We are in the city of Tripoli, bordering the Mediterranean in the 1960’s, though this is no seaside idyll.
The narrative follows in the footsteps and the mind of a boy named Hadachinou who prefers the company of his mother, her friends, great-aunt’s and escorting girls sent on errands who are not yet kept indoors, bound by the shackles of marriage, in a society where a river of seething discontent courses through the veins of many, where the sexes barely tolerate each other and anyone who seems to have escaped the marriage trap is resented their so-called freedoms.
Hadachinou is privy to the thoughts, gossip and attitudes of women, a witness to their interior lives, he listens to their stories and absorbs their repressed desires as his own begin to awaken.
The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real times and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties , all in the same breath and their bodies were at peace.
I sometimes wondered how these women who were all so different were able to spend hours at a time, each talking about her own god, her own people and thoughts, free to be wildly outspoken but without provoking any true conflict. It was because they had no power to preserve and no possessions to watch over. That was for the people on the other side of the wall: the men, the sheikhs, the governors and their hunting dogs! Scheming and calculating, diplomacy and power struggles were their domain.
Here with the women, my guardian angels, there were just words, spoken openly and easily, flitting and whirling about, a life force in themselves. Without these moments of trusting abandon, they would have dried up with sorrow. Or imploded as they toiled over their cooking pots.
While the men are at work, or at the mosque or in the coffee houses, the women finish their work and make time to see each other.
Here, great-aunt Nafissa has had enough of the women bad mouthing his mother’s childhood friend Jamila, words they only speak when his mother leaves the room, venomous remarks spiralling into bitterness about what they perceive as her secret life; flushed with rage, aunt Nafissa rails against them:
‘Leave Jamila alone,’ she cried. ‘Let her live her life. Its only because you’re jealous that you see evil in everything. She and her friends allow themselves freedoms you don’t have, freedoms you envy because your husbands keep you on a tight leash. What would you have her do? Stay at home like you, sitting on cushions and sucking on loukoums while you wait for men who never come home? You think those women are living bad lives? You make me laugh! But you don’t know when to hold your tongues, that’s for sure, and you’re full of spite. And, anyway, it’s not as if any of this has ever stopped you taking their money!’ she added, always ready to speak out against injustice.
It is not easy to read about a repressed patriarchal society without much glimmer of hope, a slice of life narrative set in a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change.
I found it a sombre read, left wondering if this boy will be changed by virtue of his proximity to the women folk, or whether that might become a reason for his need to escape, lest he not fit in.
Looking out to sea, I remembered what Hadja Kimya had said: ‘Hadachinou, keep yourself busy doing simple things that delight you. Give yourself a goal. The soul of life is the little things, the minor events no one notices… That’s where life is, the pleasure of being alive, otherwise there’s just this vast blueness casting its shadow over us. Go on, keep yourself busy, do something, and then you might find yourself one day.’
This is cultural insight beyond the normal bounds of the English language, thanks to the translation of Adriana Hunter and the passion of Peirene Press in bringing these kinds of stories into the mainstream.