In the Shadows of Men:Wondrous world of Alice


After I entered that wondrous world of Alice, I can’t explain what happened between me and diplomats. I must have fulfilled their curiosity about the exoticism they associate with the East.

Once, an Arab diplomat elevated me to the point of holiness. He was strange and wondrous. I was startled by his attention and his outpouring of emotions, which I could not understand. He was as emotional as Abdel Halim Hafez’s songs. He was sensitive, and loved Egyptian movies. And exactly like an Arab man, perhaps, he was able to separate his emotions from his family relations. He behaved as if he were totally free, with no wife or children to disturb him. I was driven, as usual, by curiosity. I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why he elevated me to that state of holiness, and I didn’t understand why I suddenly became impure in his eyes.

I knew it didn’t matter, yet I was somehow startled as well. I was discovering a place that was strange to me. I was not used to close attention from others. It wasn’t in my nature. I was surprised and startled by his attentiveness, like a cat discovering that it enjoys being touched.

It was a phase where I was constantly pursued by men, but these relationships always ended the same—with my escape or theirs. Usually mine.

In relationships with a diplomat, a musician, a politician, an intellectual, an academic, and an activist, I was able to explore myself. I was looking for something in them to revive me. But as I crowned them as gods and lifted their thrones to the skies, I also brought them down. I was aware of their limitations, and they refused to be humble. Perhaps I like men who inhabit the role of God.

I was searching for a man, a liberator for the homeland, a reviver of the world. I imagined them all to be idols of perfection. I don’t know if they realized that. I don’t know if that was even real. I only know the exhaustion I felt searching for a man to become the liberator and reviver.

There are certain men who enjoy stardom. Among them you will find the reviver, the wise one, the adoring lover, the brave leader, the amused lover, the one who supports women, and the master who attracts students and followers.

No matter how the man’s role changes, he is totally convinced he is the only one, that he was born to be unique and special. He is the copy that will never be pasted. What unites all men, despite their differences, is their absolute belief that they know you better than you know yourself. They are convinced that they possess the solution to the equation, and through them secrets are revealed and masks fall.

I don’t blame men for this, but I cannot understand why women submit to it. Did men give themselves this level of authority or did women assign them the role? Even with the most specific details of their lives and emotions. You see the sheikhs of men ruling in women’s issues. Books of Shari’ah are filled with rules that govern the inner lives of women, which, they claim, only men can specialize in.

“There is no shyness in science or religion,” they say. A man can teach me about menstrual pain, and how to clean myself, and how to shower and when. The knowledgeable man also knows what makes me aroused, what my body needs, and how to touch me. The honorable scientist can go into detail that, as a woman, I am too shy to describe. And for me to mention that, would make me impudent and immodest. He is the jurist, the lawmaker, the wise man, the pure, truthful sheikh.

You find the woman rushing to ask the man how to cleanse herself of impurity. You find her asking him which sexual position her husband should use with her and when, sharing details she doesn’t reveal even to her mother. “There is no shyness in science or religion,” the saying goes.

Strangely, you find women believing and trusting men with the intimate details of their lives. The man gives sexual advice as if he is the knowledgeable specialist, yet the Arab man cannot understand the difference between his ecstasy and hers. He is the core. His coming is hers. His ecstasy is hers. He tells her that his ecstasy is hers as well. There is nothing else she should or could want. Thus, when she is not sharing in his ecstasy and expressing pleasure over his pleasure, she is considered cold.

Each man I hold in high regard is, in time, reduced to something much less. He is no longer exalted in my eyes. This happened again and again until it became routine. I stopped even noticing it.

I used to walk away, justifying my path. The path of a life I knew could exist, a life I understood completely in my imagination, with that man who would appear at some point and revive me and liberate the homeland. Whoever that man is, I am always connected to him in one way or another through my nation’s cause, so he has become my personal national project.

It’s a habit I can’t get rid of.

Jack’s words were hard for me to hear. But he was right. “Look for a national association to work with,” he said. After that seminar with the writers, the president of the association was welcoming to me when I suggested a project I was working on with Jack. It focused on community work between the association and local parties. He liked the idea and offered me a new position. He apologized for what had happened years before, and said, “you are not destructive.”

I had a different kind of power, twice the power I had before. I wasn’t even close to enjoying the idea of the upcoming job when the whole issue of the family came back. They tried to pressure him. That time, a lioness came out of me, her claws sharp, and I spoke words I wouldn’t have dared speak when I worked under his supervision.

“I want to know one thing,” I said. “Whether this association is the property of the family, or if this association is a national, public organization. I believe I have the expertise for the job, and I will work despite the family.”

I don’t think he would have been able to slap me again. The ambassador was interested in the work of the association, and somehow interests always win.

I believe they were enraged, and they objected. However, I was busy sharpening my claws, waiting to attack when needed. After a short while, I was hired.

On that day, I was talking to him in front of one of his assistants, who disliked me as much as she disliked herself. Her eyes had lost their light a long time ago. She was sad and pathetic. She understood everything, and her jealousy flared over his attention toward me. She didn’t know why it was happening. The family tie was startling. The other employees didn’t realize the real reasons for his fondness for me—my strength and unprecedented capability in my professional work. People usually prefer to misinterpret things, and so of course my “splendor” and beauty must have been the reason. That woman, the assistant, had started an ugly rumor about me and a male colleague in the office some time earlier. I despise such people. Those who lie in order to violate a person’s honor. Not because I care about such concepts, but because of how important such concepts are to them.

That woman was a lot like my ex-husband. As if there is one designated road everyone decides to take. He would always tell me how he filled the minds of our children with imagined stories about me and other men. “I don’t know why they like you,” he said. “Your coldness?” That coldness that I believed was truly part of me. I got divorced to be free of the sexual acts I was forced to submit to. Getting rid of him was my greatest achievement.

After our marriage, I would answer with mockery, “I didn’t know anything of sex except what you gave me, and I didn’t know if what you gave me was right. Today, I know the difference… I understand that coldness comes from a man like you.”

The words “slept with” and “whore” and other such phrases began to work their way into my vocabulary. One day, a friend stopped me and asked, “Is there a history of prostitution in your family?”

“Of course not,” I said.

“So why do you use such phrases so often?”

I replied, “I’ve heard these words so much in the past few years, I’ve started to feel that they belong to me.”

I stopped using those words afterwards, but they remained inside me for a long time.




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