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from the June 2016 issue

She, You, and I

Darling, tell me that when we love, we’re not awaiting a reward or reciprocity. And that love is greatest when it’s fruitless, when feelings are more powerful, more real. What’s the point of love without suffering? Every time I contend with love, a new life is born in the fight. The anxiety I endure makes me feel my pulse, makes me feel I’m alive. I’m only happy when I’m seeking these things, not when I find them, because isn’t the footpath through the forest lovely, more beautiful than the forest itself? Darling, most of the time it’s the things you do and say that make me happier than you yourself. It’s what lies beyond the sky that makes us believe, what lies beyond the seas that makes us set sail, what lies beyond words that makes us write poetry. It’s what lies beyond nations and cities that makes us vow to sacrifice ourselves, it’s not the nation itself that urges us to rebel.

Don’t believe that getting closer to you means I’m lonely. Yes, I’m lonely inside, but not for want of a relationship; I’ve had lots of those, and I’m giving them all up and cutting them all off. I want no one—not one person, not both—to take advantage of the other. There’s no room for love and exploitation, not in the same place. Either you love someone or you use them; either you love someone or you kill them. In most of my relationships, if I wasn’t the one taking advantage, I was the victim. I only knew love through her climax and my silence, I grew accustomed to my purpose: just to please her, I became addicted to just hearing her moan, as if I were offering a service for free, never thinking I had a right to my body. I only cared that when she climaxed she held me, and that’s what I was searching for; I was looking for a body to protect me, not one that would sate me, for breasts brimming with tenderness, not waiting to be caressed and kissed. I only found bodies blazing with passion, for which love didn’t mean a thing—all they meant was sex. Imagine, I spent seven or eight whole hours in bed with a crazed woman, a fleet of men couldn’t quench her lust, I wasn’t allowed to rest, or eat… but I was allowed liquor. And when I chose to sleep in her arms, like a child, nestled in her breast . . . she said I didn’t deserve to be held. She came, using me to get her off again, more than once in a single night, and forbid me from the comfort of lusting after her, even for a moment. As if I were forbidden to face her, except for while fucking. There were plenty like her. And so my relationships never lasted long; I don’t blame men when they leave their wives after sex, because women are racers when it comes to this.

 

“Have you been in lots of relationships?” Layal asked Siham after reading the passage.

“Just short-lived things… they’d usually end after the first night.”

“How does it happen? How do you know the other woman’s a lesbian?”

“My intuition’s never failed me, not once. I can tell right away.”

“Do you get pleasure from these fleeting relationships? Oh, what’s made me so stupid, why am I asking you this?”

“No, I’ll tell you: when a woman possesses another woman’s body, it’s as if she possesses her own body, filling it with energy and pleasure. It’s the opposite of what happens when a man possesses a woman’s body; he drains her of her femininity, tries to rob her of it even in bed. Her love for herself, he steals it, takes it by consent or by conquest, to drain her of power. But it’s different with a woman, because everything she gives another woman, she gives herself, she gives and gives, regardless of where things stand outside the bedroom. A woman’s love for her self and body shines in those intimate relationships that bring two selves together, with nothing to divide them, nothing to be seized or stolen. There’s no rape in these relations, here a woman gives fully willing and fully aware, she doesn’t simply receive like in other two-sided relationships. Here, a woman considers the image before her; she tries to please her, and will not stop, unable to go on when she is sated. Whereas in what we call ‘normal’ relationships, it makes no difference to most whether the woman is satisfied or not. That’s the way our society is, I’m not blaming anyone here, it’s what we’re used to. And because I love myself and my femininity to the point of narcissism, I satisfy the other person and no one else, because I know that sooner or later, I will possess what it’s possible to possess, although it’s difficult to possess myself through the other. That’s why these relationships are more profound, more expansive, because they’re with the Self through an Other of the same sex. Because I loved myself, I loved knowing her. And there’s no way to know, other than to dive into a relationship with someone of the same sex. Since I know the other who is different, because he represents my opposite, I’ve loved knowing the opposite of this opposite—that is, me. I’m not obliged to know my opposite, though I am compelled to know myself and the woman I stand before; I see disfigurations, I see contradictions, I see the good. I see what I love and what I hate without hatred itself, and I act as I act with myself. I do what I desire and I desire what I do; I act with the freedom I was denied with my opposite, because he’s used to being the decision maker. The hard part is to challenge yourself not to conquer the other, the hard part is knowing what we want and when we want it and where. It’s not hard to know what we don’t want, outside a particular time and place. My philosophy of love is to love yourself in someone similar to you, to love her as if she comes from you, to you, that she’s the very image of you, in another reality. This way, there are no fears, no projections, no wars to proclaim a winning side. In this reality, the winnings are shared, and you give completely, without confrontations between the strong and the weak, men and women.”

Layal listened to what Siham said, thinking about what was going on between her and Raya, thinking that like is to like. After Siham finished, a silence settled between them for a moment, and then Siham began to fidget. “Did I upset you with what I said, or go on for too long?”

“Oh no, not at all. But what kind of women do you like?”

“Feminine women. Women without a bit of manliness about them.”

“You deny your own femininity, so you’re searching for it in someone else. If you accepted your feminine side, things would be different.”

“I feel like my feminine side is lacking. What I find in other people, I don’t find in myself. When I’m drawn to a woman, I feel my femininity is complete.”

Layal fell silent again, and began to think about what Siham said, that it fit perfectly with her own understanding of love, since—as she’d explained to Raya—she believed that like could only fully understand like, and Siham’s words proved it. But she tried to forget about things with Raya.

“Each one of us, our feminine side is lacking, and every man, his masculine side is lacking; if what you’re saying is true, then every woman is a lesbian, and every man is gay.”

“Maybe, deep inside, they all are.”

“Maybe, but there’s a difference: sometimes a person finds commonality in someone similar to her, and other times she finds it in her opposite. The first instance is a queer relationship, and the second one a straight relationship. It seems that straight relationships form the rule, but the important part, I think, is that arousal is kindled by finding something similar to you within your opposite—when you find your femininity fulfilled through a man and not a woman, just as a man gets turned on when his masculinity is fulfilled through a woman. Here lies the root of desire, except when straight relationships are the rule, being more common.”

“Perhaps, because I’m only drawn to men with a powerful feminine side. Even so, there’s still the body, and I’m only turned on by the female form; the beauty of a woman’s body is what moves me, that’s what turns me on. Is it so wrong if I only make love with women—does love change if its object does? Love is love, and the point of making love is pleasure and climax. Is there a difference whether it’s with a man or a woman? I’ll tell you: with women it’s better, more pure and profound.”

“I can’t follow analysis like this; it’s beyond proof or reason. We’re deep into the field of feelings, emotions and desire, which have their own logic—a mercurial logic. There’s no place for them in equations bound by rational proof.”

“Absolutely, we always ask how we love and what love is like, but we never ask why we love. We love because we love our own image in another, a completely self-centered love; only those who are so selfish to the point of narcissism fall in love. I love someone else until I make them love me, I love to be self-satisfied and socially accepted. That’s why there’s a spike in suicides when relationships end, because people who kill themselves can’t imagine life without the source of strength for their narcissism. They feel lonely, negated, and alone; just because they failed to maintain a relationship with their beloved, they don’t deserve love. We rarely love someone for herself or because she deserves love, we love her because we want to share in love with her, to feel that we exist, to feel we have value. This is what happens with gay relationships, just like with others. At the heart of all this is love, and so love takes an adjective—gay love—but this is love, I will not call it a type of love, because love is singular, there aren’t types of love. In the end, love is a place where manifold emotions burst out of old images and desires like time bombs. The moment they see the image they desire—something that resonates with our imaginations, childhoods, or teenage years—they explode. Right? Say something, why are you so quiet?”

“I’m just struck by what you’re saying, tell me there’s more.”

“Yes, there’s more, and this is the heart of the matter: why must images and symbols always be launched in one direction? That is, toward the opposing side? Why do we permit certain feelings, albeit begrudgingly, but forbid acting on them? Why is it fine to grow attached to one another when we’re teenagers, as my mother would say, but not when we come of age? Why do shame, dishonor, and all aspects of God enter into the discussion? We’re shaped by these things, but we don’t choose them.”

 

From Ana Hiya Anti. © Elham Mansour. Translation © 2016 by Elisabeth Jaquette. All rights reserved. A critical edition of this novel, I Am You (Ana Hiya Anti): A Novel on Lesbian Desire in the Middle East, translated and edited with an introduction by Samar Habib, was published by Cambria Press in 2008.

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