Wednesday came, and with it came Dai. When the clock hands met at four she was kissing me, and with her lips she closed the final moments of my first year as an adult – or ‘rightly guided person’, as we say – before taking me by the hand as I stepped into my new year. For an entire twelve months now, I had been lifting one foot and leaping into a new hopscotch square, but I did not know how I was supposed to deal with any of it, nor what was demanded of me in this new stage of things.
For years, I carried a mental image of the age of eighteen as a glowing lantern, and I had been waiting to cross in front of it so that it would light my face. Of course, the enticements were simply to be getting beyond adolescence and entering university. It was inevitable that I would spread out my feathers like a peacock, and shake my finger in the whole world’s face. Stop treating me like a little girl who will twist her ankle if she plays ball, or lose her way if she sets out alone to the neighbourhood store!
I made it past eighteen and teenagerdom and the first of my years at university and no big changes came about. I was still getting an allowance and I still needed permission to leave the house, plus practically a military order – a firman from above, carrying absolute authority – on the acceptance or rejection of every new friend in my life. I hung up my second lantern, twenty-one, with a huge red star and the slogan Finally I will be taken seriously. I was not. In the eyes of Hidaya, whose very name meant ‘guidance’ and who represented for me the power of all adults, I remained that little girl who had not yet absorbed enough experience from life.
But between the two lanterns something had changed. I cannot pinpoint exactly that something’s starting point nor the manner of its first steps. It was not a single thing but rather many things, taking on new colours and shapes and qualities until I was incapable of following the changes closely let alone cataloguing them.
I put on makeup, took off extraneous hair, and left the house without doing more than leaving word for my mother just so she would know I was out. If she herself was out, I did not even leave a note, since I was a sensible girl and anyway, my movements were restricted to where the driver would agree to take me. If it was late I would call, since I had a cell phone. And I withdrew into a seriously astonishing whirlwind called the internet. There, I could address anyone as my dear, even though I was daughter of a society where to address anyone falling into the category Sound Male Creature would be considered as either utterly inconceivable or a brand of prostitution, unless, maybe, it was a male parrot I was addressing. Out of my roster of friends, my mother knew only each girl’s first name, and only in a quarter of cases did she refuse my wishes to spend time with them.
My mother had a tendency to make snap judgments that came as a surprise and left no room for negotiation. Sometimes she would reject my relationship with some friend or other simply because she did not feel comfortable about the girl. When it came to this, I had no alternative but the school grounds if my friendships were to grow instead of remaining subject to her refusal.
I really do not know: Did the world itself slip out of its old skin and, like me, leave behind the years of harshness, moving on into an open space towards which it had never before seemed headed? Or did my mother suddenly age, so that tracking her children so closely became too fatiguing a task? Or was it among the endowments which always accompany the age of eighteen but do not show up immediately on one’s birthday, with the presents?
Of her own accord, Dai moved first to switch off the lights. I asked her if this was a part of my gift, when it was she who had forced me into an endless petition asking to put out the lights. She answered me with a diminished smile. I know this mood of Dai’s, when her mental sky is cloudy and there is a cause for it, but she will not tell me what it is, no matter how I try to outsmart her. But, contrary to my suspicions, she just came over, turned my face to the wall and lay down with her forehead plastered to my bare back. She began sketching crazy zigzags across my skin with her fingertip and then she burst into sobs. For several minutes I was so bewildered that I could not react. It was the first time she had cried like this in my presence. I made an attempt to turn toward her but she prevented me, keeping her hand firmly on my lower back. When she spoke, she sounded completely overcome by profound fear.
Why did you desert me for so long? She asked. All this time?
I was confused. I needed some time.
Some time! Do you know how many days it was?
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause you any pain. And look, so, I’m here with you now.
You’ll leave me. There’s nothing that keeps you here with me. You will leave me. Even Balqis left.
I went through the roll call of names we shared between us, from our days at secondary school and then university, and at the Hussainiyya, trying to figure out some thin thread of intent in her words. But I didn’t have an inkling of what she meant. I knew nothing that bore any connection to this name. Later, in one of our most intensely intimate moments, she would tell me about Balqis, the girl who transformed her into this maskh, as she put it. This freak, this deformed creature, this monster.
She began to shiver, her crying a clear token of the pain she was feeling. She allowed me to turn over and take her in my arms.
I’m with you, I said. I’m staying with you. I will not leave you.
This explosive hah of hers stands at an uncertain point between sarcasm and suspicious doubt. Like someone waving at me and saying, Please – you may fire at me that bullet known as I will not stay instead of the slow-acting and fatal poison, I will not leave you. Please, do not give me a hope that has such razor-sharp edges!
She got out of bed, joking half-heartedly about her sobbing sounding like a little girl who has been knocked down by one of the kids down the alley, who then runs off with her shopping. She walked across the room to turn on the light. She came back, mounted my body and began to drown me in feverish kisses. I was used to her unexpected reversals of mood, for which I could rarely find any reasonable explanation. Her actions were exactly the same way, contradictory and open to various interpretations. One moment, she would be weak and resigned, but within seconds she would suddenly have regained her despotic ways and her sharpness. Sometimes she was as sensitive and delicate as a fine summer morning, while at others she would shatter me to the bones like a hurricane coming through. From the beginning I believed utterly that she exceeded my powers of comprehension. She was simply too cryptic for me to fully understand. So I stopped working so hard to solve the riddle. That way, Dai was more beautiful. She was a secret I would never divulge because I could never really know what was at the heart of it.
No sooner was I engulfed in Dai’s body than there was a knock at the door. My heart rate doubled instantly as various thoughts raced and collided head-on in my brain. Fear ran a marathon through my veins. I shot up in less than a second. Doing up the buttons on my shirt required two tries, both unsuccessful, and then a third, with Dai’s hand, as she got up calmly to put on her clothes, without haste, and without a single change of expression on her face.
I opened the door to see our maid standing there. I stuck out my tongue and jabbed my finger toward a sign slashed red to signal NO ENTRANCE. It hung on my door and meant that I did not want anyone to bother me, no matter what the issue, no matter how serious it was, because I was asleep or I was taking a bath or I had gone to hell. All that mattered was that no one knock at my door! For her part, Edna faltered and stuttered as she tried explaining something to me that had to do with the telephone and Hiba. I know Hiba. If something has gotten lodged in her head, she will not retreat even momentarily for any reason at all. She must have called and refused to hang up, letting the phone ring and ring, and then nothing would satisfy her but insisting that Edna knock on my door. I thanked the maid apologetically and turned back into my room, making sure that the door was once again closed and locked.
Huge sarcastic grimaces swept Dai’s face. She did not comment; she did not even ask. Her face alone was expressive enough to fill an entire book with sick jokes and giggles. She stared at me as she would a clown who has not done a good job of putting on his face, maybe forgetting his red nose in the dressing room, and then when everyone laughs at him – because he is so funny, he assumes – they are actually laughing at him for being so stupid.
Dai treated me as if I were a child of five who understood nothing. When I kissed her, she would give a short and derisive laugh before receiving my kiss as if she were a dear and highly respected friend. But it was not long before she enrolled me in her school. She dictated and made me write out the domestic chores associated with five or six curricula and she prescribed punishments arising from every mistake I made, no matter how tiny. At the year’s end, she gave me a diploma signed off with her professorial title. My diploma was a sentence she wrote in black ink onto my body: You are a possession of mine and of mine alone. She said it would be hard for me to understand the full import of this signature if I did not instinctually know what it meant. And in truth, at the time two contradictory emotions were sweeping over me. One was urging me to hurl my body away from all of this and outside Dai. The other craved her power over this body of mine.
I rang Hiba because the little demons jumping around inside her would never quiet down if I did not call her back as quickly as I could. Indeed, she was demanding our house phone number so insistently that she was practically scratching out the buttons on the phone. She summoned a court to try me, with ten judges. I was accused of bad behaviour on the basis of shutting my door and turning off my cell phone, and then additionally of alarming the servant.
Now I’ll become the champion of the oppressed and it will all be because of you, she said.
I asked her what she wanted in a voice that did not hide the hurry I was in. She wanted me to stay over at her house tonight. Hiba’s calling at this particular moment, and our phone conversation itself, sent a vague sensation of anxiety through me, despite the clear enthusiasm in her voice. It was not normal for her to call me so late on a Wednesday night and ask me to come and stay over immediately. Indeed, it was very unusual for me to be anywhere but home overnight, unless it was summer vacation – or Ramadan, since the timing of everything, and everyone’s schedules, were turned upside down during Ramadan.
I put my middle finger to my forehead and, my eyes wandering, smiled vaguely toward Dai, who for her part stopped surfing the TV. Dai’s question took me by surprise.
What do you think of Sundus?
Several years before, when I had begun to attend summer religious courses, Sundus was the common and familiar face to all, year after year. Gradually, our shy smiles had turned into distant greetings, and then into handshakes and a friendly, casual companionship. Finally, she asked me to work with her, writing for the magazine Dawn. With my brother Hassan’s encouragement, and after some hesitation, I agreed. Sundus was the female bridge linking me to her brother Aqeel, who was one of the managers of the magazine.
Months later, Sundus and I had weathered the Year of True Terror: the third year of high school with its awful exams. Together, we were accepted by the College of Sciences in Dammam. Then it was my turn to take the initiative, and I invited her to join us at the Hussainiyya. As I was new to the place, everything there was completely foreign to me; in Sundus I saw a shield to protect me, someone whose confident steps my wary, uncertain feet could follow. (Naturally, when I had offered the same possibility to Hiba – for she was my closest friend – the reaction was a loud guffaw.) Hidaya, for whom the Hussainiyya was a family-founded religious endowment, and who was related to my mother, treated me like the group’s spoiled daughter, especially as I was the youngest there. She did not reject Sundus’s membership. In fact, she welcomed her warmly, perhaps because her reputation as a writer in a religious magazine preceded her.
The two of us remained wrapped up in our own little cocoon. If we mixed with the other girls, we were equally able to do without them, perhaps because of the unmistakable age difference between us and them, with the exception of Dai who was about our age. But back then, Dai made no friendly overtures towards us. And even though the relationship between Sundus and me had not taken on any especial warmth, in her I perceived one of those people who make you embarrassed because of the extreme humanity you find in them.
We thought alike. I didn’t have to explain myself twice for Sundus to get what I was saying, even if the ways we expressed ourselves differed. Sundus’s take on things was that you had to look at everything with reflection and patience. You couldn’t even hope to get close to your goals if you did not give them a lot of deliberation. The sorts of things that we worked on required a lot of time to build. I, on the other hand, found this attitude too lenient, too easy going, and it produced no real benefit. The way I saw it, we had to be forthright about treating our pus rather than letting our blood corrupt and rot.
I was really put off by what came as a sudden and unjustified question, when I was caught off guard, especially since Dai had never showed any gentleness towards Sundus. So my response was cautious.
Sundus is a great girl!
And pretty, isn’t she?
Pretty, yes, very pretty!
I don’t understand what you’re saying.
Wasn’t it true that before – but Dai had not finished her question before I understood, from her raised eyebrows, what she was alluding to. I interrupted, marked disapproval in my voice.
Sundus doesn’t do that.
But we – we do! And she started to guffaw.
Once again, she had caught me, in cheap, slapdash makeup, my red nose forgotten, left behind in the makeup room. All of her features said one thing: I have found you out! I shrank, as she swelled magnificently. She had arrested me at my most contradictory. She did not even have to strip anything from me. I was already completely naked.
You know I’ll kill you if you’re unfaithful to me?
I laughed sarcastically, trying to give the impression that I was unconcerned about this threatening tone. And you’ll drink my blood, too, I added, I know.
I got out of bed, wanting to make sure that the door really was shut. She grabbed me by the arm. I tried to wriggle out of her grip and could have, if she had not pushed me onto the bed. In a second, she was down on top of me, a look in her eyes that only the devil could produce.
Did anyone before me have your body? she asked.
Answer me, first!
Quit acting like a child.
I hate her when she moves me around as if I’m a doll or a dummy – a doll that will not be injured or destroyed no matter how sharply you twist its limbs in the air. I turned my face away. She grabbed at my jaws and forced it back towards her, so I kept my eyes trained in the other direction. Her voice strained, she went on saying answer me, but I did not. She clapped her left hand to my neck while her right hand pulled my hair, at the same time muffling me with sticky kisses that bore down on me painfully. They were closer to bites. I always knew that if I kept refusing, her madness would only get worse. My refusals redoubled her efforts to conquer me and plant her flag on the virgin territory of which she was stripping me. Despite her evident slenderness and the feminine softness of her build, Dai was light years ahead of me in bodily strength, which meant she always had a huge advantage when I resisted her.
I withdrew into myself. I gave her the side of me that was completely the opposite of what she wanted. I became as cold beneath her as the ice that perfectly preserves corpses. By behaving this way, I was training my sights exactly on target, for I was giving her all the victory flags she could want, to plant wherever she wished, but they were lowly banners that she implanted in ground she had not fought for, and whose vanquishing was hardly a victory to be deserved or trumpeted.
Finally, when she saw no sign that I was softening, when she was convinced I was frost that even her heat could not melt, she released me. She sat on the edge of the bed, angry. A heavy silence bore down on the room. Very quickly it became a dreary quiet so thick neither of us could see the other.
One question disturbed the stillness and toyed with our heads. Who would be first this time to let go? I chose to be the one. Be rational, I told myself. Be big. This silence will take the two of you exactly nowhere. I started trying to open a door or at least a window. Her face was puckered with emotion and her expression changeable, like someone who has just recently figured out the way things really are. I put my hand on her shoulder and she pushed it off. In a voice laced with pleading, I asked, What did I do?
You’re always like this! You get me angry for the sake of nothing. You get a kick out of seeing me beg for you!
I hugged her, encircling her waist with my arms, as I replied. There’s been no one but you. Hey, is everything okay now?
She chose to offer an answer heard only by the bedposts and the sheets, and as usual, it was much more like a squabble than like the love making that they always talk about so passionately in films.
I was not yet beyond the hard and rocky road of growing into a mature young woman – I still got all those bruises that one picks up on the way, from all those slaps, and now, I felt crushed beneath the wheels of a million-ton freight train named Dai. It was too early then for me to understand how far her savagery would go, and how every bit of it would be my loss. Did I yield out of love? Or desire? Or worshipful slavery? The number of candles I extinguished were matched by the hot tears I swallowed while she was on top of me, lighting up and burning and turning to ash like a meteor passing to its final destruction. I was paying with the bread of my body as a sacrifice to keep her happy, and she was sucking out my embers, so deeply that there were to remain in my depths no trace.
Fadil has asked for my hand.
Eyes shining and face full of worship, Hiba added, I haven’t told my family yet what my answer will be, but I believe I’m going to say yes.
It is truly a cause for regret that she was not joking. Neither her features – suddenly those of a woman who has come to own the world in one fell swoop – nor the shy tremulousness in her voice gave any hint of joking. Meanwhile, something patted me gently on the heart and said, Don’t let it get you down. Not yet. Hopefully, you won’t lose her, too. All the while, though, another voice was abrading my ear, a loud and overbearing voice that would not stop laughing at me as it addressed its words to me. Do you understand now why she got in touch? It’s classic. She is saying a graceful and upbeat goodbye to you – this girl who has finally stumbled upon a man!
I don’t remember anything I said to her. I must have put on some show of joy and congratulated her; perhaps I even gave her a big, enthusiastic, warm hug and a genuine kiss. I must have said a lot, and together we must have sketched out a pretty scene, a nest holding a couple of birds: this one is Hiba, and that one is Fadil. But where am I? This nest is very small, my dear friend! And you won’t make any room for me after today. You will leave me to run with only one shoe, in the wilderness of my loneliness. You will cease to be either the footsteps that keep me going steadily forward, or the road I tread.
We women make the same mistake over and over again, and we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time. We truncate our lives; reduce them completely to the man who stamps his name on us. We leave our family and our friendships, our diplomas and our dreams and all the trivial things that make up our daily life, and we go to worship at that prayer niche – the mihrab of a man. For his part, the man does not have to do very much in the way of self-alteration. He holds onto the circles he has, with their constant motion, and they keep widening, growing and growing while we remain simply a still point in the crowd. We are so very naive!
As I touched Hiba’s face – which was both remote and enormously expressive – I kept in mind the list of things to be stolen from me: late-night phone conversations, sleepovers in summer vacation, fresh projects, promenades on the shore, our running shoes. And her heart! Ya Allah, nothing will remain for me. My fingers burned; and there were not enough of them to let me count up all my losses. No doubt, a few inches away, she was making a similar list – except that heading it was the image of a hero. Fadil alone controlled access to her now, and I had no choice but to stand in line like the common person, like hoi polloi, the dregs of society, the lower class, waiting my turn which might well never come.
Fadil: the burning taste of envy in my throat since our earliest childhood. Hiba had worshipped him when she was little and now here she was, leaving me and marrying him. Son of her maternal aunt, the boy with the greenish eyes and the light hair – at the time, there was no boy I hated the way I hated him. He just made me so mad with the way he rode a bike so well, how good he was at it, when I never could do it with any skill. And if there was no boy in the world with the right to claim superiority over me, a spoiled and childish girl, then how could this boy have his sort of swagger? That was why I would fuel his rancour by saying those damning words, Hey, you American you! For children who woke up and went to sleep to the anthem Death to America on Radio Iran every day, this insult of mine was a completely unacceptable dishonour. But for Fadil it was an irrefutable disgrace, for its scandalous signs were so blatantly there, and could not be veiled.
Of course, Hiba would travel with him abroad when he had a work assignment somewhere. She would drive their car, she would give birth to four children, and she would traverse all of God’s wide world. She would summer in Paris, stare straight at the Mona Lisa’s smile, make snowballs and snowmen with caps and red noses … and so, what else, Hiba? She might remember an old friend now and then (a cousin, no less) flicking the dust off that photo and sending her a postcard from the last capital city she happened to visit.
Her jelly-like face pains me. Her silence pains me – she who was never silent. If only she would say something! ANYTHING. How can Fadil alter her so much when he hasn’t been near her, hasn’t revealed himself to her, and hasn’t occupied her very being yet? He has not even put an engagement ring on her finger! How can she suddenly be so much older, like this, and have her own secrets and private matters and things that I have no right to unlock and know? – When only yesterday she was leaving all the drawers in her cupboard open for me to riffle through? Why didn’t she teach me from the start how to spy and steal, so that now I would be able to know what she was thinking, why she was as silent and still as a wall, and as secretive as a solitary holy man’s hidden cell? Now I am the stranger in this room, and I curse my presence here with her, even though not long ago, our phone conversations had been all I needed to make me feel alive.