Her Man

Ahdaf Soueif

Zeina sat on the bed in her room on the roof staring out of the window. The sun had set, but there was still some light left in the pale blue sky. Clouds were gathering, and she could see the clothes hanging out to dry on the neighbours’ rooftop blowing in the rising wind. It was time to call Sa’d in from the street and give him his supper. She sighed. What bent luck, Zeina, she thought. Young and full of youth and pretty with eyelashes black as night even without kohl and a face fair and full of light and hair smooth as silk. What thighs. What legs. The men are always looking at them as you walk down the street, your melaya draped tightly round your body but showing one full straight leg with a dimpled ankle adorned by a thick silver anklet. Like that boy, what’s his name, the greengrocer’s apprentice ogling you till you had to chide him. ‘What’s wrong with you, boy? You’ve never seen a woman before?’ And he said – curse his cheek – he said: ‘I’ve seen women, Set Om Sa’d, but by the life of Seedna Mohammad, the Prophet, I’ve never seen one with legs like yours.’ A crazy boy. Of course you told him off, pulling your melaya across your face to hide your smile. ‘Shut up, boy. You must be mad or something’s gone wrong with your head. Don’t you know what my husband would do to you if he heard what you said? Haven’t you heard that his anger is worse than that of Iblis, the Devil?’

My husband. She sighed again, her hand restless on her thigh. Life without a man was worth nothing. It was no life at all. The days were long and heavy now that she had no man to look after, to cook for, to clean and adorn herself for. And at night she fell, alone, into a thick, deep sleep from which there was no urgent hand to wake her. Pull yourself together now, Zeina, she told herself, and go and get your son from the lane. All the other children must have gone home by now. Go on.

She got up slowly and walked out of the room closing the door carefully behind her. The wind was getting strong now, blowing her shift as she walked across the roof and to the door leading down into the heart of the building. She walked down the dark, familiar stairs, past her sister’s quarters and her aunt’s and grandmother’s quarters and out into the street. The wind was whipping up clouds of dust which blew into her mouth and eyes as she looked for her son. ‘Sa’d,’ she called, ‘Sa’d, where are you, boy?’ She saw him at last at the end of the lane, in a doorway, sheltering from the wind. He came running as she called, and held tightly onto her hand as they walked up the lane and back to the house. ‘I was scared of the wind,’ he complained. She felt a surge of tenderness. He was nine years old. Born just one year after her marriage. The girl that had followed him two years later God had seen fit to take away and there had been as yet no others. And now, perhaps there never would be. And yet one never knew how things would turn out. ‘Faith, faith, Zeina,’ she reminded herself. ‘Have faith in God and it will all turn out to the good.’

She took Sa’d into the large communal kitchen where his cousins, her sister’s two sons, were already eating. He joined them on the floor at the low, round wooden table, taking possession of a loaf and dipping his bread into the large bowl of stew in the middle. The men were out for the evening, and her sister and grandmother sat on the straw mat at the far end of the kitchen drinking coffee. Zeina walked over and sat down by her grandmother, folding her legs.

‘Well, he should be back tomorrow,’ said Hekmat, her sister, immediately.

‘Who should be back tomorrow?’ asked Zeina blandly.

‘Who should it be? The Djinn? Sobhi, your husband, woman.’

‘Oh.’

‘Well, what d’you mean “oh”? Aren’t you happy he’s coming back?’

‘What’s it to do with me?’

‘What’s it to do with you? How can you say that? Isn’t he your husband?’ Then, as she understood, ‘You’re not going on with that game you’re playing are you? Setti,’ turning to the old woman, ‘see what this madwoman here is thinking of. The man’s been away for ten days and he’ll come back to find his wife not speaking to him. Does this make sense?’

‘Let his other wife speak to him,’ said Zeina before her grandmother could answer.

‘Why of course she’ll speak to him,’ began her sister, ‘and not only will she speak to him – ’

‘That’s what we’re afraid of, child,’ cut in the old woman, carefully swirling the coffee dregs around and upturning the cup onto its saucer. ‘If you keep away from him long enough he’ll grow used to being without you and cleave to her completely. What will you do then?’

‘Kick yourself,’ supplied Hekmat. ‘Beat yourself with a slipper most likely and then he won’t care.’

‘Remember the proverb, child: “The shade of a man is better than that of a wall.” And he hasn’t done anything that other men don’t do. He’s still your husband. He hasn’t left you nor neglected you. He still supports you and brings you meat and fruit, even though you’ve not been speaking to him. He still holds you dear. But you’re hurting his pride and manhood. Take care what you’re doing lest you drive him away.’

‘Drive him away?’ cried Zeina bitterly. ‘How can I drive him further away than he’s already gone? To marry on top of me? Why? Am I old? Or has my hair gone white? Or am I ugly? Or have my teeth fallen out? Or don’t I please him any more? Or am I not a good housewife? Haven’t I borne him a son and a daughter, may God have mercy on her? What’s wrong with me that he should marry on top of me?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you, child, and a thousand men would desire you. But these things are in the hands of God. Doesn’t the Koran say: “and you may hate that very thing which is best for you”? You know Sobhi’s always been impulsive. He acts first and regrets later, and if he’s not already regretting this he will in a while.’

‘The girl’s a dope,’ said Hekmat. ‘Why, she can’t even put two words together and always staring like she’s in a daze. He’ll soon get bored with her.’

‘Maybe he doesn’t want her to talk to him,’ said Zeina. ‘Maybe the other’s enough for him – ’

‘How d’you know she’s good at the other?’ asked her sister. ‘She’s not even carrying yet. I know because before she went to her mother’s I saw her washing out her curse cloths, so she’s not carrying and she’s already been married four months.’

‘Has it been four months?’ asked the old woman. ‘So it’s already been six months since Sheikh Sama’n died. Eh, the days pass and life runs by. The train waits for no one. Sobhi thought he was doing right marrying the girl when her father died. God commanded us to protect our neighbours’ honour and the girl has no brothers, no uncles, no menfolk. He preserved Sheikh Sama’n’s honour by marrying Tahiya.’

‘Preserved Sheikh Sama’n’s honour?’ broke in Zeina sharply. ‘He had the hots for her, that’s all. He’s always had a roving eye and he likes women. He was randy for her. And her mother wasn’t asking a bride-price. Who would pay a bride-price for a half-idiot orphan? He got her cheap. All he had to do was find her somewhere to live, so he took Sa’d’s room. Right next to mine, mind you. And sent him to sleep with me. Well of course, why should he want me alone in the room now? He used to be anxious enough to send the boy to the other room, but that was in the old days.’

‘Come on, Zeina,’ said her sister. ‘You know Sa’d sleeps down here with his cousins most of the time.’ Then remembering the children, she turned to them sharply: ‘What are you doing here? Sitting listening? You’ve finished eating so get off to your room and play there.’ She faced back to her sister. ‘You know something? I think Sobhi put her in the room next to you so you could keep an eye on her. He knew you’d watch her like a hawk and make sure he knew if she got up to anything she shouldn’t.’

‘Up to anything? I tell you the girl’s an idiot. She wouldn’t even know how to go about it. And why should she? She’s got herself a man of her own now. If she wanted to play around she could have. He’s been away at this funeral for ten days. But instead she chooses to go and stay with her mother.’

‘The girl’s very young,’ put in the grandmother. ‘She said she was afraid to sleep on her own on the roof. Maybe she’s a bit scared of you as well – ’

‘Scared of me? Why should she be scared of me? What have I done to scare her? I haven’t come near her from the day she moved in here.’

‘That’s because you’re thick,’ interrupted Hekmat. ‘Another woman would have found means of getting rid of her.’

‘So what should I do? Play tricks on her? Pour salt into her cooking? Cut up her clothes? Sprinkle dust in her room? And when she complains to him? What would happen then? You know what he’s like when he’s angry: he doesn’t stop to ask questions. Right now she’s the apple of his eye. He’d just fly into a rage and God knows what he’d do to me.’

‘You’ve always been wise, Zeina,’ said her grandmother approvingly. ‘Wise and careful. It’s true. It would do you no good to anger him now. Better to wait and see what God will bring to pass.’

Hekmat suddenly laughed. ‘You must miss him, though,’ she said leaning forward and gently pinching her sister’s breast. ‘Remember how you always used to tell us how much he pleased you? “My man,” you’d say proudly, “my man is as big as a bull and knows how to make a woman happy.” Well, it can’t be easy now that you’re not even speaking to him, hey?’ She laughed loudly.

‘For shame, Hekmat,’ said her grandmother gazing at the patterns in the coffee cup, ‘the children’ll hear you. Don’t you know that a well-bred woman can do without a man even for six months?’

There was a sound behind them and Hekmat turned, still laughing, to the door. Her expression changed as she caught sight of the girl standing there. ‘Oh Lord,’ she cried in exaggerated surprise. ‘Look who’s come in. Well, you’ve given me a fright,’ she said, pulling her neckline out and pretending to spit into her bosom. ‘The man doesn’t come back till tomorrow. What brings you back tonight? Is your mother bored with you or didn’t she want to feed you any more? Not that you eat much anyway being as skinny as you are – ’

Tahiya stepped sideways from the door into the kitchen. She stood by the wall still clutching her melaya round her, her hand clenched tightly round the neck of a bundle that she held. She spoke like one in a dream: ‘The wind is very high outside. Can’t you hear it? The air in the street is so full of dust that you can’t see a hand’s length in front of your eyes.’ Then she remembered. ‘Good evening, Setti,’ moving forward to kiss the old woman’s hand. ‘My mother salutes you and she’s sent you some cakes she made just this morning.’ She offered the bundle to the old woman, who took it from her saying kindly: ‘And why go to all this trouble, daughter? Is your mother well?’

‘She’s well, praise God, and asks after your health.’

‘I’m well, praise God. As well as can be expected for an old woman like me.’

‘May God lengthen your life and give you good health,’ responded the three younger women in a chorus. It was the only time Zeina spoke.

‘You haven’t told us why you’ve come back,’ insisted Hekmat staring at the girl, her hands on her waist.

‘My mother said I should. She said it would give me an early start tomorrow in cleaning the room and preparing for Si Sobhi’s coming back. I didn’t want to come because of the wind but she said I should.’

‘You’re scared of the wind?’ questioned Hekmat contemptuously. She got up suddenly so that Tahiya flinched and retreated to the door. But Hekmat walked past her and to the corner where the table stood. She began clearing up the remnants of the boys’ supper. ‘Scared of the wind,’ she repeated mimicking the girl’s timid manner, ‘scared of the wind and scared of the dark and scared to sleep on her own on the roof. What a coward. How come you’re not scared of the man? Or doesn’t that,’ wiggling the middle finger of her right hand in the girl’s face in an obscene gesture, ‘scare you?’

‘Stop it Hekmat,’ said the grandmother. ‘Leave the girl alone.’ She looked across at Zeina but she just sat there impassively. ‘Tahiya, have you had some dinner, child, or shall I put some out for you? There’s some stew left over from the boys, do you want to heat it?’

Zeina stood up suddenly. ‘I’m going up to my room,’ she said. ‘Sa’d’, she raised her voice, ‘Sa’d, come along. We’re going up.’

The little boy ran into the room: ‘I want to sleep down here tonight. We’re playing.’

Zeina looked at her sister. ‘Leave the boy,’ said Hekmat. ‘He’s no trouble to anyone. Wherever he lays his head he sleeps.’

‘You’re not to be naughty,’ Zeina warned her son. ‘If your aunt complains of you I’ll give you a beating – ’ but he had already turned and run back into the bedroom with his cousins.

Zeina said a vague ‘good night’ and climbed slowly to the roof. The wind was howling and she held her clothes down with both hands, lowering her head as she ran for her room. She pushed the door shut against the wind and stood leaning against it. Why had he married her? Why? She was young, yes, but then she, Zeina, wasn’t old. Twenty-five wasn’t old. And she wasn’t any prettier than her. And she was simple. Why did he want to marry a simpleton? She lit the paraffin lamp and took her towel from the nail behind the door and went out again into the wind taking the lamp with her. She ran into the bathroom and shut the door. She put the lamp down on the floor and started washing herself with cold water. Things had been good between them. Never mind the odd quarrel. Everybody quarrelled sometimes. And she had done everything for him that a woman could do for a man. She had been so young when she married him: only 15 and knowing nothing of marriage. But she had learnt fast and he always said she pleased him. Why then did he have to go and marry a young, half-baked idiot who wouldn’t know the first thing about pleasing a man? She’d have understood it more if the girl had been crafty. If she had laid snares for him. But she was simple. What was it he saw in her?

She let herself out and went back to her room. The shutters were knocking against the wall as the wind blew them and she opened the window and pulled them to, closing the windowpanes carefully. She pulled back the blanket, blew out the lamp and got into bed. What bent luck, Zeina, she thought. Young and full of youth and beautiful and you have to go to bed without your man. Tomorrow he’s coming back, she thought. But what’s the use? He’s coming back to her, not to me. Her mind dwelt on tomorrow. He would come back, probably with a gift of fruit. He would appear at the doorway to the roof and walk towards the room. Which room? Hers? Tahiya’s? The images were mixed in her mind. ‘Hey, girl,’ he’d shout and she’d come running and take the fruit and his bundle of clothes from him and follow him into the room. ‘Praise God that you’ve come home safely, Abu Sa’d,’ she’d say, and he would thank her and inquire after her health. She would ask if he wanted to wash and would hand him the towel and he would turn and go into the bathroom where he’d wash the dust of the journey from his face and his hands. Then he would come back to the room still drying his hands and give her back the towel. As she hung it up he would approach her from behind putting his arms around her and his hands on her breasts. She would pretend to be embarrassed and pull away saying shyly, ‘Don’t you want to eat?’ and he’d laugh, showing his strong, tobacco-stained teeth and say, ‘What’s the matter, girl? Haven’t you missed me?’ and he’d take her by the arm to the bed and sit her down. Zeina’s hand was between her legs as she drifted into a heavy sleep.

Tahiya came slowly up the stairs. She hesitated at the doorway, gathering her courage for the dash across the dark, windy roof. Then holding her clothes down she ran across and straight into the bathroom. She washed herself carefully and ritually performed her ablutions. She did not wash her hair but passed her wet hand over it three times. Then, dripping water, she ran into her room.

The room felt cold and lonely. She had been away for ten days and although she knew this was now her home, she felt herself a stranger. She took her towel off the nail on the wall and dried herself, then she lit the paraffin lamp and laid out her prayer rug. She covered her head with the white head-dress and stood on the rug going through her evening prayers. She made the obeisances and said the farewells, then sat back on her heels passing her hands over her face in a habit formed from watching her father’s prayers over the years. She continued for a while to sit on the prayermat drawing a faint comfort from the familiar gestures. But the wind howled and the lamp made the shadows dance in the corners and her room had no key and no bolt.

As she slept, Zeina felt a hand move gently, tentatively over her back. An edge of consciousness came into her sleep. It was not a familiar touch. Sobhi’s hands were never tentative. But it was pleasant and blended into her dream as she drifted again into sleep. The covers were lifted and a cold body huddled, trembling, against her back. ‘Please Zeina,’ Tahiya’s voice whispered, ‘my room is so cold and the wind is so loud and there’s knocking everywhere and I’m so scared.’ She shook with tears.

Zeina turned, half-asleep, and put her arms round the trembling girl. ‘All right, all right, hush, it’s all right.’ Tahiya clung to her, shivering, and Zeina sleepily rubbed her body trying vaguely to warm her. Her hands moved over Tahiya’s back and her breasts and belly, then lower down as she rubbed her thighs. The girl clung to her. She smelt of soap and her breath was clean and fresh. Zeina went on rubbing her thighs. Automatically, Tahiya’s hands, still shivering, began to stroke her back. Her hands felt soft and gentle. Hardly conscious, Zeina enjoyed the long-missed tingling flowing down her spine. Tahiya’s hands were naive as they stroked the older woman and her own body was moving and arching under Zeina’s touch. Her touch was strangely like Sobhi’s, her hands did the same things, pressed in the same ways and Tahiya’s body answered. Zeina felt the pliant body move under her hands. Her hand found its way to Tahiya’s neckline and, drawing it down, fingered her naked breast. Tahiya’s hands clutched at her back. A feeling of power surged through her. Gently she pinched the nipple and heard the girl gasp. She went on pressing. Tahiya was writhing, pressing her body against hers. On an impulse she took her hand from her breast, passed it down the front of the girl’s body, then dug it hard, taking the shift with it, between her legs. Tahiya caught her breath, then let it out with a sob. Zeina was wide awake now, staring in the dark at the body moving in her arms. Tahiya’s eyes were closed, her mouth half-open and her forehead gleamed with sweat. So this was what she was like. This was what she was like with him. This was what he now found waiting in bed for him every night. It must make him feel really proud. Make him feel like the master of men. She stopped stroking and pinched the inside of Tahiya’s thigh, hard. The girl only moaned and shifted, slightly opening her legs. Then, Zeina had her idea. She bent over the girl’s body, lifted her dress and started to lick her thighs. Tahiya twisted under her tongue. She worked slowly, now with the flat of her tongue, now drawing lines and circles with its tip. She moved up and started nibbling gently at her buttocks while her hand moved expertly between her open thighs. Tahiya was whimpering, crying now for her mother, now for Seedna Mohammad as Zeina found her most sensitive spots and started to manipulate them carefully. Zeina waited, fingers busy, teeth working, until Tahiya’s whimperings grew incoherent and she started to moan and convulse. Then she dug her teeth sharply into her right buttock. The bite seemed to heighten the girl’s orgasm, for she crashed around crying out and Zeina kept her teeth in and sucked hard. Then, as the waves receded, she gave up the mouthful of flesh and drew the girl’s dress down over her thighs. She sat up in the dark. ‘You liked that?’

‘May God bring it to a good end,’ whispered Tahiya.

In the morning the wind had died down and the winter sun shone white in a cloudless blue sky. Zeina went downstairs and woke her son. She gave him his breakfast of beans and bread and saw him off to school, then collected the broom, dustpan, a metal pail and a floorcloth and climbed back to the roof. She opened the door of her room. Her bed was empty. She went in, rolled up the rug and took it out onto the roof and shook it. Then she started to clean her room thoroughly, washing the floor and polishing the window and the mirror. She made the bed with fresh sheets and hung a clean towel on the nail behind the door. When she had finished, she went and scrubbed out the bathroom and then lit the primus and put a large urn of water over it. She stood at the door of the bathroom looking out over the roof. Tahiya came out of her room and stood in the doorway feeling the sun on her feet. On her face was a quiet, abstracted smile. Zeina waited, then, when the girl showed no sign of moving, snapped sharply: ‘You’d better get moving if you’re going to go to the market and cook his dinner.’ Tahiya disappeared into the room, then came back with her slippers and melaya on. She made for the stairs.

The water was hot. Zeina poured it into the copper tub, then stripped and bathed herself carefully. She took a long time washing her long black hair, then, sitting in the sun, she combed it out, parting it in the middle and braiding it into two thick plaits which she twisted round her head.

When Sa’d came home from school, Zeina took him downstairs and fed him, then sent him out to play in the street. On her way back up she stopped at her sister’s quarters. ‘Let Sa’d sleep with his cousins tonight, will you?’

‘Naturally,’ said Hekmat jiggling her eyebrows with a broad smile.

Zeina went upstairs and into her room. She stood in the middle of the room for a moment, then crossed over to the cupboard and took out her kohl vial and a small bottle of scent. She opened the bottle and sniffed the heavy fragrance, then she closed it again and went over to the mirror and looked in it carefully. There wasn’t a blemish on her face; her brow was smooth, her hair was black as coal. She looked over her shoulder at her hips and legs. They were nice and plump and firm. A sea for a man to drown in. What more did he want? She took the scent and the kohl back to the cupboard, then went onto the roof. She chose a sunny spot from where she could see the door. Then she sat cross-legged on the floor and waited.

In a while she heard Tahiya coming up. The girl was not wearing her melaya and slippers. She was carrying them under her arm.

‘You’ve been to market?’

‘I came back long ago, I’ve been in the kitchen. I’ve cooked a great meal of okra with lamb and made some rice to go with it.’

‘Good.’

Tahiya was willing to stay and chat but Zeina looked resolutely into the distance, so she went into her room. She was strange, Zeina. She hadn’t behaved as she had been warned a first wife would. She had expected fights and beatings, her few shifts to be torn to shreds and her cooking systematically ruined with vinegar or salt poured into it. But none of that had happened. And then last night she had been kind to her when she’d gone into her bed. Last night – well, Sobhi would be here soon and she had to get ready for him. She started cleaning her room.

Tahiya was heating the water for her husband’s bath. She was pumping the primus to go full blast, so she didn’t hear Zeina call softly: ‘Abu Sa’d, I want a word with you.’

The man followed Zeina into her room. Large, but graceful in his blue, woollen striped galabiya and leather slippers. His cane and a bundle of clothes in one hand and under his arm a large bag of oranges. She walked slowly, swinging her hips, then stepped round him and closed the door. He was surprised. Why had she broken her long silence? Had she come to the end of her patience? Did she need a man? His hand went up to his thick black moustache, twirling it.

‘Inshallah good news, Zeina?’ he questioned.

‘Neither good nor bad, Abu Sa’d,’ she replied. ‘Just God’s truth.’ She turned her back on him and stared out of the window, then turned round again to face him.

‘Look, Abu Sa’d. God commanded us to cover our shame and that of our neighbours. But things can get too much. It goes beyond what one can bear when someone goes around boasting ... ’ Her voice quivered with indignation and suppressed tears.

‘What on earth are you talking about?’

She struck her bosom with the flat of her hand. ‘I’m your wife in the eyes of God and his Prophet. I’ve been a good wife to you and I’m bringing up your son, may God preserve him from evil. Now I don’t want to harm anybody but if you go and marry a young slut who boasts to me of what you do with her ‘

A smile broke over his bewildered features. So that was it.

‘Come on, Om Sa’d. She’s only a young girl. I hoped she would be of use to you and serve you – ’

‘She’s no business showing me the marks you make on her.’

‘What marks?’

‘Oh yes. She showed me the big blue bite on her right buttock. “See how my man marks me,” she says wiggling her bum at me – ’

‘Blue what? Shut up, woman, shut up.’ The oranges scattered on Zeina’s bed as he rushed from the room.

He burst into Tahiya’s room and slammed the door behind him.

‘Pull up your shift.’

The girl stood in the middle of the room.

‘What?’

She’d known him to be urgent. But, like this? And he looked as though he were angry, with a red face and –

‘Pull up your shift, woman,’ he yelled.

She pulled up her shift.

‘The neighbours’ll hear you,’ she muttered uncertainly, standing in the middle of the room.

‘Come over here.’ With one hand he grabbed her arm, with the other he jerked down her pants and stood staring at the big blue mark on her right buttock. She gasped as the blow landed.

‘Where did you get this? Who did it?’ he thundered.

‘Did what?’ she gasped trying to break free.

‘This, you whore, this.’ His hand was in her hair tugging her head back over her shoulder to look at herself. ‘This bite.’

‘What bite?’ she wailed. ‘I don’t know. I swear I don’t know – ’

‘You don’t know? Maybe this’ll remind you,’ reaching down for his slipper. She screamed. The way he twisted her neck was breaking her spine, and the sharp blows of the leather slipper rained over her body, her face, her head.

‘I swear by my father’s death, by the life of the Prophet, I don’t know – ’

‘Then I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you. You bitch. You whore. You got it from “your man”, your lover. Who is he? Tell me so that I can find him and drink his blood. I swear if you weren’t Sheikh Sama’n’s daughter I’d murder you this instant. Get your clothes together and get off to your mother’s, you bitch. You’re divorced. You’re divorced three times over and I don’t want ever to see your face again. I’ve a mind to drag you out into the street and make a spectacle of you, you dirty slut.’

Curious neighbours were gathering to their windows and rooftops. Zeina took her time, lining her eyes with kohl and rubbing scent between her breasts. She walked out of her room, slowly hips swaying, and into the other room: ‘Stop it, Abu Sa’d, stop. Stop it man, you’ll do yourself an injury. She’s not worth it. Get your clothes together, girl, and get out.’

‘You don’t know what she’s done,’ he cried, distracted. ‘You don’t know what the bitch has done – ’

‘Whatever she did it’s done and there’s no undoing it. It’s generous to forgive. Come now, come. Let her alone now. You’ve divorced her thrice, haven’t you. She deserved it. Don’t do this to yourself.’

She led him out and into her room and closed the door. He was shaking as she laid him down on the bed and bent over him tenderly: ‘Lie down and rest now. The water’s hot for your bath and you’ll have a dinner of okra that you’ll eat your fingers after ... ’