In the Shadows of Men: The Chaos of My Senses


It must have been The Chaos of Senses. I don’t remember how the novel reached me. My husband didn’t allow me to have books or visit libraries. If only he understood: Liberation lies in reading, even in the most oppressive prison cells and behind locked doors. By reading, one can escape gloomy loneliness and the surreal isolation of a soul that longs for inner peace. I still don’t understand what happened to me as I read that novel, how it scattered chaos through me, as if my senses were released and let go. I wasn’t like the woman in the novel. I despised her. Nothing she did appealed to me, but I felt the way she did. She swiped the neatly stacked papers off the desk of my inner self, awakening memories that had been idle inside me.

For many years, Ahlam Mosteghanemi and her trilogy, Memory of the Flesh, The Chaos of Senses, and Bed Hopper, was my strange guide towards an unknown that my inner being longed for, as if the woman inside me had woken from her slumber, while all the while I had been going through this waking life. Inside me was a woman emerging from her own shell, as if a rebellion had taken place inside her and she no longer fit into her own body. Suddenly, I began to breathe as though I had a body much larger than my own.

Everyone asked about the secret to my slim figure and perfect shape, despite having had four children. I used to answer that it was a certain oatmeal bar I had discovered, that it must have expanded in my stomach and prevented me from feeling hunger. But inside, I was saying: Treachery and betrayal and oppression are enough to melt the fat from even the thickest body. My suppressed thoughts were eating away at my mind, and my body gradually eroded until it suited the demands of my husband and society.

My husband was demanding, and he complained constantly. Nothing I did ever satisfied him, and nothing ever satisfied his obsession with my weight. No matter how much weight I lost or how thin my waist became, he always demanded that I strive for a smaller size. At some point, I became obsessed with his obsession. I was lucky in one sense—I had a figure that became more beautiful with age, which is what my father always said about my mother. Yet I lived with a man whose expectations could never be met. To have four children and not lose control of my weight wasn’t easy. The body quickly fills out in ways that surprise us and get beyond our control. How easy it is to gain weight, and how difficult it is to lose it. Women become obsessive about their bodies because of the requirements men and society place on them. This is exactly like the situation outside our bodies. We long to become what is required of us, rather than what we want to be. My relationship with my body and my weight created challenges for me. Or maybe it was a continuation of the same challenge already within me: I have to be the best of what a woman can be. I am beautiful, good, and smart. But…

I struggled to be myself and not give thought to physical ideals and norms, but I could not break myself from this entirely. I had to hide who I wanted to be behind a veneer of femininity so that I could move through society without drawing attention for my rebelliousness. I did this in order to ensure that others would not feel threatened. Everyone wants a quiet female with limited intellect because, in the minds of the patriarchal clan, the rules will never change.

The chaos of my senses exploded inside me and erupted in all directions within me, and I was no longer capable of controlling it or even calming it down.

The writer’s words marched against me, or they accompanied me—I don’t know which. What they did to me was as strange as this sentence in The Chaos of Senses: “Strange is life in its contradicting logic. You run behind things, breathless, so things run away from you. And the moment you sit and convince yourself that it is not worthy of all this racing, it comes to you breathlessly.”


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