Some people conjure spirits. I conjure bodies. I have no knowledge of my soul or of the souls of others. I know only my body and theirs.
And I content myself with that.
I conjure them and I see myself with them once again—ephemeral travelers in an ephemeral body; they were never more than that. The rules had been laid down. What, men as mere objects? And why not?
As lovers? What a big word. I can never bring myself to use it, even to myself. The Thinker uttered it, once, and I was shocked. Lover? I don’t have lovers. There must be another word, of course, but I haven’t bothered looking for it. One day, as I was telling him about a girlfriend of mine who’d met him at a party, he asked me lightly, “Does she know I’m your lover?” Nobody knew about him and it wasn’t the question that offended me. It was the word. Lover!
The Thinker, my lover? The idea had never occurred to me. Could I be the mistress of a man from whom I ask only one thing: that he hold me in his arms in a closed room? Could I be the mistress of a man from whom I ask only stolen hours?
I didn’t analyze the matter further because at that juncture, as was his habit, the Thinker said, “I have an idea.” He approached the bed. I lay on my stomach, my back arched, my weight resting on my forearms. He was behind me and I couldn’t see him. He caressed me, tracing the curves of my body from my shoulders to my thighs, stopping at my buttocks. He pulled me towards him. I pressed against him more tightly to fill myself with him. I buried my face in the pillow to stifle the gasps of pleasure that accompanied our movements and our words. I knew that in coition “the more shameless it is the better,” but still, I tried to stifle my moans.
He again pulled me to him, into that particular position that I love best, that he loves best.
In that position, our points of view converge despite the difference in our respective angles. What matters is the point of convergence.
I silenced my noises. I forgot my girlfriends. I dissolve exegesis and theory into the experimental fusion of bodies.
Lovers? The Thinker undoubtedly had legitimate reasons for using the word. But I couldn’t! I was coming from a planet with a different language—a planet with a woman’s language, one that I had been obliged to invent. Usually, I resort to the dictionaries, but they don’t always give me what I want. Their language and their concepts only hinder me. Their definition of the word “lover” is too broad to be applied to the men I’ve known.
Even the Thinker?
In the beginning is the encounter. First, a certain flash of eyes, then my reply, categorical. I feel my answer rising within in the first instant, even before the suitor presents letters of accreditation for his lust. All that matters is my own desire, my rare desire.
The Yes or the No comes of its own volition after a single glance. The decision is made. All the rules are erased. I listen only to my own voice. The voice of my desire, my rare desire.
My sense of morality bears no relation to the values of the world that surrounds me, values I rejected long ago. This moral sense guides my actions and measures them according to principles I alone have determined. My only concern is the effect of my actions on my life—my face after love, the gleam in my eyes, the gathering together of my scattered parts, the words that burn in my breast and the stories they ignite.
Orandum est, ut sit mens sana in corpore sano. One must pray to obtain a sound mind in a sound body. Health, through sex. Even before finding the echo of my own thoughts in the Arab erotic literature that is so dear to me, I had understood.
The Traveler said: You have known no man but your husband.
He said: You refuse every man who desires you because your principles lead you to fear society and the judgment of men.
He said: This is what remains of your old-fashioned upbringing; you are paralyzed, curbed, fettered, you understood “yes” as resignation and nothing more.
He said: You are afraid your radiance will fade in the eyes of any man whose advances you accept.
He said: You have no confidence in your body and you do not dare to stand naked before a man.
He said: You refuse to follow the example of your girlfriend, the one who says yes to all men. You consider her easy.
I said: “Maybe,” aware that I was light years away from all that.
I said: “Maybe” so that I wouldn’t have to tell him that my physical rejection of him didn’t mean my absolute rejection of all men.
I said: “Maybe,” and let him believe that I accepted his interpretations, and I was satisfied with the success of that subtle ploy I often use.
Does the fact that I reject one man mean I reject them all? Does my saying no to one man’s desire mean that I’m saying no to all men? It’s a dominant male interpretation, which suits everybody, most of all me.
I used to say “Maybe” because I didn’t want to explain. What kind of explanation could I have given? That I accept no authority outside my own will: neither their principles, nor their values, nor their ethics? Neither society, nor religion, nor tradition? Neither the fear of others’ tongues, nor the terror of punishment, nor the flames of hell?
I am polygamous by nature, I know it. Like almost all women. We are taught the opposite, but I know that my nature is polygamous. Though that is not exactly the right term. I ought to say “polyamorous” or at least “polyandrous.”
Years ago I heard Alberto Moravia speaking about “natural promiscuity” in women and his words fell on my ears like a revelation. He put into words things I felt and that were part of my life. Afterwards, I read the same phrase from the pen of a contemporary French philosopher theorizing about pleasure and applying the idea of promiscuity to all humans, male and female. I happily read and re-read his book, though I wasn’t in need of him—my life was nothing if not a demonstration of his ideas.
Was Moravia before or after the Thinker? I can no longer recall.
Was the French philosopher before or after the Thinker? I can no longer recall.
All I know is that I encountered the Thinker at the height of my readings of the classics of erotic literature. I started amusing myself by transposing everything that happened between us into the ancient texts. I would read these to him, going to great lengths in their deconstruction. He knew only one of them—The Book of Voluptuousness: By Which the Old Man Returns to His Youth.
I had read it in secret at the start of my adolescence. A school companion lent it to me. She was a few years older than the rest of us; she used lipstick and mascara. Mysterious stories circulated about her, though only snippets were told in front of us younger students—of the traces of blows on her body, of her family who wanted to marry her off against her will, of her constant assertion that she would rub the family’s name in the dirt to get back at them, of the boys waiting boldly for her at the school gate.
I can no longer recall when I saw her with this book of hers or how she came to lend it to me, making me swear as she did so that no one else should see it. I remember my initial shock, and my fear that someone would catch me with it. No one monitored what I read or restricted my freedom, but I felt intuitively that I was committing an act that I had to hide from others. The speed with which I read it reflected my apprehension. All I remember is my longing to discover, and the fear of the panorama that was opening up before me. My eyes were glued to the pages and my heart raced. I hid it among my school books and returned it to its owner the following day. She shot me a look of expectant curiosity. I placed it in her hands and gave nothing away. Disappointed by my silence, she took it and hid it in her bag, turning her back on me.
I was young but the foundations of my secret worlds had already been laid. From early on I possessed a talent for dissembling and I used it to create a protective barrier separating my freedom from the world’s hypocrisy.
A few years later, my adventures provided ample occasion for me to put the teachings of my Arab masters to the test. I recognized “the benefits of the sexual act” for the body, mind, and spirit—namely, that: “It calms anger and brings joy to the soul of those whose natures are ardent. It is also a sure treatment for the darkening of the sight, for the circulation, for heaviness of the head, and for pains in the sides such as blind the heart and close the gates of thought.”
I also learnt of the harm I would suffer if I abstained. According to Muhammad ibn Zakariya:
Whoever abandons coition for long periods suffers the weakening of his organs; his blood circulates poorly, and his member will be weakened. I have observed those who abandon intercourse in order to live a chaste life: their bodies turned cold and their movements awkward, and a causeless dejection fell upon them. The diseases associated with melancholia were common among them, and they were listless, and had difficulty digesting their food.
Psychological and physical diseases? Madness, dejection, and melancholia all at once? God protect us and let us not refuse sex!
Said Ibn al-Azraq: “Every desire to which a man surrenders himself hardens his heart, except for coition.” I am determined to keep my heart tender.
When it came to the question of coition, theory was my disguise. I quoted from books or gave examples from other people’s lives. But my own parallel life was hidden in a lamp that I rubbed only when I was alone, when I would release the genie of memory.
Then along came the Thinker and I told him, “Yes.”
At first I didn’t tell anyone about my epistemological passion. Those books were my secret, one that I shared with nobody. The Thinker came along and I said “Yes.” The Thinker came along and I opened the door. In the hollow of our bed, I told him about my secret readings. The two secrets—him and my readings—mingled and merged into a single torrent.
In those days it was enough for me to find pleasure in my books, as I read them again with him. I would commit the name of each position to memory and describe them to him. The names—usually comic—became a secret code with which we communicated with one another in seeming innocence, sprinkling our conversation with them in the presence of others and skillfully passing them back and forth to one another in every context. It wasn’t always easy: how could one place terms such as “the funnel,” “the battering ram,” “the bellows,” “the twister,” and “threading the beads” in the midst of meaningful sentences? The ignorance of others merely enhanced our pleasure in the game that we played so shamelessly.
I was confident that no one who was not an expert in the Books of erotica—who had not, like me, read them over and over again—would give any thought to such words, and such experts were rare, even among persons of culture versed in the canon. I confirmed this through the use of amusing practical experiments.
Thanks to the Thinker I grasped the value of my secret books. I went from Ahmad ibn Yusuf al-Tifashi to Ali ibn Nasr, from al-Samaw’al ibn Yahya to Nasr al-Din al-Tusi, Muhammad al-Nafzawi, and Ahmad ibn Sulayman, to Ali al-Katibi al-Qazwini, al-Suyuti, and al-Tijani as if from the company of one friend to that of another. I would read them and then re-read them, sampling their texts, translating my life into their words, and retaining these as a secret language that I dared divulge to no one but the Thinker.
Why this common ground between the Thinker and my secret books?
With him I progressed to a stage of sexual awareness that was inseparable from my readings. My gestures gave life to words, which in turn ordered my gestures, and from this exchange flew hissing sparks. I played at transforming what I experienced with him into passages from the books. I would share these with him on the spot and he would look at me in astonishment and say, “These things are a hidden treasure known only to the few. They must be written about and made known.”
The Thinker was my secret and the books were a part of that secret.
The freedom of the ancients would mock me. They employed an array of words that I didn’t dare to use myself, either in speech or in writing; a language of arousal that made me wet whenever I read even a line. No other language could excite me that way. Arabic, for me, is the language of sex. No foreign language can match it at the moment of passion, even with those who don’t speak it—in such moments, there is no need for translation, naturally.
The forbidden words brought to life a history of sexual repression and of the resistance to that repression. Ironically, I never used such words myself, even in my innermost thoughts—they were only to be read, never spoken or written. Even today, I find it difficult to use any of the rawest of these words in my ordinary speech. I avoid them. I can copy them and I can quote them with all the innocence of a child, but using them to speak of myself and my own experiences is another matter.
These texts are a part of my universe. They are a part of my imagination.
These texts are a part of my sex life—before the Thinker, and with him, and after him. In this filigree of intertwined experience, it is impossible to unpick the smallest thread. The interconnectedness is organic. Organic, indeed—what other word can I use?
At first, I didn’t want this filigree to be pulled apart. I didn’t want to take off the veil, to proclaim it. I never dared speak of it.
Is the scandal in the act or in the proclamation of the act? I astonished myself with my own question—my teachers among the ancients were far beyond it. “Scandal,” did I say? What is scandalous about it?
Was it my being a woman that made my secret readings so explosive?
Was making a secret of it part of my emasculated upbringing? Why was it possible for me to take pride in my reading of Western and Eastern pornography while hiding the fact that I was reading al-Tifashi? How could I proclaim my passion for Georges Bataille, Henry Miller, the Marquis de Sade, Casanova, and the Kama Sutra, and make no mention of al-Suyuti and al-Nafzawi? Anyway, that’s past history, and my hidden readings have now become fashionable—everyone talks about them, not least myself. My old secret has been told and exposed to the light.
Told, exposed to the light, and become “like the thyme-seller’s wink”—seen by one and all.
With the passing of the years, I have become less uptight and so has everyone else. Little by little, pleasantries, laughter, and comments have come. I have begun making my literary tastes public, all the more since the days of the Thinker. The books I read have become a topic of conversation at the library. Some of my colleagues regard these books as a game, others consider them a form of deviancy, and some picture the stories to themselves, magnifying them and swapping them with each other in whispers.
My secret vices are no longer secret and I no longer have to be clandestine or to hide the covers of the books. I revel in every new erotic volume to arrive on our shelves, proclaiming my joy to the world. Indeed, there are now among my colleagues those who hurry to bring the good tidings to my attention whenever they happen across a book of which I was unaware. Over time, books of erotica have become a harmless fantasy. I am no different from my colleague who searches for books on cooking, or the woman who works on old maps. Respectable pastimes, all.
Early on, I knew my path. I knew the game I would play. That game amused me, was part of my secret life. Nobody could claim to be the overseer of my nights; nobody could claim to be the marshal of my liberties. My life was my own. My secrets, too.
Early on I knew my path and my game was simple: I would never hide what I thought, however much it might shock others. I would hide only my actions. This in itself was dangerous enough in an environment where dissimulation and submission reigned.
When I announced one day in front of my male and female colleagues gathered around the lunch table that monogamy was contrary to nature, that fidelity was merely an illusion, that sexual desire needed freedom in order to flourish, and so on, they looked at me with mistrust and suspicion before embarking on a heated discussion in which I took no part. My game consists of throwing out words and observing their effect.
From Marguerite Duras I learned to conceal from my lovers the love I felt for my husband. And to conceal from my husband the love I felt for my lovers: that I learned from all women.
I learned to be the sole guardian of my nights. My secret could never be known because I told it to no one. Is a secret that is shared by two people no longer a secret? No. Any secret that is shared is not a secret.
My recurring nightmare took the form of one unchanging scenario: there was a corpse hidden somewhere and I was the murderer. I had hidden the corpse carefully and I lived in terror of its being discovered. I would scheme in vain to prevent the others from seeing it, but sooner or later they would. The nightmare was set in those moments that preceded the discovery of my crime, of the corpse, of all my hidden secrets. I would open my eyes in the darkness, trembling with terror. “The skeletons in the closet,” as the proverb says. Everything was clear; I didn’t need an expert to interpret these dreams.
I lost my memory of things at will: a useful trick for living in this society. I would erase memories or keep them at will—over long years I practiced this art until I was so supple at it that it required no thought.
I was my own role model. I had no need of worldly or heavenly guidance. I had no need of a fatwa that would allow me to cling to my men in the fever hours. Mr. Quick loved to tell a certain story. Once upon a time he had a colleague, a woman journalist. They were on assignment together and she knocked on the door of his hotel room one night, well after midnight, to ask him to be one of the witnesses to a rapidly arranged wedding. The African who had caught her fancy, and whose fancy she had caught, had refused to sleep with her in a state of sin; he needed two witnesses for his one-night marriage. Mr. Quick told the story to anyone who’d listen, and everyone, gloating and sneering, passed it on as if they, too, had been there. I remember I told it to the Thinker and we amused ourselves running through names in search of anyone we knew who could serve as our own witness.
Such a marriage is called a “marriage of pleasure.” It is permitted to Shiites, and only to Shiites. Could I consider every man I’d known (in the Biblical sense) “a husband of pleasure”?
A marriage of pleasure? The basic contradiction between the two nouns is evident. The first makes a slave of the spirit. The second frees it.
Perhaps the virtue in a marriage of pleasure is that it lasts only as long as the pleasure lasts. Its other virtue lies in the fact that the pleasure to be found in it is legal, licit, halal. Without the “for all eternity” part, marriage isn’t quite so burdensome—is it not so?
The “marriage of pleasure” is for Shiites only. That doesn’t concern me in the least. I do not recognize communalism or religious divisions. In any case, I cannot consider my passing men to be “husbands of pleasure” because I have yet to fulfill the rules of religious law, which states:
The marriage of foreshortened term, like that which is permanent, requires a contract that includes positive oral response and acceptance, the inward consent of the two parties being insufficient. It follows that the contract of a marriage of pleasure is, unambiguously, a legal contract, with all the latter’s conditions. It is reported on the authority of Aban ibn Taghlib that he said to Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman: “How should a man make a contract with a woman if he finds himself alone with her?” And he replied: “You say, I marry you for pleasure according to God’s Book and the practice of His prophet, without your acquiring the right to inherit or to pass on by inheritance, for so and so many days. If she replies in the positive then she has consented and thus become your wife, and the priority of your claim to her over that of all other people is established.”
I wonder where the African came up with the clause about the two witnesses. I can’t find a trace of it in the books of Muslim jurisprudence. Indeed, that never concerned me; in my secret rites, I made do with the announcement of desire through the body. After all that I’d read and studied and learned and been taught, nothing remained in my head but the word “desire,” and the pleasure of its satisfaction.
Al Neimi will participate in several events at this year's PEN World Voices Festival. For details, go to www.pen.org
ContributorSalwa Al Neimi
Born in Syria, SALWA AL NEIMI now lives in Paris. She is the author of five volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories. The Proof of the Honey has been banned in many Arab countries. It will be published in the U.S. in April by Europa Editions.