Authors: Emily Danby
is a Syrian writer and journalist, born in Jableh in 1970. She is the author of
A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution
for which she won the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage Prize in 2012 and the Tucholsky Prize from Swedish PEN. She is also the author of several works of fiction in Arabic.
is her first novel to be translated into English. An outspoken critic of the Assad regime, Yazbek has been deeply involved in the Syrian revolution since it broke out in March 2011. Fearing for the life of her daughter, she was eventually forced to flee her country and now lives in hiding.
has worked as a literary translator of Arabic since her time studying the language in Oxford and Damascus. As part of the British Centre for Literary Translation's mentorship scheme, she has worked in collaboration with Marilyn Booth. Emily takes particular interest in the writing of Levantine women and modern Syrian literature.
Translated into English by Emily Danby
This book has been translated with the assistance of the
Sharjah International Book Fair Translation Grant Fund.
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by
70 Cadogan Place
London SW1X 9AH
Originally published as Ra'ihat al-Qirfa
by Dar al adab, Beirut, Lebanon
Copyright Â© Samar Yazbek 2008, 2012
Published by arrangement with Raya Agency
English language translation copyright Â© Emily Danby 2012
ebook ISBN 978-1-906697-44-0
All rights reserved.
It was a streak of light!
The door was ajar and, were it not for the light, which streamed from the room in a diagonal streak towards the corridor mirror, then Hanan al-Hashimi would not have noticed the whispers as she trod barefoot along the corridor. She had jumped out of bed, as though something had stung her, having dreamt that she had turned into a five-armed, three-breasted woman.
Hanan was still delirious. She groped at her body, feeling the wine-coloured lace which clung to her chest. She checked for any new limbs or protrusions, not quite convinced that her body had remained in its natural form until she had descended the wooden staircase and hurried to a full-length mirror, which she had rescued from amongst the furniture in the house whose residents had migrated. Hanan knew the mirror would not lie to her; it would reassure her that there were no gaunt, ghastly arms dancing around her body like vipers.
It was just a streak of light!
The jagged streak of light, which bisected the corridor, brought her round from her nightmare. Hanan realised that her feet were bare. She listened to the whispers emanating from her husband's room.
She stopped, frozen. Her eyes bulged. Her feet would not move forward; she could go no further to find out what was going on inside the room â she hadn't been in there for years and couldn't recall its contents. Hanan hadn't the slightest curiosity about the room in which her husband slept; she was simply awaiting his departure.
She approached the mirror and, having turned on the light, stood in front of it, exposed in her short lace gown. As she gazed into the mirror a silly thought flashed through her mind; blind curiosity to know what her husband was up to.
âHave I gone mad?'
Hanan examined her face in the mirror. Her eyes glimmered. She rubbed her thighs, all the while holding her breath. She laughed and was overcome with an instantaneous joy. For a few moments she forgot the noises coming from the room, immersed in pleasure as she stood before the mirror, contemplating her body in all its detail. Hanan hitched up her short gown and examined her buttocks curiously, as though it were another woman's body that she was observing. She groped at the mirror's surface, letting her fingers roam to her face, massaging her cheek. The silkiness of her skin â as smooth as the polished mirror â gave Hanan a feeling of delight. She burst into laughter, then quickly put her palm to her mouth, like a bashful schoolgirl.
Reaching out a hand, she turned off the light, thinking of the shadow she would cast in front of the mirror, finally convinced that her appearance was as it had always been. All of a sudden, she was drowning in darkness. The light streaming from her husband's room had vanished. The door had been pulled shut. She shuddered.
Hanan tried to pull herself together. The only thought in her head was that a thief had broken into the villa. She stifled a scream and dug around in the darkness for the wall, fumbling for safety. Hanan was struggling to breathe and thought about trying to get to the nearest phone; surely her husband wouldn't be awake at this hour and if by some miracle he was, he wouldn't turn off the lights so abruptly at the sound of her footsteps.
Hanan clung tightly to the wall until she had become a part of it. Curling her body into a ball and wrapping her arms around herself, she held her breath. Minutes passed as she stayed huddled. Then, light shone from the room and the whispers returned once more.
Soft whispers. Faint laughter. A tortured moan. Hanan stepped slowly, her footsteps heavy, as she tried to make out the source of the voice. Her body trembled intensely. She stood in front of the door and gripped the handle. Violently, Hanan swung the door open and confronted the scene face-on. The room became a shadowy theatre, illuminated by a dim spot-light. Her face seemed to erupt; the pores of her skin turned into knife blades, protruding like soft pimples, which covered her body from the soles of her feet to the parting of her dishevelled hair.
Her husband lay naked, sprawled on the bed, his face visibly creased in pain. No, not pain exactly. She hadn't seen such an expression before; it rearranged his features. He wasn't himself, yet it
her husband; and there, like a deep hollow, in the centre of the dim spotlight was... Aliyah.
This wasn't a dream, was it? She wasn't lying stretched out on her bed covered in sweat on account of her nightmare. It was Aliyah. Aliyah whom she knew better than she knew herself. It
It was Aliyah coiling herself seductively around her husband. The moment Aliyah caught sight of her mistress her body froze, yet she continued to stare into Hanan's eyes with piercing intensity. Both remained still as their sight absorbed a sharp ray of light. Glimmering, it settled into the whites of their eyeballs; it pierced the pores of their skin, like the edge of a sword. Neither uttered a sound. Between their two bodies lay that of the husband, alone, humiliated by his own nakedness; a sight unfamiliar to Hanan. She had spent the whole of their time together believing that he was devoid of any particularities. Even when he was on top of her she felt no pleasure as a woman might in feeling the weight of a man's body on her own; there was nothing more than a heaviness. But now he was naked! Exhausted, he stared into space, apparently unconcerned with what was happening around him. He fixed his hand to a point above his chest and breathed deeply, as though preparing to dive to the depths of an ocean. Hanan's gaze slid quickly over his body. Then, she stared deep into Aliyah's eyes once more. She contemplated the details of Aliyah's body: her dry fingers, which Hanan knew well, blue with cyanosis; her green veins which would shake whenever she attempted to pull apart a limp piece of meat. Hanan took hold of Aliyah's fingers and felt their dryness. Aliyah looked as though she were about to bolt at the start of a long race, crouched over like she might leap from the bed. She didn't dare stand, but sensed her back threatening to give way if she spent another moment in that same position. Air gathered in her lungs. She was afraid that if she breathed out, catastrophe would strike and the walls of the house would tumble down on her head.
Hanan could hear the pounding of her own heart. She breathed loudly, her throat making a rattling sound, almost as though she were choking. She grabbed hold of the side of the bed and took a step forwards. The moment Hanan raised her palm in the air, Aliyah slid under the bed and scampered away like a lizard, the light glimmering in her eyes. She ran towards her room, taking a few short breaths then coughing violently, almost choking.
Hanan stared at her husband's ugly member, dangling like an old rag.
âAliyah!' she screamed.
She couldn't tell where her voice was coming from â her throat or the pores of her prickling skin? Or did it emanate from the multiple breasts and arms which were now flailing about the room?
It was the taste of unexpected betrayal that prompted her loss of control at that moment. Hanan knocked manically at her servant's door, which was locked from the inside. Panting, she screamed out to Aliyah. Then, with an abrupt change of heart, she decided to get a hold of herself; her fingers stopped pawing at the door and, having ordered her servant sternly to leave, she made her way to her own room.
Hanan locked the door behind her and sat as she tried to control her breathing, which had begun to quicken again. She would wipe Aliyah out of her life once and for all, she decided. It would be as though she had never existed, rubbed out like a word written in faint pencil, ready to be erased swiftly. Hanan heard Aliyah's creeping footsteps in the corridor as she skulked away like a thief. She would wind up back in the dirty little alley she had come from, amongst the piles of tin and the tears of barefoot infants â naked children who would lick their own dribbling noses, and dangle from the rubbish bins like branches of a scorched orange tree.
Hanan felt the relief of someone waking from a nightmare as she heard the screech of the outside gate. All fell silent. Quickly, she moved towards the window. Drawing back the curtains, she peered out tentatively. She followed Aliyah's ghostly silhouette, hoping that it too might be an illusion, like the streak of light. Hanan tried to open the window with her trembling hands, but soon found she had turned to stone. She couldn't bring herself to scream Aliyah's name, nor order her to come back. She had considered it for a moment but had changed her mind immediately. Hanan squeezed herself hard for a second, until her bones creaked and she was sure that she was a living being, made of flesh and blood.
In the blue dawn, Hanan continued to follow Aliyah's figure. She sent her gaze to the horizon, where flocks of strange birds appeared, as though gathering to bid farewell to the little one as she stumbled on her way. After Aliyah's figure had vanished, Hanan shut the curtains and slipped into bed, taking in the scent of the previous night's bed sheets: the scent of cinnamon.