In this excerpt from Sahar Mandour's novel Mina, a Lebanese actress is blindsided when she's outed by the press.
Mina comes out of the bathroom in her short white bathrobe, hurries toward her bedroom, darts in, shuts the door behind her.
Her room brims with soft warmth from the electric heater, in stark contrast to the weather, to the rest of the house; her lips lift in a smile as she sits on the edge of the bed, getting ready, getting in, full of love.
Her cell phone rings. She freezes.
A single peal, then silence.
Karma sticks her head out from under the covers, face and voice sleepwhacked, says: What time is it?
Four! Weird . . .
Mina turns toward the sofa, her bag, her cell phone inside it. She takes out the phone, sees “Number withheld” on the screen.
A drop call from an unlisted number?
The phone is in her hand, she’s moving back over to the bed, alarm and exhaustion colliding as they wrestle their way across her face. She sets the phone down on the nightstand, says: Maybe it was a wrong number, let’s not freak out for no good reason.
Karma replies: Let’s not freak out at all! Nothing happened. A phone rang, that’s all.
Mina smiles. Perhaps one day she’ll learn Karma’s knack for trusting the moment rather than constantly fearing the worst.
She slips into bed, lies down beside Karma, puts her arms around her, sinks her face into her lover’s neck, shuts her eyes on the outside world, plunging her whole being into the scent of her beloved’s skin, the scent that so often lulls her into a delicious healing sleep.
The sound of a text message hitting Mina’s phone.
They both give a start.
Mina grabs her phone, opens the message. A URL. She clicks on it, her browser opens to a site with a series of photos.
She winces; she cringes.
The lifelight drains from her eyes.
Her skin crawls, hot prickling horror spreads outward from her neck. She snatches a breath, then another. All she can hear is her heart pounding in her ears.
Reading Mina’s body language, Karma snatches the phone from her hands, looks at the pictures and blinks, blinks again, then holds her gaze steady on the stream of images flicking by. She’s stoic. She grinds her teeth.
Suddenly sensing movement, she looks up, finds Mina throwing her clothes on, her actions so violent they almost mask the shakes rattling through her body, her face contorted, her jaw clenched.
Should Karma reach for her? Or give her some space? What’s going to happen? Mina’s life—will it change completely? What does tomorrow hold for them? And today? Right now? Futile thoughts, an onslaught of questions buffeting her, sideswiping her, sticking into her like pins—until Mina sweeps them harshly aside, trying desperately not to cry, saying: I’m going to move up my trip to Paris, I’m going tomorrow, not Sunday. And I’m not coming back. I don’t want to be here anymore. Fuck this country!
Strangulated words breaking through the tears she’s choking back. She doesn’t want to be weak, but how can she not be weak when she’s as exposed as this?
Suddenly Karma is on her feet and pulling her into her arms, hugging her, holding her tight, Mina’s tears bursting forth and streaming at last, her resistance and her words swept away, her voice breaking.
Mina wailing, Karma holding her tighter and tighter.
Karma knows Mina very well, knows that she won’t fully take the situation in or find her way through it—even by fleeing—until she’s drained herself of tears. She strokes her hair, her cheek, waits for her to calm down a little.
Mina raises her head to take the tissues Karma is offering her, almost laughs at Karma’s earnest attempts to mop the tears and snot from her face, her nose, her eyes. She pulls slightly away from Karma, her head falls into her hands, sharp movements and raw grating sounds, then her face reappears, as if she’s just come round after fainting.
Mina says she’s devastated, overwhelmed, feels like giving up.
Karma tells her she knows, and that it’s fair enough to feel that way.
Mina says she hates her life.
Karma tells her she loves her.
They agree that it’s only natural for them to feel weak, under the circumstances. And they agree, also, that they’ll have to conjure up some strength, even if it has to be summoned from total weakness.
They both feel a certain sense of inferiority in the face of society’s power, but they both respond by affecting an attitude of superiority—so as to overcome violation, and its aftermath.
One day this violation will be in the past, consigned to oblivion, long forgotten. But it’s not in the past yet.
It’s now. Now, with all its constituent parts.
Karma says: Are you sure you want to go to Paris? Don’t you want to stay so we can figure out what the story is?
Mina is agitated: What story?! Is it a story?! No, I don’t want to stay, this whole thing makes me sick, there’s no way I’m staying, it’s not worth it—what is this, a battle? Is my life a battle? This isn’t a battle, this—it’s a load of shit! It’s . . .
Karma squeezes her tight, trying to reel her back in after losing her to this fit of fury, a fit now culminating in a new flood of hot tears, rising, submerging her rage, and now she’s laughing, giving way. It’s a laugh of submission, and Karma joins in.
Karma knows how Mina works, knows that in the exact moment that Mina laughed she stepped outside of reality, looked back in at herself through the mirror, and saw a woman who had been violated. Humor can flash through any tough situation if the person at its center catches a glimpse of herself performing it rather than actually living through it. Mina had suddenly spotted herself getting drawn into her part, merging with the character she was playing, so she laughed at herself to liberate herself. Knowing this, Karma is tickled, relieved, laughs along. She knows only too well that the best way for Mina to get herself back together is for her to get a little way out of herself.
She slackens her hold on Mina a little, Mina pulls back, straightens up slightly, wiping her eyes, says: Paris, yeah, definitely. But then what? Call the magazine and complain? Sue them? Issue a statement of denial?! Let’s not be ridiculous. The film’ll be shown at Cannes, and everyone’ll forget about this . . . But how am I supposed to forget? Karma, I’m going to Paris, and that’s final!
Do you want me to come with you?
Did you even think for a moment of sending me there on my own?!
I was thinking you might want some space to—
I want you with me.
Karma hugs her again, and leads her into the kitchen to drink some coffee, hoping for a moment of calm before they pack.
Their discussion continues while they make the coffee.
The feature is entitled “Scandal: Mina’s Sex Life.”
So how does one deal with a “scandal”?
At least if it were a blackmail operation there would be a motive. But what’s the justification for this “scandal”? There is none. The scandal itself is the aim of the feature: it’s gratuitous, just like the damage it’s causing.
And in order for the scandal not to be revealed as what it really was—society’s deep craving, the thing that turns people on—people would use it as a screen onto which to project their own supposed purity, and to celebrate their position, and that of their children, up on the moral high ground. It would be an occasion for celebrating the Self, for dancing around the corpse of the Other.
No one would query the "crime," question the scandal, ask what all this meant. They would read the word “scandal” and accept it as the right label for the story. They wouldn’t think for themselves, they wouldn’t extricate themselves and their judgment from the title. They’d close ranks, they’d snap their shells shut, and the ritual sacrifices to the god of Self would begin.
Karma and Mina stop talking at this point, now fully saturated with hatred.
They pack their bags. They catch the plane. Her film wins the Palme d’Or.
She doesn’t go back to Lebanon for two years.
From Mina (Beirut: Dar Al-adab, 2013). © Sahar Mandour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.