Authors: Hanan Al-Shaykh
Tags: #General Fiction
FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, AUGUST 1992
Copyright © 1988 by Hanān al-Shaykh
Copyright © 1989 by Hanān al-Shaykh for English translation
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 Quartet Books Limited in 1989. The Anchor Books edition is published by arrangement with Harold Ober Associates. Anchor Books gratefully acknowledges the advice and guidance of Charles R. Larson.
ANCHOR BOOKS and colophon are registered trademarks of
Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Women of sand and myrrh / Hanan al-Shaykh; translated by Catherine Cobham.
I dropped on to the couch and the canary landed on my shoulder, chirping. I pushed him off: ‘Leave me alone … not now!’
I looked at the pale curtains the colour of apricots, and at the glass tops of the little tables, and at the water-colours on the walls, and wished I could stay in this house all the time, just me and the canary. Everything in my house was soothing to look at, not like the furniture in the Institute or any of the other houses I went into, and such a change from the dusty streets, the colourless buildings, and the sand strewn with ruins.
When the men had come in I had been sitting in the restroom, drinking the lemonade that I’d brought from home in a little thermos flask. I froze, then began to tremble. One of them said to me, ‘Cover yourself up, woman.’
I saw a towel flying through the air towards me. I don’t know who threw it, but I put it around my shoulders, looking down and seeing only the men’s sandals and mules and long tobacco-stained nails. I didn’t breathe again until I heard the sound of their receding footsteps as they vanished in response to the principal’s protests from the next room; her voice raised in anger, she accused them of trespassing in an area reserved for women: ‘Can’t you read? This is an Institute of Learning and the notice on the door says “Entry forbidden to men”.’
I had hoped that going to the Institute would be an escape for me, and perhaps a way of avoiding the anguish and fear which I’d suffered in the past year when I was working in the department store.
Every day there I used to hide in a big brown cardboard box, wondering whether the security man would suspect anything. I pictured to myself how the box looked from the
outside, inscribed with the words ‘FRAGILE – WITH CARE’ and a picture of a glass tumbler. If ever I caught a faint whiff of my perfume I used to feel scared in case the man was blessed with an extraordinarily powerful sense of smell.
The fear that he would catch me was so intense that all other sensations – the sweat pouring from me like a sudden cold shower, the box’s distinctive strong smell – were meaningless in comparison. When I had been concealed in the box for some time and could no longer hear the sound of footsteps I calmed down a little and found myself laughing in disbelief. I was hiding because I was a woman and I was working, and yet out in the world there were big cities and space stations; in a clean white room the product of a man’s solitary ejaculation could be discharged into an infertile woman and you could see the foetus inside the mother’s womb on television; there were concert-halls, applauding audiences, laughter, weeping, crowds of people moving around, hurricanes, schools, nightclubs, hermits in caves … I tried to stop working, but I couldn’t: to go into the vast store with its white walls, and to see the coloured candles, the batteries, the greetings cards, the blue writing-paper, the aprons and towels with flowers and mushrooms on them, the children’s toys, and the ballpoint pens with their sharp new smell, was to be reminded of the comforting trivia of a normal existence. Even the freezers on the far side of the store – white and clean and big, packed with soft drinks and icecream in cartons decorated with pictures of mangoes and strawberries, and the portions of frozen meat with veins running through them – looked beautiful to me, and I preferred it all to staying at home or going to visit the other women I knew. When the store’s owner, Amer, began to entrust me with correspondence and making out orders, my feeling of importance knew no bounds; before that my work had been confined to arranging toys and displays of household goods on the second floor.
My job divided the day in two. It was as if I began again at
four in the afternoon when I’d had lunch with my husband and my son Umar, who came home from school at two o’clock. I had ten minutes’ sleep and then got up to help Umar with his Arabic before he went to Sitt Wafa for a private lesson.
In the beginning I was amazed that Amer’s foreign wife should offer me this job, and then that I could be satisfied with it. I had a degree in Management Studies from the American University of Beirut, but nobody else had wanted to employ me. They were all scared of the law, the raids and reprisals. Even my husband had wriggled out of his promise to find me a job once he realized what things were like in this country. I kept on hiding in the box until the day I heard the sound of footsteps and then something which I took to be a hand or foot knocking against it. I held my breath, and found that I was praying for help and shaking all over, and I swore to myself there and then that if I got out of that box without being caught and made a fool of I’d give up the job.
On my first day at home after leaving the store I decided not to hang around the house for long. I didn’t want to give myself the chance to be discontented and miserable like the time before. Even then I’d desperately resisted the torpor that enveloped this place, resisted being sucked down by the swamp whose waters never grew deeper but never completely dried up. Like the other women, I’d thrown myself into the life here so that I wouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I’d given up following the news, local or international, and occupied myself with cake recipes, and with finding friends for Umar, and taking him to see a little ape although I knew it had bitten its owner … I’d congratulated myself when I’d prepared dinner for five businessmen in an hour, or entertained Umar’s friends with a puppet theatre I’d made myself, hammering in the nails and sewing and hanging the curtains. I’d sent for the puppets from Lebanon, and when they’d arrived I’d been more delighted with them than my son and his friends. But when the children’s mothers had come and
sat around unenthusiastically and not even applauded my attempts, I’d felt a great resentment towards them and kept back the sweetmeats that I’d made for them.
Should I go and see Suzanne, Maryam, Umm Kairouz? Suzanne, Hind, Reem, Stephanie, Laila? Suzanne, Umm Kairouz, Tahani? Suzanne, Amal or Maryam? Suzanne? Shahnaz? Khulud, Raja, Dalal, or Sabah? Suzanne? When I’d put Suzanne out of my mind, I pictured the other women’s houses and imagined the sounds of their voices, and knew exactly what lay in wait for me.
Sabah: an analysis of marital relationships, her self-respect, the children. Shahnaz: the house and the furniture, the house and the furniture, her very, very successful son and her daughter who was only moderately successful, which of course was the teacher’s fault. Raja: the best method of self-defence was black pepper which she put on a plate near the bed each time her husband went away. Then if somebody tried to rape her she’d throw the plate at him. Stephanie: it was the chance of a lifetime being here in the desert and there was no time to get depressed. She imported everything from her home country, Sweden, and sold it here. She pricked out seedlings and planted them in pots and when they grew into blossoming branches she sold them. She cut hair and coloured it, made clothes, baked pastries, all for a price. She’d roll up the banknotes in an aluminium container and put them in her fridge. Maryam: elegance, regardless of the surroundings. Leather boots in the heat of the desert. What annoyed her was the censors who spilt their black ink all over the pages of the magazines she read, and actually tore some of them out. Exercises to keep slim. The best way of exercising the stomach is to hold in your pee for as long as you can. Umm Kairouz: ‘O Lord, may the ones who drove us out be driven out themselves one day. God damn the lot of them! Lebanon, Lebanon! Poor, poor Lebanon! Yesterday they were fighting again, but it’s quiet today. I’m ready to go
back, bombs and all. It’s better than this hole.’ Reem in the daytime: ‘The housework doesn’t leave me a minute to relax. That’s what it’s like with children to look after.’ Reem at night, laughing: ‘I can’t change the way I laugh – my husband tells me off about it. When I asked a friend of his if his moustache was false he said, “See for yourself”. I pulled it and it was real. He said, “So, don’t I get a kiss?” and I said, “Why not?” and laughed.’
Tahani: ‘I don’t know! The telephone rings every second. And there’s invitations to tea and coffee, starting from the early morning. Nothing but drinking, eating, telling silly stories, seeing who’s got the nicest clothes. Even when we’re playing ladies’ bridge they come wearing rings with diamonds as big as eggs. For God’s sake, aren’t we meant to be modern women? We’re educated, university graduates, but what can we do here? We’re not allowed to work, not allowed to drive cars. There are no places to go on outings. Tell me what you want to drink. Tea, coffee, mint tea? Try these Umm Alis … You’ve never tasted them? God, is there really someone who doesn’t know Umm Alis … See, you have the sheets of filo pastry ready, and the fruit and … Did you know the sheikha had a big dinner party and invited Ibtisam and Manal and they were sitting there and some woman said to them that the sheikha was having the party because her son the sheikh wanted to get married and it was a way of having a look at the likely candidates? And another woman said there’s probably a camera hidden behind the curtains. Ibtisam and Manal kept on looking at the curtains until their eyes almost popped out. And afterwards the sheikha said to them that the curtains were made by Valentino. Can you imagine, Valentino makes their curtains for them!’
I got to know them the first year I arrived. Like every woman coming here I felt that this was time lost out of my life. I began to make friends with anyone just for something
to do. I was living in a compound. The rooms were small and dark. The bathroom was like a bathroom in a cheap hotel. But the house was passable, compared to the grubby houses and twisting alleys and few primitive shops in the street where I’d lived before. I tried to make it look prettier. I changed the heavy gloomy curtains for lighter ones and threw the family’s coloured sheets, which I’d packed with my clothes, over the couches. On the walls I stuck pictures of Swiss chalets and lakes. Umar was staying with my mother in Beirut until I’d finished getting the house ready.