The Angels of Desire

15 March, 2022
“Untitled,” oil on canvas, 400x200cm, 2015, courtesy Egyptian artist Alaa Awad.


Youssef Rakha


Angels are sexual predators. That’s how they appear to me in dreams. Predators is not the word, though. What I mean is that they take the initiative. I might look like a dirty old man. In that perverse hunting drama I’m always in the role of prey. REM changes me. While awake I’m aggressive and agnostic. In sleep I become a passive seeker after the light. Because even though the mood is erotic, when that happens it’s like being in the presence of God. I feel small and helpless but exalted, the way you might feel if you met God. A sure sign that an angel is visiting me.

Dreams are the right kind of setting. Desert shepherds knew this thirteen centuries before Freud. In classical Arabic, the words for dream and wet dream are practically the same. Angels are supposed to have no bodies. But, like the Greek gods, they can take human form to make love with people. They do this in the poems of Omar ibnul Farid, the thirteenth-century saint who wrote about the women he loved as if they were God or vice versa. Those poems are amazing. Though it’s not like I think about any of this when I see angels in my sleep.

I’d like to say I know them by the gossamer wings folded in the smalls of their backs. But they don’t have any. I suppose I could call them something else, really. To look at they are always ordinary people. Either a real person or a person who could be real, all things considered, like a friend in an alternate universe. Sometimes they’re what the cliche tells you is a symptom of middle age. But at other times they’re the wrong sex. That doesn’t stop the dream from being scandalous. Mostly they’re past or potential partners, melds or shadows of partners, so ordinary you could see them the same day. It’s the way I feel about them that gives them superpowers.

They don’t have the ability to kill me, for example, but they make me so happy I die. In a dream you don’t need to look in the mirror to see your own face. I never take the time to judge their looks. I know they’re beautiful because of how beautiful they make me.

They pop out of cubist screens that layer images of Cairo. Sounds and smells, too, whole worlds in a kind of sci-fi, multidimensional gallery. I will be in motion, on a kind of journey. The timeline is jumbled and I’m going up and down, not just forward and backward. But I know the journey is my life because that gallery is not just Cairo. It’s Marrakech, Berlin, Kathmandu. All kinds of places I’ve been and people I’ve been with. Dinners and joyrides. And I’m moving through the porridge of it not knowing what it means. I don’t expect to know but it hurts that I don’t. It really hurts, physically. Because it makes the journey worthless.

Then if I’m very lucky there’ll be a moment of stillness. That’s the moment when a dream person becomes an angel and we start being intimate with each other. And it’s only a moment but it can last a lifetime. In that moment the journey has meaning.

I guess I should explain that there is rarely any sex in my dreams. Sometimes there are aliens. Sometimes there are tigers on escalators, where they’re not supposed to be. Even when the laws of physics are broken nothing seems too strange. And neither does the thought of making love with an angel. The truth is that my dreams are more or less chaste. Intimacy happens mostly by suggestion, the way in black-and-white Arab films you know sex will take place when the bedroom door is slammed shut. Or, if it’s a girl’s innocence taken out of wedlock, a glass would drop and shatter. I guess that kind of thing is dream logic too. Except that the symbols in my dreams are far more cryptic.

They are so cryptic I’m not sure what I’m talking about, typing this. It has to do with the body, my body. It has to do with being in a body, the pain and rapture of having one and using it to be with another. It also has to do with the meaning of life. But it’s neither sex nor religion, that thing. I guess I want to say something about why desire is important, why it’s so much more than an appetite. To show how we can be sensible and celibate and still live for desire. How ultimately like desire is the thing religion gets at by denying it.

You know how sometimes you are ready to die for a stranger. You have just met this person. You don’t know or trust them. You have no idea whether you really want to spend any time with them. But you desire them so much you will die to make them happy. Maybe that doesn’t happen to everyone but it has definitely happened to me. And it’s taken many nights of sleep to understand.

It’s because life has no meaning. You could own and accomplish everything you imagine and still not get over that pain. It’s as if being in the world is a sickness, and death the only cure. Those things that you have and do, they are painkillers to help you forget. Then a complete stranger turns up and suddenly you don’t feel the pain anymore. For a moment you’re convinced there is a cure after all. It’s right in front of you. It’s not that the person has magic powers. You’re ready to die for a complete stranger because they have spared you death.

But I want to bring things together now. I’ve been calling my dream partners angels because they give my life meaning. I think that’s because I desire them. It’s because I desire them in a place where desire can never be fulfilled. Which is the same thing as saying where you can count on desire. Because in actual life sooner or later desire will either be fulfilled or frustrated, and then it will become something else. In dreams as long as my partners look kindly on me I can present to all of my body, alert and satisfied, indefinitely. This is the closest I can imagine to being in heaven, where God might reward me for withstanding meaningless.

Heaven can happen in waking life too, just never as frequently or perfectly. When it does it’s so fleeting it usually turns to hell. It takes hellish effort. And it’s never without consequences. So when you’ve reached middle age and basked in the mellowness that comes of it, when you’ve had the time to diet and exercise while you read ibnul Farid and think about Georges Bataille’s unbelievable statement that the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space, maybe that is all that heaven should be. A good night’s sleep.


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