By SULAIMAN AL-SHATTI
Translated from the Arabic by MAIA TABET with LAURA ALBAST
Whenever she spoke, my mother habitually turned down her upper lip and clenched her teeth as if to control the flow of her words—filtering them, if you will. Her teeth were white and strong; they were free of blemishes, except for the three that had been chipped in an old accident. She leaned in toward whomever she was conversing with, an apologetic smile on her face, which our neighbor’s daughter described as radiating kindness. A colleague who was once delivering an urgent message to me couldn’t help but remark that even from a distance her beauty was striking. He must not have seen her moving about with the distorted gait that caused one side of her rear to rise as the other descended. Although it had become less conspicuous with age, her limp harkened to another old story, but whenever anyone inquired about it, my mother just smiled enigmatically. Some of the questions were innocent enough, but others seemed veiled––I couldn’t fathom their subtext, nor could I recall anything from the actual events that might help me discern the questioner’s motive. All I know is that I had grown used to the way her limp caused gasps of astonishment, making mouths salivate with unspoken questions and eyes gleam with curiosity.
My mother was serenely, almost deathly, calm, except for sudden bouts of startling when her body would shudder violently without apparent reason in a recoiling movement that went against her nature.
One side of her face exhibited the clear trace of a heavy blow: a crescent-shaped gouge, the length of which was fully revealed when her headscarf pulled away from her face. Ordinarily, only the glinting golden pin (securing the scarf) and the tip of the wound were visible, but her involuntary movements loosened the sides of the scarf and revealed the extent of the injury. It eventually became an old scar that almost no one queried—for who pays attention to a sixty-year-old woman’s wrinkly face?—though some of my female colleagues did comment that my mother’s face would have been exquisite if not for the scar. In any case, there was no tale worth telling. We, children, aren’t curious about our parents’ backstories: to us, the lines that mark their years seem amorphous and foretell nothing.
But our old neighbor who bumped into Mother at the airport was keen to trace the contours of that scar. She stuck her finger behind the scarf, feeling the folded and fused edges of scar tissue from the age-old injury that left Mother’s elongated face gouged by a crevice on one side. As the neighbor complimented her moon-like beauty, she also lamented it.
The initial image that we form of others does not fade in our mind’s eye. Memory has us recalling those who are average-looking as beautiful and those of medium height as tall. Wondrousness is created by the passage of time, and our neighbor was full of wonder. Indeed, no one has ever disputed my mother’s beauty, but her generation’s propensity for exaggeration left me dubious.
My mother’s joy at such flattery loosened her tongue. We were at thirty-six thousand feet of altitude when she began to recount the details of the incident. She abandoned her familiar reserve and uncovered a buried talent: an ability to present the ordinary in an extraordinary fashion. Her storytelling revealed something to me about her past––particularly her connection to specific people’s voices, and the unexpected reactions they caused in her, which then reverberated throughout her life.
Listening to her stories brought the realization that not every gesture of recognition is an act of benevolence. After life had felt satisfyingly full, the ravages of grief followed the loss of her third child, leaving Mother bathing in a river of torment. In my father’s eyes, and in those of others whose opinion also counted, she endured this first test of her mettle successfully: life had dealt her a heavy blow, but she gained in wisdom and grace, and could therefore be trusted. Thus, Father allowed her to go shopping at the market and take care of her womanly needs once or twice a month and on special occasions, like at the start of Eid or during Ramadan, both of these being auspicious occasions deemed to proffer protection.
Hesitation was her way, a habit that was like a wheel that folded into its wake everything it came across. The magnanimous gift of trust from my father was late in coming, and not being accustomed to the glare of the sun, her eyes hurt and her steps faltered when she went out on the street. She wouldn’t have welcomed the gift were it not for the pressure she felt—all around her, the women were fed up with the taste of their menfolk, who only brought back bizarre or useless things from the market, the latest fad being the surplus military garb from the war.
As the sinewy line along her face testified, Mother’s life never took a new turn without there being a price to pay. Her fifth outing to the market was the one that counted both for and against her, the previous four being occasions when she followed behind women of experience, whose footing was solid. This time she was in charge.
She was accompanied by a younger woman, and the added responsibility perturbed her, making for even heavier footing than usual. But somewhere between the market’s crisscrossing alleys and its shops, her fearful hesitation receded, giving way to her growing preoccupation with making the right purchases.
Loud and coarse male voices upended what had been the normal unfolding of an ordinary day. There was an altercation, two men screaming at each other so loud that every other sound was suspended. The brawling voices were like a thunderbolt—they struck her like a jolt of electricity, paralyzing what had been her otherwise open demeanor that day, and throwing her back into a state of turmoil and contraction.
Like roosters in a cockfight, the two men flew at each other, their wrath as venomous as a porcupine’s raised quills. One on either side, they rushed past Mother, forming a triangle with her at its point and welding into a frenzied mass of flying limbs and movements. The gates of hell were thrown open when she found herself backed into a corner.
My mother couldn’t explain how she got there. Sometimes she surmised that the men’s bloodcurdling cries threw her off balance and that, as she tried to back away, she got cornered. One of the men grabbed the other and shoved him into the corner where she found herself, but the second man regained the upper hand and they locked in a clinch, a nose away from her. Terrified, she stumbled back and sideways, her cheek banging into the sharp edge of a sliding metal door that sloppy workmanship had left jagged and uneven.
After rough hands broke up the fighting, she was the worst-injured of the three: she bled profusely, the redness of the dripping crimson blood continually disappearing into the blackness of her thawb.
Whenever she let me run my fingers through her hair, I could feel a raised bump on her head, the result of another injury where her now-coarse hair would not grow. For me, the tableau was complete when she sat cross-legged in the middle of her room, half turned toward the sun that streamed in from the window in a long rectangular beam. She’d run the wooden comb through the strands of her salt-and-pepper hair, which was more gray than black, and thick on either side of the part except for that small bald spot––a white patch of bare scalp surrounded by the roots of her long hair. It grew familiar after I made myself rub her hair with oil in a gesture of love, albeit against her will. There was no questioning of old bygones at home––familiarity had normalized everything that had happened before I came along.
But I did know the history of this bald spot. I was thirteen and had just been giving Mother a hug. Drops of blood had stained the heinous green school uniform selected for us by one of the superintendents, whose nasty taste was summed up in the blackboard’s blackness and the chalk’s whiteness. When I saw the blood, I ran back to her, terrified. She held me with one arm as she pressed her other hand against her head: from a small opening, blood gushed out in every direction, down the sides of her face, onto her forehead and temples, streaming down to her neck. The scene replayed whenever she colored her hair with henna and the brownish-red paste trickled onto her face, following the earlier trail of blood. Despite the comforting sounds she tried to make, weakness overcame her. My father appeared, with several outer garments, an abaya, and a bushiya, in hand. He put an arm around her shoulder and made sure no part of her remained uncovered.
When they returned three hours later, my mother’s head was swollen with white gauze. His fright now past, my father only had words of blame, somewhat softened by phrases like “may the good Lord guide her,” “may God forgive her,” and “she’s witless.”
We find things funny once we figure them out, how coincidences converge to create a situation or an incident. My father, who abhorred loud noises at home, had yielded when the doctor stuffed his left ear with cotton. He loved listening to the radio, especially plays, and he insisted on doing so alone. He would cock his head toward the radio and block off any aperture from which the sound might escape, so that no one else might hear. The day of the accident, the radio play opened with a man shouting at the top of his voice, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The woman to whom the question was addressed remained wordless.
The thundering voice was so loud it startled Mother, who didn’t easily distinguish between sounds. Jolted by fear, her body went flying, and her head hit one of the spear-shaped wrought iron bars on the window. Incapable of explaining to my father what had happened, she was a mess of babbling apologies and spluttering tears. Many years later, I asked about this incident while oiling her hair, and all she said was that the voice had penetrated her ears like a bullet piercing her chest. “Your father’s shouting never augurs well,” she added, saying that all she could feel was the skewer-like thing lodged in her head. She would have had a beautiful head of hair but for this spot, and all my attempts to conceal it failed. The stitches had been botched and the scar tapered upward instead of lying flat, leaving a patch of white scalp visible.
Whenever Mother wasn’t feeling well, I’d minister to her with disinfectant powder. I’d notice how the burn spread all the way to the inside of her thigh, leaving a scar resembling a tree branch covered in dead leaves. I used to catch glimpses of the burn whenever she dropped her guard and forgot to shield her body from sight. But my heart would flinch when I turned her over in her bed: the puckered skin from the old burn extended all the way to the back of her stiff body.
In the mid-sixties, all sorts of modern ideas made their way into our homes. There were two things, however, that couldn’t get past my father’s reservations: European-style layouts, which he was dead set against, and not having a square inner courtyard. Good fortune smiled on us, and he was able to purchase a modern house of traditional design: smooth floors, multiple bathrooms, decorative tiles, faucets mounted flush with the walls, and a large yard concealing a smaller rectangular courtyard that was removed from view and equipped with an outdoor kitchen, a toilet, and a laundry tub. It was the only place with which my mother became one: she especially loved it because it was set back from the street and kept sudden noises and unexpected surprises at bay.
Despite his keenness on buying everything new, my father did not give up the thin flatbread he dipped in yogurt, which my mother was happy to serve above all else. In the evenings or after dawn prayers, she’d light the cooking fire in her small courtyard, where she could escape the constant watchfulness and let her hands roam freely across the tawa.
While many new things that come into our lives are a boon, they can paradoxically cause unexpected harm. The puckered burn scar on my mother’s body was a good example of that paradox. In the little courtyard, she lit the cooking fire and leaned over the sizzling-hot tawa, joy now spread across her face: Father had rigged up a glass bottle connected to a hose which delivered kerosene straight to the fire, sparing her having to fan the flames by blowing on them, as she had always done.
In square houses, the quality of engrossment is akin to a comatose state; the space eats up all one’s time and keeps the world at bay. The secluded courtyard was like a bubble which allowed Mother all of that. But a single sound can easily turn the quotidian topsy-turvy. This time, it wasn’t one sound but several of them, which were followed by a crackle. A man’s booming voice rang out from the neighbor’s rooftop. Carried on the airflow across the wide expanse of roofs, it combined with other sounds, and more crackling along the way, until they all coalesced and swept through the large courtyard like the wind blowing through a gulley. To her keen hearing, the magnified noise sounded like a metal clang of knives falling on top of her. Her reaction was instantaneous: she forcefully squeezed her thighs shut and gathered the folds of the thawb that had come loose with one hand. Leaning over to preserve her modesty, as her body swayed to one side, her other hand flailed about compulsively. It struck the bottle, the glass cracked against the side of the tawa, and the seeping liquid ignited an inferno that ripped into my mother’s thigh like an extended claw.
Mother writhed in her room for more than a month, her bare leg protected by a piece of white muslin. Although my father guarded the sides of the cloth and swatted away the flies, he couldn’t get over her carelessness and unthinking reactions. He was careful to feign respect for her in our presence, but his pity was by far the more obvious. He had always considered her stupid and would sometimes tell her so to her face.
Whenever I look up and catch sight of the rusty water tank on the neighbor’s roof, I remember how the workers gathered around it on the day the tank was still brand-new, and how, at the sight of the blaze and the woman, their voices fell silent. Flabbergasted, they were frozen with fear.
The puckered scar felt taut beneath my fingers as I sprinkled it with disinfectant powder.
Sounds alone do not make words, which is why meaning remains opaque. My mother would mutter and repeat unintelligible phrases about her sprained foot. Recounting the story of the collapse of the roof’s retaining wall when she was seventeen, as if it were as boring as a passing raincloud, she added more lightheartedly that her fall to the street below caused the guy who’d been standing there to take off once he saw that the crumbling chunks of mudbrick were being followed by a tumbling body. She described lots of neighbors rushing to her aid, the bisht that a passerby flung over her, and how the owner of the bisht had stood around embarrassed, waiting for it to be returned to him, as his carefully guarded secret was now in the open: the bisht was in tatters, and up to that moment, he had always kept it folded, tucked under his armpit in such a way as to keep its disgraceful flaws hidden.
Mother remained an open book with others, but it was rare for her to share details with me. And although those others ordinarily spoke on every topic without restraint, talking to children about the folded pages of their parents’ past embarrassed them—the Lord be praised for this trait—so they kept the details of Mother’s otherwise unremarkable story to themselves. It was a commendable collusion. But the neighbor thrown our way by airport coincidences was delighted by conversations of the past, so she recounted to Mother the repeated instances of airborne women: she winked, hinting at some mischief of old. She told of the itinerant Maryoum, who went from home to home dressed as a man in order to cross the railroad tracks at night; of Fattouma, who mastered the art of roof-jumping, betting that she could reach the market from the rooftops; and of Mullah Ali’s fright when he looked up and saw a talking crimson cloud when she jumped a 3.5-meter distance—the width of the railroad track. He went on about the witch that came from the south, perhaps from Oman, for a very long time. The neighbor’s insinuations about the accident were thinly veiled, and she gave my mother’s thigh a fat squeeze to remind her that the incident of the collapsing wall was as funny as the story of Fattouma’s antics.
I was intent on fleshing out every last detail, and my sneakiness led me to my pugnacious friend, Su‘ad, who mischievously concurred that our mothers’ tales are never fully recounted to us. I really wanted to find out the remaining details.
My mother’s claim regarding her youthful age was confirmed, as was the fact that the collapse of the roof’s retaining wall landed her in the street, and that there indeed had been a man with a bisht; also, that the people who were leaving the market had gathered around her, since our house was at the top of the road leading to the souq. But there were additional elements to the story.
As a young woman, my mother had become conscious of her distinctive beauty, of her feminine allure, and how the contours of her body turned heads. She saw this reflected in the eyes of the water merchant, who wouldn’t otherwise give anyone the time of day, and in those of the Mullah’s timid assistant, who couldn’t resist stealing repeated glances at her. She had learned to wrap her abaya tightly around her body to emphasize its curves, and carefully allowed the panels to flutter open to reveal her breasts straining against the cloth. Because of the joy she derived from her beauty and her openness, she was like a dove: she felt secure and accepting of everything around her, as if she wanted to scatter bits of her youthfulness everywhere. The street became a favorite hangout for passersby hoping to catch sight of the girl flitting between the mudbrick houses.
But her openness would not last, because of three men who hunted her down: my maternal grandfather, who was a good man but not a lenient one; her brother, who only knew to use his fists; and her maternal uncle, who was cruelty personified. Three months after she had begun her appearances, her abaya was doused with kerosene and torched. She retreated and disappeared from the street.
Less than a month after that, the loitering heads returned, their eyes cast upward to the retaining wall. Mother had given up her street appearances for the enchantment of fresh air atop the roof, and she could be found there every afternoon between dusk and sunset. Another two months passed. One evening as darkness was falling, her screams reverberated from the rooftop: leaning over her crumpled body, two spectral figures beat her in unison, as though pounding the ingredients of harees. She was, now and later, to pay a price for the combination of beauty with openness whenever she was in the presence of the three men who’d memorized local history and the sayings of organized society.
Then, things settled down. The crooked rib straightened out, and another year or more passed. Forgetfulness forged its path, and no one remembered the beautiful young girl assailed by youth. Her beauty blossomed, and she assumed that it was a right that others had over her. To unfold and blossom is the way of the world: there were many other beauties besides her, and the world creatively continued to bring forth beauty. She, on the other hand, learned her limits. She became cautious, and she hunched down whenever she needed to climb to the roof for something, her head sinking into her shoulders, always with a slight tremor in her legs.
Two years later, a young neighbor named Yahya came back from studying in Beirut, where his well-off father had insisted on sending him. He had become a new man, and was therefore the object of great interest upon his return, but that did not stop him from passing an inquiry to my mother through his sister. The inquiry gave rise to ideas that grew expectations, although each of them, this man and my mother, expected one thing and found another. Yahya, whose wild and mischievous nature had caused his father to send him away, had settled down. His body had matured, his chest had broadened, and his steps had grown steady, conferring on him an attractive elegance. She, on the other hand, the strong, confident, vicious tigress who had thrown him to the ground and relentlessly made fun of him when they were kids, had transformed into a docile creature, whose gaze was tethered to the earth beneath her feet. She had mastered the art of reading the ground, her voice a wordless whisper.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the long summer months built something within each of them. Then Yahya traveled abroad for four months, and the accident happened on the day of his unexpectedly early return. It had been a beautiful spring. The gentle rain had lasted for days, seeping through the mudbrick walls and rooftops, making everything damp. With the gleam of the sun at dawn, my mother’s excuse to stay on the roof, where she’d hung out to dry all the things that were damp, was both convincing and unassailable. She approached the retaining wall, but not too close, and Yahya appeared at the end of the street. Standing on her tippy-toes, she leaned over the wall in anticipation that their eyes would meet—it was the first time she was seeing him out and about since he’d inquired about her so many months ago. When he looked up, she threw caution to the wind and pressed herself harder and harder against the wall, as longing melted her heart. He, for his part, lingered in front of the doorway to the house across the street. She wanted to call out to him, but all she could muster was a wordless rush of air full of meaning. He raised his hand to signal something; she shook her head, trying to decipher his message. She was focused on his rapid signaling with her entire being, and she might have understood, had it not been for…
… her uncle’s sonorous and sharp voice bursting forth. Whatever he had to say grew into a bang, and the explosion of fear she felt put to rest any longing that remained. In an impulse to escape, one of her legs swung around, but the movement only pushed her farther into the mudbrick wall, whose edges were worn down after the baking sun had dried up all the rainwater. Her body fell and landed close to the potential lover nearby, who wasn’t spared injury by all the subsequent gossip and winking.
Thus was the price of love engraved onto her foot.
She always sensed the approach of summer early, and she’d prepare by purchasing white fabric with which to sew dishdashas for my brother; he always promised to spend the whole summer with her, but he’d invariably arrive late. She’d tuck the cloth underneath her bed and leave it there until he got home.
This memory came back to me after I realized that my brother couldn’t adhere to his own dictum that acceptance was a form of faith in life. I felt his shoulders quivering and his loose white shirt heaving as he wept bitterly. The memory of her slumped on the ground, gathering the cloth for him, was crushing. A kind neighbor kept me company during the ordeal. I had been frozen in place. It was Umm Salem who stuck her hand under the bed, fished out the cloth, and folded it into her abaya, carrying away all that was needed to minister to a dead body.
My fortitude crumbles whenever I look into her empty room. I miss her hand feeling around the floor for her little coffee pot every morning. After her vision deteriorated, she’d make careful circular movements close to the ground and also count on her hearing, which remained sharp. Everything had its place, and she wasn’t used to having someone help her. A black void has engulfed this reassuring image that had sustained me every morning. Now, my back rests against thin air, my wounds feel raw, and I continue to breathe sorrowfully, months after living through every dark second of her death.
Even though nine months had passed since the explosive eruptions of war, and the horrors that followed, even more aftershocks were to come. Around five one morning, we heard a series of blasts, and Mother’s was the only reaction that was not delayed. When I came down from the roof, overcome by aching certainty, the fighter jets having destroyed any remaining doubts I might have harbored, my legs flew toward her room, where I found her body prone: her eyes spasming and half shut; her lips cleaved in two––one alive and the other lifeless; one leg moving and the other resembling a pile of meat. The terrifying news had landed in her ears, which were no strangers to such sounds.
I carried her to the hospital, a desperate but ridiculous decision, since hospitals are no place for old, paralyzed women when foreign soldiers have invaded a city. Her body was laid out in the corner of a spacious room that had been deserted by patients and taken over by the wounded. She slipped in and out of consciousness for a few hours, and then a huge blast shook the walls. The prone body startled so forcefully that it fell to the ground; containers scattered, liquid spilled, and tubes hung loose.
Sulaiman Al-Shatti is a Kuwaiti academic and author. In addition to teaching literature, he writes literary criticism and fiction. His first short story collection,Sawt al-Khafit, appeared in 1970, and several of his stories have been translated into Russian, Bulgarian, and English. Between 1978 and 1990, Al-Shatti headed the editorial board of Al-Bayan, the publication of the Kuwaiti Writers Association. He is the recipient of several regional Arab writing awards.
maia tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator with five book-length translations to her name. Her work has also appeared in Words Without Borders, Banipal, Fikrun wa Fann, Portal 9, ArabLit Quarterly, and the Journal of Palestine Studies, among others. She is currently completing a translation of Rula Jurdi’s ‘Ilbat al-Daoww.
Laura Albast is a Palestinian journalist, poet, and translator. Her Arabic poetry has been published in Romman Cultural, Sekka, and the Ghassan Kanafani Resistance Arts Anthology. Her poem “BABA” was selected as a semifinalist for Southeast Review’s 2022 Gearhart Poetry Prize. Laura guest-edited and translated a special issue of Skin Deep creative magazine titled Palestine: Ways of Being.