“Satan be damned!” She was barely conscious. She cleared her throat with difficulty, surprised to find herself alone in a hotel room. The night light she had left on in the bathroom, to help calm her fears, was still lit. The magazine was exactly where she had tossed it, open, on the vacant bed beside her. The empty glass on the table stood next to a second one that still had bits of ice cubes floating in their own juice. She had only slept a few minutes. Perhaps she hadn’t slept at all. When had that nightmare assailed her, leading her, in a procession of demons, to bathe stark naked in a lake of leftover motor oil imbued with all the disappointment of the world?
She tried to rise, but her legs did not cooperate. She sat up and used the remote to switch on the television, which was mounted on the wall. She turned off the sound. The clamor inside her sufficed. The image on the screen took some of the edge off the hideous loneliness of being in a city where she knew no one. Some regret crept into her heart, jostling against the fear. Had she been overhasty? Had she made a mistake? What could she do, however, when her desires were more powerful than she was? Her desires were a volcano ready to spew molten iron, lava, boiling water, and lethal gases in every direction.
Her daughter had once used this hideous image about her. She had tried to put a hand over the girl’s mouth to prevent her from continuing, but the girl, who had accepted the discipline of pious Islamic attire in her twenties, had refused to keep still. Violently thrusting away her mother’s hand, she had shouted: “I’m making a clean slate of my conscience. You’re my mother. I’m not going to register a polite protest with you. God ordered us to treat our infidel father and mother properly. My words aren’t calumny but candor. A Believer has a duty to counsel those he loves. Mother, you’re a killer volcano, full of smoke, fire, and poisons. It’s shameful for you to throw yourself into the inferno of desires, even though you’re pretty. You’re prettier than I am at twenty, even though you’re over fifty. Why can’t your beauty be a source of happiness to noble people of sound piety? Why do you squander it on men whose reputations lend no one honor and whom honorable men forbid to approach their homes? In our house, they enjoy entertainment, drinking, dancing, licit and illicit tomfoolery, a seductive smile, a wanton laugh, and lascivious sensuality.”
That evening she had wanted to tell her daughter: “Hush! Mind your manners! It’s all a lie. These are tales spread by your mother’s adversaries, male and female, who are jealous of her beauty, of her fortune, of her many books—which people are willing to purchase once she buys them from her publishers—of her newspaper coverage, and of her unrivaled literary salon.” She had, however, not been able to. How could she have said this, considering everything that was going on in the villa, within its walls? Her children hid behind closed doors in dejected despair whenever wine bottles were opened there.
She didn’t know what demon inspired her to seek pleasure in broadcasting her desires. It was not a wish to be courageous and free. Unlike some women at her soirées, she was not trying to be true to herself. Since her malady was of unknown origin and she did not know its root cause, she had been unable to find a cure for it.
She was able to rise now. She sat in front of the mirror. “Oh!” she said, sighing. She puffed cigarette smoke, which gathered before the surface of the mirror only to be drawn back toward her face when she inhaled. She was happy with the way her face looked floating in the smoky haze. They said that this city, like many others in Asia, offered easy access to narcotics. If only she could get hold of a joint somehow. . . . That would definitely be more comforting and relaxing than the tranquillizers she took morning and evening. How much more magical this smoke would be if the tobacco were mixed with marijuana. . . . She had no idea what had made her bear the attacks of her beloved daughter in silence. She had told her psychiatrist everything.
He had said, “It’s only natural that you should harbor feelings of guilt. You dream of innocence, for you believe that your daughter’s right.”
She had rejected this suggestion, telling him: “I have a clear conscience about everything I do. Anyone who doesn’t accept that can jump in the sea. My comfort is not bought at anyone else’s expense. I think the reason I didn’t talk back to my daughter has to do with my son, who’s younger. He let his beard grow and began to hang out at mosques. At first we said nothing about it, only hoping we might gain some credit from his piety and enter paradise with his help. He was doing his thing and I was doing mine. After some months, he stopped speaking to me, left the villa, the street, and the whole neighborhood to move into university housing. He refuses to accept any money from me. Can you imagine, doctor: the grandson of the millionaire Abd al-Jabbar al-Tafran and the son of Lubna al-Tafran, a child of socially prominent people, working summers for a rodent control campaign to raise money for his education? This is a scandal! I think I kept quiet in the face of my daughter’s criticism for fear she would join her brother, leaving me exposed to the public eye. Now, I can tell anyone who asks that he’s imitating the idiotic youth of America by attempting to be self-reliant or that he’s demented like his father or my mother, so that it’s genetic . . . or . . . or. . . . But if the girl left me too, then what would I say?”
The cigarette burned her fingers and she tossed it on the floor. She stamped on it before the butt could char the carpet. Only when she stood up did she notice that she was still in the buff. She was accustomed to sleeping nude. She had promised to sleep naked in his embrace, on a designated night, but why tonight when she was a foreigner . . . in a hotel, for no reason at all? It had just become a habit.
She gazed at her pure white body. The soft light still veiled it, masking the occasional varicose vein. Men drooled when they saw her. He, in particular, had pursued her by telephone for more than a month before being granted a rendezvous. He had had his greedy eyes on her ever since he approached her at the Cooperative Association and inhaled her perfume. Oh, they were all like him, even if their approaches differed. She had dodged him, sneering at the hypocritical face he presented to the newspapers and on television: an upright man and a poster-boy for moral excellence. She had not bridled at his lack of rectitude. To the contrary, she had accepted his offer of a degrading alliance with a clean conscience, knowing full well that she was dishonoring herself with him. She was not naïve enough, however, to scuttle the last ship sailing her way when she was going on sixty, even though she had been seeking to heal herself. Now she was better than he was. She had another face. Even if people had reservations about her conduct, they did not dare broach the subject candidly with her. To the contrary: her beauty, wealth, and soirées made everyone anxious to humor her and to transform her vices into virtues. He, however, had two faces; perhaps even more that she didn’t know. He was full of desire but refused to meet her within the city limits, as he put it, and likewise ruled out any country to which he had ties, no matter how marginal. “Parts of Asia are pretty,” so he said. “The weather is warm now: spring, and the forests will refresh your longings for the wilderness. That’s where we’ll meet.” She gathered up the ashes of the extinguished cigarette from the carpet as she rose.
Her full bosom, thanks to cosmetic surgery, still retained the firmness of both breasts, which resembled twin doves fastened to her neck, their flaming red beaks inviting dalliance. Nudity was nothing new to her.
Her father, who had married many times, had filled his pockets by the sweat of his laborers and his high-walled palace with women: the brown Arab, the white Syrian, the giant Kurd, and the ebony-colored East African. He would marry each in accordance with Islamic law and divorce her just as piously by paying the remainder of the dower in order to try a different model. The palace’s walls were filled with multitudes claiming to be brothers and sisters, but each took his orders only from his own mother—and implicit in these orders was a curse on the children of any of the mother’s co-wives. She, ever since she was young, had been white, rosy, and diaphanous—as if made of glass—only to turn to marble on closer inspection. Her exterior was soft and shimmering, while inside she was a wasteland. Her method of self-defense had been to freeze in one spot, to hold her tongue, and then to strike unexpectedly, like a chameleon.
She had carried her silence with her to school, where the teachers testified to her beauty and stupidity. Private lessons were not a success either. Finally, she ended her primary studies on account of her stupidity, her pride in her father’s wealth, and the provocations of the girls from poor families. The presents of Abd al-Jabbar Tafran failed to turn her into a model pupil, but then something she would never forget happened.
Ibn al-Abda—for that was what the son of the black wife was called as a slur against his mother—was pretending to arrange his books near her room, while she dozed. She had previously noticed he had his eye on her, but her mother had told her: “Ibn al-Abda’s your brother. He won’t try anything with you.” On that scorching hot day, when the heat had lulled everyone and not even the air conditioners could diminish the heat of that fiery inferno, she had been lying on her bed, face down, when she felt a hand stroke her back. It felt good and she waited for her mother to stretch out beside her. Then the hot hand descended to her buttocks and pushed back her clothing.
Before she could fathom what was happening or what she should do, he had removed his clothes too and was clinging to her buttocks. She was terrified and jerked herself up to her knees. She recognized him by his discarded clothing and tried to scream, but he put his hand over her mouth, telling her that the scandal would embrace both of them and that Abd al-Jabbar would whip her.
Her body trembled with fright. Before she had time to evaluate her position, he had attained his goal. She felt something ooze down her buttocks, leaving a stain on the bed. She cleared her throat, but before she could let loose a scream, he had disappeared.
She retained no proof of what had happened, except the way she was befouled, and could she present that sort of evidence to her father or . . . even . . . her mother?
She remembered this distant incident now and recalled what had happened afterwards. She had no longer kept her silence. She had no longer been the calm girl crafted from marble. She had shortened all her dresses, cut off all her sleeves, and altered all the necklines so her cleavage and the protruding, seductive, eye-catching beauty mark showed. Times had changed, but her habit of baring her body had not.
Years later she had attended a gathering at a country estate at al-Fintas. The only man present had been of her father’s generation and wealth. By this time, her father had died, leaving her increased freedom to display more flesh, and her first husband had gone to join her father, leaving her with a boy and a girl as well as with somewhat enhanced autonomy. Among the members of the gentler sex present at that particular gathering, there had been one woman with comparable needs for entertainment and recreation.
When their gigantic host suggested that these two women should descend to the swimming pool, which was shielded by plantation’s trees from triflers’ eyes, the other woman apologized, saying she had not brought swimwear. She, for her part, did not hesitate to accept the invitation, since she felt no need of a suit. Although their host had anticipated all their needs and procured all the necessary items from a wardrobe in his private room, she, and she alone, descended to the pool in nothing but her slip, leaving the other woman stunned and outraged.
Even now, she remembered how sweet that day had been. It was the only memory capable of alleviating the bitterness of that other day when she had been surprised by Ibn al-Abda leaping on her. She had been trying to purge herself of all these memories, both the painful and the sweet ones, and had been utilizing them, with modifications, in stories. She was taken aback when people asked her about these tales, not knowing how to reply or what to say. Her psychiatrist had encouraged her, saying that writing would help her overcome her repressed complexes and maintain her balance and peace of mind. In fact, the more outspoken she was in her scandalous stories, the better she felt and the healthier she was.
She had started her second marriage after her nets failed to capture Falih, who had simply taken what he wanted from her. Rashid, her second husband, had been the husband of a friend who had involved her in all her marital crises. When this friend criticized her for stealing her husband, she had threatened her with deportation, just as she did with Rashid, after she took what she wanted from him and moved overseas.
Rashid Abu Zahr knew all her secrets. She had told him as much as she could, describing herself as the paradigm of a liberated woman concerned exclusively with pleasurable relationships into which she plunged recklessly in pursuit of transitory, showy gains. She had told him how guests at her palace embraced and then spread rumors outside its walls about her soirées, publishing these to the masses, notwithstanding the amounts she lavished on her guests and on lighting the grounds, how she—by moving from husband to husband and from companion to companion—had a disturbed life governed by conflicting feelings of jealousy and hatred for her mother, on account of the many husbands who had entered her life and of her dissolute ways, how she had been influenced by her mother’s life and imitated her, how she had never felt happy, even though she was up to her ears in the trappings of wealth in a vast house, and soared on her mother’s renown, which was so widespread that even she did not hesitate to make fun of her mother’s husbands and lovers.
She had told him how she had searched for adventure, love, sex, and bright lights, even though this had cost her vast sums, how she desired only married men, in particular those happily married, how she had woven webs to trap whatever she wanted with her honeyed cords, how cleverly she had blended violence, force, and threats when she feared the prey would escape from her grasp, how she had veered to the right with the right and to the left with the left, catering to every passion. She had told him how she had not even hesitated to lust after her sister’s husband and to wage a campaign of terror and power politics against them till she finally was able to rack up a romantic tryst and then bad-mouth them in the family circle, how the men who passed through her life were embarrassed to appear with her in public because there was so much talk about her and her daring behavior, because she used all sorts of language in response to her internal discord and continuous agitation, and because she would embarrass her escort by talking loudly, scolding, screaming, and displaying her ignorance and limited education, how her attempts to rid herself of this image that other people harbored of her had been futile, despite all her efforts to take control and master the circumstances, how she had shown so little interest in the advice of her brother and sister that they had broken with her and washed their hands of her, and how ridiculous she felt their anxiety over her was, describing them with obscenities and disdaining their provocations. She had even told him about the devastating wars she had launched with rumors and lies against her adversaries and her heavy-handed campaigns to close doors to them so that they would not witness her practices or scandals.
Rashid heard all these stories from her and, notwithstanding all the wealth, clothing, and trips she showered on him, was able to connect the dots. So he used her freely, treating her body as his private playground for games without rules or limits. He knew how to convince her that for him to write stories he needed her to participate in all these experiments to invest them with her feelings, expertise, and daring. He played her from every angle and took the initiative in writing down for her his stories about her.
At first she felt a little odd, but she soon discovered her old self, which had grown accustomed to this, and began to take the same liberties with his body he took with hers. No area was forbidden. There were no limits to her explorations. Her ongoing game-play was unrestrained by rules. She lived in a state of constant migration between capitals, hotels, beds, and hands, until he turned his back on her, after she kept him from seeing his young son when he was dying. He lost him without being able to see him, and instead of consoling him and sharing his sorrows, she took him to court, charging that he had swallowed her fortune and that after he had set himself up for life he had left her to suffer the age’s nightmares. She had considered publicizing his adventures with her, but once she opened a single window of this storeroom such a stink and such scandals burst forth that people began to question her conduct and to chew over her past and her future. Indeed, she had to fabricate some crises around her, while some of her lovers helped her distract people from these stenches and scandals.
Ibn al-Abda came to her then and said, “I’m your brother. These scandals dishonor Abd al-Jabbar in his grave.”
She screamed in his face: “Scram, dog! Have you forgotten what you did? Do you want me to remove my clothes so you can see your claw marks on my back?”
Startled, he asked: “Your body? I take refuge in God from Satan. Daughter of the Kurd, what nonsense are you talking?”
She barked in his face, “Have you forgotten, Ibn al-Abda? Your claws sank in my flesh to stop me from destroying your reputation.”
He looked at her disdainfully, as if preparing to sink a dagger in her heart. “You, destroy my reputation? Why would you try to destroy my reputation with something I did when I was a young boy, a little devil. My deviltry was limited to hunting sparrows and to trying to knock things off posts, but your intoxicated looks, which followed me wherever I went, were what encouraged me. Your mother herself knew and kept it quiet.”
“Shut up! Don’t mention my mother. Your mother was bad enough: that ‘slave’ woman.”
“A slave woman who made the pilgrimage to Mecca and never said anything against anyone, whereas you . . . and your mother . . . didn’t even know how to recite the opening prayer of the Qur’an. All the same, I hope God is compassionate to her. She would have liked to catch me with you. Then Abd al-Jabbar might have thrown me out of the house and stripped me of my inheritance.”
She started screaming at him again. “Are you a brother? You’re Satan himself. Satan is one of your minions, Slave, Accursed One, Son of the Slave Woman.”
She rose to adjust the air conditioner to a colder setting. What was the point of remembering all this now, years and years after it had happened? She had enough sorrows at present. She drank everything, the yellow and the red, took tranquilizers, used dope when it was available, and was never able to sleep soundly. Nightmares pursued her, her psychological complexes hemmed her in, and she wanted to marry again, if only a pauper wearing a dishdasha. Why didn’t her beauty intervene on her behalf? They were all hot for her lips and the other parts of her body she proffered. Every man jack of them was eager to drink at her table and to warm himself in her bed, without ever taking the trouble to secure a marriage license. Her father had tossed her, in the prime of her youth, to Abu Lughd, fearing she might soon become reckless. From Abu Lughd, she had passed to Abu Zahr, and now she lived like a sparrow on the branch of a tree, chirping night and day. Perhaps someone would take pity on her . . . somewhere.
Who would take pity on her, however, when news of her plots had reached everywhere and when everyone knew about her fast life and the way she picked quarrels with important people and her demands for precedence and the right of refusal? Who would take pity on her when her shallowness and ignorance were so apparent and when people were fed up with being manipulated by her to harm other people . . . at dances and parties, and by recording their positions, so that if they ever refused a request she could use whatever she had on them?
The foreign film ended, and the channel’s logo spread across the screen. The blonde hostess smiled with her white teeth. She turned off the set and felt relieved by harbingers of the new day, when he would land on the morning flight.
She thought about going to meet him at the airport but changed her mind. She should present herself with her usual coquetry and show him that she was still beautiful and rich.
When she saw him climb out of a taxi in front of the hotel, she raced to the bed, stripped, covered herself with a light sheet, and closed her eyes. He knew which room. He would enter. She counted the minutes and the seconds. He placed his hand on the doorknob and turned the key. Whispering, even though there was no one else in the room, he said: “Good morning.”
She realized that it would ruin the scene if she fell back asleep. She sat up a bit and reclined against the head of the bed. Her naked chest showed defiantly and her round belly button was visible through the sheer sheet stretched over her lower reaches. She let her body relax and affected a drowsy whisper: “I want you.”
“Me even more.”
“Come here. Relax a bit. Stretch out beside me.”
He sat down on the chair facing her. In a self-confident whisper he said, “You should understand that I would never do anything wrong.”
“Love’s not wrong.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s get married.”
“Are you serious?”
“Extremely . . . is there a marriage clerk who can execute our marriage contract? We’ll ask the hotel management. They must know a Muslim marriage clerk here.”
He smiled as he gazed at her belly button. He was almost drooling.
“Why do we need a marriage clerk?”
She swallowed. Her smile started to fade. He fixed his eyes on hers: “Lubna, just say your husband’s a spiritual person, and that’s the end of it.” There was a heavy silence.
All at once Abd al-Jabbar came back from the dead, for the two men were comparable. Her father had spent his whole life amassing wealth by craft, fraud, deceit of the innocent, and seizure of unclaimed, vacant desert land to enclose and subdivide.
Everyone knew this, and they knew as well that he had a sweetheart in every city, but he would build a mosque and opposite the mosque a church, so who would speak up? Who would criticize him? What a memory!
He had scolded her mother one day, saying: “If you’re really my wife, where’s your marriage license?”
She remembered this gloomy moment. Her mother had bowed her head and smiled with vexation, and she had mimicked her mother’s vexed smile.
Her mother had said: “This girl who’s playing with her doll and who doesn’t understand what you’re saying is your daughter, and, praise God, has a birth certificate.”
Lubna had been playing with her doll in front of the mirror of her mother’s wardrobe, for she liked to watch herself embrace and fondle the groom doll, which was made from plastic and was as large as a real child. She caught her parents’ words but did not understand their drift. In later years she guarded her birth certificate carefully. She would read with admiration and ardor this column: “Father’s name: Abd al-Jabbar Tafran; Mother’s name . . . ; Child’s name: . . . .”
He repeated once more, “Just say, Lubna, your husband’s a spiritual person. Say . . . .” Before even completing his sentence he rolled her over on her belly and clambered atop her back. What disturbed her most was his bristly beard, which chafed her shoulders and the nape of her neck.