinct sensation of being on the edge of a pitch-black sea, and even though I was a strong swimmer, I was being dragged out by the undertow. I spit a few times, wondered idly at how awful it would be if I were pregnant, and closed my eyes until I felt the fog behind them abate.

Back inside, I couldn’t remove the bones from my own fish, so ش had to do it for me. I took this opportunity to offer myself. I said it with total conviction in my most determined voice, a tone I rarely use and find hard to modulate.

“We need to have sex.”

The mother’s ears pricked up under her hijab, and she dropped her cutlery before turning to stare at me in disbelief and disgust. ش’s expression wasn’t dissimilar, and he paused his operation on the fish.

“But we’ve already waited so long. What’s a few more years?”

“You’re going to Canada. Who knows when we’ll see each other again?”

He said the right thing: “I’ll wait as long as it takes.”

I said the wrong thing: “I won’t.”

I then backed up my callousness with “If it’s not you, it’ll be some other guy. I want it to be you.”

ش and I went out onto the dark street and walked along the stormy corniche toward our hotel room. A boy with a wheelbarrow filled with ice and gelato bins shivered in the wet sea breeze. We shared a paper cup of lemon-lime gelato, and ش shielded me with his leather jacket and squeezed me to him and kissed the top of my head.

ش slept heavily, despite the fact it was our first time in an actual bed together. I had stripped down completely, but he had modestly kept his boxer shorts on. The mattress was lumpy, but it hardly mattered — I’d have been uncomfortable on a waterbed covered with the softest sheepskin. After what felt like hours, I felt myself drift off, and I worried foggily that I’d spill my secrets in my sleep. When I came to, ش was already awake.

It was cold outside the covers, so he wore socks and his leather jacket over his boxers as he dashed to the toilet. When he came back, I noticed from my angle how tall he was. I couldn’t help but observe how his mustache had grown thicker and his shoulders broader and his smile brighter.

Even dressed like a fool, he looked like a prince.

We’d spent almost twenty-four hours together and had only pecked at one another. Even after we’d both washed up and brushed our teeth, we only paused and kissed with shut mouths before leaving the privacy of the room. We gathered up our things and headed to Our Lady of ت to see the mosque that had been a cathedral and now was largely a tourist attraction. ش had heard there were medieval chastity belts on display. The old structure was ت Town’s famous remnant of the Crusades, half hidden by new construction. It was what we’d gone there for, but the doors were shut when we arrived. We lingered at the site, once guarded by the Knights Templar, until it was time for our train. On the ride back, we very rationally discussed the possibility of losing our virginities to other people and then resolved together to take each other’s on his last night in ط City.

I think we both knew our relationship was over, but we kept at it for the next five days, busying ourselves with errands in half-hearted preparation for the big night. On Friday I went to Jum’a prayer with him and spent several hours afterward separated by the post-prayer crowd.

Later that day we went out of our way to find a pharmacy I never went to, to buy condoms. My own pharmacists never seemed to recognize me, anyway, but I was completely paranoid. As we headed back through the market, we passed a combination lingerie shop-perfumery. The shop was crowded with shelf after shelf of mannequin pelvises in a metallic shade of black. Each pelvis wore a different style of crotchless or bejeweled or battery-operated “singing” underpants. ش had always been into lingerie and suggested I go inside and choose something appropriate. By which he meant, something white. “Get something white,” he insisted. “You never wore white ones.” I obsessed over his use of past tense and picked a bridal pair with white mesh and fake white feathers woven into the front panel in the shape of a heart.

We returned to my flat, and he made phone calls while I went out to buy groceries for dinner. I was making kofta and headed down to the butcher’s next to an old coffee and nargileh joint. (The meat there was heavily exposed to apple tobacco and ash, and I swear that made it taste better.) My heart skipped a beat when I noticed ص sitting at a backgammon table with the dudes, smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking his Turkish coffee. I approached the butcher’s without making eye contact and was greeted as soon as I came under the low-hanging awning by the faintly metallic smell of fresh blood on stainless steel hooks. I ordered half a kilo of lamb to be ground and turned toward the street to find ص in the door, leering with one arm resting on the concrete wall and the other holding a cigarette. I still can’t understand the absurd ease with which this American kid had settled into ط City; he walked down every street as though he’d lived there all his life.

“How’s the Arab? Did he shave his cheesy little mustache?”

I didn’t answer him. I hadn’t seen ص in four days. I didn’t know what to say, and it didn’t sound like he knew what to say either.

I had a second request for the butcher. I asked in Arabic, so ص wouldn’t catch on to what I was doing.

“Could you maybe put a little blood in this bottle for me?”

I handed him an empty mango juice bottle, and he looked over the glass counter with a bemused smile.

Just like the guard back at Al-ب, I knew he knew exactly what I was doing.

“Are you up to some kind of black magic?” he asked.

I was flummoxed, because of course the answer was yes. He bobbed his head at me and twirled his hand in an expressive “whatever” gesture. ص stood on the threshold as the butcher took the bottle into the back and returned, wiping it off with an already bloody rag. “Have at it,” he said.

I was faithful to that butcher shop until I left ط City, in no small part because it was where I bought my honor back with half a kilo of freshly ground lamb and a bottle of chicken blood.

I stood with ص for a few minutes on the sidewalk amid honking horns and the covert attention of the dudes, pretending not to look over their steaming teas and their backgammon boards.

ص had something big to tell me, too. “ ز is coming to ط City. I think we’re getting back together. My ex, remember?”

“Is she going to live with you?” I know my lip started to quiver before he even answered, because he closed his eyes and leaned his head back, opening them to stare at the highway overpass that hung low over us.

“I fucked up.”

I turned so the dudes wouldn’t see the fat tears as they started to roll down my face, and I dodged through the traffic to our side street. I spent a few minutes in the elevator, the same elevator where I’d met ص, prodding my eyes with a tissue and trying to soothe my puffy red face. I sniffled there for a few minutes before pressing the button and returning to my apartment and ش.

He was still on the phone when I came back, ticket information scattered on my coffee table, the box of condoms in the crook of the couch, and him making plans with a cousin to visit London.

I set the lamb on the counter to let it bleed and hid the bottle of chicken blood in a cupboard while I lit the gas oven and chopped the garlic and parsley for the kofta.

I was about to try pulling off a trick my old friend ک had read to me out of a book. It had come up in one of our many discussions concerning our then-intact hymens. There were horror stories about good girls whose deflowering failed to provide its proof. One failsafe involved keeping a small baggie of blood beneath you during sex. So I took a thin plastic sack, the whisper-thin kind that nuts and seeds come packaged in, filled it with a few tablespoons of chicken blood, and stashed it in a mug on a shelf next to my bed.

The meal was a bust. Even though I’d been smoking up and screwing, I’d never had alcohol before, and neither had ش. We shared a bottle of sour red wine and cuddled on the couch until he suggested going into the room.

I leaned in for a long kiss by reflex.

When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t see ش. I couldn’t imagine what ص looked like. All I could see was the back of my eyelids as my mouth filled up with an anonymous tongue.

I shifted to autopilot, guilty sobs spasming up from my stomach. I’d imagined this moment so many times. Spent so many weekends writing passionate five-thousand-word emails about our wedding night. It had been so real; we’d fantasized about it for years. It would be in a tent on a beach. It was his idea to go swimming afterward to make my wound heal and then dry ourselves in the air under the full moon.

ش reiterated a line that had come up in the Friday sermon, about our journey through this life into the next.

“Man is always, ever, impatient.”

Imam’s words usually go in one ear and out the other for me, but I’ve remembered those words from ش’s lips ever since.

And once again I was suddenly sure that the man before me knew more than I thought he did.

Even as I took my bra off from under my dress, ش still didn’t want to do it. Over the course of our relationship, we had made out naked, gone down on each other, dry humped each other raw… all that was halal enough. But now he was genuinely worried for my honor. Freaked out that my family would find out, kill me, bury me in the desert, and then come after him.

He kept muttering that I’d hate him in the morning.

For my part, I kept quiet and concentrated on having my way. I had to give him what I’d promised before we finally said goodbye. I was convinced that faking my virginity and offering it to him would be “doing right” by him.

What selfish logic.

The white, feathery underwear made him laugh when he lifted the ridiculous peasant dress that I’d hoped would evoke rustic innocence. He bunched it up around my neck and tried going down on me, but he sputtered when a feather got caught in his mouth.

I laughed but didn’t think it was funny.

When he rose to get a condom, I reached for my little plastic bag and deposited it under my ass. I didn’t dare move for fear I’d bust it before it was time, and lay there trying to cup the baggie in the small of my back. I hovered imperceptibly over the sheet while he figured out which way to unroll the rubber. He stretched out flat on top of me, and I felt the bag burst and the wetness start to pool before he’d even entered me. I winced when he pushed in.

“A-a-ouch,” I said.

My second first time lasted a lot longer than the first. Long enough to make me sore.

I became obsessed with the notion that the bag of blood had popped upward and onto my back rather than downward, and that this would reveal my perfidy.

He took a break and hitched up my legs to see the blood.

I struggled to frame the stain in a more convin-ing spot, knocking skulls with him as we both looked down at the result.

Thankfully, the baggie stuck to my back, and I asked ش to get me a washrag. He got up, pulled the condom off, and went to the bathroom. I peeled the bloody plastic from my back and plopped it back into the mug. I lay down again, rubbing the blood off my back and onto the sheet like a bear against tree bark. Now it was spread all over the bed and had formed more of a dry bloody shadow than a heart.

ش returned with a wet rag. He asked how I was feeling and lay down beside me, pulling up close to me to spoon. I turned over so he wouldn’t notice the stain on my back. We napped for a few hours and did it again without a condom before the sun rose.

Occasionally between humps he would whisper, “I’m sorry.”

I held his torso tight to my chest and cried, swallowing back whimpers as his breathing grew faster. His feelings of guilt were multiplying my own — for every thrusted apology of his, I owed him a thousand. At that moment, with the love of my young life reluctantly fucking me, Islam and the dudes upstairs and the men on the street were right: All of it was my fault.

ش left the next day; I took him to the airport. Our goodbye was stilted. We hadn’t really broken up, but we hadn’t restated any vows, either.

I said I was glad he “did it to me.”

We kissed, cold and wet, and I wept, more out of relief than anything else.

When I returned home, I went straight to my bed. It was empty and covered in loose white down and browning chicken blood. I slept for two days. I didn’t wash the sheets for a month. I slept on the couch until a friend came to live with me and I had to get on with things.


It was easy, it turns out, to pluck my own blossom; but it was a lot harder to shrug off a lifelong habit of guilt and masochistic moralizing. I unplugged the phone from the wall and closed the drapes and locked myself in my bedroom, where I stayed, constructing a new wall between me and men and my Muslimness. My hymen was all ripped up and my religion was in tatters, and every floodgate that had kept me righteous in the face of accusation and insinuation was weakened or busted. For years after, I was repentant, confusing virginity with honor and pride and worth.


Then, a few months ago, I received a poem from ص in Alaska. It was a vivid account of a hunt, the story of his patient stalking of a bear in late winter. He winds a wolf-rib into a lump of seal-blubber and leaves it for the bear to swallow. He follows her to the edge of death, waiting for the rib to pierce her from the inside, and after many days he comes upon her body, still warm.

I hack a ravine in her thigh, and eat and drink, And tear her down her whole length And open her and climb in And close her up after me, against the wind, And sleep.

ص’s poem and the email it came in were full of discomforting love and undeserved gratitude, and somehow they made me feel my insides again. Pricked me into an awareness, an independent solitude that I’d forgotten. Can I say they made me feel like a virgin? They made me feel like a fucking virgin.

How to Write About Africa II

The revenge

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PMD, Excerpt from 911: The Synopsis, 2006/2007. PMD Publishing

Novelists, NGO workers, rock musicians, conservationists, students, and travel writers track down my email, asking: Would you please comment on my homework assignment / pamphlet / short story / funding proposal / haiku / adopted child / photograph of genuine African mother-in-law? All of the people who do this are white. Nobody from China asks, nobody from Cuba, nobody black, blackish, brown, beige, coffee, cappuccino, mulatte. I wrote “How to Write about Africa” as a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day. Now people write to ask me for permission to write about Africa. They want me to tell them what I think, how they did. Be frank, they say, be candid. Tell it like it is.

I have considered investing in a rubber stamp. I have imagined myself standing at the virtual borders of Africa, a black minuteman with a rubber stamp, processing applications — where YES means “Pass go, pay one hundred dollars,” and NO means “Tie ’em up and deport ’em.” It’s almost a sexual thing. They come crawling out of the unlikeliest places, looking to be whipped. I am bad, Master Binya, beat me. Oh! Beat me harder. Oo! They seem quite disappointed when I don’t. Once in a while I do, and it feels both good and bad, like too much wasabi. Bono sent a book of poems. Someone wrote an essay, “How to Write about Afghanistan.” I shook hands with, not one, but two European presidents, who read my text and shook their heads: How bad, how very bad. I shared a cigarette in Frankfurt with the bodyguards of Yar Adua, the Nigerian president, who said they don’t like gyms back in Abuja because the wives of the big men come onto them and cause all kinds of trouble. They preferred hotel gyms in Europe. But German cigarettes were not as good as Nigerian cigarettes. German vegetables were not as good as Nigerian vegetables. German beer was, when you really looked, deep into the foam, not nearly as light and golden as Nigerian beer. When all is said and done, they said, stamping out their cigarettes and smelling of fine French cologne, Nigeria is the best place. Have you been to Abuja, they asked? No, I said. Abuja is ultramodern, they said, and we all looked out at the wet, gray, old, stained buildings in front of us.


One day a man I know called me in some agitation. He had just read “How to Write about Africa” and wanted to know why I would write about him as I’d done. I had said, “After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them.” I had offended him. I had not mentioned anyone by name, but he was personally affronted. Yes, he’s a conservationist, and, yes, he has hosted a celebrity or two — but he didn’t trade in game animals, and he paid his workers well. Sure, I said. It’s beyond the pale, he said. I have never really understood what that means, where that is, the pale, and why such a mild-seeming phrase promises interpersonal Armageddon.


“How to Write about Africa” grew out of an email. In a fit of anger, maybe even low blood sugar — it runs in the family — I spent a few hours one night at my graduate student flat in Norwich, England, writing to the editor of Granta. I was responding to its “Africa” issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known, a sort of “Greatest Hits of Hearts of Fuckedness.” It wasn’t the grimness that got to me, it was the stupidity. There was nothing new, no insight, but lots of “reportage” — Oh, gosh, wow, look, golly ooo — as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were “over there,” where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness. Fuck that. So I wrote a long — truly long — rambling email to the editor.

To my surprise, Granta wrote back right away. The editor, Ian Jack, disavowed the “Africa” issue — that was before his time, he said. A year or so later, another Granta editor called. They were doing a new “Africa” issue, and they wanted my perspective. Sure, sure, I said. And then forgot. And then remembered, felt guilty, felt the weight of a continent on my back. I was blocked and more blocked. I drank a Tusker. Finally I wrote something about Bob Geldof. It was shit, said the editor — not his words, but he meant to say that, and he was right. So I went back to work. The deadline came. The deadline went. I was busy working on a short story, busy working on my novel. A cold Tusker. The new Kwani. The beach, in Lamu. The editor called with an idea — why don’t we publish your long crazy email? An extract, that is. Sure, I said, absentmindedly. He sent me a draft. Phew, I thought, absentmindedly. Cut, paste, cut, paste. A few flourishes here or there. Send.

It took an hour.

The issue came out, my article went online. It became the most-forwarded story in Granta history. I started hearing from friends, from strangers; started getting my own words forwarded to me with a cheerful heading, as something I might be interested in, as though I hadn’t written it. I went viral; I became spam. I started getting invitations — to conferences, meetings, think tanks. I started getting mail. Now I am “that guy,” the conscience of Africa: I will admonish you and give you absolution.

If I was smart, I would have waited a few years and made an iPhone app: a little satirical story about how to write about Africa every day, interactive and adaptable, for ninety-nine cents. Fuck Granta… thanks, Granta.

I was busy working on my novel. Then I was drinking chili-flavored vodka with the editor of this magazine, and before I knew it I had agreed to write a sequel to “How to Write about Africa.” Okay, I said, absentmindedly. So, here we are.

The Senegal of the Mind

An appreciation

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Collage by Babak Radboy

The Senegal of the Mind is especially lovely this time of year. Its capital is Dakar, the Paris of Africa, where the ancient Moorish civilization of black Africa speaks French to power. The Senegalese of the Mind are also very fond of Beirut (the Paris of the Middle East), as well as Buenos Aires (the Paris of South America) and Paris (the Paris of France).

The Senegal of the Mind was discovered by Tracy Chapman in the 1980s. Also present at the founding were Gil Scott-Heron, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Joseph-Désiré Mobutu shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, the Kaunda suit, the Badu twist, Indonesian tie-dye, various Yoruba goddesses, the music of the anti-apartheid movement, Fela Kuti’s sweaty abs, and a guy called Enrique who makes hats in Brooklyn.

Zap Mama was not present at the founding, though she would become the mother of the nation in the late Nineties, by conquering it.

Marie Dualne, or Zap Mama, was born of a Belgian father and a Zairois mother. Her father was killed during the riots that led to independence. Her mother fled, with Marie in her stomach, to the Congo forest, where they were rescued by Pygmies. She was born in the forest without anesthetic, and she was named »«¿¿¿, which means “the Queen With Colliding Arrows and Upside Down Question Marks.” (In French, this translates as Marie Untoilette.)

Decades later, she made a pilgrimage back to Africa to meet the Pygmies, and they treated her specially because she could sing like them. Her Congolese homecoming was only the beginning of her Afropudlian idyll. In 1997, she had a baby she named Kesia, and she went to Mali. “A man in Mali told me that there are seven senses,” she said. “Everyone has five, some can use their sixth. But not everyone has the seventh. It is the power to heal with music, calm with color, to soothe the sick soul with harmony. He told me that I have this gift, and I know what I have to do with it… I’m looking for instruments that have vocal sounds, forgotten instruments like the guimbri.” She had embarked on a Pan-African search for some quality me-time, a quest that could only end in Senegal.

Marie Untoilette started to recruit revolutionaries for the attack on Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the heartland of the Senegal of the Mind. She worked with Michael Franti, Limp Bizkit, the Butthole Surfers, Rob Zombie, the Foo Fighters, Erykah Badu, and the Wizards of Ooze to make the soundtrack. Luckily, she had studied “polyphony in Asian, Arabic, and African contexts,” which came in handy during the fighting. One fine morning Marie and her shock troops (including a contingent from HEMP: Hair Empathy Messes Patriarchy) descended on Dekalb Avenue wielding vodoun essential oils and candomblé drumbeats, beating up people with perms. Some of the extremists pulled women out of their storefronts and gave them jojoba scalp rubbings. Afterward, negotiations with the long-haired pimp look of Fulton Mall were dreadlocked for months, until Marie went directly to the Taiwanese Mafia and made them pull all lye-based products from all shelves and replace them with shea butter, Rita Marley Pancake Mix, Wyclef Jeans, and Gorée Hand Cream.

“Now, my massage is that we need to go down to our roots!” she said, strumming her endangered instrument as the crowds cheered.

She declared independence in 2000 and was registered by the United Nations World Music Council.

Location: within 500 yards of any outlet that sells Putumayo products to black people in every major city in the world

Credit Rating: above 700

Border countries: Ali Farka Toure, Bahia, Jamaica, Toronto, Salsa, and Yassa rice

Maritime claims: all offshore territories in the world where black people look beautiful and are artisanal and musical

Terrain: generally low, rolling voices with riffs and instruments made of earthy products, set to a retro beat by a DJ who is very cool

Elevation extremes:
Lowest point: Michael Franti
Highest point: Salif Keita, Youssou N'dour

Irrigated land: ten million scalps, furrowed and oiled

Natural hazards: lowlands seasonally flooded by gentrifying white people

Main exports: Polyphonic a capella, jojoba oil, world music CDs, plantain facemasks

Glory

The soft bigotry of great expectations

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From the series Edge Theory of Dematerialized Consciousness, 2006

Q: We understand that Bill Gates and some others in this business have criticized this initiative as untenable. What is your response to this?

A: I don’t respond to such criticism. Because criticizing this project is like criticizing the Church, or the Red Cross.

— Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the $100 laptop movement, as quoted by The Daily Vanguard, Nigeria

I was twelve years old, in a small public school in Nakuru.

One day, the whole school was called out of class. Some very blond and very serious people from Sweden had arrived. We were led to the round patch of grass next to the parade ground in front of the school, where the flag was. Next to the flag were two giant drums of cow shit and metal pipes and other unfamiliar accessories. We stood around, heard some burping sounds, and behold, there was light.

This is biogas, the Swedes told us. A fecal martyr. It looks like shit — it is shit — but it has given up its gas for you. With this new fuel you can light your bulbs and cook your food. You will become balanced dieted; if you are industrious perhaps you can run a small biogas-powered posho mill and engage in income-generating activities.

We went back to class. Very excited. Heretofore our teachers had threatened us with straightforward visions of failure. Boys would end up shining shoes; girls would end up pregnant.

Now there was a worse thing to be: a user of biogas.


I once won a windup radio. I was living in South Africa, and had entered a radio competition coming up with some witty slogan. I received the radio gratefully. I was happy to discover that my radio was perfect. The winding up did not require much muscle-power. The radio lasted for ages. It looked retro — and retro was starting to look rather good to me. This was the early Nineties. I was very broke at the time. My new possession offered me a way to imagine myself: a suffering saint, a frugal writer with his frugal radio. Frugal, not impoverished. Certainly not a failure. My radio lent nobility to being broke.

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It also lent nobility to ingenuity. It was invented by Trevor Baylis, a kindly English swimming-pool salesman who had seen a program about AIDS in Africa on the TV. Radio was the best way to educate people about the disease, he learned, but electricity was unreliable and batteries were expensive. “There was a need for an educational tool that did not rely on electricity… [and] Trevor picked up on the word ‘need.’” His windup radio was the perfect invention for its stated purpose, and it received several awards from the BBC, including Best Product Design. It also won Baylis an Order of the British Empire. He was all over South African television and radio.

I don’t know what became of it. I lost track of the thing about the time I moved. I had made a small killing in some dodgy marketing deal, so I bought new clothes, packed up, and moved to Cape Town. You didn’t hear anything about the windup radio after a while, and I didn’t know anyone else who had one.

But Baylis’s Freeplay Radios still exist. You will find them among new-age fisher-folk in Oregon; neo–blue collar sculptors working out of lofts in postindustrial cities; back-to-earthers in Alberta; Social Forum activists and neo–Grizzly Adams types everywhere. Angst-ridden victims, all. But the enthusiasts of the windup radio suffer not from poverty or lack of information but from wealth, vague guilt, and too much information. They are the only people who can find nobility in a product that communicates to its intended owner: you are fucked.

Introducing the children’s laptop from One Laptop per Child, a potent learning tool created expressly for the world’s poorest children living in its most remote environments. —wiki.olpc.org

The $100 laptop is for the whole brown world. It will change everything. Every aspect of the project is upstanding, straight, honest, earnest, and disciplined. Forward-looking, educational, humanitarian.

It will be sold directly to governments. Rwanda has already signed up — a perfect launch pad; in Rwanda every Brother and Sister Citizen sweeps the highways once a month. Libya is already on board, too; they will spend a modicum of oil money, adding this crowning achievement of the humanitarian imagination to the gas ovens and refrigerators and little green books the citizenry already gets for free. The command will go out, and smiling millions will laptop away.

Perhaps. But perhaps not. A guy I know told me about an uncle who left his shop in Kigali just before the genocide. He escaped to North America. After the genocide, he was one of the first Indian traders to return. He stopped in Dar es Salaam and bought several containers of toilet paper and cigarettes. When he got to Kigali, he opened a container by the side of the road and started selling.

The man had told his nephew this story as a lesson. People and their needs are strange things. He had gambled that the first thing people would want is to have their familiar things back. To feel clean. To feel normal. And he won his bet. The man sold out quickly and at the price he demanded.


I was walking in Nairobi not long ago when I saw a crowd gathering. Somebody hidden by the crowd was shouting. Another street church, I thought. I went closer and saw a man who was fevered and preaching and zealous and all, but the object of his devotion was a little gadget that could do many things to raw vegetables of many shapes and sizes.

And lo, old and obscure and nearly forgotten vegetables have reappeared magically in our hearts and minds. Across the city, people are abandoning the customary roast meat and chips, taking their lunch at one of the fruit and salad parlors that have sprouted up everywhere. Restaurants selling meals with forgotten old traditional green vegetables run out of food by midday. Meanwhile, multilevel marketing companies sell vitamins and aloe. Since we feel dirty, that our government is dirty, we imagine AIDS everywhere. So we have a new puritan religion based on food. It speaks in the language of rapture, and on busy streets you are called upon to rise up and drink the aloe tea.

In Eastlands, the “dangerous” part of Nairobi, there is a service where you can order anything from the duty-free port of Dubai by paying Somali middlemen and waiting for your order to be delivered to your door. These Somalis supply many of the businesses in Eastlands’s booming retail sector — little eight-by-ten shops that sell for astonishing sums of money.

There are thousands of these in Nairobi alone. For all of the products that have successfully entered our national imagination, the items themselves were probably less important than the process. Success was less a function of satisfying a need than of creating new needs, new demands; it was the way they made you feel about yourself, for good or ill, that made them work. The ugly face of capitalism, yes; the ability of a product to make its way into your idea about yourself.


And the products that have become successful came through these stalls and these middlemen. People who spoke many languages, and understood how to get the message out, how to move things, across town or across the ocean, and make a profit.


You can buy a mobile phone for thirty dollars in Nairobi. There is a nationwide network. But more importantly, there is a nationwide industry of small suppliers that has sprung up to service that network and those phones. Handymen can fix the most broken of casings; streetside entrepreneurs offer you the use of their phone for a few shillings; tens of thousands of tiny booths sell airtime. A guy called Njoroge has a business in Nairobi’s industrial area called “Lord of the Ringtones.” They digitalize and sell ringtones, 220,000 of them a month. Cellphones are the biggest business in Kenya.

And they are transforming culture, even as they spawn new markets. In Nairobi, a student paper caters to kids from across the city’s high schools; submissions are sent in by text message, with articles written in textese — words broken into their smallest possible lucid components. Every few months or so, rumors circulate, breaking some code or other and giving free airtime or texts. Some people have learned to communicate for free with their regular clients or family by coding their ringing: one ring, I am on my way; two rings, I have picked up the kids; three rings, I love you.

Now there is a pilot project in Kenya, the first in the world, to transfer money, Western Union–style, to anybody with a cellphone. It is exciting, yes, but then people have been sending money to each other in Kenya for years. Send minutes to someone, and they can resell them for cash.


If you walk into any African market, you see chaos. Things tend not to cross over from the formal side of an African city to the informal side. The two speak very different languages. Often, the formal side — out of its good nature or its panicked guilt, out of a feeling that the giant world of the urban poor is too pathetic to tolerate — pins its hopes and dreams on some revolutionary product. Biogas. A windup radio. A magic laptop. These pure products are meant to solve everything.

They almost always fail, but they satisfy the giver. To the recipients, the things have no context, no relationship to their ideas of themselves or their possibilities. A great salesman can spark a dialogue with you; in a matter of minutes, you come to make your own sense of his product, fitting it into your imagination, your life. You lead, the salesman follows. Whereas a pure product presents itself as a complete solution; a product built to serve the needs of the needy assumes the needy have measured themselves exactly as the product has measured them.

When free American maize turned up in Kenyan schools in 1984, thanks to Bob Geldof and USA for Africa, it arrived in gunny bags and presented itself at school dining tables: steaming yellow, not white like the maize-flour we knew as a staple. We had heard that this food was coming. We had heard that people were starving to death — only a few miles away from us, in fact, over the border. But even that was “out there.” We were all hearing on the radio this song by big celebrities about the starving people in Africa. We were singing these songs, as well — thrilled that we, too, could feel mushy about people in Africa. We saw the sacks unloaded. But they were silent. So we started to speculate. I must confess that I hated school food, anyway, and that yellow maize porridge tasted not that much worse than everything else we were forced to eat. But our speculation was powerful. It is American animal feed. And it started tasting a bit too earthy. It has been treated with contraceptive chemicals. And it started to taste metallic. It was sent to us because it has gone bad already. And it started to smell funny.

Soon, in the Njoro High School dining hall, vast amounts of yellow porridge went directly into the bins. Our teachers, normally violent fascists in matters of discipline, looked the other way. We had food fights with the porridge every evening, and the floor would be littered with the clumpy remnants of America’s love.

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There is an odd and silly dance that plays itself out around the developing world, where certain good-graced individuals and communities have learned to respond correctly to “development projects.” Such people are well loved by funders, as they allow them to satisfy their reporting requirements. But the dynamic and arrogant — those who are not willing to turn up for an “awareness” meeting, because they feel they have better things to do — end up being ignored. The sly can become “community leaders” if they can persuade people to become dependent on them; it is they who distribute the food parcels. It is a good and caring way to acquire political power without a gun or greedtalk or anything that would undermine the idea of yourself as good and caring.

There are few useful “development models” for genuinely self-starting people. I am sure the One Laptop per Child initiative will bring glory to its architects. The IMF will smile. Mr. Negroponte will win a prize or two or ten. There will be key successes in Rwanda; in a village in Cambodia; in a small, groundbreaking initiative in Palestine, where Israeli children and Palestinian children will come together to play minesweeper. There will be many laptops in small, perfect, NGO-funded schools for AIDS orphans in Nairobi, and many earnest expatriates working in Sudan will swear by them.

And there will be many laptops in the homes of home-schooling, goat-tending parents in North Dakota who wear hemp (another wonder-product for the developing world). They will fall in love with the idea of this frugal, noble laptop, available for a mere $100. Me, I would love to buy one. I would carry it with me on trips to remote Kenyan places, where I seek to find myself and live a simpler, earthier life, for two weeks a year.

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