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.
excerpt from LAILA a novel by Fadi Zaghmout
Translated from the Arabic by Hajer Almosleh
IS THIS HOW YOU LIKE IT, HONEY?
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.