New Short Fiction: Salwa Al Neimi’s ‘Angels’

By Salwa Al Neimi

Translated by Hiba Moustafa

Translator’s note:

What I like most about the story is its unapologetic voice. It’s one of a woman whose marital life, and bed, has grown cold with the passage of time. She is having an affair with a man who rekindles her life and body with the fire of desire, and she has no qualms about it. She is neither feeling guilty nor thinking of putting an end to it. On the contrary, she is reveling in it and flourishing because of it; she is feeling alive once again. She is a woman, who seizes her desire into her hands, and her final act, taking the hand of her son, leaving her husband and home behind, is rebellious, a protest against marriage, where in a patriarchal and even religious system our desires as women are swept under the carpet, yet we are told it’s our duty to cater for and fulfill men’s.

Angels

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Oxford
EA1978.2573
Qazwin, c. 1580
(al-Qazwini, Zakariya; ʻAjaʼib al-makhluqat)

What is it that dies in me when I don’t do what I want? A headache. Petty and cowardly. The headache of the body’s laws, its needs, maybe. How long as it been since anyone kissed me? How long since I thought about kissing anyone? Ugh, this is much worse. A headache of the gall, where vapor rises into your head. I look at him sleeping. He snores a little. Scornfully, I listen to the sound of his snoring. This is marital development. In the beginning, I used to listen to his snoring with a melting heart. Signs of the beginning. Signs of the end. Perhaps what attracts you in the beginning is what repels you at the end. Who tries to understand it? I’m not trying. “You gave a lot and weren’t given enough,” the Other said. What is little and what is a lot? Give us the sustenance of our desire. One long kiss could have brought me to life. It is enough to close my eyes, but they’re wide open. Desire stops at the first blink. Which is more difficult, to say yes or to say no? Why do I want to say either? It’s enough to close my eyes and exchange warmth. How does a spinster sleep? A monkey trainer was yelling at a monkey on that street in Damascus. I don’t remember what it was doing, but people around it were laughing. I was a child and laughed with them. The spinster’s sleep? I discovered it without being one. I discovered it with a man who also sleeps the spinster’s sleep. How can a man and a woman sleep together like spinsters? In marriage. In the marital bed. In years of marriage. What remains of love after marriage? The spinster’s sleep. “I’ll be late the next two days,” I told him. His cold voice was anxious, then cutting. Was he punishing me? The word was no longer valid. Thanks to an old reflex, there was a lump in my throat as I hung up. It vanished with a curse. This lump could have shaken me at a time I no longer remember. Now, one curse is enough for it to jump out of my throat like a bouncing ball. He wants me back on time? It’s not longing; he just wants to see that I do my marital duties. What remains of us after years of marriage? Only marriage. There, I was lonely and close to my death. Here, I’m lonely and close to my death, as lonely as a mangy dog. Rather like a mangy bitch. What remains after years of marriage? The silence of marriage. A normal silence that’s neither tense nor deliberate. The Other said, “You flow. This is the image that will stay in my head, the image of a woman ready for love.” I enter the room alone and close the door behind me. What was dying in me, in the woman ready for love? The lightness of beginnings, the flapping of the wings of desire and the rush of blood. All this passes quickly every time, and one returns grief-stricken, like a bereaved child. Through the window, I see the sea raging after yesterday’s storm. The beach is as desolate as a desert. I think of going into the cold water all on my own, of plunging myself all in one go, and a chill runs through my body. I tremble with an orgasmic shiver. Shivers vary, but death is one. I stand open-eyed near the window while he sleeps. The kid is playing alone. Singing. Talking. Laughing. Screaming. Playing roles. He runs to me asking, “When will we swim in the sea?” “When the sun rises,” I say. “It rose,” he protests. “You’re right. It hides behind clouds,” I admit. “Why does it hide behind clouds?” he asks and runs away without waiting for an answer. I see him take off his pants. He runs to pee as he continues his endless chatter. “He would go crazy if he remained an only child. If only he had a brother or a sister,” he once said. “Jean-Paul Sartre was an only child,” I returned lightly. He looked at me sharply and said, “You’re ridiculous. You never change.” In the morning, I open my eyes, and my head swarms with fleeting images. I don’t bother to chase them. Let everything go. Let it leave. I want to remain empty like a drum. A headache. The headache of gall. The gall of the hesitant no. The gall of the uncertain no. The gall of restless sleep. The gall of forgetting or pretending to have forgotten the body. Cover it with laughter, with shining eyes, by searching the eyes of others for “Madame Lalla the Gazelle.” I will see the Other. I will say hello and close my eyes when he kisses me. I will kiss him, and he will kiss me. His lips passed over my face and my neck while I gazed at him. Once I read a study on the kiss and an explanation of the reasons for its pleasure. I forgot everything. I felt for his face like the blind. It was drawn with delicate lines. His kiss seeped into my blood. On the plane, I ran away from others. I took refuge in the window and the smell of smoke and escaped. Every time he sees me getting ready, he looks at me suspiciously and asks, “Since when this fondness of traveling?” “The requirements of work,” I reply, avoiding his looks. Should I tell him that these are the moments when I breathe? My safety valves. My vents. A fear of the idle. Fear of the grey. Fear of the spousal. I close the door behind me and leap into new days. When others ask, I reply painstakingly that I’m fine, that everyone is fine. I repeat it, a bit surprised. Someone else lives my life in that place. I’m sick with forgetfulness. I’m healthy with forgetfulness. The psychiatrist said that married couples, like the sea, go through periods of ebb and flow. Periods of attachment and periods of mourning. Alternating like day and night. Then which of your Lord’s favors will you both deny? I’m in a mourning period. Since when? I no longer remember, and it doesn’t matter. He said, “I don’t fancy wasting my life. I’m still young. I want a different life.” I don’t want anything. In the car, on the road to this coastal town, our arms and legs were touching. I remembered one of Dad’s stories that Mama hated. It was about a man who asked the opinion of a sheikh, fearing that his fasting was vitiated after he kissed his wife during a Ramadan day. The sheikh asked him, “How long have you been married?” “Twenty years,” the man replied. “Don’t worry. It’s as if you’ve kissed my buttocks,” the sheikh advised. We shouldn’t have waited twenty years for our fasting not to be vitiated. You are beside me, and I am trying to focus my feelings on our touches, but nothing. Two years ago, my body unfolded to another man for the first time. We were next to each other when his arm touched mine with the car’s vibrations. A sudden shiver ran through my body. I can hardly wait for the moment when we will be touching again. I looked into his face, and I discovered that I desired him. I discovered happily that I was still alive: breathing and desiring another man. Was I still capable of desiring? Like someone who has lived without a head for years, then felt it, to find it has sprouted again, hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and desiring. You used to say, “Don’t make me bear the burden of your faithfulness.” Next to this man, two years ago, I restored my blood’s glow as if recovering from a long illness, equally exhausted and happy. What remains after years of marriage? Before, even in the midst of our wars, our bodies would meet in silence and violence to part once more in the morning. These nighttime encounters were the last thing we had. I came close to you and felt your blood-filled desire on my skin. I opened my legs and you penetrated me in silence, except for our racing breaths until the final release. Not even this remained. I look at you sleeping, and I think of taking a single step. You open your eyes and I establish myself on your throne as I once did. I stay in my place behind the window. It wasn’t desire and I shouldn’t have resisted it. What remains after years of marriage? We become sexless angels. Here I am, erased like a paper. Marriage years has passed over me like a roller. Here I am, dull and cold and heavy, as if stones were dragging me to the bottom. A headache. Some dared, despite the wind, to visit the beach. I see them through the window, coaxing the sand but the sun is still hiding. I wanted to ask him, “What remains of marriage after all its years?” But I didn’t. Instead, I said, “I have an idea!” “What a start to the day!” he replied. “Don’t laugh,” I returned. “Bring it on!” he said. “Do you promise not to tell anyone?” I asked. He smiled wider and said, “Bring it on!” “A man is not alone with a woman, but that the third of them is Satan … except spouses,” I told him. He was quiet for a moment, thought about it, then laughed hard. He thought more and asked, “What occurred to you?” I said, shaking my shoulders, “Nothing. Nothing.” He laughed again, repeating it loudly, “Except spouses. Except spouses.” The sound of his laughter was behind me as I held the boy’s hand, heading to the door.

*

Salwa Al Neimi. She is a Syrian writer, poet and journalist living in France. Originally from Damascus, she is known for her outspoken views on topics which are taboo in the Islamic world, particularly female sexuality. In 2007 she published her debut novel, The Proof of the Honey, which was noted for its female sexual liberalization.

Hiba Moustafa is an emerging literary translator & poet. Her publications include ‘Contemplation’ in We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers by Saqi Books (UK, 2021), ‘Spaces’ by Sister-hood (UK, 2020) & an Arabic translation of Lucille Clifton’s ‘poem in praise of menstruation) by Rusted Radishes (Lebanon, 2019) plus a review, ‘Why Mona Eltahawy Wants to Smash the Patriarchy,’ by The Markaz Review (USA, 2020). Hiba is a volunteer senior translator & reviser with Translators without Borders (TWB) translating & revising over half a million words. She holds an MA in English literature plus two professional diplomas in translation and currently translates for My.Kali, a conceptual webzine for/from MENA that strives to address social problems, and empower the youth to defy mainstream gender binaries in the Arab world. Hiba co-translated this year’s Shubbak Festival copy; in August, she’s starting Unootha Writers’ Program, a month-long virtual summer program sponsored by the US Embassy in Algeria.

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