From Leila Baalbaki’s ‘Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon’

Lebanese author Leila Baalbaki’s I Live was on the Arab Writers Union’s “Top 105” novels of the twentieth century, and was published in French as Je vis! in 1958 and in German as Ich lebe in 1994. However, no work of Baalbaki’s has appeared in English. 

Baalbaki was born in Beirut in 1936 and was a prominent twentieth-century author. Two years ago, the head of PEN Lebanon, Iman Humaydan, posted on Facebook that it was “astonishing for me to discover that Laila Baalbaki’s work has not been translated into English yet.” Humaydan said she’d been searching for an English translation of Baalbaki’s Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moonwhen she discovered this lack. Humaydan noted that Spaceship was banned, “sent to trial in Lebanon during the 1960s. … Baalbaki’s words and freedom of spirit triggered a wide reaction started from Egypt and reached Lebanon….”

To mark Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), this excerpt of her Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon, translated by Maia Tabet with the support of PEN Lebanon, appears with permission from PEN Lebanon.

Excerpt from Leila Baalbaki’s Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon

By Leila Baalbaki

Translated by Maia Tabet

He had drawn his arms off my chest (it was 9 o’clock in the morning now) and my eyelids fluttered open. He lay on his belly, stroking my cheek all the way up to my ear, his hair, which covered the entire surface of the pillow, in my eyes. His breath, soft against my neck, irritated the remnants of a summer sunburn on my shoulder that would remain there until the following summer. The touch of his dissipating breath burrowed under the cotton sheet and burst forth from the blue vein of his foot lying over mine.

(No, no. He is dead!)

Mumbling into the pillow, he asked why I had moved my foot away from under his.  He stretched out his arms, feeling for the edge of the covers. His hand slithered down from my thigh to my foot, and I squeezed it tight between my legs. After drawing its contours, he enveloped my foot in his hand, breath boiling.

(No, no. He is dead!)

He shifted about, lifted his head tepidly, and lodged it in my neck, whispering that I was his feral cat, roaming the city streets that led to the sea, wandering in the rain through the mud and the biting cold, and coming back to him at night wet, hungry, and in search of warmth. So why couldn’t I calm down, you know, just calm down a little, relax. His breath meanders through his contented body, which lies like a child sleeping by an open window counting the stars, one after the other, without adding them lest a wart grow on his hand, and remembering the story he heard before going to sleep—that angels, carrying little ones on their blue wings, fly off to heaven with them, piercing the clouds, cracking open the sky, and landing on a tree. The naked body next to me quivers.

(No, no. He is dead!)

He kissed my ear, gathered himself together, and sat up on the edge of the bed. Searching, his fingers struck the glass of water on the small table, then the book he had been reading that afternoon, the box of cigarettes, and the ashtray. Finally, he grabbed the wristwatch (the time was now a few minutes past nine)—as if he had to consult it in order to ensure that he awoke in an hour or a minute, or whatever instant of regularity he chose…like the regularity of his breath, which rushed out eagerly, weary of its stealth.

(No, no. He is dead. I witnessed him falling down and dying in the snowstorm in the mountains with my own two eyes. It was some time back, I don’t remember exactly how many days ago. I had been asleep in our bed and had opened my eyes after hearing the thud of heavy footsteps in the room. I had no idea what time it was. Habitually, I woke up whenever his arms drew away from my chest, at exactly nine o’clock. But on that bitter night, he had slept in another room, and I had left him there, listening to music as he feigned insomnia and exasperated me. And then, then … well, now he was traveling: the master had a new project. I got into bed and pulled the sheet up to my chin; I had nothing to say, and turned my back to him as I followed him moving around the house packing a small suitcase. Biting down on my lips, I closed my eyes, and lit a cigarette. I wanted to scream but all that came out were muffled choking noises, so I just swallowed hard. I put out the cigarette and said haltingly, as I twisted my fingers, “I’m not willing to do this anymore.” He didn’t seem to hear me. I carried on, telling him that with every absence of his, I felt unmoored, I suffered, as if a leather shoe as large as the city itself was clobbering me, the nails protruding from its soles piercing my eyes every time I looked up. That was why I buried myself in the dark. In the daytime, I swallowed sleeping pills, and at night I asked every man I knew to walk around with me until I was dizzy, tired, and ready to drop. The men only ever looked and the scene invariably ended with me in their car as they felt my knobbly knees, sniffed my hair, and railed that it wasn’t fair; they cursed the Creator, humankind itself, and then dropped me off at the door to our house. My words annoyed the master. His brow furrowed, but I kept going. I said that I was sick and tired. That I rejected the dreamy story he came back with after every absence: “Next time, I will take you with me, we will travel together, we’ll take off and sway on the banks of rivers, eat in small restaurants with log-fires burning in their quaint old stoves, we’ll dance until dawn, we’ll go out to sea with fishermen, and we’ll shelter inside a rock inhabited by a mermaid who is the mistress of the city-king’s son. That’s how we will travel, time and again.” I explained that I had had enough of his dreaming, and I dared him to utter one more word: one more and I would vomit up a shining and brilliant dream for him. The entire city was awash in floral scents with all the bottles of perfume he had brought back from his trips, I told him … and lit another cigarette. My head felt so heavy, I threw it back against the headboard. My nose was ice-cold and my forehead on fire. “And where to, this time?” It was as if the master had been expecting the question and he tossed his answer at my mouth. Immobilizing my hand, he grabbed me by the throat, silencing me. “To the mountains, to the mountains for a day or two, to the mountains.” If only I had asked earlier… I heaved a sigh of relief. I loosened the sheet, pushing it down to my knees … To the mountains!).

He laid on his back, and took my hand into his under the sheet. He placed it on his chest and then took it on a tour of his belly.

(To the mountains, and here it is autumn, the last days of summer. I was struck with happiness: what a great idea, I said. And what of it, for me? I had forgotten what mountains looked like in autumn. I remember a long time ago—when was it? Surely, it was last autumn, but no, it must have been the autumn before last—how I had begun to count all the ways I could decline the color green without ever getting bored, and without the green sprouts in the earth ever drying up. O, for the smell of wet earth! How I inhaled and licked it up and how he rebuked me as I brought it to my mouth. Once a year, I’d push my hair off my brow, raise my head to the sky, fasten my lips shut, and follow the limbs of the trees to catch the sun that glinted through them. Sometimes, I’d fall over and get my clothes all muddy, and when I picked myself up I’d bump against a branch and graze my face, and the blood would trickle down my chin and drip onto the grass, but I’d keep looking for branches through which I could follow the sun. In that season, the sun was hot and when it went down behind the mountains it would set all the birds’ tails on fire as it sank into the valley. And I would wonder, where, where was it best for us to end up: in the sea or in the valley? The master was upset, the color drained from his face, he lifted his head and asked me what I meant. What exactly did I want?

“Habibi,” I thought to reply passionately.

No, I didn’t call him beloved, I just bit the nails on my right hand. After that, I told him that I missed the fig trees in the mountains, especially ours.  It was concealed behind a boulder between the two villages, the one with its red-tile roofs and the other that had done away with them. We had stumbled upon the tree as we walked a path buried under the pines. From afar, it looked like a child whose mother had tied him up and thrown him at the church-door, his tender-fleshed hands and feet flying in the air after he broke free of his restraints.  We had hurried to the fig tree, embraced it, and split the sole forgotten fruit between us. And I remember asking him how come it had such a sharp and stabbing sweetness?  The master couldn’t take any more, he erupted, and finally spat it out: “You will not go!”)

He licked my ear, and then my lips, swarmed over me, and rolled over.  He  felt ecstatic, he said. I was soft and tender, and fearsome, he whispered … And he had missed me so very much.

Maia Tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator based in Washington DC, where she is the associate editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. She is the translator of Little Mountain and White Masks by Elias Khoury, and of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) winner Throwing Sparks, by Abdo Khal. Her translation of Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist (Ya Mariam, in Arabic) appeared in Spring 2017, and she has recently completed work on Hisham Bustani’s collection of short stories, The Monotonous Chaos of Existence. Her translations have been widely published in journals, literary reviews, and other specialized publications, including Barricade, The Common, Words Without Borders, Portal 9, Fikrun wa Fann, and Banipal, among others.