The Water-Heater

Ahdaf Soueif

The flat was silent except for the steady hiss of the water-heater. It was a sound he was not completely used to yet. Until two months ago, whenever he had wanted to have a bath the primus had had to be lit. Faten had always lit it for him. Every afternoon, after he had woken from his siesta, he would knock at the door of his mother’s room. Her voice, faint, would float out from within: ‘Come in, my son.’ He would enter the darkened room to find her sitting up in her big brass bed, her head bound up in a white kerchief, a braid of still-black hair falling over one shoulder. ‘Sit down, my son,’ the feeble voice would say and he would seat himself on one of the two austere, wooden armchairs under the window to the right of the bed. ‘How are you today, Mother?’ he asked. She always sighed before she answered: ‘Thanks be to God... What can we say?’ In a while, she would ask: ‘How is University, my son?’ And he always answered: ‘Thanks be to God, it is well.’ Some minutes would pass in silence, then the weak voice would call out: ‘Faten, make some tea for Salah.’ Faten would bring the tea in small, gold-rimmed glasses on a round silver tray, engraved with an image of the Holy House in Makkah. She would offer it first to her mother then to her brother. She would place the tray on the little round table by the bed and turn to him: ‘Shall I heat the water for your bath now?’ He would nod. He would hear her lighting the primus, filling the large aluminium urn, and balancing it on the fire. She would check it every once in a while till at last she would come to the door: ‘The water’s ready for your bath.’ Then she would turn away. She always spoke softly, and she always turned away.

Later, cleansed from the day’s dust and from the sweat and mysterious impurities of sleep, he would put on a fresh white galabiya and cap and perform the Sunset Prayers. Then he would sit cross-legged on the tiny Istanbul sofa on his balcony, telling his prayer-beads or reading the Koran till the time came for Evening Prayers.

He passed the prayer-beads absently through his fingers, his mind automatically recounting the ninety-nine names of God, his lips whispering them: The High, the Great, the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Guiding, the Powerful, the Avenger ...

This evening his routine had been broken. He had not taken tea with his mother. She was not home. She had gone to grieve with a friend who had just lost her husband. He had gone to the funeral yesterday but his mother would go every day for three days, then every Thursday for three Thursdays, then on the fortieth day, then on every anniversary. Although almost invalided by his father’s death four months before, she still performed her social duties. The ones to do with death more avidly perhaps than others.

But the routine had been broken in another, more important way. He had not performed the Sunset Prayers. In fact, he had not performed any of the day’s prayers.

Salah raised his eyes. From where he sat he could see – through the open door of his room and across the narrow hallway with its dining-table and chairs – the bathroom door. The glass panel above the door showed the light burning inside. The glass panel above the door also showed that the room was filled with steam. And he could hear the hiss of the water-heater. He averted his eyes and tried to concentrate on the prayer-beads. ‘Most Powerful God, I abjectly return to you and beg your forgiveness ...’

He was an ideal. He had been told that often. ‘An ideal for young men to follow. A rare and endangered flower in this permissive, decadent age,’ Sheikh Hafez at the mosque had proclaimed. Look at the way he spent his day. With the first call of the Muezzin he was out of his bed performing his ablutions (until recently in cold water) for the Dawn Prayers. Even though they were not, strictly speaking, a requirement: just a gift from himself to God. Then he would sit down to his little desk and prepare the lectures for the day ahead until the time came for Morning Prayers. Again he would lay out his prayer-rug and prostrate himself, adding two prostrations to the prescribed four for good measure. Then he would choose his clothes. He had three pairs of grey trousers and six white shirts and six pairs of grey socks and one pair of black leather shoes. In winter he would also wear a grey sweater with a V-neck. And he had a dark blue suit and a red and blue striped tie for special occasions, like yesterday’s funeral. His eyes rested on the small mirrored wardrobe where his clothes were kept. She kept them so neat. Always laundered, smelling fresh, never a button missing and the shoes always polished. And he never saw her do it. All he knew was that whenever he looked, there they all were, laid tidily in his cupboard. ‘Some day,’ he heard his mother’s voice saying, ‘some day she’ll make some good man a wife worth her weight in gold.’ A spasm shot through his stomach and he looked down quickly at his beads. ‘O Powerful God, I ask for nothing but patience and am grateful to You even for the ills that befall me.’

He concentrated again on the details of his life. After dressing, he would come out of his room to find his breakfast laid on the table in the hall. Naming God, he would sit down and eat. Stewed beans in oil and lemon, brown bread and honey, washed down with dark, sweet tea. Faten would already be out at school. She had a long journey and a school bus to catch. The door of her room would be open. After eating, he would wash his hands and carefully rinse out his mouth. Then he would collect his books and go to his mother’s room. She would be sitting quietly in her bed. When his father was alive he used to breakfast with him, then he would kiss his hand and set off for the University. Now, he would go find his mother and bid her goodbye: ‘Stay in peace, Mother.’

‘Go in safety, my son.’

And he would go. He would walk carefully down the worn, winding stairs, keeping his eyes lowered in case any of the neighbours’ women were about. Then out into the glare and dust of the street. He would walk briskly to the top of the road and wait at the bus-stop. When the bus came the crowd surged forward, each person trying to find a foothold on steps that were already overflowing. He was young and strong and almost always got on and even managed to inch his way into the interior.

In the bus it was stiflingly, unbearably hot. Your neighbour’s hair tickled your nostril, his foot was on your foot and, sometimes, over-poweringly close, was the pressure and scent of the female: a woman would be wedged tightly against him, a breast squashed against his arm, or buttocks pressing into his groin. He would keep his eyes lowered and his body as detached as possible. But it was difficult. And when they got to the University he would fight his way out of the bus, strung up with tension, muttering over and over again: ‘God preserve us. I take my refuge in You.’ At least no one had ever quarrelled with him. Often on a bus a woman would turn and, in a voice shrill with anger, tell the man behind her to ‘Keep your hands to yourself’ or ‘Move over a little, will you, we’re your sisters after all.’ And the man would murmur: ‘What can we do? It’s this damned overcrowding,’ while the people around looked on and waited for a fight to develop so they could all join in. They were hell these buses. God’s Hell. And the things that happened on them. God help a woman if she were nervous or shy. She’d be felt up by a hundred hands at once. It was good that there was a school bus for Faten. He had forbidden her to ride in the ordinary buses and when she had asked why he had simply said: ‘Because I know what goes on in them and it’s not for my sister.’ She had accepted this restriction, as she accepted everything he did and everything he said, unquestioningly. What will I do when she goes to university? he wondered. There will be no school bus then.

He glanced up at the glass panel above the bathroom door. It was still lit and the water-heater hummed on. She must be washing her hair. If he dragged up a chair... his heart leapt into his throat. ‘I ask Your forgiveness and pray for Your support against the whisperings of the Crafty One.’

He tried hard to concentrate on the ninety-nine names of God. The Generous, the Compassionate, the Guiding, the Avenger... But he had been sitting here, like this, with his white cap and galabiya, telling his prayer-beads between the Sunset and the Evening Prayers on that evening two months ago. It was the day the water heater was installed. His father had ordered it and two months after his death it had arrived. He had had his bath, and Faten, delighted with the new toy, was having hers. His mother had called him into her room and motioned him to close the door. She sat in bed, as had become her habit, with a shawl round her shoulders.

‘I’ve been to your aunt’s house today,’ she began.

‘Yes? How is she?’ he asked dutifully.

‘She’s well, thanks be to God. All of them are well.’ She waited. ‘She spoke to me about something.’

‘Well? Inshallah something good?’

‘That’s for you to say. Your father – God have mercy on him – has left us alone. You’re our man now and your word is the man’s word.’

‘Well, Mother, what is it?’

‘You know your cousin Essam? He’s a graduated dentist now and he’s starting to think of opening his own clinic. God willing, he’s going to be rich and successful and, as my sister says, who deserves to share his success more than his cousin, Faten?’

‘Faten?’

‘What do you think?’

He was surprised.

‘She’s a child.’

‘She’s sixteen and in the second secondary. We could have a quiet engagement and then they can wait till she finishes school next year. There would be no disrespect to your father. By then Essam will have started the clinic and they can get married.’

‘That’s nonsense. Faten... Faten’s a bright girl. My father used always to say that she must go to university. She must complete her education.’

‘What is all this education, my son? A girl is destined for marriage.’

‘Education is good, Mother. The Prophet (the blessings and peace of God be upon him) commanded us to seek education, even as far as China. You know what. Have you spoken to her about any of this?’

‘Faten? Of course not. I thought I’d speak to you first.’

‘Well, don’t breathe a word to her. She’s still a child. Let her think of studies. Marriage? What nonsense.’

‘Oh, well,’ sighed his mother. ‘It’s all up to you of course. I don’t think she even likes him very much. They always used to quarrel when they were children.’

Sitting on his sofa, the new water-heater singing in the flat, he had gone over the conversation. He was sure he was right. His sister was far too young to be thinking of marriage. Of course it was true that marriage was protection for a woman. Particularly now her father was dead. But Faten was a good girl and not likely to go wrong. And he was there to look after her. He looked up as he heard the bathroom door open. The light was behind her. She stood for an instant framed in the doorway. Her face was in the shadow and all he could see was the light shining through her thin cotton nightdress silhouetting a curved, shimmering figure while her clean wet hair clung to her neck. She only stood there an instant but he felt the steam new-released from the bathroom surround him and a great heat rose in his body. That same moment a loud commotion rose in the street and he turned to look. Faten skirted the dining-table and came quickly into his room to lean over the railing of his balcony and see what was happening. A crowd was running through the street and everyone was shouting: ‘Thief! Thief!’ Even those who were not running stood in the doorways of their shops or on the sidewalk adding their contribution to the outcry. Her skin was scrubbed and glowing. She smelt of soap. Her hair was sending droplets of water down the neckline of her nightdress and her feet were bare. ‘Did you see the thief?’ she asked, turning to him, facing him with clear, wide, brown eyes, flecked with gold that he had never seen before. Her mouth was slightly parted as she waited for his answer. ‘Did you see the thief?’ she repeated. And he looked away and down into the street. ‘No, no. I see nothing.’ His heart pounded. Everything pounded.

‘What will they do to him if they catch him?’ There was concern in her voice.

He looked grim. ‘Give him a beating first, then take him to the police station.’

‘I don’t think they should beat him,’ she said. ‘It’s enough to take him to the police station.’

‘He’s a thief and he should be punished. There are laws and people should not transgress them. Stealing is against the law of both God and man.’ He could hear his voice growing sharp.

‘But supposing he’s poor and in need?’ Her damp hair curled round her neck and as she leaned forward he could see the drops of water follow the curve of her neck into the shadow between her breasts. ‘They should find out what he stole. Maybe he took some food because he was hungry.’ He wanted to put out a hand and catch a droplet on the tip of his finger. He wanted to bend down and catch one on the tip of his tongue. Gently. He would not touch her. Only the water. His hand, gripping, moved on the railing. His elbow shifted slightly. It touched her arm as she leant beside him. He pulled away.

‘It makes no difference. He has broken the law and he should be punished.’

She was silent. He had used a tone of authority. He was her older brother and he was in his final year at the Faculty of Law. In time he would be a great barrister or a public prosecutor.

The noise had died down as the chase went further and further away from the neighbourhood. People still stood expectantly in the street, reluctant to end the episode and go home. He had said his last word on the subject. But Faten sighed and drew herself up. ‘I hope they don’t catch him,’ she whispered and turned and went inside. He stood rigidly against the railing for a long, long time. He who should guard has stolen. An old, old story. He could see so clearly. Every strand of the wet hair, every shining tooth in the half-open mouth, every drop of water gliding down the illuminated skin stood out radiant in his mind.

Salah fidgeted on the sofa, uncrossing his legs and drawing them to one side under him. He had to stop. If he could not concentrate on his prayer-beads, let him concentrate on his good, homely, everyday life. On the things he was supposed to do. His days at university. He was a good student. Law was a subject that appealed to him. It was orderly and precise and had an answer for everything. It showed Man working out the moral good, the will of God, and following it. He had reached the fourth year and now even had hopes of being appointed to the faculty. He worked hard and spent his time between the lecture-halls and the library. He never sat in the cafeteria or loitered in the corridors as the other students did. He never chatted up the girls. If one of them spoke to him, he answered. But he did not really know them and he did not really want to. They seemed sullied to him, those outdoor girls. Always a bit dishevelled, windblown, bare feet in sandals covered with dust, voices too loud, manner too argumentative, too familiar. And he had never been tempted to transgress God’s law and stare at or covet their persons. Since he had become a man the only women he had raised his eyes to were those he could look at without sin because they were forbidden to him: his aunts, his mother and his sister. Faten. So different from all other girls. Young, barely sixteen, her face innocent and trusting, her voice soft, low and shy. Always sparkling clean and smelling of sweet soap as she went about her duties or bent over her desk to do her homework. No flirting, no arguments, just acceptance. Acceptance and respect and love. And what had he done? He had broken God’s explicit commandment: ‘Your mothers have been forbidden you, as have your sisters and your aunts and ...’ If Sheikh Hafez could see inside his heart as he prayed at the head of his friends on Friday he would hound him out of the mosque, and he would be right. He carried filth and contamination in his heart and God would not look with favour on anything he did until he got rid of them.

He thought of himself lurking in the hall, waiting for Faten to pass so he could ‘accidentally’ brush against her. ‘You are our man now. We have no one but you.’ His mother’s words echoed through his mind. He who should guard has stolen. His fingers touching hers as she hands him the glass of tea. He had become like the furtive men on the buses. How was it that his mother, sitting in her big, brass bed, her chastely plaited hair hanging over one shoulder, how was it that she did not feel the tremor passing through the room? How could she not feel the heat of the fire burning in his head? And Faten. Did she too feel nothing? Or did she feel it and hide it? Women. They say you never know with women, for they are deficient in brains and morality. Perhaps she feels the same and conceals it. But she seems so innocent. So frank. Her face an open book. Surely she has no secrets, no dark thoughts, no feelings that could not be confessed to. And yet can you really know? Can you ever really know?

The previous night, after the funeral, the friends who had attended persuaded him to go out with them. ‘We’ll give you a good time,’ they said. ‘Take your mind off death and such morbid things.’ They headed down town and walked among the crowds on Soliman Pacha street, arms linked, eyeing the women. They found a café in the street and sat down. They ordered tea and chatted in loud voices. About college, about their teachers, but mostly about the girls. As they talked they kept up a running commentary on the women passing in the street. One was thin like a broomstick. Another had juicy breasts, ‘like whipped cream’ they called after her. A third had a nice, rounded ass. At each comment he had found himself thinking of Faten, comparing her with the women passing by, forced to focus on her details. Was she thin? What exactly was her bottom like? Then he would sharply pull his mind away, his fingers working feverishly on the prayer-beads in the pocket of his suit.

Finally, Musa’d, the one whom he liked least in the group, made a suggestion: ‘Let’s go to Sawsan’s,’ he said. ‘There’s a lovely new girl there. An apple. She’s young and looks so innocent, but God, the tricks she knows... Whooo!’

‘I ask your forgiveness, Highest Lord,’ he had muttered, clinging to his beads.

‘Come on Salah,’ cried Musa’d. ‘Stop muttering to yourself and let’s go ...’

‘You are thinking of committing blasphemy. Of flouting the laws of God.’

‘Come on, man. Just for a night. Taste it and see. After all, marriage is the half of religion isn’t it? And how can you get married without a little experience under your belt?’ He laughed.

‘Leave him alone, Musa’d,’ intervened another friend. ‘Salah is not like us. He’s a man of God.’

‘What? Does the flesh have no hold at all over him then? You know what they say, don’t you? They say these “men of God” are real whoremasters at heart. They could teach you and me things we never even dreamed of ...’

‘I’m going,’ Salah had declared in a choked voice. His head was throbbing furiously. No one had dared suggest such a thing to him before. Now they sensed his impurity. It was showing through. God was sending him a warning. He was saying: ‘I can see you. And others will too.’ He shouldered his way quickly down the crowded street, holding onto the prayer-beads in his pocket. ‘God preserve me from the temptation of the Evil One. I beg of You to preserve me from the temptation of that which You have created ...’

He had reached home without having walked off his turmoil. He had climbed the stairs slowly, looking down at the ground. The muscles of his legs and thighs ached and he breathed heavily. What is the use? What is the use of lowering your eyes and not looking at the neighbours’ women if you raise your eyes to your own sister? But it was permitted. It is permitted to raise your eyes to your sister. And is it permitted to covet her? To lust after her? To try to touch her with your corrupt body and pollute her innocence? How do I know she is innocent? Things are not what they seem. I am not what I seem. My face is still sharp and clean-boned; my eyes direct and honest. How do I then know anything? He let himself quietly into the flat. It was past 11 and both his mother and his sister were asleep. Only the small night-lamp burned in the hall. He walked straight across to his room and started undressing. He had not yet performed the Evening Prayers. He started to recross the hall to the bathroom to perform his ablutions. In truth he had committed nothing that rendered him unfit for prayer, but he felt he had to cleanse himself after the loose talk of the café. He walked round the dining-table and stopped before his sister’s door. It was ajar. She never closed it when she went to bed. She had no secrets. He touched it gently. Quietly, in collusion with him, it inched open. He stepped inside. The blinds were wide open and the room was light from the neon in the street. In the far corner stood her bed and she slept on it, curled up under a sheet. She was bundled up in the white cotton, completely covered, only her head showing, hair spread behind her on the pillow, eyes lightly closed. He bent over her. Would she wake up? He could smell the scent of soap and could hear her breath, gentle against the pillow. He put out his hand to touch her and she moved, turning to lie flat on her back, face and body defenceless and submissive to him. He stepped back. He stood for a moment gazing at the outline of her body under the sheet, then he turned and left the room. He dragged himself round the dining table and back to his room. Ablutions forgotten, he stumbled onto his bed and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Still exhausted, he had woken up at dawn. As he woke to the voice of the Muezzin calling for prayers, he had a feeling that something terrible had happened. He had a memory of lifting a sheet, touching a breast. He had a memory of Faten holding him under the sheet, caressing him where he most longed to be caressed. Yet when he had whispered her name she had laughed at him. ‘My name is Sawsan. Don’t you know me?’ It was only a dream, he reassured himself, only a dream. But then another realisation hit him. He had gone to bed without performing the Evening Prayers. For the first time since he had become a man, he had missed a prayer. And now it was gone for ever. You could not carry over prayers from one day to the next. He looked down at himself. He was impure, unclean, and his body had a lethargy he had never known before. He covered his face with his hands. ‘O God,’ he prayed, ‘help me. I have reached the bottom of the pit. For the sake of Your Prophet, help me.’

He was not sure how he had passed the day. He had gone out. He had gone to classes. But he was absent. He did not know what was going on around him. He paid no attention to the lectures and he took no notes. And he had missed all his prayers. It seemed useless. No, it seemed blasphemous to pray while he was so contaminated. He had to find an answer. Then he could pray again.

He sat on his sofa, holding the beads, suddenly wary of pronouncing the names of God. They were alone. His mother would not be back for another hour yet and the water heater was quiet. Faten must be drying herself now. Rubbing her body all over. Bending to reach an ankle, or did she raise her leg – if he went on like this he would be lost. He would be lost to both this world and the next; his studies and his future would be lost. His soul would be lost.

The bathroom door opened, spilling light into the hallway. Then Faten put out her hand, switched off the light and turned to her room. Surely she was wearing nothing underneath that nightdress. And why did she always come out of the bathroom barefoot? Was it a test? A test sent by God to try him? She came back out of her room with her hair wrapped in a towel. She crossed the hall and came into his room. ‘I’m going to make myself some tea. Would you like some?’

‘No.’

She stood for a moment, surprised at the shortness of his answer, then she quietly left the room. He could hear her in the kitchen. Then she crossed the hall carrying a glass of tea in one hand and a sandwich in the other. She went into her room pushing the door to behind her. ‘Dear God, take my hand, support me, help me.’ His mother would not be back for another hour. Tea, some tea? Why not go to the kitchen and make some tea? He got up from the sofa, straightened his galabiya and pushed his feet into his slippers. He walked into the hall and over to the kitchen then he turned back and stopped at his sister’s door. He stood waiting. He could hear a rustle of paper. Did she wear nothing under that nightdress? He pushed open the door and went in. She was sitting at her desk with her back to him. She turned. He walked up to her and slowly put out his hand and rested it on her bare neck. She smiled up at him. His legs trembled. Beyond her face he could see the table. On it was a magazine with photographs telling a story. One shot showed a man holding a woman’s arm as she strained to get away from him.

‘What’s this?’

She turned to the magazine. ‘This? Oh, it’s French. Mlle Amal said the best way to learn conversation was to read these magazines and she lent me one for today.’

His hand tightened on her neck. ‘And what do you think of it?’

‘I like it. It’s amusing. It makes learning interesting.’ She laughed up at him. ‘It’s better than doing boring grammar exercises.’

He suddenly pulled her round. ‘Do you realise that these are obscene publications? That they are blasphemous?’ His voice grew high. ‘And you dare sit there and tell me you enjoy them?’ His hand was gripping her upper arm now, hurting her. The backs of his fingers touched the side of her breast. His hand tingled and hummed.

‘Is this what we send you to school for? To learn rudeness and obscenities? I’ll go to that school tomorrow and see what that teacher of yours thinks she’s up to.’

‘But, Salah, you don’t understand –’

The blow caught her on the side of her face. The towel slid off her head and her wet hair came tumbling down around her neck.

‘Shut up. I’ll tell you when to speak. You’ve been having your own way for too long now. You haven’t been watched closely enough to see what you’re turning into. Well, that’s all over now, do you hear?’ His hand was in her hair. ‘I’m wise to you and your little ways now and I’ll put a stop to them. Do you hear me? You may be fooling everyone but you’re not fooling me.’ Dry eyes wide open, Faten stared at him. He shook her. ‘Why are you staring at me?’ he screamed. ‘Have you never seen me before? Or is it because you know I’ve found out about you, Miss Innocent. We’ll soon see how innocent you are.’ The water from her hair trickled down his hand. He released her arm and his hand moved across her breast to the neck of her nightdress. She sat still. A key turned in the lock and his mother, shrouded from head to toe in black, walked in.

‘Whatever’s the matter, Salah? I could hear your voice all the way down the stairs.’

He let go of his sister and turned to his mother. He passed a hand over his eyes. Faten, released, backed to the bed and lay down. Curling up, she faced the wall, drawing the sheet over her as she started to shake.

‘Come into your room a minute, Mother. I want to talk to you.’ His voice shook. He followed his mother into her room and closed the door.

‘Remember you spoke to me about Essam? Does he still want her?’

‘I suppose so ...’

‘Let’s marry her to him.’

‘But her education? Did you not say ...’

‘All this education will do her no good. I caught her reading some obscene magazine tonight. In French. And if she goes to university she’ll be ruined like all the girls there. I don’t want to see my sister with red nails. With a loud voice and a brassy stare.’

‘Well... shall we wait till she finishes school next year?’

‘If she’s not going to university why does she need to finish school? She’s not going to go out to work is she? No. The sooner the better.’ His voice steadied. ‘If she really wants to she can always study at home.’

‘You don’t think she’s too young? You said –’

‘She’s over sixteen. That’s the age they specify in Law and there must be a good reason for it. No. Let it be done quickly. Doesn’t he want her?’

‘Of course he wants her.’

‘Well then. Marriage is protection. Let’s do it quickly and she can live with her aunt until he finds a flat. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’m sure I’m right.’

‘Whatever you say, my son. You’re the man in this house.’

‘You’ll speak to my aunt tomorrow?’

‘Of course. She’ll be delighted. And so will Essam.’

‘May God bring this to a happy conclusion, Mother.’

‘Inshallah!’

He walked from his mother’s room into the bathroom and turned on the cold tap. He quickly and thoroughly performed his ablutions. He had a lot of praying to catch up on. Then he would study.