Dear Aisha (2007)

Dear Aisha

I suppose this letter will come as a shock. It’s so long since we met. You’re probably surprised I even know how to contact you: we never swapped addresses and the way we left things I can’t believe you’d expect - or want - to hear from me again. Blame the internet. In the digital age, none of us can hide forever.

I need to tell you how it was for me, why I behaved like I did. And why, when you rang me in London, I hung up. By doing that I probably confirmed all your worst suspicions – of the foreigner who only wanted one thing, who used you for a night and then threw you away. When I heard your voice, the atmosphere of my time in Jordan came rushing back and I was seized by what I can only call a blind panic. Not an adult reaction. Not a compassionate one. I told myself you’d ring back, but you never did. I’ve always been ashamed I didn’t speak to you, and this letter is an attempt to rid myself of that feeling. Maybe it will make things better for you too, hearing my side of the story. I don’t know.

When I first saw you, swimming in that hotel pool, I thought I’d never seen a more beautiful girl. You and your friend Maryam were sitting on the side, dangling your feet into the water. I tried not to stare, but I found myself taking in every detail of your face – the long black hair plastered against your cheek so that one strand curled into your mouth, your brown eyes, the long straight nose, marred by a little pink patch of sunburn. And I noticed your body too. How could I not? Droplets of water clung to your brown skin, running between your breasts, whose nipples were clearly visible through the fabric of your yellow bikini. I swear when you saw me swimming towards you, you opened your legs a little, showing me the dark ruck of fabric between your thighs, a gesture I found so shockingly sensual I had to turn away, treading water and feigning interest in some point in the middle distance while I tried to compose myself. I wanted you so much, Aisha, I didn’t think about the consequences.

And of course, in that moment – and everything that came afterwards – we gave ammunition to all the bearded moralists, all the angry ascetics and woman-haters who would have wanted to beat and burn us for displaying our bodies to one another so shamelessly . Only in that place, that five star hotel, was such an encounter possible in your country. Outside on the street, most of the women were veiled, escorted by male relatives as they shopped or took their children to school. Behind the high white walls, where the staff were paid to keep their opinions to themselves, the mores of international tourism prevailed. Money breeds pragmatism, but only among those who get to spend it: that was one of the lessons I learnt from meeting you, under the disapproving eyes of all those barmen and pool boys and waiters. In the years that have passed since then, pragmatism has fallen out of fashion. I wonder how you’ve fared, as the religious battle-lines have hardened, you who were already feeling torn apart by the pressures of your life.

The trip was supposed to be a perk, a reward for late nights and weekends in the office. In the three years since leaving university, I’d been working for an events management company, organising corporate junkets and meetings. The job bored me senseless, but there was nothing else going on in my life, no girlfriend, no big dreams or ambitions. I worked like a dog because it distracted me, stopped me feeling so hollow and scared. In retrospect, I think my boss was worried. You should have more fun, he said. We were planning a conference in Amman for a software company and he announced that, although I was very junior, I could research what was quaintly termed the ‘wives programme’, day-trips and excursions to run in parallel with the formal events. The Jordanian tourist board had supplied a guide and a driver, two middle-aged men with paunches and heavy moustaches, with whom I’d just spent a week tearing round ‘highlights’ in a large air-conditioned Mercedes. Mr Mansour and Mr Hussein were unfailingly polite, but after sharing breakfast, lunch and dinner with them every day since my arrival, conversational topics (soccer, makes of car) had dried up and the parade of resorts, rug factories, luxury spas and ancient ruins had begun to pall. People stared when we walked into restaurants, trying to work out why I was accompanied by what looked like two bodyguards. I felt stifled. I wanted to go out on my own, to lie on a sun lounger without them smoking cigarettes and talking into their mobile phones beside me. You and Maryam looked like heaven, giggling and whispering to one another, shooting flirtatious glances in my direction.

I swam over and said hello.

When I told Mr Mansour that I had other plans for dinner, I was surprised by his reaction. Who are these girls, he asked abruptly. Are they Jordanian? Yes, I said, you were students from Amman, in Aqaba visiting relatives. He wrinkled his moustache and frowned. And these girls are making dates with you? Tell me, what are their surnames? Suddenly I felt I was being interrogated. I looked at him, his narrowed eyes, his pursed imperious lips, and decided he could fuck off. It was none of his business who I chose to spend my time with. I shrugged and said I’d see him in the morning. Six-thirty, he said, petulantly. We had a long drive ahead of us. I suspected the early start was a punishment.

Mr Mansour and Mr Hussein were watching, sitting on a sofa in the far corner of the lobby when you and Maryam arrived to pick me up. You were wearing a cotton print dress which exposed your shoulders. Your eyes and mouth were heavily made-up and you smelled, even at a distance, of some strong, musky perfume. You had an air of expectancy, a nervous tension which mirrored and heightened my own. Maryam, also dressed up, looked worried. Maybe she knew what was coming, how obstinate you were, how desperate and confused.

We decided to go for a drink, an activity which in my ignorance I assumed was acceptable for young people in that tourist town. We sat upstairs on a restaurant terrace and I ordered a beer. You asked for one too. The waiter, a sullen young tough with an adolescent moustache, shook his head and tutted. You and Maryam spoke sharply to him in Arabic. Reluctantly he brought bottles and glasses. See how we are living, you said. Even this guy thinks he can tell us what to do, how we should behave.

I noticed other patrons staring coldly at us. I didn’t feel we were doing anything wrong, but I began to feel nervous, as if I were walking through customs or talking to a policeman. We chatted a little, finding out about each other. You told me you were twenty-one, studying literature. You wrote poetry. Your parents wanted you to get married to a banker, the son of family friends. Reading between the lines I realised you were a rich girl. Rich and bored. Then it all tumbled out, how you were sick of living in Amman, sick of being told who you could speak to and what to wear, sick of being called a prostitute just because you were having a conversation with a man. Is that what the waiter said, I asked. You shook your head angrily. He didn’t like it that Arab girls were with a foreigner. He didn’t like it that we were drinking alcohol. What did his honour have to do with anything? What business was it of his?

I noticed Maryam was trying to soothe you. Don’t take it so personally, she said. Forget about that guy and enjoy your evening. You snapped that it was alright for her. She was living abroad. She had a boyfriend in Germany. She could go out late. She could wear a miniskirt and get drunk and walk down the street if she chose. In Germany no one would say a word. Maryam shrugged. Soon, she said. Soon you’ll be able to leave.

We sipped beer and you asked about my life. I said there wasn’t much to tell. You pressed your leg against mine, looking fiercely at me, as if you wanted to gobble me up, squeeze me dry. I couldn’t tell whether you were hungry for me or the freedom I represented, my stories of living in a flat on my own, travelling in foreign countries. There was something wild, even a little insane in your look, but you took my hand and twisted my fingers in yours and it was all I could do to stop myself leaning forward and kissing you there and then. Maryam looked balefully at us across the table. We have a curfew, she told me. Aisha’s aunt wants us back by ten. Well, I said, then we should eat. No, you insisted, waving your empty bottle at the waiter. Why eat? Let’s drink more. Then you grinned wolfishly and started talking about sex. Did I think all Arab girls were innocent? I said I didn’t know. Did I realise I was sexy? By the way, you said, I wasn’t to think I was dealing with some fool who didn’t know about the world. You’d had a boyfriend, the previous year in Amman. He was good to begin with, but then he started acting like an asshole. Casually, you let your hand stray under the table, onto my lap. Maryam stared into space and smoked. When I offered to pour her more beer she shook her head.

The sun set. We drank. Maryam finished a packet of Marlboros and sent the waiter for another. Finally, she pointed out that ten o’clock had come and gone. Well, I said, I was going to be in Amman in a couple of days, just before I flew out. We could meet again. I was a little drunk and was trying to be sensible, which was difficult, because your hand had found its way into my trouser fly. I had the sensation of being on the edge of a precipice. I kept meeting the scrutinising eyes of men at other tables. I felt that everyone was aware of what was happening, the erection you were massaging between your thumb and forefinger. I knew Maryam was only pretending she couldn’t see.

To tell the truth, I was out of my depth. I wasn’t sure where the boundaries lay. I’d never been in an Arab country before, but even in London what we were doing would have been risky. Besides, I was beginning to think that you seemed very young, perhaps even younger than twenty-one. Something about your forwardness, which might have come across as a sign of experience, felt gauche, the clumsiness of a teenager clutching at pleasure, heedless of what other people were thinking. But you were turning me on, Aisha, making me stupid. I had my hand on your thigh, one finger pressed into your sex, moist and slippery through what felt like a pair of silk panties.

Finally Maryam insisted you had to go. When we got outside, you pulled me into a fetid alley where you kissed me, your tongue darting in and out of my mouth like a little dagger. As I crammed my fingers between your legs, you clawed at my back, digging in your nails as if you were trying to draw blood, all the time making little anguished movements with your pelvis. You seemed so angry, overflowing with rage and frustration. Finally Maryam dragged you into a taxi. I told you the name of my hotel in Amman and said I’d see you there. As I stood on the corner, watching you go, I felt excited, relieved and scared all at once. I wondered if I’d just had a narrow escape.

Half an hour later, as I sat on the edge of my bed at the hotel, flicking through satellite channels looking for an English movie, the phone went. It’s me, you said. We’re in the lobby. They won’t let us come up to your room. The man says it’s not decent. I asked why you’d come back. We’ve run away, you said.

Then I was really scared, Aisha. I was a long way from home and things seemed to be getting out of control. I went down to the lobby and under the suspicious gaze of the concierge, tried to find out what was going on. Maryam was with you, looking glum and apologetic. I was having too much fun, you said, gripping my hands. I don’t want tonight to end. Let’s go somewhere we can be together, now.

I was at a loss. It was too much for me, what was happening, too intense, too strange. With nowhere else to go, we took a walk along the hotel beach and sat down on a plastic sun lounger. You kissed me and cried about your horrible parents, about your brother who was only interested in his computers and his koran, about all the men who wanted to put you in a prison cell because they were old and jealous and stupid. Maryam sat a couple of loungers away, the orange tip of her cigarette flaring in the darkness. Every couple of minutes, one of the porters would walk past, peering at us. I realised the concierge was sending them, checking in case we were committing acts of immorality. It made me angry. Who were these people? What was it to them if we wanted to be together? Let’s go dancing, you said, clapping your hands together. Alright, I thought, let’s go bloody dancing.

After midnight there was only one place in Aqaba to dance, and that was the hotel nightclub. We walked down a flight of stairs into a dark thickly-carpeted basement, lit only by a glitterball, which turned forlornly over a little circular dancefloor. This empty space was surrounded by tables, at which sat groups of men, smoking water pipes and watching a middle-aged singer perform on a tiny stage. She was plump and garishly made-up, dressed in a skimpy belly-dancer’s outfit. Her love songs (Habibi! Habibi!) were backed by the plink-plonk rhythm of an electric keyboard, played by a sallow man in a red sequined waistcoat. We were shown to a table, but at once you stepped out into the light and abandoned yourself as if you were in the middle of a rave, twirling your arms in the air, thrashing your hair from side to side. Instantly all eyes were on you. And on Maryam too I knew what those men were thinking. One was even beckoning to me, wanting to open negotiations. Apart from you and the singer, the only other women in the place were two prostitutes, Thais or Filippinas, who sat with their European clients, big brick-red men in floral-patterned shirts. I got up to join you. Maryam did the same. We had no alternative, really. The three of us danced together, swinging our arms and shaking our hips. Sometimes you stepped forward and draped yourself around me, hanging from my neck so that I staggered and had to hold you tight to stop you falling. All the time we were watched by dozens of intent, hostile, appraising eyes. Go on, I thought. Watch, you bastards. Watch and weep. I’m with two girls, who’ve come here out of friendship, not because I’ve paid them. I don’t hate them for being beautiful, or for showing off their beauty. Not like you. In my world, this happens. My world isn’t like this place, so seedy and repressed and full of shame.

After a while we sat down and Maryam started talking to you in low rapid tones, beseeching you to go home. I didn’t care what happened any more, but I knew there was nowhere we could be alone: that hole of a nightclub was a dead end. Amman, I said, squeezing your hand. We’ll see each other in Amman. There were tears in your eyes. I want you, you said. I swear I’ll die if I don’t have you. Yet finally you agreed to leave. Though it was very late, you could still patch things up with your aunt. She wouldn’t tell your parents. We’d see each other in two days time.

The next morning, bleary-eyed, I met Mansour and Hussein in the lobby. They were sullen and uncommunicative, which suited me fine. They didn’t ask how I’d spent my evening and I didn’t volunteer any information. We drove for hours through the desert, then walked round a dusty crusader castle, a bleak place, the site of a siege and a massacre. Mr Mansour pointed out architectural features. I nodded and grunted, unable even to simulate interest: my head was too full of you, Aisha. I was disturbed, jumbled up. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but at the same time nothing felt quite right. Eventually Mr Mansour asked if I was ill. We drove back to Amman, arriving after dark. I checked into my hotel, a mausoleum of marble and cut glass, ate a room-service dinner and fell into a fitful sleep, unable to get comfortable, irritated by the rattle of the fridge and the asthmatic hum of the air conditioning.

The next afternoon you and Maryam picked me up in an enormous boat-like Mercedes. You were the worst driver I’d ever seen, changing lanes without warning, tail-gating other cars, oblivious to what was going on around you. Once you almost killed us, swerving onto an exit ramp at the very last moment, narrowly missing a crash barrier. I’ve always been a bad passenger, and by the time we reached our destination, a hill-top viewpoint where we could watch the sunset, my nerves were in shreds. Once again, Maryam sat apart and smoked, while we groped one another in the back seat. I felt self-conscious, and asked you whether you didn’t think it was akward for your friend. She understands, you said. She doesn’t mind. Then we drove back into the city to go to a bar. When you said I had to hide under a blanket, I laughed. We’re getting close to my family’s house, you told me. People know this car. If anyone sees us, they’ll tell my father. At first I didn’t believe you, but your expression was deadly serious, so I swapped places with Maryam and lay down on the back seat, covered with a tartan travel rug. You swerved your way through the busy shopping streets. Whenever you braked sharply, which was often, I was thrown into the footwell. This is insane, I thought. This is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done.

I felt as if I was in an altered state of consciousness. I knew what reality looked like, the reality in which I got out of the car and walked away. But we arrived at the bar and you put the palm of my hand against your breast and soon we were going through the same routine, kissing and groping in a back booth until once again my brain was so fogged up with sex that I forgot everything else but your body. And so, inevitably, I ended up sneaking you and Maryam into my hotel room. Maryam stoically watched tv with the sound turned up high, while you and I undressed one another on the bed. As you wriggled out of your dress she abruptly stood up and told us she’d wait in the lobby. Sorry, I said. Come back in fifteen minutes, you told her. Then, at last, it was just the two of us. I slid off your underwear and marvelled at what I’d just uncovered, the dark nipples and the little mat of pubic hair, framed in bikini-shaped triangles of milk-white skin. You were beautiful, Aisha. Mesmerising. I certainly didn’t take you for granted. Please understand that, if nothing else. I felt like the luckiest man in the world. But there was a bad atmosphere in that room, a cloud of guilt and tension hanging over our carresses.

Things started to fall apart when I mentioned condoms. I had some in my wash bag and went to get them. When I came back I found you hunched up on the bed, clutching a pillow and staring at me suspiciously. Why do you carry such things, you asked. You must expect to pick up girls when you travel. I shrugged and you called me a seducer, using that odd, old-fashioned word. A seducer with many girls. I promised that wasn’t the case, which was true enough, but I knew as I spoke that disaster was looming. Maybe, I said, we shouldn’t do this. I don’t want to hurt you. I think we should just get dressed. But you shook your head and wagged your finger like a school-mistress ticking off a naughty class. You hadn’t finished with me. The interrogation went on. How many other girls had I had? I said it didn’t matter, not so many. Did I love you? I said I’d only just met you, so, no, I couldn’t say I loved you. You appeared to consider this for a minute, then lay down and opened your legs. OK, you said. Fuck me.

That was too clinical for my taste, Aisha. Too cold. I told you to put your clothes on. You refused and pulled me down on top of you. You clawed and bit my neck like a cat and I felt alarmed and my head was aching but your skin was soft and your legs were wrapped round my hips and you were sopping wet so of course that was it, because I’d been imagining nothing else since I met you, but I kept thinking that any minute Maryam would knock on the door, or Mr Mansour or the people from front desk, and I worried you might have lied about your old boyfriend, that you might be a virgin, and when I came it was intense and far too soon and all my worst fears were realised as you started to cry, swearing at me, calling me a pig, a bastard. Your old boyfriend had been gentle and kind. He took his time. He was respectful, unlike me. I made you feel dirty. All I could say was sorry, and I said it again and again. We struggled into our clothes and sat dejectedly beside one another. That was how Maryam found us. Her face too was streaked with tears. Five times, she said. Five different men had approached her and asked her price as she sat in the lobby. She couldn’t stand the place another moment. She wanted to go home. So did I.

I walked you down to your car and gave you my phone number in London and you pecked me on the cheek and got in and Maryam drove you away. Early the next morning I flew out. I hadn’t slept. I’d spent the night going over everything that had happened, trying to work out when I should have stopped, at what point I should have pushed you away. I was appalled at myself. I’d really thought I was inured to the sexual guilt all around me. I’d considered myself innocent. But perhaps I wasn’t. Perhaps I was everything I appeared to be. Exploiter. Abuser of your body, destroyer of your family honour. Perhaps I was the kind of pig you should have been protected from by your father, your brother, the waiter at the restaurant, by my driver and my tour guide and the concierge at the hotel. It suddenly occurred to me that you might report me to the police, tell them I’d raped you. I wondered how I’d explain myself, what treatment I could expect . When the plane took off I almost wept with relief, until the stewardess came round with hot towels and soft drinks.

Then I got home and put you from my mind. I buried you deep, Aisha, deep as I could, until my phone rang and a voice asked, accusingly, do you know who this is? I bet you don’t even know who this is. In that moment it was all too much. I couldn’t bear to go back into that midden of guilt and shame and I put the receiver down to make it go away. I’m so sorry Aisha. You didn’t deserve that. You weren’t ready, even though you said you were. I hope you escaped – from Jordan and from me. I hope so with all my heart. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s just you were so beautiful. Forgive me, Aisha. Write back and let me know you’re alright. It would mean a lot, even after all these years.

- Titirangi March 2007

[This story appears in the anthology Four Letter Word, edited by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter]