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Excerpt from the novel Jahiliya by Laila al-Juhni
translated by Piers Amodia
“Was he dead?” That night, as the excitement washed over him, he heard a sound that made him shudder, and when he looked at Malik’s body curled up on the worn asphalt – alone and defenceless, struck down without warning – he knew that all the water on earth would not be enough to wash away the sin he had committed.
As the mental image came back to him, he cried, sobbing like a lost child. Many years ago Sahar had cried, yet her tears hadn’t moved him at all. At the time he’d thought his unconcern was due to his strength, and anyway he’d done nothing wrong to feel responsible for. Everything had happened as she had wanted. Yet now he understood that it had had nothing to do with strength, only with cruelty. He’d been cruel, with that little devil’s heart that had continued to lead him on until it brought him to this abyss.
Was Malik dead? How could he know whether he was dead? Lina? When she looked at him that night as his mother bathed his head with water, praying to God and weeping, he was afraid she might understand, and escaped to his room. How could he ask her, plead with her even, to tell him whether Malik was alive or dead?
If Malik died, he would die too. Likely enough they would take revenge on him; and when the news got out people would spread rumours and add the evil of scandal and disgrace to the evil he had already committed.
“Oh God! Oh God!”
He broke into tears. The weight on his chest became heavier and heavier, a burning lump was choking him and for a moment he felt as if he couldn’t breathe. He didn’t notice his mother coming in, all he could feel was the pain in his head where he’d beaten it against the wall. Then he saw her, her face buried in her hands, crying and rolling her eyes up to the ceiling with a look of burning rebuke.
If he died his mother would die too, for she had made him the pillar upon which her life rested, and no sooner would it break than the sky would come crashing down on her head. She still did nott know what he had done, yet even if she found out she would understand why he had done it and forgive him.
He looked at her as she sat in front of him, paralysed and helpless. He wanted to curl up, to go back to being a foetus in her womb. Did she have to give birth to him? Couldn’t she have miscarried him as she had miscarried others before him? He smelt the fragrance of her body mixed with her perfume. She smelt like a mother. Then an idea leapt to his mind, he didn’t know how it came but come it did and it devastated him: perhaps Malik hadn’t died, perhaps he had a mother weeping for him as he lay there, unconscious, unable even to realise that she was weeping over his head.
Four thirty a.m. (her room)
Lina started backwards in her chair. She’d spent the whole night reviewing the details of her existence, only to see it now collapse before her eyes while she was incapable of lifting a finger. Even crying was beyond her. All she could think of was Malik’s face in the Dar Al-Iman Intercontinental Hotel, with his unkempt features and sad beauty. She remembered how she hadn’t told him that his unkemptness gave his face a certain air, an air she couldn’t define but found attractive.
What harm would it have been to tell him? To have kissed him so he could know what her touch was like? Yet she hadn’t kissed him but gone to cry in the bathroom alone. Now her brother had told her he’d hit Malik, and perhaps he was dead, and she was unable even to shed a tear.
“If you don’t want to hurt me, then you mustn’t die,” she had told Malik, so how could he die now without telling her beforehand? He had called her the afternoon of the day Hashim hit him, and he hadn’t said he was about to die! They’d chatted a little and he’d told her he was going to reopen the subject of their engagement with her father.
“Look after yourself,” he told her, as he always did.
And so he’d said goodbye, yet she hadn’t told him to look after himself, because it wasn’t her habit to do so. And even if she had said it, would her words have interposed themselves between him and death?
She’d seen death many times. Death had no need to make any appointments. How could she have imagined that Malik would call her to inform her he was going to die today or tomorrow? Or that he’d died yesterday but had only found the opportunity to tell her today?
“Oh my God!” She saw her father’s face and remembered she was in her own room. She didn’t know when Hashim had left, or when her mother had followed him, though she could make out the sound of her crying and muttering. And she, why wasn’t she crying?
“Lina, are you all right?” She looked into her father’s face and saw there everything he had told her in the past.
Had she made a mistake in loving a black man? Had she committed a sin against God or mankind? She had loved a man, a man with a heart of gold, and hadn’t even looked at his colour. Her brother, however, hadn’t looked at anything but his colour, and punished her for it.
“People will only look at his colour; they’ll punish you and I don’t want you to suffer”, her father had said, unaware that her brother would be the first to inflict that punishment. She hadn’t known it either. The right side of her head began to throb with pain. How many times had she complained to Malik of her constant migraine, and he’d tell her to stop hurting herself? Yet she had been hurt and not inflicted pain on herself.
She considered the tone of her father’s voice and realised he was almost prostrate with concern. She looked at him, hoping her face wouldn’t betray her inner commotion, then switched off the computer she’d been working on, stretched out on the bed and drew up the cover, a strange coldness closing around her heart. Then she looked into her father’s eyes and said: “Dad, I want to sleep for a while.”
He knew she wouldn’t sleep, just as he knew that she wouldn’t speak. He withdrew softly, switching off the light and closing the door behind him.
How kind the darkness was to her when it brought her Malik! She saw his face in the shadows engulfing the room: his delicate eyebrows, the yellowish hue of his wide-set eyes with their thick curling lashes. She saw his broad nose and his generous lips, and that deep scar an old wound had left on his chin. The scar had always fascinated her. It was so deeeeeep, she could have stretched out there and slept her fill without anyone waking her to say: “You’re disturbing the dead, look for somewhere else to lounge about.”
Did she now have to think of him as a corpse lying in the back streets of Medina in order to understand all of a sudden that her love for him had become partially buried under heaps of grief, although in fact he wasn’t dead? Was it necessary for someone to kill him for her to be sure that love was alive and beating in the depths of her heart, and that she had simply lost the way to get there?
When had she stopped telling him she loved him? And why had she stopped? Something inside her had abated since he had surprised her with the story of Sakk al-Ghufran. Her yearning, tenderness and passion had all abated. She fell ill and did not recover quickly. Then this shock had come to make her understand just how much she’d given up. She’d surrendered to the silence stretching cold and broad between them; she’d surrendered to the birds of ill omen pecking at her words and sending them back whence they had come; she’d surrendered to the growing distance between them. And she was unable to resist the painful feeling that he had disappointed her.
He’d called her often since the middle of the month of Shaaban*. He’d ask after her and tell her he loved her. He’d tell her that he missed her, that he missed their being together to laugh and chat about the sordidness of the world. He wanted her to go back to being as she used to be, because he was still the same as before. He wanted her to try – just to try – and forgive. But she didn’t go back as she had been, and she didn’t forgive.
She talked to him listlessly. Even when he broached the subject of their engagement with her father she felt no joy. It had become a duty, neither more nor less than a duty. She convinced herself that she wanted to be with him for the sake of the past and not for the future. She was faithful to everything that had developed between them and for that reason – and no other – she could accept their union. It seemed strange to her that their motivations for their relationship were so patently different: on his part, so they could be together as he had always dreamed; on hers, to give meaning to everything that had happened, because the future – everything that was to come – no longer concerned her, it was no longer hers. She had refused to let him touch her in the Dar Al-Iman Intercontinental, and that was enough to convince her that something inside her had broken, that it was no longer as it had been and perhaps never would be.
How could she remember that and overlook the fact that death is capable of resolving what, under normal circumstances, seem to be the most irremovable and stubborn opinions? Death unsettled her every time it had crossed her path, and here in the darkness of her room she realised she may never recover from the terrible sensation of having been so cruel and stupid.
Since mid-Shaaban she had been wondering what Hashim might do. She didn’t tell Malik that Hashim had seen her as she was leaving the Kaamirii, or that she had found him going through her things and reading the letters they had exchanged over the years. She hadn’t even thought of telling him. Why should she? She believed that Hashim would take out his anger on her. Yet her own cleverness betrayed her, as it had quite slipped her mind that her brother was a coward who, unable to confront her directly, would look for circuitous paths by which to punish (or educate) her.
If only Hashim knew that he hadn’t merely hurt her, but broken her to such an extent that she could no longer weep. Her eyes were dry, her heart full of grief, and her soul restless as she prayed: “Look upon me, God. I implore you, O God, save me from this situation. Lift this heavy burden from me and protect me from the lurking evil that might make me reject your justice. Take my hand, O God.”
She closed her eyes, but darkness had descended into her soul. A sharp pain began throbbing in the right side of her head and when her stomach started churning she realised the migraine was going to be particularly strong this time. Yet no stronger than death, which had come so unexpectedly, as it always did.
Seven p.m. (the hospital)
“Is he going to die?”
She was walking bemusedly along the corridor while her father sat in a white chair, head bent and muttering “la hawla wa la quwata illa billah” [There is no power and now strength save in God]. In her anguish, she kept walking in and out of the room, without it occurring to him to lead her out of the hospital before she went mad before his eyes. Yet she would have gone mad, her entire life would have collapsed if she hadn’t gone to the hospital.
Every time her father had visited the hospital over the last two days he had refused to enter the room where Malik was lying. She could see a profound sadness in his eyes but didn’t grasp that he was afraid, afraid of her reaction, afraid of the moment in which she realised that there was no hope.
Was hell looking at Malik as he drifted unconscious in a world she knew nothing about? Why did they say he was in a coma? He wasn’t in a coma. He was tired. So tired that he’d dozed off and no sooner had he rested than he would open his eyes again. All she had to do was to sit by his bed and wait for him to come round then help him become his old self while her father sat on the cold white chair waiting and praying that she wouldn’t lose her mind.
“Lina, Lina, Liiinnnaaa, how beautiful your name sounds! How did your father come to choose it? Lina, Lina.”
Yet her name had died since Malik stopped calling it; and his name was going to die too, shrouded in a white coma. Who said comas are white? Colour! Oh colour! What have you done?
“Is he going to die?”
The doctor pressed her painfully on the elbow. “Stop worrying,” he said.
She looked at him sorrowfully and replied: “But you don’t know him!”
Eight p.m. (the hospital)
“You’re so stubborn in you opinions,” Malik had once told her.
She had given him a petulant smile and raised her eyebrows, and he had admitted that there was nothing wrong with being obstinate as long as the subject called for it, but that it was a provocation when it was stubbornness for stubbornness’ sake. All right, but why was she thinking about her stubbornness now, in this room unfamiliar to either of them, and while he lay there unconscious? But, then, what should she think about? About the first time that he, tired and confused, had met her to tell her he loved her? When was that?
Afterwards she had spent many sleepless nights. She found it strange that she could feel everything going on inside him; that she was aware of the words hanging on his lips every time he called her without uttering them; that she found herself giving him time to say those words, drawing out the conversation and inventing excuses for him to call her back, and other little tricks she was embarrassed to have used, simply because she felt what was going on inside him.
No sooner would he say “I love you”, she had thought, than she would smile and relax back in her chair. But she didn’t. The words seemed different from how she had imagined them, and when she finally heard them she too was a different person, a person unable to smile or to relax back in her chair. Her limbs became cold, she felt as if her neck were paralysed, and looking at his face she was certain that he hadn’t slept for nights, that he had struggled for a long time before sitting down in front of her and saying:
“I love you, Lina. I’ve tried, but I can’t endure it any longer. There’s nothing around me that doesn’t remind me of you. Two days ago I was thinking of you while stopped at the traffic lights. I think about you all the time, but there I remembered your laugh. Why? I don’t know, but I didn’t notice the lights had gone green and I didn’t hear the cars hooting behind me. Just think! I swear to God I wasn’t on this earth, I was somewhere else, somewhere I’d never heard of before I met you. Can you imagine? I had run away from everyone and everything in order to be alone with you. I feel as if life is ridiculing me, and you know why? Because I have often made fun of lovers in films and soap operas and in songs, and now here I am doing and saying what they do and say. Make fun of me, Lina, go on, make fun of me, perhaps God will punish you and make you love me.”
She had bowed her head, overcome by a sense of solitude (how she hated that feeling) as various sensations and thoughts swirled through her mind. Nothing, however, frightened her so much as the thought that she might find herself alone in the eye of the hurricane. She remembered how, some days after that evening, she had glanced briefly into his eyes and seen there all the occasions she had spent alone: The time she had stood in the ruins of Bab al-Majidi with the bulldozers screeching around her. The time she received her secondary school certificate. The time she had seen the runway lights through the porthole of a Boeing 747, as the plane flew over Jeddah where she was to start her studies at the King Abdulaziz University. The time she had entered the hall of residence for female students. The time she was seized by a strange fit of crying on the night of 17 January 1991. The time they told her that her grandmother had passed away, and the time she stood among her classmates wearing graduation robes and smiling despite the fact she was thinking about her grandmother under the earth and asking herself what would be left of her after all those years? The time she saw Sharaf’s body being devoured by flames, and was so paralysed by shock she could do nothing.
All those moments, and many others, she had spent alone with no-one at her side to talk to. What she wanted was not someone to tell her that her feelings were good or bad, but just to be listened to, yet she was always unable to get the words out. She was afraid someone, anyone, might notice her agitation and the weakness it left in its wake, so she resisted to the point that she was convinced she didn’t need to talk to anyone about her innermost anxieties.
“Are you looking for my sincerity in my eyes?” Malik asked.
She felt the blood rushing to flush her face and ears. It irritated her that her agitation should make itself so obvious and very much wished she was one of those people whose faces hide their inner torment from the outside world.
“I’m obviously upsetting you. Lina, I’m asking you for nothing except to be yourself. I’ve got a lot to say and I’d like you to hear it before saying yes . . . or no.”
She smiled, merely to prevent the situation becoming overly dramatic. Later she told him as much, and he laughed and said he hadn’t noticed. She found it fascinating to observe his discomfort, the little movements he made, the way he pronounced his words, turning first towards her then away from her. “Why not?” she replied.
Hearing that, she felt a slight inner pang. She didn’t want him to feel grateful to her. They must be equals from the start, she thought, not one side giving and the other being grateful. She considered he had the right for her to listen to him and understand, so she added quickly: “Don’t thank me. I still haven’t said what I have to say. You might come to regret having thanked me.”
For a moment he seemed surprised, then he smiled and said: “Ever since I met you I knew you were unique.”
She smiled and answered: “I can’t stay long, I’ll wait for you to call.”
She left him at the table of the coffee shop on the ground floor of the Sheraton and walked away without looking back. She could hear the sound of her footsteps on the marble corridor as she made her way to the door and thought perhaps it was all a dream, that she’d never met him and he hadn’t said what he said. Yet the smell of his tobacco and his perfume filled her nostrils and followed her all the way to the car.
“He loves me!”
A tense silence stole over her as dread began gnawing anxiously at her stomach. She was not afraid of love but of herself, for she realised that she wouldn’t just sit there and love him under the immobile shadows of hypocrisy and double standards which hung over life around her. Often she had tried to escape from them, and from the fierce resentment she had to face because she wouldn’t accept the things other people approved of without discussion. Yet she had never once tried to change their lives. Oh no, never had she become embroiled in any idealistic attempt to change life, but had contented herself with trying to escape intact with her own beliefs, and now that escape was leading her to her death. Her relationship with Malik would reveal the shortcomings of life in her country, ripping away the gaudy silken veil covering all that mediocrity, and no one would forgive her for it. For she realised as she walked away from Malik that – if she continued along the uneven road of love – she would have to pay a double price: first because she had torn away the veil, and then because she was a woman.
Excerpted from the novel Jahiliya [Time of Ignorance],
published by Dar al-Adab, Beirut, 2007
* Shaaban is the eighth month of Islamic lunar calendar and immediately precedes the fasting month of Ramadan.