My male voice should have caused the naked woman to screech and run out the bath chamber, instead her powerful grip tightened around me even more and the scrubbing worsened.
“Let me go!” I heard myself scream. “... me go!” I heard my own plea echo in the bath chamber. Kicking and flailing was useless. It only caused her to miss her intended spot behind my ear and soap me in the eyes instead.
“My eyes, my eyes, they burn!” I wailed. In response, the big woman filled the copper bathhouse bowl with lukewarm water and poured it over my face, nearly drowning me in a gurgling panic. With a last burst of strength conjured by desperation, I twisted my soapy torso and for a moment slipped through her grip, gagging and spitting bitter soap. But quickly she caught me by an ankle, dragged me into herself and wrapped her legs firmly around me. I could not budge, and with my face buried inside her belly all I could do was blubber into her soap slicked abdomen and claw uselessly against slippery flesh. Finally, all effort exhausted, I capitulated to her strength. She continued to scrub my body with successively coarser cloth until my outer skin gave up its accumulation of dirt in little gray rolls. So absolute was my surrender that I endured with no sound--other than a panicked pant--my knees being scrubbed with pumice, my genitals polished to a luster and my anus cleansed as far as the rectum.
After many dips and a thorough rinsing in scalding water, the woman wrapped me in a thick towel and brought me out of the bath chamber into the cool atrium. Warm steam still tumbling out of the bath chamber, she began to pat me dry. For the first time I had the opportunity to see the face of my attacker, but I kept my eyes tightly shut. Whatever the cause of this appalling mistake, deliberately looking at the woman’s face would only take away our being able to deny the incident ever happened. Yet as she vigorously toweled my scalp, my eyelids parted now and then, forcing upon me involuntary glimpses of assailant.
Safieh’s face, ruddy from the steam and the heat, seemed intent on her motherly task. Her long black hair still dripped water, and rivulets chased each other down the curves of her body. She no longer seemed huge, but her fearsome strength still showed in her narrowed eyes and pursed lips. Her face had a seriousness of purpose that forbade my mind and body from going to places they would naturally go in the embrace of a beautiful woman.
Still helpless as a rag doll, I let Safieh dress me layer by layer in clean clothes, letting my arms lift and fall to the needs of the sleeve at hand. Safieh’s diligent breath brushed against my skin as palpably as the clothes she was slipping over me. After she was done, she dried herself off in front of me, dressed in her robe, and walked out without a word. The whole time I had been too embarrassed to look her in the eyes, and now that my courage was coming out of hiding, I was sorry I didn’t try to ask what her strange purpose might have been. I waited until the will returned to my limbs, then got up and headed out of the dressing room to the bathhouse lobby.
The chubby proprietor looked up from his counter to attend to my account. His large balding head was shinier than the marble desk he was leaning on. I looked around to make sure no one else could hear, then I leaned into him and whispered, “Sir, I thought I saw a woman near the men’s section of the bathhouse. Have you any idea what she was doing there?” That was as oblique as I could get, but even as I heard myself say those words, I realized that obliquity in such matters can be interpreted crudely.
The proprietor seemed shocked at my question. He bulged his eyes at me angrily, and said, “Perhaps you have mistaken this establishment for the house where you grew up in.”
“Oh, apologies, I meant nothing improper,” I stammered.
My meek posture brought out even more disgust in the proprietor. His face turned livid and he hissed, “Nothing improper? Nothing improper? Just what are you implying? That sort of innuendo belongs in whatever village it is you come from. We are Muslims in this town.” Impatiently, he flicked the abacus beads in rapid computation. “Private steam bath for one, half a day, two extra towels, one ice drink, that will be a quarter silver piece, and you will be on your way.”
I was too flustered to argue about the ice drink and extra towels I had not ordered. I just wanted to disappear and never look back on this embarrassment even in remembrance. Fumbling in my coin purse, I pulled out Safieh’s pearl and placed it on the counter. The proprietor, thinking I was emptying my purse in search of the correct coinage, ignored the pearl, still waiting for payment. Slowly it dawned on him that the pearl was the payment. Distrustfully, he picked it up and examined it. Suddenly he looked up at me in awe. With a voice tremulous with realization, he repeated the same Jinn phrase the teahouse server had spoken when he saw Safieh’s pearl.
“What did you just call me?” I demanded, snatching the opportunity.
“Please, Sir, I had no idea,” he begged keeping his stare on the floor while he stretched my pearl at me in his shivering hands. I took the pearl back, but he remained stooped with his hands still cupped in an obedient gesture.
“I’ll let it go this time,” I improvised. “Didn’t quite make out what you mumbled just now. As you were so eager to remark earlier, I am not from around here.”
“Please sir, it’s just an old blessing. I meant it in good will.”
“I will take anyone’s rudeness over your good will,” I pressed. “A woman trespasses on my privacy in your bathhouse, yet you dare give me a hard time for asking about her?”
His face beamed with happy surprise. “You received a visit?” he gasped. “This bath house is blessed indeed.” He obviously did not know what Safieh had put me through, and I did not wish to go into the details with him. I wondered though if he would feel as blessed if he knew the woman had held me naked and helpless between her legs, pressed my face immobile between her breasts as she handled my private parts between her soapy fingers.
“Have you seen my sister?” I asked changing the subject as best I could. “Her name is Halsa. She came in with me.”
“Yes, of course. What a beautiful child. She said she would be waiting for you in the stables down the street.”
“When did you see her leave?” I demanded.
“A few minutes ago, just before you came out.”
“Did you see anybody speaking with her? A woman?”
The proprietor paused. “No sir,” he said puzzled.
As I walked out, he called out to me, “Sir.”
“What is it now?”
“Safieh is mahram to all of us, man or woman.”
Ridiculous, I thought. The city’s most desirable woman walks in on my nakedness and washes me as though I were her toddler. Strange customs or not, they cannot be Muslims where women act as though they are mahram to strange men. If they were not Jinn, I would be certain they were disbelievers.
Halsa was standing in front of the stables holding the reins of a donkey.
“Bath time blessings,” she called out.
“Thank you,” I said grumpily. “By the way, what was Safieh doing in the bathhouse?”
“Giving you your bath,” she said matter-of-factly.
“You know what happened?”
Halsa laughed. “She said you don’t like being washed.”
I was about to blow up at her when the mule tender showed up to saddle the donkey. “You have a lot to explain,” I admonished, putting a placeholder on the conversation out of respect for the mule tender. Halsa tapped my coin purse to indicate that I needed to pay for the donkey. I obliged with Safieh’s pearl. The mule tender muttered the mysterious Jinn words and returned the pearl to me, smiling and bowing. I sighed and put the pearl back in the purse.
Halsa patted me on the hand. “Why are you so upset?”
“What is the meaning of that phrase anyway?” I said testily.
“You heard him. Yesterday the tea server said the same thing. I asked you if he was cursing.”
“He was not cursing. He was using the Jinn’s secret prayer language. It is a blessing.”
“Now why couldn’t you tell me that yesterday when I thought we were going to thrown out of the teahouse?”
“Yesterday you had not been washed.”
“And now that I have been scrubbed with coarse cloth and my eyes are red with soap, am I worthy of knowing the meaning this blessing?”
Halsa nodded. “It means, ‘she carries you in her womb.’”
I had to restrain my outrage at how Jinn culture had distorted the Holy Faith. After all, this little girl had nothing to do with the impropriety in the bathhouse. Yet it is incumbent upon a Muslim to instruct the misguided.
“That is a very exaggerated metaphor for the queen of the land, Halsa. But a metaphor for motherhood does not make a woman mahram to her male guest.”
“Are you upset that she carries you in her womb?”
“I am upset because she carried a metaphor much too far.”
“You are jealous because she carried ‘metaphor’ in her womb longer than she carried you.”
Halsa’s amusing error suspended my anger long enough to soften my tone. “You do not know what ‘metaphor’ is, do you?”
“No,” she said sulkily.
“It is like saying, ‘I am flying on the wings of joy.’ Does that mean that you are a bird flapping up in the sky?”
“Oh,” Halsa said, retreating into a pensive posture. She stayed that way for very long time, and when she came back from her thoughts, she looked like she had come to a decision.
“If that is a metaphor, then you are a metaphor,” she declared.
I laughed. “No, that is not what ‘metaphor’ means. How do I explain it to you?”
“No, I have to explain it to you?” she said, sternly. “You are not here bodily. You are a metaphor.”
“Your sheikh must not have thought it was wise to let you know when he sent you here, but I am sure he meant for you to find out once you arrived.”
“Who? I don’t know of any sheikh. ”
“Your pir, your Sufi master.”
“I have no Sufi master.”
“You must. Think back. Who were you before you came to the city?”
“A zehtar player. I am here for the audition.”
“What are you auditioning for? What village are you from? What was your father’s trade? Do you have a wife?”
I tried to look back, but felt that odd sensation of blankness that had come over me ever since I had arrived at the Jinn city. It was as though there was an impenetrable wall between me and my past. I was unable to follow the timeline of my own existence.
“What have you Jinn done to me?” I asked in a vacant, panicky voice.
“Nothing. Maybe your sheikh has had to time-blind you so that he could send you here.”
“Send me where?”
“Here. Where you cannot have illusions.”
“No riddles,” I pleaded. “The forgetfulness potion was in the baklava syrup wasn’t it? But this mind trick has gone too far, Halsa. I am very serious. Safieh has put you up to this. Hasn’t she?”
“There was nothing in your baklava. Safieh has not done anything to you.”
“Little girl, I know there is an adult behind this. You are too young even for the obligation of daily prayers. How would you know words like ‘illusion’?”
Halsa stared at me blankly, “I am Jinn,” she said. “Illusions are nursery rhymes, bedtime stories.”
I felt a shallowness of breath. My palms felt clammy.
“This is just a Jinn prank. I am here bodily,” I said patting my torso nervously.
“It is not a prank. Your audition is very important,” Halsa said.
“Then let me in on the secret. Whatever it is, I will not blame you.”
“Only Safieh knows our whole secret. Anyway we are late for the second round of the audition,” Halsa said, slapping the donkey into motion.
I ran in front of the animal, stopping it. “I do not ever want to see this Safieh again,” I yelled. “I do not want to be in this audition anymore. I just want to remember who I am, and then I want to go home. What has this witch done to everyone here?”
“Witch did not do this. Baklava did not do this. I told you; things are as your sheikh wishes them to be. Safieh knows more and she will tell you when you are ready.”
“All right, sheikh then. Why has he done this to me?”
”Halsa, I have no past!” I squeaked in frustration.
Halso shrugged, “That is why you have to audition.”
I tried to remain calm. This was a child. I had to stay gentle with her. “And when I am done auditioning, will my Sheikh, whoever he is, undo this?”
Halsa looked puzzled. “What is there to undo?”
It dawned on me that little Halsa really didn’t know what horror I was facing. Totally alone with her devastating revelation, I did not even have myself to console me. Slowly an overwhelming sense of calamity crept up to me. Braving the Jinn’s joke about my non-existence, I tried to steady myself against the emotional upheaval. Yet the flood of anxiety was unstoppable. My heart began to race, my face felt numb, and suddenly I had the urge to bolt aimlessly in all directions like a frightened animal. Panic and struggle fed on each other in a vicious cycle like wind and blaze until a firestorm of dread completely overran my consciousness.
Swimming inside a sea of anxiety, disoriented with fright, all I could think of was is this The Great Fear? Has the Day of Judgment arrived? Am I a pile of bones being resurrected to flesh?
Hearts on that day will palpitate,
Their eyes downcast.
They say: Shall we indeed be restored.
What! After we are rotten bones?
…It is only a single cry,
When lo! They will be awakened.
This must be the Promised Day, I thought, when graves are laid open and the dead rise from the dust to remember and to be judged. This must be the day when man will see what his hands have sent before and the disbeliever will say O would that I were dust. I had no memory now, but I would soon be awakened to all the misdeeds of my life when I faced the judgment of Resurrection. What crimes had I committed in life? What sins would I burn in Hell for?
To be continued
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