All In A Day’s Work
Driving back from Damascus we didn’t speak. Abou Ghassan listened to the car radio. I watched the desert disappear in the gathering dusk. I was angry, and weary too. No matter where I went, it seemed, I had to contend with the callous arrogance of men. Abou Ghassan was no different. He was a devious bastard. He had used my ignorance of the language to lie about me, to demean me whilst bolstering his own ego.
It was obvious from the moment we had arrived in Damascus that his business associates thought I was his whore. In the morning, at the office where I had signed the papers, I’d known I was being talked about. Later, when dining at a colleague’s house, from their looks, the tone of their voices and their lascivious smiles, I understood the jist of what was being said. They had stripped me with their eyes and stared unashamedly at my breasts, those lecherous, middle-aged men. Abou Ghassan had spun a tale which they accepted without question. I was a loose woman, an easy lay.
After a brief introduction, a fat man in his fifties had expressed a need for a nurse. He could pay me well, would I be interested? I’d told him that I had no experience of such work and, when this was translated for the non-English speakers, they had all laughed uproariously. I could have screamed abuse at them, displayed my contempt for their pathetic sexism, but experience had taught me the futility of trying to communicate with such men and common sense dictated that I play it cool. So I had kept quiet, smoked endless cigarettes, and made stilted conversation when required.
What angered me most was the way I was being perceived by the numerous women who hovered in the background, waiting to attend to the needs of the men. As they’d served the food and drink I had tried to catch their eyes, to smile at them and make some kind of connection. But they too were misinformed and it showed in their attitude towards me. Only one woman in her twenties had smiled back shyly, and was apparently in awe of the young, self-assured westerner. But the older women were clearly disturbed by my presence. They glared at me. I was a piece of white trash, someone to be despised. There was no way of telling them the truth. My connection to Abou Ghassan was strictly administrative business but they were not to know that.
I was so tired of it all. Despite brothers and male friends who sustained my faith in relationships between the sexes, the daily struggle against the attitudes of men in general was soul-destroying. From truck drivers, doctors, street vendors, bar tenders, cousins, employers and political activists, I had experienced a depressing litany of chauvinism. I was so fucking exasperated with having to constantly fend off unwanted sexual advances, deal with illogical male assumptions, defend my dignity as a human being, and put up with insulting paternalism from ‘well-meaning’ men. It was 1971 for fuck’s sake! Equality and its necessary counterpart, mutual respect, ought to be assured. Yet I could find little evidence of it.
The journey continued without conversation. Abou Ghassan had given up trying to talk. He sensed my antagonism towards him without seeming to understand that his behaviour was the cause of it. Dusk became night. A warm breeze fanned my face and tied my hair into a thousand tangles. So very weary. Eventually, I dozed off.
When I opened my eyes again we were already over the mountains and on the winding descent to the city below. Beirut, unbearably harsh by day, was now spread out before us: myriad diamonds sparkling in a warm, velvet night. The sight of this, my temporary home, raised my spirits. Soon I would be under a cool shower, cleansing the dust from my hair and skin. Then, over coffee and joints, I would relate the events of the day to my friends. The prospect of being with decent people animated me. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and even found it within myself to engage my companion in light conversation. But my buoyancy was to be short-lived.
As we reached the outskirts of Beirut, Abou Ghassan announced an unscheduled stop. He had to speak with another associate. I was far from pleased yet had no option but to go along with him. Entering a poor, unfamiliar quarter of the city, we pulled up outside an apartment block. I was relieved when he asked me to wait in the car, it meant he wouldn’t be long. It also spared me the leers of another roomful of men. I switched channels on the radio until I found some music then lit a cigarette. A few men passing by the car stared at me. A man standing in the doorway of another building was also watching. Minutes passed. The man crossed the street to get a better look. I felt uneasy, vulnerable.
By the time I had extinguished my second cigarette I was quite anxious. If Abou Ghassan had expected to be this long he would have taken me with him. Where was he? Had something happened? I considered getting out to look for him and immediately realised the stupidity of that idea. The building contained at least fifty apartments and none of the occupants would understand a word that I said. I had no choice but to sit it out.
Abou Ghassan finally reappeared, smiling and apologetic. There was an unforeseen problem he had to attend to, would I mind joining him? It wasn’t good for me to be sitting alone in the car. I was really angry now and told him so. It had been a long day and I was tired. He insisted that he would take me home soon, if I could be patient just a little while longer. Having no desire to remain in the car on my own, I followed him into the building. It was dirty and the lift smelled of urine. Abou Ghassan was silent as we ascended. I wondered who this wealthy business man could be doing deals with in a place like this. What kind of deal was being struck?
The lift jolted to a halt and we entered a dingy, ill-lit corridor. Abou Ghassan rapped on a door. A youth of around fifteen years opened it and, in Arabic, invited us in. Once inside the apartment there was an awkward moment when all three of us stood motionless in the hallway, the boy staring at me. Abou Ghassan spoke sharply to him and the boy turned and opened another door. Expecting a familiar scene – a group of men seated on low divans with tables laden with water pipes and bowls of nuts and dried fruit – what confronted me caused my stomach muscles to contract. The small room contained only a bed and a chair and I knew immediately what was going down.
In a voice whose steadiness surprised me, I told Abou Ghassan to take me home. Talking quickly, he assured me that he would, soon, if I would give him only ten minutes of my time. He was smiling obsequiously now, his voice low and seemingly determined. While he pleaded and cajoled I repeated my demand over and over again, take me home, take me home, like a mantra or incantation against evil. I was struggling to contain my rage and my fear. I could try making a run for it but had no idea where I was, the streets were full of strangers and I couldn’t trust any of them. Abou Ghassan showed no sign of relenting.
The battle of wills continued, I became aware of the boy watching us intently. He didn’t speak English but understood that I was repelling Abou Ghassan’s advances, and he was engrossed in the drama. Then I suddenly realised why Abou Ghassan was being so persistent. He was terrified of losing face in front of this boy. The story that I’d rejected him would travel rapidly, his virility would be the butt of many a joke, his authority over his underlings compromised, his position among his peers in jeopardy. In convincing his friends that we were sexually intimate he had convinced himself that we could be, and now the old fool had put himself in an impossible situation. He couldn’t back down. He was still talking, coaxing, begging almost. Then money was mentioned and suddenly my anger got the better of my fear.
If you don’t take me home immediately I’ll go to the British Embassy and tell them that you abducted and raped me. I’ll expose your shady business practices and your routine tax evasions to the appropriate authorities. I’ll kick up such a fuss Abou Ghassan, your reputation will be in tatters. TAKE ME HOME NOW!
For a terrible moment Abou Ghassan and I stared at each other while the boy stared at both of us. Then Abou Ghassan crumbled. He turned away from me and spoke irritably to the boy. Passing by him on my way out, I saw a hint of a smile on the boy’s face and mouthed the words, thank you. His presence had helped me stand my ground.
We left quickly and drove across the city without further delay. When the car came to a halt outside my building Abou Ghassan made as if to get out. I’ll see myself inside. I closed the car door before he could respond and went in to the foyer. The lift was waiting. Entering its clean, air-conditioned interior, I pushed the button for the fifth floor. As the doors closed and the lift began its ascent, I leaned back against the wall. I felt physically sick, emotionally exhausted, but I was safe. Another round of the unwanted conflict had been won, but, inexorably, each bout was taking its toll.
Between the fourth and fifth floors I remembered that I had not been paid for my day’s work. I wondered if Abou Ghassan would ever pay for it then smiled to myself. Yes, of course he would. The boy would see to that.