New Short Fiction: Mariam Qahtani’s ‘Heavensent Huriyya’

This short story, which originally appeared in the FOLK issue of ArabLit Quarterly, is republished here as part of our celebration of the publication of Qahtani’s short-story collection, On Love and Isolation, with Dar Almutawassit.

By Mariam Qahtani

Translated by Ali Al-Jamri

Suspicion’s bite trailed her gaze as the lazy air played across her vision. She straightened her back as she inspected the grim and miserable faces before her. For those who watched, her matted hair, ragged clothes, and very long fingernails foretold no good will.

“I told you, you bastard,” a scowling man whispered into the ear of a boy huddled alongside him, “to lock her behind three locks!”

Wallah, I locked her in with three locks, Baba!” replied the deeply bewildered boy.

No one knew how she had escaped her confinement. Perhaps she’d been freed by the hands of her companion jinn, or by the order of the leader she insisted was her lover—these were the thoughts tumbling in the minds of those gathered around her.

“You killed my children, you sons of adulterers!” Her voice shot out so loud it shook a nearby tree, sending sparrows to flight. She shivered, mutinous and afraid, sweat streaming from her every pore. Her hands trembled beyond her control. She walked in circles, stomped her feet, pulled at clumps of her hair and shouted, “Bring back my children, you infidels! Bring them back!” Then she fled with the speed of one who knew no fear, running barefoot through the rocks and thorns.

“Chase the mad woman, the majnuna! Hey ‘Ubayd, where’s my rifle!?” 

All the men rose at once, young and old, and followed her path, throwing stones as they did. They chanted: “The majnuna has fled! The majnuna has fled!”

I found myself following her trail, stamped into the earth like a tattoo. I moved fast, ignoring the sharp thorns that tugged at my dress and heels. She caught sight of me as I followed. Between gasps for air, I shouted, “Huriyya! Huriyya!” 

I had not come to throw a stone, no—I pitied her. I wanted her to know that someone cared for her and could help her, among all this chaos and disorder.

Huriyya. They say her beauty was once beyond compare. Hearts throbbed for her. The faithful servant’s belief in his Creator swelled at the sight of her. She married a man whom every woman wanted and every man respected. Yes, he married Huriyya, who was now a ghost. She had lived with him only a few short years, during which she bore him no children. So he set her aside and married her cousin, who gave him many sons. Half of them died in infancy, and the other half made him happy. As for Huriyya, he neither divorced her nor paid attention to her. 

She came to know true loneliness after the death of her parents. Her brother left her outside a hospital, like they do to children born out of wedlock. Then he left town with his wife and children. When people called him out for failing to do his duty, he opened his empty palms and gestured at his children’s quivering lips, at his helplessness as a provider. In his oblique and useless way, he said that, if they were any better than him, let them extend a helping hand to her, and he would be grateful. 

She was left to roam the mountain valley, conversing with the trees, weeping beneath the ancient brickworks of the silent hill forts, until the woman vanished and the jinniyya replaced her.

Everyone pitied Huriyya, but no one wanted to help her. When she spoke to you, you felt as though she could break you. Her eyes were alight with fire and her hot breath was as heavy as a dragon’s. She was a tornado, her laughter a squall, her walk a tumult, her speech a clamor. When she moved, a smoke cloud arrived before her and lingered after her. 

And yet I found myself at her side, panting, “Huriyya, wait for me.”

“They corrupted the Quran! They stole the verses of God!”

“Huriyya… ”

“They stole the verses of God!”

“Huriyya, wait, listen to me…  Where are you going?”

Like one who finally admits to taking refuge in a lover, she replied: “To Abu Mighfaran!”

I didn’t know why I wanted to laugh. Abu Mighfaran was the shrine of a holy man. There, weak men supplicated and barren women begged.

A smirk drew itself on my face. “What, to pray?” 

Despite her lost senses, she saw my grin and snapped, “Shut up!”

Breaking her gaze from mine, she planted her feet and stood as firmly as a beam of light. Wonder brightened her eyes. 

Tf!” she spat in my face. “I swear by God you were with them when they stole God’s words!”

Even though I knew Huriyya was mad, and we should feel sorry for her—even knowing all the things I knew about her—I could not stop myself from reacting defensively. “Shut it, majnuna! No one can steal the Quran.”

Her laughter soared into the sky and flattened the earth around her. Silence and confusion swirled around her.

“Oh, they didn’t steal the Quran?” she asked.

“No.”

“Go on, then, look at the Quran.”

“What Quran?”

Her hand sank into the torn bag she carried and emerged again with a small, tattered Quran.

“Open it to Surat al-Bayyina.”

I opened the worn and weary Quran to the Surah, God’s word given to us by the Seal of the Prophets himself.

“Read it,” she ordered.

‘In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, Most Merciful, the disbelievers from the People of the Book and the polytheists were not going to desist from disbelief until the clear proof came to them—’”

 “Look,” she interrupted, the tears welling in her eyes, “Where is ‘A messenger from God, reciting scrolls of utmost purity’?”

“Huriyya! Here is the verse,” I point at it with a finger, and it is the very next verse, “‘A messenger from God, reciting scrolls of utmost purity!’”

“Liar!” her hot breath smoked my face, “Infidel! Thief of God’s words! The verse has been stolen! They stole it! They stole it!”

How to show the blind what they cannot see and the deaf what they cannot hear? The verse was right there in front of me. And yet she was so convinced it was not there, I swear that I too began to doubt what I saw.

Huriyya took off, roaming in loss and heartbreak. Her moaning wail was like that of a child who had just discovered her parents dead. She tore at her hair and forcefully smacked her head, as if punishing herself. 

“Oh Lord! They stole God’s word! They stole God’s word! Oh Lord!” 

The wind blew as she screamed into the dust.

Children gathered around her. Like exhausted bees, they circled, half-nude, snotty, chanting mercilessly, “Huriyya majnuna! Huriyya majnuna!” 

Near them, virile stallions curled their moustaches and enjoyed the hints the billowing winds gave of her body. The commander scolded her, and his men shouted in harmony, “Cover yourself, woman!”

“Get away, you bastard! You infidel! You lech! You thieves of God’s word!”

The commander was unprepared for her response. He shot embarrassed looks at his companions, an apologetic smile on his face. Then he screeched back, “We said cover yourself!”

Instead, she revealed what was left and screamed in their faces. She charged at them, like a child pushing against a boulder. The tears streamed down her face, their wet channels driving through the accumulated dirt on her cheeks. 

The men laughed as they gathered. The eldest of them chuckled loudly, “It’s true, whoever said, ‘Don’t cry for the dead, cry for the mad!’”

I followed her, begging her to stop. “Huriyya, Huriyya!” 

She spun around and blew a handful of sand in my face, “Go! You stole the Quran! You stole my children!”

“Children? What children!?” I slipped into anger. “You majnuna, daughter of majnuna!

That was enough to rouse even the smallest of the devils inside her. Blood flew to her face and she ran at me with all the speed of the most hateful jinn, swearing she would not leave me before my final breath. “I’m majnuna, you bastard girl, am I?”

I shot off, racing against her and my imagination. If she caught me, she would finish me. I ran, and she ran after me, and I cursed the moment I took after her and showed her any sympathy. She slowed behind me, spitting curses, until she disappeared. There was not a trace of her, nor of me.

‘No good deed goes unpunished!’ That’s what Grandmother used to say! Why did I chase after her? Out of sympathy for her? What was she to me, anyway? 

***

“Bring it, Saleem, bring it!” A skeletal boy was shouting in the distance. He swayed like an illusion, half-hidden in the dusty whirlwinds. I approached and found not one but two boys at play, laughing, spouting words both intelligible and nonsensical. Between their legs screamed a small cat. A long, thin rope was strung around her neck, wrapped and looped round multiple times until thick. The cat exhaled, mixing in the dust between their limbs. Her distressed, choked gasps, her pleading and cursing showed in her bulging eyes and glinting fangs. She writhed in circles, just as Huriyya had. The cat’s cries set my heart on edge, falling down to the depths of my soul. Only the sun and I knew she was crying.

“Saleem, bring it!” The skeletal boy with curly hair said again. His eyes brimmed with the ignorant cunning that could make a person lose hope in a whole generation. Saleem replied with a laugh that almost collapsed his lungs. He laughed until I felt myself growing short of breath. It was as if his deep breaths were soughing and whooping at a rate greater than his body could handle. I could see nothing but giant eyebrows consuming his face, and a mouth like a well. He was even thinner than the first boy. “It’s a jinn, Saleem!”

The skeletal boy’s own laughs faded into a mix of disappointment and anger. “Come on, Saleem, we told you to bring it!” His tone grew sharper, while Saleem of the thick eyebrows went on with his absent, dust-coated laughter.

I spun around and rushed back the way I came, to search once more for Huriyya.

*

Also read:

On Mariam Qahtani’s ‘On Love and Isolation

Mariam Qahtani on the Slow Process of Building ‘On Love and Isolation’

*

Mariam Qahtani grew up in Sanaa, Yemen, and immigrated to the US in the 90s. She holds a BSc in Psychology from Capella University in Minnesota and is currently an Emerging Scholar and master’s candidate in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.  She lives near Washington, D.C., with her family.

Ali Al-Jamri is a Bahraini poet, translator and editor based in the UK. In 2021, he edited Between Two Islands (No Disclaimers), an anthology of British-Bahraini poetry. His work has been published in Modern Poetry in Translation, Consilience, Zindabad, Bahr Magazine, and anthologies, and it has featured at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. He curated the Manchester Poetry Library’s Arabic Language Collection in 2021. He is a New Writing North Arabic Translation mentee and his current work focuses on the translation of Eastern Arabia’s vernacular poetry. He is @ali_mn_aljamri on Twitter and @alialjamri_scribbles on Instagram, and his work can be found on his website, alialjamri.com.

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