My mom taught me how to make a pound cake with dates. It sighs with butter. The dates moan, having been sweetened and softened by a thousand suns.
My mom taught me to mix the wet and dry ingredients separately. She taught me to flour the pan after greasing it. She had solutions for when the cake crumbled, and they always worked.
As a 12-year-old, I trusted my mom with everything. I watched her scraping every smear of batter from the bowl with the spatula, not leaving a drop behind. Then she would scrape that smidgen at the rim with her finger and lick. It was probably the most sensual thing I’ve ever seen her do.
I know that associating the feminine with cooking is a tired cliché. But watching my mother in the kitchen was the closest I’ve seen her truly embodying the feminine.
As I grew older, I learned many versions of the feminine. Early on, when hormones were having a parade in my body, all I wanted was to swim in lip gloss and smell like synthetic raspberries. Then I realized that I was not meant to be one of the pretty girls. Acne appeared. I had to wear glasses because I was too young for contacts. My hair was traumatized. And I decided to retreat, diving into the fantasy world of Harry Potter.
As early as 13, I was told to cover up because it was the most virtuous thing for a Muslim woman. Boys were dangerous, coaxing tendrils of sexuality by their proximity. In my mother’s doctrine, it was the undoing of everything. I heard it in the hard metal thud of her voice when she yelled at me to come inside one evening. She had caught me talking to one of my boy cousins by the front door in the velvety darkness of the yard. I was jealous of the other girls in my circle who managed to have juvenile little affairs behind their parents' back. Because of that voice, I didn't dare. I obeyed, swathed in fabric and virtuous morality. I convinced myself it was the best thing. I was being protected, shielded from unnecessary harm. No more boys before they had even entered my life.
Then came the time to release my femininity from the closet. The boys became men, arriving for tea to ask for my hand in marriage. Oh, now I’m supposed to be excited? But I don’t feel a thing. There were times when I looked for my femininity and couldn’t find it. I was not allowed to flirt. I was not allowed to be loud and angry and passionate and unpredictable and gloriously frustrating. I was not allowed to dive into my intuition to decide if this man who proposed an arranged marriage was right for me. My mother harangued me to do something with my stubborn curly hair because, now that they were proposing, I did not need to be covered up. But it was too late. I marched through my 20s not needing a man and not knowing how to be a woman.
It was not until I climbed the crest of 30 that I opened up to femininity, through a man that I met, and I learned that it is not what the dictatorship wants. It is softness and strength. It can be celebrated in so many ways without the male presence. On the other hand, sex is vital. It’s a beautiful dance where femininity worships itself through its opposite. So all those years, until this man, I was getting dressed up for a mating dance that never happened. And I understood, with him as a mirror, what I was, or what I was too afraid to be.
My mom loves math, science, logic, cognitive behavior. Being a razor-sharp intellectual, she has always been a keen observer of creativity. She showered me with books when I was a child and watched as I got my hands dirty and glittery. But she rarely showed me how to engage with the opposite sex. I could never use the word “sexy” in front of her. We always had to replace it with a pseudonym: maganda, which means “beautiful” in Filipino. She used the props that society required—lipstick, perfume, foundation, hairspray, nylons—zipping up these layers of femininity, but she never taught me how to accept a man’s touch. How NOT to accept it. How to be my own. How to be gloriously wild. How beautiful a kiss can be. How sordid in certain cases. I had to teach myself these things, and maybe that was best.
I often wonder if my mother had yearnings to be untamed herself, to put her sexuality on display, in front of her family, not in a crude or vulgar manner, but only as a reminder of the vital cord of energy that runs through every human being, man or woman. I see glimpses of it sometimes. A wild, unstarched thing might fly out of her mouth, and then she’ll try to swallow it back, but it’s too late. It makes me smile when this happens. It makes me yearn for those soft afternoons in the kitchen when we watched the yeast grow in a bowl of lukewarm water, and her hands kneaded the dough like someone who just knows. Those afternoons when she was the most feminine thing.
Maram Taibah is a writer and filmmaker from Saudi Arabia, currently working as a producer on a morning show in Dubai. Her blog is at http://www.fearlesspilgrim.com/.
Date Pound Cake
(A note about the dates: Try to visit a Middle Eastern market and ask for Saudi Arabian dates, specifically “Khalas” dates. They are red-brown in color, tend to be as soft as dough and stick to your fingers.)
1 c. butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla
2 c. flour
4 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 c. or more dates, pitted and chopped
Pre-heat oven to 365 F.
In a mixer, beat the butter until smooth.
Beat in the sugar.
Add the eggs, one at a time.
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt.
With the mixer on low speed, add flour to egg mixture, a little at a time, until you have a smooth batter.
Stir in dates with a wooden spoon.
Pour into a greased loaf or tube pan, sprinkled with brown sugar.
Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.