Growing up in Egypt, a young woman learned to attach shame to many things—to sex, to womanhood, even to water. Years later, after leaving religion, she realizes where real shame lies.
As usual, every day since her father left the family, she wakes to the frustrated screams of her mother, who never tires of insulting her and spewing violent threats at her because she is late for school.
She opens her eyes slowly. She gets up and drags her limbs, like a religious schoolmaster dragging unveiled girls by their sinful braids—why don’t you cover your hair!?—knowing that they are no longer eight years old.
She puts on her school uniform and carries her bag with difficulty; it makes her body feel and look like the Hunchback. And when she goes out the door of the house to the street, had it not been for the unsure hand of her upstairs neighbor—who she simply calls “Ayman’s mother” because no one knows her actual name—the soap-laden water would have splashed right on top of her head. But it just misses her and falls upon the street.
She stands there amazed, first looking up at where the water came from, and then down, where it is now, lying there on the ground with rainbow-colored soap bubbles on its surface, making shapes of squares and beehives, in the middle of a circle, formed and knitted like geometric shapes.
It is the voice of her mother, leaning the top half of her body outward from the veranda, while carrying ropes of dirty clothes with great anger—it is her mother’s voice that takes her out of this soapy, watery world of colors and geometric shapes.
What is this shit? Why do you throw your shame water down onto the street? The mother says, yelling up at “Ayman’s mother.”
In a mocking and flagrantly falsetto voice, the woman above says, “So sorry, ma’am! You are right. I swear, by Allah, it’s only laundry water!” But the real meaning of her overly fake tone is very different, saying: I’m just a deprived woman. I’m a sexy woman. I had sex yesterday with my husband, and this water is the water that we washed our bodies with.
Women on her street can’t afford to buy an electric washing machine—not even a bad one. So they wash their clothes by hand in a round pot with soap water, and then, when finished, they throw the water out onto the street, because they don’t have sewage systems in their home to drain the excess water from bathing or washing.
The mother gets angrier and swears after hearing such talk. The girl doesn’t realize at the time what the impurity was in soap-laden water, and why there is all this anger emanating from her mother. After all, she pours laundry water into the street every day without objection from anyone.
The girl doesn’t dwell on this inconsistency. She is too busy gazing at the bubbles floating atop the water, which come close to her small black shoes. She stands watching the movement of the bubbles upon the water, which the ground hasn’t yet drunk up. Her attention is drawn to the movement of two bubbles; they approach each other tenderly. They become one. And yet, two other bubbles approach each other violently, and pop and fade and become nothing. She trembles when she hears her mother screaming at her,
don’t mess with that shit water!
…pointing her face at their neighbor upstairs.
Fifteen years later, maybe more, and no longer a child, it is time for her exit from the Fun Planet, the Planet of Girlhood, the planet of Zemorde in Spacetown, and her entry into adult magazines and books on psychological analysis, and novels and literature. She learns to analyze and name things.
She comes to understand the motives of her mother’s upstairs neighbor, and what she had hinted at. She comes to understand the rebellious machinations of such women, especially after reading The Natures of Women by Ibn Abd Rabbo. She realizes the reason for her mother’s anger steeped in loneliness, especially after reading The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir.
She realizes how the bodies and souls of people approach each other, so much like the soap bubbles. If they approach with love, they become one. If they collide with violence, they become nothing.
And she knows very well that there are many things that are shameful—but women and water aren’t among them.
Of things that are shameful more than 15 years later, women are still wasting water by tossing it onto the street. Many of them may now have electric washing machines in their homes, but they barely use them due to high electricity bills, which are constantly increasing every day, even as people’s salaries are reduced. That is shameful.
More shame: The women of her street are not among the world’s lucky ones to enjoy sewers that reach their homes. And her country has entered the list of the poorest water countries in the world, even though it overlooks the Mediterranean Sea in the North, the Red Sea in the East, and in the middle, along the length of the country, what a god has been running for thousands of years, giving people goodness and water: the Nile River, now depleted and drying.
And also now, as natural water diminishes, the government in her country has turned to refining, filtering, and recycling wastewater to be safe for drinking and farming.
Isn’t this a shame in the land of the water idol, the Nile, the god Habi? Isn’t it a shame for people to be thirsty and to drink their own urine? That is the real shame water.