This story contains graphic sexual elements and thus is unsuitable for minors. Turn back now if you are under eighteen years of age!
by Dave Potter
My name is Laila. La-I-la. That’s all. It wasn’t always my name, but it is now. It means ‘night’ I’m told. Apt perhaps? After all, I spend a lot of my life in the dark.
My husband is Aziz. He’s tall, dark, sort of handsome. I didn’t choose him, but he chose me. I didn’t see him before we were married, and he didn’t see me until some time afterwards. But I’ll talk about that later. Now I’ll just tell you that he’s rich, dominant, Islamic, Shiite actually, and of Iranian descent. He doesn’t live in Iran though. No, now he, we, live in Turkmenistan, a featureless desert nation in the heart of Asia that the world seems to have forgotten all about.
What am I doing at the moment? Let me tell you. I’m sat on silk cushions in a large room. In the middle of the room is Aziz. He is eating, laughing and drinking with three other men. They are some business associates apparently. Men of oil. That’s where Aziz gets his money from. It’s the only source of money in this forgotten little country I think. Around the four we sit, his wives and his Sigheh, temporary wives. I’m one of the latter, a sort-of wife, permitted by his Shiite faith. Critics call it legalised prositution. I don’t know, it’s my lot in life, that’s all I do know. That’s all I need to know. Yes, there we sit whilst he laughs and chatters. We are all in silence.
My name wasn’t always Laila you know. You do know? Did I already tell you? Oh, sorry. No, years ago, in another lifetime I had a different name. I was Svetilina. That means ‘flower’. It’s a sweet name isn’t it? It was my name once. Yes, I was Svetilina, or Sveti, or Sveta, Svetanka. A pretty Soviet girl from the Russian city of Orenburg. I had long brown hair and deep dark eyes. That’s not typically Russian I know, but I’m not Russian, my mother was Bulgarian and my father an Armenian. Yes, there I was, a pretty girl, doing well at school, popular with my friends, a member of Komsomol, a bright future assured of me…
Then it all stopped.
I was walking home from school. It was winter and the evening was cold and dark. A policeman stopped me. “Papers Comrade!” I fumbled in my coat pocket. There was a noise behind me. Thud! The world went black.
I said before that we sit and watch Aziz. That’s true, and yet it’s not true. Watch is a strong word, I can hardly see him, just an outline of a man, nothing distinct. My world is dark, the sounds are muffled too, but they are clearer than the view.
That’s how I arrived here. Aziz was a party official then, and the police were in on it. I was found, run over by a car. That’s what it said in PRAVDA. ‘Use this as a lesson, comrades, to take care when you drive!’ I knew they weren’t lying; they showed me the article.
Yes, I arrived here. I awoke in my sumptuous room, with its large silk-covered bed and en-suite bathroom. Bukharan carpets covered the walls and floor. No windows, just a skylight letting in the sun’s rays. A songbird twittered in it’s gilded cage. The opulence of the East. ‘Ring the bell’ said the notice by my bed. I rang it.
A minute later, in she walked, an anonymous figure swathed all in black. Not a centimetre of human to be seen, only cloth. “I am Nadira,” said she. “I am your maid.”
She explained it all, everything. We were in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. The master of the house was Aziz, the Party Official. I was dead, killed in a motor accident. Laila however, was alive. I was now Laila, due to be married next week to Aziz; the latest addition to his harem. I cried and cried for my parents, friends, family and past life. But they were gone, and a week later my grieving was gone also.
“Aziz is a strict man,” said Nadira, “but he is just. Follow his rules and you will be happy. Break them, and you will be sorry.” She spoke the truth.
Aziz has many rules. His views on women are not the ones that I was brought up with. No liberty, equality, fraternity, Comrades! He is the master, what he says goes. We obey him. And in return, he provides for us. I do not work, I do not need to. I cannot. That is one of Aziz’s rules; “My wives cannot work!” So we don’t.
That’s the least of his rules. His wives must be submissive. Islam means ‘submission’. It teaches us well. When he sends for me, I come. When he doesn’t, I don’t. In the meantime, with my sisters, like today, I wait.
But he is getting up, his friends also. They leave and the door shuts behind them. It is just women now, we may talk. That’s another of his rules. We may not talk in the prescence of any male except him alone, and then only when he sanctions it. The sisters turn and face each other, and start chattering. To my left is Fatme. I ask her how she is. She’s fine. And I? Fine too. We are all fine. Aziz looks after us.
Not only may we not speak, but we may also not be be seen. By anyone. Well, anyone except Aziz, our personal maid, and a female doctor should we require one. But no one else. “You can’t be serious?!” I cry when Nadira tells me this for the first time. “Perfectly,” replies she. Veiled at all times.
Veiled yes, and properly so. Every morning I wake up and bathe. Then I put on my lingerie and ring for Nadira. She enters with my clothes for the day. I don’t choose them, Aziz does. He takes the greatest care in choosing all his wives’ garments. They are of the highest quality. First there’s the fine white silk stockings, and then the baggy harem pants of blue silk. Over my arms, stretching up past my elbow are tight white silken gloves. Then there’s the baggy silk shirt which, like the harem pants, has ribbons to tie up every opening. The front is embroidered, a design of leaves and flowers. It’s beautiful. Then she combs my long dark hair and buts it in a bun on the top of my head, before getting the large white Indonesian jilbab which she ties around the top of my head and at my chin. Only my face is visible now.
Then comes the dress, Uzbeki style and brightly coloured, reaching down to the floor. She carefully adjusts the jilbab before fitting my face veil, which reaches from just below my eyes to down by my hips. A white dress follows and then a long white head covering that also reaches my hips. Only my eyes can be seen by the outside world.
Now the next stage, full face niqaab, covering my eyes and giving my entire world a dark shade, and then the heavy black Turkish khimar, and black floor length dress. Black mittens adorn my arms, covering the white gloves. I am hidden, but it’s not enough. The piece de la resistance of my costume is unfolded, a fine yellow Afghani burqa, with handcrafted embroidery on the front and beautiful pleats billowing out behind. Nadira fits it over my head, adjusting the skull cap and grille. Combined with the black veil, I can hardly see, but I am concealed, hot and private in my cocoon. I thank Nadira and make for the door, slipping my embroidered slippers onto my feet. These ensure that our feet make no noise as we walk. Woman should not be heard as well as seen in Aziz’s house.
I have never seen Fatme, or Jamil, or Amina, or Shammarah, or any of my other sisters, and they have never seen me. We recognise each other by our clothes. We are like faceless mirages.
It is mealtime. I return to my room and remove my veils. I eat alone. Then I ring for Nadir and I am covered once more.
A fortnight after I arrived it was my wedding day. Nadira entered my room with Aziz’s mother. I forgot to mention that she is permitted to view me also. She is, though she has only done so once, on that day. I was bathed, towelled, and stood there, in the middle of the room, completely naked. Then Nadira took out a razor and I was shaved all over, even my most intimate parts. Aziz’s mother watched from a distance. Then perfumes and oils, the treasures of Arabia, were rubbed into every pore. It stung in the shaven areas but it was good. I was sweet-smelling and slippery. Then came my hair, braided finely, hanging down to my shoulders and decorated with golden ornaments and threads. Nadir then went to the table and gestured for me to sit. She added mascara and kohl to my eyes and rouge to my lips. Powder was then rubbed onto my cheeks. My face was as alluring as that of Sherezade. But in an instant, it was hidden, by a fine silken veil such as a belly dancer wears. Only my eyes could be seen, the large dark bewitching eyes of a houri.
Silk stockings were drawn onto my legs and then violet harem pants. My breasts were covered by a small embroidered top. I truly did look the Turkish belly dancer! Then my hands, hennaed with expert care by Nadir, under the watchful eyes of the Matriarch. Two fine works of geometric art. But in an instant these too were hidden, in silken gloves, held in place below my smooth armpits by two fine engraved golden bands.
Then came the Indonesian jilbab with long dress and full face veil, held onto my head by a band of gold. I stood there, an anonymous ghostly maiden, all in white.
And over that, the black khimar with double faceveil, full niqaab of course, embroidered with fine patterns. From white to black.
And finally, a beautiful, dark red burqa with golden embroidery and a grille of only three centimetres by eight. There I was was, a regal Central Asian Princess! Long black mittens covered my gloved hands and embroidered slippers adorned my feet.
I was led out of the room by the two women, virtually blind and very hot. I could not see my husband throughout the service even though he was tood beside me. Then there was the celebration; people laughing, singing, dancing, and I, the object of it all, unable to take part, alone in my silken cocoon.
And then he led me to his chamber. I, the virgin of seventeen. “Do not remove your veils!” he commanded. “There is a tradition in this house.” That is all he said.
He proceeded to undress me, my lower half only. “You have beautiful legs, Laila,” he said.
The experience was unbelievable, a fantasy from the finest of fables. He lowered me onto him with care and consideration and we entered Paradise. And after each of his climaxes, he removed a veil. As the night wore on, his image became more distinct to me, and he experienced each layer, each different sensual identity. And at the end of it all, when he uncovered my final layer, we gazed into each others eyes. “By the Prophet, you’re an angel, Laila!” he said. And we fell asleep, exhausted, our arms clasped around each other.
That was then. Will he call for me tonight? Who knows? Not even he. Every night we wear an extra layer, a featureless black sheet that covers us entirely. And we also wear shoes. Mine have platforms ten centimetres high. That’s because I’m short, we all have different shoes so that we appear the same height. And then we line up, all silent, all identical in height, all covered in black. Who is who? He knows not. He will pick one of us at random. It is fair. Islam says that you should treat your wives equally. He does that.
Last week he took me to Ashqabat, the city. To go I must wear a black shroud over my burqa. It is thick and I am almost unable to see. There are two slits through which I can push my mittened hands should it be absolutely necessary. I walk behind him, he talks to me, but I cannot reply. There are people around. I always wonder at the streets of Ashqabat, all those half-clad women. Only in our household is veiling mandatory. My eye itches with the heat, so I push my dark silk hand through the slit and rub my veil. Oh no! He’s seen me. He says nothing, but we both know. Unnecessary exposure is a sin. I shall be handcuffed for a week.
Like in everything, with punishment, Aziz is stern, but fair. He does not beat his wives. I have only been punished once before. It was when I first arrived here, I was still frustrated by the rules. One day I’d had enough, I started to shout and scream that he was a sadistic slaver and I ripped my burqa off. Luckily they stopped me before I could expose myself further, and I was led to my room. Aziz came to me with a grave and disappointed look upon his face. My hands were handcuffed behind my back and a gag placed in my mouth. It was not uncomfortable, but it rendered speech impossible. For an entire month I stayed like that. Nadira fed me through a straw which ran through a hole in the gag, and she assisted me in my necessary ablutions. None of the sisters spoke a word to me, and I was not included in the Line Up. It was a terrible time, I have never broken a rule since.
Nadira fits my platform shoes and places the black cloak over my head. When will he pick me, I need him so badly. After that first night he fitted me with a chastity belt, golden underpants with a grille like my burqa. But this grille hides not my face. They are not uncomfortable, but they stop me from relieving my tension. All of us are in the same position.
I walk unsteadily towards the room on my tall platform shoes and join the line. Ten minutes later, Aziz enters. He paces the entire length twice before stopping. “Third from the right,” he announces.
Third, did he say the third? He did! He comes up to me and beckons. I follow him to his chamber…
Copyright 2002, Dave Potter