Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
18 - 24 February 1999
Issue No. 417
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Back issues Current issue

Front Page

The eye of the beholder

By Fayza Hassan

Fayza Hassan My father used to shrug when I came home with stories of entire passages expurgated from our school text books. "Indecency only exists in the eyes -- and the mind -- of the beholder," he was fond of saying. "Warped minds have the ability to see evil where there is none." Possibly because censorship was unknown in our house and I was always encouraged to seek the unabridged versions of the required classics and other literary works, I recall that, from an early age, I displayed a healthy nonchalance towards the sleazy magazines, pictures and novels which my schoolmates carefully concealed among their notebooks, planning to devour them as soon as they found a secluded place.

My friend Françoise and her seven-year-old brother Jean-Marc were, by the standards of those days, badly behaved children. They lied constantly, often for no reason, enlarged their weekly stipend with regular, unrecorded, incursions into their mother's purse, did poorly at school and bullied the meek and the mild for a bit of extra fun. Inexplicably, they befriended me. I was both frightened and fascinated by their unadulterated mischief and lack of moral principles. Their parents, who looked rather upright and austere, seemed nice enough people really, though I couldn't help but notice that they never attempted to discourage their children's browbeating of their classmates. On the contrary, on several occasions, I had observed a gleam of pride in the father's eyes while he listed to his son explaining away a torn shirt or a bloody nose by recounting -- with considerable exaggeration of his bravery -- a fist fight he had just had at school. Violence was definitely not on this family's list of restrictions and Jean-Marc was given plenty of unnecessary advice, I thought, on how to "defend" himself effectively.

More disturbing were the children's vague, whispered allusions to their father's unexplained fits of rage and their veiled references to beatings that they had received at one time or another. In time, I came to realise that they feared him but were nevertheless proud of his strength. Taunting such a powerful parent seemed to add a particular dimension to the thrill of their escapades.

One afternoon, as Françoise and I sat idly on their balcony watching Jean-Marc spit cherry pits onto passersby, the little boy turned around, looked at us defiantly and declared quite clearly and audibly that his father was "a dirty old man". Françoise gasped. They usually avoided referring to their parents in a deprecating way in their own house, for fear of being overheard. I refrained from any comment in order not to disturb the boy's drift. I was curious to know how someone so young had come to this remarkable conclusion. Satisfied that he had caught our unwavering attention, Jean-Marc invited us to follow him into his father's normally out-of-bounds study. We tiptoed into the darkened room, where the little boy extracted an ornate key from his pocket. He opened the uppermost compartment of the huge desk facing the heavily curtained window and fumbled for a while with something at the back. A snapping sound informed us that he was making headway. When he turned around, he was holding a file secured with a red ribbon. Feverishly untying the knot, he produced a bundle of etchings which he spread on the carpeted floor.

I was quite young then and certainly no expert, but I knew at once that I had rarely seen something as beautiful as the model's nude body, which the artist had caught in various poses. I looked at the drawings silently for a while, then, recovering some measure of speech, I whispered: "This is art, you silly boy, not filth." Instead of Jean-Marc, I found his mother standing beside me. "Of course it is filth, you silly, evil girl," she hissed, grabbing me by the shoulder and forcing me out of the front door, exerting considerably more pressure than my prompt exit would have required normally. That evening, she called my parents to inform them that they had a wicked daughter. I never heard of Françoise and Jean-Marc again, but had the satisfaction of knowing that I had been right. What Jean-Marc had found in his father's secret drawer, and mistaken for pornography, were original studies by Matisse.

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