MY SISTER AMINA is the only Muslim lesbian I know. When I told her this, she said I was stereotyping both lesbians and Muslims, and for all that I knew I might have met hundreds of lesbian Muslims. Somehow I doubt this, but I don't argue with Amina if I can help it. Amina went on to deliver a lecture on the history of Western sexuality and Western stereotyping of Islam. Apparently, I only find the words 'lesbian Muslim' incongruous because I am a child of the late twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, Europeans thought that the harems of the East were full of nubile young women having languorous sex with each other.
'To the Victorians,' Amina recounted 'lesbian equalled pervert, and Muslim also equalled pervert, so of course Muslim woman equalled lesbian.' She showed me a book of Orientalist paintings, bathhouse scenes in which pale, soft-fleshed women touched their hands to each others' nipples. 'Nineteenth century European patriarchy displaced its own repressed sexual fantasies onto the bodies of colonised, subject peoples,' explained Amina. 'However, contemporary Western societies think of themselves as sexually liberated, and believe that other societies are repressed. So Westerners like you don't expect to find the same range of sexual appetites in Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist societies as you find in your own.'
There was lots more, involving the words 'Foucault', 'Eurocentrism' and 'postcolonial', but I had stopped listening. My attention was focused on the displaced patriarchal fantasy on the opened page of Amina's book. In the steamy blue-tiled cavern of a Turkish bathhouse, a black slavewoman was sponging down the pallid, fleshy body of her mistress. The slavewoman was lean and sinewy, with good muscles and a flat, hard stomach. The mistress, in contrast, was all curves and dimples, full-breasted and soft-buttocked. My own patriarchal fantasies were veering back and forth between the slave and the mistress (or what the hell, both) when Amina noticed my slack-jawed absorption and closed the book shut with a snap.
I myself am neither Muslim nor lesbian, in case you haven't realised. I'm Amina's half-brother. The reason she is Muslim and I'm not is that her father is Iranian and mine is Irish. We were both brought up by my mother in Queensland, but Amina spent summer holidays with her father and his extended family in Tehran. She would come back from these visits pampered to within an inch of her life, dripping with gold jewellery, her suitcase bursting with princess clothes and her nose wrinkled in contempt for barbarians who fried strips of dead pig with their eggs. Amina was always happy in Tehran, and mostly miserable in Queensland. We lived in a small country town of born-again Christians and right-wing politics. I had sandy hair, freckled skin, and I didn't talk much, so I blended right in. Amina had an unusual name, deep olive complexion, and a loud mouth. She stood out like the Ayatollah Khomeini at Presbyterian Sunday School picnic.
I was seven when the Iranian revolution broke out, and Amina was eleven. Her father's family didn't follow Khomeini, but they hated the Shah. Amina's favourite uncle had been arrested and tortured for distributing an underground newspaper. The smile that Amina had loved was gone forever, the side of his face was paralysed after a kick from a SAVAK boot. His body was stooped, and he walked with a stick. Thousands of miles away in Australia, Amina grieved for his lost smile and waited for his enemies to fall. Night after night, she watched the overthrow of the Shah on the ABC news in a fever of excitement. 'American lapdog! Fascist pig!' she spat, as the Shah's ravaged face flickered across the screen. 'The Iranian people will throw your filthy body to the crows, and then we'll make your imperialist puppetmaster Carter choke on his own shit.' My mother opened her mouth, and then closed it.
Iran was suddenly current affairs, and Amina's class was supposed to study current affairs every Monday morning. I began to dread Mondays. By lunchtime the whole school, teachers and children, would be talking about the things that Amina had said in class. She had said that the Iranian people were heroes who refused to cower in the face of American neo-colonialism. She had called her teacher an agent of Western imperialist propaganda. It didn't matter that Amina was the only person in the school for whom Iran existed as a country rather than as a headline. It didn't matter that behind her flaming eyes lay the vision of her crippled uncle, her vanished grown-up cousin. It didn't even matter that Mrs Austin probably was an agent of Western imperialist propaganda. All that mattered was that Amina sounded like a raving fanatic, and Queensland didn't like it.
AS A BIG sister, Amina was loving but terrifying. I hated to see her so rejected, but I didn't dare approach too closely. Neither did my mother. We watched helplessly as Amina, four feet of smouldering revolution, marched off each day to school and persecution. She survived, and kept her head held high, but she almost ran up the stairs of the jumbo when she left for Tehran at the end of the year.
We lived for a few more years in that town, until the summer that Amina returned from her annual holiday with a scarf closely pinned over her head, hiding her black curls. My mother kept her home from school for two weeks, waiting to see whether she would change her mind. Then she packed up and moved us to Brisbane, hoping that Amina would fit in better there. On the whole, she did. She was still wilfully contrary, still an outsider, but at least she wasn't an outright freak. There were kids at her school called Krissoula and Sarita and Huda, and there was a smattering of headscarves at assembly. On weekends she took classes at the mosque in Arabic, Farsi, and religion. She was happier, quieter; she stopped bringing home outraged letters from hysterical teachers.
In her second year of university, she began to bring home girlfriends, though it was a few years before it dawned on me that these were girlfriends with a capital G. God knows what Amina's Muslim friends thought of Kirsten with her cropped, purple hair, or Liz with her crusade for organic tampons. Amina did not go out of her way to introduce her girlfriends to her gang from the Muslim student's club, but she didn't hide them away, either. She simply failed to see any contradiction between the different elements of her life, and if others thought differently, they said nothing.
I kept my distance from Amina's Muslim friends. They weren't unfriendly, but I didn't know how to behave towards them, and I was afraid that if I looked too hard at one of them, Amina would suspect me of harbouring neo-colonialist, patriarchal fantasies of my own. They were very pretty girls, some of them. Some wore headscarves, like Amina's; others left their hair uncovered except when they were praying or going to mosque. They would occupy our living room for hours on end, chattering and eating junk food and stopping every so often for prayers. I could hear them reciting the Arabic verses from my room, and would feel oddly nostalgic, remembering the bedtime stories Amina had told me after her childhood visits to Iran. Pomegranates, swollen to bursting with glowing red seeds. You squash the whole fruit in your hands so that the inside turns to pulp, then you make a hole in the end and suck out the juice. Amina's night-dark eyes and night-soft voice. In my grandmother's house, a courtyard with a blue-tiled fountain. On the hottest days, it's cool there, by the splashing water. Amina explaining: Before you pray, you wash. You wash a certain way: your feet and hands, your face, breathing some water into your nostrils, passing your hands over your ears and the crown of your head. Then you face Mecca and pray, bending and rising, bending and rising. My baby cousins think it's a game, and climb on their mothers' backs as they touch their foreheads to the ground. The mothers try to ignore them and keep praying, but first one will begin to laugh and then the rest, and then we have to race to the end of our prayers so everyone can play. Thanks to these nocturnal stories, Amina's memories of Iran had become my own, and now when I heard the faint rhythm of the girls' voices, I too remembered a house in Tehran full of relatives and spicy cooking, and the voice of a muezzin calling the city to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque.
I DIDN'T NOTICE any of Amina's friends in particular until the day I walked past Sufiya in our front driveway. Her hair was dark and loose, and she wore Pakistani-style clothes, a long shirt and baggy trousers and a flimsy scarf draped across her shoulders. Her gaze met mine for less than a second, and then with a deft gesture of dismissal, she flicked her scarf over her head and strode off down the street.
After that, I would listen for Sufiya's voice, and find excuses to walk through the living room when she was there. Amina would glare ferociously at my desecration of both female and Muslim space, but I didn't care. Amina had dominated our family life for so long. For Amina's sake, we had left the pretty country town where I'd owned a trail bike and a dog, and come to live in a pet-free terrace house in suburbia. For Amina's sake, we kept a halal kitchen, watched three-hour art-house Iranian films on SBS, boycotted Jewel of the Nile and one of the Rambo movies and God knows what other pieces of anti-Islamic propaganda disguised as mass entertainment. She'd even dragged me out of one film because it featured Libyan terrorists. I had spent more than enough of my life living by Amina's rules, and if I wanted to perve at Sufiya, then perve I bloody well would – in a sensitive, non-threatening way, of course.
Still, I remembered Amina's contemptuous look when she caught me ogling the bathhouse tableau, and shuddered. If she suspected me of fancying a real, live, Muslim woman as opposed to a painted, imaginary one, she'd treat me as though I was a worm that had dared to lust after a princess. Worse still, Sufiya would probably think the same way. I fretted and sulked and wondered whether I should convert to Islam –anything that might bring me into the same universe as that lovely glossy-eyed girl. Then I'd hear Amina's voice say He chose his religion with his dick and I'd know it was all useless.
'You could always just ask her out,' said Amina one afternoon, when she caught me lying on the living room floor, listening to The Smiths and reflecting on futility.
'Who?' I said, warily.
'Sufiya. Everyone's noticed. You scurry in and out of the room like a nervous rabbit whenever she's around. Just ask her for coffee or something.' This had to be a trap. I waited for it to spring. 'She's a complete bitch, of course. I don't know why men always go for that arrogant, queenly, type. They must enjoy being treated like dirt. But if you're determined to offer yourself up to her as her humble slave forever, you might as well get on with it.'
'Isn't it against the rules?' I knew it had to be against at least one rule.
'For a Muslim woman to marry, go out with, whatever, a non-Muslim man? Yes, of course it is. And she makes a great show of being devout, so she won't go anywhere alone with you. When a man and a woman are alone together, the third person present is Shaitan. She'll probably ask me to come too, but don't worry, I'll be very discreet. You'll hardly know I'm there.'
'But what's the use of any of that, if I'm off-limits for her, anyway?'
Amina considered. 'I know what Sufiya believes. I don't know what she feels. Sometimes those are two different things –each just as important as the other, but quite separate. Look at me. I wake up every morning a contradiction in terms as far as a lot of the world is concerned. If I worried too much about that, I'd go mad. If you and Sufiya like each other enough, and you want life to be consistent, you could convert, get married, the whole works. But sometimes you have no choice but to live with contradiction. You just have to develop the strength to deal with it. Someone's at the door. Wait here while I get it.'
She opened the door and there stood Sufiya, gracious and regal. Amina stood aside as discreetly as she had promised, and we looked at each other, Sufiya and I, a glorious contradiction in terms, just waiting to happen.