'Daddy, daddy, you bastard...'
Leila approached me yesterday at lunchtime to inform me that she was worried about her report from the last course. She is by far the most conscientious and linguistically talented of all the students I teach, and has won golden opinions from teachers for her talent and from fellow students for being a kind and considerate colleague. As my report was a glittering encomium that was no more than her due, I was puzzled. She had ignored every glowing comment in praise of her manifold scholarly virtues, and was exercised chiefly over the fact that she was down as having only 98% attendance, and two lates. Since she was the last in a queue of students querying this and that minute detail of their reports and attempting to bargain with me to whack up their grades, I felt mildly peeved that she was ignoring that thoroughly deserved praise. The Libyan embassy, in so far as it is capable of formulating a coherent policy, requires only 80% attendance of its sponsored students, which seems to me to allow a perfectly reasonable amount of wiggle room. I pointed this out.
‘No, no,’ Leila said. ‘You don’t understand. If my father saw this, he’d kill me.’ There was no flicker of a smile to indicate that she was using the cliché with its usual hyperbole. I’m not suggesting that it was a genuine fear, of course, but she did look very worried. If she were fifteen I might not have been surprised, but she is slightly more than twice that age. Why should her father even get to see her report, let alone comment on it?
This is naïf of me, of course. A month or two ago, another Libyan lady told me that her father and brothers have refused to speak to her since she decided to come to England to study for a PhD without first seeking their permission, thereby bringing disgrace on them. She lives alone in a foreign country, does she not, with no man to protect her honour, so the conclusion one must inevitably draw is that she’s a rampant nympho who bangs like a shit-house door and has escaped to England to indulge her lust with the kuffar. Stands to reason, man, innit, yeah? Leila’s father probably requires documentary evidence that she isn’t whoring around in this sink of iniquity, at least during the hours of daylight, so instead of suggesting she tell him plainly where he gets off, I went to the office and had the offending figures altered. They were probably in error anyway, as Leila was always in class before me on the days I taught the group, sitting there looking serious and slightly anxious. That’s often how you recognise the conscientious students – they wear worried frowns.
Lena is a friend from Cyprus who lived from the age of seven to twenty-odd with her parents in Sydney. One evening she went alone to listen to a talk organized by the university there. In her absence, her father did a bit of research and ascertained that the building where the talk was held was opposite a brothel. He blew a gasket. On her return, he subjected her to an interrogation about the layout and appointments of the university building; whose portrait hung at the top of the staircase, did one turn left or right at the top of the stairs to get to the ladies, that sort of thing, because otherwise he could not be entirely satisfied that she hadn’t been out to earn a bit of pocket money by turning a few tricks. Later, she lived in Athens with a man to whom she was not married, and preparing for her father’s visits from Cyprus - announced last minute, presumably in an attempt to catch her out - would entail chucking her boyfriend out of the flat and hiding every item of male clothing.
‘Why the hell do you do it?’ I’d ask. ‘Why don’t you tell him you’re thirty-four and who you live with is none of his bloody business?’
‘You don’t understand. It wouldn’t make any difference if I was seventy-four,’ she explained patiently. ‘If I was unmarried and living with a man, he’d have a fit if he knew.’
My whole point was that I knew that, and I was suggesting that she simply allow him to have his fit – it wouldn’t hurt anybody but him, after all. But it doesn’t work that way. Where daddy plays the heavy-handed paterfamilias, his ego is to be massaged at all costs, and daughters are infantilised until he slips off the perch.
In 2002 I left Athens to live in a town in the Peloponnese which I had visited on business many times, and never particularly liked. I put my dislike down to the facts that every time I went it was never cooler than 40 C, and I had to live out of a suitcase, and I desperately missed my cat. I also felt obscurely uneasy wandering the sweltering streets at night. In sea-front cafés, large men in loud shirts sat at their complete ease with their beers, one big sandaled foot resting on the opposed knee. They swung worry beads around their index fingers. They exuded the smell of sweat and an air of masculine entitlement and seemed to challenge you to challenge them. They definitely weren’t men who would grieve if separated from their cats. In a sea-front bar one sundown, I fancied a Martini. I had counted on the generous measures you get everywhere in Greece if you order scotch or vodka, but the barman poured me a thimbleful of red Martini into the teensiest glassette of spun sugar delicacy, and handed it to me with a smirk. The men in the bar watched, expressionless, as I drank it. I was given some nuts, with the implication, perhaps, that I had none of my own. A foreign πούστης (pouf) of course, he’s English, they are all πούστηδες. Ι really wished I had ordered a scotch, even though at that exact time I didn't want one.
Anyway, while I was down there flat-hunting, I had dinner with a good friend from Canada who has lived in Greece for many years. I mentioned my vague feeling of unease in this town.
‘Yeah,’ she said evenly. ‘It’s evil.’
‘Oh, come on!’
‘You think I’m joking, huh?’ Obviously she wasn’t.
I couldn’t move into my new flat immediately on moving out of Athens, and so stayed a couple of nights with Ruth, a friend who is Greek but had spent a fair chunk of her life in Australia. She speaks fluent English with an Auzzie accent and has a large collection of put-downs and one-liners picked up from the gay blokes she used to share a house with. (Re. a local queen who thought himself discreet, ‘daaling, he is fuck'n tredgick!’) She was expecting a visitor, a woman unknown to her who was to act as go-between for Ruth and some forty-something bloke who had made a bit of money and now felt the time to wive it had arrived. I said I would make myself scarce while the initial appraisal by the go-between was conducted. I was about to make a facetious suggestion that I would hide my shaving foam and razor from the bathroom when Ruth said ‘if you want your shaving stuff, I’ve shoved it in the top cupboard.’
‘How did it go?’ I asked, after the go-between had introduced the two parties.
‘Μαλάκας είναι,’ she said. He’s a wanker.
They had been introduced on the sea front. Your man had sat Ruth down and ordered for her coffee and fruit, and once she was ensconced, he had gone, chunky of muscle and hairy of back, into the sea, where he displayed great athleticism at great length. He had seemed to think she ought to be both impressed and grateful. He would probably be the type of man who, when out with his lady, would devote a few moments each time she sat down to positioning her limbs until the required degree of modesty was achieved.
‘Chroisd, wad a fucken idiot,’ she mused.
Why do you want this, I asked. Why do you want to fit into this system where men aver ‘my wife’s married, but I’m not’, and uphold their divine right to stick their knobs wherever they like? They can’t commit adultery unless they find a woman to do it with, and they’re intelligent enough to see that, but if it’s one of their own herd that gets covered, they’ll smack her about for it. The undercurrent I sensed on the sea front and around town is one of male violence, and the entitlement of men to rule by force.
Usual answer. You don’t understand; I live here, so I have to fit in. OK. You are right. I don’t understand why you want to fit in.
Another friend never had any doubts about anything, least of all her own views. ‘Men are in crisis!’ she told me one evening, in the same tone as she might have told me the train leaves at six, so don’t mess about. It’s too late now to introduce her to my Algerian student who was giving me his very grave opinions on western immorality as exampled in Leicester:
‘If a boy here look his sister in a bad place, (i.e., a pub where men outnumber women) he don’t will go in there and take her out!’
That seems to assume that the number of unaccompanied females abroad of an evening is evidence that their brothers are not sufficiently concerned with family honour to be patrolling the streets looking for them. Mohammed, if they did, they’d probably get their teeth smashed in - and in my view, deservedly.
Men are in crisis, are they, Alison? I don’t see much evidence of this outside the small circles where some men think they ought to be. I’ve had Leila worrying about paternal reaction to her end of course report at thirty-two. We have had endless requests from Saudi students for single-sex classes, and husbands pacing the street outside ground-floor classrooms to keep an eye on the proceedings, lest a nose or a hairline be revealed. Women resigned to mixed-sex classes often sit in a protective huddle, swathed in robes and veils, and almost have to be treated as a group within a group if they are not to be upstaged by men who seem to forget there are any women present.
‘Look,’ said one Saudi man to a colleague, ‘there’s two women walking on the road, one’s wearing a burqa, one’s wearing a short dress with no back, like they do here. Which one’s gonna get raped?’ He smiled, open hands outstretched, his logic irrefutable. Crisis? What crisis?
From my blog