Late one evening toward the end of 2003, a girl walked into a bar wearing fishnet stockings and scuffed white pumps. She had wavy hair and a Lauren Hutton–sized gap between her two front teeth. I remember the vague shape of a dress and a coat, and the slightest hint of a dramatic scar that ran the length of her chest. I was taking time off from writing to manage that bar and research a villain for a novel I would never write. The young woman was Lisa Farjam, founder of Bidoun. She had the zero issue of the magazine in her bag and she had come to see me about writing for it, just as I was deciding that what I’d been doing was dumb. She told me what she was doing and why. I flipped through the magazine, backward and forward — the earliest issues, imitating Arabic and Farsi, ran back to front — and told her: Okay. I’ll do anything, whatever I can, whatever you want. It was that good — smart, brash, and irreverent. Perfectly pitched, and exactly right for the time and place.
A decade passed and then some. Bidoun became, in those years, something like my family and my home. It made me work. It made me laugh. It made me furious. It was intense and complicated and full of love and littered with friendships that came together and fell apart. Some never recovered. I remember a corner office the size of a storage closet on Chrystie Street and the long narrow storefront on Orchard. I remember the wireless code was always estrogen. None of Bidoun’s offices were ever really suited to editorial production, much less accounting or business administration. But the magazine was never really made there. It was made over meetings at the back tables of another Beirut bar, over a dubious meal in a dusty restaurant in downtown Cairo, on the back of a golf cart lurching through an absurd hotel complex in Dubai, or at the long, packed tables of a marathon birthday dinner in Sharjah or New York or LA. Mostly, though, it was made over e-mail, in the rapid-fire ping-pong of fraught, productive, and often hysterical exchanges, where there were usually too many people weighing in on a thread. Bidoun was always too serious or too cute. It was always dysfunctional and messy and we were nothing if not loyal to it. It introduced me to a group of writers and editors who have been conversing about art and politics across this region, however defined — and much more importantly, to a group of readers, the disparate and diffuse yet still somehow close community that has come to constitute the equally loyal Bidounosphere. The stuff of those conversations, the stories on which they hinge, their stubborn facts and fascinating digressions — ten years’ worth of discussions and debates — all this is finally available online. For years, it was buried in stacks of magazines, boxed up in damp basements, wherever those few thousand copies of this or that issue came to rest. Now it’s here, searchable and browse-able in at least six different, intersecting ways at once.
I spent much of the last month of last year sifting through this newly organized archive. Having seen twenty-eight themed issues come together in real time, I expected to find things I barely remembered or hadn’t read in years. I did not expect to find an entirely new set of unifying subjects, never explicitly stated or implicitly intended, arising from the same material. For example: Who had any idea that we had actually, substantially, tended to notions of feminism for ten years — or written so much, and in so many different ways, about the experience of being a woman?
Fourteen issues in, Lisa finally wrote about that scar on her chest in one of the most beautiful pieces the magazine ever published, “My Beating Heart.” (Read it and you will weep.) In issue seventeen, themed “Flowers,” Sophia Al-Maria wrote about losing her virginity twice — the second time involving an artfully placed dime-bag of chicken blood procured from a Cairo butcher — in an essay titled “The Last Rose of Summer.” In issue twenty-five, Bidoun interviewed the taboo-busting Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi. In issue twenty-six, Sarah Rifky contributed “Call Me Soft,” an outrageously good story about a girl named Orient and a boy named One, on the perils of falling hard for a man in the art world who is handsome and enlightened but dismal in bed. Even in that very first issue Lisa’d shown me in Beirut, inaugurating Bidoun’s cooking column with a recipe “for her secret aphrodisiac fish dish, Qurb”: Fatima Mernissi, the formidable Moroccan feminist who argued all her life that Islam was flexible, malleable, and full of emancipatory potential. Mernissi, who died on November 30 of last year, always insisted that it was the political manipulations and interpretations of men that had made Islam rigid, medieval, and oppressive.
What kind of complex, convoluted feminism has Bidoun put forth in its first decade of existence? I never imagined there was any kind of feminism at all. But it’s all there, sure as day, as a lineage and a history with a dose of good humor and great writing, now open for all to see.
I was the cutest baby in Queens. Somehow none of the fated genes had stuck, doubtless helped by my mother’s daily prayers and the hefty dose of sesame seeds (turns the eyes blue! makes the hair blond!) that my father sprinkled on everything they ate, hoping for an Aryan miracle. Platinum-haired and green-eyed, I was not what the spawn of two black-haired Iranians should look like. I was lucky.
Sometime into my first year my luck ran out. I turned blue. There must have been trips to the hospital, to the pediatrician, a whirlwind of sterile smells and tests I can’t remember. A tiny pin-size opening between my atrium and ventricle. A hole in my heart.
There was nothing they could do, at least not yet; I was too small to have the operation. In the meantime, my father learned everything there was to know about atrial septal defect and called all over the country with his passable English to find the best doctor, all the while working three jobs and finishing his PhD in psychology.
I don’t remember a thing.
What I remember starts in the car outside Boston Children’s Hospital, when my father crashed the Cutlass Supreme into a parking lamp and my parents started fighting. My mother said we were at a hospital and there was a surprise waiting for me inside.
My three-year-old mind raced. There was a tense moment of endless waiting; then I was brought into a book-lined room that didn’t smell like the rest of the hospital, and there was Mister Rogers. Mister Rogers, from TV, was standing there in front of me. It was like meeting God. My television universe had exactly two shows in it, 3-2-1 Contact and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Three if you counted Dallas, which I watched while pretending to be asleep on my mom’s lap. Later I learned that my mother had called Fred Rogers in Pittsburgh every day for a year. Finally, he relented: I’ll send a personal letter and a photo. Not good enough, she said. She won.
Mister Rogers explained why I was there. I don’t remember the words but instead the hushed calm his voice made when it mixed with the air in the room. His hands were restful and clean, and his fingers were long and white. He had perfect nails. I wanted to poke him and see if his skin was made of wax. He assured me I was going to be all better soon. Then I took him to meet my boyfriend Richard from the heart-surgery ward. We had cookies and juice on red plastic chairs. I don’t remember for sure, but I think he was wearing the loafers.
I had met Richard in the common room. He made me a paper crown and put it on my head. Then he made himself a crown, declared himself king, and said, “Now you are my wife.” (It occurs to me that this is what my boyfriend, Brian, said to me, too, six years ago, before we decided to spend the rest of our lives together. Before we were together at all.) That might have been when my dad told the staff, “We are not villagers,” and demanded a private room; I was moved that day.
I remember being wheeled into surgery and the nurses talking about the Mets game as bright lights in the ceiling flashed by. When it was over, two people dressed in white stood over me and chuckled and told me that I had asked for ice cream in the middle of surgery. They gave me a lot of ice cream after that. I was in intensive care for twenty days, and then we got out of there as quickly as possible. I never did get to say good-bye to Richard, but I knew things were over. There was talk of Disney World. I was ready to move on.
At Disney World a month later, my mom bought me a straw purse that I liked to hit the Disney characters with, especially Goofy. One morning I saw Minnie, Donald, and Pluto eating breakfast together. What kind of world was I living in, where I could have apple juice with Mister Rogers and breakfast with Pluto? Minnie’s eyelashes were six feet long and indestructible. Every time I saw her, I tried to climb up and pull them off.
A few years later, I spoke to my mom about my surgery. I asked her why we had gone to Boston and what was wrong with me now.
The doctor, Dr. Riteman, was the leading heart surgeon in the States and the only one using natural tissue to mend the heart.
You mean he used tissue to close up the hole?
Yes, he did. All the other surgeons are still using synthetics. There’s a history of the body rejecting the material, so we searched for an alternative. Dr Riteman only uses tissue from your own body.
He used my own tissue, from my heart?
Well, not exactly from your heart, but, yes, he used tissue from you. Where was it from, then?
From inside of you.
From where inside of me?
From your vagina.
Oh, I said.
I hid this disgusting information well. It was bad enough to have a scar that cut me down the middle like a dissected frog. I wore strategically chosen bathing suits, shirts that came up to my chin.
When my first real boyfriend asked me what had happened, I embraced my defect for the first time. I have a piece of my vagina on my heart, I told him.
So that’s why I love you, he said.
One time I read an interview with Fred Rogers where he talked about religion. He said that he didn’t really have a particular belief system, but that he thought that there is a heart beating at the center of the universe, and it cares about us all.
When I was sixteen, I got my belly button pierced on Newbury Street in Boston. I was visiting a friend who went to college there. We went to a clinical-looking tattoo parlor, where I filled out a form, took off my shirt, and got on a platform. The piercing technician paused, kneeling, needle in hand. He stared at my scar and then at me.
Did you have heart surgery?
Yes, I answered. What a genius, this tattooed man on his knees.
Atrial septal defect?
At Children’s Hospital? Dr. Riteman?
I couldn’t breathe. I stared back at him.
I was your nurse, he said, grinning. Your parents are crazy! Your dad called us all villagers, and your mom kissed our hands when you left. How are they? How are you? How’s it going under there?
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
And open her and climb in
And close her up after me, against
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.
8: But we should be the least of our worries. What snakes most silently through our lips is not the false unity of our voice, but the ear we perpetrate by speaking. What worries us most, and gives us hope, is the owner of this ear.
A conversation with Nawal El Saadawi, activist, feminist, writer, doctor. She is the author of forty-seven books, including Women and Sex, Memoirs From the Women’s Prison, and God Dies by the Nile. Seventy-nine years old, she is one of the most outspoken agitators for women’s rights in Egypt.
Nawal El Saadawi: I am very angry today. Look at this silly magazine: they have misquoted me. It reads, “I am bigger than the president.” Who am I to say I am bigger than the president? Though, I admit, I do think that novelists are more important than politicians. No one knows who the president was during Virginia Woolf ’s time. Do they? Do you? This is a conspiracy or ignorance. I will call the editor of the magazine or write about it in my column in Al Masry Al Youm. I read the newspapers in the evening, because it spoils my mood. I must save the mornings to write.
Bidoun: The doorman asked me about you when i came up.
NS: What did he want to know?
B: He wanted to know why i was going up to see you. He said you have afkar moayena [particular beliefs]. He asked me what i thought about your particular beliefs, and if i shared them.
NS: They like to say Nawal El Saadawi loves absolute freedom. I’ve faced the Hezba law four times. Can you believe it? The state has taken my nationality, put me in prison, divorced me from my husband, and tried to kill me! What more can they do?
B: Why are they so sensitive to you, do you think?
NS: I think Suzanne Mubarak in particular tried to bury my name in history. She banned everything I did, including the Egyptian Women’s Union. We tried to establish it several times, and every time she banned it. Suzanne Mubarak wanted to win the Nobel Prize and to be known as the leader of the women’s movement in Egypt, and that is why she tried to bury the name of Nawal El Saadawi. I have forty-seven books in Arabic and they are in almost every home in the Arab world. Even the young people who started the revolution in Tahrir Square read my books… Suzanne Mubarak did not like my influence, and she certainly did not want a strong woman like me making a mark in history. She wanted to distort my image. So she and her husband and the system used the Hezba law.
You know, there is no difference between Sadat, Mubarak, Bin Laden, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Sadat and the people who killed him were twins. Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are also twins. Many of my books were banned under Mubarak, and I was forced to publish them in Lebanon. Even my last novel, Zeena, was published in Lebanon.
B: Has anything substantive changed after January 25?
NS: The revolution came and we were very happy, but I believe nothing has changed. I am still censored on the television, for example. All the writers and journalists who are writing in the big newspapers are the same. They are Mubarak people! When you read Al-Ahram today or even Al Masry Al Youm, they have the same mentality: patriarchal, capitalist, classist. They are against women, against the poor. They are also hypocrites. They say they are with the poor, and they are not. They say they are not with the fundamentalists, but they are.
They even want to bring Mubarak back again; they want to forgive him. The army and the government plan to divide and rule, with the true power in America and Israel. You cannot exclude the external powers from this story. And they want to buy the young people, like Wael Ghonim! Or like Ayman Nour. Who is this man? He has no history. Or like Naguib Sawiris. How could he run the country? How could a billionaire run the country?
B: Is there any opposition you can believe in?
NS: I am going mad. There is no opposition. The political parties like Wafd, Tagammu, and the Nasserites, they are all working together. It seems that I am the only one who is outside of all that mess. Do you feel that? Do you agree with me?
I am with the young people but the young people are divided. I read yesterday that Wael Ghonim is writing a book about the revolution and taking two million dollars as a fee! I am the one writing for forty years and translated into so many languages!
B: What else are you angry about?
NS: Many things. When I was in Atlanta and a visiting professor the last three years, from 2007 to 2009, some journalists wrote something about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt, and they put an image of Suzanne Mubarak in the New York Times. Some of my friends who have followed my work about FGM for forty years wrote to the newspaper and told them they were mistaken. They said, “How could you make a big page about FGM in Egypt and not mention the name of Nawal El Saadawi and instead include the picture of Suzanne Mubarak?” They didn’t publish their complaints or correct or even take one sentence from my work. You see, the New York Times censors me. Except when you have a writer called Nicholas Kristof. I was walking in Tahrir Square, and I met him by coincidence during the revolution. That was the first time that my name was mentioned in the New York Times by a writer. Same with CNN! Same with the mainstream American media. It is not different from Mubarak media. Now they are making Wael Ghonim the hero of the revolution.
B: Who made this revolution?
NS: Twenty million people were in Tahrir Square on February 11. The real revolution started after February 2, when the horses and the camels came. We were sitting in Tahrir Square, and suddenly horses and camels came in with weapons. I was about to be knocked over by a horse. Many people were killed in front of us, and bullets passed behind us. I was right in the middle of the square. We used to meet every day at the Omar Makram statue — you know the Omar Makram statue? We were a group of young men and women and we were moving toward this meeting point when the horses entered… and the camels. It was medieval; it was like a bad film. They passed like that [makes hand gesture], so the young people took me away, and they said, “We have to leave this place immediately.” The people were falling down around me and it was like a nightmare. This triggered the revolution. After this event of the camels and the horses, twenty million people came to Tahrir Square until Mubarak resigned on the 11th. So I cannot say who is responsible for the revolution. It is those twenty million people, of course, those people who showed up on the 25th — what do you call them? The Facebook people. They started it, they triggered it all. But who obliged Mubarak to step down was the twenty million.
B: Tell me about anxiety. Are you anxious?
NS: Today I am worried. I am not scared. I have immunity to fear. I am worried about the revolution. I feel that we are fighting big powers, America and Israel. And Saudi Arabia is paying billions of dollars to Salafists and fundamentalists so that we would say, “Oh, Mubarak, we need you.” It is all planned to bring the old regime back. Everyone is talking about the insecurity… Oh, the insecurity, the insecurity, we need security so that the business people will come and the foreign capital will come.
But we are not beggars to take US aid. We need to produce our own food. We need agricultural production, intellectual production. We have millions of young people ready to work, but no one wants them to work! We import ful medames from California. I eat ful from California! We import bread from California. And wheat. The textile factories — the best textile factories were closed for the benefit of what they call the free market. This is colonialism. We drink Israeli beer. They are replacing Egyptian production with American-Israeli production.
And the fruits! We once had the best fruits. Now the vegetables and fruits have no taste. None. I cannot eat a simple salad! I am worried. I have been fighting since King Farouk. And I am still censored by the media. Why does the media continue to try to make me quiet?
This is what makes people say I have afkar moayena. Like the doorman downstairs, or that stupid magazine. I don’t care. I am eighty years old. I have been struggling since I was ten. Since I was a child I have dreamed of this revolution. I am disgusted. We don’t have good lawyers and judges who can be really fair. The judges will be against me in the end. Because they are religious and with the mainstream.
B: How much further must we take this revolution?
NS: We should be in the street all the time. We have won the first phase only. Now we have gone back home and we are divided. We should have continued. They divided the revolution. Each party took a group and said, “This is the revolution.” They bribed them. They put them on the CNN, took them to New York, and gave them two million dollars!
There are more than fifteen hundred people who lost one or both of their eyes. No one wrote about them. They do not have the money for medical treatment. No one remembered them. They were here in the nearby hospital, they were here, I used to pass by them. The police of Mubarak pointed at their eyes. They wanted the young people to be blind. The rubber bullet was pointed directly at the eye… and that is why in the statistics they say fifteen hundred lost an eye, but I think it is much more. It is symbolic; they don’t want to kill them, they want them to be blind.
Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei: All the political parties represent the same thing. We have to depend on the millions again.
B: Tell me about dreams.
NS: During the eighteen days in Tahrir, I was remembering when I was a child. I used to close my eyes and hear the millions chanting, “Noorid esqat el nezam.” We demand the fall of the regime. This was my slogan when I was a child! My dream was to change the system. When people asked me what I wanted, I said, “I want to change the system.” When I was a student in high school and also later in the faculty of medicine, I wanted to change the system. Now people ask me what my dream is and I say, “I want to change the system.” Maybe this is because I came from a poor family, or because I was a girl.
B: Tell me about jokes.
NS: I think there are beautiful jokes everywhere. Even in America. To get rid of frustration, humor is essential. You need creativity. Egyptians have a very creative nature. I think this is because of slavery. Egyptians have been oppressed since the Pharaohs. We were colonized because of the Nile. Egypt is a very strategic country and all colonizers came to Egypt, up to today. We were colonized, and that is why we are funny.
On a warm August night in Brussels, a curator, Orient, of feminist inclination, dressed up in an Egyptian belly dance costume, swaying her hips and breasts to Umm Kulthum’s epic song of a thousand and one nights. This act of seduction was intended for an audience of One. One was a man, a curator. This highly staged act, of Orient sexualizing herself for One’s gaze, transcended all codes of proper politically correct behavior. As both overcame mediocre intercourse, Orient gently asked One how, despite her intentionally seductive act, he had achieved at best an indefinite arousal. One told her repeatedly that sex didn’t matter so much to him. He enjoyed it, but he was not ruled by it; that in fact, he preferred to have what he curiously dubbed a soft erection than succumb to her desire. It was purposeful; One would not allow his desire to fully blossom around Orient. In fact, he said: in private, call me Soft. To her this felt of dysfunction. But was it something else? Perhaps he did not really like her? Perhaps he secretly liked men? As the summer receded, Orient lingered in Europe, embracing the cold, and set out to make a full investigation. She began talking to friends in the field of art, both men and women: intellectuals, writers, artists, philosophers. It wasn’t just him. More and more, she realized, the greater the intellectual and imaginative capacity of the man, the more susceptible they were to what One suffered from. They all wanted, privately, to be called Soft.
It was both daunting and upsetting to Orient that she could not rule over One — or other men she encountered in love — through her projected desire to be desired. In fact, the more desire and urgency she brought to love, the more she found herself swathed in his cold softness. It was only in Europe that this ambivalence toward sex seemed to be accompanied by an imaginary freedom. Perhaps Gala was right, half a lifetime ago, when she sang, “Freed from Desire.” Was it that? Or was the world of art becoming rather transcendental? Returning, perplexed, to a place that was no longer Cairo, she shared her concerns with her mother. “Oh, Orient, Orient. This doesn’t sound new at all. It sounds quite Christian, in fact!” Orient lost sleep over this peculiar condition. Might this withholding of a full expression of sexuality, this subversion of orgasm, somehow be a side effect of consumer culture? Less Christian than capitalist? Did softness correlate to new economic realities? Was it a response to market trends? Was the rarifying of the sex act meant to convey a specific kind of culturedness?
Orient thought again about what her mother had said. Sexual pleasure, in Christianity, was planted by the Devil to drive a wedge between man and God. In the art world, it seemed, sexual pleasure had wedged itself between man and his intellectual power. Maybe the curse went all the way back to Adam’s expulsion from the garden for frolicking with Eve. Back to the apple. Apples grew in Eden, but now they were imported from America… Her thoughts drifted to the greengrocer. Orient liked hard red apples. Was it that One and his ilk imagined that an undelayed gratification, some coming insurrection of hormonal fluids, would leave them marooned among the masses of men?
Orient felt perplexed. She was content with Soft’s affectionate caresses, his half-formed form. What did bother her, though, in the afterfeeling of it all, was that One seemed to imagine himself a more evolved species, beyond the sphere of mass consumption. Something similar seemed to be at play in their different responses to the market. Orient gravitated to all manner of products, whereas One patronized only a few exquisitely specific boutiques, invisible to the naked eye. Orient was not used to that. Visibility and desire were very much connected. No matter how much she disliked that murky gilded print on brown leather, Louis Vuitton still ruled the imagination of the fashion-minded where she came from.
Diligently investigating the etiology of softness over dinner with an Austrian pseudoscientist in Beirut, Orient was told that perhaps what she was trying to understand was something quite simple. Biological. “I know a man in Los Angeles,” he said, “whose manhood reaches his knees. When he gets hard, all the blood in his brain rushes downward, and the man faints.” Orient saw another parallel: the more intellectually conscious and plugged in One was, the more guarded they were in intimate settings. They were simply afraid not to think around her. Perhaps for ones such as One, hardness was a luxury they could afford. There is only so much blood in one’s body. She made a mental note to raise this question in the medical sphere.
It was an Armenian friend, a former queer activist and art historian, who inspired a new theory on the topic. Men like One had grown up with post-modern critical theory, she suggested, including the second-wave feminist theory of the Sixties and Seventies. It was women like Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous who had set the phallus on fire, a devilish effigy, as part of the struggle for a symbolism less antagonistic to female pleasure; indeed, to orgasm, so long ignored, derided, or even pathologized, as in the psychoanalytic diagnosis of hysteria. Had One completely imbibed such theory? Was his softness a form of excessive politeness, a desire not to offend?
She was dissatisfied with this idea. Could it be true that raising a boy on a healthy diet of feminist theory could only produce a kind of intellectually self-conscious man? That the unintended consequence of that fine pedagogy should be to make it impossible for One to enter Orient without seeing it as privately if not politically invasive, a violent intrusion?
Orient worried that she was on the wrong side of the world perhaps, or the wrong side of history. Her own quest for power was not easy to master in this new world, populated by sexually ambivalent men who insisted on being called Soft. Orient vowed that if Soft was, intentionally or not, slipping the rug out from under her, she would not take it lying down.
Soft asks Orient to accompany him to Barcelona. She agrees. And it is there where she finally starts to see the ways of men. “What would you do if you were a woman?” she asks. “I would use my sex appeal to manipulate others, secure power,” he says. Perhaps it is not yet time to stow away her costume after all. There may yet be a place for the trappings of theatrical femininity, rummaged out of the historical wardrobe. Perhaps this is why she retains her stage name. Though these days, upon making one’s intimate acquaintance, she asks him, too, to call her Soft.
When the magical Moroccan author Fatima Mernissi agreed to provide a recipe for our cooking section, we knew it would be special. Here, she reveals the recipe for her secret aphrodisiac fish dish, Qurb, which she writes of in her book Scheherazade Goes West.
“The most difficult thing is to find the supposedly aphrodisiac fish, the qurb, in the first place. Qurb is the Arabic word for “coming closer,” and ever since I first arrived in Rabat as a student, I have heard about its wonders. In my own hometown of Fez, which is three hundred kilometres from the sea, we never knew such a magical fish existed. But here, you can’t get qurb easily because the whole Rabat population is always looking for it, scavenging the fish markets along the beaches that stretch towards Casablanca. To increase your chances of finding the treasure, you have to be out searching at 5 am But fortunately, at least we Rbati, or people from Rabat, don’t have to compete with the three million citizens of Casablanca. The Casablanca people are like Americans: they focus on money, not sensuality.”
1 cup dried mint
1 cup green tea
3 cups water
Bring to a boil. Add sugar; serve in small glasses with much panache.
None would be complete without including Moroccan tea, which is served constantly from morning to night.
The Moroccans use dried mint and green tea, boiled and brewed together and mixed with so much sugar you could cut through it with a knife. Feel free to mix with fresh mint, which always impresses foreigners.
2 tbs fresh ginger, finely grated
3 cloves garlic, finely crushed
Juice of 3 lemons
1 tbs fresh coriander, finely chopped
7 tbs fine olive oil
Macerate the two filleted halves of the qurb in all the ingredients above. Leave for at least 3 hours.
Broil the fish for 5–7 minutes on each side, sprinkling with lemon as you go along.
The most important part of the recipe, of course, is the presentation. Fatima urges us all to serve the qurb on a terrace overlooking the ocean on the fourteenth night of a lunar month, when the moon is full and round. “And,” she says, as I scribble down the recipe in her warm kitchen, “speak softly.”
Tchoutchouka can be served hot or cold, as a starter, or with just about everything. Make a lot — it goes fast.
2 pounds green peppers
2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 sprigs parsley, chopped
2 sprigs coriander, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp hot red pepper powder
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp salt
7 tbs olive oil
You can grill the peppers in the oven if you don’t have a grill. Just put them on the racks, turning occasionally, until blackened on all sides. Then let them cool in a covered bowl for about an hour.
When they are cool, peel the skins, which will come right off. Dice.
Mix all the ingredients together and cook in a large pan over medium heat for 35 minutes, stirring frequently until the juice has been absorbed.
Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Apricots
Doctor Latifa Jamai is a brilliant woman. She was the first female gynecologist in Morocco, opening the doors for other women to practice. We were lucky to meet her in Rabat, and discovered that she is also an excellent cook. She happily divulged her recipe for Gynecologist’s Tagine, otherwise known as Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Apricots.
3 pounds of lamb shoulder cut into pieces
3 large onions, finely minced
2 large cloves garlic
4 ounces butter
1 tsp ginger, finely minced
½ tsp salt
½ tsp saffron threads
3 pints of water
1 small glass of honey
1 bouquet of coriander, tied together with herb string
2 pounds of prunes, (dried, pitted)
1 pound of apricots (dried)
2 oz toasted sesame seeds
Crush the saffron seeds in a mortar, making a fine powder. Cook meat, onions, garlic, butter, ginger, salt, saffron, coriander and water in a half covered pan over medium heat for 1 hour.
Add the honey, cinnamon, prunes and apricots and simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve the lamb in a round dish coated with the sauce and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
The tagine is usually served by itself, but if you are feeling extravagant, enjoy with couscous.