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.