Finalist of the “Two Thousand Nights and Awakening” literary contest
Doubts over my gender nag and niggle at the back of my mind, driving me to a state verging on despair. In spite of being painfully conscious of how I choose my words and style my narrative to tell it, the story never gets to shine as bright and sound as salacious as the sequence of events it celebrates. And I am left to hark back to the poetaster mistakes I made when delivering the report, the biggest being lying by omission to my readers and thus depriving them of the pleasure of assessing the relevance to the story of the noise the night makes when locking its jaws on the sleeping townsfolk.
I may throw up later. Who knows? The entire world, perhaps? From where I stand, that seems pretty damn likely! People around here seem to be constantly monitoring everyone else’s every move. There was a time when the night kept secret the wishes people made to the stars, until someone recognized the value of being plugged into what people lost sleep over and pawed through everyone’s dirty laundry. At least now that the townspeople have started to lower their guard, I don’t have to take to my heels so often to protect my privacy. That, however, has come at a price. My once-burning desires for space and freedom have now been satisfied and no longer act as an incentive for me to wade across the colorful swamplands of my libido.
I spend the nights with eyes wide open, scrutinizing the darkness outside, scared of what the future holds. Everything in our world turns into an albatross. That may explain why, unlike the rest of our society, the women who gather naked at the women’s hammam don’t seem to fret over the degeneration of the patriarchal order the older and oldest generations have created.
What makes the hammam especially fetching is the steam that rises to the dome of the building and condenses there. It takes you back to the time when Nippur’s women made a name for themselves—just like the one that inspired one thousand and one nights. As a young girl whose features had yet to display feminine qualities, I liked to watch the bodies of the women at the hammam, how the steam brushed against their curves. While lathering myself from head to toe, I wondered how time and gravity would affect my appearance. I thought that if I used enough soap and rubbed long enough I might even rinse off all traces of having ever been at the mercy of the outside world, and manage to keep my innocent-looking frame.
I remember the scathing look the women in the hammam used to throw me whenever they noticed that I had caught sight of their compulsion to scope out each other’s flabby physiques to measure their own figures against that of other women. When they put me in my place back then, they taught me that there are games that aren’t meant for children.
Once, I took advantage of the fact that my mother was engrossed in soaping herself—and wasn’t paying attention to me—to briefly leave her side and go to one of the buckets filled with the cinnamon paste women smeared on their bodies. When I returned to her, she looked mad at me and demanded to know where I had been. I told her I thought she was overreacting. I didn’t understand why I had to be kept under surveillance around the clock considering there were no men in the hammam. She said her duty was to watch over me and that I couldn’t just disappear from her sight whenever I felt like it. I sat down in silence, ready to behave again. As my eyes slid over the interior of the ancient hammam, I remember recalling that my grandmother had once told me that, in Nippur, hammams used to be mixed-sex back in the day.
Today, I find that hard to believe. Men and women, sharing one space all in the raw? Constantly checking each other out? There wouldn’t have been enough soap in the world to scrape off the damage such an aberrance would wreak on the connective tissue of our society nowadays. Picture this: husband and wife, engulfed in steam, flesh exposed, not an issue. Regardless of whether our society ought to be classed as complex or retarded, it is undeniable that its members’ mentality is the one that permeates patriarchal societies. And I hate it. I would like to see the day when people stopped giving a damn for what everyone else has between their legs. Men mock us when we enter and exit the hammam. We cover our faces to screen ourselves from the believers’ sharp tongues, who are frittering away time before joining for prayer at the mosque.
Atheer Al Hashimi was born in 1981 in Irak, has studied Modern Literature and Literary Criticism in college and thinks of himself as a writer.