I walk in and find the women there in the large hall. I can hear their soft, melodious voices, which means there is no man around. (More accurately: there is no man doing all the talking.) I instinctively head toward them, like an animal finally encountering its species. I take a seat and wait for my turn. Before I came up to the therapist’s clinic, I had run into Fast Lubna—with the hazel eyes, the kohl always smudged, and the newly blonde hair—outside the entrance. She was on the phone. She was dressed in black leather pants and a black leather jacket. I thought she smiled at me, but she didn’t move the phone slightly away from her ear to give me a warm hug as she would have usually done. She used to dress more normally, less severely, before she adopted this style and dyed her long hair blonde. She surprised me. The transformation of the vast majority of women I know since the eighties of the last century has been toward the hijab and extreme modesty, away from modern clothes.
(When I think about them, I say to myself that they are good women, that the hijab is just their way of announcing their unconditional good intentions to the world, given the responsibility placed on their shoulders to ensure societal peace and eliminate sexual tension from public places. They sacrifice their appearance, hoping against hope that such sacrifice will have an effect on the ground, overcrowded as that ground is with wolves dressed as peaceful human males.)
Fast Lubna appeared more “solid” in leather than she did in a dress (possibly because of how tight the leather was). On that faraway evening when I lost my job at the Paper and Packaging Company, she buried her head in my chest and, instead of letting me cry and pour my heart out, she proceeded to sob as she told me that her only child, who was still an infant, was taken away from her by his father, that the lawyer she hired for the case was a crook, and how all men were assholes. We were waiting for the train, the rain washing our worries along with the station’s asphalt.
I am indeed depressed. Indeed? I hate the word and only use it because it’s one of those words writers tend to use. The therapist thinks that I should banish all negative emotions from the air I breathe. I leave the clinic and walk through the soft voices that haven’t stopped chatting away, like they were hanging out at a traditional hammam.
Fast Lubna advised me to watch cartoons three times a day: in the morning, after lunch, a lavish Mickey-fied evening. Ideally the three sessions would have diverse content—always comic, though. She said it would cure my depression to see that the train that runs over Tom the cat can do nothing more than temporarily flatten him like a leaf on the ground, never killing him. Tom doesn’t die. “All the bumps that appear on his head just vanish in the next scene,” she says. “Life beats death in cartoons.”
Fast Lubna is moving fast in the direction opposite of that assigned to her by society, religion, family law, and the plans to include women in human development efforts.
The cold breeze, the hustle and bustle of people and vehicles, people walking and talking, sometimes laughing. No one is crying. Those who want to cry seclude themselves at home or in their cars. If the urge to cry suddenly attacks them in the street, they shelter in public toilets. The drugs I swallow keep the crying at bay but do not dispel the sadness.
I stop at the taxi rank. So many normal people who work and bear children and have occasional sex, all waiting for the red shared taxi that announces itself from a distance with its hostile colors. They show no sign of depression or any other mental illness that would have called for a visit to the therapist in the building I’ve just left, the man sitting behind a professional smile that no one ever believes, behind his thick glasses, behind eyes that have lost the heat of beginnings, behind his massive desk where a miniature Paris sits in a glass dome that he keeps touching with his clean, bored fingers, behind his massive knowledge of the things that go on in the minds of others. Those others are the unfortunates who hand three hundred dirhams over to his pretty secretary in return for the opportunity to lay bare what they carry within them, time after time.
My body stands erect with no support at the taxi station. I worry about my eyes giving me away. I lower my head. They are all waiting with faces without features. No, not all. There is one man. A beautiful man waits for a shared taxi.
The Arabic words for “beauty” and “grace” are masculine. The presence of this man’s face among the many other faces excites me. His clear skin illuminates the tiny strip between his collar and his hairline. He doesn’t turn toward me. A simple truth dawns on me: I like men! Some women like women, some men like men, and I: my preferences lie with this stranger. Wide shoulders, unpretentiously tall, an Adam’s apple adorning his neck and softly pushing against his necktie, whose blackness enhances the paleness of his skin. I notice the light blush of his cheeks and think that it must be the beer. I like the type of man who grabs a drink at the local bar after work. (For a moment, I was worried that my word processor would underline the phrase “grabs a drink” and claim it was linguistically or stylistically or geopolitically incorrect, but it behaved this time.) I smile, inwardly (that being all that my melancholy allows).
I observe my thoughts as every miniscule detail about this stranger passes through my morose head. The doctor told me to clear my head of all negative thoughts; he said nothing about lustful ones. Possibly because he considers such thoughts beyond categorization. I tell myself that my attention to all these details means that I’m still sexually healthy despite the recent damage endured by my nervous and psychological systems. But needless to say, my small inward smile does not make it to the surface of my face.
He checks his wristwatch with a slight visible annoyance that causes a subtle jolt in his body. He’s now irritated, which makes him even more attractive. This is when I first yearn to hold him and be held by him. I want to know what he smells like. (Waily waily! What public indecency this is!) Thank God that no one in the world can know what goes through the head of anyone else in the world. Otherwise the courtrooms would be filled with the perpetrators of evil, voyeuristic, or lustful intentions.
Evening descends with the sense of something not happening. Or that some things will leave no room for other things that may have happened. A hostile red taxi, for instance, driving by and carrying him away from me before he has had a chance to turn and discover my existence on this planet, perhaps—in a stroke of luck—glimpsing my secret thoughts about him and colluding with me to make even a portion of the joint sexual projects I have lined up for us come true—a chance for something different to happen, other than what will actually happen in the story I’m trying to tell and which refuses to inch forward.
At this moment trapped in time, a worker from the sardine factory walks in front of us. We are strangers brought together by the context of waiting. I use the pronoun “we” intentionally and without shame. The worker is wearing a colorful jilbab that she wraps around her plump curves. (I first came across “plumpness” in the novels of Ihsan Abdel Quddous, who would fill his prose with ellipses whenever his account was interrupted by a sex scene.) I notice khaki-colored socks on the woman’s feet, probably belonging to a solider husband. “The wives of soldiers are whores”—that’s what Fast Lubna says. If so, the same thoughts that nestle in their heads now nestle in mine. Although I’m not the wife of any soldier; I’m nobody’s wife; I’m a bachelorette. This definition of myself blows a gust of sadness into my heart. But I’m soon distracted by the sight of two young lovers fooling around in the middle of the road. They laugh without a care for the reproachful looks of bystanders aimed at them, with their bodies so light with youth and love. She pulls her lover by the hand and laughs, as he tries to keep pace with her playfulness. I can see genuine joy in their eyes and body language. She stops and points at the sidewalk, and I imagine that she’s about to sit down, right there on the street.
Then a red Dacia Logan tears through the scene, joining the reproachful-looks bloc. My beautiful man opens the door and tries to get in. A fat woman, with incredible agility, pushes him aside and jumps inside the taxi, followed by another woman carrying a child. I thank them both profusely in my heart. This is the moment my eyes meet his, and also the moment the Bedouin will intervene. I see a Bedouin man approach him, possibly to complain about the two women who jumped the line and stole the taxi. My two fabulous women! The Bedouin looks like Alzamourie the baker. I used to stand before him and yell, “Alzamourie! Hand me the bread. My dad isn’t back yet.”
My dad used to send me to get bread gratis and tell me to use the same excuse every time. Eventually it stopped working. Alzamourie would put the wooden peel aside, raise his head toward us from within his den in front of the fire oven, and begin to distribute insults on all those who wanted to delay payment, then share laughs and jokes with his friends, the neighborhood’s stoners and slackers. I remember his laugh. He had a mouth full of rotten teeth.
The lovers do sit down on the sidewalk. With a delicate move, the boy brushes aside a strand of her hair and wraps his arm around her waist to whisper something into her ear. Something that delights her and angers all the other citizens waiting for a taxi. My beautiful man looks at his wristwatch. If I were a man and he a woman, I would have made a pass at him, with a smile, maybe, or a chat-up line. I could have brushed against him on the crowded sidewalk or dropped my purse and let him pick it up. (What am I saying? Men don’t carry purses! Problem is I can’t know what a man feels or predict his thoughts, so I wouldn’t know how to make passes at one.) I chastise myself for such pervy thoughts and try to think instead about the factors that make them more proactive than we are. What makes the brazen sperm take the initiative while the demure driwicha ovulates quietly and waits?
It’s not like I think sexual harassment is a positive thing. I, as a woman who’s unwell, who has pride and dignity, should not endorse that, should not like it when a man tries to get close to me without my consent. Unless of course the man was the owner of this Adam’s apple, which I can see is pushing against the black tie at a quicker pace now that he’s speaking to Alzamourie’s lookalike. A light echo of his voice reaches me. Enough to reveal to me that he has a deep, booming voice that sounds like it comes from a faraway point in his guts. I feel a sad sparrow tremble inside my ribcage. I feel weak. I feel an urge to cry. It’s not just my purse that will drop to the ground but the whole of me. The doctor prescribed joy but forgot to prescribe emotional numbness. The stranger keeps looking at his wristwatch. He must be on his way to a date with some woman. Before the cursed taxi arrives to carry him away along with this lone positive coincidence that interrupted my negative life, I must clarify a few things:
This is not the start of an unwritten novel. It’s just a story, of medium length, not very short as is sometimes the case. Still, it will have to end here, despite not having ended yet, or even begun. It might have taken a different shape if its hero—the apple-and-necktie man—had not turned toward Alzamourie’s lookalike straight after looking at me. The rotten-toothed Alzamourie entered at the wrong moment. He intruded on the theater of events and snatched for himself an unearned part in the story. What made things worse: the two lovers that we counted on to provide the “inciting moment” of the story could do nothing more than sit on a dusty sidewalk. They failed to explode the scene with even a single kiss that would jolt the hordes of bystanders who devoured them with their eyes. All I have left, as the narrator of this story, is my attempt to stay positive, to take a deep breath and ride home in a shared taxi and swallow the purple joy pill and the white submission pill, then two red pills for a heavy sleep free of dreams and nightmares. I might then conclude my day with a lavish TV night in the company of Tom & Jerry, to follow Fast Lubna’s advice. Then I will retire to bed for another week, until it’s time for the next therapy appointment, when I will stand again in the taxi rank to—at best—encounter another Adam’s apple, and—at worst—manage to write something that might this time resemble what is referred to as a short story.
Latifa Baqa was born in Salé, Morocco. She has published three collections of short stories: What Do We Do?, Since That Life, and Virginia Woolf’s Room. Many of her stories have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Turkish. She was awarded the Moroccan Writers’ Union award for young writers in 1992. She is always a feminist and human rights activist.
Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born, London-based semi-freelance translator with an MA in translation studies from the University of Edinburgh. Nariman works between Arabic and English and part-time manages a translation team at the British Library. Literary translations include Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, as well as contributions in Words Without Borders, The Common, Banipal, and poetry anthologies Beirut 39 and The Hundred Years’ War.