“Night is deliverance.”
– Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
She took her to Toledo to seduce her.
Toledo, Spain, that is, not Ohio, and she being Aisha and the other she being Lena, my older sister, the eldest of us four Kahanes.
Let’s try that again.
Aisha took my sister Lena to Toledo, Spain, to seduce her. This was back in spring of 2006, when they had been living in Berlin for a year, working diligently (too diligently, actually, thus the trip) on their modern American English-language translation of the Thousand and One Nights, and not sleeping together, which is not what Aisha had had in mind. They lived and worked in a storefront flat in Kreuzberg, the Turkish neighborhood the hipsters loved, but back then they still sat at their desks with papers spread around them, and the Persian rug Aisha stole from her husband sat unused on the floor, dotted with cushions, a kid of leisure-lounge area. (Eventually they would eschew the desks and spend all their time on the floor, lounging. But we’ll get to that.) In spring of 2006, you recall, the two American wars were dragging on and Katrina had recently doused New Orleans and Dubya’s approval rating hovered around twenty percent.
But Lena, my sister, wasn’t concerned with American current events. She had graduated from Princeton with a degree in Linguistics and was living in Europe with her favorite professor, Aisha Wasila, and together they were rewriting The Nights for a modern American audience. It was going very well: if nothing else, those four years at Jersey’s fanciest country club had imparted to Lena excellent writing and research skills, and military-grade study habits, a work ethic the nation’s premier Presbyterian university could be proud of, in a Calvinist, good-works sort of way. In their first year in Berlin, Lena and Aisha had categorically sifted through the thousands of Xeroxed pages of multiphonic versions of The Nights Aisha had copied from many dozens of manuscripts and anthologies in the tri-state area over the past seven years, then schlepped across an ocean in seven boxes when they moved. Now the copied tales were laid out along the southern wall of the apartment, organized by provenance and subject, Toledo, Istanbul, Paris, Algiers across, Sindbad, Aladdin, Scheherezad down.
It was from this well-lit, well-organized enclave of healthy work habits and professional relationships that Aisha looked up one morning from her work table and turned innocently to Lena, her charge, and asked, “Have you ever even seen a Medieval Arab city?”
“No,” Lena scoffed. She lived plumbly in the ahistorical present, in a converted storefront apartment in the formerly East Berlin, with a woman who had been her professor and would be her lover, but for now was only her roommate, and her boss. “Have you?”
“Only my hometown,” Aisha replied, but did not give its name. She looked at Lena’s profile, its cameo sheen: the long white neck, the subtle nosey bump, the black shadow of hair. The girl was ready for the next step. “You don’t find this problematic?” Aisha went on. She clutched at the papers that littered her desk. “That you will write Basra with never having seen it?”
“I’m not going to Iraq,” Lena said.
“No.” Aisha looked out the wide front windows at the chic Berliners ambling by. “I suppose no one is, save your soldiers and your tanks. No, we will go to Toledo.”
“They’re not mine,” Lena whined. She was still looking at her computer screen, where she’d been typing out a new draft of the Hunchback’s Tale. “You’re American, too.”
“Citizen, not ethnicity.”
“There is no American ethnicity. I’m Jewish.”
“Don’t remind me,” Aisha said. She stood up, closed her laptop, and smoothed her hair. “Come, we must pack.”
 It always opens with a scene.
Or perhaps use a question:
How does one begin a story like this? With a scene:
Or maybe I could allude to the beginning of The Thousand and One Nights, which opens at the bedside of a dying king.
No: Too soon. Patience, storytelling is all about Patience, Nathan (I tell myself: I being Nathan, your humble narrator.)
Let’s leave it as it is: A scene. The rest is implicit: every story opens with a scene. Even the first one: big bang, om, tsimstum, breishit bara, heaven and earth, lingam and yoni, Krishna and Shiva, the opening dance.
All right, okay, I get it: a scene, sure, but my God, make it grand.
 This would be in sharp contrast to my own experience at Princeton, where I gleaned the alternative skill set of hobnobbing and substance abuse, a charted course which would eventually see me duly punished, freeing me up to narrate the unusual tale of my sister’s escape to Germany (an 21st century inversion of the typical holocaust-era tale).
A plotter, Aisha had already bought the tickets. Aisha was cunning, but she was organized about it. Had she even pushed Lena and Ted together, that first day in Arabian Nights class? I don’t know. And if she was already researching the Nights at that time, she redoubled her efforts, so that by the time Lena graduated four years later, Aisha had a foreign fellowship all lined up. All she needed was an assistant who could read Turkish, Arabic, French, and Greek. Luckily, she had trained her protégé well. Now Lena watched as Aisha packed for a long weekend escape: two cashmere sweaters, a black cardigan and a white pullover; three t-shirts, black, white, and tan; one pair of slacks and one pair of jeans; two brassieres, one black and one beige; five pairs of underwear, three briefs and two thongs; four pairs of socks, one wool; one pair of water-resistant boots and one pair of loafers; and a small cosmetic case containing mascara, lipstick, a toothbrush, toothpaste, conditioner, shampoo, and a hotel-sized bar of soap. Then she separated out the boots, the jeans, one sweater, one t-shirt, one set of underthings, and looked up at Lena, who had stood above her, watching, and said: “For the plane. Plus jewels. Well? Go pack.”
Lena put some clothes in a bag and soon they were on the airplane. The Eurozone crisis was a vague forethought in the some corners of the universities and Spain and Germany had nothing to say one another. The metro on both sides was good, but Berlin’s was better. When they arrived, Aisha could speak Spanish. They took the Metro to the Atocha station and Aisha bought their commuter rail tickets to Toledo and they killed an hour in the atrium, drinking espressos. Around them under the filtered sunlight milled dark women with their sleep ponytails tied into elaborate knots and this was what Lena had thought Italy would be like, and did, until a few months later when they went to Rome.
The commuter rail sped south and to Lena, who had never seen Spain, or any other arid landscape, the blank plateau seemed designed by Miguel Cervantes himself for the express contextualization of Quijote’s interminable quest. Looking out the window, Lena recognized that for the Knight of La Mancha, son of this flat, expressionless land, delirious fantasies were the only recourse for spiritual survival. On the train car with she and Aisha was a large group of schoolchildren shepherded by two school teachers, one old and one young, who turn turns ignoring the children. Aisha sat in the aisle seat reading a magazine in Spanish and periodically looked up at the window to deliver Lena a disquisition on how the Mideival Moorish occupation of Spain had brough not only Scheherezad but also algebra, astronomy, and Aristotle to Europe.
Then, in an hour, it was eight hundred years ago. From the train Lena watched Toledo rise out of the plain like a city built atop a giant turtle’s back, all the stone and brick the same color as the earth itself, the buildings like barnacles stuck to a shell. From the train station at the outskirts of the city they took a taxi to the studio apartment of an absent person Aisha knew from somewhere. (In every European city they went, and this was the first of many, Aisha would know a missing person. So Lena never met any of them, never found any witnesses to fill in the gaps about Aisha’s life. Lena got to know Aisha’s friends by their houseplants, their foreign woven rugs, their furniture, stark or plush, the painted details on their dinner plates.) The cab wound up into the city through narrow streets, and the locals hugged stone walls to let it pass. Their apartment was on the third floor of a building undifferentiated from its neighbors, denoted only by a numeral alongside the narrow wooden door set into the stone, which opened to a surprising formica liner on the stairs. Inside, bright white walls and a window box that needed watering, suspended over the view of a beautiful alley. In one corner a kitchenette, in another a loveseat, in a third, a narrow futon with sleeping space only for one.
For two days they walked. Munching on marzapan bought made in a convent by nuns, they entered every synagogue and cátedral and mosque. They saw suits of armor in shop windows and children’s swords for sale and above every streetred streamers were hung as though a festival had just ended, or was about to begin. Each church boasted its own Goya, the jazz-age faces wracked with grief, the heavenly light dissolved among the jewel-toned villagers and hills. In an ancient mosque-cum-synagogue with faded Coptic Jesus on the wall, Lena caught her breath and hoped those were tears in her eyes.
Lena insisted they go to the Jewish museum, tugged by some vague unstoppable internalization of our mother and her mother and hers: You went to Europe and not to the Jewish museum (there was always one, wasn’t there)? Ach! Go! Go! Go!
Inside the retiring synagouge the walls were covered, floor to triple-high ceilings, with Hebrew script. Lena stood under the light emitted by the rose-cut windows in the high stone and felt like a black ant inside a Torah scroll, ecstatic, trapped. On the second floor, the women’s section had been converted into a gallery for dead Jews’ things. Lena stood at a map of the post-inquisition diaspora and watched as the Jews to whom she was least related fled Spain for Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Algiers. These Sephardic Jews were not our Jews. When the Temple fell, they went east, into Europe, while we middled in Germany, inventing Yiddish, before schlepping east.
A fat Spanish woman with hair dyed red approached smiling and asked, “Eres Judeo?” and Lena said, “Si,” and when Aisha appeared the woman included her in her broad beatific gaze. “Hermosas?” “No,” Aisha said, “somos investigadoras de la historia Judaismo,” and the woman smiled sadly and nodded her grey roots and drifted away.
Aisha led Lena by the elbow to a glass case holding shawls and candlesticks begging to be used, but locked away instead. “The Megillat Ester,” she said, indicating a tiny scroll unrolling into endless miniature Hebrew script. “Orientalists suggested—mostly notably in the 1912 Encyclopedia Brittannica entry on the Nights—that Scheherezad and Queen Esther were the same woman, both second wives to an ancient, insomniac Persian king, both with unusual sway over such a powerful man.”
“Is that true?” Lena asked. She peered into the glass case, looking for answers.
“Are the texts true?” Aisha stood close beside Lena, matching her breath. “It doesn’t matter if they’re true. They’re symbolic. They’re true mythology. Look at the symbolism in the first few lines.” And she offered an approximatae translation. “And there, in the time of Ataxerxes—he Ataxerxes, who reigned then from India to Ethiopia, and so forth, in the third year of his reign, and seven chamberlains, and the seven princes.”
“It’s a lot of sevens.” Looking closely, Lena could see the repetition of the Hebrew word seven, שבע , across the first few lines, the mythic three-pronged ש, the little crowns rising off its slick calligraphy. Lena turned and walked to the banister and looked out over the empty shul. Here in the women’s section the light from the rose windows hovered at eye level on the far wall, igniting the calligraphy with flames. On the ground floor, three steps led up to an ark that stood open and empty, the velvet cushions long gone, the Torah scrolls adopted or burned.
That night, after tapas and Tempranillo on Zocodaver square, Lena and Aisha returned to the absent friend’s flat. The night before they had slept chastely side-by-side, but tonight Aisha had other plans. Of course, I wasn’t there. But I can imagine. Did they stand at the window, watching the moon hover over the narrow streets, downing another glass of wine? Did Aisha brush a tendril of my sister’s long hair from her face, did she whisper entreaties of love? Or perhaps it was a roving foot, a meandering hand, that reached for my sister’s body when they were already tucked into the narrow bed. She must have expected it, in some way. Aisha was a highly sexual person. Lena was a year gone from Ted, her first and last true love. Who knows what her body needed, or could settle for, in that heady moment, head swimming with intellectual excitement, her body hot with the day’s excercise and wine. I imagine a few tender kisses in a foreign city was all it took, the first finger pulled (if I may say so) from the dyke. When they returned to Berlin, to their shared apartment, Lena was Aisha’s, at least until now.
* * *
Phew! Call it Freudian, but for me writing and shitting have a lot in common. Both involve dropping my pants (figuratively in the former sense), my most private self exposed, and dedicating myself the difficult work of self-excavation with extreme purpose and single-mindedness. I really have to push. In both cases I must identify hidden interior material, composted and compacted after its long, winding journey through my being, and eject it (moaning and groaning all the while) into some blank white receptacle of my distress. If Geertz suggested that delayed gratification is the central psychological feature of the modern world (not to mention the modern novel, am I right? Bueller? Cervantes? Anyone?” then I am not ashamed to declare myself the first to proclaim (if not downright discover) that constipation just might be the governing metaphor of mankind’s contemporary, technologically mediated existence.
Of course, if Lena were here, she would object that our world’s first novel, if we are defining the novel by its embrace of the conceit of delayed gratification (which is to say, suspense), is not Don Quijote but rather that endlessly iterated collection of tales to which my sister would insiste the Quijote is obviously, indeed explicitly, indebted, Nathan, that is, The Thousand and One Nights. But returning to an earlier point, the invocation of The…Nights, in whose pages waiting strikes a decidedly sexual tenor, allows us to infer that the action of delayed gratification is an inherently sexual or preferably sensual act. By which I mean—the holding it in—before, you know, letting it out—I mean—it feels good.
And woe to you if you call them “The Arabian Nights,” since as Lena will tell you (O for she has studied—under, literally under!—such a venerable scholar of The Nights) these tales traveled the Silk Road from Africa to China, and were originally recorded by the Persians, and have been transposed into all the world’s great languages, soon to be including (no offense to the Briton Burton) American English.
I know what you’re thinking—what, suddenly with a BA and three years of private cunning linguistic lessons from Aisha, Lena’s the master of the modern American idiom? Ahem?! Narrator here!
Far be it from me to protest that she doesn’t even live in America, because, then again, neither do I.
But I oughtn’t apologize: this is my story, even if they’re Lena’s facts, and so what if I’m cramped up in a moldy bathroom on the repossessed Israeli shores of the Mediterranean. (Yes, despite Aisha’s protestations, this story is Jewish. But at least my heritage offers the literary precedent of Portnoy, Sr., for my cramped-up kischkes.) And sheesh, if Lenaa told this tale, you’d miss the whole delicious context: that is to say, our family, the Knight-Abraham-Kahanes. As much as Lena may have thought running away from us all to Germany exempted herself from this grand Jewish-American tale of which she is a necessary part, it didn’t. Why do you think she ran away in the first place?
I’ll tell you why: it’s because she fell in love with a schvartze. A black.
Ted Knight, no relation.
Tadik “Ted” Knight, whose Arabic-inflected given name didn’t help matters as far as the social hostilities unleashed by Lena’s miscegenation were concerned, despite everyone’s protests that the issue wasn’t that Ted was black but simply, defensibly, that he was a goy.
Yeah, right. The old shaygetz excuse.
Of course, ours is a contemporary American family, so our bigotry was never so explicit (except in a few instances, when it was), but Lena was a good girl and a good daughter, played soccer in high school and excelled in her studies, she went to Princeton for Chrissakes, and so after years of satisfying my parents’ every wish for her this last, enormous failure needed only to grate on her for a few years before the bough cracked and she split.
It didn’t help that he asked her to marry him. What was she supposed to say, yes?
Aisha was the wild card. Aisha, who had been watching Lena and Ted since the first day they met, who then, when Lena was at her most vulnerable, pounced. She carried my sister away to Berlin, business class, where they still stay, living, working, and fucking even now, as we (figuratively) speak.
But, in Lena’s case, every trip has to come down eventually. Even now, as dusk falls over Berlin, the rumblings of her next abandonment are beginning to break the placid surface of her socialist work-life-conflation with Aisha. (Aisha, who, like any adulteress, hadn’t minded Lena’s fickleness when it was she Lena was leaving for.) If Lena had anything to say on the matter, she would insist that bad luck has followed her from the get-go, that she’s not a leaver but a loser, not the schlemiel spilling soup but the schlemazel unto whose lap it is spilled.
Oh, fuck her and her long hair.
Forgive me. As the eldest of her three brothers, I am not impartial. I am also among those whom Lena has left.
This is all easier to tell than show, but I know that isn’t the way. I won’t waste any more of your time hypothesizing as to the roots of Lena’s commitment-phobia, whose infinite set of possible originary causes begins with our parents’ divorce and extends back to the Russian pogroms, the destruction of the Second Temple, the eviction from Paradise itself.
And here I get ahead of myself, or more precisely, behind. I’ve all but already declared that storytelling takes patience, takes time—from both of us, reader, you and me, so stick around and I’ll explain it all. Just picture me the hare, plodding forward one step at a time, while fleet-footed Achilles (standing in for my plot) advances upon us from the starting line. Movement may be impossible—I know, I know, tell it to my bowels—but it is certainly probable (thank God!), that is, difficult to avoid. Zeno’s protestations notwithstanding, I promise the story will catch up with us in time.
And anyway, it’s midnight here, and I’ve been perched on the toilet too long, and I know you’re eager to get to Berlin, where my sister and Aisha lay sprawled on a woolen carpet embroidered with a rendering of Eden (whose potent symbolism will presently be revealed).
Could it be? I think I feel something stirring down below. If you’ll excuse me, I have pressing business to attend to. Ah, the armchair historian sinks to a new low.