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Extracts from the novel
Running from a Lion
Translated by Robin Moger
Helen had heard no news of her family for a while. She was not even sure whether or not she had one. The war had wiped out everything; it altered the features of everything and even people changed, because blood, when shed, is dull and lifeless and it dulls the world.
It was in 1990 that she had been brought away from her raging corner of the world, though how or why she had no idea, for when Khalfan the merchant had adopted her she was just three years old. Khalfan’s wife, Ghazala, had produced no children, all her efforts and determination ending in failure. Doctors had advised her not to dwell on it as it could only make her feel worse, while her husband would tell her: “Drop it. We’re in the hands of our Creator, so please don’t mess around with your body more than you’ve done already. I love you more than ever and you’re my only woman in this house.”
But though these words soothed her inner torment, Ghazala’s heart, like that of any woman, still ached whenever she saw children; hearing a soft cry from an infant’s mouth she shook with excitement. And so Helen lived coddled by neediness, laying out a snug pillow on Ghazala’s forearm and listening through the night to the low murmur rising from the innards of a woman trying to create a foetus out of nothing, that it might silence her conscience’s ringing cries, bring order to her scattered feelings.
At night, Helen would go off to sleep without a whisper of protest, having spent her day playing havoc with her surroundings while receiving only lullabies and broad smiles from Ghazala and her husband. To tolerate the mischief of a child that had been hawked up by the blood-soaked void and found its way to a cocoon of overwhelming affection required someone with an extraordinary capacity for shouldering heavy burdens. Ghazala had it in her to bid her peace of mind goodbye and to accept the loss of all her most valuable possessions, but her joy at this tiny, priceless doll-like figure never left her.
Some two years later, with Helen now five, Ghazala began to dwell on all the things she had missed in the girl’s life. It would happen while Helen slept. The girl would wake up startled, to the sound of gentle sobbing, and opening her eyes would see Ghazala, her face pressed downwards, weeping silently so as not to wake her. Frightened, Helen would get up and approach her, peering into eyes that swam with tears and when she asked the woman she called “Mother” what was wrong, Ghazala would become flustered and with a wan smile tell her: “Nothing, my child. God watch over you, go to sleep! I just had a little headache and decided to sit down and have a small rest before I go back to sleep.”
She shook her head: “I’ve had this headache for a while now, on and off.”
Then she returned to the bed to soothe the girl: “Go to sleep, sweetheart. We have to get up early to go to the market and buy you some pretty dresses. They say that Baby Shop has some new girls’ dresses on display and we had better seize the chance while we can; it’s less than two months until Ramadan and then it’s Eid and everyone will be shopping.”
Hearing about the dresses the girl let her eyelids fall and her body relax and rested her head against Ghazala’s arm. “You go to sleep, too, Mum. I want to hear you snore.”
Ghazala chuckled: “You think I snore in my sleep?”
“Of course,” Helen whispered mischievously in her ear, “but it makes me happy.”
Ghazala leaned over to kiss her. Helen had closed her eyes in an undisguised attempt to encourage the greatest possible number of kisses, and as her lips met the child’s cheek Ghazala herself felt safe and secure.
But she was unable to fall asleep, unable even to move her body, which pressed against Helen, who was curled up against her chest like a kitten, her warm breath flowing between the older woman’s breasts. She felt heat creep into her body, which was cold and hollowed out by an endless nothingness. Despite longing to move her neck and drive out the thronging nightmares and relentless anxiety that wormed through her head Ghazala could not turn onto her other side, nor could she give voice to her thoughts. As for her husband, she knew that if she ever expressed her torment he wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of Helen, whom Ghazala adored to the point of madness, though something within her, some inner voice, dwelt constantly on the pain of that mother whose baby had been forever snatched away. If Helen had died in that savage war her mother might have comforted herself with the thought that the brutality of the conflict was beyond her control, but for the girl to leave alive and well for some faraway place where her fate must remain a mystery, that, Ghazala told herself, was a tragedy. But she was unable to explain these feelings of hers to another living being, because anyone listening to her pain would say she was a hypocritical woman who smothered her egotism in the ashes of false sentiment.
This on its own was quite enough for the furious grip of wild imaginings to crush Ghazala’s heart and head.
“What has become of this grief-stricken woman?” she repeated to herself. “Left empty-handed without a daughter or the prospect of a better future? War cheapens and poisons everything, starting with honour and our babies.”
Khalfan, merchant, philosopher and psychologist, who spent his life surrounded by scholarly research and philosophical treatises, was the son of a dedicated man of religion, but his own scholarship put paid to his father’s desire to pass on his religious culture and knowledge of Islamic fiqh. Khalfan was forever rebutting his father’s accusations of atheism, which he interpreted as the inability of religious men to understand the true meaning of scholarship; they spent much of their time memorizing prepackaged responses and were reluctant to exhaust themselves with genuine inquiry.
Even Ghazala would take him to task for shutting himself up in his room and staying put between its four walls for hours at a time. It was her great love for him, and her fear that he might go mad that would make her say to him: “My darling, solitude breeds madness and delusions. Don’t waste your time reading these books and riddles. You have to look after yourself.”
Khalfan met this barely concealed scolding with a grin and would occasionally comply so as not to anger his beloved wife, but he still felt irritated by an assault on scholarship whose only excuse in his eyes was ignorance.
He found what he was looking for in Helen, who occupied the affections of a wife ground down by emptiness, her heart consumed by the belief that her womanhood meant nothing so long as she remained childless, while all her sighs and sorrows, night and day, went unanswered.
When Helen came into his room carrying a doll that she wanted him to see, he told her in admiring tones: “What a lovely doll, Helen! Where did you get it?”
To which she answered with the childhood lisp that set his heart trembling: “At the children’s store.”
Khalfan felt the pangs of paternal love. Holding the palm of her hand he tenderly toyed with her fat fingers, plump as risen dough, and took her on his knee. She snatched up the pen and scribbled on the scattered papers. He chided her gently and when Ghazala, hearing his voice, entered the room, he was taken aback to see her so disbelieving at his calm acceptance of what Helen was doing. She snatched Helen out of his hands and went out, slamming the door behind her.
Khalfan remained behind the four mute walls, writing a few lines then ripping up the sheet, writing and ripping as his head spun and ideas wheeled around him. Whenever he thought of Ghazala and how before Helen came she used to talk of having a child, he was assailed by a terrible fear, entering a peculiar state of mind that despite all the studies he had produced and books he’d read he was powerless to explain. Why did his heart quiver whenever Helen approached him?
He thought about the absurd war, how it seemed to give birth to beings more like angels that had lost their way to heaven, swept down towards earth by raging winds, where paddling against mighty questions and bent out of shape by inhuman convictions, they nonetheless established themselves on some grey patch of ground and settled there, insistent, leaving no space for inquiry. Khalfan compared these beings to his father and his ilk, who wove woe from threads of coarse cotton, thinking it silk.
He knew that Ghazala was now the happiest creature on earth; the treasure she searched for inside her had come to her from the furnace of war in far-off lands. Now her nagging would surely cease, her constant insistence that he perform the impossible and make her truly happy by freeing her of that question that stretched from her head to her untried womb; that he release her from the curse that had colonized her soul.
She’s been liberated from this daily self-punishment, this long torment, he told himself. I can’t blame her for any of that. Any woman would do the same if she feared loss: the loss of husband who might lose control and run away, never to return, taking shelter in the arms of another woman capable of giving him his right as a man. This fellow’s forty and he wants to be a father and a husband to a real woman, so that everything he brings up out of himself does not go to waste . . .
Then Khalfan paused and pondered, and asked himself if this wasn’t just selfishness on the woman’s part that she thought only of possessing and nothing else. Remembering how Ghazala had snatched Helen from him he considered how she had acted, it was as though she wanted to safeguard his papers from Helen. Yet she was the first to protest at his absorption in his work, which she called “foolishness”. What message was she trying to send him?
He paused again. In any case, he went on, everything Ghazala does can be explained by one thing: a woman’s selfishness towards a man.
* * *
As Helen came into the study, Khalfan was engaged in a struggle with his conscience. Raving and enraged, and quite surrendered to the furnace of emotion inside him, he was entering unknown territory. When she stood in front him he started like a frightened bird, and unable to restrain himself, left his desk and walked towards her, taking her little hand in his and devouring it with kisses that set her tormented body on fire. The girl froze in astonishment, while inside her, her feelings shaped themselves into a ball of flame.
He tried to curb his instincts, doing his utmost to bring a proper paternal distance to bear, in tones that mixed parental affection and a purely human yearning:
“Helen, my dear daughter. I need you now more than ever before. I feel that you are the part that is missing from me, that without you I am floating around in the void that is your mother, Ghazala. You mustn’t let your father mope around without the chance to see your face now and then. This smile of yours, my girl, makes me bloom in ways impossible when you’re not around.”
Utterly taken aback, the girl stood there, troubled and dismayed at the sight of this man breaking down, a man who had always been the spine that held her upright and her bones together. He was strong, obstinate and determined, and despite his all consuming troubles he had never before shown any weakness before her, never bowed his head as he did now. This sudden capitulation did not suggest some material loss on his part, but rather gave her a glimpse of strange emotions, that set her young frame trembling.
Grey-haired Khalfan knelt in submission before Helen, the girl who called him father, king. How could this crown now fall, and carry him broken into the depths, erasing all trace of the personality she had built for herself? Never for a moment had he been less than a shining ideal, the paragon that sheltered her in times of weakness. Now, the wellsprings of his inner strength run dry, he had lost the aura of heroism that she used to read in his penetrating gaze and his face, whose features stormed with creativity and high ideals.
As Khalfan returned to his desk, their gazes locked and she noticed a teardrop trapped in the corner of his eye. He snapped his eyelids shut to prevent it falling. Helen, ground down under the weight of terrible questions and the horrors visited on her family and her native land of Bosnia by the savage Serbian military, no longer bothered trying to be strong in the face of human sorrow. She had grown up; she had read up on events and listened to the news and to what people were saying, while Khalfan himself had given her enough human empathy that she might consult her own conscience in times of difficulty.
She stayed like that, reading this proud man’s expression, while Khalfan remained motionless as an old plank. What fate lurks hidden here, pricking souls with its sharpened dagger? Between the girl’s hands was a piece of paper folded like a letter. She put her hand on her breast, holding the paper close, before asking him to look at it. Khalfan gave her no time to gather herself. Eager for any interaction that might release him from his confusion, he said in a hoarse and gentle tone: “Show me what you’ve done, my daughter.”
Bowing her head she answered softly: “It’s nothing, just a little attempt I wanted you to look over.”
“Then why do you look so put out?” Khalfan said sharply. “You have no business being frustrated. You’re a strong girl and full of hope. Leave being glum to the others. I want you to bloom like a flower.”
Helen sighed and her breath brushed the end of his nose. He felt the veins and pores in his body open to a sweet fragrance. His desire to be close to her increased. He reached out his hand and took the paper, and as he did so Helen’s fingers brushed his. The shudder ran through his body like a teenager touching a woman’s skin for the first time. He was enveloped entirely in feelings that scorched like coals.
Before his eyes was a picture of a man standing on top of a hill while in the valley a woman sat heaping dust onto her face. He looked up and, in a confused and shaky voice, said: “What’s this extraordinary picture, Helen? Every day you dazzle me with a new picture better than the one before it. Every day I feel you have grown more mature and truly become an artist.”
“Father,” Helen murmured, “my darling. There’s no need for flattery. I’m just a student who draws to express her feelings and emotions and find some respite from this emptiness.”
The word “darling” stunned him. This time, it had an unmistakeable, overwhelming effect, shaking his emotions and tangling the words on his lips.
“If you say ‘darling’ again I’ll pass out and I won’t get up again. It comes from your mouth like a lightening bolt descending from heaven.”
In her confusion Helen muttered something. She did not know what to say to her father. Glances were not enough for him, now even his words carried a new meaning. A shiver swept through her young body and her face reddened as she lowered her eyes. Khalfan was watching her reaction, furious with himself and what he had said. Anxious and embarrassed, he said: “There’s nothing worse than loneliness, but you, my girl, you’ve filled the cup of loneliness with dreams and hopes. I never thought you would be able to fill this emptiness.”
He tried reaching out to her and Helen, doing her utmost to keep him at bay, said: “I have no other father to love but you . . .”
Khalfan let himself sink beneath the surface of this dream, without colour or smell, then he broke away from his thoughts and said: “Stop frightening me, girl. A man of my age can’t hide his father’s feelings when a bouquet of roses walks into his office and greets him with a radiant smile and a scent that cuts through the dead cells of his body. Forgive me if I stirred some emotion in you, but I love you to distraction.”
Helen raised her eyes to the man’s face. She saw the creases on his forehead; the lines of time like valleys stretching away from failure and the dark corners of his past. She felt something moving in the room, some demon trying to wipe away the stillness and turn calm waters to a howling wind.
The idea she carried in her heart became a possibility when she observed the elderly man’s dawning passion. But how could it be? Khalfan, the tender father, loving, gentle and noble? Might he become a lover, someone’s god? But whose?
Helen was unable to take the paper from Khalfan, so left it there in his hands and went away before he could call out to her. It was as though their two mute tongues warned of a storm to come, as though the tremor that coursed through her contained within it another demon, whose silence was more eloquent than any speech.
* * *
At the critical moment he said to her: “We have to get married.”
It fell on her like a thunderbolt. Her face reddened, her forehead dampened: she was all at sea. Sadness, joy and fear, the emotions flared in her chest and she withdrew, weak, confused and upset. She was silent for a moment, looking down. She folded her hands over her stomach with no intention of doing anything. In fact, everything she was going to say had become a single response: was she really going to become a wife to this middle-aged man, in former years a father who had taken pity on her sad condition? Oh God, what is this destiny that brings things crashing down like the first stone from a rickety wall, that governs and decrees, that refashions and constrains human life to give the impression that it is always the product of sheer coincidence.
Coincidence! Is this causal chain of connected events to be severed by the choices of two free agents? How small is man, how weak, when fate and existence hold sway. You will marry me . . . My tongue is knotted.
She strained to complete her question: “And my mother, Ghazala?”
“What about her?” he said firmly. “Marrying you can’t hurt her any more than she is already.”
Broken and frail, Helen wept bitterly and said: “Haven’t you thought about where we’re going to live? And what’s to become of the poor woman now? She’s trapped by the pain and sorrow our relationship has brought her. It shouldn’t have happened.”
Khalfan’s voice grew sharp: “Was it wrong of me to fall in love with you?”
“My darling man, I don’t mean to upset you. It’s just that . . .”
“It’s just that what?” he broke in. “Believe me, I don’t want to argue about this. Just tell me: yes or no? Accept it or reject it, I won’t be angry at your answer. I just want to get off this merry-go-round, to step out of this limbo. You know that I’ve never borne any ill-will towards Ghazala, it’s just that she . . .”
He rubbed his eyelids and temples in agitation: “She . . . Yes, Helen?”
“Can’t that rift be healed, darling?”
“So you’re refusing my offer? Is that it?”
“No,” said Helen, stuttering and confused. “But . . .”
From Ali Abu al-Reesh’s novel Farrat min Qaswarah (Running from a Lion),
published by al-Muassassa al-Arabiya lil dirassat wal Nashr, 2010