An Excerpt from Inès Abbassi’s ‘Bourguiba House’

As Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) continues, we have a excerpt from Inès Abbassi’s Manzel Bourguiba (Bourguiba House)winner of the Arabic Jury Prize from the Golden Comar, Tunisia’s top literary Prize:

The excerpt and book summary are translated by Sawad Hussain. The book is:

A tale of Habib and Nur Al-Din, two Tunisian brothers who migrate to the US in the seventies, at a time when most Tunisians were flocking to Europe. Due to a series of events, the older brother Habib finds himself in Chicago thirty years after his brother went missing. Did they split up because of a woman? Or did Nur Al-Din go underground because he murdered someone? Was he the murderer or the victim? Habib’s daughter Jihan narrates the novel trying to unravel the threads of her father’s story as an adult between Tunis and Chicago,  between the past and present: a gripping journey through Tunisia’s independence from colonization to the days of the Arab Spring. Through Jihan’s grandmother the reader witnesses the liberation of the Tunisian woman from society’s stifling restrictions.

Excerpt from Bourguiba House:

By Inès Abbassi

Translated by Sawad Hussain

Whatever happens, I’ll never leave this house.

When I was young and poor, they’d call me Tata Sofia. But now, to be more respectful, they call me Madame Sofia. They gave me the name Sofia without even getting to know me, without even making sure if it was the right name for me. They would exchange whispers behind my back though there were those who dared to call me outright ‘Old Roy’s girl.’

Yes, oui, n’am, I was his girl, in all languages. What business was it of theirs? Why did they care all of sudden? Did they care when I slept under a leaky roof? Did they care when the only sound to lull me to sleep was my mother groaning in pain, her body too stiff to move? Did they care when my younger brothers would go to bed on empty stomachs? Did they care when my younger brothers had to tend to sheep in large open pastures, where not only wolves and wild pigs prowl about but also the hungry men that would steal away their innocence?

Yes, I set my sights on Roy and let our gazes linger on in a wanton way, the sin of poverty, a leaky roof and the pain on my mother’s face – unable to spread out her stiff fingers – all propelling me. Of course I set my sights on ‘Old Roy.’ Actually, Roy wasn’t that old, he was middle-aged, in his late forties, but it was me who was a young, wild thing. It’s as if I had come from hell itself, one of the ladies in the hammam would tell me. “Hey hell-fire!” she’d yell through the thick steam of the marble room full of hot water. At first I couldn’t see her face very well, but when I followed her voice she added, “Hey, you whore. Spreading your legs for Roy is dirty.”

The blood in my body boiled and I heard my heart thumping in my ears, but I got a hold of myself and laughed as loud as I could. I stood in front of her naked body, almost naked really, except for a beige cotton garment hanging from her frame. Sweat was pouring out of her pores like tears. Her body was crying and mine was firm and taut, in front hers, on fire. I stood in front of her and didn’t say a word.  I just stared into her eyes. Curses were crowding up in my mouth, but I didn’t utter them, I pushed them back down my throat, and then let them roll up into my mouth to play with them like a piece of pink bubblegum. I snapped the gum when I saw finally saw the terror shining in her eyes, I popped the bubble of my curses in her face with one sentence, “On répond aux imbéciles par le silence.”

Roy wasn’t decrepit and I wasn’t a child. I wasn’t hell-fire, but rather an ember glowing, or a broomstick as my brothers used to call me. Brown skin clinging to a frame of bones, a taut stomach, a flat butt, two round breasts the size of tennis balls, and to top it all off, a small head covered by short black hair…I don’t really know what he liked about me. Maybe the way I would look at things? It must have been that.

I remember the day I impatiently turned the pile of second-hand clothes upside down. I was looking for an eye-catching, beautiful dress. I asked my friend Bouthayna about which colors I should choose. That day she looked at me disapprovingly and asked “You’ve got enough food now do you, that you can look for new clothes?”

I answered her, my eyes fixed on a pile of clothes, deep in thought, “I’ve got to find the dress, the dress is the key, it’s the ax that will cut down poverty right from its roots.”

That night, I locked eyes with Roy without my eyelids fluttering or my knees trembling. Only in love do we fear that the ground will give way from under our feet and that the sky hangs down so low that it becomes a blue ceiling that might almost fall on our heads. With Roy, I was the hunter and he was the prey, he the bird, and I the arrow. So what is love good for? Good for nothing torture. Sure, love’s great and all, but it only made me poorer and worse off. I was naïve when I fell in love and believed that I was my beloved’s whole world. He would call me honeybee while he would play around behind my back with any girl that so much as smiled at him. One look from him was enough for me to taste honey on my lips and sweetness in my soul, so I believed all his lies.

When I raised my lips to his for the first kiss, my knees gave way and my heart was beating so loud I was afraid he might hear it. When his lips finally met mine, I felt the earth move beneath my feet. My head spun and the sky seemed closer, so close that it might crash down. Things with Roy were different. When I saw Roy for the first time and locked eyes with him, I felt powerful. I felt like a small vulture getting ready to sink its beak into its first prey. Roy’s look that day was a mischievous one, landing lazily on faces, indifferent. At first he wasn’t interested in me, but when he met my lively gaze, his own eyes perked up. I’ve never seen a look more intense than his. His blue eyes froze on my face and I became aware of his splayed legs moving under the table. It was the night where Habeeb had hosted a party in honor of his American friend Roy, inviting all his friends and ‘liberal’ girls, and me too.  For us four girls, it was the first time we were attending a mixed get-together: dancing with guys and drinking beer that had been poured into juice bottles so that Habeeb’s parents wouldn’t know. That night, Roy’s gaze travelled over my body and stopped at my breasts, like a pigeon trying to find a windowsill to rest on. I saw his gaze falter when it roamed my body, turning into that of a man who wanted to embrace me until my ribs broke. When his eyes reached my face, his eyes turned soft, like that of a mother who wanted to hug her child.

Despite all that, my first night with Roy wasn’t some tropical storm. The fuchsia-colored dress that I had bought for half a dinar second-hand was the key for our first night. With his broken French and my dead English, we left our words at the door.  It was only our hands that spoke that night. He didn’t treat me like a prostitute as I had feared. He treated me like a queen. Me, the burning lump of coal. The blond American sat me down on the couch and kneeled before me. He kissed my feet, my toes one after the other, and let his lips travel up my slender legs, slowly. He kept going until time stopped for me as stars twinkled in my head and I laughed.

They called me Tata Sofia, Roy’s cheap slut, and so forth, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be done with poverty, spit on it, crush it in all its’ forms, stamp it out with my fingers and the heels of my palms. They labeled me opportunistic when they found out that I borrowed my rich friends’ houses. I would borrow a house to take beautiful pictures of myself in it. I would sink into a sumptuous sofa in a stylish short dress. I’d cross my legs, with the house phone in my left hand and a cigarette in my right, clinging to my last lifeline. Then I’d smile for the camera. Back then, I didn’t know that my photos of my so-called rich life in these borrowed houses was meaningless. I didn’t know that Roy had already tasted the salt of poverty on my skin that first night, as he would tell me years later. At that point, I was really tiring hard to make the relationship work despite the miles, years, and languages between us. He was my lottery ticket and I had the winning number. I would send him love letters with words stolen from songs, and kiss my fuchsia lips to the paper as my signature. I did everything to try to keep him, including borrowing my rich friends’ houses for my photo shoots. In return, they’d ask me to remove their body hair using sugar wax and my expert hands, deliver love letters for them and arrange the dates and times of their clandestine meet-ups.

For six long months, I fed the hope that Roy would return, with the rare and short phone calls I’d receive on my neighbor’s phone once every two weeks. Every phone call renewed my hope. Another number on the winning lottery ticket would appear. But Roy was forgetting about me and wouldn’t call. But even so, I didn’t let despair conquer me. I kept on borrowing houses and taking photos so that he would return. The American man did end up coming back, and took me with him, beyond seas, beyond poverty and moldy walls, beyond raindrops falling through the roof onto my body like tears. He came back and took me away from long nights on an empty stomach, far away from me having to worry about my brothers being attacked by wild pigs and those who would steal away their innocence.

Ines Abassi is a Tunisian poet, children`s writer, translator, and novelist. She has published three volumes of poetry, includingSecrets of the Wind (2004), winner of the Tunisian Poetry Prize; Archive of the Blind (2007), winner of the CREDIF prize, Tunis; andA Swoop of Kohl (2016). She is also the author of the collections of short storiesTales of the Korean Scheherezade (2010; second edition 2013), which grew out of a six-month residency in Seoul, and Hashasha (2013), and the novel Bourguiba’s House (2017). She is also the translator from French to Arabic of Kim Thuy’s Ru (2016) and Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos’s My Sweet Orange Tree (2017) and from English to Arabic of Angela Marsons’s Silent Scream (2017).

Sawad Hussain is ArabLit’s Cambridge-based editor. She’s 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. 

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12 comments

    • Well, I think titles are generally a more flexible space, meant to be inviting to the new-language reader rather than to reflect the title in the source language.

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      • Then “New York” by Edward Rutherford, e.g., should it be translated to Arabic as يورك الجديد? Menzel Bourguiba is the town that gives name to the book.

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        • Well obviously “New York” is well-known in English but I think you’d find English speakers hard-pressed to locate Menzel Bourgiba. But yes, I take your point, although I still leave the decision to the author and translator.

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          • Sorry, I didn’t know it was the author’s decision to have her title literally translated. However, I wonder whether it’s preferable to leave those English speakers hard pressed to find what Bourguiba and his house have to do with the plot.

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            • Yes, perhaps you’re right. Or who knows, perhaps an eventual publisher will come up with a different title entirely, like “My So-called Rich Life” 🙂

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