“Gluttony” from Abbas Beydoun’s “Frankenstein’s Mirrors”

15 March, 2022,
“Crime and Pun­ish­ment,” Mar­wan Sah­marani (b. Lebanon 1970), oil on can­vas 250x400cm, 2013 (cour­tesy Leila Heller Gallery).

 

In Frankenstein’s Mir­rors, Abbas Bay­doun presents a col­lec­tion of auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal vignettes that reflect—and reflect on—moments both in and out of time. Each chap­ter cap­tures an expe­ri­ence, how­ev­er fleet­ing, as it rip­ples around the author’s life in often unex­pect­ed ways. Though self-con­tained, the chap­ters work togeth­er to form a more per­fect whole, to elu­ci­date unnamed rela­tion­ships and to paint the por­trait not only of a par­tic­u­lar man but also of the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty he comes to represent.

We enter “Glut­tony” just as the nar­ra­tor finds him­self awake and cov­ered in cold sweat. We don’t know why, only why not: it wasn’t the heat and it wasn’t a dream. The unset­tled states of the open­ing para­graph seem to set up a tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive arc. Indeed, the sto­ry is sub­se­quent­ly said to begin with a box of choco­lates. Yet, what fol­lows is not a sto­ry in the tra­di­tion­al sense but rather a dis­cur­sive stream carv­ing its way through a canyon of sen­su­ous detail. Baydoun’s atten­tion to the small­est of things bor­ders on excess, while his lack of expo­si­tion asks us to accept his world as a giv­en. Who is this Dun­ya whose choco­lates promise the nar­ra­tor what oth­ers seek out in books? Again, we don’t know. But from the very begin­ning, we are immersed in a unique­ly mate­r­i­al world, which—like Dunya’s namesake—bridges the gap between human expe­ri­ence and spir­i­tu­al inef­fa­bil­i­ty, imag­i­na­tion and inspi­ra­tion. A world that evokes bit­ter­ness, arousal, and of course gluttony.

 

Abbas Baydoun

Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Lily Sadowsky

  

I awoke, my brow clam­my with cold sweat. My blan­ket was light, and I had wor­ried it wouldn’t be warm enough. I had wound it around my body to guard against the cold night but had dozed off in front of the TV and couldn’t muster the ener­gy to get up and get anoth­er. All through the night, I’d had the fun­ny feel­ing that I wasn’t cov­ered, yet here I was—awake, my head damp from cold sweat still seep­ing from my pores. Each time I wiped it with the sleeve of my paja­mas, it flowed anew. Was this because of a dream? The thought crossed my mind, but I didn’t remem­ber dream­ing and I didn’t remem­ber for­get­ting a dream. In fact, my dreams had been wan­ing recent­ly. Was this because my mem­o­ry was reced­ing? The thought also crossed my mind. I awoke with a bit­ter, almost fune­re­al feel­ing. An idea had plant­ed itself firm­ly between my teeth and in my throat: life begins as a loss and, from the out­set, resem­bles death. I awoke with a stiff erec­tion too, one devoid of desire though I’m still young and full of promise.

Lay­er­ing the inside of my head were deposits of thought that accu­mu­lat­ed as I churned. I was con­fused about where to begin. I felt that my engorged penis wouldn’t bring glad tid­ings, that it was the trace of a bad dream—one that had all but com­plete­ly evap­o­rat­ed from my mind, one that had left behind only bit­ter­ness. I tried to bend it in my hand, beat and break its tumes­cence. And actu­al­ly, I suc­ceed­ed. But only for a moment before it stood anew. Then I remem­bered the three unre­lat­ed thoughts in my head: the bit­ter­ness, the erec­tion, and the whis­per of glut­tony. I played with myself, imag­in­ing that I stood before three options and had to choose. I dis­card­ed the first and the sec­ond, decid­ing to take refuge in the third, at the very least as an exer­cise in shrug­ging off my morn­ing funk.

So the sto­ry begins with a box of choco­lates that Dun­ya had giv­en me after I bought the three books she had asked for. Christ­mas choco­lates. Bright­ly col­ored orbs in a trans­par­ent box. I don’t like to see foods through their pack­ag­ing. Well, I don’t like to see them pack­aged in plas­tic. Plastic’s okay for tools, even for clothes. Tooth­brush­es, for exam­ple, or show­er heads or shirts.

They look expen­sive in that clear cas­ing, more beau­ti­ful than their func­tions would sug­gest. It’s added val­ue, before we extract them from those attrac­tive arrange­ments and trans­form them into waste. Foods that will soon be cir­cu­lat­ing through our bod­ies should be treat­ed like our bod­ies them­selves: pro­tect­ed and pre­served, guard­ed and cov­ered. It’s bet­ter that they be kept in box­es, where they can lie in wait for us to share the secret bond of our bod­ies with them. The con­stant spec­ta­cle, beneath the watch­ful eyes of all, makes them com­mon. And it makes us feel that our eyes have debased them.

The choco­lates in the box were round. I don’t like when choco­lates are round either. I imag­ine them square or rec­tan­gu­lar, but round—no. I don’t like round balls of meat or ice cream. They’re too per­fect, feel too whole to be put in our mouths. They make us guz­zle instead of gnaw. We start by break­ing them down like doors that stand in our way.

The box that Dun­ya gave me was for Christ­mas, and Christ­mas was close. But I didn’t wait. I opened it, tak­ing one of the choco­lates and plac­ing it between my teeth to taste. I didn’t feel it break­ing. As soon as it met my sali­va, the choco­late read­i­ly gave way—its skin melt­ing with the touch of my tongue. I didn’t apply any pres­sure. I sim­ply sensed its spher­i­cal shape, and it col­lapsed on its own. I heard the fine, per­me­able inte­ri­or break in my mouth. Of course, I didn’t hear it with my ears. It wasn’t, in essence, a sound. Rather, it hap­pened with­in the whole­ness of my being. I could also see—with some­thing oth­er than my eyes—that per­me­able body which had just dis­in­te­grat­ed. The fla­vor took flight as if it had been lib­er­at­ed, but its del­i­ca­cy and the speed of its dis­ap­pear­ance made it seem like a fig­ment of the imag­i­na­tion. The orb had dis­solved imme­di­ate­ly, but I had pen­e­trat­ed the gush­ing, doughy inte­ri­or that was—so it seemed—the very truth of choco­late. Its fla­vor was con­cen­trat­ed, deep­en­ing and thick­en­ing with every move­ment of my tongue. In the end, I hit upon a sol­id almond. This was the core, which I rec­og­nized in the silence and splen­dor of knowl­edge. The tongue was no longer the only mes­sen­ger capa­ble of hear­ing, see­ing, and feel­ing for me. My tooth had hit the almond bone, and there’s a cer­tain plea­sure to bone meet­ing bone. It’s a plea­sure of mine to antic­i­pate plea­sure. I can’t stand the pace of most things. To find joy in a song, I rush to its end. I rarely let any­thing play out. I’m wait­ing for a plea­sure that doesn’t bring dura­tion to mind. Time per­sists, ever stronger, and my sense of it is over­whelm­ing. But a melody seem­ing­ly with­out speed or scope may arise in a sin­gle moment, a melody that is not cap­tive to time but is itself cap­ti­vat­ing. That’s how I take plea­sure in eat­ing. Quick­ly. Not cling­ing end­less­ly to fla­vor, not trans­form­ing it over time. I’m sat­is­fied with the first taste, push­ing the morsel sub­se­quent­ly into my stomach.

Some­times I arrive at the true taste grad­u­al­ly, as it grows stronger and deep­er with each bite. It is then that I lose con­trol. It is then that I can­not stop.

In Dunya’s box were three col­ors, ten choco­lates each, lined up in six rows. I want­ed to try one of each and leave the rest for Christ­mas as Dun­ya had intend­ed. But I lost con­trol. The crit­i­cal moment came when I hes­i­tat­ed, con­sid­ered the next piece, and sensed that I wouldn’t be able to deny myself. Still, I knew that I should wait. But it was as if I were being forced to continue—a plea­sure punc­tu­at­ed by light sor­row. I remem­ber the caramel of youth. It was hard, so I had to start by tast­ing its sur­face, strip­ping it with my tongue again and again until it became rougher, more per­me­able, resem­bling a tongue itself. Then I could start to soft­en and soak it until its taste became stronger. It was long, ana­lyt­i­cal work, in which the milk and choco­late ele­ments were unearthed. The taste didn’t change but thick­ened more and more until final­ly arriv­ing at its essence. The choco­lates of Dun­ya were even more deli­cious. The solid­i­ty, the finesse, the gushing—one after the oth­er in a sin­gle, atom­ic moment—sharpening then dis­ap­pear­ing into blood and the imagination.

As a teenag­er, I tried to keep away from sweets. I weaned myself off them ear­ly, unable to stand those things that remind­ed me of my child­hood or brought me back, some­how, to my mother’s breast. The union of milk and sweets often takes place pre­cise­ly in choco­late, and in my youth, I abstained from every­thing that con­tained milk. While wait­ing at the alley’s mouth for the con­fec­tion­er, suck­ing sug­ary nec­tar from pop­si­cle sticks and dream­ing of two full jars of sug­ary Leblebi—those can­died chickpeas—well, sweets were child­hood itself…

My melan­choly was the first sign of matu­ri­ty. The more I plunged head­long into it, the more it seemed that I was becom­ing an adult: it is then that we’re suf­fi­cient­ly sev­ered from the mother’s milk, even if we’re less hap­py because of it. Man­li­ness seems lone­ly. Tru­ly lone­ly. Its desires, which are afraid of them­selves, remain thirsty and rest­less like desert plants. Noth­ing com­pares to the com­plete plea­sure of suck­ing on bar­ley sug­ar or eat­ing a serv­ing of sug­ary Leblebi. Then it seems that there’s no bet­ter escape from depres­sion than to drown our hear­ing, sight, and appetite in a plate of sweets. But relaps­es are met with reper­cus­sions, and as soon as we start again, we can­not stop.

But why sweets and only sweets? Every time I con­tem­plate a dish, I find true perfection.

The inven­tion of a meal, any meal, must be an inspiration—but one that is nev­er wrong. Each time, as if by instinct, we dis­cov­er some­thing that is right—and prov­ably so. Each day, in fact, brings new proof. How did they think to fry corian­der with gar­lic? Sure­ly, a dis­cov­ery like that is no less impor­tant than the dis­cov­ery of Earth’s grav­i­ta­tion­al pull. Our world has been changed ever since. Lunch has become some­thing else. How did they think to mix oil with gar­lic and tahi­ni? Sure­ly, imag­i­na­tion alone is insuf­fi­cient. Inspi­ra­tion has got to be involved: light shot into the heart. Those who search for mir­a­cles, for proof of God’s exis­tence, are bet­ter off search­ing in this realm. Peo­ple can con­struct count­less argu­ments, all of which would be open to debate, but who can deny an onion with its many lay­ers and thick aro­ma? Who can deny the tes­ti­mo­ny of a piece of cheese? The ingre­di­ents yearn for one anoth­er, but it takes a great instinct to know it. No apos­tles of spir­i­tu­al mag­net­ism will find bet­ter evi­dence. First of all, they’d need to be psy­chic. It takes tremen­dous dis­cern­ment to see that a plant in Asia yearns for anoth­er in Alas­ka and that the uni­verse is actu­al­ly one giant mag­net­ic field. We’re only now dis­cov­er­ing it. We’ve spent ages in this world, but it’s only just begin­ning. There’s no telling what will hap­pen with the progress we make. Maybe the ele­ments will unite at a sin­gle pole or maybe in a large net­work. Either way, the world will take its true form. A reli­gion could start in the kitchen.

I remem­ber a friend telling me almost thir­ty-five years ago that fat is what makes food taste good. He must’ve been think­ing about food the way we think about God. He must’ve been look­ing for a prime mover and found it: Fat is the Cre­ator of taste. This could be a first cause, a poten­tial­i­ty with which to prove some­thing greater. At the time, I thought he was right. There must be a sin­gle prin­ci­ple that gov­erns this vast amount of fla­vor. Today, I’ve lost my faith in the idea. We could con­tem­plate fat with­out going to a restau­rant. Then—and who knows, I’m no expert—couldn’t we pro­duce a strong fla­vor with­out any fat at all? Still, like that friend, we may be led astray among the tastes. No oth­er such net­work exists except for that of emo­tions. We’ve thought a lot about feel­ings but haven’t done the same with foods. In Ara­bic, and maybe in French, not one word exists for the sole pur­pose of describ­ing ali­men­ta­ry plea­sure. There are more than a few for sex­u­al plea­sure, but alimentary—no. We sim­ply say that food is good or pleas­ant. To be good and to be pleasant—these are com­mon. There’s no spe­cial word for that plea­sure which aris­es from savor­ing egg­plant sea­soned with gar­lic and lemon or from a piece of liv­er soaked in pome­gran­ate juice.

Lan­guage is inca­pable of being every­thing, or so I think. It miss­es so much more. It miss­es the essence of our exis­tence. Sex, too, is most­ly speech­less. How can lan­guage be our his­to­ry? As long as we keep liv­ing most of our lives out­side of words, couldn’t we con­sid­er our­selves essen­tial­ly mute? We talk when we don’t feel, and we feel when we don’t talk. The dis­tance between the taste of a grape and the taste of a man­go is great, but each is a mir­a­cle in rela­tion to the oth­er. How to express that? I sup­pose it’s beyond us. There’s noth­ing super­flu­ous about a cup of tea in the after­noon, but we treat it with much less grav­i­ty than read­ing the news­pa­per in the morn­ing. But read­ing the news­pa­per isn’t pleas­ant because of the infor­ma­tion it con­tains but because of some­thing else, some­thing entire­ly like a cup of tea. The mat­ter requires analy­sis yet to tru­ly begin.

 

Abbas BeydounArab literatureautobiographydesireLebanonmemoirpoetry

Abbas Baydoun is a Lebanese poet, novelist, and journalist. Born in 1945, near Tyre, he is widely considered one of the Arab world’s most influential literary voices. His works—spanning styles and genres—have been translated into numerous languages, including English, French, German and Italian. With a B.A. in Arabic literature from the Lebanese University in Beirut and a maitrise in Islamic Studies from the Sorbonne in Paris, Baydoun has been engaged variously as a political activist, school teacher, full-time poet, and since 1997, the cultural editor for the daily newspaper as-Safir.

Lily Sadowsky is a technical editor and translator from Los Angeles, CA. She holds a BA in mathematics and classical languages from Macalester College in St. Paul and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago. Her work was featured at the inaugural Bila Hudood: Arabic Literature Everywhere festival in 2021. 

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