I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I am four. It is a summer midafternoon, my nap finished. I cannot find her. I hear the water in the bathroom. Not from the faucet but occasional splashes. I hear something like the bar of soap fall in. I cannot find her.
Flaubert’s encounter, Flaubert’s encounter, Flaubert’s, encounter—
I stand outside the white door. Reflected in the brass knob I see my face framed by a black pixie-cut. More splashes.
I hear humming. It is mother’s voice in the bathroom through the closed door and it is midafternoon. No light from beneath the door. I twist the knob and hang my weight to pull it open. In the half-light I see mother sitting in the bath: the white porcelain, gray, the yellow tiles, gray. Her hair is coiled and pinned up.
I see her breasts over the edge of the tub. I have never seen my mother without her clothes. Her nipples.
“Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her.” [Said, 6]
Her nipples appear dark and round. They are funny and beautiful. I leave, perhaps to lie down on my pillow or find my bear. What did she say to me? Did she scold? Laugh? Just smile or ignore me? My breasts have never looked like those breasts.
“He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess Kuchuk Hanem physically but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was ‘typically Oriental’.” [Said, 6]
In 1850 a woman with skin the color of sand in the shade of the Sphinx, midday, meant little and of course mine was seen more than veiled and I could earn a living “dancing.” What I liked best were gifts of chocolate. Usually from French thinking I’d consider the evening amorous and reduce the rate. Paris must be lovely but for the French.
Maybe I want a penis. Maybe that’s why I love sitting on an outstretched man and seeing his prick between my legs, rubbing it as if it were mine. Maybe that’s why I love to put a cock in my mouth, feel it increase in size with each stroke, each lick, each pulse. Taste the Red Sea. Look over or up and see the man barely able to contain himself, pulling on my nipples or burying a tongue into my Persian Gulf. Also barely able to contain my own sluice. Maybe it’s my way to possess a cock. For a moment feel hegemonic and Western.
I have an addiction to silk and chocolate—gold a little. But coins are a necessity. Now chocolates—if there’s a plate of chocolate I cannot stop my hand. I tell the Nubian to take it to the kitchen and store it in a cool place. I will sniff it out. Find her fingerprints on the sweaty sweets.
We both use our mouths, professionally.
“My heart begins to pound everytime I see [a prostitute] in low-cut dresses walking under the lamplight in the rain, just as monks in their corded robes have always excited some deep, ascetic corner of my soul … ”
Maybe it’s my way to possess a cock. For a moment feel hegemonic and Western.
“…The idea of prostitution is a meeting of so many elements—lust, bitterness, complete absence of human contact, muscular frenzy, the clink of gold—that to peer into it deeply makes one reel. One learns so many things in a brothel, and feels such sadness, and dreams so longingly of love!” [Steegmuller, 101]
I watch white couples. See how they touch the clitoris. A cat lapping, a cat pawing. Think about betrayal and loss.
The two girls invited her cousin Conrad in the little pool, to see his small penis wobbling about like a party favor.
Playing with the costume jewelry in her mother’s drawers then hiding under her vanity, the bathroom door opened, steam poured out and she saw her father naked from the waist down. Swollen balls. Penis dangling. A raw red.
It’s true when all is said and done, I am less a dancer than a whore. Men pay me money, stick their cocks in me, laugh, weep, curse, or silently ride my body. And leave. That’s what I am, a whore and alone. To be despised by the men because who else would let them come as they come but someone with vagrant morals. Despised by wives, mistresses, fiancees for my abilities, independence, the peculiar attention I receive. I am scorned by the religious. By the courts and by my parents. But I do not fear a man’s departure. Know that.
And I have made a name for myself that will, Flaubert boasts on his own behalf, not mine, that will cover the globe. Know that. That the image is not my own. My image does not entirely belong to me. And neither does yours, master or slave.
When he writes about Egypt he will write what he has experienced: the adoration of the historical Cleopatra from boyhood lessons, Kuchuk Hanem—my cunt, my dance—the Nile, the squalor, a man slitting his belly and pulling his intestines in and out then bandaging himself with cotton and oils, people fucking animals which I’m told also happens in France but not in the cities. Because there there are no animals.
I knew what he wanted. He wanted to fuck me. He guessed I was 16, his sister’s age when he last saw her at Christmas while she knelt at Mass, candles lighting her profile. But I was 13. I wore ankle bracelets from Indian shops. Earrings that jingled in the breeze. And a bikini so small I would never wear it before my father. Why would this Portuguese sailor come over to me and in his broken English point to the tattoo of a geisha as if I would identify with it. And I did a little.
He wanted someone who did not resemble his mother or his friends’ sisters or wives. The mistress he had dumped before departure. He wanted license. The kind available not even in one’s own imagination—but in geographic departure.
“… The morning we arrived in Egypt … we had scarcely set foot on shore when Max, the old lecher, got excited over a negress who was drawing water at a fountain. He is just as excited by little negro boys. By whom is he not excited? Or, rather, by what?” [Steegmuller, 43]
He will think that I am one thing, even as he learns about me. He will believe those things and make them true even while he remembers my eyes, organs no different from his own. Yet what he witnesses on tour and what I see daily are experienced differently. Does no one bugger animals in France? Does no one martyr himself? It is why he adores prostitutes and monks. Adores.
Mother has removed the dish rack and all the dishes, sponges, and cleansers from the kitchen sink. She places an old blue towel to one side and fills the basin a little. With one hand she props up the baby who teethes on the faucet. With the other she swirls soap around in little circles all over her head and body then pours water over her. The baby looks surprised and angry. She opens her red mouth and cries. She will smell good, like powder, not pee and sour milk, when she falls asleep on the carpet. Mother will read to me.
I have become a continent.
He liked to fart under a cover then plunge under to smell the gas. I laughed but it wasn’t really funny. Moreover I do not assume all French relish that activity.
A French man who never traveled here, which is to say, never made my acquaintance, wrote a poem about me, Kuchuk Hanem, based on letters written him by Flaubert. It made Flaubert’s mistress, his former mistress, furious. It amuses but does not please me.
“This is a great place for contrasts: splendid things gleam in the dust. I performed on a mat that a family of cats had to be shooed off—a strange coitus, looking at each other without being able to exchange a word, and the exchange of looks is all the deeper for the curiosity and the surprise. My brain was too stimulated for me to enjoy it much otherwise. These shaved cunts make a strange effect—the flesh is hard as bronze, and my girl had a splendid arse.” [Steegmuller, 44]
I have become a continent. I have become half the globe.
She will read from Grimm’s Fairy Tales where the youngest daughter is always the prettiest and the stepmother, murderous.
After our last hour outside, riding bikes or the tire swing, my sister and I bathe the mud off then slip between white sheets. 1961. The sheets are always white.
“Kuchuk Hanem is a tall, splendid creature, lighter in coloring than an Arab … slightly coffee-colored. When she bends, her flesh ripples into bronze ridges… . Her black hair, wavy, unruly, pulled straight back on each side from a center parting beginning at the forehead; small braids joined together at the nape of her neck. She has one upper incisor, right, which is beginning to go bad.” [Steegmuller, 114]
What she wanted was to sit on her mother’s lap and be small. Smaller than her mother and smaller than her mother’s lap. She wanted not to realize the breadth of separation that arrives with growing up, gradual, never complete: crawling, playing hide-and-seek, … sneaking a cigarette, … a neon-yellow bikini.
With the other hand she swirls soap around in little circles all over her head and body then pours water over her. The baby looks surprised and angry.
“She asks us if we would like a little entertainment, but Max says that first he would like to entertain himself alone with her, and they go downstairs. After he finished, I go down and follow his example. Groundfloor room, with a divan and a cafas [basket] with a mattress.” [Steegmuller, 115]
The hotel salon made an error and not only trimmed my bangs but curled my hair. For a 10-year-old this excited and threatened. In a bus I feared people might think I was with my father, a sexual companion, because I do not resemble him unless you look closely: short knobby fingers, high bridge, gray rings beneath my eyes. Red highlights in my jet hair.
A Chinese American man, manager of a clothing chain store, was astonished by my daughter’s beauty. He could not take his eyes off her as she increased her antics around the shop mirrors: rock star, beauty pageant queen, Olympic gymnast. He could not believe a Eurasian mix could produce such a creature. Blue-eyed like an animal. Against dominant genes.
The female body as imperialist colony is not a new symbol. Sexual impulse as revolutionary impulse? Do women depend upon the sexual metaphor for identity, an ironic figure of speech? Will I fall into the trap of writing from the imperialists’ point of view? From a patriarchal one? How can we write erotica and not? What would an anti-imperialistic framework look like? Are not women the original keepers of narrative? Of lineage?
“For Egypt was not just another colony: it was the vindication of Western imperialism; it was, until its annexation by England, an almost academic example of Oriental backwardness; it was to become the triumph of English knowledge and power.” [Said, 35]
What is a national liberation movement for women? Does liberation encompass history, expression, memory? Can it nurture?
Can I speak for her? For the Turkish, Nubian, the—brown, black, blacker?
The women were in competition for men. For silk, cosmetics, fresh dates, survival. Dowries, a pale fantasy.
“Kuchuk’s dance is brutal. She squeezes her bare breasts together with her jacket. She puts on a girdle fashioned from a brown shawl with gold stripes, with three tassels hanging on ribbons … .” [Steegmuller, 115]
What is in the brutality?
If he had loved her enough, needed her in his bones enough, would he have brought her home? Could he hurt his mother, his friends, his former lovers, his career? With a black whore? Even such a famous one?
If you are dependent on prostitutes, write about them, dream about them, masturbate dreaming about them, eat them—can you pretend objectivity? Can you kiss your mother or sister without twitching?
“Kuchuk dances the Bee … [shedding] her clothing as she danced. Finally she was naked except for a fichu which she held in her hands and behind which she pretended to hide, and at the end she threw down the fichu. That was the Bee. She danced it very briefly and said she does not like to dance that dance.” [Steegmuller, 117]
“Coup with Safia Zugairah—I stain the divan. She is very corrupt and writhing, extremely voluptuous. But the best was the second copulation with Kuchuk. Effect of her necklace between my teeth. Her cunt felt like rolls of velvet as she made me come.” [Steegmuller, 117]
Her name and her talents, her skill, her shaved cunt have outlived her person. We remember her for the dance and the fuck. For the hemisphere created. But what would she have said? Could the words be translated?
What did she say to Gustave or Max?
The way I wish mother to speak up so I can become a woman.
The way I trespass the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction.
The way nothing is ever verbatim.
“We went to bed; she insisted on keeping the outside. Lamp: the wick rested in an oval cup with a lip; after some violent play, coup. She falls asleep with her hand in mine. She snores. The lamp, shining feebly, cast a triangular gleam, the color of pale metal, on her beautiful forehead; the rest of her face was in shadow. Her little dog slept on my silk jacket… . I dozed off with my fingers passed through her necklace, as though to hold her should she awake… . At quarter of three, we wake—another coup, this time very affectionate… . I smoke a sheesheh … ” [Steegmuller, 118–9]
What is the context? Who hears and records the material?
If you use a language where the subject comes first, whereje comes first, can you even pretend objectivity?
Of course there was no agreement: Flaubert fucked her and wrote about her. His words. His worlds.
She opened her red mouth and cried.
Am I seeking an older sister to care for me: show me how to wax my legs, manicure my nails, henna my hair. Walk in stilettos.
To call me a woman.
To teach children a language not to listen and obey, but to engage in narratives.
Is it the story or the story of the story. Is this fiction or nonfiction?
“We have not yet seen any dancing girls; they are all in exile in Upper Egypt. Good brothels no longer exist in Cairo, either… . But we have seen male dancers.” [Steegmuller, 83]
Cannot subvert a category without being engaged.
“A week ago I saw a monkey in the street jump on a donkey and try to jack him off—the donkey brayed and kicked… . [The secretary of the consulate] told me of having seen an ostrich trying to violate a donkey. Max had himself jacked off the other day in a deserted section among some ruins and said it was very good.” [Steegmuller, 85-6]
Three wars have taught military men “about” Asian women. Oriental. Extended by the classified.
“We are leading a good life, my dear old darling [Mother]. Oh, how sorry I am that you are not here. How you would love it! If you knew what calm surrounds us, and how peaceful are the depths we feel our minds explore—we laze, we loaf, we daydream …” [Steegmuller 105]
I hear her pour coffee. Open the refrigerator for milk. Walk without shoes to the living room. A stack of magazines with cakes on the covers.
I hear her pour two cups of coffee.
I am four. It is summer midafternoon, my nap finished. I cannot find her. I hear the water splash in the bathroom. Not from the faucet but occasional splashes. I hear something like the bar of soap fall in. I cannot find her.
Girls actually fainted. Dozens fell on the tarmac.
The first time I heard of the Beatles I was in third grade, leaning out the police station window on the the second floor where I was taking baton-twirling classes. Christine Van Pelt leaned out with me and told me the Beatles had landed at Idlewild Airport and girls had fainted. I told her I knew though I didn’t. Her family moved when she was ten. I heard from an unreliable source that she quit high school and became a prostitute in Boston. I can picture a young woman’s large-boned body, full breasted. Black corset and stockings. Blue eyes. What took her to that room? That first john? Was it in part the way she and Mary Jo Murphey, who lived above her Dad’s autoparts garage, taunted me because I cried easily? Or was it the way Christine could slip on my mother’s tiny wedding slippers, fitting her eight year old foot perfectly?
I remember him not for the sex but for the cool shower we took after. 3 AM. Holding and twisting each other under the hard spray, laughing at the cold. We powder under the fan before I gently push him to the door. To go home. To his wife. If he has one.
I am so hungry. I consume Said’s text.
My questions strike a different facet: what does Desire seek? It must become a radical question.
The men want me, Flaubert wanted me, not for the sex but for the experience … and especially the sadness he recovers in departure. He knows he will not return once he leaves Esna for Turkey. But I know he will return (that’s why he came in the first place, to never leave) as the sound of the rain, invisible in the night. It may not snow in Esna but I know it rains in Paris.
I never receive enough attention. Never. I am jealous of every person, act, article. Is this my inheritance?
What does Desire desire? To be needed absolutely? To fill the other’s life not just as a lover but as a mother-symbiotic? To be left alone?
“I thought of my nights in Paris brothels …” [Steegmuller 130]
A black girl from the neighborhood wore a t-shirt inscribed: Jewish girls don’t swallow. Later I thought, I don’t like to either.
Sam wanted to come in my mouth and, if not swallow, transfer it to his. The idea lovely, the reality less appetizing. A real romantic. The best features of that affair: his Rambler’s front seat, his cooking with eggplants, his phone messages, his stories about learning to swim which needed to be written down to overcome his writer’s block.
She learned to swim in a mossy lake, the fish bumping her ankles like dust. The algae in her hair. A harmless snake by the beach.
A man outside the Love Pharmacy, longish hair pinned back, picked red nail polish off his finger absentmindedly.
My mother shopped for a bikini with me and I couldn’t believe she approved of a very small yellow one that fastened in the front I could pass for 15. I felt embarrassed showing the bikini to my father. He taught at the Art Institute that summer. From our hotel room I could see over the Lake—see storm clouds floating toward us, lightning beating inside. The dark rain coming down sharp as razors. I loved Chicago.
My nap is finished. I hear water in the bathroom. Not from the faucet but occasional splashes. I hear something like the bar of soap fall in. I am four.
My sister and I go to the beach by ourselves. I brought a transistor to connect myself to the rest of the world. One afternoon as I lay on my towel a wiry tanned man in a small aqua bathing suit walked over and asked to sit beside me. He did not speak much English but conveyed that he was a sailor from Portugal. Swarthy. In hindsight probably mid-twenties. By way of conversation he pointed to a large tattoo on his arm, an intricately designed geisha after Utamaro. He smiled as if somehow I identified with this. I did a little. He asked if I’d like to board his ship.
In Chicago my knowledge of sex increased rapidly: the call asking if I’d like to model for Seventeen… what color my hair, eyes, … nipples? Pink or brown? … did I know what oral sex was? What? I answered, I can’t say because my parents are in the room. My father grabbed the phone. I felt like vomiting.
The evening my sister and I ate at Taco Villas. I forgot the money and ran back to the hotel. Around the corner I ran past a man rubbing his protruding cock. Another time a man sitting on a bus, his cock sticking out of his shorts, covered and exposed it with his hat. Pitiful belongings.
“Charlemagne inscribed his name on the Pyramids.” [Said, 175]
The two little girls hold a truce as they abandon Barbies and climb into the tub, giggling as the water rises from their body weight. They hug. They sit on each other’s lap. They lay across each other’s soapy bodies, gray bubbles ringing the porcelain. Reveal to the other her “penis.”
Two cups of coffee.
She could not wash off her patrons but she could wash off their sweat, saliva, cum. The ring of dirt around her neck. The kohl they loved to smear as if blackening her eye. Pour a cup of coffee. Sometimes she felt scattered. Sometimes collected. She wished she could visit her sister.
What would Kuchuk Hanem say if I were to sit beside her in the pre-dawn, tobacco wafting into our hair like the memory of my first husband studying for exams. The fragrance of a coffee as rich as the mud from the Nile that must flood the fields to award farmers a relatively easy season, or predict irrigating with buckets haled from the same, circa 1840. The thick silt coating the land, the throat, the tongue. Sheer caffeine heightening the blue tiles as we turn towards one another. Would she have offered to put on her veil and go out herself to the market for figs or ask her slave to fetch some.
If you are forbidden to dance it’s all you want. You may make love instead, you may eat—but it’s all to dance. And it’s a dance that makes the travellers open their eyes as one does in climax or terror, taste the sea fill the mouth ‘til he swallows it back, and the heart’s wings beat bloody, a bird caged in the market, though our Koran would have them slaughtered in a proper manner.
Would she offer me figs and ask me to stay or tell me to get the hell out, what’s a married woman doing here—curious? You want lessons? You want me? You looking for someone? It must mean something that our hearts are cut by men like a dress pattern, but sewn by women.
Show me your clitoris.
Do I seek an older sister?
I cannot find her. I hear the water in the bathroom. Occasional splashes. I hear something like the bar of soap fall in.
They did not know, or maybe could not desecrate “mother’s” tit, did not know nipples can glow like the clitoris.
Who is the cartographer? Male or female?
Under what circumstances does a person have choice? Under what circumstances does a woman?
Why do these women dance? I think of my sister’s dance, a half nude painted body.
“When it was time to leave I didn’t leave … I sucked her furiously—her body was covered with sweat—she was tired after dancing—she was cold… .”
The light in Egypt reminded her of the moon—black shade and white sunlight
“… I covered her with my pelisse, and she fell asleep with her fingers in mine. As for me, I scarcely shut my eyes. Watching that beautiful creature asleep (she snored, her head against my arm: I had slipped my forefinger under her necklace), my night was one long, infinitely intense reverie—that was why I stayed. I thought of my nights …”
She “looked like” a lesbian only because she conveyed a sense of not putting up with men.
“… in Paris brothels—a whole series of memories came back—and I thought of her, of her dance, of her voice as she sang songs that for me were without meaning and even without distinguishable words… [Steegmuller, 130]
The need to belong overwhelms—to hold my own sister, hold her hand or link arms. Rest a cheek against her neck. To feel in my daughter, my sister. To feel in my mother, my sister. To feel in my sister, my self.
“You know you want it and it’s big” … “Sit on my face, China” … “Nice titties” … “Do you want me to teach you some English?” … “Are you from Saigon?”
What is my stake in this?
Woman’s role as storyteller included creator and healer. My mother knew this, unconsciously.
After I cook garlic, chop it, dice it, sliver it up, spread it over the crackling oil, I can smell it on my fingers even after I have washed my hands for dinner. Even while I am eating the pasta. Even after eating chocolates.
“[Dear Louis,] … The oriental woman is no more than a machine: she makes no distinction between one man and another man. Smoking, going to the baths, painting her eyelids and drinking coffee—such is the circle of occupations within which …”
Even after having washed the children. Even after drinking coffee and throwing out the grounds. Even after cutting my finger on the dog food can. Sucking it. Bandaging my finger. Showering outdoors in the rain.
“ … within which her existence is confined. As for physical pleasure, it must be very slight, since the well known button, the seat of same, is sliced off at an early age …”
Even after television and a bowl of popcorn. After washing the dishes in hot sudsy water. After reading Said’sOrientalism. After touching every crease and crevice of my husband’s body.
“ … is sliced off at an early age … You tell me that Kuchuk’s bedbugs degrade her in your eyes; for me they were the most enchanting touch of all. Their nauseating odor mingled with the scent of her skin which was dripping with sandalwood oil …” [Steegmuller, 220]
Even after drifting into sleep my fingers smell of the garlic I sliced for dinner.
“[Dear Louis,] At Esna I saw Kuchuk Hanem again; it was sad. I found her changed. She had been sick. I shot my bolt with her only once.” [Steegmuller, 200]
Even after drifting into sleep my fingers smell of the garlic I sliced for dinner. I am hungry when I wake to the baby’s cries at 2 AM. My breasts are leaking as well. The milk may also taste of garlic. I drink a glass of water.
I hear a starling stuck in the chimney.
Father sets up a pink and blue folding bassinet, a tube running in to the bathtub. Mother places my sister into the tepid water. Uses a square, white soap.
We powder by the window before I gently push him to the door. To go home under the stars that vanish if you stare for very long.
No light from beneath the door.
My mother might have told me this story but she died suddenly a few months ago.
Kimiko Hahn’s most recent book is Earshot (Hanging Loose Press). She is a 1992 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee