On December 11, 2017, Palestinian writer Huzama Habayeb became the twenty-third author to win the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Arabic Literature, for Velvet. A translation of the novel will be forthcoming from Hoopoe Fiction. Meanwhile, a translation of one of the author’s short stories:
By Huzama Habayeb
Translated by Asmaa Sharafeldin
It was a dream where I saw myself walk on an ascending lane that rose to the middle of a mountain, the asphalt melting away to reveal a smooth layer of gravel. As usual, my feet were about to slip.
Actually, the lane wasn’t like the ones in dreams, which, I suppose, should be strange and different from those we walk on while awake. A dream lane should be lovely, pleasant, and excessively magical, or else it should be gloomy, depressing, and a scene of the most distorted and inflexible things — also magical, although the magic here is of a devilish nature.
My dream lane was ordinary. Yes, too dull and ordinary. It resembled the real lanes in which we live, hang around, work, or take as a connecting link with other everyday lanes. I passed by a very familiar lamppost, made even more familiar because it resembled the trunk of a desperate tree, its bark peeled to expose a lean skeleton. In my dream, I thought I’d seen this lamppost somewhere in my actual life, yet it didn’t hold my attention for long. (What would it mean – a cheerless and passing lamppost in a fleeting dream?)
A small shop stopped me. It looked like a tiny hole, caused by an unplanned explosion in the wall, and a few rusty metal shelves wrapped around the shop’s four bare walls. The remains of flies’ scraps were scattered everywhere that eyes might fall. “I know it and I’ve seen it before”—so I believed. Perhaps I’d seen it in a dream or in life, especially as the shop’s name was written in a familiar black spray paint, in poor handwriting not void of twists and spelling mistakes: “Al Salaam Mni Markit.” Behind a wooden table with weak legs, jars of candy and dry gum were arrayed. The shopkeeper’s frail and worn appearance reminded me of previous visages stored in my memory. Where did I happen to see this face? I wondered, although it wasn’t of great concern. We exchanged greetings, and he handed me a pack of “Gold Star” cigarettes without being asked. Apparently he knew what I wanted. I paid him the pack’s price, thanked him, and pursued my dream lane.
The route guided me past its simple yet overcrowded landmarks with little effort. Its zigzags were not unfamiliar. I knew the low, tightly packed houses on both sides, and I felt I’d seen them before, in another place or dream. The water main that had, in reality, leaked water a week ago still seeped in the dream. Half-naked children who’d bathed in the pool that formed around the main were still bathing in water and mud. If this hadn’t been a dream, which I made sure of upon waking, I would have suspected my imagination. Perhaps this was because the incidents in my dream were unfurling logically and progressively in a manner to which I’m accustomed, contributing more and more to blurring the fine line between two convictions: dream and reality. Dreams, as a rule, do not happen like this. Or, at least, that is what I learned from previous dreaming experiences. (I dream a lot, and sometimes I have many intervening and contradictory visions in the same night!) Structuring the dream as a mere “collage” doesn’t allow us to draw visible or material lines between events, which makes it hard to retrieve numerous dreams after waking up, even when their events are highly dramatic. The overcrowded images, which part with each other and with reality, cause such dreams to shy from interpretation and logical reasoning.
But this dream, I must stress again, is not like any other…
I walked away, smiling to some people while others smiled at me. Most I knew or had known. Some flashed into my mind, blending their recurring daily presence with common smells: the mixture of lemon, salt, and cumin that soars over the ful-bean cart, or the balila—a dish of boiled chickpeas mixed with garlic, salt, cumin and olive oil—with the 40-year-old hawker, who would say hello while holding a bundle of parsley. The smell of pans mingled with the sizzling oil, the intermittent crackling of savory grilled maize, the frying of freshly slaughtered poultry, sautéed after it was cleaned of the remaining feathers, the fattiness of drooping meat on the butcher’s hooks.
These landmarks were complete and their sounds audible. The visitors to my dream were real—very real. Everything was running with smooth verisimilitude until a sudden turn changed the dream’s course.
While I was climbing in my dream, before the final mountain slope that led home, people were flooding both sides of road, both ascending and descending, I saw a glowing yellow thing, which at first I could not identify. It was mostly buried in the sandy sidewalk near the lane’s edge. I looked around—I didn’t think anyone had seen it. Cautiously, I bent over the yellow glitter. Everyone was busy with their own affairs. My nervous fingers removed the light sand layer that cloaked parts of the hidden glow, which now brightened. “Ah! Thank God no one was looking!” It was a long, yellow-gold necklace made of heavy rings that had been plaited into a thick thread. Like anyone, else who’s made such an interesting and dramatic discovery, whether in dream or beyond, I hastily veiled my find, lest anyone should take notice. I thrust it into my grim trouser pocket. Then I felt the precious swelling, joyfully and reassuringly.
Above, the sun, which had cast its blaze in all four directions, faded away. Glaring stars, crescents, and bright moons drooped toward me. I managed to tickle a moon, and its slivery light escaped onto my fingers, hand, arm, and onto my full body. With the other hand, I examined a rosy star, which puffed its light on my face. I looked down. The desperate dream-lane had disappeared, replaced by a more visionary route that hung in the vacuum. This revealed a partial image of my days beyond the dream, yet substantial changes had been made to the world of images. Contrary to reality, I seemed happy in these images. I was free, cheerful, rapturous, and dazed by lovely temptations. The distress that had been companion to the greater part of my awareness had no place in any of these playful images. I gave myself a look: “I reflected upon me.” To my surprise, I found myself beautiful. I can’t remember the last time, beyond a dream, when I’d examined my face!
I did not fear falling into the vacuum. I rested on the world of lighthearted images so unexpectedly revealed. Although I couldn’t tell whether I was walking, running, or flying (or perhaps I’d been shoved), I was firmly advancing, and firmly keeping on, until my progress was interfered with by a woman’s shocked face. She asked:
-Son, have you by any chance seen a golden necklace?
The images of my newly re-composed days fell to the bottom of the vacuum. The sun flamed anew, burning my stars and moons. I returned to the desperate dream lane, and was about to collapse.
Clearly terrified, she asked:
-Didn’t you see it? It’s a long gold necklace, and I don’t know how or where I lost it. It evaporated, just like that!
The woman was in her fifties, and the dream sun blasted her wrinkled, tanned skin. Her face was swollen. Surely, she’d been searching for the necklace since the beginning of the dream … my dream. She’d probably asked tens of the dream-people before finding me. Her face was familiar—or rather, it was expected within the context of the dream, compatible with its setting and all the available motives for misery and satisfaction generated by our submission. I slipped my hand into my pocket and gently touched the quietly folded necklace. I asked her:
-What does it look like?
She adjusted the turban that was sliding off her grey hair. Eagerly, she described her necklace:
-It’s 21-carat gold. Long, about half a meter, made of thick It’s old, broken more than once, and I put it back together every time…. I was about to sell it today. My son is a university student.
With a brief sob, she added:
-University fees are as expensive as life itself!
The old lady halted a little and shook her head dispiritedly.
-Anyway, thank God for the blessing of good health.
Now, she wept more bitterly, and more submissively, with violent gasps, cries, trembles, and convulsions.
I caressed the rings of (my) necklace for the last time and drew it from my pocket, vacillating, without haste…
-It’s five o’clock.
My wife was pushing down on my shoulder when her voice came to me, enveloped in drowsiness and fatigue.
How I hate these early mornings! Cursed are those who indulge in idealizing the moment when the sun lights up the horizon! They give it the exaggerated burden of grandeur, majesty, and fancy. This was a scathing birth for which I wouldn’t wait, and which compelled me to await an even more biting day. And although I give myself a reason to hope the sun might withdraw its decision to rise, for just one morning, by an hour or even a few minutes, it rises in spite of me every morning. Now, the rumbling echo of rusty water pipes was dimmed by frosty dew, and I got a poor thread of cold water to wash my face. The voice of my wife came from under the heap of covers, wanly warning:
-Don’t forget kerosene for the heater.
She pulled the blanket over her ears to keep off the cold air, which drifted through the unreinforced window.
-Ali’s shoes need new soles.
I shook off drowsiness and slowly got dressed.
-Not paying the utility bill means a cut in the power today, okay?
I buttoned up the heavy khaki jacket. Its fur quilting was squashed by wear and tear.
-The shopkeeper Abu Musa’ad refused to give me rice and sugar yesterday. He said our debt was big enough.
I inserted my feet into thick wool socks before encasing them in plastic bags. Then I put them into old boots, which had too many pores and holes to prevent water leakage. The plastic bags helped increase the shoes’ dampness and stink, while they also held most of the cold water, which trickled onto my feet.
-Um Rajeh wants the ten dinars we borrowed from her two months ago.
I wrapped my neck with a thick, fluffy scarf.
-She swore she had to ask for them—otherwise, she would’ve been patient.
I was about to leave. My wife shoved the blanket away from her shoulders, lifted her head, and called to me:
-What are you going to do?
I pushed my hand into my trouser pocket. I could not ignore the question that popped into my head, merging with a flood of distress and conflicting feelings of remorse and guilt.
-Should I have returned the necklace to that woman in her fifties?
Asmaa Sharafeldin is a senior English and Arabic translator and researcher of Politics of Translation MA, Cairo University, Egypt.