Issue 2: Feminisms

Make, Believe

Lina Mounzer

The entrance to my building was clogged with traffic. A bunch of crew members standing around and smoking, four men and one woman. The men were all slight variations on one another: kuffiyehs, beards, black-rimmed glasses, cargo pants, hiking boots, plus or minus one accessory. Like they were different models in a catalog entitled: On the Semiotics of Arab Leftists and Their Implications for the Movement. The woman wore almost the same uniform, but she had an army jacket on that dwarfed her tiny frame and a spill of curls that eddied about her face and kept having to be batted away from the burning end of her cigarette.

“I’d fight them, man, for sure,” said one of the guys, “no question.”

“I’d join them and then infiltrate from within,” said another.

“Oh, please,” said the woman. “You underestimate what it means to be swallowed up into a crowd of madmen. You’d have to be as brutal as they were, more, to convince them, and then you’d become one of them. Anyway, you’d never convince them. They’d have to pry your Jameson bottle out of your cold, dead hands.”

“Eh,” he said, “I’ll just replace it with that shit they take. Kaptagon. They’ve got the best drug stash in the region.”

She rolled her eyes at him and he hooked an arm around her waist, laughing.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll take you as one of my four wives and make sure no one else is allowed to touch you. No one fucks with my hirma!”

She rolled her eyes smilingly and pushed him away.

“I’ll just be crucified,” said the third, shrugging.

“I’ll be crucified,” said the last one, crossing himself slowly for emphasis, left side first. “Or wait, is it like that?” Right side first now. “Whatever.” He gave up and clapped his hand on the other guy’s shoulder. “Crucifixion’s too good for the likes of you, you Shia fuck. What they have planned for you will make Karbala look like a day at the carnival. It’ll give you all something new to be beating your heads about for centuries to come.”

They all doubled over laughing.

“Excuse me,” I said, narrowing my shoulders to indicate that I wanted to slip through. They stepped away from one another, forming two flanks to let me pass. The second one, the infiltrator, gave me a look as I brushed past him, filled with the intention of a smile that didn’t quite make it to his mouth. After I’d moved away it came back to me: a party at the old train station, his face, beardless then, changing in the light of a video projection so that he reminded me in split-second bursts of someone I once loved; us sitting on the far side of the tracks in the distorted underside of a pulsating beat, our tongues meeting in a mash of sweet shots and sour smoke. He’d launched into an impassioned lecture on the labor theory of value and the necessity of workers owning the means of production as he stroked my breasts and kneaded my back. Later, when his fingers had found their way up inside me, I found myself stumbling drunkenly into thoughts about value and ownership that I didn’t want to be having.

I pushed through a little group of Islamists taking a snack break, stepping over the pile of their discarded headdresses and balaclavas, my body simultaneously here and whole and refracted into the many hows of that morning after: how I’d woken up with a dry mouth and racing heart, the alcohol in my blood enchanted by short sleep into a raging dragon, restlessly pacing the narrow confines of my veins. How the boy, resembling only himself now in the shuttered morning light, snored beside me. How his arm was thrown carelessly over his head, his shirt still on under the pilled covers. The faded stickers marching in an uneven line on the wall beneath the window, their bleached faces like old photographs of people so familiar you’d know them anywhere: Goofy, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Pluto. The sudden awareness of his smell and how I’d been breathing it all night, concentrated and amplified by his room now into something unfamiliar and unbearably stale. Picking up my clothes from the pile where they had ended up beside the mattress, untangling them from his boxer-filled pants and careful, quiet, careful, tiptoeing through a hallway filled with family photographs. Standing before one of them and gazing at him as a fat, long-lashed toddler, propped up against a thicket of wallpaper trees that was the very essence of the faded, indoor life of the 1980s, when such wallpaper was all we knew of forests or trees. Soggy cakes and jello with browned fruit ambered within. Bonjus pyramids and beige furniture that showed up every stain. Card games by candlelight and adult voices drifting into interior bedrooms where sleep was hard to come by. I wondered if he’d been afraid and how, and if he remembered it now, and whether he’d been borne downstairs to the shelter pressed against his mother’s body so hard he’d beat his fists against her chest in protest.

In the bathroom I’d lain my hot cheeks against the cool, dirty tiles until I felt well enough to get up. I emerged into an unknown street, the space overhead strung up with paper streamers and the ground slippery underfoot with vegetable refuse: burst tomatoes, flattened grapes, zucchini flowers. Both ends of the street were empty, and I stood there for a moment, pulling the humid air into my lungs and wondering how to walk.

Suddenly, my back had begun to prickle with sweat, and I whirled to meet an old woman’s face staring out of the shadows of a small shop. Her eyes narrowed, seeming to read all the minutae of the night before in my messy hair, my too-bright, too-tight clothes. She seemed to know even what I didn’t remember, her eyes projecting images back to me in quick, blaring cuts. A short, purplish cock. My nose crushed against a thick scouring pad of black pubic hair. I felt one of those hairs then tickling the back of my tongue, and almost without thinking, reached in with a finger and scraped it out, nearly gagging, then wiped it on a parked car, my fingers trenching a groove in the thick dust, never breaking eye contact. Then I chose a direction and hurried away, giddy with joy and some unnamed, other feeling, manufactured close to the stomach-pit where terror is smelted.

This was the story I had of course led with when I told Ayman about the night before. The rest of the details were simply rearranged under its bold, brazen header, which immediately made clear what sort of story and what sort of character we were dealing with. Such a character was incapable of doubt or shame, or rather, barreled over it with such aplomb it was rendered obsolete. Such a character danced in the flickering light with a keen awareness of being watched and tailored her moves to pull in and seduce, and everything that followed in that seduction was always controlled and according to plan. Drunkenness was joyful and irreverent and dizzyingly bright, and when it spilled over into a mess, the mess was hilarious and further evidence of an admirable capacity to throw caution and convention to the wind. In the logic of this story even sequential memory was convention to be abandoned, and no harm could come to a body that steered itself so surely into unknown waters seeking whatever adventure was there to be had.

“Damn, lady,” said Ayman when I finished. “Iyyemik. I’m jealous. That guy was super hot. Are you going to call him again?”

“God no,” I said, as if the question of exchanging numbers had even come up. “He still lives at his parent’s house and doesn’t even have a bed.”

“I don’t think Communists believe in furniture,” said Ayman. And the laughter had soothed whatever was still raw and hard to name.

“Sousou!” A hand clapped itself on my shoulder. I turned to see Leila’s full-moon face. “I’ve been calling you for like a whole minute. Where’s your head at?”

I smiled and made myself focus on her, trying not to turn my head back toward where it had been.

“You’re looking mighty fine this morning,” I told her.

“Oh, this old thing?” she asked, lifting a corner of her veil up to cover her nose and mouth and batting her eyelashes at me. “If you can’t beat em, join em.”

“Are you talking about Adel or Daesh?”

She smiled demurely and performed a flourishing curtsy. “The one we have to pay fealty to to continue living in our neighborhood.”

“I can’t believe you’re encouraging him,” I said.

“My God, Sousou,” she said, “you’re always so negative about everything and everyone. At least he’s doing something. He’s a practicing artist, he’s making films, he’s —”

“Spare me,” I told her, putting my hand up as much to stop the flow of her words as to shield myself from the earnestness in her eyes. It was one thing that she said these things; it was another thing entirely that she believed them. Or at least she believed them this week. Leila was like the spring weather, changeable at a moment’s notice. A single white cloud scudding across a sunny day might be just that, or it might be the scout for an entire fleet of rainclouds that suddenly dumped showers on your head and you without even the inkling that you needed an umbrella when you left the house that morning. It made it impossible to conspire with her about anything or anyone. She might be laughing with you at someone one moment and then, her laugh would turn rueful without warning and she’d begin berating you for your callousness the next, and whatever circle of intimacy you drew with her might suddenly spit you out unceremoniously and leave you unhappily stalking its perimeters, half-wondering how to get back in, half-wondering whether to walk away and leave her there so she would be the one feeling left out and abandoned. The latter trick was impossible; I’d tried. It’s always the self-righteous person who gets to be on the inside, in the know, on the high, untouchable seat of judgment. Nothing short of getting into their heads and changing the wiring of their mind from within to adjust their gaze on you would do to give you the upper hand again, or at least place you on equal footing once more. It didn’t matter how you consoled yourself that it was in fact you who were in the right, that it was only a harmless bit of fun, that you meant only to share in some sense of togetherness and for that there had to be someone or something you were against. You were cast out by the mere fact of being found morally lacking. The only way to avoid it was to always be one step ahead, to cloak your criticism in the same shimmering, rarefied fabric of the judge’s robes she was so ready to swirl about her own shoulders. You couldn’t merely laugh at someone’s blundering, or stupidity, or lack of taste: you had to accuse them of a crime that was on the books. You had to establish motive. You had to give evidence of harm and only then, swiftly condemn them according to the stated facts of the case you’d mounted. The person in question had not blundered, they had deliberately misled people about their intentions. They were not stupid, they had simply chosen to ignore the possible consequences of their actions. They did not lack taste, they had manifestly made decisions according to a privileged worldview that left no room and in fact never stopped to consider other perspectives. In this world no one could be merely irresponsible or impulsive or unthinking. Luckily, it was precisely that brand of new age psychobabble that Leila went in for, that held that everyone, even unconsciously, knew what they were doing and had deliberately chosen a course of action that would lead to consequences they were aware of, even if they weren’t aware in the greater sense. In fact, it was that lack of awareness that constituted the essential crime. One had to accept that people made decisions according to a known pattern that they were enacting over and over again, and it was their responsibility, if they wanted to break that pattern, to become aware of it and step outside its destructive vortex and renounce everything that had led to it in the first place.

In Adel’s case, the crimes he stood accused of were both the essential fact of his wealth, which he admittedly couldn’t help, but also — and here’s where he was condemned — how he used it. To mount productions that only fed back into the Western appetite to see the myriad forms of violence we in the East enacted upon ourselves and others, with no regard for the fact that the precise act of training his lens outward that way, toward the crude expression of a thing, rather than inward toward the intricate machinery that produced it, rendered his work a piece of cheap, sycophantic propaganda. In these accusations I was fully sincere, and in fact sometimes rendered helpless with rage. I downplayed the evidence, when ranting at Leila, that my disapproval was equally fueled by the resentment of his having so many resources at his disposal, whether by way of money or connections, as how he turned them into “art.” It was the value of that art that I carefully framed at the center of the question, which was admittedly a very tricky business whose needfully delicate manipulation sometimes evaded my hands made numb and clumsy with fury.

I had forgotten, however, that in the court of Leila’s law, action, rather than theory, reigned supreme. She could be convinced of Adel’s guilt only so long as he was between productions, when his films were finished, and therefore inert things that emptily repeated their content along an unalterable, linear path. As soon as he was busy with another flurry of activity, that activity forgave him all, because, as she had so simply and unequivocally stated, he was doing something, making something. Which of course meant, by contrast, that while he was engaged in an act of creation, I stood convicted not only by my general and famous inaction in that regard, but also, and worse, by my deliberate destruction of his fertile impulse.

“So you’re what, ‘helpless woman number four’?” I asked, unable to keep an edge of nastiness out of my voice. “This is supposed to kick-start your directing career?”

“Number three actually,” she said, refusing to be drawn in. She could afford to be generous, having already established that she was the more high-minded of the two of us. I was forced to backtrack and change tacks immediately.

“Is this really what you want to do?” Italicized concern was the first step in casting a shadow of shame; I had learned this from my mother. “To bury your talent as an extra among extras in a veil?”

“It’s a step,” she said, dismissing the spell with a toss of her head and driving on. “Listen, Adel’s going to be judging the emerging talent competition of the Lebanese Film Society this year, and I need to get on his good side.”

It took all my composure to keep my eyes front and center in their sockets.

“If you can’t beat em, join em,” she repeated, giving a that’s-how-it-is shrug. For a brief moment I thought of launching into a tirade about the ethics of such a thing, and did she really want to be chosen because of personal connections rather than talent and was this really the best — but my heart wasn’t in it.

“I need your help,” she said.

I stepped back a little, like her request might physically hurt. Trying to shield myself in preparation to stab out blindly with the hardest word for me to utter. No. She stepped forward to close the distance between us, at the same time rushing forth with her sally.

“I’ve written the outline of a script, but you know I’m not good with scripts, words are not my thing like they are yours.”

“Leila,” I said, already the assault was too much, “I have a crazy amount of work, crazy —”

“I know, I know, I know,” she crooned, like someone soothing a wound, placating a child. “Believe me, I know, but you’re so good and so quick and what takes me a year will take you barely a week, tops, and there’s no one I’d rather ask.”

“You mean no one else you can ask,” but already softening, the shield dropping reluctantly, the dagger loose and unsteady in my hand.

“That’s not true. Look, you know me, I just go with what I feel. I can feel out a shot, feel out a sequence, but writing requires thinking things through to the end and I’m not great at that.”

“Actually…” I said. But I suddenly felt too miserable to continue.

“Please please please,” she said. “I’ll thank you in my Cannes speech.” Her warm brown eyes were molten with unspilled laughter. She had a hand on her hip, her body fluid with potential movement like a dancer expecting music. It was this, more than anything, that drew me to her and drew the next words out of my mouth like they were a sequence in her own continuous flow.

“All right,” I said. “Send me your outline, I’ll see what I can do.”

She threw her arms around me and squealed with joy. There was the stale smell of her costume and beneath it, her own scent: something sky-bright and earth-powdery, like a cliff-top before rain. As I patted her back I felt myself falling into the mineshaft of a yes whose gates had been forced open without real will or consent, the parallel dimension of the word, where it became lightless abyss. I knew that the labor of climbing out would be long and arduous, far more back-breaking than what I had actually contracted for.

“Thank you, thank you. You’re the best!” she said.

For a split second, the pure freefall joy of approval. And then I hit the ground.