Receive Our Newsletter
For news of readings, events and new titles.
That was on the 27 of September 1936 . . . , the old man started to recount, and the train was approaching the ‘Damascus’ station in Aleppo, blowing its whistle.
Widad remained seated and didn’t move to look out of the window as most passengers did. She tried not to look at the man sitting across from her by the compartment door. During the whole trip, he had kept looking at her with greedy eyes. She hoped he would leave his place and go out to the narrow corridor of the Orient Express and look out of the window as the other passengers were doing. Her eyelids fluttered as she checked discreetly to see if he was still looking at her. She really hoped he would take his eyes off her and look at the sky, the trees and the buildings that started to appear through the window, or at the Eiffel Tower picture that hung just above her head on the wooden wall of the compartment. But he didn’t take his eyes off her. She saw something frightening in his eyes. Her mother had always warned her about men. A slight smile danced on his lips, but she shrank back and sat very close to the window. She looked down at her hands which were resting in her lap.
She closed her eyes for a while and instead concentrated on listening to the outer world. The train pulled into the station and was still blowing its whistle. She heard cheering outside. She overheard some people say that there were some VIPs on board and that a big reception was awaiting them. She wanted to get up and see for herself. But that man was still peering at her. If she got up, she thought to herself, he would have the chance to observe her body.She decided to remain seated until the train came to a complete halt. Then she would try to escape. But what if all the other passengers got off the train and she was left alone with him? She shivered at the thought and felt her face grew hot and red. These were really frightening moments to her. She had the same feeling when her mother warned her of what men could do to a little girl in the dark of the night while lightning and thunder tore the sky apart. Her underlying fear of men was based on the admonitions of her ailing mother. Now there was an actual cause for her trepidation – a man sitting across from her. He was staring at her all the time, while all the passengers were busy looking through the windows, shouting zealous slogans against France and cheering the delegation. But what was that delegation? And what did the word delegation mean? And why were all these people gathering there to receive the delegation? And where was it coming from?
She had waited for more than three hours on the platform at the Midan Ikbis station for the train coming from Istanbul bound for Aleppo. They had sent the fool Abdo Sinkeh to see her off at the station. A deranged and retarded youth, once when he crossed the Turkish border (Midan Ikbis is on the Syrian border with Turkey), a Turkish soldier had stabbed him with a bayonet, leaving him lame. That’s why everybody called him Sinkeh [bayonet]. The big gap between his top front teeth, which made him look even funnier, produced a whistling sound when he spoke. Widad had enjoyed his company before her mother died. He was keen on visiting their home to help them and to amuse a gracious Widad. She laughed heartily when he moved, ran, or spoke. He would be so happy when he saw her laughing that he would lie on his back, laugh and lift his hands and legs in the air. Sometimes, when he touched her casually, a strange shudder coursed through his body. After that he would feel relieved and happy for the rest of the day, not knowing why his energy had flagged. Then he would run and sit under a tree. She didn’t know why he behaved that way after his hand touched her, but Shaykh Abdel Sabour, the imam of the local mosque, saw him doing this once, chided him and ran after him holding a pomegranate switch in his hand. Widad wondered why the Imam had become so furious. She hated the Imam that evening, when she saw him sitting by her sick mother’s bed, whispering to her and looking at Widad. Because she hated him, she thought he was complaining to her mother. That evening, her mother repeated her warnings against men, but Widad didn’t consider Abdo a man, and she wasn’t afraid of him.
During the three hours they spent waiting for the Orient Express at the station, Abdo Sinkeh didn’t stop crying. He was crying because he knew he wouldn’t see Widad again. Though he was dim-witted, he knew quite well that her mother wanted Widad to go away to Aleppo after her death. He saw Sheikh Abdul Sabour handing her a letter and some money. He caught a glimpse of the address scribbled on the envelope. The Imam asked Abdo to accompany her to the station and wait with her till the train, which was frequently late, arrived, since waiting would be hard for an eighteen-year-old girl. Widad was afraid because she was travelling by train for the first time in her life. She assured him that she would come back soon. Abdo was sad at her departure and wept, but when the train – preceded by its prolonged whistle – drew into the station, Abdo’s mood changed suddenly. He laughed and jumped joyfully at the sight of the train, its carriages decked with flags and decorations. Seeing this made him lose what remained of his mind. Now she burst into tears, while he was laughing, oblivious to her. With difficulty she held him still and calmed him down. Then she squeezed his hand forcefully and drew him into an undecorated carriage. There she held him with both hands to encourage herself to quit the village that she had not left since she was born.
She went to find a seat in one of the compartments, lifted her bag onto the rack and settled into the seat. Abdo was standing at the platform, still feeling his hand which she had held moments before, watching Widad through the window. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Before the train started to move again, Abdo had the feeling that he was the happiest person on earth. He jumped and laughed to make his girl laugh, but instead, she burst into tears. When Abdo and the stations buildings vanished, she wiped her tears. When she turned her face, her eyes came into direct contact with the man sitting across from her, who was looking at her stealthily so that the other passengers in the compartment wouldn’t notice him.
Voices mingled with the faint whistle of the train, and cheers mixed with the rattling sound of the wheels. The sound of approaching music grew louder. Widad suddenly felt that the station into which the train was pulling was familiar to her. Without looking at the man she quickly turned her face to the window. There was a huge crowd of people gathered there to receive the delegation. People were cheering enthusiastically and waving their flags in the direction of the first carriage. A band of the gendarmes was playing military marches. She felt relieved.
“These crowds are here to receive the delegation . . .” She turned around, excited. The man was speaking to her, getting closer to the window. At that point, passengers re-entered the compartment to collect their baggage. She wanted to get up, but she knew if she did, the man could touch her. She clung to her seat. For the first time, she looked at him closely. His bloodshot eyes were still staring at her, penetrating her. He looked at her strangely. At that instant she wanted to escape. It was risky. She moved restlessly in her seat, and looked at him imploringly, willing him to leave her in peace. Alone now in the compartment with her he reached out his hand and touched her face. She stepped back trembling. The music grew louder. She thought to herself that if she shouted nobody would hear her. “Please!” she implored. But his hand was touching her cheeks, chin and nose. She pushed him away. He fell on the other seat. She picked up her bag and ran. When she looked back, he was still settled in his seat and smiling at her rapaciously. She was afraid he would follow her. She ran into the corridors looking for an exit. It was impossible, the crowds blocked all the doors on both sides. She had to run on to another carriage.
The band was still playing military marches. Some people mounted the train and ran along the roof to the delegation’s carriage so they could have a close look at its members as they get off the train. When Hashem Attasi, the head of the delegation got off first, there was a loud burst of cheering. The crowd was pushing to break through the cordon made by the French gendarmes. The gendarmes pushed the people back from the train so the High Commissioner, Monsieur de Martel, could come closer and shake hands with the Nationalists who were arriving home.
The High Commissioner, in his white uniform decorated with many medals, approached. He embraced Hashem Attasi, wanting to scent the fragrance of Paris in autumn on him. Then he shook hands with the rest of the members of the delegation who had begun to get off the train. They stood for a while on the steps of the carriage waiting to shake hands with the Commissioner. Every time a new member of the delegation stepped out, he was received with a storm of applause and cheers.
Though their journey had taken six long days, they didn’t look tired. They looked smart and handsome. Before reaching Aleppo they had shaved, washed, and changed their clothes. Some people cried when the delegation members stepped out of the train. The High Commissioner stood in the middle to have a picture taken with the delegation. The photographer took special care to get in the picture the train which had transported the delegation from metropolitan Paris to Aleppo, a French colony. As the camera flashed Widad emerged holding her bag in her hand. Hence she appeared in the commemorative picture that was published by all the newspapers in Aleppo and in the Capital (Widad, with her innocent look, hovering over the head of M. de Martel). Someone affirmed that he saw her on the front page of a well-known Parisian newspaper. The picture was enlarged and hung on the wall of the High Commissioner’s office, and the National Bloc’s offices as well as in the houses of some of the delegation members.
When the people saw her standing awed and innocent on the steps of the carriage, voices died down. Almost complete silence. The only sounds were the music. Sergeant Samuel, the band leader, was raising his hands to conduct the band, his face turned towards Widad. The other members of the band were playing their instruments and also looking at the villager who had suddenly popped out from the delegation’s carriage, holding her old bag, with a scarf to hide her hair from men’s greedy eyes. Even the ministers and the city notables who came to receive the delegation were amazed by the sudden appearance of this beautiful villager. The only person who tried to avert his eyes from her was the mufti, but he couldn’t. He thought she might be a genie or a guardian angel descending from the heavens to protect the delegation. This sudden silence baffled the High Commissioner. He turned around. It took him some moments to realise what was really going on. He wondered why that girl was there. Widad was confused by his stare and the looks of the members of the delegation. Explaining the reason for her presence there she muttered: “I couldn’t find another place to get off the train.”
At first, the High Commissioner didn’t understand what the girl said. He looked at her in confusion. But when everyone burst into laughter at the situation (Aleppians have a good sense of humour, despite what is said about them). Monsieur de Martel was convinced it was a mere coincidence; so he ignored the village girl whose beauty had attracted so much attention and asked the delegation to proceed. Cheers burst out again and the music resumed. The French gendarmes pushed the people away to allow the delegation to leave the station. Everyone wanted to see the head of the National Bloc Hashem Attasi, who led the delegation, or to catch a glimpse of Sa’ad Eddin Jabri, the handsome politician from Aleppo. Most people didn’t know who to look at since it was very rare to see all those Nationalists and Syrian politicians and the French Generals who were occupying the country together in one place and at one time.
The delegation left the station preceded by the High Commissioner, whose white uniform was too big for him. They were followed by the people with the band still playing popular melodies. Shortly after that, Widad found herself standing alone on the platform with her bag. She was relieved but didn’t understand what was happening. She had never dreamt that such a large crowd in a big city like Aleppo would greet her. Had her deceased mother, who was resting in peace now in her grave in Midan Ikbis village, known how warmly she was received at the station by the city men, of whom she always warned her daughter, she would have changed her mind. As if in response to her own concern, Widad shrugged her shoulders in silence. She then took out the envelope with the address of the house she was going to. She picked up her bag and left the station. As Sheikh Abdel Sabbur had instructed her, she waited for a coach. The square was deserted now, and she could see the huge crowd walking behind the coaches and the cars transporting the delegation and the other VIPs who had come to receive them. Cheers and shouts mingling with the military marches could still be heard.
* * *
The servant entered holding a kettle of hot tea in his hand. The old man paused and waited while he poured the tea for us. I didn’t know whether the old man paused because of his servant or because he needed a little rest. The servant poured the tea in complete silence, and offered us the tea. If the old man had continued his story, I wouldn’t have noticed the presence of the servant in the room. This dead silence that ensued made me observe every movement the servant made. I felt uneasy about him, just as I felt when I saw him at the doorway the first time. I thanked the servant politely, and started to sip the hot tea to warm my cold bones. The moment he left the room and closed the door the old man resumed his story in his soft voice.
. . . Widad left the station and waited outside for a full hour. A coach with a black canopy drawn by a single horse stopped right in front of her. She handed the coachman the envelope with the address, and sat comfortably in the back seat. The coach began to move and Widad started to look with astonishment at the buildings on both sides of the street. She wondered if the city looked the same when her mother had been there eighteen years before.
Once her mother told her about the day when she left the city. She took the northbound train from the same station. It was toward the end of the World War I, and thousands of Turks were crowding the station, each struggling to find a place in one of those trains heading to Turkey: ex-politicians, officers who had concealed their real ranks; old Walis or governors; senior Ottoman officials; men on whom the Sultan had conferred the title of Pasha, as well as governors of towns and districts. The station was also crowded with prosperous women and well-fed children, as well as high-ranking officers’ mistresses uncertain about their future.
Nobody cared about their appearance any more. They were carrying packages and suitcases containing their savings or loot they had plundered and stolen from the towns they ruled. Caravans were pouring into the station. Since the station was crammed with people and their luggage, most of them left their stuff in piles outside the station and decided to save their skins with their souls. When the train pulled in, shouts were heard, and people began to push to secure a place on the train. Some people tried to identify themselves as being such and such, but who gave a damn about ranks or titles any more? Some of those who secured a place on a carriage were screaming because they had lost a companion, a wife or a son.
With great difficulty, Widad’s mother had found a place in the cattle carriage. She was in her fifth month of pregnancy. In order to win sympathy she tried to push out her belly to make her pregnancy more conspicuous. She was an eye-witness to this tragic end of Ottoman rule in Syria.
Orders were given for the train to leave late at night. Those who were getting away with their lives begged the stationmaster to order the train to depart much earlier. Rumors were spreading at lightning speed that the enemy forces were approaching the city. At first, news had it that enemy troops had reached the Khan Al-Sabil area and by the evening, the news confirmed that the British troops had occupied the town of Sheikh Said, near Aleppo. Confusion and chaos spread. Women cried. Widad’s mother, however, wasn’t much concerned since she was an Arab and was only concerned to arrive in Turkey before the borders closed, so that she could see the Turkish officer, Uzbashi Jawdat, who had planted his seed in her womb.
Because it was overloaded, the train started to move slowly but people on board felt relieved that they would be safe at last. The men in the carriage began to notice Widad’s mother. Eyes of both men and women followed her every movement, the men gazing on her with lust and desire and the women with dislike and jealousy. This distracted her from thinking of her beloved officer. She had to push away the men who tried to cling to her in the dark carriage, their hot breath on her face. At the crack of dawn, however, she was saved when the train stopped at Midan Ikbes station for water and wood. Civilians were ordered to leave the train and proceed on their journey on foot to leave room for injured soldiers and military equipment. They protested and cried, but they had to leave the train. While the civilians who left the train walked on to Turkey, Widad’s mother decided to stay in Midan Ikbis.
All the withdrawing troops had to pass through this station on their way to the Turkish territories. So she stayed there waiting for the next train to look for her lover Yuzbashi Jawdat. Days went by, but Yuzbashi Jawdat didn’t show up. When she heard that the British troops were chasing the withdrawing Turkish troops, she was certain that she had lost him forever. Since she couldn’t go back to Aleppo, she decided to stay in this village until she gave birth to her child.
To be accepted in this village, she had to invent a different story. She created another imaginary life. She couldn’t tell them the truth, which she had buried in her heart. She told the local people that she was the wife of a Turkish officer, Yuzbash Jawdat, and that all members of her family had died in the war. She also said that she was on her way to Turkey to look for her husband but that the arrival of the British troops and the battles between the two warring armies along the borders precluded her from crossing the borders. She was a beautiful woman. The villagers had never seen such a beautiful woman, not even among the high-class Turkish women who passed through the village on their way to Istanbul. She had such an innocent and lovely face. With her tears she could convince the stones, so why wouldn’t those simple villagers believe her. She gave birth to her lovely baby girl and named her Widad. She worked hard; she did everything she could to feed and raise her girl. When she grew up, Widad took after her mother in her beauty, gentleness, innocence and charm. Some young villagers asked for her hand in marriage, but the mother rejected them all. She didn’t even permit any man to come near her house, except Abdo the fool, because she was sure he wasn’t harmful. For unknown reasons she always taught her beautiful daughter to stay away from men. She grew up filled with a fear of men and avoided them.
When the mother contracted tuberculosis and felt death approaching, she started to talk to her daughter about life in the city and about some of her friends in Aleppo. She told Widad that she wanted her to go there after her death. She told her that she had a dear friend there named Khoja Bahira, and that she must go and see her. She said she would give her a letter of introduction. But she asked her to forget the name of that woman for the time being, and not to mention this name to any of the villagers. She also told her not to ask any more questions about her.
The coachman turned around and looked furtively at her face. He murmured ma sha alla. Widad was looking at the streets with sadness and amazement. Every street, alley, or building reminded her of her dead mother. She imagined her walking arm in arm with her Turkish officer, or crossing the street alone in front of the coach, peering at men’s faces, looking for her man who was lost in the war. But why did her mother refuse to go back to Aleppo? Why didn’t she take her there, or even describe it to her? Everything was shrouded with mystery. Her mother died leaving a thousand questions baffling Widad. Who was Khoja Bahira, and why was their friendship a well-kept secret and why had she wanted Widad to go to see her after her death? As I said earlier, all these mysteries were roaming in the mind of this beautiful girl.
* * *
The old man continued . . . Badiy’a (the mother) was beautiful and brave. She wasn’t as shy as her daughter Widad. Perhaps because of her hard life, she brought up her daughter differently so as to avoid the hardships she had experienced. All mothers want their daughters to live a different life, especially Badiy’a, who ran away from her parents’ house when the war broke out. At that time men were rarely seen on the streets. They were either conscripted or had gone into hiding. That was men’s destiny. The Turkish gendarmes rounded them up and bound them with ropes. Once picked up, they vanished. Nobody, except God, knew their whereabouts.
That was the fate of her newly wed brother Mohammad. Her father managed to escape and he used to send them provisions and money. The house was ruled by women. Her mother was very strict and tough, and this fact prompted Badiy’a to run away to Aleppo. To entertain her sisters and her brother’s wife, she used to tie a shawl around her waist and dance.
Life in her town wasn’t that bad. Women there could make ends meet. In Aleppo however, she saw hunger. Healthy men were not often seen in the streets. Once, she saw an old man’s body lying at the side of a street. He had starved to death. Badiy’a was frightened. She didn’t know what this city might hide for her, the city of which she had heard a lot and of which she had dreamt for a long time. She thought the course of things would go differently. She had fled from her strict mother to a city where the inhabitants were starving. She thought of returning to her town and to her mother. She was sitting curled up in the street, when she asked a passer-by for alms. He gave her a piastre. He asked her if she could do anything other than begging. She said she could wash, clean, cook and dance. Yes, she was daring and said she could dance as well, though the only thing she knew was how to move her waist and breasts. It was good that she mentioned dancing, since nobody cared about sweeping and cleaning in those days when food was scarce. He asked her to accompany him. She followed him as she bit off a piece of dried bread he had bought for her.
But where did that good man, who arrived at the right time, take her? I was extremely eager to know what happened to Badiy’a. The old man’s interesting story overtook me to the point I forgot to drink my tea. He said that if I wanted to hear the story till the end I should be patient. I apologised. When I sipped my tea, I realized it was cold. I want to ask the reader to listen to the mother’s story first, before the daughter’s. What was interesting in this old man was that he jumped from one story to another. Just when he was about to finish his first story, he would jump to another. I didn’t know why, but still it was interesting.
Now let’s go back to Badiy’a’s story, here I must beg the reader’s forgiveness for my interference. But I feel I had to interfere from time to time, since my meeting with the old man and listening to his story is a story in itself.
The old man went on to say that the man took her to the house of Khoja Bahira, a famous singer in the city at that time. He sold the girl to her for nine gold liras. Badiy’a never saw that man again.
“Did he sell her, that rascal?” I asked him angrily.
“Yes he did,” the old man retorted, “But he didn’t do that in the real sense of the word. When she told him she could dance, he was certain Khoja Bahira would reward him. That was normal. Bahira was a well-known singer in the town, and liked to take beautiful girls into her group. Furthermore, she needed a dancer in her troupe, and that’s why she rewarded him.”
When Khoja Bahira set her eyes on Badiy’a, she was astounded by her beauty. She had dazzling good looks. She was like a diamond that fell into the hands of Khoja Bahira, who of course knew her real value. As you know, back then women in this profession were not usually beautiful; some of them even ugly. They were usually plump and dark-skinned with sagging flesh. Most of them were old, except for the Jewish girls. They were attractive, and they were in demand for work in the town’s theatres. The Jewish girl Jamila, for example, made men sigh deeply for her, not only because of her beautiful voice but also because of her striking looks, the suppleness and softness of her body and her fair complexion. Furthermore, she played the qanoun beautifully.
Khoja Bahira immediately took Badiy’a in and looked after her. She taught her how to move properly. She also taught her all the arts and skills needed by a dancer, such as how to keep her legs and torso straight. She taught her too how to move her waist in harmony with her hands. Her movements were more manly, which women didn’t like, especially Bahira. A belly dancer must be full of femininity. She taught her, and also brought tutors to teach her those skills till she mastered the art of belly dancing. Bahira was happy with the progress she had made.
However, Bahira’s figure was rather odd. Her face, body and movements were more like a man’s than a woman’s. She even acted like them. She wore men’s clothes. Sometimes she even wore a red fez. She liked others to think of her as a man. She wore men’s trousers and shirts on stage. She also wore a watch with a chain dangling from her small pocket. At weddings, her appearance excited the women. She didn’t give a damn about the obscene comments and remarks some women made. She even answered back with more obscene comments. She was more like a man, and foul-tongued.
Bahira wasn’t her real name. Nobody knew what her real name was. Since she looked masculine, some claimed that her name was Hussein or Abdul or any other man’s name. Originally she came from the “Kastal al-Mushtt” quarter. She was her parents’ only child. Out of fear that she might be molested, her parents claimed since she was born that she was a boy. They even had her hair cut like a boy. She used to play with the boys as one of them. (This is true and her name was at that time Sobhi.) It was also said that she was a leader of a gang of boys, and nobody suspected she was a girl. The gang robbed homes and stole fruit from orchards. One day, the boys broke into a prostitute’s house. She wept loudly and told them she had nothing of value and begged them not to steal anything from her. Instead she proposed that they made love to her. The boys liked the idea. But, Sobhi (Bahira) was afraid of being revealed and desperately tried to dissuade them, but they insisted. They were eager to try to make love to a woman, a thing which they had only heard of, and now the opportunity was in their hands. There was no reason why Sobhi should prevent them from taking this opportunity. They called him names and at last he consented. The boys went into the prostitute’s room, one after the other. When they finished, they were happy and relaxed. At last it was Sobhi’s turn, their leader having chosen to be last. When she went into the room, the woman was lying on the bed with her legs wide open, exhausted. Bahira had an urge to touch the prostitute’s body. She started to caress her. The prostitute was surprised by this behaviour. Rather than make love to her as the other boys did, she just caressed her, kissed her and stroked her body. It felt good. Bahira was satisfied too. At that moment, Bahira found out she was attracted to her own sex.
Since then, she no longer cared if the boys discovered her real sex. Now she could make love to the prostitute, just as the boys had done and be satisfied. She even suggested that they visit the woman more frequently and that they pay the prostitute a certain amount of money because she was so poor. Thus the boys became regular clients of the prostitute and with every visit Bahira’s love of the woman’s body increased. She hated men’s bodies.
One day, the prostitute told one of the boys that their leader wasn’t a real man and didn’t make love to her as the other boys did; that she was satisfied with only caressing her. Soon all the boys knew about it. They kept Sobhi under watch and soon found out that he didn’t urinate standing as the other boys usually do, in fact they didn’t even see him take a piss at all. He claimed that he didn’t feel like it when all the other boys stood in a line and pissed. They felt it would be really shameful for the whole group if their leader turned out to be an hermaphrodite, neither man nor woman. They hoped that this wasn’t true. How could they believe a prostitute and suspect their leader? They had to find out by themselves… but how? Did they dare to ask Sobhi? That was impossible. Nobody could ask him such a question. It would be humiliating. What if that bitch just wanted to make a rift among them to get rid of them?
Once they went for an outing to the Jiser al-Quiri area. They sat by the bank of the Quieck river. They had stolen a chicken from a nearby field, plucked and grilled it. They swam in the river, and dared each other to swim in the whirlpool which had drowned many boys and men. When they were lying down on the grass relaxing, Sobhi, who didn’t participate in their fun, was having a little nap on the grass. They made up their minds. They wanted to know the truth. They bared their chests, and with a signal, all the boys jumped on Sobhi. They held him firmly by his hands and legs, and one of them pulled his trousers down and removed his shirt. When his private parts were revealed, they were astounded. Sobhi wasn’t a boy. Why hadn’t it occurred to them that their leader was a girl? Bahira was ashamed and went back home crying. The boys were astonished. How could Bahira have cheated them all that time. But she looked like them in everything. Her face, legs and hands were like those of a boy. She even had muscles, and fought like boys. She resembled them in everything, except that she didn’t have that thing they had between their legs. She could trick them because she never took a piss in front of them. But what about her breasts? They were all 15 years old, and Bahira should have had breasts like the girls of her age. Did she bind her breasts? They expelled Bahira from their gang and selected a boy as their leader. The first decision they took was to rape Bahira. But she was careful and escaped them. She took the serious decision not to marry at all because men’s bodies revolted her.
Her hatred of men encouraged her to sing at weddings among women. When she was eighteen her mother found out that she had a beautiful voice. Bahira came of age and started to have dreams of making love to women.
Bahira had a good figure. Her body was taut. Her breasts grew bigger and it was impossible for her to hide them by having them strapped. This no longer bothered her since she didn’t like to mix with men. She wanted to associate with her own sex, women, who created that atmosphere of friendliness and intimacy. In our country, only a woman can enter the realm of women, even women who resembled men, such as Bahira. When her mother discovered that her voice was sweet, she encouraged her to sing when she had gatherings of women friends and neighbours. But it didn’t occur to her mother that Bahira would one day become a singer at weddings. Bahira became a well-known singer in the town. She was invited to sing at weddings, women’s receptions, and baby showers, particularly if the newborn were boys. She was accompanied by her musical band which consisted only of women. She went on s tage wearing men’s clothes. Sometimes, she wore a red fez or drew a big moustache. She always stuck a white flower in her jacket buttonhole. Her masculine manner and gestures attracted women.
She was also known for her inclination towards women. News of her love and her lovers were on every tongue in the salons, receptions and parties held in the hammam (the public baths). She wasn’t ashamed of this news or rumours. On the contrary, she was proud and would boast about her latest lovers. She fought fiercely to keep them and would steal a girl from other envious and competitive ladies. Once, Khoja Bahira won the heart of a blonde musician, who played the qanoun, stealing her from her competitor Khoja Samah. Bahira convinced her to join her band too.
“So, do you know now why Khoja Bahira,” the old man asked, his face beaming with a smile, “was happy when she set her eyes on Badiy’a, and why she gave the man the nine gold liras as a reward?”
“Yes I do,” I said, “I believe she was strikingly beautiful. A charming girl fell into the hands of an experienced woman who loved women. But, tell me . . . didn’t that arouse the jealousy of the other musicians, especially the blonde qanoun player?”
“She was smitten with jealousy,” the old man said, “you don’t know this kind of women very well. Sorry, I didn’t mean to underestimate your knowledge and experience in life. But imagine a woman who is the subject of competition between two women and who all of a sudden finds herself rejected, she sees all her lover's efforts shift to a newcomer, whom she begins to teach the art of belly dancing while concentrating all her attention on making her look prettier.”
“And what happened to the qanoun player?” I asked.
“She left Khoja Bahira and returned to her ex-lover, Khoja Samah.”
I smiled. The story grew more interesting. I seemed to be beginningto like to hear such stories. To prove to him that I knew something about such women, I said: “I think these women are known locally as ‘banat ishreh’.
“That’s right, banat ishreh,” he confirmed.
“But I don’t know the origin of this expression. Do you know, Sir?”
“I think banat ishreh is used to describe women who make love to women, like men with women do. It has been said that some women live together in the same house, as if they are a normal family. One of the couple assumes the role of a man in the house, and the other takes the role of a woman.”
“Must the one who takes the role of man be older than the other woman?”
“Most often, yes, that’s why the older woman, who assumes the role of man, is called ‘abalaya’ or ‘abla’, which is a distortion of the Turkish word for an elder sister, while the other woman is called ‘her girl’.”
“And what happened to Badiy’a?” My interest in her increased.
“Be patient,” he said, “Now I will tell you about Khoja Samah; but I believe it is too late now. I think the servant has gone to bed. I think we should go to bed now. We’ll carry on tomorrow.”
I was quite tired because of my experience during the day. I thought to myself, if I want to listen to the stories and keep them fresh in my memory, I must be fully awake. I got up and helped the old man go upstairs to his room. He was so weak. He trembled as he climbed the stairs. He reached his room with difficulty. I opened the door for him, switched the light on, and helped him lie down on his bed. When I was sure he was comfortable, I drew the covers over him. He thanked me and I wished him good night. A quick glance around the room made me stand still. The walls were crowded with framed pictures. Some other pictures were scattered on a small table and on the nightstands on either side of the bed. There were pictures of women and men, children and old men, all wealthy and who were somehow related to him.
The old man was looking at me. I felt he didn’t want me to delve into his pictures and his past (although he later told me that he liked my curiousity). I bid him good night, switched off the light, and went out.
I made sure that the door of my room was firmly locked since I am very careful in my nature. As soon as I put my head on the pillow, I fell fast asleep.
* * *
When I woke in the morning my head was heavy. I opened my eyes but stayed in bed. I had that strange feeling of a person who wakes up to find oneself in an unfamiliar bedroom.
It was about eleven o'clock. But the grey daylight outside and the thudding of rain on the window panes gave me the feeling that it was earlier. The room looked more intimate than it had the night before. When I saw it for the first time, it looked very simple, but neat. The walls were bare and had no pictures, unlike the old man's room. There was only a landscape. The carved oak furniture had been made in Aleppo. It seemed to me that I heard something moving in the room when I was asleep. But being exhausted and cold, I didn’t move from my bed to put on the light and see where the sound came from. I was somewhat afraid. Finally I got up and made sure the door was locked. I inspected the window that overlooked the backyard and found that it too was firmly locked. Most likely I had been dreaming. This made me feel relaxed. I went into the bathroom, took a shower and shaved using a new razor the servant had brought me. Then I got dressed. At that point, I heard light rapping on the door, followed by the voice of the servant inviting me to go downstairs to have breakfast.
The old man was sitting at the table waiting for me. I said good morning and sat in the place assigned to me. The living room was simpler than I had thought it was the previous night, despite the dozens of art masterpieces, wooden cases, paintings and carved ivory tusks and rare china, as well as other items the old man had brought from his many travels to various parts of the world. Those masterpieces gave the living-room a sophisticated atmosphere. They also showed his good taste. We ate our breakfast silently. The servant poured milk into our cups and brought a plate of boiled eggs.
In the silence that filled the room, I looked intently at the old man’s face while he ate. He looked serene and younger than I had thought him the previous night. He even had a friendly and familiar face. He had sparse shiny hair, and wrinkles extended over his forehead. His eyes were honey-coloured with a faint glow in them. While he looked very friendly, his servant looked suspect and aggressive. When I remembered last night’s sounds, a light shudder went through my body.
We had our coffee in the sitting room by the wood stove. After serving us, the servant left us alone. The old man resumed his story.
“The picture wouldn’t be complete without telling you about Khoja Samah,” he said in his deep but feeble voice.
I said I would be glad to hear her story.
. . . Khoja Samah was Khoja Bahira’s strong competitor. They competed to sing in upper-class houses. Therefore they had women friends from these important families in Aleppo. Each conspired against the other, each doing everything she could to ostracise the other. They also competed to sing the most recent and popular songs. They sought to buy the newest records produced by the Egyptian “Gramophone Limited” company. Once, Khoja Samah got the newest record of the singer “Sheikh Sayed Saffti”, even before it reached the company’s agent in Damascus. At the party attended by the Wali himself, she sang the most recent song of Sayed Saffti, which says “Oh my heart, who told you to fall in love”. Her fans and admirers talked about the song the following day with great appreciation and admiration. This aroused Khoja Bahira’s anger and jealousy.
Samah was far prettier than Bahira, who looked like a man. Samah was a real woman. She was plump with a fair complexion. She had a round face, unlike Bahira’s oval one. She used to wear a red rose in her hair, which made her look prettier and more feminine. Furthermore, she had a lovely mouth with luscious full lips. Samah was also inclined towards women, and never married. She did her best to win the hearts of Bahira’s girlfriends, lovers, singers and dancers and make them join her band. Bahira did the same. The last one (as I said) was the qanoun player, whom Samah took as her lover. She was smitten with jealousy when Badiy’a arrived and took her place in Bahira’s heart. Hence she left her and went back to her former abla, Samah.
Khoja Bahira was very lucky to have Badiy’a. Though Samiha lost her qanoun player, she had other skilled and charming musicians in her band and it didn’t affect her badly. Even though the qanoun player joined Bahira’s band and she sang the most recent Egyptian songs, specially those songs composed by Mohammed Afandi and Dawoud Hosni, Bahira’s business wasn’t going well.
“But why was Samah’s business going better than Bahira’s?” I asked the old man. “Why did she have all those beautiful girls in her band and Bahira didn’t?”
“Because Bahira was a domineering woman,” he said, “and treated her girls cruelly. She was harsh and possessive. She loved to possess people, and this made girls slip away from her hands. She watched their every move.”
“This seems rather masculine, but I believe that women can be just as possessive, so why not . . . ?”
“As I told you, despite the differences between the two women, and though Samah was the bint ishre, it seemed that her women companions wanted their abla to be a real woman.”
“And did Badiy’a accept working with a lesbian singer?” I asked.
The old man resumed his story.
. . . Bahira trained Badiy’a and turned her into a very good dancer. She began to dance at parties and weddings. She was able to transform her from a girl who had escaped from her strict mother in a small town to a beautiful, professional belly dancer. She chose her clothes for her and looked after her hair and skin. She also taught her how to walk. She used to throw her feet in front of her as most villagers do. Her dance became more balanced. She was taught how to match the gestures of her hand to the tune and how she should constantly change her movements. Bahira told Badiy’a to show the tenderness that distinguished her and not to be shy. She wanted her to be a real dancer who wins the admiration of both men and women. She also wanted her to be a charming woman who captures the heart and admiration of everyone setting eyes on her. Bahira knew how precious Badiy’a was, and prepared her for her debut. But before she did so, she shared her bed. She caressed her, and for the first time she made her taste true love. That village girl had little idea of what a woman could do to her.
Badiy’a was pleased with all that was happening to her. Bahira saved her from an unknown fate. She could have been wandering in the streets begging. The only other alternative she would have had was to go back to her strict mother. Bahira saved her from that gloomy fate, and brought her to live in a place more luxurious than anyone had even imagined. She promised to shower her with love, silk and gold. She promised to shower her with fame and lights, she promised her to do all that and more, but on condition she remain true to her abla, and not cheat on her with any other person, especially not Samah. She told her that she would be a famous woman one day, she would hear tender whispers, generous promises, and expressions of admiration. She also cautioned her that many women might fall in love with her but that she shouldn’t believe in any such false sentiments, because only Bahira would give her true love, Bahira who had made her, and who had blown life into her. Therefore, she must listen to what she told her and not heed anybody else.
She told her that men were real monsters; she warned her not to communicate with them. The only thing men did to women was break their hearts, impregnate them and make them busy with their children. Men were Bahira’s worst enemies. She warned her that other banat ishreh might snatch her from Bahira but that even so she could restore her to her bed. There would, however, be no hope of return if a man married her, deflowered her, got her pregnant, and forced her to look after his children. Bahira never stopped talking ill of men, depicting them as ugly and repulsive with horrible organs. She depicted them to Badiy’a as monsters carrying hoses between their legs, which they used to rip the insides of women. The alternative, of course, would be Bahira’s caresses when she slept with her. She would take her into her arms, kiss her, then remove her clothes and caress her till she moaned. Badiy’a liked what Bahira did to her. As a sort of punishment, she wouldn’t touch her for a while. Badiy’a grew used to her light touches, and would not go to sleep if she weren’t caressed by her. Bahira would hear her moan and toss around in bed. Then she was certain she was ready for her, and was no longer afraid of introducing her to society.
Khoja Bahira surprised other women in Aleppo society with her new-found dancer. She introduced her for the first time at a party held by the wife of the Turkish Wali, attended by the wives of high-ranking men in the city: Turks, Arabs and Caucasians. Khoja Bahira was invited to sing at the Wali’s house, and she was always accompanied by a dancer. But none of those people expected to see such an angel in a dancing costume. While she was singing, Khoja Bahira noticed that more than a hundred pairs of eyes were gazing at the astonishing Badiy’a who was dancing in such a way that captured their hearts. The ladies were soon fascinated too by this beautiful girl who was moving to the lovely tunes. Some of them sighed loudly, and some in hushed tones. The following day, the dancer was the talk of the town. Requests to dance in the salons of upper-class homes flowed to Bahira. Visitors rushed to her house to glimpse the charming Badiy’a. Many tried to win her heart, falling in love with her the moment they saw her dance. Khoja Bahira would make Badiy’a sit very close to her. She would often take her hand between her own so that everybody would see she was Bahira’s girl. Bahira even told her to kiss her whenever she wanted in front of the visitors, to let everybody know that Bahira was her abla. She even asked the maid to make the visitors wait in the salon when Bahira and Badiy’a were still in their bedroom. After a while, they would emerge in their nightdresses to welcome them, to suggest they had been having sex.
Men came to Khaoja Bahira’s house, too, to see Badiy’a after they heard about her from their women. They were Turkish officers, the Wali’s retinue and important merchants from the town as well as urban counsellors . . . even a German Marshal, a Turkish Pasha and an Arab Beys came to visit her. Bahira wasn’t concerned at all to let her be seen by the ladies but she was worried about her appearing in front of men. She feared men. Khoja Samah was simmering with anger when she heard about it. She had sent her women spies to see Badiy’a and report what she looked like.
Samah tried to seduce Badiy’a. She sent her high-blown promises through her women, but Bahira was on watch. They were confronted by a stern masculine face and a strong will since she was ready to fight for Badiy’a. For more than two years, Bahira was considered the first lady in the society of women in Aleppo, the lover of the most gentle and beautiful belly dancer in town. Badiy’a had no real competitor.
But however careful one was, fate would strike. Bahira was always afraid that other women would take her Badiy’a away from her. She also feared bad men. Therefore she never stopped telling her lover how in her opinion men were the cause of all of women’s disasters and misfortunes. One day, when some officers and gentlemen were visiting, Badiy’a fell in love with one of them. He was Yuzbashi Jawdat, the handsome Turkish officer who stole the heart of Badiy’a from Khoja Bahira. He was strong, with irresistible charms. He was the bodyguard of a high-ranking Ottoman officer. He sat silently waiting, peering discreetly at Badiy’a’s beauty. He was timid but brave and adventurous. He fell in love with Badiy’a right away. He had delicate and deep eyes, like those of an eagle. Badiy’a felt slight tremors course through her veins every time his eyes met hers. She too fell in love with him but didn’t dare to tell her abla about her love. He used to come to her neighbourhood and would stand at the corner for long hours.
When Badiy’a discovered that, she stood at the window of the wooden kiosk to look at him and to allow him to see her. He told her that he loved her looks and asked her to meet him outside. She thought about him and dreamt about him. Her resistance wavered. Then she started to make up excuses and went out to meet him. She took the maid, who could easily be bribed, with her. He made love to her and made her taste the true taste of love. Badiy’a found that men were not that bad, and that their bodies tasted good.
One day she felt nauseous. Her periods stopped. She was pregnant with Widad. What could she do? Yuzbashi Jawdat married her legally through a clergyman. She wanted to tell abla Bahira but was afraid. She waited till the war broke out and rumours spread that Damascus was about to fall into the hands of the Arab and British armies.
Then Yuzbashi was transferred to the southern front to repulse those armies. It was a sad farewell. Badiy’a wept for her lover and for her uncertain future. Jawdat left her behind, fearful that her pregnancy would become obvious and Bahira would discover her. Fortunately, because the Ottomans were defeated the parties came to a stop. Who on earth would care for singing and dancing at a time like that?
When she heard that Damascus had fallen and that the Turkish officers had fled by train to Turkey, she escaped from her abla Bahira. She fled by train, as I said, and lived in Midan Ikbis village waiting for her lover. But the war came to an end, all members of the Turkish army left Syria, and the British army entered the country. There was no trace of Yuzbashi Jawdat.
Translated by Khaled Al-Jbaili, with thanks to William Hutchins, and published in Banipal 27, pp79-97 (Autumn-Winter 2006)
The excerpt selected from the novel Halat Shaghaf [A State of Passion], 1st edition, Dar Atiyya lil-Nashr, Beirut, 1998
Back to top
Back to more selections from Banipal 27