(c) Dave Wood
  Semia Harbawi is an Assistant Professor at the English Department of the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, University of Tunis, Tunisia.  She teaches English and postcolonial literature.

Her stories have been published in numerous journals, such as The Blood Orange Review, The Hamilton Stone Review, The Taj Mahal Review, Moondance, Miranda Literary Magazine, and Long Story Short.

 


Fall 2007

Table of Contents - Vol. III, No. 3

Poetry    Translations    Interview    Essays    Fiction    Book Notes & Reviews

 

Semia Harbawi

 

The Guest Room

The sand was warm and humid. It felt like voracious baby mouths sucking away at Maleeka’s feet with each step of the way, engulfing each toe in a moist, surrendering embrace. And then there were the voices. Just whispers at first, spectral echoes hovering at the fringes of her consciousness. The voices soon morphed into moans whose cadence varied, surged and receded. Tremulous sighs – rasping, harsh and irregular – poked at the solid sheath of silence that seemed to weigh like a pall on the phantasmagorical landscape where she found herself.

Now she was ankle deep in the rapacious hold of the sand under her feet. Her whole body started to tingle with an unknown, inexplicable sensation. The voices, an androgynous aural mix of groans, grunts, yelps and whimpers reached a crescendo of urgency and dead finality. Their pitch and texture sent stabs of pain into her very core. But it was a sweet kind of pain, unbearably so, and she found herself transfixed by its incommensurable sweetness. Somewhere, in her lower parts, a searing sensation erupted with a staggering force. The dull, ravenous throbbing, which ensued, was punctuated by clenching spasms. Then she was fully awake. The sheets on the bed were bunched and wrapped round her legs like the clambering tendrils of a vine. Her body was coated in a glistening film of perspiration that pooled between her breasts as she was lying on her side. The dull throbbing in the pit of her stomach went on for a few seconds, the surviving remnant of a disturbing dream that left her physically drained and disoriented. The voices were still rising and dropping in a halting cadence that accompanied her frantic heartbeat. The voices suddenly subsided. Like a balloon that got punctured by a curious, naughty child. Maleeka was taken aback by the quality of silence that substituted itself for the strange chorus whose source was not clear. She was torn by the variety of emotions that gripped her in the middle of this strange night in her exiguous room. Why was she feeling forlorn after the throbbing dwindled away, only a shadowy memory now? What were those voices? Could it be the woman who used to live in the adjoining house and who hung herself after her lover had run away with her own daughter? Maleeka firmly believed in the lingering spirits of the dead that were reluctant to leave their earthly abode. She shifted slightly and pricked up her ears for the evanescent sound. She got off the narrow bed and padded barefoot to the door. She cautiously cracked it open and caught a glimpse of her mother’s yellow caftan as she moved stealthily in the faintly lighted vestibule unawares that her daughter was watching her. Her mother was clearly going about her business (whatever that business might be at this ungodly hour of the night) with a crisp alertness that finally obliterated the last traces of somnolence in Maleeka’s mind. The mother was carrying a bundle of what seemed to be bed linen. Was her mother going to change a bed now? Why? What was the haste about? Maleeka silently retreated into her room and lay sleepless on her bed.

*******

Maleeka had thick eyebrows which met in the narrow region topping the bridge of her nose. It amused her to think they were like the unfurled wings of a scared raven about to take to flight. She constantly fantasized about the shape she wanted to tame them into assuming. Sometimes, she felt they overhung her eyes like a malevolent hairy snake. It was out of the question to pluck them, not until she got herself a husband. That was the same old thing her mother, Fadheela, never failed to harp on. Ironically, Fadheela was a hannena and as such, she was a wizard with the tweezers and the kheet, the thread used for plucking superfluous facial hairs, which Maleeka liked to envision as a hair snare.

Fadheela was the traditional equivalent of a modern-day beautician, but she did not work in a beauty parlour. She mainly conducted her business from her house situated in a working class district in Tunis or occasionally paid visits to her most prosperous clients in the affluent northern suburbs. A hannena’s job mainly consists in rendering women and young brides as desirable in their husbands’ eyes as decency, and in many cases indecency, would have it. Though part of a hannena’s task is to adorn women’s hands and feet with skilfully tattooed patterns of henna and harkoos, her chief mission is to remove the unwanted hairs on a woman’s body, which might dampen a man’s carnal enthusiasm or impede his progress. It is tantamount to tucking in a delicious cake and finding some of the cook’s hairs embedded in the frosting or greedily slurping some delectable seafood soup (not that delectable if the girl had not beforehand proceeded to a painstaking personal toilet) and ending with some hairs on your tongue or caught between your teeth. Most Tunisian men like their women as hairless as pre-teen girls (and perhaps, in some cases, boys too). For that reason, hairs have been perceived as a potential turning-off danger for masculine ardour so much so that their eradication is as mandatory as that of pests and rats. What is more, it should be performed every forty days, in the best of cases, in conformity with Islamic teachings regarding the paramount importance of cleanliness.

Accordingly, the most effective method, favoured by the clients and informing the centrepiece of the trade plied by Fadheela, was the sukor, the traditional depilatory sugaring paste: a molasses-like admixture of water, lemon juice and sugar boiled down to the consistency of soft caramel whose lingering aroma always pervaded the air in the house. Maleeka was always fascinated by the way her mother would pluck a blob of the hot syrupy solution to tweak and stretch it like plasticine in order to test its manipulability between the roughened pads of her forefinger and thumb. The sukor would, then, remind Maleeka of the elastic fluidity of molten glass before it got moulded into various wares. Her mother would delicately blow on the gluey matter before dexterously spreading it on the client’s targeted area. She would next snatch away the viscous strip before it became hardened by the ambient air. It was akin to a sleight-of-hand trick. Maleeka’s eyes would trail the movement of her mother’s fingers as they nipped and swiped. The swath of sukor would come away peppered with the small, obstinate hairs reluctantly curled up into themselves. It was a war of attrition; a never-ending cyclical strife.

Maleeka had tried once to taste the sukor, deceived as she was by its cloying, toffee-like fragrance. It stuck to her teeth and coated them with a grainy, harsh texture that belied its former malleability. She had even attempted, on one occasion, to remove the hairs on her left arm with some sukor she rescued out of an old pan her mother had intended to dispense with. She guiltily re-liquefied the hardened solution in another utensil and forced her sister Hassna, four years younger than herself, to become her guinea pig in a game of make-believe where Maleeka became her mother and her sister one of the women who came to slough off their ungainly body hairs for softer, more feminine selves. The caramelized sugar insidiously stuck onto the soft spot behind her sister’s knee like a leech feeding on her vital sap. It soon started to solidify, gathering obdurate consistency. Hassna whined in pain and Maleeka panicked. She finally had to literally scrape it off her sister’s flesh with the blunt side of a knife. It did not occur to her that she could clean up the mess with some tepid water. The stuff left a blushing telltale spot that looked as if greedy lips had sucked onto the tender flesh. Since that mishap, Maleeka never dared dabble with the treacherous substance again.

She would often catch herself meditating on the mystical significance allotted to hairs, those obstinate, ever resurrected extensions of the human body. She even learnt from her science class at school that they carried on growing even after a person died. This observation never failed to trigger the vision of her grandmother, who had died the year before, with her skull going on sprouting hennaed wisps in a medusa-like fashion, for the old woman never suffered her hair to go without that carroty orange tint which was the colour of a watery, diluted memory of a sunset.

Whenever she could, Maleeka would hang around in a corner of the sitting room where her mother ‘cleaned’ her customers. The room had long become the scene of her instruction in most female-related subjects. She soaked up the women’s words, but was forbidden to participate in the conversation and her presence went mostly unnoticed. The women were sometimes like sirens, those creatures that would inveigle men into a sure, horrible death. At other times they turned, in her mind, into odalisques, the courtesans of old reclining on the mattress, which her mother reserved for such occasions, in languorous voluptuousness, opening up like exotic, downy flowers; willing receptacles for her mother’s ministrations. Or rather thorny roses with her mother as the patient, ever devoted gardener. Sometimes, body hair was as rampant as unwieldy foliage, luxuriating in the shadowy dampness of crevices and furrows, trying to nurture a secure hold on the territory it had claimed. Sukor reminded Maleeka then of the honeydew found on leaves and stems. It adhered to all planes, crevices, nooks and crannies to reveal the painfully glorious smoothness lurking beneath, biding its time; the red, blotchy flesh glorying in its newly-found immaculateness as Fadheela sprayed it with talcum powder with the same frugal gesture she resorted to when sprinkling flour on the low wooden table to knead dough for the preparation of traditional almond-stuffed pastries.

The women’s private parts resembled the superimposed petals of cyclamens. Pubic hair, which was sometimes delimited by a caesarean scar weaving its way across the underbelly, came in different shapes, lengths, shades, resistance and degrees of bushiness for which Maleeka devised different slots and categories: there was the angel-hair-vermicelli type; the frizzled glistening ebony tufts reminiscent of a black man’s head; the feathery, downy patch; or the withered, lacklustre straggling sprigs on the older ones. On young brides, it looked as if a small animal could get itself entangled and stranded in a sort of Red-Riding-Hood forest nightmare. As if these girls had black, gaping holes at the center of their bodies that might threaten to gulp a man whole. These were mostly virgins, for no married woman could suffer herself to go as hairy as that out of concern that her husband might grow repulsed and seek a more weeded-out playing ground.

There were sometimes strange bruises on the inside of some of the clients’ thighs, moody purplish smudges mottling the tender expanse of the secretive flesh. In her ignorance, Maleeka thought those women must have bumped themselves, but came to learn that these were love bites usually exhibited like hunting trophies, fondly lingered upon, like some men with their war scars. These love bites proved the surest barometer of the women’s desirability. Maleeka used to wonder about the kind of hunger that would impel a man to bite his wife or girlfriend. Were all men like that? If that was the case, she wished she would never get married. But then these women did not seem to mind. On the contrary.

The women would bandy racy stories with a blunt and merry bawdiness, perhaps to divert their attention from Fadheela’s merciless swiping away with the sukor at their flesh. Fadheela herself was a brilliant raconteur who would weave intricate tales to take the mind of the younger women among her clientele off the suffering she was visiting on them. Maleeka marvelled at the great lengths of pain the women were willing to endure and even gladly embrace to please their husbands or lovers, or both in some cases. It never failed to strike her as a baffling enigma, since those same women often relished the exercise of regurgitating old grudges against those very men they so desperately wanted to please. They chewed them to bits and washed down the bitter dregs of their rankling resentment in scalding green tea with pine kernels sloshing about in Fadheela’s finely chiselled tea glasses.

The latter had expressly warned her daughters against the temptation of wanting to pluck their eyebrows or sugar the hairs on their arms, legs or the downy patch on their upper lips. “It’s the badge of your honour, your way of saying to the world that you’ve been good girls, that you’ve resisted the ways of the Sheitan, the Devil, that no man’s finger was ever laid on you.” That they were, in sum, untamed, unexplored territory and their body hair bore witness to, even guaranteed, that. The implication was that on their respective wedding days, they would emerge like a chrysalis out of its cocoon, their flesh untried, wholly sugared from brow to toes, glowing with its newborn-baby softness, finally primed for the groom’s touch. But Maleeka thought no man ever deserved the pain such an experience as sugaring entailed, especially in the beginning before a woman grew accustomed to the wrenching pain, not unlike being flayed alive. She prayed on those occasions that her prospective husband would not object to the brambly, curly hairs in her intimate parts where she would tangle her fingers each time she took her bath. Under the surface of the tub water, the mound of hairs at the center of Maleeka’s gangling body would acquire, on some occasions, the contours of algae and on others, those of a peaceful sea urchin. Her friend Nama told her once that European men did not mind hairy women. They even liked them that way: the other night in her parents’ house, Nama was on her way to the toilet, when she sneakily glimpsed through the half-open door of the sitting room a few explicit sequences in a French movie her father was surreptitiously watching in the middle of the night with the TV sound off. The close-up of that part of the woman’s anatomy where a blond man’s head nestled seemed to have never been cleared of undergrowth and the man seemed to immensely enjoy himself, as obviously did Nama’s father.

*******

There was a darker side to Fadheela’s trade. Some customers were young women who paid furtive visits and left without making eye contact with anyone. They looked the way a dog might before it was put down. These belonged to a special category that formed the slimy underbelly to Fadheela’s otherwise respectable business. They were girls who had lost what they should have endeavoured to preserve until their wedding’s night. Because they had succumbed to a shameful weakness, they were banished from the ranks of decent, virtuous women and hurtled head-on in the pariah status, the dross of woman kind, those no man would take unto him as a lawful wife and the mother of his future offspring. The demarcation line was so harshly drawn it could have been a day-glo frontier intended to be descried from afar. Some of these women resigned themselves to their outcast lot, but others grimly held onto their social niche on the right side of the day-glo border line, the aura of the husband and children fantasy far too overpowering not to make them resort to unorthodox, desperate measures to counterfeit the condition of wholeness to which they had normally ceased to rightfully lay claim.

Fadheela had a store of unusual ‘remedies’ that could momentarily restore a girl’s chastity to a pseudo-initial pristine state, with the man none the wiser. It was a game of pandering to the masculine expectation of being the first to ever set foot on a new shore. It also consisted in battening on the fragile ego of the Tunisian man who was, like most Arabs, brought up with the firm belief that his bride had to be like virgin territory, which would preclude the unnerving possibility of seeing his performance compared with that of the girl’s potential former lovers.

There was, for instance, the clove of garlic that Fadheela would prick with a heated needle until it oozed. She would then insert it into the girl’s vagina and withdraw it on the morning of the following day. The whole procedure had to be repeated seven times; the magic ritual number a solid thread stringing together Fadheela’s belief system made up of a bric--brac of religious precepts and superstitious convictions whose force she managed to inject into her motley practice. If the defloration was not recent, Fadheela had recourse to her favourite mortar and pestle to grind into a fine powder some herb ominously called chandgoora, some alum and some afs, whose round shell bristling with spikes had some women cooing and wickedly giggling about its close likeness to a certain male organ. This powder had the miraculous effect of constricting and drying up the vagina on the eve of the wedding day in a bid to cause the much-sought bleeding. On other occasions, shards of glass were burnt until they were reduced into minuscule crumbly fragments, then Fadheela would wrap them up in oil-soaked cotton to which she would affix a short thread that should be left sticking out of the wad. Next, the whole lot would be inserted into the girl’s private parts. A few moments before the consummation of her marriage, the bride would contrive to pull on the thread to remove the pessary-like cotton roll that would slightly wound the vagina and make it bleed.

*******

Maleeka’s oral tutelage in the sitting room, along with her readings, informed a sort of ragbag of certainties and notions, where she could rootle, time and again, to mend the baffling blanks that quite often stared her square in the face. But nothing could have prepared her for that day in October when she came home from school before her sister and was not greeted by the usual mix of aromas that was the olfactory imprint of her mother’s trade. Nor was she met with the jaunty female laughter that was like bubbles constantly erupting in their house. The silence was dismal and she was not prepared for the yet more dismal news warily relayed by a squirming neighbour who clearly did not want to be seen on Fadheela’s doorstep “Your mother is in the police station. She got arrested in a police raid in Hossni the photographer’s studio. This is what she told me on the phone to tell you. I know nothing else.” It was like a hammer blow to the chest. Images started to twirl and swirl in a hurry to saturate Maleeka’s mind with a vision of her mother in a cell with thieves and God knew who else. It transpired that Fadheela had been ‘preparing’ women, who were in fact prostitutes, for lewd pictures to be taken of them by that scum Hossni who would later sell them in the black market. The women’s flesh had to look satiny and body hair could mar the general effect. Fadheela had only to ‘clean’ them in the studio backroom. Maleeka could not bring herself to believe her mother did that. And since in Tunisia, activities involving women of easy virtue were forbidden by law, the vice squad got a whiff and arrested everyone in the studio, Fadheela among them. She was soon tried and walked off with three months. Before the trial, she managed to speak to sixteen-year-old Maleeka: “I want you to take care of everything. Your sister is your responsibility now. Don’t let me down. I’ll be soon home.” She did not even try to justify herself. Maleeka stopped going to school.

Two days later, the phone rang. A woman’s voice asked to speak to Fadheela. She clearly did not know about the mortifying scandal. Maleeka answered that she was in charge until her mother came back from her Hajj to Mecca. “Well, then, prepare the room for this afternoon at four o’clock.” What room? What was the woman talking about? “The guest room, you idiot! I hope Fadheela has explained to you that we pay her good money for that small room of hers. Get it ready by four!” and she hung up. Maleeka was baffled. Why would this woman need to pay for their guest room? But she did as she was told and even burnt some myrrh and incense as her mother had taught her to do before a guest’s arrival so that cooking odours would be dispelled. She brewed some green tea and could not stop speculating about the identity of this ‘guest.’ Sometime before four, there was a knock on the door. A man and a woman came in without any preamble. They did not seem to belong in the neighbourhood. These were clearly not the working class type judging from the cut of their clothes and the overpowering scent of the woman’s perfume. And they were in an awful hurry. “I phoned this morning. I hope the room is ready!” Maleeka recognized the woman’s voice. She led the way in silence and ushered them into the guest room. After she closed the door on them, she stood there for what seemed like ages. And then similar to threads slowly unraveling, sounds emerged. Barely contained whispers at first, which started coagulating into whimpers and grunts: they were the ghost sounds of the other night’s dream, the one that triggered in her the strange, excruciatingly sweet sensations. It then dawned on her. Fadheela had been hiring the room, with the bed that was the grandmother’s heirloom, for strangers to frolic about . Maleeka thought she knew the worse about her mother but this capped it all! And then Maleeka remembered the father, her father, who had immigrated to France on the pretext of sending money back to feed them, but he never came back and they never heard of him ever since. At this thought, Maleeka’s anger abated. Could she possibly blame her mother? She was doing what she could to look after her daughters. Would she pay her back with ingratitude? Her thoughts were disrupted when the pair emerged as hurriedly as when they got into the room. The only clue as to what they had been doing was their flushed faces and glittering eyes. The man handed Maleeka a wad of crisp bills before leaving. As simple as that. They were unmistakably an adulterous couple in a Tunisian society that still lived by Arabo-Islamic proscriptions. Instead of quailing at the perspective, Maleeka was oddly titillated at being part of such secretive, forbidden practices. And the money! More than she could imagine. Other couples came and she was more than happy to get the guest room ready for them. They were ‘special guests,’ as it were, and she became more than a willing hostess. She felt sophisticated, worldly, and mature. She put on a jaded mien whenever she escorted a couple into the room, but she mostly kept this knowledge from Hassna, her twelve year old sister, until the day the man, with the strawberry-birthmark on the side of his neck, made his entry into their lives.

He was another ‘special guest.’ He arrived at their house before his lady friend and installed himself in the sitting room supremely irritated by the woman’s tardiness. He unceremoniously asked Maleeka to fetch him a cup of green tea. It was the time at which Hassna chose to come back from school. Her chubby face and liquid doe eyes instantly sparked the interest of the man whose frustration had been steadily and dangerously building up due to the defection of his lover. Maleeka heard him from the kitchen speaking softly to Hassna and she caught a glimpse of his long fingers stroking the young girl’s hair. He had clearly made her sit down by his side. The flesh on Maleeka’s back grew clammy as she watched the man’s hand slowly descend to rest on Hassna’s thigh. He did not seem the type to leave if she, Maleeka, asked him to. Not without getting his way first. And he seemed quite bent on doing just that. She was frightened he might become violent and harm her little sister who seemed like a rabbit caught in a hurtling car’s glaring headlights. Maleeka debated her options and hastily returned to the sitting room. She handed him the glass of tea while she tried to hold his gaze in what she fervently prayed was a blatant invitation. The man grew momentarily confused before eyeing Maleeka with renewed curiosity. “She’s only twelve but I’m sixteen and I have had more experience with men than she has, if you see what I mean.” Maleeka’s lie sounded both improbable and awkward to her own ears. She prayed the man’s attention was effectively turned away from her sister. Before he had time to answer, Maleeka shot Hassna a warning glance and the young girl scampered out of the room. “Your friend won’t come. It’s clear she’s stood you up. How about I replace her?” The man was plainly stunned by the unexpected proposal, but hurriedly agreed, not believing his luck. When he extended his hand to grab her, Maleeka flinched but covered up her gesture by quickly smiling and said: “I’m a virgin and I can’t possibly accede to your demands if I want to ever get married one day. But I can service you in another more pleasurable way if it’s OK with you.” The man slowly smiled as Maleeka started undoing the zipper on his trousers. He leaned his head backward and closed his eyes in anticipation. She calmly reached for the tea kettle on the coffee table and with a deliberate and deliberated gesture, she splashed the steaming amber liquid on the man’s crotch. He sprang to his feet like a jack-in-the-box and howled a volley of colourful invectives while cupping his hands around his scalded privates. Without wasting any more time, Maleeka grabbed her mother’s broom and hit him squarely on his back and legs. In the clutch of pain and surprise, it did not occur to him to retaliate. With blows hailing on his body, he quickly hitched up his trousers and made a dash for the front door. Maleeka started sobbing with relief.

*******

The morning after Fadheela came back home, a proud Maleeka handed her mother a hefty envelope with neatly stashed rolls of bills. When Fadheela inquired about the provenance of the money, Maleeka smugly explained how she had successfully taken over the management of the guest room. The sharp crack of the mother’s hand across the daughter’s face echoed through the room. “How dare you, you dumb slut. I never meant you to be part of such sordid business. I only asked you to take care of your little sister, was it much to ask from you?” Fadheela’s voice was uncannily measured belying the violence of her words. The silence assumed a fug-like quality that engulfed both women. Maleeka was rubbing at her tingling cheek and she went at it with a vengeance, swallowing back the tears and the scathing repartee that would certainly have burst into a huge blister of anger, bringing a few truths home to her mother. Then Fadheela heaved a resigned sigh, her narrow bosom rising and falling with each inhalation and exhalation. “Go put fresh sheets in the guest room and burn some incense. We’ll have new guests coming tonight.”  

 

Semia Harbawi

Poetry    Translations    Interview    Essays    Fiction    Book Notes & Reviews

   
     

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