Fadi Zaghmout’s banned-in-Jordan “Laila”: a TMR Valentine

14 February, 2022,

 

Introduction by Rana Asfour

This sar­don­ic nov­el, inspired by Angela Carter’s Pas­sion of Eve from gen­der activist, blog­ger and author Fadi Zagh­mout, fol­lows Laila, a Jor­dan­ian mar­ried woman, who (this is no spoil­er) dies dur­ing sex with her mar­ried lover, Tariq. Her soul, “light as exhale,” hov­ers through­out the nov­el as she offers insight and run­ning com­men­tary on the lives of those who are left behind to deal with her death.

Unfa­mil­iar as such a begin­ning is in Ara­bic fic­tion, what is more shock­ing and quite dis­turb­ing is the man­ner in which Laila’s lover decides to cov­er up his act of infi­deli­ty to save his rep­u­ta­tion as one of Jordan’s most promi­nent sur­geons. Suf­fice to say that in a soci­ety that “asso­ciates mas­culin­i­ty with wash­ing away shame and dis­grace with blood,” Laila’s body ends up in a dump­ster on the side of the road. As the author­i­ties inves­ti­gate the “mur­der,” all eyes turn to Laila’s volatile rela­tion­ship with her hus­band and the tox­ic web of romances in which the heart and the mind are shaped, gov­erned and ulti­mate­ly shat­tered due to rigid cus­toms and tra­di­tions that allow injus­tices to pre­vail. As the nar­ra­tives merge, tying togeth­er the present and Laila’s vibrant life before her death, read­ers are left to ques­tion gen­der roles in mod­ern Arab soci­eties, and the declin­ing rights of women in Jor­dan specif­i­cal­ly, despite Jor­dan sign­ing and rat­i­fy­ing a num­ber of inter­na­tion­al con­ven­tions foun­da­tion­al to wom­en’s rights. Laila rep­re­sents employed, edu­cat­ed, young Jor­dan­ian women who want to do more than cook or raise chil­dren, and yet because of tra­di­tion­al soci­etal struc­tures that remain in place, are forced to endure claus­tro­pho­bic mar­riages in which com­pet­i­tive­ness and dom­i­nance are the stereo­typ­i­cal male behav­iors, while the expec­ta­tions for women are accom­mo­da­tion and passivity.

In this excerpt, Laila has already fall­en out of love with her hus­band, Firas, due in large part to their sex­u­al incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty as well as his insuf­fer­able tra­di­tion­al views on how she should behave as his wife. At this point in their rela­tion­ship, she is caught between car­ing and a sense that car­ing is pointless.

She is employed. He is not. She is into dom­i­na­tion and BDSM. He believes a wife should be sub­mis­sive, “a lady” both in and out of the bed­room. Although she rejects his sex­u­al advances he views her resis­tance as part of a game, a chase where he is preda­tor and she prey, a “fake resis­tance, the kind preva­lent in Egypt­ian movies, a form of coquet­tish hard-to-get play used by women to entice men and turn them on” at the end of which the female would sur­ren­der to the male’s mas­culin­i­ty and capit­u­late to his viril­i­ty. What Firas fails to reg­is­ter, through­out the nov­el, is that his wife has a right to express her sex­u­al pref­er­ence and is in fact a preda­tor her­self, albeit one who likes to “break a man, reduc­ing him to a meek lamb.” When she meets her soon to be lover, Tariq, through a secret BDSM Face­book page, he turns out to be exact­ly what she is look­ing for and when they final­ly get togeth­er in the real world, their fan­ta­sy-fueled love ses­sions, described in graph­ic detail in the nov­el, break each and every taboo. Zahgmout’s prose, ren­dered pro­fi­cient­ly into Eng­lish by Hajer Almosleh, over­flows with intro­spec­tion, the ten­sion bub­bling into vio­lence either phys­i­cal or exis­ten­tial. And despite the nov­el slight­ly metas­ta­siz­ing into a man­i­fes­ta­tion of its own ver­sion of a clichéd, qua­si-moral­is­tic finale rem­i­nis­cent of the Egypt­ian films that Laila dep­re­cates, it remains a rad­i­cal fem­i­nist book whose pro­tag­o­nist, even in death, remains unapolo­getic in the face of per­sis­tent old expec­ta­tions, con­ven­tions and biases.

It’s worth noth­ing that as the craze for ban­ning and burn­ing books esca­lates in the US, the MENA region has been mired in the tragedy for much longer. Fadi Zagh­mout has been at the receiv­ing end of such treat­ment in which copies of Laila, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Cairo under the title Laila and the Lamb and where it is sold, remain banned from enter­ing Jor­dan because of “a descrip­tion of the sex­u­al process as well as obscene words and ideas that are remote from our soci­ety,” accord­ing to Zaghmout’s entry on his blog The Arab Observ­er. And yet despite the back­lash the book and its author have received from the gov­ern­ing body of the Jor­dan­ian Media Com­mis­sion, I remain both heart­ened and dis­heart­ened that Laila was des­tined to be writ­ten by a male author, and yet it nev­er­the­less makes me won­der how much more of an uproar and author pitch­fork­ing it would have caused had it instead been writ­ten by a Jor­dan­ian woman.

Rana Asfour

 

excerpt from LAILA a novel by Fadi Zaghmout
Translated from the Arabic by Hajer Almosleh

CHAPTER 2
IS THIS HOW YOU LIKE IT, HONEY?
FIRAS

 

I am fair­ly sure that my dis­ap­pear­ance from the face of earth has been a con­stant wish nur­tured by my hus­band Firas for months, ever since he real­ized that our mar­ried life had left him unable to mold me into the image of his choice. Like oth­er men, he saw him­self in con­trol of any rela­tion­ship he had with women. And like them, he tried to exploit any and all inher­it­ed social priv­i­leges left at the dis­pos­al of his gen­der to con­trol me. What he failed to real­ize was that I, like many oth­er women, nev­er fell for those lies soci­ety tried to impose on us.

Firas’s imag­i­na­tion must have craft­ed var­i­ous sce­nar­ios for my death, per­haps as the result of a car crash caused by my reck­less dri­ving. But unlike the vague idea of death occa­sion­al­ly cross­ing my mind, Firas’s fan­ta­sy was a wish he could hard­ly wait to see fulfilled.

“If you’d only died, it would have been bet­ter for the two of us!” That was my husband’s response yes­ter­day when I told him I had nar­row­ly avoid­ed a col­li­sion with a speed­ing car near Um Uthaina inter­sec­tion. I felt punched in the stom­ach when I heard his words, even though his aggres­sive atti­tude no longer fazed me. I was used to his pecu­liar­i­ties by then, hav­ing been mar­ried to him for two years pre­ced­ed by the full year I spent try­ing to know him bet­ter. Dur­ing those three years, I real­ized that he wasn’t capa­ble of for­giv­ing any­one who offend­ed him. On the con­trary, he was weak and vul­ner­a­ble. He felt slight­ed by every­thing, even things which did not amount to insults, and he was quick to offend oth­ers if he felt his dig­ni­ty was threatened. 

I should have expect­ed that response from him after the way I reject­ed him the same morn­ing when he rubbed against me and want­ed to have sex. Nev­er­the­less, I was sur­prised at his audac­i­ty in voic­ing his wish to see me dead, just like that.

He was rude when he crept up to me in the bath­room as I was brush­ing my teeth. He hugged me from behind, and, mak­ing sure I felt the bulge in his pants, he swept my hair from my shoul­der, his lips ready to plant a kiss on my neck. He still want­ed to impose his man­hood on me as if his lim­it­ed way of think­ing could not accept the fact that I was repulsed by him. As if his ears were tuned deaf every time I said in no uncer­tain terms, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thou­sand times: I don’t want you!”

My entire body trem­bled the sec­ond I felt him close to me. My mus­cles tensed and my blood boiled. I tried to con­trol myself and avoid any kind of overblown reac­tion, but he was shame­less. He didn’t care. He was enjoy­ing the burst of male hor­mones gush­ing through his veins, ready to act on the urge cours­ing through his body. I let him plant his kiss on me as I resist­ed an over­whelm­ing desire to grab the per­fume bot­tle in front of me and spray it in his eyes or to bite his arm, right on the cut I inflect­ed on him the day before. He would have screamed in pain as he hurled a tor­rent of insults at me, or he would have prob­a­bly slapped me or lunged at me, try­ing to hit and hurt me worse than I had hurt him. I would have respond­ed in kind, slap­ping him back if he slapped me, claw­ing his face with my nails, or kick­ing him in the balls to teach him nev­er to do that to me again.

But I was wise and act­ed fast. I ignored his erec­tion pressed up against me. I fin­ished brush­ing my teeth and put the tooth­brush down. I took a sip of water, rinsed my mouth, spat the water out, and then quick­ly turned off the tap and qui­et­ly peeled myself away, leav­ing the bath­room as if noth­ing had hap­pened. He fol­lowed me a minute lat­er, a wicked smile on his face.

I real­ized that his mind refused to reg­is­ter that I was reject­ing him, so he decid­ed to think of my reac­tion as part of a game. A chase where he was the preda­tor and I the prey. The idea of him as the preda­tor gave him a sense of pow­er, while my resis­tance trans­lat­ed in his mind as a chance to prove his dom­i­nance over me, an invi­ta­tion to reassert his mas­culin­i­ty. He must have viewed it as fake resis­tance, the kind preva­lent in Egypt­ian movies. A form of coquet­tish hard-to-get play used by women to entice men and turn them on. At the end of such a sce­nario, in his mind, after a few flir­ta­tious moves and acts of fake mod­esty, I was bound to fall into his arms, sur­ren­der to his mas­culin­i­ty, capit­u­late to his virility.

I was a preda­tor. I didn’t think much of the chase unless I was the one doing the chas­ing, the one break­ing a man, reduc­ing him to a meek lamb. Obe­di­ent, sub­mis­sive. Under my con­trol. I had to act firm­ly when Firas stealth­ily slunk up behind me as I stood in front of the mir­ror clasp­ing my bra. I spun around and looked him straight in the eye. “What do you want?”

“Gosh! You’re so stub­born,” he huffed, as if he didn’t expect my ques­tion, or was too embar­rassed to come out and just say he want­ed me.

“I’m the one who’s stub­born?” I snapped, turn­ing my back to him. I picked up my eye­lin­er and leaned for­ward, clos­er to the mirror.

“Yes. You. You’re so stub­born!” he yelled at me.

“And so are you!” I yelled back as I opened my eye wide to line it with kohl.

“Oh, come on. Let’s give it a try,” he said sud­den­ly, chang­ing his tone, try­ing to win me over.

“We’ve tried plen­ty of times, Firas. You want some­thing and I want some­thing else,” I replied, unmoved.

“See how stub­born you are? You insist on act­ing like the man in bed.”

I stopped doing my eye­lin­er and fixed a sharp gaze on him. “Fuck off!” I said, before adding cyn­i­cal­ly, “Shouldn’t you first know what being a man real­ly means?”

“Respect your­self and act like a lady!” he yelled.

“Act like a lady?” I almost fell to the floor laugh­ing. “Yes, sir. What­ev­er you say, hon­ey. If you say so, dar­ling. I’ll respect my self and act like a lady, just like you want me to.” I smoothed my long hair behind my ears and spun around to face him. I put my fin­ger in my mouth, lick­ing it and tilt­ing my head as I gazed at him seduc­tive­ly, adopt­ing the flir­ta­tious Syr­i­an accent of the women from Bab al-Hara *. “Is this how you like it, babe? What can I do for you, my king, my universe?”

Dumb­found­ed, he watched me car­ry on with my play­act­ing, mak­ing fun of him.

“I’m at your beck and call, love,” I teased. I took two steps toward the bed and sat down gen­tly, pout­ing like Haifa Wehbe in her “Boos El Wawa” music video. I pressed my knees togeth­er, lay my head on the pil­low, and, run­ning my fin­gers across my breasts, whis­pered seduc­tive­ly, “Come on then. Come and get it.”

But before he could make a move, I flicked the switch, chang­ing my tone of voice and my body language.

“I know it’s how you want me to be,” I said, stand­ing up and adopt­ing a seri­ous tone. I raised my head to look him in the eye and added, “But I’m not like that and I will nev­er be like that. Not for you and not for any­one else. Got it?”

I said that and went back to what I was doing, ignor­ing him. As I fin­ished get­ting dressed, I could see him in the mir­ror, per­plexed, aston­ished, his eyes fixed on me.

“I’m the idiot who mar­ried a nut­case!” he yelled after a few sec­onds had passed, right before storm­ing out of the room and slam­ming the door behind him.

I took a deep breath after he left. I stood in front of the mir­ror exam­in­ing my facial expres­sion. I couldn’t help think­ing: was I right to treat him like that? Did he deserve it?

I fin­ished fix­ing my hair, picked up my purse and left the room. I looked for him and found him in the kitchen pour­ing him­self a glass of milk and eat­ing a sand­wich. He pre­tend­ed I wasn’t there. I stood silent­ly. I couldn’t bring myself to apol­o­gize to him. And know­ing him, I didn’t expect him to apol­o­gize, either.

 I left him like that and went out. A cou­ple of hours lat­er, I called to smooth things over between us. His tone on the phone sug­gest­ed he had for­got­ten what hap­pened. So, when I described to him the details of the near-miss car acci­dent, I was actu­al­ly attempt­ing to dif­fuse the ten­sion between us and get things back to nor­mal. That’s why express­ing his wish for my death was par­tic­u­lar­ly vile and uncalled-for.

The next day, unprompt­ed, I ful­filled his fan­ta­sy, leav­ing him wal­low­ing in remorse, wish­ing he could turn back the clock to forty-eight hours before, to stop him­self from form­ing the very thought he had dared utter out loud.

 

* Bab al-Hara is a Syr­i­an dra­ma series set in the 1920s. The first series (sea­son), direct­ed by Bas­sam al-Mul­la, was aired in 2006.

Fadi Zaghmout is a Jordanian author and gender activist. He holds an MA in Creative Writing and Critical Thinking from Sussex University in the UK. He has four published novels: The Bride of Amman, Heaven on Earth, Laila and Ebra wa Kushtuban. His work has been translated to English, French and Italian. In 2021, Fadi was one of the finalists for UK Alumni Global Award under the category of social impact. He tweets @fadizaghmout.

Rana Asfour is a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She blogs at BookFabulous.com and is TMR's Book Editor, culling and assigning new titles for review. Rana also chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.

Fadi Zaghmoutgender activistinfidelityJordanian womenmarriage

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