Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Things Aren't That Simple

From Wilfred Thesiger's The Marsh Arabs:

One afternoon, some days after leaving Diblin, we arrived at a village on the mainland. The sheikh was away looking at his cultivations, but we were shown to his mudhif by a boy wearing a head-rope and cloak, with a dagger at his waist. He looked about fifteen and his beautiful face was made even more striking by two long braids of hair on either side. In the past all the Madan wore their hair like that, as the Bedu still did. After the boy had made us coffee and withdrawn, Amara asked, 'Did you realize that was a mustarjil?' I had vaguely heard of them, but had not met one before.

'A mustarjil is born a woman,' Amara explained. 'She cannot help that; but she has the heart of a man, so she lives like a man.'

'Do men accept her?'

'Certainly. We eat with her and she may sit in the mudhif. When she dies, we fire off our rifles to honour her. We never do that for a woman. In Majid's village there is one who fought bravely in the war against Haji Sulaiman.'

'Do they always wear their hair plaited?'

'Usually they shave it off like men.'

'Do mustarjils ever marry?'

'No, they sleep with women as we do.'

Once, however, we were in a village for a marriage, when the bride, to everyone's amazement, was in fact a mustarjil. In this case she had agreed to wear women's clothes and to sleep with her husband on condition that he never asked her to do women's work. The mustarjils were much respected, and their nearest equivalent seemed to be the amazons of antiquity. I met a number of others during the following years. One man came to me with what I took for his twelve-year-old son, suffering from colic, but when I wanted to examine the child, the father said, 'He is a mustarjil.' On another occasion I attended a man with a fractured skull. He had fought with a mustarjil whom I knew, and had got the worst of it.

Previously, while staying with Hamoud, Majid's brother, I was sitting in the diwanya when a stout middle-aged woman shuffled in, enveloped in the usual black draperies, and asked for treatment. She had a striking, rather masculine face, and lifting her skirt exposed a perfectly normal full-sized male organ. 'Will you cut this off and turn me into a proper woman?' he pleaded. I had to confess that the operation was beyond me. When he had left, Amara asked compassionately, 'Could they not do it for him in Basra? Except for that, he really is a woman, poor thing.' Afterwards I often noticed the same man washing dishes on the river bank with the women. Accepted by them, he seemed quite at home. These people were kinder to him than we would have been in our society...