The first time I saw her, I failed to notice her beauty.
I met her at the spa. The receptionist led me to her but, in her presence, she kept her eyes lowered. With a sure and certain step, she walked ahead of me into the massage room. She raised her eyes and looked at me only once she had closed the door. And only then did I see her smile, and hear her greeting: "You're Arab? You are most welcome. Where are you from? We don't get many Arab tourists here at the spa. You are most welcome."
She came to the point very quickly.
"I divorced him after he got out of prison."
"Yes. For adultery."
"The police caught him with a woman."
"I myself went to the police station and asked them to come."
I repeated her words, with a mechanical slowness.
"He thought I was here, at work, like any other day. But the patron saw that I was tired and gave me the day off. I returned home unexpectedly and saw them there together."
"You saw them together?"
"Through the window. I didn't go in. I just saw them through the window. What a shock! From that day I've had this hoarseness in my voice, as though someone had tried to cut my throat and something got caught in my windpipe. Even now, three years on, I still feel as if I'm choking whenever I think of it."
"Did you know her?"
"No, I didn't. God forbid. A loose woman. A slut. God forbid. What are they called where you come from?"
I almost said, "Where I come from they call them whores," but I held my tongue and settled for fallen woman. It's almost the same thing.
Her fingers were moving over my back. I couldn't see her, only heard her voice.
"He did that to me after five years of marriage. Our love story had been very intense. And in the end? He betrays me, in my own house, in my bed. Thank God that here in Tunisia they don't take adultery lightly. He was in prison nine whole months. He deserves what he got."
"Any relation between a man and a woman who are not bound by the ties of matrimony and in which complete sexual contact occurs." The word "complete" is a story unto itself, the definition becomes conditional. What, then, constitutes incomplete? The Imam Khomeini himself, believe it or not, states the following in his book of fatwas: "kissing, sexual contact, embracing, and further acts of pleasure that do not involve contact between the sexual organs of the male and the female are not to be considered adulterous, and incur other punishments; such chastisement remains at the judge's discretion."
Hearing the hoarse voice of the masseuse, I imagine tears welling in her kohl-rimmed eyes.
I thought of the oft-repeated stories about Monica and the cigar and this question, asked insatiably by the host of a French television show of his guests: "Should sucking be considered infidelity?"
He could have put this fundamental question to the Ayatollah during his French sojourn. He would have given him the definitive answer on this delicate matter.
*** In one of the old stories that my mother always used to tell us, she spots my father in the street, walking with a strange woman. He didn't see her. He was too absorbed by the other woman. My mother quickly crossed the street to avoid running into them.
The details of the story might change, but her voice as she told it was always the same: full of pride. I was young and would listen to her and picture the scene as though I were watching it on a screen. My father laughing, his arm around the waist of a beautiful woman wearing a pillbox hat. She leans her head on his shoulder with a coquettish smile. A whore? In the eyes of my mother she couldn't have been anything else. I imagined my mother, who was also beautiful, quickly weaving her way through the cars to the other side. Her head down, not wanting my father to discover her there.
A melodramatic moment open to multiple interpretations, you might say.
There was a time in which I would attempt to decipher its various meanings. Now I no longer want to understand. I content myself with reviewing the images in my head and going over them again and again, like a cinema-lover watching a cult film.
A simple case of adultery? As though adultery were something simple. As though one could commit adultery just like that. As though it were nothing. Such misguided thoughts reveal an ignorance of adultery's precise rules and regulations, rules that cannot be bent. It has ever been so. *** The first condition of the adulterer is that he be a youth of tender years and sweet of smell, the reason for this being that sweet smells bring the woman into heat and intensify her desire; also that he wear clean and handsome clothes, make frequent use of the bathhouse, and employ henna on his hair, as well as using a twig to polish his teeth, and oils; that he have among his acquaintances an old woman to act as a go-between; that he be soft of heart, quickly moved to tears, capable of weeping whenever he wills so that, when he finds the opportunity to speak with his beloved, he may complain that passion has destroyed him. Should such conditions be fulfilled in the man and he be alone with a woman, he will find her more biddable to him than his own feelings and closer to his desire than his own breathing.
These conditions applied to the man only, as if the author were aware that women are always ready for passion. If all the conditions are met, the adulterous act can be picked like a ripe fruit.
These conditions applied to the man only. In the woman, one sought outward signs of desire.
If he speak with her, her eyes never leave him, a blissful look overcomes her, she plays with the hem of her dress or her wrap as though she were about to pull it over her head; she stirs the earth with her toes or touches it intermittently with her big toe; she bathes her child and dresses him in finery, combs his hair, rims his eyes with kohl, and introduces the child to him; she mentions him often and talks about him with her female friends and neighbors; grows weary and changes her mood for no reason should she cease to have news of him; and befriends his wife, if he has one, and visits her frequently; and if she sees something at his house that belongs to him she takes it in her hand and makes a great fuss over it, and if she finds his bed, she lies down on in and squirms about on it.
For the Arabs, desire was all-powerful. The universe of lovers was subject only to its reign. Desire answered to nothing but its own laws, the same laws for men and for women, which neither marriage nor children changed. The basic scenario was scripted for its two heroes alone. All those who surrounded them—spouses, children, friends and neighbors—were no more than extras who could do nothing to prevent, or rein in, the lovers' lust; they could at best be catalysts that ignited the fires of desire or helped to express it. The leading roles belonged to the lovers, and those around them were bit players.
*** "Here, no one knows I'm divorced. You know how men look at a divorced woman. They crave her. They hover around her and try her out. I don't want problems. I'm raising my daughter on my own. There's no one to stand by me. My father told me, 'Forgive him. He made a mistake and he won't do it again.' My husband came too, begging to be allowed to return home, but I refused. When he got out of prison, he came weeping and imploring me."
"How long was the sentence?"
"Nine months, because he was married. And three months for her. That's the sentence for adultery in our country. Thank God I have my daughter. She's everything in my life. I've been living for her alone for the past two years. I work for her sake. I have no one to stand by me. There's no one to help me."
Now, there is a civilized country where human rights are respected, even in cases of marital infidelity. Nine months for the married, and only three for the unmarried.
A civilized country indeed. Prison, sure, but no flogging, contrary to what is prescribed by the Koran: "The adulterous woman and man shall each receive one hundred lashes." Starting with the woman, naturally. A truly civilized county. I had a very close call.
Her fingers massaging the soles of my feet, I was unable to concentrate enough to do the math: how many years would I have to spend in prison if on each occasion I were caught red-handed?
If they had caught me with the Thinker every time we met, we would have had to spend our lives behind bars. And what if they had caught me with the others before and after him? My life, no matter how long, would not have sufficed. I would still owe the law years and years after my death. Though I wouldn't be alone. My jail would be overflowing, all my acquaintances would be there with me.
All of them? Let's say, most of the people I know would share their company with me, for varying periods of time, each according to how clever he or she had been in hiding their crime. The only innocents are those whose crimes have not yet been discovered.
In flagrante delicto, as with the husband of the masseuse, is the precondition for any punishment, without which it becomes a difficult business. Rumors and accusations are not enough. A'isha, the Prophet's favorite wife, was accused of adultery, and the Prophet set down these conditions of proof:
Summon four male witnesses who saw the sexual act in detail, namely, the entry of the man's penis into the woman's vagina in the manner that the kohl-applicator enters the kohl-container or the bucket the well.
How can such conditions be met when the act itself is essentially an illicit and thereby clandestine one?
Two lovers were caught one day in the library's toilet. The director general wanted to fire them, but a union representative was quick to ask for a meeting in which he appealed to the Prophet's inalienable conditions in cases such as this. After examining the facts the director, convinced, withdrew his call for their dismissal.
It occurred to me that the husband of the masseuse would not have gone to prison if these conditions had been applied to him. All she had seen through the window was two forms: no bucket and well, no kohl-applicator and kohl-container. Had the policemen really caught them in flagrante delicto? Well of course! They knew their religion, in that country, just as the union representative friend, in the heart of Paris, knew how to convince the director general of the library.
"Did he marry again?"
"No. He lives by himself like a dog. Pardon my expression. There's no one to take care of him, to cook for him. He sends his clothes to the laundry. He's like a dog. I have my daughter, who's the whole world to me."
"Does he see her?"
"Yes, he sees her. I don't say anything bad about him in front of her. He's still her father. I don't want her to hate him. He is still her father whatever may have happened."
Her voice has grown even hoarser, and her fingers are now on my leg. The scent of the jasmine oil fills the booth. Laying face down, I can still smell it even though my nose is pressed against the sheet. I turn my face a little and see a beauty spot on the edges of her round face.
I close my eyes and surrender with genuine innocence to the soothing rhythm, the practiced fingers, the scent of jasmine, and the old images that throb in my naked body. I try to catch hold of them before giving way.
*** Walking beside me in Saint Germain, Sonia asked, "Fathiya confessed that she's been trying to seduce you for years without success. Is that true?"
I didn't answer, merely gave a smile.
"Why?" she insisted.
"Why is she trying to seduce me?"
"No. Why do you refuse?"
"I don't know," I replied, shrugging my shoulders to make light of it.
"You don't find her attractive?"
"You're afraid to break your fast with an onion? That it will ruin your pleasure?"
I didn't say that. Fathiya is not an onion, and I held back a smile of complicity as Sonia laughed mockingly. "It's an experience that we have to have, even if it's only once. For the pleasure of discovery," she went on.
I didn't tell her that I hadn't yet finished exploring the world of men and, so far at least, was not in need of additional complications.
"You might behave differently, with another woman," she insisted, craftily.
"If, by some miracle, I desired a woman, I would be the one to seduce her."
"That's just overstatement, as usual. I don't believe you."
"I don't need to be believed."
"Don't you ever stop playing games?" she said, looking at me out of the corner of her eye with assumed exasperation.
"Perhaps. The day when there are no men left on earth..."
"Or the day you find yourself with Fathiya on a desert island."
"Fathiya or anyone else," I replied wickedly.
In the street, the sounds of our laughter mingled and rose. *** The old books of erotica have passed down The Stories of Huba of Medina, a remarkable woman who spared neither men nor women. The story goes that to her daughter she said:
Above all, never forget to moan when fucking, and know that once in the desert I gave such a cry as to terrify the camels of èUthman ibn Abi èAffan, may God be pleased with him, so that they ran away, and to this day have not been rounded up.
*** Our grandmothers were worthier than us. They made the best of both worlds.
*** A man was told that his wife loved women. He replied, "Indeed. I have ordered her to so do for it purifies the opening of her sex. Thus, when she has contact with the penis, she knows better how to appreciate it."
And what about our grandfathers? May they all rest in peace.
"In the interests of comparison, some women have said, èFucking a man is healthy, fucking a woman is discreet.'" This is the fruit of deep wisdom that I do not have. If the masseuse had been a man, my mind would have been full of fantasies and my body feverish.
A French novelist wrote, "I was a lesbian for three months." Could I do better than that? I should write, "I was a lesbian for only three minutes." It seems we're not lesbians by nature, neither I nor the French novelist.
The physicians have written that this malady is an inborn characteristic of women. Unless the habit of raising slave girls under the same roof from earliest childhood is the cause. As they mature, they continue therefore to desire what they have known. The same may be true of prostitution. If this Sapphic malady is acquired, it shall be easy to eliminate. If it is inborn, it shall be long and difficult to treat.
The masseuse is a woman and her touch is professional and does not stir my imagination. My blood remains cold, and my mental images calm. My taste for men is not the only reason, surely. Plenty of women, past and present, have "made the best of both worlds." Up to this point, I have seen only men. Full stop. Fathiya used to melt with desire as she said to me, "I love you," but her declarations only made me laugh. Why laughter? To escape the embarrassment? For fear that I might accept? To make fun of her use of English whenever she spoke of emotions? She had a refined intellect, so she would laugh with me, as though she knew perfectly well that I was deferring my reply.
My masseuse went on in a low voice, as though revealing the secrets of the universe: "Monique, the Frenchwoman, the client before you. You saw her as you came in. I think she's had a hard time with men. When I told her my story, she said, èThere's no trusting men. I will never trust another one.' Something happened to her, it must have. I asked her but she just shook her head. Something must have happened to her, I'm sure. She will tell her story some day. She has to tell it. She still has a few days left here, she'll tell me her story. She only ever wants me to give her her massage. She asks for me by name. She gave me her address in Paris and took mine. She's sure to tell me her story. She said: èDon't trust men.' She's right. Of course she's right."
I couldn't give her the same advice. Why are women always talking about trust?
Hisham, the Prophet's servant, did say: A man came complaining to the Prophet and said, "My wife does not reject the hands of those who touch her."
The Prophet advised: "Divorce her."
The man said, "I love her."
The Prophet replied, "Then take pleasure in her."
I have grasped this simple lesson: I take my pleasure with men and they take their pleasure with me. Full stop? I do not ask of them either love, or faithfulness, or devotion, or any commitment that might limit their horizons, close their eyes, or zip up their flies.
By the time Monique tells her story, I'll be gone. I'll have said good-bye to this sea, this country, this masseuse. By the time Monique tells her story, I'll be gone, back to my life. Do I need to hear her story? History repeats itself. I know the words by heart.
She will say she found out he was betraying me.
She will say he came to her weeping because he loved another woman and couldn't bear to lie to her any longer and so he had to tell her the truth, no matter how painful.
She will say that other well-intentioned people had already informed her, and when she confronted him he confessed to the crime and thanked her because she had relieved him of the burden of lying, so heavy to carry.
She will say, after all those years of marriage she had discovered that he preferred men. That he had a lover. That everyone knew except her.
She will say, he packed his bags and left the house.
She will say she cannot bear for someone to betray her trust.
She will say that men do not deserve our trust.
Will she talk about her loneliness? Will she talk about her search for another man? Will she talk about the nights out with her single girl friends? About the matrimonial agencies and singles clubs and Internet dates?
Men do not deserve our trust?
As I arrived, Monique was coming out of the booth. A dyed blonde with a smile stuck to her face, which shone with massage oil.
"Next time Monique comes from Paris, she'll bring me a face cream. She made me swear to ask her for whatever I want. She'll give me a call as soon as she arrives. The first day she asked me to put her in touch with someone who could give her a hair removal treatment with sugar. You know the sugar treatment? You use it in your country too? She wants to remove all the hair on her body—legs, arms, armpits, and the face too. Everything. I sent a friend of mine to her room at the hotel and she was very pleased. It costs her a lot less that way than if she goes to a beauty salon. She wants to go to the hammam in the city center, too, not to the hotel bathhouse. I'm going to go with her on my day off. I only get a half day off each week. My daughter's with my sister in the capital. She insisted on staying with her for the school vacation. She's a help to me. I love your accent. It sounds so nice. There's a serial from your country that I watch every evening. It's fantastic. I've forgotten the name. Excuse me just a moment, I've got to go put the music on and I'll be right back."
A song from the Gulf that I don't know precedes her return:
Ah, you beauty, who, when you came, Cast all others in the shade! You looked down upon us And of all that light yet more light you made!
I haven't listened to Arabic songs since the time of the Thinker. Songs from the Gulf are new to my ear.
Why does he haunt my thoughts so insistently after all these years?
From The Proof of the Honey. Copyright 2008 by Europa Editions. Forthcoming May 2009 from Europa Editions. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.