Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh — winner of the Muhammad Zafzaf Prize — has seen five of her novels translated to English, but not her classic Bab al-Saha, which appears on both Banipal’s “Best 100 Novels” list and the Arab Writers Union’s “Best 105” of the 20th century. It’s forthcoming from the inimitable Seagull Books in Sawad Hussain’s translation. For this year’s Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth), a pre-release excerpt:
In Bab Al-Saha, a quarter of Nablus, sits a house of ill-repute. In it lives Nuzha, a young woman ostracised from and shamed by her community.
When the Intifada breaks out, Nuzha’s home unexpectedly becomes a sanctuary for those in the quarter: Hussam, an injured resistance fighter; Samar, a university researcher exploring the impact of the Intifada on women’s lives; and Sitt Zakia, the pious midwife who wouldn’t be caught dead in there.
In the furnace of conflict at the heart of the 1987 Intifada, notions of freedom, love, respectability, nationhood, the rights of women and Palestinian identity – both among the reluctant residents of the house and the inhabitants of the quarter at large – will be melted and re-forged. Vividly recounted through the eyes of its female protagonists, Passage to the Plaza is a ground-breaking story that breaks the myth of a uniform gendered experience of conflict.
Below is an excerpt from chapter sixteen, after the quarter was stormed by Israeli soldiers; it’s now on lockdown. Samar meets Nuzha for the first time, who is secretly harboring Hussam.
Days went by without her speaking to him, let alone looking at him. She would prepare his food at the same time every day, leave it in same place, then quickly make herself scarce. He would hear her moving about in the bigger rooms, and the spacious living room. The sounds seemed faraway, muffled, no ringing or echoes. The windows were still shut, as were the curtains, and if it hadn’t been for the vents higher up, they would have suffocated though it wasn’t even hot – in fact, it was the end of winter, the drizzle announcing its departure. The leaves of the lemon tree rustled ominously.
One day he heard the branches moving even more forcefully, the rustling incessant. Then a light tapping on the door leading to the back garden. Nuzha was standing in front of the bureau, her image reflected in the enormous mother of pearl mirror. From where he was, he saw her face blanche and her eyes freeze. She didn’t look at him, but stayed where she was, anticipating.
The tapping became knocks. Then a thin voice called out and whispered, ‘Nuzha, open up! It’s me, Samar.’
She looked at him as he put up his hand, signalling for her to wait. He got up from where he was, went into the bedroom and left the door open a crack. Samar entered and he saw her through the crack, shaking out her long, wet hair. Samar turned to Nuzha playfully and said, ‘What, Nuzha? You didn’t hear me? Well, first off, good morning. How could you not have heard me when I was out there for a whole hour?’
Nuzha said nothing, but he saw her distance herself from Samar, making her way to the kitchen. She came back with a towel and a cloth for the floor. She threw the cloth on the floor and said briskly, ‘This is for your feet, and this one is for your hair.’
‘And if I use them the other way round?’ Samar giggled.
It seemed Nuzha wasn’t in the mood for jokes. ‘Fine,’ she responded gravely.
Still by the door, Samar wiped her feet and dried her hair, while Nuzha explained why it took so long for her to open to door: the door to the back garden was a long way from the sitting room, and it was only used in exceptional circumstances.
‘And I’m an exception,’ Samar interrupted her. She quickly realised her faux pas, alluding so clearly to Nuzha’s isolation, her neighbours never stopping by. She hastily added, ‘I mean, my project and meare an exception. Whenever I visit any woman, they always spend an hour asking me what, why and how. Look, the whole thing is that I’m investigating the effects of the Intifada on women’s living conditions. Such as, have their responsibilities increased? Has their work changed? I mean … has it effected their economic position? Do they earn less than before? And if so, how do they manage?’
Nuzha didn’t appear to be interested in the least. ‘What’s this got to do with me?’
Samar froze for just a moment, but then bubbled with enthusiasm. ‘I’ll just explain, but won’t you first invite me in? Invite me in first.’
Nuzha coldly extended her hand out in front of her. ‘If you want to come in, come on in.’
Samar quickly glanced over the sitting room, taking everything in. Her eyes settled on the dining table next to the bureau and the door to the back garden. ‘Here, this is fine. Before we start, it would be nice to have a coffee. Do you have any coffee?’
‘Arabic or Nescafe?’
‘You have Nescafe? I think that would go better with this chilly weather, what do you think?’
‘Sure,’ Nuzha replied curtly.
They disappeared into the kitchen and each came back out with a steaming cup. Hussam wished he were as lucky as one of them, so he could have a drink too and take part in their sit-down, but he stayed where he was, eavesdropping and watching.
Samar went back to explaining the importance of her project – understanding all dimensions of how the Intifada had affected women and the role that women played, and so on. But Nuzha still didn’t show any interest. Samar persisted in explaining all angles of what she was doing until Nuzha rudely interrupted her. ‘Okay, okay, I’ve got it. But you’ve got to get it through your head that I’m fed up with the Intifada, women, and people in general! Don’t ask me why, as if you don’t already know. You know everything and I know that you know, everyone in the quarter knows. After what’s happened to me, I couldn’t care less about anyone else or what happens to them. I don’t give a shit!’
Samar lowered her head, stunned. Silence ensued.
Nuzha suddenly changed tack. ‘Or shall I speak to you? You’ve made the effort to come here, you’re kind, you have a good heart, and you’re one of the few people who do actually respond to my “Good morning”. I’ll work with you then, play your game and give you what you want.’
Samar smiled indulgently. ‘Play my game?’
Nuzha shook her hand as if shooing away a fly. ‘Don’t take it to heart, honey, I say anything and everything.’
‘So, you’ll answer my questions, then?’
‘Every one. Ask me whatever you want. How many clients I have, their names, their addresses, how many children they have, their wives, their bank balances. I’ll tell you everything, just ask.’
Samar stared at her, a glint of excitement and interest dancing in her eyes. ‘You’re certain?’ she exclaimed.
‘Yes! Just ask the question.’
Samar quickly shuffled through her papers, her breath heavy with anticipation. From where he was, Hussam started breathing just as heavily, burning with curiosity.
‘Okay, so first off, I’ll start with the usual questions about your age, social status, economic situation, childhood, any problems you’ve faced. Then afterwards we’ll talk about the Intifada.’
‘Ask me whateveryou want,’ Nuzha said flatly, her eyes fixed on the wall in front of her.
Samar assumed the stance of a researcher. ‘Your name?’
‘It’s Nuzha, but you already know that.’
‘Nuzha what? Or let’s forget about your last name.’
‘No, write it, write whatever you want.’
‘Forget it, let’s move on. Age?’
‘A year older than me.’
Nuzha said nothing.
‘How many people in your family?’
‘That’s how many brothers and sisters you have?’
‘No. My mum’s dead and my dad too. But you know that. There are three of us girls and two boys.’
‘And are all your brothers and sisters are still alive?’
‘Exactly. My two sisters are married, one in Zarqa and the other in Saudi Arabia. God’s taken care of them, thankfully. My elder brother ran away to America and the younger is in the mountains. And me, as you see now, I’m just here.’
‘You live alone?’
‘Completely. No one cares about me and I don’t care about them.’
‘And your economic situation?’
‘Aha! Now we’ve really started.’
‘If you don’t want to answer you don’t have to.’
‘And why wouldn’t I? I’ll tell you a story and a half. Look here, sweetheart, before the Intifada we used to be able to put away some qirsh for a rainy day. But now with the fall of the dinar, prices going up, and jobs being cut left and right, things have become tough. Not a lot tougher, but still, I mean I’m better off then a lot of others. Don’t forget that I live alone; the house belongs to us so I’m only spending money on food. But of course, things aren’t how they were before: I had a car, a red BMW to die for, and I used to drive about in it wherever I wanted, till they burned it, that is, but you already know this! Then they stabbed my mum, and there you go.’ She stayed quiet, waiting for more questions while Samar looked at her, trying to take everything in. ‘So! Other questions?’
Samar started, and looked at her papers. ‘Your civil status?’
‘Married, single, or other?’
‘You got married and then divorced?’
‘Didn’t you know that?’
‘No I didn’t. How would I?’
Nuzha looked at her slyly, a malicious smile playing on her lips, as if to say It’s better for you if you don’t ask who.
‘I swear that I didn’t know, I mean, how would I?’
‘Okay, okay I believe you. But I can’t get my head around how a woman like you from Nablus, from Bab Al-Saha on top of that, doesn’t know everything about everybody, and especially about the people living in thishouse.’
‘Honestly, I didn’t know.’
‘Fine, I believe you.’
‘How old were you when you got married?’
‘What? Does that surprise you? Half of the girls from here get married at that age, some even younger.’
‘How did you get married?’
‘Like everyone else. They made me wear a tulle veil, showed me off on stage, sang and danced for me.’
‘No, no. When I said “how”, I meant, was it a love marriage or arranged traditionally?’
‘It was all completely legal, according to God’s law, the Prophet’s tradition, registered, with a sheikh. I’m telling you, just like everyone else.’
‘No, I want to know, did your husband come to ask for your hand from your family, according to our custom, or did he love you and you loved him?’
‘Love me, you say? He wouldn’t know the meaning of the word. How would he know how to love and be loved? Damn him!’
‘Hold on, slow down. You’re saying that you never loved him?’
‘Oh darling, what are these questions? He was forty-five, a mule really, marrying a fifteen year old girl. And you’re asking me about love?’
‘What do you mean by “It’s possible?”’
‘As in, just because he’s old and like a mule, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know how to love and want to be loved. The Prophet was fifty-six when he married his wife Aicha, who was only nine.’
‘Good God Samar! This is the first time I’ve heard this. Really?’
‘Like I said, he was fifty-six and she was nine. But the way he loved her, he didn’t love any of his other wives like her.’
‘He understood her.’
‘And your husband didn’t?’
‘He was an animal – an animal! All he was missing was a tail and I was just a small chick, still in her shell. May God forgive my mother! What can I say?’
‘She’s the one who married you off?’
‘After my dad died, we fell on hard times and she married us all off to whoever came along: first come, first served.’
‘Because of how poor you all were.’
‘Not just that, she was just plain stupid, God help us. She never learnt a thing from what happened to her. She threw each of us into a hole deeper than the next. My sister Sabiha was married off to someone who already had a wife. My other sister Amina to a beast who makes her worship a golden calf, and me, to an old idiot. Both of my sisters have a load of kids hanging around their necks, weighing them down. Strangling them, really.’
‘How about you?’
‘I had a boy, but I dumped him on his father when he was still in nappies, and I escaped.’
‘I ran off with this barber, who turned out to be just as much of an animal, and dumped me two months later.’
‘Here, in Nablus?’
‘No, in Amman. I was married in Amman and when the barber buggered off, I found myself trapped, so I came back here.’
‘Why did you run off with him?’
‘Back then, I thought I was in love. A good-looking, smarmy bastard with a Lebanese accent. He always wore this bracelet. I was still so young and eager, wanting to love and be loved. I loved him, or I thought I did. Of course my husband was a stupid fool, so I fell hard with no one to catch me. I dumped my son and my husband and took just a few valuables with me, and made a run for it.’
‘Didn’t you consider the risks?’
‘Consider? There was no consideration or calculation. I’m like that. I’m not afraid and I don’t think too hard about things. I’ve been like this my whole life; whatever I think of, I do. I’ve been like this ever since I was at school. When we used to go out on marches, I used to hop over the walls of the boys’ schools at Salihiyya, Jahiz, Amiryya, and open the gates. They used to call me “Wild Girl”, because one time … oh I’ll tell you this story that will really make you laugh! This one time on Earth Day, I hopped over the wall to one of the boys’ schools and stood in the middle of the field throwing rocks. The principal came out, waddling like a duck. When he saw me there he slapped his bald head, shook his cane and shouted, “Hey you, wild girl! Which jungle have you come from? Just wait till I catch you. If you don’t have a father to discipline you, I’ll do it myself.” I looked at his bald head shining in the sun like a mirror, his huge belly, and his gorilla face and I said to myself, “Who does he think he is? If he wasn’t so bald I might listen to him. If his belly wasn’t so big, then he could really throw his weight around. But he’s such a gorilla, everyone hates him. Seriously, who does he think he is? I’ll have to show him at thing or two.” I looked ahead and saw the boys by the windows, crowded behind the glass like mice. Behind me I saw the gatekeeper holding the hose and watering the garden. I ran up to him, snatched the hose out of his hands and aimed it at the bald principal, shouting:
Shut your mouth you dirty swine
It’s you who lost us Palestine!
The boys started laughing. They opened the windows and I heard them shout back:
Shut your mouth you dirty swine
It’s you who lost us Palestine!
I turned the hose on them, and all hell broke loose. They were jumping on the tables and chairs. The principal was running after me, and I was jumping about from one place to another, spraying him the whole time. The boys were all pushing each other and running out of the school. Then someone turned off the water supply. I was afraid the principal would catch me so I ran away from the gatekeeper, dragging the hose behind me. The gatekeeper was chasing me, shouting, “Wild Girl! Give it here, give it here!”’
Samar started laughing, wiping her eyes, repeating, ‘Unbelievable!’
Without the slightest smile, Nuzha went on, ‘And from that day, whenever any of the boys saw me in the street, they used to shout “Wild Girl! Give it here, give it here!”’
From behind the door, Hussam shook his head sadly. So you were Wild Girl! He remembers the scene so crisply as if it were in front of him now. There he stood jostling with the other boys behind the windows to get a better look, then screaming till he went hoarse. So then, the young girl in the blue jumper with the blond mop of hair had been Nuzha. How had he forgotten her?
Sawad Hussain is is an Arabic translator and litterateur who holds a MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Some of her recent translations include Saud Alsanoussi’s Mama Hissa’s Mice and a co-translation of Fatima Sharafeddine and Samar Mahfouz Barraj’s Ghady & Rawan. She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history, and literature.
Editor’s note: You can find at least these five novels by Khalifeh in English: Of Noble Origins (trans. Aida Bamia, AUC Press), The Inheritance (translated by Aida Bamia, AUC Press); Wild Thorns (Trevor Legassick, and Elizabeth Fernea, Interlink); The End of Spring (Paula Haydar, Interlink); The Image, the Icon and the Covenant (translated by Aida Bamia, Interlink).
Many thanks to Sawad Hussain, Hosam Aboul-ela, and Seagull Books.