Authors: Hanan Al-Shaykh
Tags: #General Fiction
Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the contemporary Arab world’s most acclaimed writers. She was born in Lebanon and brought up in Beirut before going to Cairo to receive her education. She was a successful journalist in Cairo and in Beirut, then later lived in the Arabian Gulf before moving to London. She is the author of
The Locust and the Bird
, the collection
I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops
, and her novels include
The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, Beirut Blues
Only in London
, which was shortlisted for the
Foreign Fiction Prize. She lives in London.
Books by Hanan al-Shaykh
The Story of Zahra
Women of Sand and Myrrh
I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops
Only in London
The Locust and the Bird
FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS TRADE PAPERBACK EDITION, AUGUST 1996
Copyright © 1992 by Hanan al-Shaykh
English translation copyright © 1995 by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright
Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of
Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by
Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover
in the United States by Anchor Books in 1995.
The text of
was rendered into English by Catherine Cobham
with the author’s cooperation.
Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Anchor hardcover edition
of this work as follows:
[Barīd Bayrūt. English]
Beirut blues: a novel / by Hanan al-Shaykh; translated by
Catherine Cobham. — 1st Anchor Books ed.
I. Cobham, Catherine. II. Title.
To Najah Taher
Readers who compare this translation with the original Arabic will notice a number of changes. These have been made on the basis of artistic criteria and it is intended that the next Arabic edition will incorporate them.
Hanan al-Shaykh and Catherine Cobham, 1994
My Dear Hayat,
I’m thinking about you now instead of following Zemzem’s example and inching forward on all fours so the gunman doesn’t see me, or clutching the prayer beads like my grandmother and praying to God and His prophets for all I’m worth. I’m holding the new Energizer flashlight given away with four Energizer batteries. I shine it around the room, and there’s the painting you gave me on one of your visits to Beirut because the woman in it looked like me. Does she? You can’t see her face clearly. Perhaps the way she’s sitting alone in the room with only a little light filtering in through the window reminded you of me.
I pass the flashlight beam over the cupboard and see the nails on the back of the door where I’ve hung my dress, and the washstand—one of those pieces of furniture with a mirror and drawers and a white marble top. I remember it has a piece of wire in place of a key and I shine the light on it and
then catch sight of the bag lying on the marble with the aba in it, waiting to be sent to you. Involuntarily I bring the flashlight down and over to the other side and see the quiet geometry of the mosaic. I think of the lengths I went to to acquire this and the aba and shake my head in disbelief.
I’m thinking of you and talking to you, and it’s as if you’re not far away, even though I didn’t feel that closeness during your last visit to Lebanon. The thoughts and feelings born of violence seem very real, and you have what seem like final glimpses of those dearest to you flashing before your eyes. It’s just as if I’m in love with you. I remember the first thing I used to see when I opened my eyes in the morning was Naser, and I knew he’d been there behind my eyes all night long, from the moment I switched out the light.
During my relationship with him, or at least at the beginning, I used to mention you all the time. You were my safety blanket. Every time I felt him cooling towards me, I would suddenly announce that I was going to visit you or that you were coming here. I would show him all the things you’d sent me, and realize that you really had been a part of my life like my father and Isaf, the family maid in my childhood. Loving him, I stopped missing you as much and grew accustomed to holding a conversation with someone other than myself, for with you it was just like talking to myself.
I know you’re trying to contact me now, since our telephone’s been dead for a month. You’re the first to call when there’s fighting here, followed closely by my mother, who’s always crying and laughing at the same time. I used to know you were on the other end as soon as the phone rang. I couldn’t believe how loud your voice was, as if you were
somewhere in the house, and I found myself taking notice of life again, seeing the plants in their pots, being aware of the surface of the table, the veins on my hand.
You’re trying to contact me, for the battles between Hizbullah and Amal must be all over the front pages in Belgium. Instead of feeling—as I normally do—that I don’t want you constantly worrying about me during the fighting, I must admit that this time I’m comforted by the thought. I’ve only just stopped feeling guilty about our last conversation, when I let my incredible lethargy get the better of me, even though I knew you’d been sitting there hour after hour trying to get a line to Beirut. My lethargy could have surfaced before, but I used, at least, to pretend to be keen to talk to you, and if I exclaimed in annoyance because I had to go somewhere or had someone else with me, I would quickly change it into a sigh as if I missed you. I don’t understand why I behaved like this.
You always want to know my view of events and reassure yourself that I’m safe, while I’m absorbed with the trivia of love and sex, and at the moment with the rat. How can I answer your questions about the state of the country when my chief worry is the rat occupying our kitchen? We’re beginning to have to ask its permission every time we want to go in there during the night, so we let it know we’re at the door before we go in, then talk loudly and sing to it: “Come visit us, my beauty, come.” But it’s much cleverer than us and so far it’s managed to dodge the traps, and it actually knocked a plank of wood down onto the glue we’d laid to immobilize it so we could bash it on the head.
Can I really be irritated with Hayat, whose name was so
closely linked with mine that our two names were spoken as one: Hayat-and-Asmahan, Asmahan-and-Hayat? Is it because I’m never comfortable on the phone, while you love it and seem quite at ease? You stand there looking your best as if you’re face-to-face with the person at the other end. This wouldn’t explain my aversion to your calls, for my indifference was rapidly changing to a kind of bad temper which I always tried to hide when confronted by your boring news and your eager questions: “Asma! What have you got to tell me? How are you?”
Isn’t it ridiculous to summarize what’s going on in one sentence? The war is this, or the war is that. People are dancing, people are dying. I don’t care. Although I cared a lot yesterday. Then we’re silent, then I ask you some questions and try to sound interested. But what shall I ask you about? What will you answer? What have you been doing? You’ve found a Lebanese cook who makes you kibbeh and
And your son’s playing tennis and is going to be a champion. And you miss home. Oh, how you miss it.
Meanwhile, the life I’ve constructed in Beirut is only concerned with the heart of things. I get right to the bone now, no more floating on the surface, even in my conversations with Zemzem and Fadila. And they in turn have begun to look inside themselves. Since the generator went dead, Zemzem says to me, “I really miss the sound of that motor. It was like a human being.”
Our friendship couldn’t have survived as it was with the passing of time and the war; even the language has changed. The war buried some people away and brought others to prominence. I developed thousands of different personalities
all teeming with stories, as if I were an adolescent again; and because the war put an end to normal everyday life, people became odder. I began relishing this strangeness and was drawn to it once I’d opened myself up to the people coming and going; my grandmother used to compare my father’s house scathingly to the village inn, and I began to think of my life like that. People began entering it in droves, and because they all generated their own noise and activity, I sometimes felt constricted by them, but I was stuck with them.
Perhaps because in Belgium you can only establish marginal relationships, you’ve preferred to remain in our shared past, which we both began to draw on to preserve our friendship. We tried cobbling together the past and the present and succeeded at first to a limited degree, because we were both so curious to know about each other’s life. The strength of our feelings for each other helped, but the distance prevented us from really entering each other’s new life, and I sensed the past was gradually being buried under the rubble of the present, until you were no longer the person closest to me. I still don’t know if you realized this on your last visit or if you justified my coolness as a pathological character change, and felt sad because your friend was no longer the person you once knew. Perhaps you forgave her and thought about helping her. For you couldn’t comprehend how I could abandon you and leave the wedding party in the middle of the night hand in hand with your brother’s friend, who was years younger than me. We said we were going off to the convent to ask after Fadila’s mother, but you must have seen me leaning against him or lying back on the stony ground happy
to feel him breathing close up against me. We came back to your parents’ house at dawn, and all I wanted to do was sleep. When you asked me how Fadila’s mother was, I laughed and said, “Happy with the nuns. I mean with the Prophet’s family!”
I was worried from the moment I heard you were visiting Lebanon for your brother’s wedding. I’d have to prepare, find Ali, and go and meet you if you were coming by air. I sighed at the thought of it. This meant that you’d spend the first night with me so I’d have to get my room ready for you, take my things from here and there, cancel my meeting with Simon, try to persuade Jummana to come with me to your brother’s wedding, and make you two more friendly with each other, as if I were responsible for the chemistry between you. The energy which all this required had long ago forsaken me.
Then I began thinking about what I should wear for the wedding. I remember I stood in front of the mirror for ages, imagining what you would see, hoping you’d be surprised. Although I’ve stayed in Lebanon, I’ve still got some taste. I know what’s going on in the outside world. I’m not standing still, and they haven’t got me wearing a veil yet.
I tried on lots of different outfits but didn’t manage to picture an expression of surprise or approval in your eyes.
I was sure you would be wearing the most beautiful clothes, and the art student you told me about would have designed your dress, because she’s started designing everything for you, even weaves and dyes the material and finds someone to make your shoes and earrings. (I remember you
telling me this while I was waiting to talk to Ali to tell him the generator had broken down.) I found myself standing in front of the open wardrobe as if I were confronted by a fridge crammed with food and could find nothing to eat. I no longer believed in buying expensive clothes or even admitted to myself that there were still parties and weddings taking place; but the garments I used to devise from scraps and cast-offs weren’t right at my age. Suddenly I worked out how to make you gasp in admiration: I brought out my grandmother’s dresses, which I loved and couldn’t bring myself to part with, even though they were going under the arms. They were velvet and silk brocade in colors of rust, green, blue, violet, and among them was one made of the finest black lace I’d ever seen.