Binta swung round and sat on the edge of the bed facing Ana, her feet trailing on to the red nylon carpet.
“I may be a lesbian but in my heart I know that it is for love not vice that I’ve been condemned. The fact that my love is for a woman is not material. My love is what I imagine the love of a man must be for most women. My love is a passionate love. A romantic love. A true love. As real as any love.”
Binta’s passionate pleas comforted Ana. She felt great sympathy for anyone’s love for another person, and she reasoned that it was probably just odd that it should be for a woman rather than a man.
“Who were you in love with?”
“Am in love with!” Binta emphatically corrected. Her eyes wandered around the room, briefly resting on her reflection in the mirror and then back to Ana, her face expressing sadness and almost tragedy. “Her name is Mezyana. To me she is the most beautiful girl in the world. She has - or had - long brown hair, almost as long as mine. She’s a bit thinner than me. And I’ve known her all my life. We were schoolfriends long before we were lovers. We never imagined we were that horrid thing known as lesbians when we first declared our love for each other.”
Binta looked down at her hands clasped together over her knees and let her hair flop down to cover her face. Ana felt quite uncomfortable. She had only just met this girl and now she was acting as her confidante.
“Mezyana’s quite different from me,” continued Binta, raising her head and pushing a stubborn lock of hair away from her face. ”She’s much more moral in many ways. Ethical, you could say. She’s got very strong religious and moral beliefs. Whilst I never go to Church, she goes - or used to go - every Sunday without fail. She even worked voluntarily as a Sunday School teacher. I could never see the point of it myself, but she finds comfort in it and I’ve always respected that. She would join in the singing, the prayers and all the other things you do in a Church. How she never finds it boring, I’ll never know. But naturally it’s quite difficult to be religious in this country if you’re also a lesbian.”
“Doesn’t the Bible have some rather harsh things to say about homosexuality?”
“I really don’t know,” Binta admitted. “But it can’t be too severe because there are plenty of countries where homosexuality is allowed with the Church’s blessing. But it’s not easy to be homosexual in this country. Mezyana would say that God made her a lesbian to test her faith. I’m not sure she meant that she had been tempted by love of a woman and had failed the test, or if it was some other more subtle test she was undergoing. But she did say - or she said it once or twice - that the love we felt for each other was so strong and so good, that it must be blessed by God!”
Binta paused again and Ana felt sure she saw a glint of moisture in her eyes. Her voice had become quieter, less confident and somehow a little distant. Ana wanted to comfort her, but was afraid of doing so by touching her in a reassuring way.
“We were schoolfriends, Mezyana and I. From such an early age. We were best friends. We sat next to each other in all the classes. We walked home together after school. We played games with each other at school and at home. We would always be visiting each other and staying the night at each others’ homes. It was a friendship between two school-girls no different to any other. Perhaps stronger than most, but not unusually so. The games we played, like Doctors and Nurses, Mothers and Fathers, and so on, were just the innocent games that girls always play. My parents and Mezyana’s parents were ordinary people: caring, helpful, friendly. There was no history of sexual or drug abuse. In Jebel, our families were considered respectable and unremarkable.
“I don’t know how it evolved into a love affair. There certainly wasn’t a day when I said to Mezyana ‘Let’s be lovers.’ And I’d certainly never have said ‘Let’s be lesbians.’ As children we declared our undying love for each other: but that was quite innocent. It wasn’t sexual love at all. It was simply an expression of the strength of our feelings as best friends. It was expressed as love, because other words never seemed strong enough. And anyway we were always encouraged to declare our love for our parents and, in Mezyana’s case, for God. But we recognised from a very early age that we loved each other.”
Binta paused again, looking not at Ana but at her reflection, seemingly lost in thought. Ana recalled her own best friends at school. She had never declared love for any of them, but she acutely remembered the strong bonds that tied them together.
“Mezyana was a Church-goer from the beginning. Her parents went to Church regularly, and she continued going, even when she no longer had any compulsion to do so. I’m sure they would have understood if Mezyana had decided not to. Mezyana’s religious passion still continues, of course. She’s opted to serve her sentence as a novice in a Convent rather than in a jail, you know. She’d never contemplate serving it in a Brothel, however harsh life might be in a prison. Religion and Ethics were the only big differences between Mezyana and me. But as children these didn’t matter at all. I’d never had a religious upbringing, and Sunday mornings and sometimes Sunday evenings were just times I couldn’t come out to play with my best friend.
“We were always together the rest of the time, however. And that’s how our love developed. We held hands, we kissed each other tenderly and innocently, and when we came to puberty we played with our bodies in the way children do. We explored each other in detail, with especial fascination for our developing mounds of bosom, the changing shape of our bodies and the area between our thighs. It was so innocent though. Nothing remotely sexual at all. Sensual, maybe. But not sexual.”
Ana again reflected on her past. There were no times that her closest friends had ever seen her naked body, except in the school changing-room showers. She had no memories of exploring her friends’ bodies, but Ana accepted that different people had different childhood experiences and this was one way in which Binta’s differed from hers.
“At some stage, our innocent probings of each other must have evolved into something more physical and sexual. Maybe it was when we were eleven. Maybe it was much later, when we were fourteen and our bodies were much more mature. I don’t know. I’m sure only someone who can exactly define how a sexual act differs from any other could pinpoint it. At some time, however, the sexual aspect of our friendship was unavoidable. We were no longer just best friends. We were also lovers. It took a very long time for us to recognise the fact, and even longer to actually believe it or to be aware of its implications. But by that time - which must have been when we first realised that lesbianism was not a foreign condition but a word that described our love for each other - our passionate love was far too committed for us to break it off. But the realisation changed our relationship forever.
“Now that we knew that we were engaged in a lesbian love affair, we also knew that we had to keep it secret. It would change other people’s attitude towards us. It would upset our parents. It would upset our friends. And we also, rather belatedly, became aware that it was illegal. That came as a great shock to me, but when I told Mezyana she surprised me by telling me that she already knew. In fact, it was she who comforted me as I cried and cried about it. I felt so miserable. It also surprised me that Mezyana, who attached such great store in religious law, could have such a detached attitude towards criminal law.
“It was not at all easy to keep our love a secret. People must have thought it strange the way we whispered in corners and the frequency with which we felt obliged to touch each other. Our lovemaking became quite clandestine, although as best friends nobody thought it strange when we spent the night at each other’s home. At first we were horribly frightened. We were so nervous taking our clothes off together, in case we should be seen. Our relationship seemed soiled and anxious. But we gradually came to accept it and simply made elaborate precautions before making love together.
“It was also very romantic, of course. Secretly holding hands in public places. Kissing one another passionately when we were sure nobody was looking. Holding each other close and feeling our bodies together, perhaps through our clothes, and knowing that we were carrying the secret of a love that could condemn us to imprisonment. And this danger was undeniably exciting and erotic. It added great spice to our love.” Binta paused again, swept along by her recollections and now beached by the intensity of her feelings. “I’m not boring you, I hope?”
Ana shook her head.
“Jebel is a very good place for a clandestine love affair. It’s quite hilly and craggy. And some parts are rather remote and quiet. It was never too difficult to find secluded spots in the hills where nobody could see us before we saw them, and where we could fling off our clothes and make love together. The search for such places became obsessive. We would walk in our school holidays or at weekends with the express purpose of finding another secret spot where we would never be found. We may have insects in our pubic hairs and our bodies might be covered in grass or dust, but it gave us the joy and freedom we needed.
“Jebel villages, like Quria where we lived, are mostly agricultural, but neither my parents nor Mezyana’s are farmers or farm labourers. My father works in a bank in the County Town which he drives to every day and Mezyana’s father’s a veterinary surgeon. It’s quite a conservative area, probably quite typical of Alif outside the City of Blad. It’s probably much the same in Rif. Not particularly wealthy, but not desperately poor either. The community centred around the Church, the School and the Village Shop. A traditional Alif town, unchanged over the generations.” Binta smiled as she recollected her home. “Is it just the same in Rif?”
“Pretty much so,” Ana admitted. “Not so hilly, though. More gently rolling hills than crags, I would say.”
Binta nodded and continued her narrative. “I don’t know exactly when things changed for us in the village, but it was around the time we were sixteen or so, and quite clearly fully adult. People began treating us differently. Less indulgently. Nothing was actually said, but I think people had suspicions about the nature of our friendship. The girls at school were no longer so friendly towards us, and reacted with alarm if we ever got too close to them. The local shopkeeper eyed us in a funny way. And once when we were having one of our walks in the country, a couple of boys followed us all the way. Even some school teachers treated us oddly. For instance, we were arbitrarily separated from each other in one class and had to share desks with other girls, even though we were always good pupils.
“Even our parents treated us differently. We were forbidden to spend the night with each other: an announcement which caused me to argue and shout and cry for hours. It felt like the end of the world for me, as it also did for Mezyana. We weren’t given a good reason for this change of policy, except that we were ‘big girls now’ and that ‘girls of our age don’t carry on like that’. I was felt that the world was conspiring against me. That everyone was plotting to destroy my love for Mezyana.
“We were still very naïve of course. We were presented with all this evidence that people knew about the nature of our relationship, but ignored it and pretended that it couldn’t be so. After all, we’d been so close for so long we just couldn’t imagine we would ever part. We made an extra effort to disguise signs of affection in public and our rendezvous were more secret, but we never really appreciated the true significance of our ever being incriminatingly discovered together.”
Binta paused again, her face contorted by emotion and battling to regain its composure. She gazed down at the clasped hands on her knees. She kicked out her legs to examine the full length of them. She unclasped her hands and leaned back.
“We were about seventeen or eighteen years old when we were arrested. It was undeniably our fault. We’d got used to the way people were treating us. We no longer really cared for what they thought. And we were getting a little blasé about disguising our secret rendezvous. I suppose it’s the classic case of believing that this sort of thing happens to someone else, but will never happen to you. But of course it did.
“In most ways it was an unexceptional day when it happened. I certainly didn’t imagine or suspect I was being followed when I made my way to meet Mezyana at our secret place in the hills, and I don’t imagine she did either. We met each other as usual. And, without any variation from our normal routine, we were soon undressing and kissing each other. It was only when we were actually in the process of making love that we were interrupted by three policemen and a couple of men from the village whom we recognised but didn’t know by name. I was totally stunned! Mezyana instantly broke into tears, standing up, hiding her breasts and crotch with her hands. I just stood there, not really bothering to cover myself while a policeman read out the terms of my arrest. I could hardly hear him through the rush of blood to my ears and the throb of my temples. We were then forced into our clothes, had handcuffs clapped to our wrists and escorted separately down the hill to a police van which drove us away to our prison cells.”
“That must have been horrible!” gasped Ana.
“I’ve never spoken to Mezyana since then. We were locked in separate cells and we were only able to see each other from a distance across court rooms and through prison bars. We weren’t beaten or physically abused, but the prison warders and especially other prisoners said some very hurtful things to me, and I’m sure to Mezyana as well. Everyone called me a dyke, a term I’d just never heard before. And a pervert. And they asked indecent questions about what Mezyana and I did together in our lovemaking. They made vile salacious speculations, which exceeded anything I’d ever imagined to be possible.
“The next few weeks went by in a kind of daze. My parents were horrified, and they cried a great deal. What upset them most was that I’d been arrested before I’d finished my school examinations. No one else visited me, except Mezyana’s parents who were actually more sympathetic and understanding than my own parents. They told me that they’d discussed our love with their daughter (which she’d never told me) but made no statement of what they felt about it.
“We were taken to court eventually. That was the first time I’d seen Mezyana since we were arrested. And the last time I saw her. She was dressed like me in the simple one-piece prison tunic that all prisoners wear and looked dreadfully pale, with her hair tied back in an unattractive pony-tail. The trial was very brief, although at the time and in my memory it seems to have lasted forever. There really wasn’t much to it. Both Mezyana and I were guilty. There was really no way to pretend otherwise. We were caught unequivocally in the act of an illegal homosexual act, with three police witnesses. There were others from the village willing to bear witness of other occasions in which we had been seen indulging in similar lewd and immoral behaviour. Our only defence was our age and naïveté.
“The only part of the trial not predetermined was the sentence, but it was clear from the choice of the judge, who had a very low opinion of immoral behaviour, that it wasn’t going to be a light sentence. Prior to the trial I had discussed with a solicitor which of a Brothel or a Prison I would choose to serve in if I had to accept the choice. Initially, I inclined towards the Prison, and said so, but I was given time to decide. As a result of chatting with my cellmates, I soon heard enough about prisons to decide that a Brothel mightn’t be such a bad option. After all, Prostitution is a choice some women make voluntarily, which can never be said for prisons! So, when the judge pronounced sentence I was consigned to a Brothel. He said this was appropriate. And it would lead me to see the errors of my perverted ways and no doubt teach me a better understanding of a woman’s proper sexual role. He obviously believed that sexual intercourse with men was so much better than with a woman that I’d soon renounce my lesbian tendencies!”
Binta sniffed angrily and emphatically thumped her fist into her palm.
“The idiot! Like most men, he thought that what a woman needs is a penis inside her and she’ll instantly be converted to heterosexuality. For me, however, the more I see of men the more confirmed I’ve become in my love of women. And my yearning for Mezyana just hasn’t lessened at all!”
“And so you came to the Brothel and Mezyana was sentenced to a Convent?”
“That’s right! It wasn’t an option I was given, but then Mezyana is such a keen church-goer. Perhaps it was her vicar who stood up for her. I don’t know. It’s a Convent in the suburbs of Blad. I’ll probably never be allowed to see her there. She’s probably had her head shaved like nuns do, spending all her time praying and doing good deeds. Her religious views certainly softened the judge’s attitude towards her. He said he hoped that in working for the Lord she would cease to be tempted by the sins of the flesh and see the error of her ways.
“Like me, she was in tears when the sentence was pronounced. Neither of us really believed it was happening. Nobody we’d ever known had ever been imprisoned. Nothing we’d ever done had knowingly caused anyone any harm. And we’d not made any material profit from our actions at all. From then, until I arrived at this Brothel, I imagined the very worst and time and time again contemplated the practicalities of suicide!”