Why do we choose a book over the other? Why do we keep rereading some and throwing others into the ark of forgotten one night stands?
If you take away the readers who pick certain titles for status – ´cause it makes them look nice/intelligent/educated/sophisticated – or students who have a MUST READ list over their heads, we´re left with the Others. By Others I mean everyone else, the ones who buy – or reread – a book for unofficial reasons.
I have a natural aversion to authority, even where books are concerned. I don´t read what I should read or what others recommend – by the way, what should I read? – but what my heart asks for.
As far as I´m concerned, books are chosen the same way lovers are chosen – just because. No benefits in sight – books and love have nothing to do with benefits; no diplomas, contracts, guarantees, condecorations, Mrs This and Mr That.
At the end of each book/love affair, there may be blood but it´s hot – where there´s hot blood, there´s life. What a Ride! Have I regretted any of it? Not really. My choices may be unorthodox but they´re always heartfelt, passionate, filled with purpose. I eat those books (and men) with gusto and I lick my fingers after I´m done; there´s no sacrifice (bye, bye, Eve!), no martyrdom, no lie.
I can honestly say I´ve read and loved only the books and men my heart and desire sang for – no money or social acceptance in the world can buy that kind of freedom and the satisfaction that derives from it. My tummy is full, thank you very much.
No surprise when, once more and apparently out of nowhere, I grabbed my copy of Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems by Fatema Mernissi (RIP), a Moroccan author I´ve always loved.
The book is clearly used; stained, marked by life, with wrinkled with twisted edges; there´s a chocolate (Mozart) wrapping inside and a train ticket from the day when I bought it. I know I´ve read it twice before. And, despite the huge (HUGE) pile of books I have to read – yelling at me at the top of my desk – and the (HUGE) book I have to write , I had to reread it. But I didn´t just read it. I drank it in a single shot, like one of those desperate red nose folks who try to drown their existence inside a cup of Cuban rum:
–Aaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! ´sta buenissimo ese rum.
Mernissi argues that both East and West have their particular kind of “harem” and women in both sides of the world are controlled, limited and caged – that I agree. She also focus on the figure of Sheherazade and how the West turned her – an educated, intelligent story teller who saved her life as well as the lives of thousands of women due to her eloquence – into a mindless sexual object. I see her point(s) and agree with part of them.
Ferdinand Keller – Scheherazade und Sultan Schariar (1880)
What I don´t agree with, a disagreement that comes from study and personal/professional experience in the Middle East, is the premise that Arabic men value and seek intelligent, fierce, independent and highly educated women.
Give me moment.
What? Come again, please.
I need some time to open my mouth, in astonishment, every time I read – or write – such statement.
According to Mernissi, Eastern men have turned women into sexual objects, passive and manipulated through beauty standards that confuse plastic dolls with real femininity. They use time – or ageing – and body weight control in order to keep women down. Check! That´s true.
But then she adds that Arabic men, curiously enough and contradicting what we would expect, have always appreciated the opposite of those plastic dolls: wild women with guts with whom they could have an intelligent conversation. Let´s get real; I´ll say it like it is: excluding very few exceptions, those women – those wild women who run with wolves, the ones with whom men could have an intelligent conversation – have been called whores and threats to society; they´ve been tortured and burnt alive. Literally.
Those women, and they exist because I had the honour to meet a few while I lived in Egypt, are beaten by their fathers, brothers and husbands and condemned to perpetual humiliation or death. Those women, especially if they belong to higher social classes, are great on paper, nice to present during fancy Cairo “vernissages” at the Opera House, but they´re not allowed to breathe in real life. And no, they´re no desirable by any standards. Not Western, much less Eastern standards.
I´d like to have met Fatima Mernissi but, mostly, I´d LOVE to meet the extraordinary Arabic men she dealt with, the ones who have inspired her to concoct her outrageous theory. Who are those men? Where are they? (Fatema was from Fez – gotta book me a trip to Morocco right now!).
Every Arabic man I´ve met – and I met a lot, from all walks of life, in 10 years of life in the Middle East – was disturbed by intelligent, educated women. If you add fierceness and independence to that cocktail, you have an explosion – not the good kind. But if tragedy is what you´re looking for, add the ORIENTAL DANCER label to that already damned creature.
Those (Arabic) men find that intelligence/education exotic, even sexually enticing. I´ve had surreal conversations with men who thought my “smartness” was a plan to lead them into temptation, a vamp strategy, an aphrodisiac more alluring than an EAT ME sign hanging from my neck:
–Allah…A Tiger that speaks! A beautiful tiger that speaks – how interesting…
-Oh, go f
uck yourself, mister!
At first, at a distance, they DO find it exciting. It´s not common, after all, to find a woman whose conversations go beyond finding a rich husband, cloths and the best salon for a good manicure. But if they get intimate with those women, with a perspective of an intimate relationship, they do their best to crash that intelligence/education until there´s nothing, but a shadow of a brain, to show for. The threat of a female brain that´s truly awakened is something no man can take in the long term. If there are exceptions to the rule, and I hope there are, I´ve never met them.
Other men are plainly, and openly, terrified or disgusted by the sight of such a woman. I´ve been called “masculine” by most of the men who hired me in Cairo, men with whom I dealt face to face in the absence of a manager.
At least, in the West, we have laws that protect us, women. In the East, a woman – intelligent or not; educated or ignorant – can be killed by her father, brother or husband, in the blink of an eye without any consequence for the murderer.
In the West, we can choose to accept the pressure of beauty standards (which Mernissi calls “another way of veiling women”) or to refuse it, walking our own path and paying a price for it; we can choose to surrender to the myths Patriarchy still throws upon us (a woman should be this, that and whatelse) or build new roads of our own. At least we can choose. Most women in the East can´t. It´s that choice that makes the Western “harem” a little less horrible than the Eastern.
Besides this disagreement – sorry Fatema but Arabic men are VERY distant from the fierce/bright/educated women lovers you mention -, what keeps dragging me to this book is the figure of Sheherazade and what she represents to me. A good friend of mine, an Egyptian doctor who was also my landlord, once told me:
-You´re like Sheherazade. I could listen to you forever.
That was one of the best compliments I´ve ever received. That man, a rare gentleman with impeccable ethics and musical taste, was actually listening to me – as king Xariar listened to Sheherazade – instead of staring at my breasts, my derrière or other appetizing parts of my soul. That was a novelty.
As a Dancer, I´ve also felt like her – the heroine of the One Thousand and One Nights: the story teller, the one who takes her audience into different, marvellous, magical trips to distant Lands; the one who grabs her kings and queens (Xariar) by the heart, taking them wherever she wants them to go. And the fear – of men, mostly, but also of women – is still there. Big time. A talking Sheherazade isn´t nearly as scary as a dancing Sheherazade, one who SPEAKS her Being (not only mind but her whole being), instead of perpetuating the odalisque fantasy.
My grandmother – she was Portuguese but could have been Egyptian or Morocccan – advised me not to speak my mind too much – that would scare men, she warned me. Pretend you don´t know much – just enough; act as if you were as innocent as a baby lamb. Men like such women or, at least, they marry them. (I heard this conversation from Arabic women, my many mammas, as well). She was right; they were right. In the East, the West and everywhere in between.
There´s something about an intelligent woman – who also happens to be free and an Oriental Dancer, sin of all sins! – that mistifies and TERRIFIES men. That kind of fire seduces them but, once they get close to the flame, they´re afraid they´ll get burnt (rightfully so?). Then the “harem”, that movie they invariably project on you, reveals itself, subtly or openly:
-I´d like you to dance for me…- he whispers, almost but not quite apologetic – You´re a dancer, why don´t you…
– YOU – dance for me. Dance is my profession. I wasn´t born to dance for a man, my audience is the wind. You´re not a dancer – only you can make it private(ly). For me.
And, truth be told, they have done it – the men I loved. While I sit and watch, as focused as Ingres´odalisque (see painting bellow) but a bit more dressed.
If I knew how to be a passive odalisque, mindless and ready to please (in silence and sweet submission), I swear I´d give it a try. For a while, at least, for research purposes. But once you go Woman you never go back to odalisque. There´s an Intelligent Order in the Universe and I follow it, like the obedient, silently pretty servant they presume I am.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814
P.S: If I ever find a man who´s not afraid of the Woman who runs with the wolves, I promise I´ll allow him to dance for me. Odalisque style; Sheherazade style; his style.