In Translation: Clean // Vask

Suzanne Brøgger’s “Vask” (“Clean”), here translated from the Danish by Michael Favala Goldman, was first published in 1973 and then appeared in her 1995 collection of her selected essays, Løvespor (Lion Tracks). The original Danish follows the English translation. The epigraph appeared with the original.

“I feel them speaking through me, these women who have taken longer to speak than man, because what stirred in them were states which are not articulate in the language of man, but perhaps in the language of music, if this music could be frozen in the air to catch the words it forms” —Anaïs Nin


I can’t love anyone in this country. All the almond-shaped, penetrating brown eyes and the eternally bulging pants. Men who never rest. I can’t deal with repressed people. I can’t deal with the paradigm, it makes me stiff: my body, my face, I smile all day—stiffly. Every night by the beach the same hotel worker plucks a lily from the bouquet in the hall and hands it to me aflame with every sign of fascination, fear and contempt. Just like one tosses peanuts to an ape and waits for a reaction. I want to scream, but I smile. He thinks he is worshipping me—female worship is a religion I do not share. Most of all I want to hit him, but a person can’t do that just for being handed a flower. I can’t love anyone in this country, though God knows I’ve tried. Every time it is like drawing near to a mysterious ritual where the most sacred relics are taken out from the most sacred places, while one stands at a distance, an observer of the holy act. The damp embrace is so charged and so crucial that there is no room for tenderness—or for oneself, for that matter. I am left standing abandoned between thousands of praying, anonymous people, trying to stay on my tip-toes to better follow what is going on far, far away. There is no connection, and my toes hurt. And then they say we are all of the same blood. Ha! Just blood. Blood is nothing, and flowers cannot remedy the wretched business; so I get drunk every night. My body disappears, as well as my dreams, because I sense the constant, brown penetrating looks. Maybe instead I should crawl along the ground making sounds and practicing grabbing flowers with my mouth.

Most of all I want to hit him, but a person can’t do that just for being handed a flower.

A sticky clingy embrace by a despicable hotel manager who only drank water so he wouldn’t make mistakes. I was distractedly polishing off a bottle of whiskey, becoming more and more interested in this improbable, unsavory individual who very much wanted to escort me around to clubs in the city. He snapped his fingers and ordered a glass of water from one of his personnel, took a single sip and tasted it for a long time between his narrow snake lips after which he—without looking at the waiter—replaced the glass and ordered a new glass of water. He explained to me with triumph: The water had an aftertaste, and his employees had to learn to obey. “They should feel the whip; they have to be trained.”

“Just like animals?” I asked, hoping he would answer yes, so my animosity towards him would be validated.

“I guess you could say that,” he answered, putting his arm around me in solidarity with my deep insight into the true nature of people.

There happened to be a Jewish wedding going on in the hotel. I nibbled at a couple of stuffed peppers with a bit of saffron rice, but mostly I drank whiskey; I had withdrawn long before. There was belly dancing and a tremendous amount of chatter, which you couldn’t hear due to the pop hits performed by deafening stringed instruments and singers with far away looks. The songs are always about the woman you can’t get, which by definition means the one you love. I had long ago decided to have sex with this loathsome, water-drinking creature—as a distraction, or because I didn’t want to go to bed alone, or because I wanted to see if this compliment-spitting “seducer” was genuine, or as a protest… I felt disgusted by all the love songs about unattainable women (this kind of thing always makes me say “You are going to get me right in your face, you little louse. You are going to get so much of me it’s going to make you sick and you’ll never forget it”) … or for no reason at all, because I was drunk and this fruitless night needed a suitable punctuation in the form of a rousing anti-climax. But the seducer had no idea that I had decided in advance to rattle his bones, so he was very nervous about the impact of his forced poetic phrases, which little by little were leading to hints of a distant, impossible, hopeless dream in the form of lovemaking. I think that was the word he used. If I had been a well-behaved, polite person I would not have begrudged leaving him alone with his dream intact and dreaming for a couple more centuries; instead I said, “Give me a break, it’s just a word for God’s sake.”

In the beginning was the word, but it didn’t develop into much more than that. He clung to me in a sticky, bizarre ritual, which stayed in the back of my mind and never felt real, and I felt bad about standing on my tip-toes to see what was going on far, far away, thousands of years ago. Maybe I should have just been a picture. If you judge people by the idols they worship, can’t you also judge them by the dreams their relationships create? Everywhere all I could sense were dreams of distance, dreams of separation, dreams of not meeting, dreams of hopelessness that never turn into hope or union—and the fear of losing the dreams, because their spell would then be broken and people would be forced to eat their own excrement. My dreams are less than warm, but the men with the burning eyes worship the state of conflict, separation, and illusion, and hate women with hips, curves, and movements.

If you judge people by the idols they worship, can’t you also judge them by the dreams their relationships create?

His worship was boundless and so was his anger when I got up from the altar after fifteen minutes to get dressed. He couldn’t understand why I went with him, but he could definitely not understand why I left. He was confused, because he was afraid of sleeping alone. I said he could just send out a command to one of his people to bring a glass of water.

Early the next morning I moved with a heavy heart to another town. A local saint had died the previous Friday. The stores were closed; black flags hung everywhere in the bazaar. I immediately took a taxi down to the eighth imam’s brother’s holy tomb. The car was furnished as if it were the chauffeur’s private apartment: by the steering wheel he had a partly transparent inky blue decorative hand, holding a semi-transparent inky blue plastic jar, filled with cyclamen-colored nylon-tulle flowers. The car door’s insides were covered with pictures of the prophet Ali in the company of other strong men with machine guns and ammo belts. Accompanying these in the photo gallery was Elvis Presley, protectively embracing a couple of young females’ shoulders in a pretty pastel-colored flower garden.

At the entrance to the tomb I rent an—all too short—chador, but it is evidently enough cover, because an old toothless crone asks me if I’m Syrian. The holy tomb is bustling. It must be a very holy day because the square in front of Shah Cheragh is full of families who are getting a good picnic out of it. They have gas stoves to make tea and to cook up little delicacies. The mood is peaceful and moving. The women nurse, the men stare.

Inside the tomb chapel it’s all mirrors, with a marble floor. Everyone files by the mirrored grave—you can actually see your reflection in it—in a steady stream, kissing the imam’s brother, millions of lips reproduced in the mirrors. On the floor farther along sit old men and ancient ones rocking back and forth, intoning or mumbling—barely audibly—the old story of the battle of Kerbala. Rocking back and forth in the age-old rhythm, the heart’s rhythm, the cradle’s rhythm, coitus’, the rhythm of union, and the old story’s rhythm—of Kerbala, when Hussein, Hassan, and Muhammad’s daughter Fatima were murdered. The women are crying, great tears running down their cheeks. They have heard this story hundreds of times before. Some are nursing as they cry over the Kerbala. Little boys chewing gum—the same rhythm—are toddling around between the aged ones. All of life is about Kerbala, and therefore also Tazieh, the classic theater. It takes eight days and eight nights to perform Kerbala, but the performance has the advantage that the good and the evil roles are easily distinguishable, since the ritual demands that the evil ones always speak, while the good ones always sing. There’s no mistaking them. When the actors are neither speaking nor singing, they talk to people or eat or sleep. It takes eight days and eight nights to live through Kerbala, and there is no way around it.

One always walks backwards out of the burial chapel. An anthropologist tells me—and I can see it with my own eyes—that the holy tomb is a great meeting place. People go to Shah Cheragh to look at girls or to find a prostitute—to find anything, actually, Young lovers meet up at Shah Cheragh, because here they can be together without arousing suspicion. The holy tomb is well guarded. Here you can contact a “sigheh”—a contract woman—usually a widow. If one, for example, is going on a long trip through the desert and doesn’t wish to travel without a female companion, one hires a sigheh. Actually the contract can last from one hour up to ninety-nine years. Lovers who can’t be together because of their families can in principle make a sigheh arrangement. But now the system is falling apart because people are starting to look down on the sighehs as prostitutes. Only in the most holy cities like Qom and Mashhad does the system work like in the old days.

I would like to remain by the tomb and maybe enter into an honest contract; who knows, maybe someone needs a Syrian woman. Just the thought of returning to the Intercontinental Hotel, where I am forced to stay per agreement—under the most polite and hospitable arrangements—and grab flowers with my mouth—makes me feel weary. The problem is I am not very tolerant—the bourgeoisie makes me feel physically ill, and especially in the third world, where it lacks the discrete charm that can be connected with decadence. If the aristocracy is dying in the west, here it is just budding, and for every day that passes it sprouts up in furious growth, wanting to make the tarrying parts of the world into a gigantic nightclub and bring unconsciousness to the system.

Towards evening I escape from the lobby down towards the bazaar just before it closes. A newly-hatched engineer pursues me apologizing that everything hasn’t been made into plastic yet. He says that what I’m seeing has nothing to do with his country, that his country has nothing to do with the people and the streets I’m seeing. I can’t get rid of him and I feel more and more alone. He looks a bit embarrassed because he is feeling ashamed on behalf of the people. Since he won’t leave me alone, I tell him to show me the way to the almonds, because I want to buy sugar and almonds. He says Persian rugs are a better buy. He gets lost in the bazaar and can’t find the almonds. A man who doesn’t know his way in the bazaar! The little louse! He says I must be a romantic because I feel the need to go to the bazaar when there are lots of trendy shops around the hotel, and that the bazaar has nothing to do with his country; and I would realize this if I went to the capital instead of running around in this crappy town.

What a romantic louse! Once upon a time—under Mossadegh—the bazaar, the place where people talk and do business, held significant political power. Back then the bazaar was a political forum where people exchanged goods and ideas. If the bazaar has become meaningless, if it has lost this function, if it, as he says, has nothing to do with his country, then it is because of him, the louse, following me because I am from the West, and because of all the other lice, who get educations in order to turn their land into a nightclub, where it is well known that no one can hear what anyone else says.

“You can leave now, because I’m going to the hammam!”

He shakes his head confused: “Are you crazy? You have been invited and are staying in a luxury hotel with a shower and bathtub and swimming pool. Why would you go to a hammam? The public baths are dirty.”

“Are Iranians dirty?”

“In any case, at least take your own towel, shampoo, and soap; because what they use there I wouldn’t recommend…”

“Is there a lot of disease in the area?”

He doesn’t answer, but just asks why in the world I want to go to a hammam. Why? Why?

It’s because I’m lonely, I think to myself, you little louse, but I don’t say anything. Why argue with a person who has forgotten where to buy almonds? But it is true; I’m so lonesome I could cry, and you can’t go wrong going someplace to get washed by a woman. The hand of a woman brings relief. I don’t know why; it’s probably always been that way.

It is a yellow clay house with traditional Islam-patterned blue-green tiles on the walls. The cleanest place in the world, I say to myself, thinking of the louse—all the louses I am trying to be rid of. I am given a small piece of soap, a yellow tube of shampoo with the label ‘Oasis,’ a black round stone for the bottoms of my feet, and a piece of white chalk for I don’t know what.

The man at the desk shows me to the washroom, but it’s not that… I’m not impure in that way… Outside the washroom sit a couple of women, mummy-like in their flowered chadors—the one is sitting peeling a piece of fruit, therefore holding her chador in place with her teeth, just like the women in the market when they have their hands full. I make a motion to them that I’d like to be washed. They giggle a bit shyly; they’re probably not used to washing blondes or people like me from the West. Then the one with the fruit says that if I go get undressed, she’ll be right there. I’m happy; I want to get to know these women whom I have seen only in the streets—covered up, dark, unreachable and anonymous. It’s impossible to imagine what their actual appearance is like, even though they still seem more real than all the bikini shapes displayed by society women.

She scurries in and one, two, three, strips off her chador. Underneath she is wearing a flowery, sequined tattered dress, something fashion-obsessed mothers would put on their little girls before going to the zoo or another vacation stop. We stand facing one another and laugh slightly as a greeting. She has kept only her underpants on, black nylon with all the seams splitting, so mostly she’s just wearing threads across her lower back. I never thought seams could split in underpants like that, but that is probably because I never knew anyone who kept them long enough. She looks to be about fifty years old—my woman—with thin black braids, tattoos on her forehead, and silver rings on her arms. She looks like a friendly madam. We stand there laughing for a while, partly because I don’t know what I’m supposed to do; I’m in her care. For the first time since I came to Persia, I’m filled with delight. She might have given birth to ten children—I don’t know, but her body has been used more than mine; she might be only thirty. I feel a bit embarrassed, as if I have cheated fate. It is impossible for me to show how happy I am to be with her, because she would never understand. Because she doesn’t understand how a person can live packed in cotton and gauze, without aroma, waterproof, and therefore she doesn’t understand why my eyes are shiny with feeling because she exists. I don’t mean anything more than that, just that she exists here at the baths, now when I need her, and that she permits me to enjoy her ancient movements as the customer I am, without fuss.

She runs the shower like an expert, finding the right temperature—just that gesture, how she sticks her hands under the running water and lets it run down her arms to find the right temperature for me personally. I feel it deep in my body as a declaration of love. I am paying her, but still… She could just as well have let the water run steaming hot and shoved me under it, and I might not even have protested, since I had already completely surrendered. No, she wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t have shoved me into steaming hot water, because she was so friendly, and that’s why I had surrendered to her. There really is no mystery when it comes down to it.

After I had been rinsed under the shower, she led me to lie down on the floor. I was limp from the warmth, the water, and her movements which guided me. I had lost any reservations; she could do whatever she wanted with me. I could see she had beautiful eyes—a bit slanted and blue-gray—the same color as the tattoos on her forehead. Her belly was large and drooping, her thighs rather thin in comparison, and her breasts just two thin flaps of skin with protruding brown nipples hanging at the bottom.

When she took the Oasis shampoo, I was anticipating how she would do it. If she liked me, now was her chance to show it, when you consider the way commercial hairdressers pull and tear at one’s hair. If she didn’t like me, she could be careless and get soap in my eyes, for example. But she wasn’t thinking that way at all; she massaged my scalp gently and quietly, then poured a bucket of water over me in several gentle, flowing waterfalls, so I wouldn’t get soap in my eyes. Then she started from the beginning, again and again. She washed my hair four times, which evidently is the custom.

My skin needed to be washed or, more accurately, removed. She sat facing me and put my one leg over her one thigh, since we had to sit close together for her to reach my whole body with her hands. She rubbed the chalk into my one arm, back and forth with a coarse cloth to loosen the dead skin. Suddenly I was a bit worried she would notice that I wasn’t dirty at all, actually; that my intentions weren’t completely honest. But such a small worry disappeared with her long, rhythmic movements back and forth. I had no desire to speak, ask about her name or her children—how many she had, for example. I could not have cared less. She didn’t expect me to, either. I was enjoying being in this one place where quiet is normal, intimacy is concrete, and movements so simple and ancient that it’s okay to be unconcerned. It’s also because one pays; that gives one the right.

My skin was rubbed off, dissolved by her long, gentle, rhythmic pressure. Once in a while I couldn’t help but smile at her or look in her eyes—just for fun—to see what she might be thinking, since she was there too. But I could see this distracted her. I could tell she preferred being ignored. I couldn’t change that, and I didn’t feel a need to. I would pay and she did her work. She was neither my friend nor my lover, but that didn’t matter. She was the woman chalking down my Persian breasts to make them soft. She pulled my foot over against her so my heel was resting in her groin. She rubbed my one arm and shoulder farthest from her, while her one breast brushed back and forth over my toes like a perpetual fan, far down below her face with the swinging braids, far away from her and me. If her brown nipples were just as ticklish as my toes was beside the point. After the chalk came the soap. Then the same movements again on the same body; the difference was just that now there was lather. Everything was softer and more slippery.

She turned on the shower and helped me to my feet. Now I was done; now I was clean. She got into the shower too, while I brushed my hair. We silently agreed that I ought to do it myself, since it was easier, since it was tangled. It would be a sin to think she wanted to hurt me in any way.

In less than a minute she had her sequined dress and chador back on and was gone like dew before the sun with the eight kroner I gave her. Twice the price. I couldn’t bear giving her any less. When I went out to the street in the cool evening air and reluctantly—though with a light heart—made my way back to the concrete hotel, I felt that in fact I had been very dirty—filthy, actually.


Kan ikke elske nogen i det her land. Alle de mandelformede brændende brune øjne og de evigt bulnende bukser. Mænd der aldrig får hvile. Kan ikke mere med undertrykte folk. Kan ikke mere koden, bliver stiv i kroppen, i blikket, smiler hele dagen—stift. Hver aften står den samme hotelkarl ved skranken og plukker en lilje fra buketten i hallen og rækker mig den brændende med alle tegn på fascination, frygt og foragt. Ligesom man kaster nødder til aben og venter på reaktion. Jeg vil helst skrige, men jeg smiler. Han tror, han tilbeder mig—kvindetilbedelse er en tro jeg ikke deler. Allermest har jeg lyst til at slå ham, men det kan man ikke være bekendt bare fordi man får en blomst. Jeg kan ikke elske nogen i det her land, selvom guderne skal vide at jeg har prøvet. Men hver gang nærmer man sig ikke andet end et sælsomt ritual, hvor de allerhelligste relikvier tages frem fra de allerhelligste folder, mens man selv står langt væk som tilskuer til den hellige handling. Denne fugtige omfavnelse er så betydningsfuld og så altafgørende, at der ikke er plads til ømhed—eller til en selv, for den sags skyld. Jeg står bare fortabt mellem tusinder af bedende anonyme mennesker, prøver at stå på tæer for bedre at følge med i hvad det er der foregår langt langt borte. Der er intet møde, jeg får ondt i tæerne. Og så siger man, at vi alle er af samme blod. Ha! Bare blod. Blod er nul og nix og blomster kan ikke bøde på miseren, så jeg drikker mig fuld hver aften. Min krop er væk of mine drømme, for hele tiden mærker jeg de brune brændende blikke. Måske skulle jeg hellere kravle hen ad jorden og lave lyde, øve mig i at gribe blomsterne med munden.

En klæbrig klamrende omfavnelse af en foragtelig hoteldirektør der kun drak vand for ikke at komme til at dumme sig. Jeg drak en flaske whisky i distraktion og blev mere og mere indtaget i denne usandsynlig utiltalende person, der meget gerne ville vise mig nogle diskoteker i byen. Han knipsede med fingrenen og bestilte et glas vand fra en af sine folk, tog en enkelt slurk og smagte længe på den med sine små slangelæber, hvorpå han—uden at se på tjeneren—lod glasset gå tilbage og befalede et nyt glas vand, for som han forklarede mig med alle tegn på triumf: Vandet havde en bismag, og hans folk skulle lære at lystre. “De skal mærke, at der er en stærk hånd, de skal optrænes.”

—Ligesom dyr? spurgte jeg i håbet om at han ville svare ja, så at jeg kunne få min antiparti imod ham bekræftet.

—Ja, det kan man godt sige, svarede han bifaldende og lagde armen om mig i sympati for min dybe indsigt i menneskets sande natur.

På det tidspunkt var der jødisk bourgeoisibryllup i hotellet. Jeg nippede til et par farserede peberfrugter med lidt safranris, men drak mest whisky, havde for længst meldt fra. Der var mavedans og umådelig megen skræppende konversation, som man ikke kunne høre på grand af schlagerne, fremført på øredøvende strengeinstrumenter og af sangere med henførte blikke. Sangene handler altid om den kvinde, man ikke kan få, hvilket pr. definition altid er hende man elsker. Jeg havde for længst besluttet at lægge mig et par sekunder hos dette væmmelige vanddrikkende korpus—som distraktion, eller fordi jeg ikke havde lyst til at gå i seng alene, eller fordi jeg ville se om denne komplimentsridende “forfører” var virkelig, eller fordi jeg ville protestere—følte lede ved alle de kærlighedssange om kvinderne, man ikke kan få (den slags får mig til at sige “Du skal få mig lige i synet, din lille lus, du skal få så meget af mig, at du brækker dig og aldrig glemmer det”) … eller også uden synderlig grund, fordi jeg var fuld og den forfejlede aften krævede et adækvat punktum i form af et dundrende anti-klimaks. Men forføreren vidste jo ikke, at jeg for længst havde besluttet at ruske lide i hans knogler, så derfor var han meget nervøs for udfaldet af hans anstrengte poetiske vendinger, der lidt efter lidt ledte til antydninger om en fjern, umulig håbløs drøm i form af elskov. Jeg tror, det var ordet han brugte. Hvis jeg havde været en velopdragen elskværdig person, havde jeg undt manden at sidde tilbage med drømmen i behold og drømme et par århundreder endnu, i stedet sagde jeg, “jamen herregud, det er da bare et ord, mand.”

I begyndelsen var ordet, men ret meget mere blev det ikke til. Han klamrede sig klæbrigt til mig i et bizart ritual, der forblev i baghovedet og derfor aldrig blev virkeligt, og jeg fik ondt af at stå på tæer for at se hvad der foregik langt langt borte for tusinder af år tilbage. Måske skulle jeg egentlig have været et billede. Hvis man bedømmer et folk ud fra de afguder, de tilbeder, må man så ikke også dømme ud fra hvilke drømme forholdene fostrer … Overalt aner jeg drømme af afstand, drømme af adskillelse, drømme af ikke-møde, håbløshedens drømme der aldrig må blive til håb eller forening—og angsten for at miste drømmene, fordi fortryllelsen dermed vil være brudt og folk vil blive tvunget til at æde deres eget lort. Mine drømme er langtfra varme, men mændene med de brændende øjne forguder konflikttilstanden, adskillelsen og illusionen og hader kvinderne med hofter og haser og bevægelser.

Hans tilbedelse var grænseløs og lige så grænseløs var hans vrede, da jeg et kvarter efter rejste mig fra alteret for at klæde mig på. Han kunne ikke fatte, hvorfor jeg var gået med ham, men han kunne slet ikke forstå, hvorfor jeg gik. Han var fortvivlet, for han var bange for at sove alene. Jeg sagde, at han jo kunne udsende en befaling til sine folk efter et glas vand.

Tidlig næste morgen flygtede jeg tung om hjertet til en anden by. En lokal helgen var død forrige fredag. Butikkerne var lukket, der var sorte flag overalt i bazaaren. Fluks tog jeg en taxa ned til den ottende imams brors hellige grav. Vognene var indrettet som chaufførens privatbolig: Ved rattet havde han en halvgennemsigtig blækblå pyntehånd, der holdt om et halvgennemsigtigt blækblåt plastickrus, der var fyldt med cyklamenfarvede nylon-tylsblomster. Vogndørenes indersider var beklædt med billeder af profeten Ali i selskab med andre stærke mænd med maskingeværer og patronbælte. Som næstemand i glansbilledfeuilletonen sås Elvis Presley holde beskyttende om et par spæde kvindeskuldre i en yndig pastelfarvet blomsterhave.

Ved indgangen til graven lejer jeg en—alt for kort—chaddor, men den er åbenbart tilpas dækkende, for en gammel tandløs kælling spørger, om jeg er syrer. Der er leben ved den hellige grav—det må virkelig være helligdag, for pladsen foran Shah Sharag er fyldt med familier, der får en god picnic ud af dagen. De har primussen med og laver te, rister smådelikatesser. Der ånder på en gang fred og bevægelse. Kvindrene ammer, mændene glaner.

Inde i gravkapellet er alt af spejle, gulvet af marmor. De defilerer forbi spejlgraven—man kan virkelig spejle sig i den—i stride strømme og kysser imamens bror, millioner af læber aftrykt i spejlene. På gulvet længere fremme sidder de gamle mænd og oldinge rokkende frem og tilbage. Messer eller mumler—næppe hørligt—den gamle historie om Kerbala. Rokken frem og tilbage i den oldgamle rytme, hjertets rytme, vuggens rytme, koitus’, foreningens rytme og den gamle histories rytme—om Kerbala, hvor Hossein, Hassan og Muhammads datter Fatima blev myrdet. Kvinderne græder, store tårer løber ned fra deres øjne. De har hørt den hundrede gange før. Nogle ammer, mens de græder over Kerbala, små drenge trisser bare rundt mellem oldingene og tygger tyggegummi. Samme rytme. Alt i livet handler om Kerbala, derfor også Tazieh, det klassiske teater. Det tager otte dage og otte nætter at udspille Kerbala, men forestillingen har den fordel, at man altid kan kende forskel på de gode og de onde, idet ritualet påbyder at de onde altid taler, hvorimod de gode altid synger. Der er ikke noget at tage fejl af. Når skuespillerne hverken taler eller synger, snakker de med folk eller spiser eller sover. Det tager otte dage og otte nætter at gennemleve Kerbala, men der er ingen vej undenom.

Man går altid baglæns ud af gravkapellet. En antropolog fortæller mig—og jeg kan jo selv se det med øjnene—at den hellige grav er alle tiders samlingssted. Man går i Shah Sharag for at kigge på piger eller få fat i en luder—få fat i noget overhovedet. Unge kærestefolk sætter hinanden i stævne ved Shah Sharag, fordi de her kan være sammen uden at være under mistanke. Den hellige grav er vel forvaret. Her kan man kontakte en “sigheh”—en “kontrakt-kvinde”—for det meste enker. Hvis man skal på en længere rejse gennem ørkenen for eksempel og ikke har lyst til at rejse kvinde-løs for eksempel, anskaffer man sig en sigheh. I virkeligheden kan kontrakten vare fra en time op til 99 år. Elskende der ikke måtte få hinanden for familien, kunne i princippet ty til en sigheh-ordning. Men nu er systemet ved at gå i opløsning, fordi man er begyndt at se ned på sigheh’er som ludere. Det er kun i de allerhelligste byer som Xhum og Mashad, at systemet fungerer som i gamle dage.

Jeg vil allerhelst blive ved graven og måske skrive en ærlig kontrakt, hvem ved … måske nogen har brug for en syrisk enke. Bare tanken om at skulle tilbage til det Intercontinental hotel, jeg er pisket til at bo i som inviteret—under yderst elskværdige og gæstfrie former—og gribe blomster med munden—gør mig ældtræt. Sagen er, at jeg vist ikke er særlig tolerant—bourgeoisiet gør mig fysisk syg, og især i den tredje verden, hvor det mangler den diskrete charme der kan være forbundet med dekadence. Hvis borgerskabet er døende i Vesten, så er det her på knopstadiet og for hver dag der går skyder det op og springer ud i ræsende vækster, der skal gøre den endnu “tilbagestående” del af verden til et gigantisk diskotek og sætte bevistløsheden i system.

Hen imod aften flygter jeg fra receptionerne og ned i bazaaren—det er endnu lige før lukketid. En nyklækket ingeniør forfølger mig og undskylder, at det hele ikke er blevet til plastic endnu. Han siger, at hvad jeg ser, ikke har noget at gøre med hans land. At hans land ikke har noget at gøre med de mennesker og de gader, jeg ser. Jeg kan ikke blive fri for ham og føler mig mere og mere ensom. Hans blik er forlegent, han skammer sig på folkenes vegne. Da han ikke vil lade mig i fred, siger jeg, han skal vise mig vej til mandlerne, for jeg vil købe sukker og mandler. Han siger, det bedre kan betale sig at købe persiske tæpper. Han farer vild i bazaren, han kan ikke finde vej til mandlerne. En mand der ikke kan finde vej i bazaaren! Den lille lus! Han siger, jeg er romantiker, fordi jeg absolut vil gå i bazaaren, nå der er smarte butikker rundt om hotellet, og at bazaaren ikke har noget at gøre med hans land, og det ville jeg vide, hvis jeg tog til hovedstaden i stedet for at rende rundt i denne her møgby.

Sikken en romantisk lus! Der var engang—under Mossadeq—hvor en betydelig del af den politiske magt lå i bazaaren, dér hvor folk snakker og handler. Dengang var bazaaren et politisk forum, hvor man udvekslede varer og ideer. Hvis bazaaren er blevet ligegyldig, hvis den har mistet sin funktion, hvis den, som han siger, ikke mere har noget med hans land at gøre, så er det på grund af ham den lus, der forfølger mig fordi jeg er fra Vesten, og på grund af alle de andre lus, der uddanner sig til at gøre deres land til et diskotek, hvor man som bekendt ikke kan høre hvad nogen siger.

—Nu kan du godt gå, for nu skal jeg i hammam!

Han ryster perpleks på hovedet:—Er du rigtig klog, du er blevet inviteret og bor på luksushotel med bruser og badekar og swimmingpool, hvad skal du i hammam efter, de offentlige bade er snavsede.

—Er iranerne snavsede?

—Du må i hvert fald have dit eget håndklæde med, og shampoo og sæbe, for det folk bruger, det vil jeg i hvert fald ikke råde dig til …

—Er der megen sygdom her på stedet?

Han svarer ikke, men spørger bare hvorfor jeg i alverden vil i hammam, hvorfor, hvorfor?

Det er fordi jeg er ensom, din lille lus, tænker jeg, men siger ikke noget, for hvorfor skal jeg argumentere med en person, der har glemt alt om hvor man køber mandler. Men det er sandt, jeg er så ensom jeg kunne græde, og der er noget med at hvis man gør hen og bliver vasket af en kvinde, så går man aldrig galt i byen. En kvindehånd er en lise, jeg ved ikke hvorfor, men sådan har det vel altid været.

Det er et gult lerhus med traditionelle islam-mønstrede kakler på væggene i blågrønt. Det reneste sted i verden, siger jeg til mig selv med lusen i tankerne—alle de lus jeg prøver at befri mig for. Jeg får udleveret et beskedent stykke sæbe, en gul tube shampoo ved navn “Oasis,” en sort rund sten til fodsålerne og et stykke hvidt kalksten til hvad ved jeg.

Manden ved skranken viser mig alene ind til baderummet, men det var jo slet ikke det … Jeg er ikke snavset i den forstand … Uden for baderummet sidder et par kvindfolk, formummede i deres blomstrede chaddor’er—den ene sidder og piller en frugt og holder derfor chaddor-klædet fast i munden med tænderne, ligesom kvinderne gør på markedet, når de har hænderne fulde. Jeg gør tegn til at jeg vil vaskes. De fniser lidt forlegent, de er nok ikke vant til at vaske de lyshårede

eller at få orientalsk besøg i min størrelse. Så siger en af dem, hende med frugten, at jeg bare skal klæde mig af, hun skal nok komme. Jeg glæder mig, jeg vil gerne kende de kvinder, jeg kun kender fra gaderne—tildækkede, mørke, utilgængelige og anonyme, man kan slet ikke forestille sig deres konkrete fremtoning, selvom de alligevel forekommer mig mere virkelige end alle societykvindernes udstillede bikiniformer.

Så vimser hun ind, og en to vupti smider chaddor’en. Indenunder har hun en blomstret pailletagtig pjaltekjole—sådan en pyntesyge mødre giver deres små piger på, når de skal i zoologisk have eller i en anden helligdagspark. Vi står over for hinanden og griner lidt til goddag. Hun har beholdt bukserne på, nogle sorte nylontrusser, hvor næsten alle maskerne er rendt, så det er mest tråde, hun har om lænden. Jeg har aldrig tænkt på at masker kunne løbe i sådan nogle trusser, men det er nok fordi jeg aldrig har kendt nogen, der har beholdt nogle trusser i så mange år. Hun er vel omkring de halvtreds, min kone, hun har sorte små flettede rottehaler og tatoveringer i panden og sølvringe om armene, hun ser ud til at være en venlig madam. Vi står ret længe og griner—også fordi jeg ikke ved hvad jeg ellers skal gøre, jeg er jo i hendes varetægt. For først gang er jeg opfyldt af en lykkefølelse i Persien. Måske har hun født 10 børn, aner det ikke, men hendes krop er mere brugt end min, selvom hun måske bare er tredive. Jeg føler mig en lille smule flov, som om jeg har snydt skæbnen. Jeg vil aldrig kunne vise, hvor glad jeg er for hende, for hun vil ikke kunne forstå det. For hun forstår jo ikke, hvordan man kan leve pakket ind i vat og gaze, lugtfrit og vandtæt, og derfor forstår hun ikke, at mine øjne bliver blanke af bevægelse over, at hun eksisterer. Jeg mener ikke noget særligt, bare at hun eksisterer her i baderummet, nu hvor jeg har brug for hende, og at hun giver mig lov til at nyde hendes ældgamle bevægelser som den kunde jeg er, uden dikkedarer.

Hun lader bruseren løbe med kender-mine og finder frem til den rette temperatur—bare den gestus hvor hun stikker hænderne ind i vandstrålerne og lader dem løbe ned ad sine arme for at find en god temperatur til mig personligt, føler jeg langt ind i kroppen som en kærlighedserklæring. Jo, jeg betaler hende, men alligevel … Hun kunne jo lige så godt have ladet vandet blive gloende og gennet mig ind i det, og måske havde jeg ikke engang protesteret, for jeg var hende jo helt hengiven. Nej, det kunne hun alligevel ikke. Hun kunne ikke have gennet mig ind i gloende vand. For hun var jo venlig, og det var derfor jeg var hende hengiven. Der ER ingen mystik, når det kommer til stykket.

Da jeg var blevet våd inde i bruseren, førte hun mig ned på gulvet, jeg var afslappet af varmen, vandet og hendes bevægelser, der hele tiden bare førte mig, jeg var helt uden forbehold, hun måtte gøre med mig hvad hun ville. Jeg kunne se, at hendes øjne var meget smukke—lidt skrå gråblå—samme farve som hendes tatoveringer i panden. Maven var stor og slap, lårene ret tynde i forhold til og brysterne, bare to tynde hudlapper med udsugede brune brystvorter hængende allernederst.

Da hun to Oasis-shampooen var jeg spændt på, hvordan hun ville bære sig ad. For hvis hun ikke kunne li’ mig, kunne hun f.eks. være ligeglad med, om der kom sæbe ii mine øjne. Men mine tanker har ikke været hendes, for hun masserede bare stille og roligt min hovedbund og hældte et plasticvandfad fuldt af vand over mig i flere store bløde vandflad, så jeg ikke mærkede sæben i øjnene, og det begyndte forfra og om og om igen, hun vaskede mit hår fire gange, hvilket formentlig er kutyme.

Min hud skal vaskes eller rettere fjernes. Hun sidder frontalt imod mig og har lagt mit ene ben hen over sit ene lår, for vi må sidde tæt sammen for at hun kan nå hele min krop med sine arme. Hun gnider først kalken ind i min ene arm, frem og tilbage med noget krasuld for at løsne den døde hud. Jeg er pludselig en lille smule bekymret for at hun skal hæfte sig ved, at jeg slet ikke er snavset og at mine hensigter således ikke har været helt reelle. Men en så lille bekymring forsvinder med hendes lange regelmæssige bevægelser frem og tilbage. Jeg har overhovedet ikke lyst til at snakke med hende, spørge om hendes navn eller til hendes børn, hvor mange hun har for eksempel. Jeg er fuldkommen ligeglad. Hun venter heller ikke noget. Jeg nyder at være et sted, hvor stilheden er i sin orden, nærheden konkret og bevægelserne så enkle og så ældgamle, at man har lov at være helt ligeglad. Det er også fordi man betaler, at man har lov.

Huden gnubbes løs, opløses af hendes lange beroligende regelmæssige tag. Indimellem kan jeg ikke dy mig for at smile til hende eller se hende i øjnene—bare for sjovs skyld—for at vide, hvad hun mon tænker på, for hun er her jo også. Men jeg kan mærke, at det distraherer hende. Hun foretrækker, kan jeg mærke, at jeg ignorerer hende. Det kan jeg jo ikke lave om på, og føler heller ingen trang dertil. Jeg betaler og hun udfører sit arbejde, hun er hverken min ven eller elsker, men det kan også være lige meget. Hun er kvinden der kalker mine persiske bryster blødt. Hun har trukket min ene fod hen imod sig sådan at min hæl hviler i hendes lyske. Hun gnider den arm og skulder der er længst væk fra hende, mens hendes ene bryst fejer hen over mine tæer som en evindelig vifte, langt neden under hendes ansigt med de virrende fletninger, langt væk fra hende og mig. Om hendes brune brystvorter er lige så kildne som mine tæer kommer ikke sagen ved. Det er ikke hendes sag, der er ingen sag. Efter kalken kommer sæben. De samme bevægelser om igen på den samme krop, forskellen er bare, at nu skummer det. Alt er blødere og mere glidende.

Hun åbner for hanen til bruseren og hjælper mig på benene, så nu er det vel færdigt, nu er jeg vel ren. Hun går selv ind i bruseren, mens jeg børster mit hår. Vi var stiltiende blevet enige om, at jeg hellere måtte børste det selv, fordi det var nemmere, det filtrede nemlig. Det ville være synd at sige, at hun ville mig noget ondt.

På mindre end et minut havde hun iført sig pailletkjole og chaddor og var forsvundet som dug for solen med de otte kroner jeg havde givet hende. Dobbeltpris. Jeg syntes ikke, jeg kunne give mindre. Da jeg kom ud på gaden i den kølige aftenluft og modstræbende—dog let om hjertet—satte i gang mod betonhotellet, da følte jeg, at jeg i virkeligheden havde været meget snavset, rent ud sagt, møgbeskidt.

About the Author

Author of 25 books, journalist, essayist, novelist, playwright, and poet Suzanne Brøgger (b. 1944) has made a career of challenging western societal norms, especially with respect to gender, love and sex. Her 1973 book Deliver Us From Love has been translated into twenty languages. She is a member of the Danish Academy and a recipient of a lifelong grant from the Danish Arts Foundation.

About the Translator

Over 120 translations by Michael Favala Goldman have appeared in dozens of journals such as The Harvard Review and The Columbia Journal. In fall 2019 his translation of Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen was published by Penguin Modern Classics. His 12 books include works by Knud Sørensen, Cecil Bødker, Knud Sønderby, Benny Andersen, and others.

Appears In

Issue 9

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