I’m sure there was a time when I was not hairy, but I can’t remember it. I have an early memory from middle school where a doctor examined my sideburns, which stretched almost down to my jawline, and suggested some pills to slow the growth. She told me they were for people with a lot of facial hair, like me. I recall inspecting the black hairs on my legs with serious fascination; my mother would use sticky sugar to rip them out from their stubborn roots. “Beauty requires strength,” she would say, deploying an Arabic take on the more common proverb: Beauty is pain.
In the past, women whose lives included selling sex were rarely the subjects of their own histories, but were glamorous, vicious or pitiable objects in others’ accounts. One particular alluring figure turns up in the Christian story of sin, redemption and resurrection recounted in the frescoes of medieval western art. Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute, recognisable by her rippling yellow hair and red cloak, kneels at the foot of the cross, weeping. A mythical figure conflated from three different characters in the Gospels, she also turns up in the Apocrypha.
A city’s health is measured in many ways, but there is no surer vital sign of an Asian metropolis than the old-fashioned, swap-meet-style market. In Seoul’s above- and below-ground bazaars, street vendors and stall merchants deal their endlessly catholic wares. I daydream about these sellers of kimchi stew, bootleg ’70s CDs, dried anchovies, vintage postage stamps, jeggings, and handmade paper, and the tailors, woodcarvers, jewelers, and technicians whose skills are belied by their concrete-and-linoleum surroundings. The noisy, crowded space of the bazaar reminds us just how massive and vital the working class is.