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The Infidel Woman
A chapter from the novel
Translated by Raphael Cohen
This is the story of Fatima, who became Sophie. Fatima lives in a village attached to a small town on the edge of the desert that is controlled by extremists who impose their laws. Fatima’s family take the side of the armed men and she works with her mother in their service. After her father dies in a suicide bombing, Fatima marries a young unemployed failure of a man who ends up believing he can only obtain symbolic value in society by carrying out a suicide bombing, which will turn him from a failure into a hero. He will then enter Paradise, where seventy dark-eyed virgins will be awaiting him. Following his death the armed men decide to marry Fatima to one of them. She escapes to Europe via a people trafficker who rapes her on the way. She reaches Brussels, throws off her niqab, and turns from Fatima into Sophie. She has two personalities though: Fatima who works in the morning for a cleaning company, and Sophie, the European girl who goes out to bars every night and takes a handsome boy back to her flat. This is a form of revenge against her dead husband, who told her his reason for carrying out a suicide bombing was the seventy virgins he would have in Paradise. She decides to screw seventy guys in Europe. But by chance she falls in love with Adrian, a Scandinavian guy who works as an aviation engineer. She later discovers he has Lebanese Christian roots. His father’s entire family were killed during the civil war, and the father took revenge by killing a group of Palestinians at a Christian checkpoint. The father felt guilty, however, and escaped to Norway in an attempt to forget. As he lay dying he confessed to his son, and Adrian returned to Lebanon to marry one of the daughters of his father’s victims.
Sophie is involved in a complicated relationship with Adrian. She often travels with him, but finds out that he is married with two daughters. Initially, she accepts the situation, but then gets angry with him. She wanted him all for herself. One day they quarrel before going to a party they are invited to. Adrian storms off and is involved in a car accident. Over the ten days before he dies in hospital, Sophie sits beside him and tells him her whole life.
Between us were the salt cellar and the small peppermill, two glasses of wine, and a box of tissues. As the time passed, the silence started to swallow me up, while chit-chat swallowed up the whole restaurant. You were unable to offer me a helping hand. The autumnal sun was visible through the restaurant window, bathing the centre of the city. The dome and the faded ochre walls of the palace gleamed softly in the light.
“Let’s go out,” you said to me. “It’ll be lovely and warm soon.”
I shut my eyes in surrender to a rare inertia. I was not used to taking it easy. “That’s a lot to ask, my friend,” I said to you. “Still, don’t be down. Remember the past. Go with it. It’s your only consolation. Pick up your bag and go with the days that have gone. What’s real is what’s gone, not what’s to come. Memory, my friend, memory is what has occupied me night and day since I set foot in Europe.”
Right then, I felt I had fallen into a big trap. Silence gaped. You started touching me, trying as best you could to prolong the conversation. I looked at your fingers as they stroked my palm. You talked with me. Your words sounded like grunts. Suddenly everything disappeared. I was elsewhere probing my wounds, plunging backwards into the past. After a short silence I said to you: “Something inside me sometimes makes me go over my mother’s life.” You heard me very well and put your hand over mine.
“Stop . . .” I screamed inside as I looked you full in the eyes. That moment I felt happy and confused, like a lemon tree standing alone in the middle of the garden, delirious under the brilliant rays of summer sun.
Before the appearance of the armed extremists, my mother did not leave the house much. In the evenings she would sit in the courtyard or some quiet corner of the house. In the mornings she would flit between the kitchen stove and the room preparing food for us. Only rarely would someone notice her presence. If my father did so, it would be to order her to spray insecticide in the toilet or to fill the water tank.
My exhausted mother, always sweltering in the heat, had little passion for emotions and love. She barely had enough time to see me or acknowledge me, so I remained little known to her. Even if I had surprised her with the blossoming of my body in adolescence and my metamorphosis into a different being, she would not have known how all that had happened. For my part, I was not clamouring to attract her gaze, nor demanding like other girls. I was silent, shy, always busy in some corner of the house with secret games. I only went out to go to school.
My mother did not stop working for a second. She would even mumble what she was going to do the following day in her sleep. The only thing she was proud of was me. She was always bragging in front of the neighbours because I, her daughter, won all the school prizes. She would boast that I had won the top prize every year since I had entered the town school. My mother was very happy with me and prayed every day that I become a doctor. It would have been an honour for her. She pleaded with, begged, cajoled God to recompense her for what she had lost with my father. Perhaps out of hatred and disgust for him, she could never get used to him. Her resentment at him did not stop over time, but festered. The sore did not burst, but seeped. She hated him with every atom of her being, with every thought and feeling her body housed. She wished disaster upon him, illness, accidents, anything provided she did not have to nurse him. Revenge turned out to be sweet. God finally answered her when my father carried out a suicide bombing and killed lots of farmers, and himself too.
My mother would wake up at seven to make breakfast, and with her waking the familiar blare of the radio would impinge on me. A mixture of the voice of the broadcaster and the hiss of the samovar. The sound of car engines and the eager chaos of morning. A deep need for the songs of Fairuz and a boundless appetite for morning bustle. After the armed men came and occupied the town, the schools stopped completely. Morning rites stopped. The town fell silent. I spent a few days at home helping her. After my father began working with the armed men, I started helping her at her new job cleaning the armed men’s house.
The changes to my body coincided with the appearance of the armed men in our lives. My breasts began to swell and I started to grow fine down. This occupied me a great deal, while the world around me was occupied with fatwas and posters spread around the town by the armed men with bushy beards. The only talk doing the rounds were terrifying stories about these men with inscrutable, angry faces; fierce men whom everyone did not just fear but grovelled to.
During our work at the house where the armed extremists lived we saw many women. Women in niqabs who came from different parts of the world. One of the ways I entertained myself at that time was to observe them and inform my mother right away of all the details of their lives, which I gathered in total secrecy. These acts of espionage alleviated both my physical and sensual state. For without my knowledge of the many details of those women in that large house, mysterious women akin to prisoners or concubines, my life would have become a vague thing lost in the darkness of the rooms. It was my fate to work all the time in the women’s rooms, which were numerous and located in the rear of the house. My mother worked upstairs in the men’s rooms. The leader of the extremists ordered that her task be to clean the corridor, staircase, and numerous rooms that were usually empty in the morning. I worked in the rooms inhabited by the women – sad, mysterious women who moved calmly and silently. We did not talk with them because it was never allowed. The punishment was flogging or death. A very risky thing. My great curiosity, however, impelled me to learn everything about them. I scrutinized them carefully to get to know their faces. I kept my ears open to get to know their names. I tried to get to know them and their stories by listening to their whisperings to each other. I did all of that in silence so that nobody became suspicious.
In the evening, I would tell my mother everything I had heard about them. We would go home as soon as we finished the many tasks in the house so I could start relating the stories to her.
There, inside that house, we never spoke. We were not allowed to speak. Usually, each of us was silently engrossed in her work. We worked, without any communication, in full view of the armed men who watched us. However, after siesta, I would give my mother an account of the women guards or the prisoners with whom the armed men took turns to have sex.
These young, frightened, terrified women were the ones who brightened the drab lives of the armed men who passed through the house. Some would go on a silent mission. They would be credited with a great event and their life would be coloured with the colours of a secret love or a tragedy.
I told my mother about it all. At times I would embellish some of the stories from my imagination. Yes, it was like that. But my mother soon discovered the invention. I once told you that my mother had an unfailing instinct for discovering the workings of my imagination. In the same way, she would discover information I was trying to conceal from her. Her refined common sense and understanding spurred me to learn everything that went on under the roof of that large house. I became keen to learn exactly what each one of the armed men was up to, with whom he slept, with which prisoner.
This is what I remember of that time after our town lost the bustle of its streets. Really, it lost everything, as though life were no longer present. The town became more silent and more hysterical. I would even say to you that it was no longer a town, but an isolated military base, a base dormant in fear, submission, and humiliation. Its soul was constricted in fear and terror of the extremists. Every sound of life went silent. Car engines, cassette players, the radio, car horns, barks, snarls, human voices, the chirping of the sparrows, all of them stopped. A hellish symphony began, composed of the sounds of bullets and the screams of those killed and slaughtered with knives and the silent sobbing of the female captives.
I tell you, the palm trees were no longer green, yes, they were no longer green. Their erect tops were set alight by the burning rays of the sun. I tell you, the pavements were not as before, but as if vandalised because of the many holes and piles of rubbish.
As for the women, what should I tell you, my friend? The niqabs covered the women from head to toe. Yes, the city became a city of black crows where the women walked in silence, not uttering a word. Not just that, but there was a familiar scene you had to see every day: a couple of barefooted and half-naked men stretched out on the ground being flogged. You saw only the whips rising and falling on their backs and the bright colours.
A town struck by a plague, my friend. Without law and without order. A wasteland losing its identity, plagued by people from the desert and with monsters for neighbours. A town invaded by armed men where the biggest battles were over stealing property – houses or flocks of animals. It was the epitome of vice. They halted work and ruined our religion with their demonic incantations, They turned the town into ruins emanating the stink of sewerage.
I, however, was in another world! You smile.
The niqab was unable to restrain the defiance of my still youthful body. It was unable to threaten my blossoming. But what with being busy in the big house with my mother since the arrival of the armed men, my attention to the sad stories of those miserable women, my hearing the sound of their crying, and my acquaintance with many miserable details, did make a chill appear in my fresh soul and did affect my enjoyment of life.
Yes, everything changed for me. To begin with, I felt my womanhood was a flower opening inside me, but that was soon repressed by unparalleled force and violence.
What I remember of those days, for example, was how entranced I was by the tone of my words when my voice changed. I started listening to my voice as though I were listening to someone else. I loved it. I felt I was a woman. I knew I had left my childhood behind for good. But afterwards I grew afraid of it. Being a woman meant being desired and wanted by others. I felt this would make one of the men that surrounded me greedy for me. So I hated the transformation and the change to the sound of my voice and the way I spoke. I even started to hate everything around me. I began to live in anguish because of my fear of my body, my fear of my womanhood. No one could endure in the face of the viciousness of those men, bodies without souls. Their mouths were like the mouths of predators. Their voices were loud and annoying like drumming on a metal box. Their hands were rough and carried whips and guns. When they looked at me I felt as though they had murder in mind.
I would walk the streets quickly so none of them noticed my firm backside. I easily recognized their depressing faces and brazen looks. They walked around in groups to monitor the enforcement of the niqab for women. Their eyes were alert, their hearts malevolent. They were anticipating some mistake, a forbidden movement, in order to approach someone and frighten and terrify them. So many times I was walking in the street and saw my father with them, carrying his gun and whip, which he used to frighten people. So many times I saw him strolling happily along, pacing up and down the street, pacing up and down, his guards with him, alert, not for the warm breeze or the whisperings of the trees or the swoop of the birds or the radiant stars, but to humiliate someone or flog a violator, or censure a woman whose niqab had inadvertently slipped. I would return, saddened and panicky. I lived permanently afraid, an outcast among outcasts.
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