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from the May 2019 issue

The Shadow of Hermaphroditus

Badriya al-Badri’s protagonist, Suad, struggles to make a definitive gender transition, but tragedy ultimately strikes at another character’s doorstep.
 

No one is able to fathom that the issue is nothing more than a congenital defect, in which I had no hand. All my mother and father’s efforts focused on physical treatments. They searched for the hidden femininity within my small body. Then they had to search for a psychological treatment for what I was suffering—that, or discover my true, concealed body from behind that of a girl. Had they done so, I wouldn’t find myself engaged in a horrific war in which I am the sole combatant—the victor and the vanquished. In reality, I’m always the losing side. I've never felt the pleasure of defeating myself even for a day. My body vanquishes me, tramples me, leaves me lifeless. I consider fleeing from it, replacing it, transforming it, subduing it.

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, as the German writer Goethe said. My only option is some surgical operation to liberate myself from my feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. A single step sure to change the course of my life. This one decision is the definitive line, and, were I to cross it, the past in all its details, regrets, and misgivings would disappear. The decision after which nothing can ever go back to how it was before. 

After this, I’ll look for a wife from outside the country, from India for instance. There I can buy a poor woman under legal cover and bring her back with me to conceal my failure. As I’m undressing in front of her, she’ll discover I’m not a man. She won’t hesitate to abandon me, exposing my feeble masculinity. No matter how poor, no woman would accept half a man. She wants a complete man who will reveal her femininity, who’ll approach her with confidence, who won’t waver, hesitant or afraid. It wouldn’t matter if he had one eye, one leg, or even one hand. Ultimately, though, she wants him to be a complete man. There’s no way a woman could understand my situation. I was a woman at one point. I get it.

Maybe Yemen would be a better choice than India. She’d be an Arab woman, like me, which is already enough. We’d have no difficulty understanding each other. She isn’t likely to be demanding, the war having devastated her. She might well accept any trace of a man to escape a war that has snatched her family from her in the blink of an eye. A shadow of a man is safer than a shadow of a battered wall that may collapse and crush her at any moment. A semblance of a man is better than a bomb that explodes by surprise, blowing her to scattered pieces that can’t be put back together. It’s no matter that we exploit people’s needs to satisfy our own demands. When all is said and done, I’m just one more who doesn’t hesitate to do what he wants, following his own desires. There’s always a perpetrator and there’s always a victim. 

I sink into myself: is this the man I’m going to be? A man whose only concern is hiding his faults, on the lookout for a woman fleeing a war that’s fed upon her family and left her without a heart. You can still hear its echo each time you’re near her . . . a woman whose garment I use to hide my weakness, my dampered masculinity, my darkest truth, which she’ll discover, no doubt. I won’t pull off concealing it for very long. Some things cannot be hidden. 

I’m troubled by these hollow feelings I notice in myself. My search for my lost essence has separated me from humanity, and this frustrates me. Ridding myself of my femininity doesn’t mean I’m no longer a person; becoming a man doesn’t mean I relinquish my principles or ideals. How is it possible for me to think of taking advantage of a weak woman and stripping her of her right to her life, whatever that life is like under the shadow of poverty or war? Even despite the fact that she’d be better off as a result of her exploitation, exchanged as some lusterless commodity that can’t feel a thing, as some lifeless body that grants you no love or joy, that can’t laugh and is no longer able to cry. 

 

 

If Olivia hadn’t made the worst choice, then perhaps she would have been my ideal woman, she would have been such a comfort to me. If she’d learned of my condition early on then she would be the one to support my thinking about this. But she could see no man in the entire universe except for Nasser, and when he abandoned her, she left behind the world with all its men and women and departed. 

Yes, my dear doctor, the matter is entirely in my hands. I am the one who will make the decision. Nothing can force me to go on living beneath Hermaphroditus’s long shadow—one half wearing the other, half a woman leaning on half a man. Half a man hiding behind half a woman, neither completing the other. We continue to live together without either one being effaced. Together, we are capable of nothing but death and annihilation. Where’s the beauty in partition? Bisected between you and you, as though you were your own enemy, the one you attacking the other, one half ridding itself of the other half in order to breathe freely. One half clinging to you like a conjoined twin, except invisible. No one can see it except for you, and no one but you stumbles on its shadow.

The road to Muscat is long. For sixty whole minutes, there’s a perplexed look on her face as she discusses a final solution with me, something you can’t find in a medical textbook or doctor’s recommendations. Three thousand six hundred seconds pecking at my head like an awful little woodpecker determined to bore a tunnel into my head to colonize it. 

I try to clear my head. I think about pedestrian bridges, passersby racing back and forth beneath them, the cars mow down a few souls from time to time. Other bridges were set up as road junctions. The most beautiful of these is that suspended roundabout in Barka. More than once, I went there and drove around without bothering to stop and see what life looked like below. I drove my car round and round and round as I laughed mirthfully. Maybe it reminded me of the walls of our village that surrounded me in inexhaustible childish joy. 

The streets are still congested despite efforts to widen them. All the people coming and going drive without knowing where they’re actually headed. One minute they think they know their destination, but they can’t be sure they’ll ever reach it or that they won’t have an accident before they get there. Even I don’t know where I’ll end up after this long journey of mine. There is no destination that can fulfill the dream I once had.

I miss my room, the one I rented recently. But it annoys me to come home and find it pulsing with heat. I wish someone would get there before me and turn on the air conditioning, so that when I arrive I’ll find it cool inside. It’s unbearable living alone. But being alone allows you more space for freedom without anyone intruding on your secrets and private affairs. No one asks you what you’re doing, where you’re going, or when you’re coming back. You do what you want to, when you please, without anyone second-guessing your decisions. 

I shut my eyes before myself, gathering my scattered pieces. I become reacquainted with myself. I discover the hidden truth beneath the plastic surgery and women’s clothing. Every virtue and principle I was raised to believe in, covering curse words, consequences, curfews, and red lines, what duty demands and what it does not, cannot account for what happened. My thoughts wandered that moment in the hospital when victory was within reach. A pleasant trembling sensation took over my spirit. That night, I didn’t want to trust my feelings. I shook myself free and forgot them. Or tried to forget. Perhaps simply ignored.  

I swore to myself that my love for Olivia was rooted in the fact she’d stood beside me. It was nothing but a sense of indebtedness for what she did for me. My jealous feelings for Nasser were only anger at the way he neglected her. How could I have believed that I love a woman? She was not a man and nor was I. How were we to meet on parallel axes when parallel axes don’t intersect? Would physics bend its own laws to validate my feelings? 

Why, then, when Hamad drew near to me didn’t I fall for him? Was my refusal because an act like this can’t happen between us or because I truly don’t desire him? What about all the love I carried for him inside me—all the pain that resides in my soul? Is it possible that even at that moment I’d been living a delusion? Did my circumstances and his familiar face push me toward his love?

Hamad’s gaze would follow me wherever I went, and he tried often to embrace me. I’d rebuff his advances and throw him out of my room. What if my hidden desire were uncovered, suddenly aroused like a giant waking from his slumber, defending his right to rest in the shade, fearful of the sun’s caustic rays? 

Tossing about in bed, I beg for sleep or a little rest, but my phone prevents it. It’s a text from Olivia: 

“My love Suad, I’m at Heathrow Airport on my way to Muscat. Can I maybe stay with you for a couple days?” 

As soon as I read those first words, I started to tremble. I didn’t put the phone down until I’d told her that of course she could stay.

I looked around my place. It seemed decent enough to host her. All I had to do was buy a few basic things she might need. 

 

 

 “I don’t want to see him.” 

That was the first thing Olivia said when she started speaking. The entire way from the airport to my place, she’d been quiet and distracted. I respected her silence. She handed me some papers that made it clear she was giving up custody of her children. 

“I don’t want any reminders of this whole disaster. I just need to forget his face—and quickly.”

What was the right response for a woman like Olivia at a moment like this? Her actions up till then, the things she’d done for me made it clear she was a great woman. I asked her to rethink her decision. I said I’d help her set everything right. All I needed was some time. I begged her to give me some time, to have a little patience. But she refused. 

“You judge a man by his deeds. Either he stops her or he persists in his rites of masculinity. A man who abandons his wife once won’t hesitate to do it again. I can’t trust him any longer.” 

“And me? Do you trust me?”

“What about you, Suad? You’re a woman, like me. What I said has nothing to do with you.”

“And what if I were a man?” 

“Maybe I’d have married you.” 

She said this and laughed, as I felt something building inside me.

I took Olivia’s three kids—Muhammad, Ahmad, and Palestine—to the house where Nasser’s family lived. His new wife came to the door. She was nearing the end of her pregnancy. I asked for Nasser, and she called him, annoyance in her voice. I didn’t care that she stayed perched behind the door, eavesdropping to figure out what was going on. I handed the papers to him, and the kids, and then I left. He was no less shocked than his wife, but I didn’t give him time to think of a reaction worthy of the disruption staring him in the face. I wish I had whispered to him before leaving: “Checkmate, my turn.” 

When I got back to the car Olivia was drowning in her blood. She was still breathing, but her wounds were deep. The blood on her face hadn’t dried after her struggles to wipe the streaming tears. 

“Olivia.” 

I managed to say her name only once. And that was enough, because each time I tried, I choked over the words. They got caught in my throat. I could see her shouting to stop the war. I could see the black and white scarf wrapped around her neck, the way everything ceased to exist when she had a steak before her, her optimism, her desire to relish every moment. 

“We don’t have much time. We have to do what we can.” 

Today I understand. Death was falling over her head whenever she tried to forget him. He didn’t have to tell her his name. It was enough that he whispered from behind the door: “There’s no time to lose.” 

I tried to take her to the hospital, but she refused. I was forced to call emergency services thinking they might be able to arrive before it was too late to save her. She tugged at my clothes. 

“Stay with me. I don’t want to die alone.” 

I lifted her head and placed it in my lap. 

“Don’t be scared. Everything will be OK. You’re not going to die. Help will be here soon.” 

A tranquil, wry smile spread across her face.

“Who said I was afraid of dying? I’ve tired of waiting for it. Waiting is all the unfulfilled expectation of the one you love or the things you long for. It’s like hammering a nail into a paper wall. I never felt as weak in my entire life as I did after Nasser left. I was determined, savoring each moment like a piece of caramel-filled candy that melts the moment it touches your lips. But it’s no longer like that since he left. 

“We never grow up. We stay young like birds. Life hums along and then one day we’re assailed by abandonment. It breaks our hearts, and then we grow old all at once.

“Suad,” she said, and her expression changed. “It hurts. But the worst is this sadness. I wish he were here now. Will we meet in heaven? Is it big enough for all of us, Muslims and Christians. Or was heaven created to accept some of us and refuse the others? Is it not enough that our hearts believe in love? Love itself is salvation and damnation. 

“I feel tired,” she said.

 

 

I want to mutiny, to cry a tear that doesn’t flow so far that my hand can catch it. I want a replacement eye and a nose that turns red as a rose and opens every morning to the drops of dew.

How much time passed? How many feet crossed my path on their way to inspect her corpse, to examine the scene? The only one who bothered to acknowledge me wanted to write his report and be finished with it. I couldn’t find anything to say to him. My shock at her death refused expression in any language I knew. Only the ground, covered in her blood that had faded, knew what happened. 

Yesterday, when it was raining, I sensed her breaking through the heavy rain clouds. She was cleansing her heart of all of us. And when she finished, she ascended to the edge of her cloud and danced for a while before falling. I extended my hand but failed to reach her. My bedroom ceiling began to drip. The pots and pans lined up to catch her tears were bone dry, but I was nearly drowning. 

There are certain mistakes that no one holds you accountable for. Your conscience itself tallies every deplorable one of them. It tears at your heart like a viper, without mercy. It breaks you down until you grow so lowly in your own eyes you can no longer look at yourself. You don’t recognize your own features. You’re no longer you. Sometimes you spit in your face. You hurl words at it. You show it no mercy, and you sure don’t accept it. But then you forget. Or pretend to.
 

From ظل هيرمافروديتوس © Badriya al-Badri. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Ghayde Ghraowi. All rights reserved.

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