Margaret Obank reviews


by Huzama Habayeb

translated by Kay Heikkinen

Hoopoe Fiction, 2019
ISBN: 9789774169304. Pbk, 312 pp, £10.99 / $17.95. eBook: £9.47 / $11.57

The aroma of wishes and desires

This is Huzama Habayeb’s third novel and marks a high point in her writing career, with the Arabic original, Mukhmal, awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2017. It was hailed by the judges as “a new kind of Palestinian novel” that wrote about the “everyday lives of Palestinians”, and about the “human condition” through its portrayal of woman.

Huzama Habayeb started writing short stories, poetry and news articles while she was studying English literature at university in Kuwait, where she was born and grew up, but she published her first collections of short stories in Jordan, after having to leave Kuwait. Following the first Gulf War with the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, and the forced exodus of Palestinians from the country, she settled in Jordan, and started a new life there. In 1993, she won the country’s Short Story Prize for Young Writers for her first collection, al-Rajul Aladhi Yatakarrar (The Man Who Is Repeated), published the year before. This was followed by the Jordanian Writers’ Association’s highest award, the Short Story Prize, for her second collection al-Tuffahat al-Ba‘ida (The Distant Apples), published in 1994. By 2001 she had published four short story collections, and then – at the time a journalist living in the UAE – wrote her first novel, Asl al-Hawa (Root of Passion), and debut poetry collection.

The central character of Velvet is Hawwa, and although it is essentially her story that is being told, she does not tell it herself. The third person narrator, the traditional storyteller, gives the novel a unique depth, and plenty of space for passions and emotions along with the very detailed, vivid and sensuous descriptions that abound. It allows Hawwa the freedom to think, to dream, to imagine, to react, to observe, and for readers to watch and appreciate her ups and downs and her conflicting emotions, in a way that would not be possible if she was telling her own story. It is a clever strategy by the author as it creates a kind of distance from Hawwa in which the reader is an observer, able to move to and from and around Hawwa, and to appreciate her sensitivities at different times of her life, as well as build an overall picture of the poverty-stricken and particularly harsh lives of the women living in the huge Baqa’a camp for Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Jordan’s capital Amman.

The title itself, Velvet, is a clue that the senses of touch, smell, sound and sight are always in sharp focus and central to appreciating Hawwa’s story. Throughout the novel, which follows Hawwa on what transpires to be her last day on earth, flashback upon flashback slip in to take over the storyline – supplementary narratives that are introduced more as digressions following a particular phrase or place being mentioned during Hawwa’s busy day, rather than unrelated historical back tracks or changes of subject. The flashbacks describe in meticulous detail the harsh and miserable daily life that was in glaring contradiction to Hawwa’s experience of working with talented seamstress Sitt Qamar – who she is apprenticed to when she is thirteen – of the natural world around her, the beauty of fabrics and caring for her sisters, her younger brother and her own children. Accompanying the flashbacks, throughout the novel, are refrains from the songs of Lebanese singer Fairuz, whose lyrics and melodies gave Hawwa strength, so that in spite of the violence and abuse directed against her by her immediate family, she never broke down. She was strong and resilient, looking after her aged senile relatives in their last years – her paternal grandmother and then her own mother.

One theme of the novel is the appalling treatment of women by most of the menfolk – they are generally regarded as workhorses, but ripe for sexual favours at any time of men’s choosing. A contrasting theme is the way in which Hawwa rises above the cruelty, the violations and base abuse, finds joy and love, and learns to feel human and to trust and express – and control – her emotions in the midst of misery. Kay Heikkinen has produced a fine translation that captures this changing narrative with its moods and emotions, its raw and often violent experiences juxtaposed with lyrical and sensuous descriptions.
Hawwa grew up in the Baqa’a camp with three sisters and two brothers. Her family lived in terrible poverty, but worse than that was the cruel misery meted out daily to her and her siblings by her monster of a father, who either used the strap on them, raped them or both. Her father raped her two older sisters most nights, and when they were married off aged fifteen or so, he moved on to Hawwa, whose mother Rabia was apparently equally powerless to stop it. Her father’s nightly “deed turned into something mechanical, touching her body on the surface . . . but never penetrating to her soul”. Hawwa survived by always thinking about other people, by caring for her sick younger brother Ayid, who wet his bed most nights, protecting him from getting the strap by taking the blows herself. During the worst times she created a fool-proof strategy that allowed her to cope with not having any control over the course of her life, until almost the end.

In Sweileh, a suburb of Amman, Hawwa works with Sitt Qamar and learns everything about pattern-making, cutting and sewing, fitting and the important work of taking measurements. She would leave the camp every morning to go to Sweileh, seeing another life, another world and becoming a skilful seamstress herself over the years. Sitt Qamar, the opposite of Hawwa’s mother Rabia, had her own vividly-described struggles for independence and self-respect, and is held up as a woman who did win out, becoming an unintentional mentor to Hawwa.

At Sitt Qamar’s house Hawwa meets a young engineer, who works there regularly, and she falls for him. But, calamity comes when she is married off a couple of years later, against her will, on account of her having developed the body of a mature woman. Her paternal grandmother, Naifa, arranges the marriage (after learning about her son raping Hawwa) but when Hawwa objects that she’s not ready to marry, Naifa grabs hold of her and beats her into submission, while her father and mother look on. The husband, Nazmi, is an odious man, a butcher who is uncouth, dirty and smelly, and in order to bear him Hawwa takes refuge in the only way she has ever been able to deal with her life of pain and brutality, by immediately summoning her imagination and fantasies, which take her to joyful places that smell of sweet jasmine, and sometimes seem almost real. The social customs at the time did not allow Hawwa to escape Nazmi’s beatings, but when she finds she is red-raw from swarms of bedbugs in their marital bed and her husband refuses to get a new bed, she takes hold of a carving knife and a sledgehammer, and, with incredible strength, slices the mattress to pieces, and smashes the bed frame, finally making a pile of it all and setting it alight.

Hawwa’s married life is no better than what she experienced living with her mother and father and siblings, but she continues working with Sitt Qamar who teaches her about fabrics and their different smells, as well as the value of “water and Fairuz”. “. . . the aroma of freshly lit frankincense came to her nose from velvet. Or was it the aroma of May, moving among the metals of lilies, damask roses, and jasmine, from silk, satin and chiffon, or the aroma of dried fruit from organza, guipure, and lace; the aroma of aging luxury, sometimes very old, from brocaded, beaded, or embroidered fabric; the aroma of steam rising from roasted chestnuts, from broadcloth and tweed; the aroma of sleeping coals, half lit, from fur and mohair; the aroma of crackling tree leaves from cotton and linen; the aroma of grass washed with water from jersey; or the aroma of newly made plastic from nylon or polyester.”

Since she had fallen for the young engineer, Hawwa always hoped she would find real love and a caring relationship. Now a grandmother, divorced by her brutal husband three years earlier, she has agreed to marry Munir, a widower with three daughters and eight grandchildren, who gave her a lift in his taxi when there was a violent hailstorm. They would meet for coffee in out of the way places but Hawwa was always worried that someone might see them. “We’re drinking coffee. What’s the crime in that?” Munir said to her. On this day of days, she buys a Romeo and Juliet tea service, a copy of the one she admired so much at Sitt Qamar’s when she was working there, as well as special violet velvet fabric to make herself a dress for her new life. Velvet has an aroma of its own, Sitt Qamar would tell her. “It’s the aroma of warmth, of dormant heat, of depth and expanse; it’s the aroma of wishes and desires, of maturity, maturity of love and of age; it’s the aroma of clean flesh, of flesh suffused with yearnings and the sweat of lust.”

Velvet tells the story of Hawwa but also more generally the women of Baqa’a camp. Most are strong, like Hawwa’s grandmother, but Naifa only knew to get her way with brute force, biting, shouting, screaming, to defend what she knows is her honour, her family. The conservative social customs of the time dictated the roles that men and women could play, who could be seen with whom and the hierarchy within a family. This ultimate control over people’s lives is laid bare in Velvet as lacking any humanity.
The final part of the novel is a quite unexpected shock after Hawwa’s life of struggle seemed to be making way for easier days and marriage to Munir. A couple of evenings after she tells her family she is going to marry Munir, her brother Ayid, whom she protected when he was a boy, and her son Qais, whom she was alarmed to realise was resembling his father more and more, come back to her house. Qais abruptly interrogates her, question after question, asking how she met Munir, how long they have known each other, on and on, and then Hawwa notices he is holding a small pistol. When her hand smooths down over her stomach it “plunges into a thick liquid” – blood. He has shot her fatally, and she collapses, dead.

The author encloses Hawwa’s story within powerful outbursts from the natural world: the novel opens with a fierce storm raining daggers, bullets, thunder and lightning, that lasts an entire week, stopping only on the eighth day – everywhere was drenched, but “all at once the sky went from being a jungle of clouds to a desert”. It ends with a bloodred sky and a swirling, raging red sandstorm, in which “winds whistled everywhere, laden with sand and small stones”. Velvet is a heady, emotional read.

Banipal has been publishing translations of fiction by Huzama Habayeb since 2003, and in Banipal 50 – Prison Writing (Summer 2014) published her essay on her literary influences, entitled “The Fire that Consumed my Heart”.

Link to Banipal 68 contents webpage

Back to all book reviews