Publication Date: 2008

Publisher: Dar al adab

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 167

Ra'ihat al-Qirfah

It is late at night, and Hanan sees a ray of light under her husband’s bedroom door. She opens the door to a horrific sight, that of her old husband in bed with her beloved maid Alia. Blinded by anger and rage, Hanan throws Alia out in the middle of the night. She watches Alia walk away, hoping she will turn back, and bitterly regrets having pushed her lover away.
Alia, who hasn’t turned twenty yet, has been Hanan’s maid for over eight years. She hasn’t heard from her family ever since her father brought her to the villa, in exchange of some money. She didn’t suspect the man had run off with the money, and didn’t think her mother was totally ignorant of her whereabouts. Leaving home and being sold to the owners of this villa, she thought, would help her mother, bothers and sisters out. They all lived in a single room in the ghetto, its walls and ceiling made of tin, under the tyranny of the father, a useless brutal man.
Life is not worth much in the ghetto, especially that of little girls. This is how Alia grew up to be so fierce. She was eight years old, and would carry a knife when she went out collecting the garbage for a few pennies. But even that didn’t prevent her from being raped by the leader of the garbage collectors. At least she got her revenge. She scratched his face with her knife, and didn’t let herself die of shame, like her old paralyzed sister, who had been repeatedly raped by their neighbor in that same tin room she couldn’t leave.

Alia walks away from the villa, with nowhere to go. She didn’t love Hanan, but felt safe in the golden cage. Being Hanan’s lover was an easy game she played in exchange of a little comfort and piece of mind. She heads towards the ghetto, fearing the encounter with her father, recalling the misery and smell of rubbish she thought she had left behind, holding her little knife tight as she feels unsafe again in the deserted streets of this rich neighborhood.
As Hanan watches her leave, she remembers her own despair of quite a different kind. That of a lonely wealthy woman, married to an old cousin against her will, a quiet disgusting man, with a skin as thick as that of a crocodile’s, and who smells of death. Hanan’s life may be smooth, and the steam of her bath smell good of cinnamon, but it is desperately empty, deprived of any sense. The two women’s encounter was unlikely anywhere in the city except in the house, where Alia was the maid during the day, and the lover at night. Two tormented women who somehow brought comfort to each other, and yet still engaged in a relationship of power and control over each other.

The time frame of the novel is set between the moment Alia walks out the door, and the moment Hanan, suddenly panic stricken with the idea of losing her forever, thrusts out of her house early in the morning, into her car, looking for her. A few, yet intense, hours of these two women’s lives give us a quick glimpse on the Syrian contemporary society from a very unusual angle.

Translation by Emily Danby

It was a streak of light!

The door was ajar and, were it not for the light, which streamed from the room in a diagonal streak towards the corridor mirror, then Hanan al-Hashimi would not have noticed the whispers as she trod barefoot along the corridor. She had jumped out of bed, as though something had stung her, having dreamt that she had turned into a five-armed, three-breasted woman.

Hanan was still delirious. She groped at her body, feeling the wine-coloured lace which clung to her chest. She checked for any new limbs or protrusions, not quite convinced that her body had remained in its natural form until she had descended the wooden staircase and hurried to a full-length mirror, which she had rescued from amongst the furniture in the house whose residents had migrated. Hanan knew the mirror would not lie to her; it would reassure her that there were no gaunt, ghastly arms dancing around her body like vipers.

It was just a streak of light!

The jagged streak of light, which bisected the corridor, brought her round from her nightmare. Hanan realised that her feet were bare. She listened to the whispers emanating from her husband’s room.

She stopped, frozen. Her eyes bulged. Her feet would not move forward; she could go no further to find out what was going on inside the room – she hadn’t been in there for years and couldn’t recall its contents. Hanan hadn’t the slightest curiosity about the room in which her husband slept; she was simply awaiting his departure.

She approached the mirror and, having turned on the light, stood in front of it, exposed in her short lace gown. As she gazed into the mirror a silly thought flashed through her mind; blind curiosity to know what her husband was up to.

‘Have I gone mad?’

Hanan examined her face in the mirror. Her eyes glimmered. She rubbed her thighs, all the while holding her breath. She laughed and was overcome with an instantaneous joy. For a few moments she forgot the noises coming from the room, immersed in pleasure as she stood before the mirror, contemplating her body in all its detail. Hanan hitched up her short gown and examined her buttocks curiously, as though it were another woman’s body that she was observing. She groped at the mirror’s surface, letting her fingers roam to her face, massaging her cheek. The silkiness of her skin – as smooth as the polished mirror – gave Hanan a feeling of delight. She burst into laughter, then quickly put her palm to her mouth, like a bashful schoolgirl.

Reaching out a hand, she turned off the light, thinking of the shadow she would cast in front of the mirror, finally convinced that her appearance was as it had always been. All of a sudden, she was drowning in darkness. The light streaming from her husband’s room had vanished. The door had been pulled shut. She shuddered.

Hanan tried to pull herself together. The only thought in her head was that a thief had broken into the villa. She stifled a scream and dug around in the darkness for the wall, fumbling for safety. Hanan was struggling to breathe and thought about trying to get to the nearest phone; surely her husband wouldn’t be awake at this hour and if by some miracle he was, he wouldn’t turn off the lights so abruptly at the sound of her footsteps.

Hanan clung tightly to the wall until she had become a part of it. Curling her body into a ball and wrapping her arms around herself, she held her breath. Minutes passed as she stayed huddled. Then, light shone from the room and the whispers returned once more.

Soft whispers. Faint laughter. A tortured moan. Hanan stepped slowly, her footsteps heavy, as she tried to make out the source of the voice. Her body trembled intensely. She stood in front of the door and gripped the handle. Violently, Hanan swung the door open and confronted the scene face-on. The room became a shadowy theatre, illuminated by a dim spot-light. Her face seemed to erupt; the pores of her skin turned into knife blades, protruding like soft pimples, which covered her body from the soles of her feet to the parting of her dishevelled hair.

Her husband lay naked, sprawled on the bed, his face visibly creased in pain. No, not pain exactly. She hadn’t seen such an expression before; it rearranged his features. He wasn’t himself, yet it was her husband; and there, like a deep hollow, in the centre of the dim spotlight was… Aliyah.

This wasn’t a dream, was it? She wasn’t lying stretched out on her bed covered in sweat on account of her nightmare. It was Aliyah. Aliyah whom she knew better than she knew herself. It was her!

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