Salwa al-Neimi
Salwa al-Neimi
The Siesta

“How about a siesta?” he kept asking me. I laughed every time he said it, and my answer was always the same: “Yes, but alone!” Disappointed, he turned the other way, looking at the ceiling and pleading for mercy from both the angels and the demons. I couldn’t help laughing. We were sitting in a crowded area of the hotel lobby, sipping tea and coffee. His persistent request for a siesta together stayed with me for some time, and although it filled me with happiness, I was not really interested.

I reached out my hand to him and made room for him on the bed beside me. Why did I say, “Yes!” on the last day? It just came out naturally. We would separate tomorrow, each one of us carrying the taste of a desire fulfilled for the other. Why did I say “Yes!” on the last day? Seven days to discuss the theme of “The Arab Woman Between Independence and Subordination” – seven days of figures, statistics, and percentages of employed and unemployed women, literate and illiterate women, urban and rural women, questions and answers, and big words that make one’s head reel. I continued to take notes assiduously as he was sitting by my side. It was at this time that he asked his faltering question, and that was when I nodded and the “Yes!” came out of my mouth so unexpectedly. He kept repeating the word “Yes!”, choking over it every time he said it, and asked: “Did I hear right?” I smiled, giving him no answer. The words stuck like a lump in his throat. He spoke, pretending to busy himself with words, but did not dare come near me.
“Women have yet to prove themselves in decision-making,” he said.
I stretched out my hand to him, and made room for him on the bed beside me, and he came towards me.
The first time he said that about women I laughed, thinking it was some kind of joke. He laughed too. That sentence became a sort of a policeman’s whistle at which ambiguous words screech to a halt – cryptic utterances which correspond to the words used in the conference, such as “Materialistic progress has not been accompanied by radical changes in social attitudes towards women,” or “The absence of women’s awareness of their own problems has led to a kind of schizophrenia that makes them adopt concepts that undermine their own rights.” I saw his eyes resting calmly on me, and my whole body went rigid. A siesta! Just when I thought I had heard it all! No man had ever asked me that question before – or even a woman. When I saw his eyes rest on me, my body became tense. Could the desire for the other be so contagious in the afternoon light, when one feels so lazy and sleepy, as to conquer me, too? From behind the curtain, I could see his beautiful naked body and an expression of satisfaction on his face, too. His eyes were closed.
“In our society, manhood compels the man to do all kinds of things, including those that are proscribed and without reproaching him for his actions. But if the woman does the same thing . . .” My eyes were wide open; I could see him, but he could not see me.
There is a siesta scene in the film Un homme et une femme. When my father learned I had gone to see that film, he shouted in my mother’s face: “An adolescent watching those kinds of scenes! She’ll turn into a
pervert!”
Did I become a pervert? “An oppressed man turns oppressor in his own household.” My little sister was running round in the streets of Damascus looking for me in front of al-Kindi Cinema. Before my father’s slaps rocked me from side to side, I told him defiantly: “Why not? You saw it, too.”
“What insolence!” my father yelled; the ashtray flew, whistling past my nose, narrowly missing it. In the midst of all this anger and swearing, my mother stooped down to pick up the bits and pieces of tobacco. “The more submissive and docile the mother is, the more rebellious and unruly the daughter.” That was a siesta! The idea of having a siesta crossed my mind for the first time after all these years.
In one scene in Un homme et une femme, a couple are having lunch in a restaurant, after which they go up to a hotel room. My father, who never watched films, saw that French film, which was the talk of our town, many times. The heroine, a widower, has not been near a man since her husband’s death. I smiled secretly, thankful that I was single.
Lying by my side, I could hear his whisper, “I had never thought that so passionate a woman existed.” Burning with desire, he fondled my body, which was what I wanted him to do. I knew I was soft and sensual. “Woman is a self-centred being; she cannot transcend the Self to reach society.” The nearer we got physically to each other, the closer I brought my body to his. We merged, but the movements of our bodies were still slow. “A woman’s place is at home; working outside her home is extremely stressful for her.” The fondling continued; the kiss lingered, wreaking havoc inside me.
We were together for seven days. We were not alone; there were many participants at the Conference on The History of the Arab Woman and the Circumstances Leading to Her Total Exclusion from the Modernization of Civilisation. Fleeting moments in conferences! I had noticed his interest in me right from the beginning, but I paid him no attention. I know I am not one to be coerced into doing something I do not want to do. But why was it he and not someone else who was in my arms? Is this not the eternal question that one asks at the beginning of every relationship? Is it the body that decides? “What is the nature of the relationship between a man and a woman, and what are the factors that govern this relationship?” Before, there was always someone around who would give me a detailed account of body alchemy and harmony. I clung to him as he was telling me astonishingly about my great ability to “embed”. Embed in what? God only knows! His words stuck in my head, and I uttered them repeatedly whenever I was alone. “Woman never asks direct questions; nor is she able to defend her principles, especially if it is required of her to refute other people’s opinions and display great mental abilities.” What could be displayed of my abilities when my magic was doing wonders to the man lying beside me on this bed, in this room, in this hotel, in this city, and in this country, far from my everyday life?
They were all dancing in the hotel lobby; the hotel was to host a conference of Arab ministers the following week. They, too, might discuss my right to a siesta. I felt the something stirring in my blood and repeated the words: “Social circumstances still weigh the Arab woman down . . . We are going through a critical transitional period which gives the Arab woman opportunities and responsibilities for which she is not prepared; this is why she is always in a permanent state of fear.” Is dancing an opportunity or a responsibility? I am still afraid of my own body; it is one burden I carry on top of another.
I displayed some parts of my body to tempt him; the rest I hid rather self-consciously. I hesitated for a few seconds, then he pulled me toward him. We faced each other, standing, but we did not touch each other. Body rhythm alone bound us together. He brought his face closer to mine. I sensed danger; I laughed and backed away. My head swayed in time to the movements of my body and all the time his eyes were fixed on me. He held my hand at some point. “Let’s go out,” he said. I slipped my hand from his and continued dancing. I continued playing. My girlfriend always said to me “You’re a flirt! You never go all the way”. What did she know about beginnings and ends? What did she know about mornings and evenings, about bodies and tastes, about all the perfumes blended together in my charm? Body rhythm bound us together, but it was not the only thing. When he brought his face closer to mine, my lips began to quiver; they grew moist. The kiss was a long one and I closed my eyes. As I recalled the kiss I felt as though I had shed blood.
We were in the old market place. My girlfriend wore her hair up, displaying her long neck and her silver earrings that were studded with fine stones and made a light sound at every movement. My ears were bare as usual.
My sister asked me: “Why don’t you wear your bracelets, your necklaces and your rings?”
I gave her an evasive answer: “The Arab woman is not one and the same. The concerns of the rural woman differ from those of the urban woman.”
When I wrote a love poem in my student days, people said: “These are the words of a woman who has nothing to do.” He, too, asked the same question. In a theatrical manner that was not discussed in the conference, I explained: “I do not need to add any feminine accessories!” He caught the slyness in my reply. I could read the answer in his eyes that roved over my body like long kisses on my face, eyes, bottom lip, and on my breasts. I took refuge in my girlfriend’s stories and in shopping. In the dim light, his kisses moved slowly over the naked, as well as the covered, parts of my body. I closed my eyes again, and drifted off into ecstasy. Within me, I felt my heart throbbing and my pulse slowly fading. I moved away before the moment of ecstasy opened and expanded. “The Arab woman does not express her own experiences because she fears the moral judgements of a society that does not differentiate between her private life and her creative works.” I did not need to open my eyes to see him. I knew he was there, merging with the fragrance of pleasure.

Translated by Ali Azeriah

“The Siesta” is from a collection of short stories by Arab women
Kullu Hadha al-Sawt al-Jameel [All These Beautiful Voices]
ed. Latifa al-Zayat, Dar al-Mar’a al-Arabiya li-Nashr. 1st edn, 1994