Nadia Alkowkabani
An excerpt from the novel 'It's Just Love' by Nadia Alkowkabani

Nadia Alkowkabani

Screams of Bleeding Whiteness

An excerpt from the novel

It’s Just Love

Translated by Kat Stapley

 

I’ve run out of all excuses for refusing! I have nothing to say to my brother. Even if I managed to persuade my father to postpone or even cancel the idea of marriage, especially after I got my Masters and started as an assistant university lecturer, I’ve had no chance to complete my PhD. I have to go abroad to do it, something I know the answer to already.

I thought of all of that as I recalled my relationship with Hisham. He appeared and disappeared in a flash. Then he was gone. In a moment that was out of my control, everything blanked out. He took over all my senses, and I had said yes – a word that would be the reason for my hardship and agony, and a reason for my destruction. My abyss, on the edge of which I would have the freedom I wanted, and see the world I wished for.

 

“He doesn’t want for anything, and he has money,” my mother said.

“His family is good, respected and well-known,” my father said.

“He’s a pharmacist, even though he works in finance and trade like the rest of his family,” my brother said.

“Don’t rush, think it through. It’s not your only chance, you have other opportunities!” Soula said.

Her words were the only words that held a different consideration to the others. They were the only words I had to think deeply about – but I didn’t!

Soula, what chances are you talking about! You’re a year and a half younger than I am. You’ve been married four years. You’ve lived a great love story. You found Nader, your soul mate! You now have two children and a loving husband. He’s dedicated to making you and his children happy.

What chances are you talking about? I’m nearly twenty-seven. In less than two years this society will consider me an old maid . . . Then they’ll start analyzing my life. And what’s so amazing, they’ll find out why I’m not married. And the outcome will be a long list of negative points, all against me, that fit me perfectly!

That was my chance. After the failed love story that I hoped would be the foundation of a successful marriage, no other chance. The most important thing is not to give up what I have achieved, to continue my work! That was my condition for agreeing to the marriage. Deep down I wished I made more conditions.

A businessman, 35 years old, previously engaged to his cousin. “Family problems. It didn’t work out!” . . . Four composed and measured words. Their letters gleam with wisdom that makes one shy away from the question of why the problems happened. Four words with which the future groom persuaded people, my father and my brother, for instance. I don’t know why and for what reason, but they did not ask the causes of those problems, even though previously they had been very careful to investigate and ask questions about the husbands of my sisters.

He’d travelled a lot for his work. He’d dealt with people of different nationalities. He spoke English fluently. I think that with all this he seemed to have good taste and that distinguished him from others. His life experience had been good. It seemed this would make it easy to deal with him and to have a successful married life. I realized all of this, in addition to what my father, mother and brother said, and so I said: “Yes, I agree to marry Sami!”

This modern marriage was to the man I had always wanted to start my other life with, and to accomplish all my dreams with. A hope of accomplishing a goal that was incomplete. And you disappointed me! You killed my happiness! You destroyed all my hopes! You finished me off in one night. A night with no dawn, its darkness cutting deep inside me, its pain sitting on my chest, burrowing under my skin. A night that I will never forget unless they remove the memories from my brain.

It was a night in which his sentences were both separated and jumbled up. It was too difficult for me to understand or determine whether the girl that the university took from him was me or some other girl. Why – just as he said – did he have to stop doubting educated girls (especially graduates), by taking my virginity, with the colour of the dark red blood spilling over the whiteness of my dignity, now tainted by the mud of his dirty thoughts.

No one heard my screams. No one came to help me. No one healed my pain. My body was violently ripped open by him, and I was proved innocent of what I’d been accused. My virginity was torn into pieces that would be difficult to mend or indeed to fix. Body parts were penetrated and had the poison of desire thrust inside them and then thrown away like a dirty towel.

My mother didn’t tell me that anything like this would happen. Most likely she didn’t tell me anything. As was expected, like the other mothers, she just placed a white towel on top of my luggage. To be returned to her soaked with redness that would make its whiteness shine, and renew its faded old pattern. Like this towel, and the towel of her mother, and the towels of her sisters, all in this little box kept in the bottom drawer of her cupboard.

I remember the arrival of my four sisters’ towels the morning after their own wedding nights. My father and my brother brought them back after a quick early morning visit to each one of them while my mother waited impatiently, and greeted them with pretended concern. She opened my bag which smelled of perfume and spices. She took out the towel and threw it down on the ground in front of the other women just before they started their ululations.

My father didn’t ask me why I was tired or why my face was obviously pale. He was satisfied with taking my towel and kissing me hard on the forehead, as if thanking me for this towel that I had paid such I high price for. I didn’t know that my virginity held all this importance and that its redness held all this joy. It made them forget to ask about my bleeding that had flooded the whiteness of my towel and hidden my whiteness forever.

I wonder why my mother hadn’t told me about all this. She knows the limits of our upbringing and education on such issues, and of the matter of sex in general. Why wasn’t she at all like the mothers of my non-Yemeni girlfriends, Manal, for instance, whose mother is Algerian? I used to envy her each time I went to her birthday party because of the way her mother treated her and the perfect arrangement of her party.

Najla – her mother is Egyptian. I always compare her mother who received the news of her becoming a woman with ululation and joy, having explained in detail the whys and wherefores of what was going to happen, with my mother who didn’t care and just told me where my clean underwear was. She gave me a severe telling-off during Ramadan, saying I was “disrespectful” because I was eating in front of my father and my brother while they were fasting. But Salwa and her German mother were a perfect example for me and the rest of my girlfriends. Maybe because of that Salwa didn’t have a lot of friends, she was happy with her mother’s friendship. In contrast, I didn’t have anyone to make up for my bad relationship with my mother, especially after Soula got married. I became isolated and lost in my own world, almost without friends or a best friend to tell my secrets to and talk about my problems with.

I didn’t have the courage to ask my mother if what had happened on that miserable wedding night, and on the nights that followed, was a normal occurrence between all married couples or not, or if that was the case why was there all this pain and suffering in a relationship that was supposed to be a source of happiness and joy? This can’t be a peaceful way to live, or else all married couples would end up isolating themselves from the world and losing the will to live, perhaps before going to a psychiatrist’s clinic.

From the start, unlike most husbands, Sami wasn’t concerned about his self-image in front of me. Since the honeymoon that we never had and the start of our relationship, and me knowing his habits and behaviour, it was as if all that didn’t bother him. I even felt at times that he wasn’t bothered about me either. He didn’t care if I accepted his rough behaviour towards me or not. From the start of our married life he seemed to be inconsistent and weird. It was as though he was mentally ill rather than a normal human being.

I wasn’t safe from his erratic behaviour, his unjustified and odd mistrust of what I did. He started by watching as I went to work at the university, escalating to listening in to my phone calls and ending up not allowing me to ever leave the house unless he was with me. I was very worried and wondered what I would have to do to counter this unacceptable behaviour. He looked down on my ability as a human first and on my educational ability second. After a while he forbade me from working at the university. He mocked the rational way I talked to him and I could never understand the reason for his actions and behaviour towards me. He reprimanded me all the time and was always dissatisfied with every bit of routine housework I did. He ignored my wishes and even refused to make any changes to the house or the furniture. He insisted on spending the nights, which he turned into a jail in which he imprisoned me, with no respect for my humanity, consuming the perfume of my body. Intoxicated, he scattered his marks of satisfaction all over my body. He was unconcerned about me or my feelings and the sounds of my screams, and he ignored my appeals.

“Shortly it will pass”, “Everything is difficult at first”, “Hold on, he has a lot of pressure at work”: Oh God, how I hate those words of my mother and my sisters. If it wasn’t for them I would have had my freedom a lot sooner. If it wasn’t for them I could have saved myself a lot of agony that I could have well done without. For two years I experienced neither happiness nor relaxation, nor slept a single night without different kinds of hardships that which made me feel disgraced and disrespected. You slowly started to hate yourself and those around you.

But on the other hand I used to fear failure, something I had never experienced, in a crucial matter such as marriage. My whole body trembled just thinking about separating from him. I was more afraid of being a divorcée in a society where the woman is always considered responsible for the failure of the relationship. Giving her another chance is something only a few people accept. Therefore I had to embrace the words of my mother and my sisters; They were a good way of testing my ability to endure and be patient in my life with Sami.

Belief in wise sayings and proverbs, and their implementation by an educated woman who understands her reality and is able to change it if she wants to, is the same as for an uneducated woman who has no power to change or fix her situation unless the man so desires.

That’s exactly what happened to me – it’s as if I’m a different human being who has to accept the situation as it is because it is her destiny, even though this destiny will be the cause of her destruction.

This is the state I was in before discovering the main reason why Sami treated me this way, before I discovered the changing point that had turned his life upside down and that for the last six months of our marriage he had fought to stop me from finding out.

I felt sorry for him after I found out. I tried to understand his problem and help him to overcome it so that we could start the life I wanted and hoped for together. I felt the power and the misery of the shock he suffered that had made him lose all trust in women and the reason for him wanting to use me to take his revenge; I felt it because it was the same shock Hisham made me suffer. There was one difference, which was that Sami knew the reason his cousin refused him after they had promised each other fidelity and marriage! For my part, I still don’t know where Hisham has gone and why.

I tried, and I dared myself, to hide from Sami what I knew about what had happened to him, as I had promised his sister. She had told me everything because she pitied him after the severe change in the way he was behaving that she and others noticed.

She knew that I had reached the point where being patient was more than I could handle and that I couldn’t endure it any longer. She told me about why things had not worked out between him and his cousin, his first love, his only desire, his hope that he never attained.

She had asked for their cousin the reasons for rejecting him, and even though they’d had really good chemistry and understanding between them since they were young, which had, strengthened the desire of their families to bring them together, she had answered: “No! I don’t want to marry Sami. He’s my cousin, he’s like my brother!”

Her words were the last thing Sami expected. The wonderful years spent with her crumbled before his eyes. The different stages – the childhood game of bridegroom and bride, the affection and teenage love, the engagement that everyone blessed and a promise of marriage after she finished studying at university.

While a student she had heard a lot of gossip about Sami having numerous affairs and about promises he made to different girls, who had no reason not to believe him because “he’s from a good family”. One of those girls told Sami’s sister about their relationship and after he’d refused to announce the marriage she even showed her the civil marriage certificate. In fact what he wanted was to get married to a girl who hadn’t known any men before meeting him. He was assured that his cousin was ready and available at any time when the conditions were right. Therefore he went crazy when he dropped by to see her one day and saw her arguing with one of her male university friends. She was shocked and astonished when he very rudely ordered her friend to stop talking to her, completely ignoring her. Unaware of the embarrassing situation he had put her in, in front of everybody he demanded his uncle complete their wedding formalities, saying it was not necessary for her to finish her studies. He was very sure that his demand would be met.

She didn’t say that she was refusing him because he had insulted her by deeming her innocent behaviour “disrespectful” and the precursor to an inappropriate relationship, since the great number of his love affairs meant that such insults would be possible with all women. She didn’t explain to him or to her parents that she knew about his adventures and how offended she felt by them and how she had thought seriously about a life with him even though she didn’t love him. Because of his behaviour it would be an abnormal life with an abnormal person. All she said was: “Sami’s my cousin, he’s like my brother.”

He refused to give up easily. He asked again and again. The last time he even had the nerve to ask his uncle to force her to marry him because it had been agreed between them. He then demanded to see her to talk to her. No one knew what happened when they met, but it ended everything.

Sami decided to channel all his energy into his work and into more love affairs. He didn’t want to get married for another two years. This I heard from his sister, who was one of my students at the university and who was very taken with my personality and teaching, the way I treated the students and the way I discussed the subjects brought up in class.

I think he was looking for a girl who surpassed the educational level and the good reputation of his cousin because when she ended up marrying one of her classmates from the university, this in Sami’s eyes meant a mutual attraction and a relationship – a love story ending in marriage. He considered this marriage to be bad for his cousin’s reputation and thanked God he had not married her. In Sami’s strange mind, I surpassed her in both education and reputation because, until I got my Masters degree, I hadn’t fallen in love, not had anyone heard of me. I was her complete opposite. (It seems as if he interpreted in whatever way he wanted the isolation I enforced on myself and my heart after Hisham left me).

If it was like that, why his strong desire to take his revenge out on me by torturing me in this way? In his persistence and in his lack of appreciation of my sacrifice, and with me enduring everything he did, maybe he interpreted my response as weakness and surrender. It didn’t cross his mind that there was an honest desire on my part to have a normal life and that I was dreaming of a stable and tranquil family with children that would fill our life with joy. He didn’t bother to ask me if I was pregnant, like most men would have, after our first year together had past without any signs of pregnancy. But he was happy to yell at me and insult me, especially when after he assured me that there was no reason why I couldn’t get pregnant; I had asked him to continue the tests the doctor suggested he take to investigate fully why there was no pregnancy.

After this request he became unbearable. His temper was difficult to cope with, his behaviour towards me and others was out of control. Later he would apologize to everyone except me.

I became afraid of nightfall. It caused me to tremble uncontrollably with fear, which got worse when I felt that he was about to hurt me. He got a kick out of hearing me screaming. He reached a point where he lost control over the crazy things he used to do to me. He took weird pleasure in torturing a body that in two years never experienced any of the joy I’d read about, or the orgasm that makes women giggle.

I wished he would appreciate all of that, or just understand it, or simply get the message I had given him by leaving my job at the university and putting my higher education on hold, but all to no avail.

I sought to create my own world, a world I would escape into from all the never-ending troubles Sami created. A world of dancing and reading, old hobbies that saved me from totally surrendering to Sami’s schemes to destroy me.

I re-read old books and I made sure I bought all the new magazines. I started to think seriously about continuing higher education, even just thinking about it and nurturing the idea. My passion for dancing was indescribable. I danced like a mad woman. I escaped even from myself. The way my body bent and moved with the music was a good way to remove all his wounds and pain. I am good at all kinds of dancing. Everyone used to say so since I was young, starting with my mother’s friends. They used to ask me to teach their daughters to make their stiff bodies dance like young tree branches, like the wind in spring that moves them gently. I used to laugh at them – as they say – I always used to tell them “dancing doesn’t need teaching, it needs feelings”.

Sami was bothered by my preoccupation with reading and dancing and I didn’t understand why. There was a siege and an attempt to stop me in a way that I cannot explain. All of this made me wonder if finding a way around Sami and doing what he wanted was worth it, even though it was more than I could endure and even though when I did it, it didn’t pacify him! However, giving myself the space to breathe and find myself, in dancing and reading, didn’t work either. How was it possible to satisfy this man? How could I stop his evil and his insistence on hurting me.

I swear I put up with it as long as I could. I was very afraid of getting divorced. It made me look for any way to stay with Sami. If only he hadn’t attacked the last shred of my dignity as he enjoyed two years of sucking my veins. If only he hadn’t been watching me dancing that day when I was completely unaware of him. It wasn’t, as he said, Zorba the Greek dancing, the hero of the great novel Zorba, by Nikos Kazantzakis. It was more than that to me. It was enough that that type of dancing defied my body and its ability to make all the moves, it continuously and innovatively stimulated my body in a way that cannot be understood and that makes you feel you are not capable of doing it.

Sami grabbed my hair and pushed me off balance. He called me a whole dictionary of vile names. He accused me of unspeakable things, the least of which was that my dancing was like that of a whore. Then he allowed himself to beat me for the first time. My feeling of humiliation at being beaten up was all-consuming and destructive. The sum of all he’d done in the previous two years was as terrible as him hitting me now.

 

When he woke up that morning he did not find me. He was sure that I had woken up before him, and prepared his breakfast and his suit as always, before he went to the office as if nothing had happened. He came to my father’s house straight away and he looked pathetic. He hadn’t shaved. He was wearing the same clothes as yesterday. I didn’t tell anyone what he had done but I exploded in his face when he told my father he didn’t know why I had left home: “You know perfectly well what you’ve done. I want a divorce. I will not come back to you whatever you do. I will not come back. I will not come back.”

 

Hub Laissa Ila [It’s Just Love]

is published by Merit Publishing, Cairo 2006

 

An excerpt selected fromthe Yemen feature in Banipal 36

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Banipal 58-pages 144-145 Yahya al-Sheikh and his drawings

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