Excerpt from The Occasional Virgin

The Occasional Virgin coverBy HANAN AL-SHAYKH



The sea had depressed Huda ever since she was a schoolgirl, bent eagerly over a drawing of a Phoenician princess walking with her prince beside the sea, while their dog played with a shell. The creature that lived in the shell had dyed the dog’s mouth a purple color that clashed with the blue sea. She had written below the picture, ‘The color purple was discovered in the city of Tyre. Tyre is a Phoenician city situated on the Mediterranean Sea, like Beirut.’ Then she took her crayons and gave the prince and princess the most beautiful clothes, and colored the world around them like rainbows mingling with the blue of the sea, but instead of being happy that she had finished her homework, she felt a pain, different from when she had a toothache or grazed her knee: it began in her throat and descended into her belly, because the world and the colors she had drawn on the sheet of paper were what she longed for, unlike her house, empty of color and pictures and music. The pain attacked her throat and she felt as if she was suffocating because she would never walk by the sea like this prince and princess and their dog, never set eyes on its blueness or the lovely colors of the prince and princess’s clothes except in her dreams, and only then if she dreamt in color and not in black and white as usual.

One day, Huda went up to the roof to find out if Beirut really was a Phoenician city on the Mediterranean Sea, but all she could see were low buildings with neglected gardens, a single high building sprayed with patches of red stucco, neighbors chatting on roof terraces and balconies now that evening had come, doves flying around and alighting at random, and a couple of cats darting away when they spied the neighbor woman pummeling a piece of meat with a wooden mallet, then returning to meow full-throatedly once she had finished extracting the thin white veins from the meat.

The sea must be somewhere in Beirut: she drew it with a blue crayon in her geography book. She learnt how to color the sea so it appeared like a real blue surface, shaving off fragments of a blue crayon with a razor blade and rubbing them on to the page with a piece of cloth. The sea was always to the left and she wrote above it in a sloping hand ‘The Mediterranean Sea’, a phrase as vast as the ocean.

Huda’s first encounter with the sea happened when all of Beirut rushed to look at an Italian steamship that had run aground on the beach. Among the crowds that day were the people of Huda’s quarter, old and young. They all dismounted from the bus and ran together across a sand that was like burghul wheat, and a little boy pointed to it and asked his mother if it was an enormous garden of tabbouleh. Huda reached out her hand incredulously to touch the sea; she saw the ship, like a big black bird with one wing stuck in the sand and the other lying on the surface of the water, exposed to the sun and rain.

She couldn’t remember if she had paddled in the water that day or not, although she did remember the women’s legs with their protruding veins, and their heels so dry and cracked they looked as if they’d been cut with a knife. She tried to picture her mother’s legs, but couldn’t, for she had rarely seen them without thick black stockings. The first time she had taken off her dress and put on a swimsuit, she had thought of her mother’s black stockings and headscarf, but these images vanished as she looked down at herself and thought, Is this really me? She remembered hurrying into the water, into the roofed-in sea, the place known as ‘The Women’s Swimming Pool’, constructed of three walls and a fourth with an opening halfway along to let the seawater in. She found out by chance that the girls of her neighborhood went to the women’s swimming pool with one of their aunts every Sunday. In tears, she reproached her best friend for not telling her of these excursions: ‘So the sea’s not for people like me?’ Her friend, also in tears by then, answered that they didn’t dare take her with them because they were scared of her parents, which upset Huda even more, as she realized she would never be able to escape the fact that her father was a religious man, something that would slam doors in her face whatever she tried to do in life.

Her friend was well aware that Huda was the most open-minded of all the girls: she knew Arabic and French songs by heart and told jokes and imitated film stars and people in their neighborhood, first and foremost her own mother and father, and in the end Huda joined the rest of them at the pool. Of course, there was no need to warn her to keep it secret, as everybody knew that her parents would not only punish their daughter but also the friend’s aunt who had brought them, and their fury would extend to the other parents, for swimming in the sea was forbidden for girls like her, even in this covered pool. The sea meant wearing swimming suits, which meant that a girl’s reputation was soiled like a silver bowl whose gleaming surface had become tarnished and blackened.

Once the rumor got around that the girls from this traditional quarter were going swimming in the sea, explaining that it was the women’s swimming pool they were going to did nothing to diminish the scandal. The pool was on the other side of the city, the more modern and open side, where there were nightclubs, European showgirls and foreign business men. Women paraded about in high heels and sandals revealing toenails painted in vivid reds, as they dragged their dogs along, dogs with full bellies who only growled when inferior people walked by. Going to the sea, even if it was to the women’s swimming pool, meant walking through streets lined with hotels and bookshops that displayed foreign magazines with women’s faces and bodies on their covers and sold fiction and new novels about love, passion and betrayal. The inhabitants of these quarters looked different from Huda’s neighbors: their shopping bags were filled not only with meat and vegetables, but also with strange imported fruit; they didn’t walk as if the cares of the world were on their shoulders; and they even went to eat in restaurants, undeterred by the cost, although their homes were close by.

As the bus drove the girls to the women’s swimming pool, Huda wished all the passengers knew she was going to the sea. If only she were carrying a straw basket with her own swimsuit in it instead of wearing this borrowed one under her clothes.

The moment the bus heading for Ras Beirut crossed Burj Square it started filling up with students from the American University and surrounding schools. Huda studied their different clothes, especially their white socks, and wished she could wear the same. They wore tennis shoes, the likes of which Huda had never seen before. She tried in vain to catch the eye of a student carrying a tennis racquet, and swore to herself that she would finish her studies at the American University. The bus stopped among beautiful buildings and the aunt descended only after she had made sure that all six girls were on the pavement. They passed by mixed beaches and all kinds of hotels and came to a halt where a blast of noise was emanating from an entrance with no door or sign. The ground was wet and as Huda followed the other girls she saw the place was plunged in semi-darkness, and there was a woman with a cigarette in her hand whose brown breasts showed beneath her unbuttoned blouse, for all the world like a child’s bottom. The woman held out her hand to the aunt to take the entrance money she had collected from the six girls in the bus, then asked if any of them needed to borrow a swimming suit. She lit another cigarette as they all hurried to the small changing room, which was also dark, and from there out to the covered pool, where the noise of the waves competed with the noise of the bathers.

Huda descended the few steps where the water came in from under the wooden balcony and broke in waves on the rock in the middle of the pool. Could this really be the sea? The water crashed against the walls, and she wanted to escape out into the open sea away from the children and their mothers and grandmothers and the woman with red sores all over her body like hibiscus flowers with yellow pus on them. Another woman was wearing a baggy swimsuit, revealing pubic hair that reminded Huda of the brown whiskers on a corncob.

The eyes of the five other girls from her neighborhood were fixed on Huda’s skinny body, as she stood there without her voluminous skirt, four pairs of knickers and two cotton vests, alone with the nicknames she was known by locally: Umm Sa’dallah, after the famous old woman of their quarter, who was over a hundred years old and whose body had shriveled and creased like a pleated skirt; Bone Soup; and Kibbeh on a Skewer. But her best friend quickly rescued her from this humiliation, taking her enthusiastically by the hand, and Huda submitted, abandoning herself to the water, which began to spill over her, leaving behind specks of salt soft as dew where it touched her. She saw her body under the water, brown, hairless. The water washed her feet clean from the black shoes she had been wearing that day. Her mother always dyed her white shoes black in winter and so far hadn’t bought her any new white ones. The water made her light as she clung to a rock, wrapping itself around her as it pleased. Archimedes was right then. She was floating. She felt she owned something: her body was a gift, not created merely to fulfil certain functions. It wanted to play, so she played with it, floating, turning round in circles, splashing happily like those around her, while mothers scooped up water as if they were picking fruit and sprinkled it over their children’s heads.

Nobody made any attempt to swim. Mothers shouted at their children to be careful they didn’t drown. The sea was treacherous. The sea was the sea wherever it was, even imprisoned in this room. Even if it only reached your waist. Even if big black car tires encircled the bathers’ bodies like lifebelts. The water was not blue, not azure. How Huda used to love that adjective: the azure sea. And the word ‘Venezuela’. And ‘ocean’. And laughed at the word ‘albasifiki’, because as well as the Pacific Ocean, it could mean in Arabic ‘You’re wearing my knickers.’ The water had no color. She took hold of it. It wasn’t white. Why do they call the Mediterranean the White Sea? The water was there and not there. It was the first giant, or was it the second? She could no longer remember what she had learnt in her reading book about the two giants, water and fire. Water was like candy floss: the more you had the more you wanted. They all came out of the women’s swimming pool with their features somehow clearer, brighter. The aunt seized hold of Huda’s plaits and said thank God they’re not wet, and Huda answered that she’d thought of that and pinned them on top of her head before she went in the water.

When her mother finally caught her, Huda defended herself, denying that she’d never been to the beach or worn a swimsuit in public, insisting that she’d only had it on at her friend Salwa’s house, whose bathroom contained a big bathtub, ‘so we float around in it as if we’re at the seaside, because you won’t let us go there. We’re trying to be like other girls – like other people.’ But her mother was ready for her: ‘What about the sand in the folds of the bathing suit? Look! Here’s the proof. See the sand, the little shells?’ Huda had collected them and wrapped them in a sheet of newspaper, but denied that the sand and shells were an indication of any wrongdoing, and shouted at the top of her voice: ‘Obviously we scatter some shells and sand in the bottom of the bath, so that we feel as if we’re really in the sea, since you won’t let us be like other people. In any case, I don’t understand why you’re so angry.’

But this lie about Salwa’s bathtub did not stop her father from striking his face and weeping. Shaking his head and looking skywards, he mumbled: ‘My daughter clothes herself in depravity and exposes her body to men. Where shall I turn my face, I a man of religion, who shows others the way? Where shall I direct my prayers? How can I stand by and let my beloved daughter perish in hellfire?’ Meanwhile Huda’s mother wore even more black after this event, prayed more often, spoke in hushed tones and no longer addressed a word to her.


Hanan Al-Shaykh, an award-winning journalist, novelist, and playwright, is the author of the short-story collections I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops and One Thousand and One Nights; the novels The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, Beirut Blues, and Only in London; and a memoir about her mother, The Locust and the Bird. She was raised in Beirut, educated in Cairo, and lives in London.

Catherine Cobham teaches Arabic language and literature at St. Andrews University in Scotland and has translated a number of contemporary authors from the Arabic, including Naguib Mahfouz, Hanan al-Shaykh, and Fu’ad al-Takarli.



Translation copyright © 2018 by Hanan Al-Shaykh.

Published by Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Excerpt from The Occasional Virgin

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