Hanan al-Shaykh
Hanan al-Shaykh

We head for Beirut in a Ford, not on foot, the way Mother used to do every time she felt a yearning to see her four children living in Beirut. It would take her four days to get there, and her feet would be covered in blisters. When she came back to my brother, Kamil, and me in Nabatiyye, there would be the blisters on her feet again; they’d burst like a balloon, but with no noise.

I knew I had siblings, two half-brothers and two half-sisters by Mother’s first husband who had been killed. One of the sisters brought me a dress and gave my brother, Kamil, some navy-blue trousers and a shirt. Any time someone mentioned the word “Beirut” in Mother’s hearing, her expression would change. She’d put her hands on her cheeks and sing: “Beirut, Beirut, you stole my children from me!”

I’d seen my two half-brothers and -sisters on rare occasions before when they came to visit us in Nabatiyye. I still retained a clear impression of all four of them, particularly their olive-brown colouring. I have no idea how I came to construct their story as days went by, or how it was I refused to believe that what had actually happened had happened. I couldn’t even imagine Mother hugging anyone before my brother, Kamil, and me.
Mother had been married to a man from an illustrious family in Nabatiyye that allegedly traced its origins all the way back to the Crusaders. The men in the family were renowned for their valour and for wearing golden gloves. Mother’s husband however was a man who kept a firm hold on mules’ halters; he was a muleteer plying between Southern villages in Lebanon and the city of Beirut. The two of them had built the house we live in and had four children. They all lived happily together till the First World War started. That created a famine because the Ottoman authorities cut off all supplies and sequestered everything. Locusts chewed up everything green in fields and on trees. Turkey nationalized all the inhabitants; every single man within its starving domains had to join the army. However, rather than that, Mother and her husband decided to escape. Mother left her valuables with her husband’s family: an amber necklace, her gold hair-grips, and two gold coins she used to entwine into her curls. They hid all the gold English “Ottoman” guineas in the bottom of the box that one of the mules was to transport; and just in case they were attacked by thieves and highway-robbers on some remote pathways, they put food and provisions on top. They took the very hardest tracks through mountains and valleys so as to avoid the normal Ottoman routes until they reached Ma’an in Jordan. However before they, their children, and the mules even managed to reach safety, there were indeed attacked by a gang that stole the mule with the gold hidden in the bottom of the box. The married couple rued their cruel fate and spent much time in tears. They didn’t even think of complaining to the authorities immediately, but waited for a day or two. My very own bashful mother could not even look at the group of men that the authorities had brought in for identification as members of the gang, while the husband was unable to identify the culprit. The two of them started guessing, then pointing to one or other of the men in the line-up. A moment later they’d change their minds, but they failed to settle anything.

In the darkness of night one of the gang members came back, killed Mother’s husband, thus bringing any confusion over guilt to a sudden end and marking the beginning of the ongoing series of miseries for Mother. With her children and the two mules she joined a caravan on its way back to Lebanon. She rushed to her husband’s family’s house to collect the valuables they had left in their care – the amber necklace and the gold hair-grips – so she could sell them, but the family shut the door in her face and that of their grand-children. They claimed that the valuables had been a deposit for a debt that their now dead son had owed them before he decided to escape to Jordan. In spite of that Mother did not give up. She knocked on the door again and asked them to help her; she only gave up all hope when she was beaten and ejected from the house.

With that she returned to her own house, ruing the fate that had befallen her but grateful nevertheless that she still had a house that could serve as a refuge for her and her four children. During her absence it had been stripped of all its furnishings, coverlets, and blankets. She now rushed to start working in the only place she knew anything about: earth, fields, and crops. But however hard she worked and struggled, she wasn’t able to get enough to shoulder all her family responsibilities. She took to knocking on the doors of politicians and telling them what had happened to her. One of them offered her some help by getting the children admitted to an American charity school in the intramural part of Sidon. That meant that, every time Mother wanted to see her children, she had to walk for two or three hours to get there. Even so, only one visit a month was allowed.
There stands Mother below the windows of the girls’ dormitory shouting their names. No sooner does she spot them looking out the window than she bursts into tears. Then she goes over to the boys’ section and calls out their names too. When no one looks out, she throws some small pebbles at the balcony. When the boys appear, there are more floods of tears.

When Mother can’t survive on the few piastres she makes picking citrus, she is forced to rent out the back room downstairs with its garden and yard. Someone rents it but changes his mind after just a month, leaving her once again with no means of support. Then a sheikh, who has graduated from the Azhar University in Cairo and come back to his birthplace in South Lebanon, decides to open a school to teach children to read and write and to study the Qur’an. He makes it a condition that Mother rents him two rooms, not one. His reputation had preceded him in that he was married to a proverbially beautiful Turkish woman named “Hanim.” No sooner had she arrived in Nabatiyye than women from the village and neighboring villages as well flocked to get a glimpse of her beautiful white complexion and luxuriant black hair; they enjoyed listening to her Turkish accent too. The sheikh had one son who took over the teaching and administrative functions at the school. This son started flirting with Mother, with her tall stature, bright eyes and jet-black hair. He wasn’t like any of the men in her family or village, and so she was attracted to him. He was literate and witty, could improvise poetry and recite early Arabic odes. Even though she was ten years older than him, she felt sure he would help her take care of her four children. He started calling her Khadija Bint Khuwaylid, obviously wishing that Mother had the same expertise in commerce as Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad.

Mother decided to bring her four children back to the house to live with her. Perhaps her conscience was pricking her because she’d been married for a second time to the man who was my father. One night she went to the school in Sidon and shouted for them one by one. She urged them to jump over the school wall and come back home with her. However, Mother’s four children did not like her new husband; in fact, they couldn’t even believe that she had been married again. What hope could there possibly be when she’d married a clown whereas they were models of dignity and composure? How could it be any other way when they were still missing their own father, not to mention their school? The elder son soon left the south and tried to find a job in Beirut. Just a few months later, the younger one followed him to the capital city. He had been going on trips with Mother’s new husband who was working as a cobbler resoling and – heeling shoes in the villages, but there was one particular incident that made him furious rather than amused. Mother’s husband had disguised himself with a cloak and attacked the boy, yelling “Give me everything you have or else I’ll kill you!” The poor boy went into a panic, especially since he still remembered what had happened to his own father. He searched everywhere for Mother’s husband, but could find no trace of him. At that point he heard some guffawing and laughter, and discovered that the supposed “thief” was actually Mother’s husband who had decided it would be fun to play a trick on him in the middle of the night after a long, hard day.

A few months later the two girls joined their brothers in Beirut, leaving the house in Nabatiyye to mother, her new husband, and my brother, Kamil. Three years later, I was born.
Beirut must lie beyond that mountain, that valley, that red line. I watch as everything disappears behind me. For the first time I am looking at the blue sea, and I assume it’s the sky’s brother. I stare at them both as they come together, then disappear into the distance. The sea proceeds on its way, yet it stretches off into the distance as far as I can see. I wonder, is the wind that’s hitting my hand outside the car-window the same wind or does it change as the car speeds on its way to Beirut? Eventually we reach Beirut; it’s larger than the market in Nabatiyye, and I suppose it must be the big wide world itself.
But I don’t see any big sacks with granules of rice and sugar falling out, nor do I spot people rushing around, faces close together, eating, and licking treacle from barrels. Here they walk to and fro, without stopping and talking to each other the way people do in Nabatiyye. They look down from balconies. At first I don’t even realize that they’re connected to the rest of the house. How can people live there, I ask, when there’s no roof; and, even if there is a roof, where are the walls? The houses are roofed with red tiles, one on top of the other, just like pomegranate seeds. Big, tall apertures are called “windows,” not “doors of secrets” the way we call them in the South. At first I assume that the circular skylights are dove-cotes that I used to see in profusion in the South. Beirut’s trees are not like the ones I’m used to, but within just a few days I have remembered their names: azederac, thistle, date, mulberry and locust.
We reach the home of my elder sister and her husband. Everything we own is in Mother’s wooden box inlaid with velvet, brass and tin: Mother’s dresses, my brother’s two pairs of trousers, scarves, hyssop, flower-blossoms and marjoram.
My gloomy brother’s house in Beirut was separated from my sister’s by a small garden. It was there that I saw my brother once again. He’d become even more morose than before. I call to mind what he used to say when he was working as a shoe-repairer in the South: “Give me a nail to bang, and I’ll make it ring like a bell.” .
Now we were in Beirut, Mother no longer went out at night, as she had done before, in order to search in the vegetable plot for bits of chard and endive to use in making our dinner, nor did we sit by the large Beiruti sacks smacking our lips and eating. Instead we sat on the floor around a tray. Mother, my brother and I would be very tentative about stretching our hands to the food, even though there was much more than Mother had ever been able to offer us in the South.
Every time I stretch my hand out, I take a look at my sister’s husband who is teaching Mother, my brother and me how to eat. “Put your face over the tray. What a shame, such a little piece of bread!” (it being the tiniest possible morsel). He has a peculiar accent, one I’m hearing for the first time even though he himself is from the South. My elder brother arrives (he’s fond of strumming the oud) and kisses Mother’s hand. He has brought with him a long loaf of bread that looks just like a rolling-pin and is still called “French bread”. Then my other sister arrives. No sooner does she see Mother than she hugs her and starts crying. She tells Mother about her husband who’s addicted to gambling and horse-racing. I hear that her children are starving and homeless; I can’t understand how that can happen when they’re living in Beirut.
I don’t pay particular attention to any member of the family. Instead I concentrate all my attention on sweets which become my overriding preoccupation. I am totally absorbed by them and their wonderful names: Smoothies, Hazels, Sesames. The vendor puts them in a glass-covered cart and goes around the streets shouting: “Wonderful hazels for sale . . .” I try to get Mother to give me half a piastre, I cry in front of my sister, I rush over to the vendor and stand in front of him with a pleading, hungry look, my saliva flowing like a dog’s. There I stand in my wooden clogs watching the boys and girls with shoes buying sweets and sucking them with relish.
“Do you want something?” the vendor asks me. “Why don’t you buy some?”
“I’m just looking,” I reply. But when he won’t give me anything without paying, I tell him: “No one will give me a piastre. I’m from the South and my father’s dead.”
The vendor stares at me as though I haven’t said anything, and I start to hate him. Once I’ve managed to staunch my craving for sweets, another one takes over: I want to buy all the hair-grips, pins and coloured bracelets I’ve seen the girls in Beirut wearing on their arms. I try to wheedle a quarter- or half-piastre out of anyone who comes to my sister’s house, but the only response I ever get is: “Oh, I wish I could . . . tomorrow . . . I wish I had something with me . . .” I don’t dare ask my gloomy brother. He keeps an anxious eye on me and mutters to himself every time I stretch out a hand to a bunch of grapes or bring a seed close to my mouth. While we’re in bed at night, with Mother in between us, I ask my brother if he’d have preferred to stay in Nabatiyye.
His reply reduces me to silence: “If we’d stayed there, you’d have died a thousand times over before ever licking any treacle.”
I didn’t feel like telling him how much Mother has changed. She’s started telling me off, something she never did before. She tells me off for walking too fast, for jumping, for saying I’m hungry. I notice how little she has to say; it’s as though she’s a table or chair, one that can only sigh, moan, and say “O God!” A thought occurs to me: if only I’d taken a knife while we were still in Nabatiyye, then distracted the butcher and cut off a piece of lamb hanging there, we would still be back there in our house in the South and Mother will still belong to us.
I watch the girls of my age and long to play with them, especially one who stares at me with contempt, perhaps because I’m wearing wooden clogs on my feet. But how am I supposed to hide a dress that doesn’t look like the ones girls in Beirut wear? Mine is dark-coloured with bold patterns all over it. I try to arouse her sympathy. “I’m not from Beirut,” I tell her. “My father’s dead. Nobody’ll give me a piastre.”
“Your family’s poor,” she says, and with that she turns her back on me.
I’m about to tell her that I was poor in the South, but now in Beirut we can eat sugar and treacle, but I don’t. I decide that the thing to do is to get hold of some piastres by any means possible. I go first to ask Mother and my sister, but no luck. If only I had never done that, because now my sister’s husband decides that I should go around the houses in the neighbourhood selling rubber bibs for use with nursing babies. At the same time he decides to take my brother, Kamil, with him to sell thread downtown.
Everyone in the house had a job. Mother helped my sister raising the children and managing the household. My sister spent all day bent over the sewing machine making clothes, as well as embroidering birds’ feet on coloured scarves and head-cloths for her husband to take with him next day and sell in the markets. With the greatest reluctance I listen to the instructions that my sister’s husband gives me, but only after Mother has tried to convince me by saying: “Your sister and her husband are not obliged to take care of us. It’s good of them to let us sleep in their home.”
So I do the rounds of our neighbourhood and the ones next to it. I climb stairways and enter gardens so I can get to the front door. I notice a pond with a fountain in the middle and remember how happy I used to be when my pee came out in different patterns. I knock on people’s doors and ask them to buy rubber bibs. I urge them, I plead poverty, I do not budge from my spot, I remain exactly where I am until they either buy from me or close the door in my face. I move from house to house with a lump in my throat. I have no idea where it comes from, until a woman opens the door and gives me a smile. When I ask her to buy a plastic bib, she panics.
She asks me if I have a family and who sent me. When I tell her, she clasps her head. “Yay, yay!” she says in an accent I’ve never heard before. “I don’t believe it! Aren’t your family scared to death about you? Such a pretty girl!” She calls out to another woman and tells her my story. She clasps her head again. “Yay, yay,” she says again, “I can’t believe it. Good God, show mercy on Your servants! I’ve never in my life seen girls going around houses selling things! What kind of family does she have?!” With that she purchases everything I have and gently pinches my cheek. She tells me to take care of myself. “Listen, my pretty girl,” she says. “Look after yourself, do you understand? Don’t let anyone play around with you. If any man opens the door to you, run away quickly.”
I hurry home and tell Mother what the woman has said to me. I ask her why no one told me to watch out for myself, and tell her that I’m supposed to run away if a man opens the door. I ask her why she isn’t sending me to school. I’m assuming that I’m supposed to be sent somewhere so I won’t have to stay at home. Beirut isn’t Nabatiyye, is it? But all Mother can do is to sigh, and I understand that the decision is not hers or my sister’s; it’s made by my sister’s husband and my gloomy brother as well. They’re never going to buy me pens and notebooks for school. I started crying and moaning, but mother and my sister rush over to make me stop. They warn me about my sister’s husband. “Watch out,” they say, “he’ll get you,” exactly the same way we used to scare each other in Nabatiyye: watch out for gremlins, hyenas, and the Devil himself.

Translated by Roger Allen

Hikayati Sharhun Yatool
[My Story is Too Long to Tell]
is published by Dar al-Adaab, Beirut, 2005