Saudi novelist and journalist Badriah al-Bishr appears on Thursday, March 9 at Emirates LitFest, introducing her new book Thursday’s Visitors. Here, an excerpt from her Love Stories on al-Asha Street, longlisted for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction:
By Sawad Hussain
Love Stories on al-Asha Street is a kaleidoscope of love stories that take the reader into life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.
The stories are mostly told from women’s points of view, although male voices also feature. The voices hail from different economic strata, professions, ages, and religious ideologies. Through each love story, the reader is able to experience life in Saudi Arabia before the introduction of such technological breakthroughs as the telephone and colour television. With the coming of these technologies, familial and societal relationships morph. The stories move between love and history as they piece together how life changed in the average Saudi household after the occupation of Mecca’s sacred grand mosque in 1979.
Structurally, the novel is an exploration of love in all its forms. Though each love is flawed in one way or another, no two love stories are the same, and yet they are all intertwined. Through these stories, the reader witnesses a multitude of love-based unions characterized by physical abuse, arranged marriage, romances between women, cross-cultural relationships between different Arab nationals, older men marrying women decades younger, and marriage for the sake of a passport, to name a few. While all the stories have beginnings, they do not necessarily have clear-cut endings, but blend seamlessly into the next story.
This bold stylistic move endows the stories with a heightened sense of reality – not least because the reader gets a sense of being present in the neighbourhood, rather than viewing it from the outside. What strikes the reader is just how much of an in-depth account of Saudi history and societal evolution one gains from these tales, which are told with such emotion and transparency that they could be real-life accounts. While there are no “happy endings,” the reader is left to ponder the angles and dimensions of love and how it exists in ways more nuanced than the clichéd, conservative depictions of Saudi society would have us believe.
“Where should we install the phone?” asked one of the workers.
“In the men’s seating area, their majlis,” Abu Ibrahim replied.
The two workers entered the majlis, which was next to the main door. They then extended the wires, placed a yellow book next to the phone, and stuck a sticker with five digits on the handset.
When the two men left, Awatif and I rushed towards the new device. I touched it. It was a gray phone with a disc circling around ten numbers from zero to the number nine. I held the receiver, put it to my ear, and said, “Darling, give me Egypt.”
Ibrahim wondered aloud, “How were you all living without a phone?”
For a long time, we treated the phone like a strange guest. We welcomed it into the men’s majlis, but left it sitting all alone in there. We treated it with exaggerated respect, and it barely rang. Only the men knew how to use it, and my mom avoided it like she would a strange man. She forbade us from answering it, afraid the caller might be a man – one of our dad’s friends – who would hear our usually veiled voices. Because of this, the first to rush to the rare ring of the phone in the majlis were the kids – that’s if they, by coincidence, actually heard it ring. But that day, the exact thing my mom feared happened. The phone rang after I had finishing chatting with my classmate Naima, so I picked up the receiver. I heard the voice of my dad’s friend, Abu Fahd, asking for him, extending his greetings beyond the usual hi, hello. He asked which one of Abu Ibrahim’s daughters I was.
He asked how school was, and if I was a quick study like my dad said.
He laughed. He asked for my dad again, and I said he wasn’t around. My mom drew close to me.
“Who’s that?” she mouthed.
“Abu Fahd,” I whispered.
He was still going on at the other end. She cradled her head despairingly, saying, “And you responded to him? And you’ve been talking this whole time to him?”
“Wallah, I swear to God Mom, I didn’t even know it was Abu Fahd when I picked up. He’s like an uncle, like Dad in fact.”
From that day on, Mom started to treat me as if I was a girl whose voice had lost its virginity, and I let her get used to me, her daughter, as someone who no longer shied away from answering the phone. I had made a mistake, but it freed me from the shackles of girls hidden away from answering the phone. I don’t know why they were — why we were.
Rarely did the phone sitting far away in the men’s majlis ever ring, because no one called except for my friend Naima or Abu Fahd. Our lives didn’t change much because of it. But Awatif was the one who got the most use out of it. Sa’ad, whose household didn’t have a phone like ours because his father didn’t know anyone with a phone, got to know about ours. He agreed with Awatif that every Thursday, he would go to his friend’s house who had a phone and call her from there after ten o’clock. He would ring once, to make sure that she was sat waiting by the phone, and then he would call back again. She would impatiently pick it up even before it completed its first ring. The phone couldn’t ring without someone noticing, or everyone knowing who was using it.
After a year and a half, the phone became one of the family, and we started to use it more. Many people started getting phones. Modi our neighbour; Haseena, my mom’s neighborhood friend; and even Sa’ad’s mom Awisha got a phone. Mom got used to chatting with her neighbors on it every morning instead of popping by their houses. Eventually, we ended up moving it to my dad’s room so it would be closer to us, then to our family majlis, then it started moving with us to our own rooms, and each of us had a time slot during the day in which we would use the phone. Anyone who wanted to talk on it would pull out the wire and carry it to their room so they could have an uninterrupted conversation. My mom wasn’t scared of answering the phone anymore. She also started answering Abu Fahd and Abu Hasir’s calls. Whenever they called, she would respond to the greetings modestly, but with a hungry curiosity to know the voices of her husbands’ friends whom she had never seen. She started telling my dad after he came home that “Abu Fahd called you today.” She would then add, “How big is his family?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he would reply uninterestedly.
Ibrahim sat with us in the evening, as Mom prepared ginger tea with lemon and lovingly poured it for us. She then placed handfuls of chestnuts on the live coals. We listened as the nuts crackled and opened up over the ashes of the cooking hearth, and after Dad went into his room to sleep, Ibrahim winked at me, taking out from his Samsonite bag a large photo of a fair girl who didn’t look like Su’ad Hosni but rather like Safa Abu Assaoud. He said to Mom, grinning, “Look, this is my friend.” She looked at the picture and laughed. “You’re lying. She’s an actress.”
I pulled the photo from my mom’s hand and stared at the tall girl wearing gray slacks and a red top, her hair chestnut. “Your friend’s beautiful, Ibrahim. Are you going to marry her?”
Since Mom didn’t believe him, he pulled out another photo, where he was sitting with the girl by a table, a glass of juice in front of them, exactly like Noor Bint Alam Akkasha and her boyfriend in the TV series Long Night. She looked at the picture once more, and then tossed it on his lap. “No; if God wills it, my sensible son Ibrahim will only take a girl from his own country.” Ibrahim put the picture back in his bag, chuckling, “Hey, if you set me up with a beauty like this one, no problem.”
Ibrahim went back to Egypt when his vacation was up, and we went back to sleeping in the winter room.
Going up to the roof became suspicious. No one went up on cold days when the biting wind of the winter season raged, splitting our skins because of how cold it was, but Awatif and I would sneak up every Friday at noon to hang the laundry, and to look out for movement in the green carpet hanging between our house and Sa’ad’s, which became less and less frequent as time went on. I was on my own at noon that day when I saw it sway. I quickly moved the corner of the carpet hanging between our houses to one side, pulled on it, and told Sa’ad to wait. I ran downstairs to tell Awatif to make her way to the roof, and stayed with Mom to keep her distracted. I did everything she could have possibly asked of me so that Mom wouldn’t notice that Awatif was missing. I saw Awatif taking her prayer shawl and draping it on her head before going up to the roof. When I asked her why, she said that Sa’ad had starting asking her to cover her face from him, because it was haram – forbidden – for him to see it. I thought to myself, ‘Did Layla – one half of the age-old legendary couple – hide her face from Qais?’
Sawad Hussain is a Cambridge-based editor-at-large for ArabLit who is also an Arabic translator and litterateur who holds a MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history and literature.