by Tadhg Muller
I remember when I was a virgin, recall the impending prospect of bliss. I have been thinking of my first encounter with a whore. Why do I recall this now? It’s the news footage of people being shot in the ancient streets of some of the world’s oldest cities—Cairo, Damascus, Tripoli—in this new awakening in this impending spring. Faith and power, innocence and corruption are wound in death throes, and only history will show what side of man will prevail. It is this shadowy conflict that calls to mind the end of my own innocence on those same ancient streets.
It happened in a train station in Alexandria. I had found myself lost, unsure of the platform I was departing from and desperate for help. It was mid-morning, the air was fragrant with the sweet smell of black tea and mint, mingling with the smell of citrus coming from the numerous fruit vendors. Lining the platform, the vendors’ tables were piled high with fruit, herbs, and also fabrics. And hurrying everywhere, marching with purpose, were smartly dressed men and women, crisp, clean. I felt like a dull stain against the colourful backdrop, dressed as I was in tired Australian denim that I had worn all the way across the northern tip of Africa from Marrakech, through Algeria, Libya, and into Egypt, en route to Afghanistan. The world had no time for my disheveled, well-travelled air. I became more aware of the high steel roof, and the bent beams that suspended the top of the station high in the sky, and the huge slabs of glass, from which beams of warm hazy light fell on me on that cracked concrete platform without so much as a sign saying where the hell I should be going.
I had nearly reached the point of seriously considering travelling to Aqaba on foot, when I attracted the attention of a young man and a beautiful girl. They were both my age. She was dressed traditionally, she wore a worn blue yelek (caftan) made from the finest Egyptian cotton and delicately embroidered with a faint pattern. The bottom half of her face was covered by a thin piece of cotton that hung to both sides of the shawl and maintained her modesty, but there was no hiding the richness of her almond-like eyes that were made all the more wonderful from dark eye shadow that dramatically dusted the skin beneath those wonderful eyes. At the nape of her neck you could see a necklace of blue lapis stone. Despite the layers of clothing I could detect the movement of her strides, which revealed the elegance of her form, and the youth of her body. I think it’s necessary here to give a small detail concerning young Egyptian women. They possess a peculiar feature that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, the face of the Persian beauty. The arse of an Egyptian woman! When they are youthful and not broken by the world, their arses are something to reckon with. It is not uncommon to have the vision of an Egyptian woman in the tightest pair of jeans that she can get that arse into. And, let me say, what an apparition. Forget the pyramids, forget the sphinx, forget the Nile, forget the desert, the markets, and camels—they are for old men! What good are those to you when you are young? None. I can remember on one occasion an Egyptian beauty brushing past me, I turned and watched as she glided down the lane. It was an erudite, well-shaped, gliding piece of arse. I would have died for that arse. I can still remember that, as she walked away, I found it hard to imagine that that was it, that I would never see that piece of work again. It was rushing away from me like the setting sun. Well, I was wrong. That was the kind of arse that my first whore had, the whore I met at the train station. The girl at the station!
Dark rich eyes, playful and welcoming, she looked straight into my eyes. She didn’t turn away or lower those abundant eyes. She looked at me and into my eyes from deep within her shawl as if we knew each other, as if we had spent an eternity together, as if nothing was hidden and nothing ever would be. In faltering English and with gestures the young couple (perhaps brother and sister, perhaps lovers) indicated that I should follow them. I did. The whole exercise seemed somewhat bizarre as they took me further and further into the station and down to a platform where there were no other passengers. I started to wonder what was going on, but I was at a loose end and the prospect of dealing with any foul play didn’t bother me. I was drawn on by that swaying arse. We walked deeper and lower into a colourless lifeless section of the station; there were no passengers, or vendors or fruit or traders, no noise, no colour, no smell other than the desiccated oil of motors and engines long dead, just dust and sand and abandoned locomotives, rusted and decayed. Carriages that were perhaps once noble and fit for the grand now lay forgotten on iron tracks that were long since disused, as it required less effort and expense to build new lighter tracks than to remove or repair the old. As we walked, the girl would turn back to look at me, smiling and all the time swaying and walking. Then we came to a carriage. The young man opened the door, and the three of us entered. Once we were in, he shut the door, paneled with hardwood. Inside, the carriage was more of a room. The walls were paneled identically to the door, cut with only a few small dusty windows. There was a seat and a table and then a second table, and a door opened to a bathroom. I guess it was an old dining carriage, a carriage for the ravenously hungry. The girl sat back on the table and pulled the cotton away from her face to show a long, fine neck and the fullness of the blue lapis stones, and then she gave me the tenderest of smiles. I could not help but feel aroused, which seemed peculiar as I was still at a loss as to what I was doing in the carriage, but there was something about the carriage and the way she sat back on the table and smiled at me. It was as if she were beckoning me. Then the young man said to me in broken English that I could fuck her. I furrowed my brow.
-She is nice. Would you like to fuck her?
The prospect! And instantly all sense of arousal vanished. I felt impotent and weak. She turned around and placed her hands against the paneling , she bent toward it, and I could see that arse as the layers of fabric tightened on her bent frame and grabbed her skin. That truly amazing arse! Then she turned back once again and untied the front of her caftan with a smile. As she did so I noticed the tattered lace that hung along the hem. I looked at the young man once more, and he smiled. I don’t know why but I smiled back, though mine was a very different smile. As I imagine it now, I smiled with my teeth.
-You can fuck her, you can put it in. I looked around. We were in a carriage, there was no bed, only the table. She continued to undo her buttons, exposed more and more of the most exquisite soft skin, soft. The young man stood stock still.
-She is good. Come on and fuck her.
I was nineteen. I had inherited the bad genes of the family—the acne, the sickly build, the big nose and bones, and the blue eyes, but a shadowy blue not an inviting sky blue. I was no lothario. Was I expected to rut with this angel in this train and in this station, and then board my train having done it, having fucked her while he watched, and then gone on my way? I could feel my body; it felt as if I had things inside that needed to be free. I had not anticipated that the world would be like this, that life would be this way. By this point, her shawl was fully opened and I could see her long neck, her breasts, and flat stomach. I started to feel my blood pump. I looked at the young man, and realized how dirty he was. It was strange dirt, the dirt one cannot see. He wasn’t dirty like me, unwashed, pimply with nervous skin; no, he was pristinely scrubbed, and wretchedly filthy.
He just looked at me. He still stood by the door. I put my bag down.
-Open the door, I said.
He didn’t comply. What the hell was he playing at?
-Open the door.
-Don’t you want to fuck her? Look at her. She is nice, she is young like you.
I kept looking at him.
-She is young like you.
I hit him straight across the chin. I pulled back my arm and readied myself for a second swing. But he sank to the floor. He looked up at me and shrank back with fearful eyes.
-You can fuck her. I don’t mind.
I shook my head, picked my bag up and stepped over him.
It was perhaps three weeks later that I found myself in Damascus; in Damascus I was surprised by the tireless calling of women as I took walks through the dumpy part of the city at night and in the heat of afternoon.
called the women, by and large solid ladies dressed in heavy shawls and fully covered. The shawls were black as night, and made of thick, heavy cotton that lent nothing to their bodies. Their faces were locked behind heavy black veils, only their dark eyes remained. There were no progressive arses in Syria, no conversations about politics in tea houses, but still the ever-present delicate smell of spices, fruit, herbs, and hanging meat, and bustle and colour and hints of exotic possibilities and mystery. Though I still remember the quiet answer from a curious and quick-witted-hotel worker when I asked him why no one talked about politics.
That goon, that pimp, that old gutter rat and tyrannical fascist dog! Gunning down children, gunning down women, gunning down his own! One shouldn’t stain these pages with his name.
There was another encounter in Damascus that brought to my mind that virgin day with that glorious whore in the carriage in Alexandria. I was in bed—a hard bed that was moulded by the thousand bodies that had lain upon it before me—when I was awoken by the sound of yelling and violent screaming. I looked through the curtain and saw two men shouting at each other, circling each other, jutting accusatory fingers and shaking their fists. The dispute’s heat seemed to have a darkness within it, and the power to push that darkness and unloosed tension into the night. I stayed in my room and looked out. It was a long dark street with boarding houses and hotels on either side. They were big buildings; I imagined that they belonged to the period of French occupation, as they had about them a distinctly French flair with large, romantic verandas, wide doors and glass windows, curved iron rails. On the verandas, up and down the block, groups of men began to appear as spectators: silent men in trousers or nightwear. Invariably they lit cigarettes. They had about them the look of workers and desperadoes, of men without women. The two men in the center of the street shouted more violently. The crowds on the verandas swelled. There was an air of impending drama. These were familiar spectators; they had seen it all before. When I could take it no more, I stepped out and joined them on my own veranda. Hanging back in the shadows, I lit my cigarette. First one flash of steel followed by a second as the two men drew their knives, and now the two men were yelling and waving their knives in the air, going at one another. At first it appeared to be largely theatrical, then a pause, and then a blade sliced down across one man’s face. That man responded with an equally terrifying slash. It was all slashing, relentless slashing of arms and face, arms and face, sprays of blood, bloody lines on the pavement. There was no stabbing, no stabbing like we do in the West; in the East the art was slashing! And then it happened: one of them took a heavy cut to his neck and went down, sudden screaming from down the street, and the victor running, and me looking up at the crowd and being struck by who they were.
echoed the voices of the whores on this street in the corridors of my memory.
These were the men that fought each other with daggers and paid for sex. Women in large numbers were calling to these men, poor girls on trains, poor women in boarding rooms or hotels, poor working men with poor working men, crushed into submission, and all of them loveless, making love to one another.
the whores were calling to these migrants, these outsiders, these contract workers and labourers. Poor, desperate men, poor working girls.
I guess it was a month later as I continued in my quest to reach the ancient land of Afghanistan. I found myself on a bus racing from Istanbul to Georgia. The bus was full of Georgian workers on their way back home, and what I remember most startlingly about this trip is the complete and utter lack of space inside the bus. The bus was filled with all types of transportable goods that had been purchased in Turkey, so that the inside of the bus didn’t resemble anything so much as a travelling market. Buckets and cups and sheets and boots, a microwave with a cracked door handle, a radio, a wooden horse, tools, and endless essentials—toilet paper, tooth paste, tampons, condoms, shampoo, shavers, razors, soap, dishwashing liquid, rat poison, shovels, twine.
No one spoke any English and no one was interested in talking to me, but for the possibility of seeing if I had a torch when we broke down at a mountaintop. It was a jagged pass with cars and buses and trucks hurtling past less than two meters from us, and all the while we hung on to the side of the bus—on one side a hellish embankment and on the other a nearly sheer cliff falling into a gully. The Georgians were a hard lot, though they were merry and warm to one another. I, in contrast, was stricken by a serious stomach condition and was unable to eat for the entire bus trip (sixty hours in total, with five breakdowns). It was when we neared the border that I became aware of one woman. She powdered her round fleshy face, curled her big eyelashes, then added lipstick and rouge and pulled her hair tightly back across her skull. I remember masses of rich black hair, masses of rich black hair tied back ready to fall. I became more and more intrigued by her performance. She was an isolated figure on the bus; she sat behind the driver, who treated her with healthy respect as if she were someone powerful (to all appearances she seemed much wealthier than the rest of passengers, better dressed, better fed, more rested). At the border, I was separated from the other passengers. I was the only non-Georgian entering the country. Crossing into Georgia I was immediately struck by the dumb poverty. I say dumb poverty as it was different from the poverty I had encountered in the Middle East and Asia; it was the bleakest I had seen, with mindlessly eyed people sticking hands out for whatever they would get without looking or thinking, just in a robot drone fashion that made you want to cry. They were children and old people, they were dirty and thin, ragged, hungry, unrested, impoverished and alone.
So I was happy to be reacquainted with the other passengers. Then I realized that the lady was gone. This seemed peculiar. Everyone else had remained. Everyone else was accounted for. It was a short time after, perhaps twenty minutes, that a military jeep raced down the road tooting to us. I looked out the window and saw the driver in the seat. He looked like an officer, though he seemed boisterous, cheerful, and jolly. The lady got out of the car and laughed and smiled and waved to the bus driver, the soldier waved as well and tooted merrily and then turned back and raced away. The passengers were indifferent to the display. What had happened, and what was happening was a part of the life, a part of the poverty and hunger. When the woman boarded the bus, I could not help but notice the colour on her cheeks, and her hair in a messy bun. The bus started again and I drifted to sleep. I awoke as the bus stopped, as we entered another village for another rest. I lay back in the bus still feeling sick and weak. But the fever had broken. As the passengers boarded I became aware of the whore; she had not gone to her seat. In her hands she carried some paper. As she got nearer I realised she was walking toward me. She did not say a word. She just smiled, touched my head with a compassionate hand that came from heaven, and left me with a bundle. For fifty-two hours no one had talked to me. I looked inside: there was bread, feta, figs, some cucumbers and some dried fruit. I was suddenly aware that my ruined body was ravenously hungry. I was hungry, and she had seen me, she had seen me shivering, drifting in and out of sleep, not eating.
No, the world was not as I imagined. She was a whore, and I was a young man. She was a woman, perhaps she had a family, a sister, a brother, a mother and father. Someone needed her, someone loved her, she worked to live and to pull herself out of the gutter and whoever else she could bring with her. And in all the hardness, the baseness, and cruelty of her job, she maintained her compassion, her humanity and her love.