This narrative is first of all a story of soul and of flesh. Of a love that states its name, often crudely, and is not burdened by any moral standards other than those of the heart. Through these lines, in which sperm and prayer are joined, I have attempted to break down the walls that now separate the celestial from the terrestrial, body from soul, the mystical from the erotic.
Literature alone has the efficacy of a “lethal weapon.” So I used it. Free, crude, and in exultation. My ambition is to give back to the women of my blood the power of speech confiscated by their fathers, brothers, and husbands. In tribute to the ancient Arab civilization in which desire came in many forms, even in architecture, where love was liberated from being sinful, in which both having and giving pleasure was one of the duties of the believer.
I raise these words as one raises a glass, to the health of Arab women, for whom recapturing the confiscated mention of the body is half the battle in the quest to healing their men.
Praise be to God who created the penis straight as a lance
so it may wage war inside the vagina. . . . Praise be to Him
who bestowed upon us the gift of nibbling and sucking lips,
of placing thigh against thigh, and of laying our scrotum
down at the threshold of the door of Compassion.
Cheikh O. M. Nefzaoui
The Perfumed Garden
By Way of a Response to Cheikh Nefzaoui
I, Badra bent Salah ben Hassan el-Fergani, born in Imchouk under the sign of Scorpio, shoe size thirty-eight, and soon to reach my fiftieth year, make the following declaration: I don’t give a damn that Black women have delectable cunts and offer total obedience; that Babylonian women are the most desirable and women from Damascus the most tender to men; that Arab and Persian women are the most fertile and faithful; that Nubian women have the roundest buttocks, the softest skin, and passion that burns like a tongue of fire; that Turkish women have the coldest wombs, the most cantankerous temperament, the most rancorous heart, and the most radiant acumen; and that Egyptian women are soft-spoken, offer kind-hearted friendship, and are fickle in their constancy.
I declare that I do not give a damn about sheep or fish, Arabs or Christians, the East or the West, Carthage or Rome, Henchir Tlemsani or the Gardens of Babylon, Galilee or Ibn Battouta, Naguib Mahfouz or Albert Camus, Jerusalem or Sodom, Cairo or Saint Petersburg, Saint John or Judas, foreskin or anus, virgins or whores, schizophrenics or paranoiacs, singers such as Ismahan or Abdelwahab, the Harrath Wadi or the Pacific Ocean, Apollinaire or Moutannabi, Nostradamus or Diop the Marabout.
For I, Badra, proclaim to be certain of one thing only: I am the one with the most beautiful cunt on earth, the best designed, the best developed, the deepest, warmest, wettest, noisiest, most fragrant and singing, the one most fond of cocks when they rise up like harpoons.
I can say it, now that Driss is dead and I have buried him beneath the wadi’s laurels in heathen Imchouk.
I still long for a kiss sometimes, even today. Not one stolen between two doorways, hurried and clumsy, but slowly and peacefully given and received. A kiss on the mouth. A kiss on the hand. A bit of ankle, a detail of the temple, a perfume, an eyelid, a languid happiness, an eternity. From this time on, my fifty years are able to give birth. In spite of the menopausal hot flashes and pinnacles of rage. Smiling, I treat my ovaries as liars. Nobody knows I haven’t made love in three years. Because I no longer have an appetite. I’ve left Tangierss to its own people. To German porno flicks picked up by satellite after midnight. To country bumpkins whose armpits smell and who puke up their beer in dark alleyways. To silly girls swishing their ass, who in chattering clusters get themselves picked up by a Mercedes stolen in Europe. To the imbeciles who wear the veil because they refuse to live in their time and are angling for paradise at half price.
I glance at young Safi from the corner of my eye. He is the day laborer who, perched on my very own tractor, is blatantly coming on to me. He is just thirty years old and, illiterate that he is, must surely be thinking of the loot when he puts the make on me. Not mine, but that which Driss left me by legal bequest, dated August 1992. I’ve been wondering for two weeks now whether I shouldn’t fire the boy, outraged as I am by his suspecting me of senile lustfulness and hoping to take advantage of that. But I change my mind as soon as I see his little girl, her braids full of ribbons, running toward him and kissing his unshaven cheek. I’ll give him another week before I plug a volley of buckshot into his butt, just to put him in his place.
I know I’m unparalleled in bed, and that, were I to decide to take Safi on, I’d make him want to leave his wife and child. But that hick doesn’t know what I know. That you fuck well only out of love, never for money, and that the rest is just performance. Love and experience it unswervingly. Love and lose; and wounded, accept that screwing serves as a stand-in when the heart falls from the highest peak and there is no net to protect it from its aerobatics. Crash and admit to living as an amputee. Since the head is intact.
Perhaps it is this fool of a Safi who pushed me into writing. To reason with my anger. To untangle the web. To relive my life and enjoy it a second time around instead of fantasizing about a new one. I started to scribble some things in a notebook. Street names, names of cities. Memories. Forgotten recipes.
One day I wrote, “The key to female pleasure is everywhere: nipples getting hard, frozen with desire, feverish and demanding. They need saliva and caresses. Biting and cajoling. Breasts awaken and ask only to let their milk spurt. They want to be suckled, touched, held, enclosed, and then set free. Their insolence knows no bounds. Nor does their magic spell. They melt in the mouth, they hide, harden, and focus on their pleasure. They want sex. As soon as they know the situation is right, they become openly lascivious. They envelop the cock and, reassured, grow bolder. Their nipples sometimes think they are a clitoris or even a penis. They come to lie in the folds of a discreet anus. Force the opening of a hole that, because it wants to inhale an object or a being, consumes everything that offers itself: a finger, a nipple, or a well-oiled dildo. The key lies wherever you must go, wherever you haven’t thought of going: neck, earlobes, the fold of a hairy armpit, the part between the buttocks, toes that have to be tasted to know what loving means, the inside of thighs. Everything on the body is capable of frenzy. Of pleasure. Everything moans and flows for anyone who knows how to titillate. And drink. And eat. And give.”
I blushed about what I had written, then found it to be very right. What is to stop me from continuing? The chickens are cackling in the courtyard, the cows are calving and giving lavish milk, the rabbits fornicate and give birth every month. The world is turning. So am I. What should I be ashamed of?
“You, Arab woman,” Driss used to say. The Arab woman is three quarters Berber and despises those who think she’s good only for emptying chamber pots. I, too, watch television and could have been a Stephen Hawking if they had told me about quantum physics early on. Or given a concert in Cologne like Keith Jarrett, whom I just discovered. I might even have been a painter and exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. For I, too, am stardust.
“You, Arab woman.” Of course, I am an Arab, Driss. Who better than an Arab woman would have known how to welcome you, any man, inside her womb? Who washed your feet, fed you, mended your burnooses, and gave you children? Who was on the lookout for you when you came home after midnight, brimful of wine and questionable jokes, then suffered your hasty assaults and your premature ejaculations? Who made sure your boys wouldn’t screw around and your girls wouldn’t get knocked up around the corner of a street or in an abandoned quarry? Who never said a word? Who reconciled wolf and sheep? Who steered the delicate course? Who went into mourning for you for twelve months straight? Who repudiated me? Who married and divorced me for the simple reason of safeguarding his ill-placed pride and his inheritance interests? Who beat me up after every lost war? Who raped me? Who ripped me off? Who, besides me, the Arab woman, has had it up to here with an Islam you have distorted? Who, besides me, the Arab woman, knows you are deep in the shit and it serves you right, you and that mealy-mouthed mug of yours? So why shouldn’t I speak of love, of soul and ass, if only to match your unjustly forgotten ancestors in the argument?
In the guiblia room, Driss had piled up his boxes of books, his illuminated manuscripts, his masterpiece paintings, and his stuffed wolves with their empty gaze. Since his death, only young Sallouha is authorized to go in there once a week to dust the office and fill a small Chinese porcelain pot with fresh ink. I hardly ever entered there, as Driss’s things were familiar but totally unnecessary to me.
When I decided to write my life story, I opened the boxes with books in search of the thick and very old Arabic volumes from which Driss used to fish up his clever sayings and his few bits of wisdom. I knew that I would come across crazier, braver, and more intelligent folks than I am.
I read. And reread. As soon as I felt I was out of my depth, I would go to the fields. I’m a woman of the land. Only the breath of the wheat and the smell of seed could straighten out my entangled threads.
Then I came back to the ancient writers, amazed at their daring that has no equal among their twentieth-century descendants, who, for the most part, are devoid of honor and humor. Mercenary and spineless, besides. I would pause each time an idea struck me by its accuracy or a phrase choked me with its quiet vigor. I have to admit that sometimes I laughed out loud, just as I was startled by my sense of modesty at other times. But I decided to write in a similar vein: freely, informally, with a clear head and a quivering sex.
After eight hours of travel, which came of no sudden impulse, I got off in Tangierss. Like a drunken hearse, my life was heading straight for disaster, and to save it I had had no choice but to jump on the train that leaves the Imchouk station every morning at four o’clock sharp. For five years I had been hearing it arrive, blow its whistle, and leave without having the courage to cross the street and step over the station’s low railing to put an end to contempt and corruption once and for all.
Feverish and my heart on tenterhooks, I didn’t sleep a wink all night. Noises dotted the passing of the hours, sounding the same: Hmed’s coughing and spitting, the barking of the two dogs–both mutts–that stand watch in the courtyard, and the hoarse song of some absent-minded rooster. Before the call to the early Morning Prayer, I was up, wrapped in a cotton ha”k that I had ironed two days earlier at the home of Arem, my neighbor and dressmaker, the only woman in a radius of thirty kilometers who owns a charcoal iron. I grabbed my bag, which I had stuffed inside a couscous jar, patted the snouts of the dogs, who came to sniff at me, crossed the street and the embankment in two great strides, and jumped into the last car, pretty much plunged in darkness.
My brother-in-law had taken it upon himself to buy my ticket, and Na’ma, my sister, had managed to get it to me by hiding it in a stack of cookies. The conductor, who came to check the compartment, punched it with lowered eyes, not daring to stop and stare at me. He must have confused me with Uncle Slimane’s new wife, who wears veils and prides herself on copying city women. Had he recognized me, he would have forced me to get off and called the family-in-law, who would have drowned me in a well. In the evening, he will tell the news to his friend Issa, the teacher, while chasing away the flies that flit about his glass of cold and bitter tea.
The compartment remained just about empty until we reached Zama, where the train stopped for a good fifteen minutes. A fat gentleman came in, a bendir by his side, with two women in blue and red melias covered in tattoos and jewelry. Their mouths hidden behind their ajars, they began whispering to each other, bursting out in soft laughter, then raised their voices, emboldened by the absence of any unknown men. Before long, the musician took a flask from the pocket of his djellaba, had three swigs without taking a breath, and stroked his bendir at length before playing a jaunty and slightly impudent little melody that I had often heard the nomads sing while harvesting.
The women began to dance, winking at me vulgarly as they skimmed the musician’s torso with the fringes of their rainbow-colored belts every time they moved their hips. My sullen look must have annoyed them, because they ignored me for the rest of the trip.
I was entertained every second of the way up to Medjela, where, rowdy and dead drunk, the trio got off, probably to celebrate a wedding of some rich kinsman.
I had to travel two more hours by bus to reach Tangiers. The city could be recognized by its cliffs, its white facades, and the masts of its docked ships. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. I was just scared. Of myself, to be precise.
It was a bleak Tuesday with nothing but ajajs, sandstorms that brings migraine and jaundice as only the month of September can. I had what seemed like a fortune on me, thirty dirhams, and could easily have hailed one of the green and black taxis that crisscross the smart streets of Tangiers, a city that appears cold, no matter what my older brother used to say when he returned to the village, laden with fabrics for my father. I always suspected Habib of lying in order to embellish things and act like everyone else from Imchouk, given to fantasizing, lots of wine and whores. In the Judgment Book that the Eternal One keeps, men are surely listed in the chapter on blowhards.
I did not take a taxi. I had Aunt Selma’s address clumsily scribbled on a bit of graph paper, ripped from the notebook of Abdelhakim, my nephew, who before my wedding night had rolled onto the conjugal bed to ward off fate and induce me to give an heir to my skunk of a husband.
As I stepped out of the bus, I staggered a little, blinded by the sun and the clouds of dust. A porter, sitting cross-legged under a poplar tree, watched me with a stupid look, his fez filthy and his muffler stained with the juice of chewing tobacco. I asked him the way, sure that a poor man couldn’t harm a veiled woman or allow himself to bother her.
“The rue de la V”rit”, you say? Well, I don’t really know, cousin!”
“I was told it was very close to Mouley Abdeslam.”
“That isn’t far from here. Go up the boulevard, and you’ll pass the Grand Socco and enter the Medina. Surely someone there will be able to help you find the right street.”
He was from the country, a blood brother, and his rural accent warmed my heart. In Tangiers, too, they spoke the patois of the isolated villages. I moved away hesitantly and took a few steps roughly in the direction the porter had indicated, when a young man dressed in blue overalls and matching fez blocked my way, looking very pleased with himself.
‘don’t be afraid. I overheard you asking the porter for directions to Hasouna. I live in that area and could take you to the address you’re looking for. Tangiers is a dangerous city, you know, and women as beautiful as you should never walk alone.”
Caught by surprise and completely thrown by his audacity, I didn’t know what to say. With two-thirds of my face concealed by my veil, I glared at him, feeling offended. He burst out laughing.
‘don’t look at me that way, or I’ll drop dead on the spot. You’ve just come from the country. Anyone can tell that from a hundred miles away. I’m only going to accompany you. I can’t let an ouliyya wander around Tangiers without any protection. You don’t need to answer, just follow me and alik aman Allah, God will protect you.”
Not having any choice, I followed him, telling myself that I could always scream if he made a move, rouse all the passersby, or call to one of the traffic cops all dressed in their tightly fitted uniforms with shiny leather stripes. Actually, I wasn’t all that scared. Having the guts to take the train to get away from my husband reduced every other act of brazenness to child’s play.
I glanced furtively at the man preceding me and found him to cut a fine figure. About my age and with the gait of a strutting rooster. He never once turned around, but I could sense that he was aware of my contented gazing at his broad shoulders, fascinated as I was with his virility. A strange feeling coursed through my veins: the pleasure of braving the forbidden in a city where I knew no one and no one knew me. I even told myself that freedom was more intoxicating than springtime.
I had a hard time keeping my eyes on my guide, for the streets seemed so wide to me and their plane trees so imposing. Caf’s everywhere had men in djellabas or western clothes sitting on the terraces. More than once I felt my legs tremble under the insistent looks that lifted my veil, which was the color of fresh butter and worn the urban way. Tangiers may have impressed me with its buildings, but its men seemed in every respect to be exactly the same as those I’d left behind in Imchouk to get bogged down in dung, quibbling over everything.
After walking for twenty minutes, the man turned left, then ducked into an alley. It was a narrow passageway that kept going up and winding around. Suddenly, I was thirsty in that dark back street following a guide whose name I didn’t even know.
Having reached the entrance to the Medina, he stopped. It was light again, and, other than the distant echo of Koranic verses being intoned by a chorus of children, the silence was complete. Without turning around, my guide said:
“Here we are. What house is it you’re looking for?”
I handed him the crumpled piece of paper I held clutched in my hand. He looked at it for a long time and then exclaimed:
“Well, now, here it is, here on your right!”
Had I really arrived at my destination? I was suddenly filled with doubt. The door my guide was pointing out might hide an ambush, a lair in which thugs would drug me, abuse me, decapitate me, and then throw me into the “grottos hewn in the cliffs’ or the creeks that ‘stink worse than any of the polecats at home could ever do,” as my brother Habib would assert.
The man surmised my discomfort.
‘do you have a name or only an address? Someone we could call?”
Hopefully, I whispered:
He pushed open the heavy studded front door and disappeared into a dark entryway. I heard him yell at the top of his lungs, “Ya oumalli ed-dar, hello! Anyone at home here?”
The shutters of a window snapped open above my head, a door creaked, and unfamiliar, slightly smothered voices could be heard.
“Is there an Aunt Selma here?”
A murmur, hasty footsteps, and, worried, my aunt appeared in her fine pink mules, chiseled like a piece of jewelry. She slapped herself hard on the chest:
“Oh! And what are you doing here?”
At least she was really here, and that was all that mattered to me. My guide emerged from behind her back, happy and quite proud that he had tracked her down. I felt like laughing.
“What’s happened to you? Did someone die, down there in the village?”
Without thinking and very candidly, I answered:
She quickly recovered and, intrigued, looked at my guide, then thanked him for his kindness. It seemed to me as if my answer had amused the young man, who adjusted his cap, crossed his arms, and said to my hostess, ‘mission accomplished, Lalla. Just a word of advice: With eyes like hers, don’t ever let this gazelle out of your sight.” He smiled. He left. He had already taken possession of my head.
©2005 by Plon. English translation copyright ” 2005 by Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.