by Semia Harbawi
When my eyes open like crocodile slits that emerge gradually from the miasma of a swamp, a groan escapes my parched lips. The small room comes gradually into focus and I start taking my bearings in these immaculate surroundings where I have spent the last twenty four hours. They have opened my body and taken out my womb, you see. A routine procedure for them, but a sort of a one-off for me, as you might well doubt. My mother is sitting beside my bed leafing through a glossy magazine. A glorious creature stares vacantly at me from the front cover, her pout a silent query. My mother brings the fingers of both hands to her temples and starts rubbing them slowly. She does not realize I am already awake. My gravelly lids flutter and my vision swims for an instant. My mother is a gigantic praying mantis with hair dyed a hideous purple-violet shade. The praying mantis: an insect that lives mostly in Africa and now I might add by my bedside in this posh clinic where they removed my womb. A pear-like cavity meant to shelter foetuses and incubate life. Mine was taken away because of something called ‘fibromatosis.’ A cluster of fibromas that thickened the walls of my uterus and caused so much bleeding I was drained and anaemic. It also blighted my prospects of ever having a baby. At the age of twenty-five. Still a virgin. A wombless virgin. Had I read this in a story, I would have snorted at the improbability of all this bad luck heaped on just one person. But, well, this is reality and I am the girl with all the bad luck piled on her.
I feel something poking between my thighs. It must be the catheter they inserted into me to evacuate my urine. The only thing that has ever penetrated me. When I try to turn on my side, jolts of pain flare in my midsection and irradiate all my body. It is the Caesarean, the incision that enabled them to reach my innards and extract my womb. When the nurse comes with a painkiller, I can see she is breathing through her mouth. A solid wall of overpowering sweat odour comes between us and the poor woman is struggling not to let her disgust transpire. I am amused by the look on her face and her attempts at not crinkling her dainty nose in front of me. My mother is still engrossed by the magazine. I have decided that I cannot speak. It feels as if my vocal chords snapped the moment they dug my womb out of its cavity. It took my voice away with it. My mother is first flustered by my silence and then she grows annoyed by what she must have depicted to herself as my tantrums. Before the doctor arrives for his routine check, she applies some madder colour to her thin lips and rearranges the pleats on her skirt in case the man manages to match her with a forgotten recollection off a dusty shelf in his memory. She is a singer and an ex-beauty queen, my mother is. Two songs of hers were broadcast on Tunisian radio a few times in the last years. That’s all. But she lives in the hope that some important person will ask her to participate in a show or a local festival to re-launch her non-existent career. My mother goes by the stage name Noor because she found her real name Rebeh too rustic, too blunt, reeking with the tang of manure and countryside effluvia that were obdurate reminders of her modest, prosaic origins. So she changed it to Noor. She could not even live with her own name.
I am wedged between two male siblings that have absolutely no care whether I live or die. We have nothing in common save for happening within the magnetic field of my mother’s paranoia. We are no better than makeweights that she uses to animate the backdrop of a stage where she is the only attraction. I remember the night when she awoke us at twenty past one with a tone of emergency which induced us to think that a family member had died a horrible, unexpected death. It was simply to posse a search for a fur coat she had worn on a gala dinner in honour of an ex-minister, back in 1978. She said she had to make sure the maid had not filched it. After an hour’s worth of milling around the house in a drowsy haze and scrabbling half-heartedly in all the closets and wardrobes, it dawned on her that she had swapped it with a peddler for a choker which only proved to be some tawdry rhinestone bauble.
My mother expects everyone to be wallowing in the emanations of her sublime aura. She is past the climacteric of her life but she cannot bring herself to stare this crushing reality in the face. Instead, she has retreated into a glittering cloud-cuckoo-land; a fly inside an amber capsule. She shuns mirrors and I have always longed to shove her face in front of a magnifying looking glass and turn her basilisk gaze back on her. She always starts the day with singing exercises to the maddening clunk of a metronome. At the most unlikely hours of the day or the night, she has a gargle with a mixture made of honey and lemon juice to preserve the ‘crystalline’ timbre of her voice, as she is always inclined to claim, because a voice like hers needs continuous care. She expends much time and energy backbiting the other singers and hoarding titbits of gossip about each one of them as if they were delectable morsels to feast on with relish. She never fails to justify the blatant lack of solicitation on the part of composers and producers by the fact that she has been victim of sihr, that somebody, jealous and vindictive, must have slipped something in her drink or food and jinxed her. So she has regarded all food proffered to her with a combination of suspicion and distrust. She spends hours on the phone trying to get through to people who do not want to speak to her but she is much too imbued with her illusions for the realization to hit her.
My mother has been absorbed by herself so much so that she has failed to grasp the magnitude of my sufferings. I spent the past months before the surgery observing everything from behind a red haze. Blood permeated the texture of my surroundings. It saturated every pore of my sensory system. The blood that refused to clot or stay put. My life force was being siphoned off me. I became a sort of human colander. Not even sanitary napkins could soak it up quickly enough. I cursed their manufacturers, the ads, the women in those ads with their confident, reassuring smiles, the comforting slogans. The moment those wretched things were wedged between my weary thighs, I was painfully aware of their obtrusive presence, overloaded as they were with my blood. I could feel the latter spewing out, deflating me, depleting both my body and spirit. I started fearing I would crumple down with a wistful whoosh of exhaustion. A huge puddle would sometimes smear the rear of my skirt and form a sort of eerie Rorschach pattern that encoded the riddle of my predicament. Then, stubborn maroon stains would etch themselves on the skirt material like rusty spectres and would linger despite my fierce scrubbing attempts. It was my curse and I trailed it wherever I went till I ceased to go anywhere and dropped out of my faculty classes a few months before majoring in French literature. I felt like a leprose should have felt in her quarantine condition, crumbling under the touch of a mysterious malediction.
I could almost sense the crimson tides surge and pulse, a fiery flower blooming inside, its fat blossoms choking my uterus; a Baudelairian flower of evil. I could feel the viscous, syrupy tendrils sneaking their insidious way ever so slowly. I could mentally trace their sinister course and envision the slithery red serpent that would poke out its ugly head and betray the brittle condition of my insides for everyone to see. I could picture the blood pumping from my heart through my arteries, veins, and capillaries. I felt I had nothing in my body save for blood. It was sadly paradoxical that the primal life fluid where I was macerating could prove the death of me and the more drained and withered I grew, the more brimming with vitality my mother was. An uncanny decanting process was unfolding itself. My udder-like breasts lent substance to my picturing myself as a cow being sacrificed on the altar of my mother’s vanity. It was an irrational, impulsive presentiment I could not very well account for.
My jaundiced complexion was a ghostly sight accentuated by insomnia and the darkish patch of down on my upper lip. My mother was appalled that a daughter of hers might look like a marooned wreck so she decided to take matters into her capable hands. She hired the services of a woman who came and intoned Fatiha while stroking with an insistent circular motion both my belly and underbelly. She applied an unguent, then a sort of stinking poultice that she moistened with her saliva. She recited many surats from the Qu’ran and prescribed a hizb latif, a ceremonial where a paid group of men, chanting the glory of Allah, thumped tambourines in a cacophony of religious hymns intended to drive evil away from the house and its dwellers. It was to no avail. The abnormal growth that usurped my womb refused to be dislodged by a few ritual incantations. When the doctor finally pronounced himself on the necessity to ablate my womb, my mother, the best Job’s comforter you could ever find, told me with all the smugness she could muster: “Giving birth was the worst experience in my life! Consider yourself lucky you’ll be spared the nuisance!”
From the seclusion of my room, I dissected and pored over people’s deeds and funny habits that were likely to give them away. My blood, my very body betrayed me so I decided I had to find out other people’s foibles that were susceptible of crackling the veneer of confidence or normalcy. I yearned to become a spirit of chaos, to watch other people’s lives come apart and rejoice in the fact that I was not the only one whose self was caving in on her. I became the crocodile woman, with jutting jaws, serrated teeth, wallowing in dung-like resentment. My movements were automatic, my jaws locked to keep sealed, deep within me, a hell begging to be let loose, reverberating with the frenzied screeching of infuriated apes. My tears were ones of gloating that I was not alone in shouldering my burden, a doomed Prometheus who suffered to have her liver pecked at in solitary suffering. My eyes were slits that filtered and broke down everybody’s gestures and words without their being aware of my presence. I blended in the background the same way a submerged crocodile would be mistaken for a random piece of flotsam on the surface of a body of water. The only markers of my passage were dandruffs: flakes of dead skin I strewed everywhere I went in Tom-Thumb-like fashion; specks with a life of their own that were the only signs of my ever having been there at all.
I took to positioning myself behind the window of my room, a sort of elevated observatory overlooking the street, with its blinds pulled down so that only slats of wood mediated the outside world. My crocodile eyes would miss nothing about people’s routines as they went about their daily errands. It was a kind of cloze test where I tried to fill in the blanks. I was motivated by a vampiric thirst to uncover what they deigned to give away for me to gorge on. Take for instance the house from across the street with its manicured shrubbery and well tended garden. Why is it that only boys from a certain age ever went in and out to visit the elderly gentleman who lives there on his own? What about the clubfooted woman who went out at nine in the evening and came back at seven in the morning or the retired teacher who lingered in his veranda furtively observing the little girls playing in the street, never missing a beat, his eyes glassy and seldom blinking? A favourite of mine was the butcher’s wife who would wait for her husband to leave to do her washing on the roof of her box-like house. A young sturdy mason would be, then, working on the roof of the adjacent house. She would sit on a footstool and put a kasâa, a circular pewter utensil, between her plump thighs casually spread on each side. She would lean washing the clothes with soap suds up to her elbows, her generous breasts straining against the fabric of her blouse. She would seem intent on the task at hand, studiously ignoring the man’s hovering presence and hungry glances.
When I could not find enough gratification from my street speculations, I turned to those who lived under the same roof as myself. Take my oldest brother for example. Mother always fussed over him and expatiated about each and every of his deeds. He was the apple of her myopic eyes, weeld ommu, mamma’s darling as she proudly referred to him. But she could never notice the kind of stealthy, voracious looks this prodigious progeny cast at my younger brother’s male friends when they came to our house. When one of them addressed him in that laid-back, virile fashion young men would purposively assume nowadays, the corner of his left eye would twitch and a spasm would animate his cheek as if the pressure were unbearable.
The foolish creature (read: my dear mother) never noticed, in the midst of her solipsistic delirium, that her youngest son had grown a beard and that his eyes had taken on a fanatic glaze and his buck-teeth a menacing thrust whenever his glance landed on a ‘wayward’ female who did not conform with the way his imam said a female should behave. You had to see how he looked when he watched, because he did watch, those Lebanese girls in hot, sultry video clips, grinding their hips and panting their ways through a song. Did my mother ever remark my father’s moist looks from over the rim of his glasses, following languidly the maid’s movements while the latter vacuumed the dining room carpet in twice the time it normally took to do so or when she very deliberately stooped with the excuse of straightening the fringes of the horrid ochre rug taking her own sweet time, with her huge rump twitching provocatively almost under my father’s nose? No. Of course, my mother did not. She could not for the very life of her realize that her oldest son was a closet queen and the youngest a closet fascist. Her third eye was blinded, turned as it were, inwards to that mesmerizing, interior landscape clothed in the mists of her delusions she spent so much of her time and energy tending to.
Today is the big day for my mother. Some reputed, popular singer succumbed a few weeks ago to a heart attack (in the morning after a wild night with an eighteen-year-old boy). A live show has been programmed in homage to his long career to which a group of singers, who have known him, have been invited. My mother is one of them. Before she left for the municipal theatre, which is the venue of the show, she was bubbling with excitement at the perspective of being finally given the opportunity to astound people with her ‘divine’ talent. Much thought and money went into the choice of the dress, a white slinky thing that was meant to have a dazzling effect but that highlighted, instead, the ravages of years and diabetes on her emaciated figure. It also made the purple tint of her hair and the magenta hue of her lipstick blaring, glaring splotches. She looked like an exhibit out of a museum but she was ensconced within a golden bubble of delusion that nothing could prick.
After she wafts out in a cloud of cloying perfume, I am on my own in the silent house. I look around and meet her panoptic gaze transfixing me from out one of the gilt frames that spangle the sitting room. Her eyes stalk me. Her smile nettles me. I pause in front of one of her portraits. Then, I casually saunter to the room at the end of the corridor and penetrate the inner sanctum where she has erected a shrine to the diva she could have been. She spends most of her time in this room wrapped up in self-contemplation. I am immediately enveloped by a petri dish atmosphere of stuffiness and deluded splendour. The air is almost thick with my mother’s presence. It has drenched her aura. The room has retracted on itself in hostile recoil and I can feel reproving eyes monitoring my gestures. The scissors I previously took from my mother’s sewing kit acquire a soothing heaviness, anchoring me down, lending a purpose to my stride and a tangy edge to my anticipation. Photo albums are stacked high in tottering piles, but the most treasured of my mother’s possessions lie in the exquisite red lacquered box she keeps swathed in burgundy taffeta, on top of a wardrobe where all her gala dresses are stashed away in plastic shrouds. I know about it because I have always poked around unawares of my mother.
The scissors sound like a pair of steel jaws as they snip and snap at her cherished photos with a busy, gluttonous enthusiasm. Those photos where she is handed the first prize in a local beauty contest and others where she is wearing that goddamned fur coat, grinning from ear to ear, bursting at the seams with jubilation over being herself. In all the photos, she is the undeniable centrepiece and soon gaping holes stare back in places where her beaming face used to be. When I am finished, I replace the photos methodically, put back the box in its hiding place and get out of the room replete and satiated for the first time in what seems like ages.
I position myself in front of a small TV set I carried into my room waiting for the show to begin. Her performance is due in half an hour. It is a huge and ugly celebration. When her name is announced on the mike, the camera trained on some spectators’ faces shows blank stares of bored indifference. When my mother struts onto the stage, she is a pathetic white blob in the middle of enormous garlands of flowers and an incalculable number of wreaths intended to adorn the stage but that have a sickly, funerary look to them. I feel an odd pang and a constricting sensation in my chest. She opens her mouth and closes her eyes to intone the first notes and I think that a technical problem has supervened, for nothing issues out of her mouth. Only a tremulous string of voice comes out magnified by the microphone she is clasping, her knuckles white. The first catcalls and jeers soon ensue. Bloody idiots. How dare they?
I can see my mother for the first time the way she really is: a pathetic, old woman in the clutch of panic, reeling with the shock of realization. She manages to wobble her way through the song and the host intervenes with a forced smile to end her ordeal. I switch off the TV set and starts waiting for her as if on a wake. When she comes home, she finds me sitting bolt upright on the chair from across the door. She peers uncomprehendingly at me. I rise slowly and trudge up to where she stands, looking as if it were the first time she has ever clapped eyes on me. When I come a few inches away from her, I can see the mess that is her face. Her mascara has run in shallow runnels down her clotted-cream complexion and formed ridges on her foundation powder. I enfold her in my arms and she goes all rigid as though struck by rigor mortis. I rest my head on her shoulder and say nothing. I stare at our reflection in the mirror, two figures entwined in an unlikely embrace, and a tight smile slightly cranks up the corner of my mouth while a few tears trickle down my glazed eyes. Tears of the crocodile woman.