Lily Hoang

 

On Pudency

 

Mohammed tells us he is an attorney, family law, but court has let out early today so he

will show us around the bazaar.

         First, he says, “Please, sister, your blouse.” I had forgotten to button it all the way

up. He says, “Please you are like my sister here. You must respect yourself.”

         I feel culturally insensitive—I feel shame.

         He tells us a list of all the places he will take us. By the time the sun has set, he has

carefully accounted for every Egyptian pound left in my wallet. I spend money like a

good middle-class American.

 

                                                                      *

 

Chandra M. Mohanty explains “third world difference” as that stable, ahistorical

something that apparently oppresses most, if not all, women in those countries. This

country, the one I am sitting in right now.

 

                                                                     *

 

Mohammed sets up us with a cab and tour guide. On the way back to Cairo from Giza,

the cab driver tells us a joke:

         Vladimir Putin from Russia, Jacques Chirac from France, and Donald Trump from

your country, they go see the pyramids but they get lost because they have not paid for

a good tour guide like you have with me. [Insert laughter.] They get lost but then Putin

finds a magic bottle and he rubs it and out comes the genie and the genie gives him one

wish. Putin says, “I want to go back to Moscow,” and poof: he’s back in Moscow. Chirac

picks up the bottle and rubs it and out comes the genie and the genie gives him one wish.

Chirac says, “I want to go back to Paris,” and poof: he’s back to Paris. Donald Trump sees

all this so he picks up the bottle and rubs it and out pops the genie and the genie gives

him one wish. Donald Trump says, “I want my friends back. Why did they leave me here

all by myself?” [Insert laughter.] You get it? It’s because Trump is so stupid he doesn’t

understand anything!

         We are driving on a two-lane street, but the cars cram seven or more across it. They

fit through impossible spaces, as though the sounding of a horn portends conquest.

 

                                                                     *

 

Covering offers women the ability to move through public spaces without harassment.

         When I walk anywhere, men cat-call and jeer lewdly. My sexual and sexualized

body means something. I feel always on the precipice of attack. I feel unsafe because I am

desired.

         Here, in Cairo, my sexual and sexualized body means something else. I feel unsafe

because I am not desired at all.

         If modesty lends safety, is my skin the problem?

         Still—I remain the Other, no matter the circumstance.

 

                                                                   *

But Mohammed is not an attorney. He catches tourists and works on commission.

         “I’m not upset or anything, but he didn’t have to lie,” I tell Bantu. “He works

within an alternative economy, and I’m cool with supporting it.”

         Like drug dealers and community currency, I buy oils and papyrus paintings. I do

not make eye contact with men; my American dollar is worth a lot here.

 

On Deception

 

 

This is how a story begins: Neither here nor anywhere else lived a king whom had a wife

he loved with all his heart and a daughter who was the light of his eye.

 

                                                                   *

 

Listen now to this story, it comes all the way from Egypt. There once was a king and his

wife and his daughter. He loved them truly but then his wife the queen got sick and died

and it was a terrible time of sadness. It’s true that he laid vigil for an entire year! But even

a year must sometimes conclude and at its conclusion the king called in the matchmakers

and gave them his orders: to find him a wife, regardless of station, whose foot may adorn

his dead wife’s anklet. When the matchmakers have tried all the single ladies, they

scratched their heads in wonder. How can no woman near or far fit into this anklet? How

special the queen must have been! So delicate, so pure. And then an old matchmaker suggested

going to the king’s palace and trying his dear daughter the princess, for she was the only

one left and it couldn’t really hurt to try. The matchmakers shrug and of course the

princess fits her mother’s anklet. It is a perfect fit, as though it had always belonged to

her.

           The matchmakers tell the king and at first there was hesitation but that was quickly

dismissed and so the king made preparations for marriage. To his daughter he said he

had found for her a perfect husband, one she was sure to love so fully, he laughed

thinking how true his words would soon become. On the night of the wedding, all the

servants knew the secret but the princess was still naïve. As the princess was preparing,

the minister’s daughter came in and joked around and then she traded the truth for the

princess’s gold bangle.

           Armed suddenly with knowledge, what can a princess do? Why, she jumps out

the window, of course! Yes, she jumps out the window and begins to sprint and as good

fortune might have it, she landed in the yard of a tanner. She pressed gold into his palm

and asked for a burqa made of leather, one that might cover her entire body, save her

eyes and hands. She begged him for expediency and the tanner worked all night with his

wife and his children, stitching together a burqa of animal skins. Quickly, the princess

put on her new identity and when anyone approached her she would say, “My name is

Juleidah for my coat of skins. My eyes are weak. My sight is dim. My ears are deaf, I

cannot hear. I care for no one far or near.” So aptly disguised, the guards who were sent

out to look for the king’s missing bride the princess did not recognize her. They passed

by her without pause. Thus, the princess waited for the light of morning, and as soon as

the gates to the palace were opened, out she ran!

 

                                                                   *

 

She ran and she ran and finally she reached another kingdom. Exhausted, she fell down

right where she was and fell solidly asleep. The princess was on the outside and on the

inside was a palace. A servant girl had looked out the window and run to the sultan’s

queen with fright. Outside, she told the sultan’s wife, was an Afreet! The sultan’s wife

laughed and told the servant to go outside and bring the monster in. The servant girl was

scared, oh boy was she scared, but she was only a servant girl and had no other

possibilities but to do exactly as the sultan’s wife bade her to do, so out she went and she

kicked at the pile of animal hides and seeing no danger, she picked up the pile of leather

and carried it up to the sultan’s wife. The princess in disguise was dropped at the sultan’s

wife’s feet—and that was when she woke up, at last. The princess bowed before royalty

and said, “My name is Juleidah for my coat of skins. My eyes are weak. My sight is dim.

My ears are deaf, I cannot hear. I care for no one far or near.” The sultan’s wife was

delighted and sent her to the kitchen to work and sometimes when she needed

entertainment, the blind and deaf Juleidah would be called in for humor. Thus our

princess lived, perhaps no longer as comfortable but freedom is a sliding scale and

freedom is a privilege I take for granted. And then came the day when the sultan was to

throw a night of celebration and everyone, even slaves and servants, was invited to

attend. The sultan’s wife floated among the girls and before taking leave she stopped

once more to see if poor Juleidah might want to come after all, but indeed all the sultan’s

wife heard was, “My name is Juleidah for my coat of skins. My eyes are weak. My sight

is dim. My ears are deaf, I cannot hear. I care for no one far or near.” So off they went,

and as soon as they were some distance away, our princess shook her body to and fro

and the leather burqa fell to the ground. The princess folded it carefully and the whole

room became warm from her beauty. When the princess now undisguised stepped into

the main room of entertainment in the sultan’s palace, all noise stopped. Yes, it was as

romantic as all the stories say, yes, but there was no man there to fall in love with her.

Instead, all the women gathered and praised and asked her many questions, but the

princess would not speak. She would reveal nothing of her identity. She was a mute

beauty. When at last the sun began to fluster against the horizon, the princess threw a

handful of gold sequins into the floor and all the women eagerly scuttled to gather some

treasure. And so it was that the princess escaped and fled back to the kitchen. There, she

let her burqa unfold over her body in glides. No sooner had she laid herself down by the

fire then the ladies all returned in a frenzy, each trying to tell Juleidah about the beauty

who had joined them at the celebration. The princess said, half in sleep but half in

disguise, “My name is Juleidah for my coat of skins. My eyes are weak. My sight is dim.

My ears are deaf, I cannot hear. I care for no one far or near.” The next morning the

prince—of course there’s a prince!—and his mother, the sultan’s wife, made a plan

because his mother the sultan’s wife decided that this was the girl her son should marry.

So then the sultan threw yet another celebration and everything happened as it had the

last time. This mysterious princess, who was she? Everyone wanted to know. At last she

threw a handful of pearls to the ground and ran out the door, but who does she run into

but the prince! He had been waiting for her because his mother the sultan’s wife was keen

and remembered how she had tried to escape before. The prince demanded to know her

name and from whence she came and she said, “I come from the land of paddles and

ladles!” and then she wrested herself free and fled with a strength in her legs she herself

did not know she possessed. By the time the ladies return from the festivities, she was

honestly asleep.

 

                                                                   *

 

The next morning the prince needed no convincing: he must marry this girl. He had never

before seen such a graceful neck, she surely must be royal. And so it was decided that he

would begin a journey to catch this mysterious girl. The whole palace was jittery. Things

had to baked and horses had to be picked. A journey was forthcoming! All of the servants

were busy with the baking and Juleidah asked to help. The servants thought the poor girl

was useless but they hadn’t time to waste in explanations so they gave her some dough

and set her to working. Juleidah kneeded the dough, although she had never before

participated in any cooking activities, and into the dough she dropped the prince’s ring.

What ring? Why, he had put in her palm when he first saw her. Don’t you remember? As

the baskets were being packed, Juleidah put her small loaf of bread on the top, paltry and

misshapen though it was, it sat on the very top of the pile.

           The prince and his crew ride and they ride and at some point they must rest and

take a meal. A servant went to serve the prince. He threw out the first loaf and put a

perfect and golden loaf on the prince’s plate. The prince of course asked why and the

servant had to admit that he had seen poor blind and deaf Juleidah bake the loaf herself

and put it onto the top. It was garbage, you see, surely unsuitable for a prince’s fine

tongue, but the prince felt pity on the ugly girl and insisted to eat the loaf himself. Lucky

for him he broke open the loaf, which was dense and dry, but on the inside: his very own

ring! And so they turned their caravan back towards the castle.

           The prince returned feeling triumphant, although to no one could he reveal the

revelation of the mysterious girl’s identity—furthermore, he could only say for sure that

Juleidah was in fact the mysterious girl but none of the other mysteries would be solved,

alas. The prince sat in his royal room and sent a servant with orders that Juleidah and

Juleidah alone bring up his dinner. The servants were appalled but what can servants do

but serve their masters and so Juleidah was sent up to the prince’s royal room with his

dinner. The first time she dropped the tray—being blind and deaf makes navigation a

chore—but the second time she was sent with servants flaying her, keeping her steady,

and when the food was all laid out before the sultan’s son the prince, he dismissed the

other servants. He called Juleidah over and she said, “My name is Juleidah for my coat of

skins. My eyes are weak. My sight is dim. My ears are deaf, I cannot hear. I care for no

one far or near.” He bade her come closer and she had to obey. Meekly, she stepped:

hesitantly, carefully. And then with a blade he kept hidden by his ankle the prince sliced

Juleidah from collar to hem! Her leather burqa slid to the ground and the whole room

spun with the rays of her splendor. Indeed, the whole castle seemed to glow.

           Later the sultan’s wife the queen came by to visit and she screamed when she saw

Juleidah’s burqa on the ground in a pile. She chided her son the prince that he hadn’t

needed to kill the poor girl, the poor girl she was so blind and deaf. The prince let his

mother the queen continue her rantings and when she found herself exhausted, he led

her by the hand to the place that Juleidah had been hiding—they had planned the whole

to do, of course—and immediately the young couple was married and together they lived

with joy and devotion.

 

                                                                    *

 

Meanwhile, far away, Juleidah’s father the king was repentant. He was angry—at himself

as much as at everyone else. He gathered all the old matchmakers and together they

travelled as a caravan from kingdom to kingdom, in search of his lost daughter. Finally,

one day Juleidah—a name she was not given but has now happily assumed—looked out

the window and saw from a distance her father approaching. She ran to her husband the

prince and told him to welcome this man and his caravan, to give them food and drink,

and her husband the prince obliged. The king was quite tired and he ate very quickly and

without being rude he said, “The proverb says, Have your fill to eat, but then up, onto

your feet!” But the prince replied, “Where you break your bread, there you spread your

bed!” And the king could only agree. Soon the sultan’s son the prince returned to Juleidah

his wife and reported the on-goings. Juleidah asked for his gown and scarf and thus

disguised she went in to entertain her father the king. She said, “Let us tell stories to pass

the time,” and he replied, “Leave us to our sorrows, we have not the spirit to tell tales.”

But alas, Juleidah was demanding and so she began to tell her father the king the history

of her own adventures from the beginning to the end. When she was quite done she

announced, “I am your daughter the princess, upon whom all these troubles fell through

the words of these old sinners and daughters of shame!” She pointed at the matchmakers,

who hid their faces with regret.

 

                                                                   *

 

In the morning they flung all the old women into the Nile. Then the king gave half his

kingdom to his daughter Juleidah and her husband the prince, and they lived in

happiness, all of them, until death, the renter of the truest lovers, divided them into peace.

 

                                                                   *

 

An Afreet is a cunning spirit or demon from the Dijinn world.

 

                                                                   *

 

Fitna, in Arabic, translates to something like temptation, trial, chaos, discord. A woman

must always disguise hers.

 

                                                                  *

 

In some Westernized versions of this story, she does not wear a burqa but a suit of leather.

           In other Westernized versions of this story, they name her Cinderella.

 

                                                                 *

 

She uncovers herself to my understanding of modesty.

Lily Hoang is the author of five books of prose, including Changing (recipient of a PEN Open Books Award) and A Bestiary (winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's Non-Fiction Book Prize). With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What's Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. In Summer 2017, she was Mellon Scholar in Residence at Rhodes University in South Africa. She is Editor of Jaded Ibis Press and Executive Editor of HTML Giant. 

 

 

 

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