In “James Joyce” (1982), a stifled writer engages a hallucinatory Joyce in dialogue about writing, and in so doing, interrogates not only what—but also who—makes a great writer. Combining his trademark intertextuality with tense mixing and pronoun ambiguity, Zafzaf creates a haze of temporal unease. But however lost in time our writer is, he is distinctly aware of his place. Creative mastery is never simply a matter of skill but always also a question of positionality and circumstance. The freedom to be authentic or make new, to mean or will, is not equally free for all. Time is unstable; remembrance, unbalanced.
When In Anne Frank’s House (Al-Mutawassit, 2020) was published, it was met with near radio silence—a strange reaction to a new book by a celebrated author. In an interview I conducted with Hassan in fall 2021, she suggested that this reaction was one of fear. The fact that many in the Arab world conflate Judaism with Zionism—and Israeli oppression—means that writing about a young Jewish martyr like Anne Frank was automatically taboo, and any response to Hassan’s book would be wading into murky waters. Hassan was accused of writing about Anne Frank to court international favor, and the memoir was automatically labeled as political. In my later attempts to locate a publisher for the English translation, I came across a similar hesitation and mistrust—concern, among other things, that an author from an Arab country might not treat Anne Frank with the respect she deserves.
Around noon on those April days, my father would do his best to stop me from going out. After lunch, he’d stomp around the house locking all the doors: the kitchen, the front door, the back door, the main living room. Sometimes he’d even try to drag me to his bedroom and force me to take a nap.
During her worst fits, my waters couldn’t drown out her cries. Stacking plates, cups, spoons, and knives, her fists flailed against the sides of my bowl; she’d stare at the gushing water stream, her head slackened against her chest.
In a departure from daily routine, she went on an angry, blabbering rampage, hurling her son’s glass pill bottles into my lap, smashing cups and plates, and turning on the faucet. Water and bits of glass floated everywhere—oh, my, I got so dizzy and regurgitated the larger pieces that had lodged in the drain.
She kept kicking me as I coughed my guts up, and she smashed more plates with the skillet.
The specter of her son appeared, grabbed her wrist firmly but tenderly, and wrapped his arms around her from behind. She stopped and breathed a deep sigh but didn’t raise her head or turn around.
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.
They say that, sometime at the end of the nineteenth century, a woman came on a wooden ship from Najd, married a wealthy man from the island, and, when she didn’t conceive, had a maqam built on the ruins of a pagan temple near the cliffs of the shore. Having had a dream where a man holding a staff spoke to her, the woman then named the maqam after the mystic Al-Khidr.
In those days, everyone had the right to have feelings.
It was natural to feel things, and the right thing to do about your feelings was to make them known. Feelings were plenty, but broadly they were segregated into two groups: Love and Fear.
In those days, there was only one way you could sin: by faking your feelings.
Even not-happily-ever-after endings are preceded by a certain amount of speculation about what is to come. As a matter of course, all the important changes in organizational structure and relevant administrative decisions take place on the last Thursday of each month, ushered in by a few days heavy with anticipation and flare-ups among the employees.
Sabah sits in front of the computer screen, Americano in hand, trying to concisely respond to customer queries.
I feel the wall with my bare hands, the peeling paint, the cracks along its surface…. They’re just superficial and haven’t impacted the solid masonry. There’s no light coming through.
The soaring, towering wall is solid; it is two lights and one darkness long. This is how I measure the passage of time in the endless enclosure of this space, either as glaring light or as pitch darkness…. Once, to figure out how long it was, I hugged the wall, reaching its farthest edge after two lights and one darkness. Truth be told, this exhausted me, and I may have slept one or two lights without knowing it.