When she was awarded a year-long fellowship in Budapest, Sarah Wallace was given the opportunity to invite anyone she wanted, anywhere in the world, to visit her during her stay in Hungary. She invited a famous scholar whose book she adored, and he declined. And then she remembered Yasin, the Uzbek scholar with whom she had crossed paths a decade earlier, in Amman. True, he might have no interest in Budapest, but what was the harm in asking? They shared a passion for manuscripts.
She searched her apartment for his number, and came across a piece of scrap paper on which he had scribbled his name and phone number years ago. There was no email address. She crossed her fingers and dialed his number in Tashkent. Someone answered in heavily accented Russian: “Allo?” She could tell immediately that the speaker was not a native speaker of the language.
She explained who she was and why she was calling. She asked if he remembered her. He said he had never forgotten her.
He was delighted by the invitation to visit her in Budapest. The visa process was set in motion by the institute, which also arranged for his lecture. Meanwhile, Sarah waited, unsure of what the visit would bring. She was open to anything, so long as it meant change.
She finished lecturing to a nearly empty classroom at the University of Iowa. The class was called “Comparative Democracies,” but she had veered far from the subject matter, ranging over topics such as Mongolian horses to medieval poetry. Most students had stopped attending. She wondered if a large number of student complaints might lead to losing her job, and then she realized that she didn’t care. She was ready to abandon academia.
Yet there was a small contingent of students who attended every lecture religiously, regardless of how far she veered off topic. She was coming to realize through these lectures that she’d made a mistake when she went into political science. She should have chosen a field closer to the soul, something that enabled her to create, like painting or bookmaking. She was grateful for the handful of political science majors who welcomed the break from lectures on supply-side economics, international relations, and post-Cold War security. This contingent of true believers erupted in cheers when she announced the end of the course. The semester was over. Life was about to take a new turn.
The next morning, Sarah boarded the shuttle bus to the Iowa City Municipal Airport, from where she would fly to Chicago, and from there directly to Budapest. As the bus raced past cornfields and silos overflowing with grain, she reflected that this might be her last chance to enjoy this godforsaken, gold-tinged, vexing landscape that she both despised and loved. She had read Willa Cather with a passion since childhood, and loved her rhapsodies of the American Midwest. Why could she not follow Cather’s example and learn to love this barren terrain?
The flight was long and uneventful, aside from her violent mental cogitations. She passed the night in the sky reading Gershom Scholem’s account of his friendship with Walter Benjamin. Reading of Scholem’s efforts to make Benjamin reject Marxism and embrace his Jewish origins reminded Sarah of her own friendships, as well as her many failed love affairs. She wondered why she seemed most comfortable among strangers, and so ill at ease among her intimate relations. Where does the boundary between self and other begin? When do we stop lying to others and start becoming ourselves?
She arrived three days before Yasin was due to arrive. She passed these empty days in pleasant solitude, exploring the town in anticipation of his arrival, creating spaces for her new temporary home, Budapest, before it would be shaped by him. What would it be like to meet him after a decade, she wondered. Has he changed? Will he think that I have? He’ll see everything about me that I’ve concealed from myself.
In the intervening decade, he’d received fellowships, major research foundations in Germany, Austria, and France. She’d secured an academic position, albeit in a place overrun with cornfields and cows which she perpetually dreamed of leaving. She was becoming permanently displaced. The world was turning against her, and against people like her. Fascism loomed on the horizon, and particularly in Hungary, where Jobbik, the party of the current President Viktor Orbán, had just witnessed a resounding victory. Refugees were being turned back at the border. Jews, Roma, and Muslims were coming under attack.
Every day since her arrival, she crossed the Chain Bridge that stretched over the Danube. Built by two Englishmen in 1849, the bridge symbolized the unification of the two sides of the city: Buda and Pest. Often, she crossed twice, as the sun rose and as the sun set. On one side of the bridge was the apartment where she was staying on Raoul Wallenberg Street, on the Pest side of the bridge. On the Buda side, opposite the banks of the Danube, was the main campus of Central European University. This was its last year in Budapest. Beginning in September, it would relocate to Vienna, and all the students and faculty would have to move to Austria.
Sarah suppressed her fears about the future of Hungary, of Europe, and of the world and compelled herself to prepare for Yasin’s arrival on Friday. They were both, as far as she could tell, childless, and immersed in scholarship. She was ready for something new, in life as well as work and eagerly awaited the inspiration his visit would bring.
She began waiting for his call at 7AM on Friday morning. She had emailed him several days earlier, asking him to call as soon as he arrived, but the phone stayed stubbornly silent on its handset. She stared at the black handle, wondering when it would emit a sound. Finally, after fifty-four minutes and thirty-two seconds of waiting (she had been keeping time on her stopwatch), there was a ring.
“Hello?” she said. “Allo,” a voice replied. It was Yasin, addressing her in the same accented Russian that revealed his Uzbek background.
They exchanged a few pleasantries, until their conversation came to a standstill. She had not spoken Russian in years. The words did not flow as easily as they had in Amman. She broke the silence by suggesting that they see each other face to face. After all, he was only two floors beneath her.
“Mozhno?” she said simply, leaving her meaning open to interpretation. She
translated back to herself: may I?
“Mozhno,” he replied with equal brevity, turning her question into an answer. She
hung up and made preparations to descend.
When she saw him standing at the threshold of his door, she realised that she would have recognised him anywhere, in the streets of Budapest or the cornfields of Iowa. He was darker in complexion than before and his hair was scruffier than she remembered from a decade ago. He had grown a beard. But he was the same unassuming Yasin with thick glasses and a boyish smile on his face. Yasin explained that he had not been able to sleep on the flight from Tashkent and had been catching up on lost sleep since he arrived. That was why he was late in calling her. But now he was refreshed and ready to see the town.
“Shall we explore the city?” he proposed. “I’ve always wanted to see the Danube.”
It was around seven in the evening. The sun lingered on the horizon, its ochre seeping a bloody haze over the Danube. Their first stop was the Chain Bridge, at each end of which stood two majestic grey lions, each made of cast iron. In the dusk, the bridge appeared to be suspended in the water. When they reached the bridge’s end, on the Pest side of Budapest, they meandered down 6 October Street. The name of the street captured Yasin’s attention. Although it sounded Soviet, he could not place the date. Sarah explained that it referred to an anti-Soviet rebellion. On 6 October 1956, the anti-Soviet communist László Rajk was publicly buried in a memorial to the victims of the Stalin-backed purges from several years prior. 6 October was a prelude to 23 October 1956, the date of the Hungarian Revolution.
Sarah recited these details with enthusiasm, while Yasin grew weary of the flow of information. His Soviet education had made him skeptical of history. He turned to her with a smile and took her hand in his.
“Shall we have pizza?” he suggested, as if it were an exotic food. “There is no good pizza in Uzbekistan.”
They crossed the bridge again, to the Buda side of city. They ascended the winding staircase of an Italian restaurant at the end of an arcade that seemed to date back centuries. He ordered a pizza with salmon and feta cheese. She ordered a pizza with arugula, mozzarella, and broccoli.
He asked her about life in Iowa. Was it like the rest of America? he wanted to know. He had only been to the U.S. once, San Francisco in the 1990s.
“America is many countries,” she began. “The South is a bastion of bigotry. The North is a land of elite education and heavy snowfall. The American West is a land of adobe houses and deserts. As for the Midwest, where I was born, it is also a country unto itself, of prairies that stretch across the horizon, cornfields, and many white people. Too many white people. I’m sick of white people,” she said with a self-deprecating smile.
She guessed that she must have sounded like she was talking nonsense to Yasin. At the same time, she could not deny that she enjoyed lecturing to him about the country she used to think of as her home, and which she could now only regard as a parody of its former self. To distance herself from it while asserting her authority over it. She was becoming a true expatriate, someone who could say hello and goodbye to her homeland at will.
Yasin asked whether she liked living in the Midwest.
“No,” she said. “In Iowa I feel like an alien in my own country. And I fear it’s getting worse. People are becoming more nationalist, more prejudiced, more racist. Also, it’s far from where my family lives now.”
“Family,” Yasin repeated the last word, as if he failed to recognise its meaning.
“Yes, family,” she repeated.
He stared deep into her eyes. “Who is your family?”
“Me, my sisters, and my mother.”
“No, no husband.”
From her fieldwork in Central Asia, Sarah had come to expect the husband question. Equally familiar was the question that followed: when would she start having children? In most places where she conducted research, it was the first question on her interlocutors’ tongue. Generally, the inquiry aimed to ascertain whether she conformed to a woman her age, reaching the end of her childbearing years. She was thirty-five. Everyone expected her to be preparing for children—preferably a boy and a girl, but just a boy was enough—and a husband. A career was optional. As an elderly woman in the Uzbek village where she conducted fieldwork had told her in a spirit of sisterly camaraderie: a woman needs only two things in life: a husband and a son. Anything else, she added, is a luxury.
When Yasin, his eyebrows gently arched, posed to her the husband question his curiosity seemed somehow more personal and less a cultural reflex. Whereas normally she greeted questions about her personal life with polite silence, with Yasin, she was moved to speak openly. She railed against the sexism that scrutinised her private life whenever she was in the field, and lamented that a woman was assumed to be incomplete without a man. Yasin laughed lightly and flashed a look that to her implied a deeper understanding than could be communicated in words.
When they finished eating, they crossed the bridge again and wandered down Andrássy Avenue, Budapest’s main commercial thoroughfare. Yasin pulled out a pack of cigarettes and began to smoke. The smell affected her strangely, as though someone were rubbing the palm of her hand. They passed fountains, glass windows, row after row of stores with greetings in multiple scripts pasted on their doors. They walked around the Ferris wheel at Erzsebet Square, until finally they were surrounded by benches and trees. It was late at night and the park was deserted. Pairs of lovers were seated on the benches, lost in each other’s arms beneath flickering lamps.
“Let’s sit down,” he suggested.
He took her hand in his, as he had done earlier that day when they crossed the bridge. She expected his hand to move away from hers once they were seated, but it remained pressed on her palm. His soft, respectful, but nonetheless firm grip called to mind a nurse measuring her patient’s heartbeat. Sarah recalled Yasin’s question about her family, and she wondered again why he was so curious.
It was the first and last time he ever inquired about her personal circumstances.
His hand remained steadily on hers, as if it were natural for a man and a woman who had spent only a few hours together to hold hands. As if her hand belonged to him and his hand belonged to her.
When they arrived back at the apartments on Raoul Wallenberg street, he invited her inside the one where he was staying.
“I want to show you the files of a manuscript that I found in the library of Oriental Studies,” he explained, “plus I’d love to make you a warm cup of the tea I brought you from Tashkent.”
It was an offer she could not refuse.
As soon as they entered, he set the kettle on for tea. The Institute had set him up in a luxurious two-story apartment with two large bedrooms and two full bathrooms. It was a step above her more spartan accommodations.
He opened his laptop and began searching through files. They passed the next three hours seated like that, with his head bent over his computer while sifting through the digital files he had accumulated from his many years of working in the archives. Meanwhile, gigabytes of manuscript data migrated onto the external drive he had brought to share with her.
As they sat hunched over his computer, Yasin’s hand stayed firmly fixed on her lap. Sarah arrested its movement, but she was pleased. She wanted to touch him back in the way he was touching her, but she also did not want to do anything that she might later regret. She had been celibate for over three years.
If we have sex, it might be my last time for many years to come, she reflected, perhaps for the remainder of my life.
There was no need to be so fatalistic, she realised, but the day they had spent together seemed so perfect, so fragile and unrepeatable. She wanted to make the memory permanent, and that seemed to require a special kind of intimacy. She wanted to delay their intimacy as long as possible, so that, when the time came for their bodies to join, it would be etched all the more powerfully in her memory.
So, while she enjoyed the tentative contact he made with her body, she blocked his hand from moving beyond her lap. When Yasin’s fingers began to wander, crawling over her knees and up her legs, Sarah stood up.
“It’s time for me to go to bed,” she said.
“Why don’t you stay longer? I’d like to make you another cup of Uzbek tea.”
She said she needed to go to sleep. In reality, it was not sleepiness but a desire to create a space in her memory for what was to come, that led her back to her room.
Sarah spent the rest of the night thinking about Yasin from the privacy of her bed. She wondered what it would be like to return to her bed in the aftermath of having slept with him. How would she feel when he was gone? Would she experience the same old lingering loneliness lying in bed alone? Would the banks of the Danube look the same in the aftermath of their union as it did before they made love?
She called him as soon as she awoke. The sun’s rays were filling the Danube with light. He suggested another walk across the bridge. These walks were becoming a daily ritual. They reached the same park, just beyond the Ferris wheel, where they had lingered together the day before and sat down on a bench facing the tallest fountain.
Although the water had stopped flowing, children continued to play. They began talking about the manuscripts he had discovered in the Oriental Library.
“Maybe you should quit your job and come to work with me in Tashkent?” he asked.
She froze with excitement. Was that a marriage proposal? Then she glanced at him and could see that he was joking.
“Of course,” he added, “no one with a job like yours would ever leave it.”
He took her hand in his as he had done before. This time, however, his hand moved, from her lap to her cheek, to her lips. While his fingers rested on her lips, the moment she had been anticipating the night before had arrived. She closed her eyes. Their lips touched.
The kiss was polite, restrained, and gentle. When he whispered into her ear, “Let’s go home,” his passion kindled into something else. His shyness became desire, a desire that briefly overwhelmed her world.
“This is nafs,” he said.
“What?” she asked. She didn’t understand.
“It has many translations. Psyche. Ego. Breathe. In Sufism, nafs means to be dominated by your animal side. I’ll explain later.”
Given that his visit has passed in discussions of forgotten manuscripts, she was surprised by his way of making love, which was strangely violent and hard to reconcile with traditional Islamic values. He undressed her and immediately began performing oral sex on her, with his penis pointed directly above her mouth. Then he slipped on a condom with a speed that suggested someone who had done it many times. To think that she had taken him for a virgin! Had he brought condoms in the expectation that they would have sex? Or did he carry them with him everywhere he went?
When they were done, they rested in each other’s arms. Eyes wide open, they peered into the dark, black night. He lit one of the cigarettes he had purchased on Andrássy Avenue the night before. Behind him, on the other side of the bed, a pile of condoms were heaped into a crumbling pyramid.
As if from habit, she imagined becoming his wife. I’m not fit to be a wife to anyone, she thought to herself. She was not suited to look after a husband or bow to her partner’s needs. Independence and freedom were the foundation of her existence. A long-distance relationship might suit her better, she decided.
As she always did after sex, her brain processed what she would do if she were pregnant. And then she remembered: three years earlier, she had been sterilised. She had not had sex since and had nearly forgotten that she no longer had the capacity to bear children. The procedure’s name—Essure—was symbolically significant. Its phonemic proximity to ‘erasure’ mirrored its function. Essure had erased her biological potential for motherhood. Her body still remembered the abortion she had in Amman, just before she met Yasir. Ten years later, it still scarred her memory. That experience led her to decide that sterilisation was necessary, regardless of the cost, regardless even of her many years of abstinence. After her sterilisation, she was finally at peace. At long last, she could be certain that she would never bring a child into the world.
My tubes are tied, metaphorically and literally, she thought while lying in bed. Yasir was propped up on a nearby pillow, silently smoking a cigarette. I will never bear a child.
In addition to relieving her of the burden of fertility, Essure made the pregnancy prevention function of condoms redundant. The only reason to use a condom now was to guard against disease. But Yasin was Muslim, Sarah reasoned. Furthermore, he was shy, polite, and short, the absolute antithesis of the alpha male. Surely sex was a rare occurrence in his life? She decided to mention her sterilisation operation.
“I can’t get pregnant.” she began. “I had an operation.”
“An operation? For what?”
“Not to have kids.”
Her statement was followed by silence. Then he repeated after her, just as he had slowly repeated the word “family” the night earlier, in a tone that registered her words while ignoring their meaning, “Not to have kids.”
His repetitions always seemed to contain new questions. She elaborated, “I believe in adoption. What about you? Do you want kids?”
Another lengthy silence. At last, he said, “Kids? I already have them.”
Sarah froze. At first his answer made no sense. How could he have kids without having a wife? Was his wife dead? Was he divorced? A few minutes of these reflections passed, until, finally, she understood.
“You’re married,” she said.
He did not respond.
“And your wife?” she asked as her intonation rose, “how old is she?” She did not want to know the answer, but it was the only sane and civil question she could think of to ask.
“Thirty-three,” he said mildly.
“Does she work?”
“Do you pity her?” It was the only thing she could think of to say. The question she wanted to ask most, whether he loved his wife, frightened her. She could not summon the words to her lips. Either way, the outcome would bring sorrow. If he didn’t love his wife, that would be tragic. If he loved his wife, what was he doing in bed with her in Budapest?
Finally, after a long pause, Yasin answered, “Yes.”
That was it. There was nothing more to say or do, other than to absorb the shock of his silent lie. They had connected profoundly without knowing even the most basic details of each other’s lives. It was her first extramarital affair, the first time she had made love to a married man, and she hadn’t even known that he was married when it happened.
They stumbled out of bed. He hurried to put a shirt on. “Are you Muslim?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Then how do you explain this?” She pointed to his uncovered and still slightly erect penis, which he quickly concealed beneath a sheet. “Was that an Islamic act?” she asked sarcastically.
“Even believers do wrong,” he said. “I told you earlier about nafs, remember? Our lust makes us commit evil acts.”
“So you think what we just did is wrong?” she asked. “I think rather that what we did was right, and that your lying is what was wrong.”
He had no response. She waited and realized he had nothing to say. She decided to launch into a short diatribe, to lecture in a way she always did when there was nothing to be done: “Marriage is the world’s biggest source of inequality. And the greatest generator of suffering.”
Her mind swept over her past life: as a daughter growing up in a household dominated by a violent father, and as a wife, married to an abusive husband. These chapters in her life that she wanted to forget were returning in full force now.
Finally, she stumbled on an accusation that she knew would hit home, striking him with some of the pain he had inflicted on her: “I hate your lying hypocrisy.”
Yasin stared at her silently, as if unable to fathom her meaning. If he had been offended by her accusation, his face did not show it. Perhaps, she reflected, this was the first time he had had heard such sentiments.
Finally, she asked, “How would you like it if your wife did with another man what you just did with me?”
“I’d be furious,” he said without missing a beat, as if the very possibility of his wife’s infidelity was an insult to his manhood.
“You see?” Sarah smiled, although she was angry. “That’s what I mean. That’s what I call hypocrisy. This is patriarchy. Simply put, it means that you apply to men standards different from the ones you apply to women. It’s much worse than nafs.”
He edged away from her and reached for another cigarette. Then he went to the window ledge and lit the stub. His face was placid, as serene as the Danube on a winter night. He was withdrawing from their intimacy. He feared her rage but did not cherish her affection. They watched each other without moving, their figures illumined only by the moonlight outside. It was pitch black within.
After sitting motionless for several minutes, Sarah moved to the ledge where Yasin was sitting. She wanted to sit next to him. The scent of his cigarettes filled her with the desire to be touched. She wanted to make love. She had forgotten her anger from a moment earlier, and the hypocrisy that had recently repelled her now seemed like less a mark of moral failure than the kind of contradiction in which everyone is implicated.
Why had she not guessed that he was married? Why had she not asked? It was the hypocrisy of marriage rather than his deception that moved her to rage. Why couldn’t he sleep with whomever he wanted to, just as she could?
Her fingers grazed his unshaven cheeks. He turned to the side. She wanted to scream at him for lying to her, for concealing the most intimate details of his personal life. At the same time, and just as powerfully, she wanted to embrace him. When would she have the opportunity to do this again, especially with someone who shared her passion of manuscripts?
He backed away. She realised with a shock that he wanted to erase the memories they had just created together.
“Can we go for a walk?” he suggested, and gestured towards the window. The moon had vanished from view and an artificial light, hoisted over the middle of the bridge, shimmered over the Danube. Its ripples reminded her of his hands.
“Not tonight,” she said coldly. “I have to go to bed.”
He nodded, his eyes averted from her gaze. “Sleep well,” he said gently.
The next day passed uneventfully. She caught up with sleep and worked on an overdue article, while he prepared his lecture for Monday. Around five in the afternoon, he called her. They agreed to meet by the stone lion at the entrance to the bridge.
Once they saw each other, the tension that had simmered all day dissipated. They crossed back and forth along the many bridges that bisected the Danube as the river winds through the city, dividing and uniting Buda and Pest. This time, they did not hold hands. A space intervened between them, like an electronic fence that sent shock waves through anyone who dared to trespass.
“Are you Muslim?” She asked again, fascinated by the ability of men to profess fidelity to a faith they did not observe in their personal lives. “I mean, are you a believer?”
When he said yes, she asked how it was possible for a married man who regarded himself as Muslim to sleep with other women.
“I already explained,” he said. “Nafs. Not all Muslims act as their faith commands. Like you, we sometimes follow our passions.”
She felt a twitch of pain. She’d done her research the night before, learned that nafs was associated with spiritual degradation. It was a kind of selfishness. She also learned something that she suspected Yasin did not know: the Arabic term derived from the Hebrew word nephesh, meaning breathe.
“I bet you didn’t know that nafs is the beginning of consciousness,” she said.
“No,” he corrected her. “Nafs refers to the lower faculty, the passions.”
“So, when you made love to me, it was with your nafs and not your heart?”
He nodded vaguely. The question made him uncomfortable. His shyness, which she remembered from the conference in Amman where they met, returned. Then he added softly, “I’m not sure I understand your question.”
“Unlike you, I made love with my heart, not with my nafs,” she said. “I respect Islam, but I am against your religion. Sex is not evil. It is the breath of life. That is my nafs.”
He remained silent for several minutes.
Finally, he said: “Are you hungry?”
The had reached the end of the bridge. The Danube glistened in the silvery rays of the setting sun. Clouds blotted the sky like cotton. An orange striped lifeboat bobbed up and down on the gentle waves. Minutes passed as his question lingered in the air. She was tired of talking. What is the point of words when only use them to lie to each other?
“I’m hungry. Shall we have pizza again?”
After she said goodbye to Yasin that night, and they went to their separate apartments, she decided to quit her job at the University of Iowa and become a bookbinder. She wanted to make love for a profession, not to another human body, but to books, with her hands.
About the Author:
Rebecca Ruth Gould is a writer and translator. Her books include Writers and Rebels (2016), Cityscapes (2019), and The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism (2020, co-edited with Kayvan Tahmasebian), and Beautiful English (2021). She teaches at the University of Birmingham and serves as poetry book reviewer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books. Her website is https://rrgould.hcommons.org and she can be found on Twitter @rrgould.