DevMode
As the emptiness grew deeper, so would my own sense of inner void. My head would spin as if enclosed within the eye of a needle. The more events crushed me, the more submissive I'd become. Then my submissiveness would lead on to contentment, and I'd pray to God to send me more occa¬sions for it. The virtues of my husband would become clearer to me, and I'd blame myself for not seeing them earlier.
If he brought something new for the house, I'd thank God that he wasn't mean with money; and if he no longer spent repeated evenings out of the house, I'd thank God our life had become settled. If he ordered me to perform some stupid service, I'd thank God he'd come to depend on me in large or small matters. The days would pass and I'd feel tranquil and secure; all memories of his faults would fade, would become mere phan¬toms, to be driven firmly and decisively from my mind. Then, when he returned to his old ways, I'd be devastated, and blame myself for his way¬wardness. "If you weren't barren, Afaf," I'd tell myself, "your house would be full of sound and movement, and the children would draw him towards you. If you weren't so listless, he wouldn't have tired of your dull compa¬ny. If you weren't so plain-looking, he wouldn't have desired other women." In a desperate attempt to repair what life had destroyed, I'd begin to make the house and myself more attractive. I'd turn the house upside down, wash the window panes with soap until they gleamed like diamonds, and scrape the floor till it was like a mirror; lay the coverlets and blankets and pillows to air at the windows and on the balcony rails, and put his suits in the sun till the vapor rose from them. I'd go to the market too, and buy meat and vegetables, taking care to choose the largest and freshest: cucumbers that had kept their freshness, tomatoes that were still half green, potatoes lovely as a full moon, and okras and green beans and cauliflowers and radishes. I'd come back home proud of my vegetables and my fridge full of good things, and thank God because I lived the best of lives.
Then I'd begin to make myself more attractive. I'd stand in front of the mirror inspecting my clothes. Here was a dark-colored dress which I should change for a lighter one, and there was a light-colored one which I should change for a darker one; here was a short dress whose hem I must let down, and there was a long dress which I must change for a short one or shorten the dress itself. I'd spend days lengthening and shortening, buy¬ing and window-shopping. I'd make a full inventory of all the windows in the shopping center and all the sales going on in town, spend all the money I had. Then, when he'd stop drinking for a while, and the bags had gone from under his eyes, I'd say with silly coquetry, wearing my best dress, "Here, Mahmoud, give me some money, I'm broke." I'd throw open the fridge and show him the good things stacked up inside, then lay my new clothes down on the bed until you couldn't see the bedspread under them anymore, and go joyfully round them, hoping he'd be glad. He'd smile grudgingly and say, "Is that the best you can do!" And I'd cry, "What's wrong with the way we live? Thank your God, Mahmoud, and don't deny your blessings. Your house is the cleanest and brightest in the neighbor¬hood, your wife's cooking is the best, and you and I are the best of people." He'd dip his hand in his pocket and hand over a stack of dinars. "Take this," he'd mutter, "and be quiet." So I'd take it and be quiet; and, day by day, I'd grow quieter still, till one day I'd break down and cry, then grow calm, and go back to my old listless ways. The fridge would become empty and the house would gather dust everywhere. A windstorm would blow and the windowpanes would become as dirty as sandpaper, and I'd sleep and sleep. I'd beg God to grant me a new light to disperse my darkness even for a few days, so I could gather the strength to continue my trip in the wilderness. God would answer my prayer and things would improve. My husband would smile and the sky would fill with a light that made my spirit overflow, that I'd drink to the depths as avidly as someone lost in the desert. This would provide me with the strength to step further into the burning heat of the wilderness. Whenever I fell back into listlessness, a spark would leap up again, giving me new strength to take further steps, and so on, endlessly.
The more I walked on, the less possible it became to return to my start¬ing point when I was still a young girl toying with painting and reading pamphlets and defying the family. That was all clouded now. Indeed it had vanished, lost in the labyrinth of a shaken memory; it was no more than a remote dream, a mere illusion. Whenever that dream drove me through its many coils, I'd rebuke myself. "Be realistic, Afaf!" I'd say. "Be realistic!"
I often heard my father say that, may God rest his soul; and I'd hear my mother say those words too, whenever I met her and complained to her about my predicament. The same words would come from the women as they gathered round their coffee and read fortunes in the cups. The word "fate" was the refrain of a kind of communal song repeated by the wom¬enfolk. One woman would begin by unburdening her inner soul, revealing the ruin of her life in an intimate gathering, unfolding the contents of her heart and the scrapbook of her sorrows; and she'd cry, and draw on her cigarette, and describe her husband in the ugliest terms, giving him vicious nicknames and calling down curses and misfortunes on him. Then, when she heard the horn of his car outside, she'd pull herself together, wipe her face, smooth her hair and dress, look at the lowered eyes with a kind of shared emotion, then whisper the words of wisdom: "That's our fate!" The words would be repeated by dry lips avidly smoking, and undulate like the echo of a common "Amen."
At the beginning I never said II Amen." But the deeper I went into the wilderness, into the desert of thirst and darkness, the dimmer the starting point became till it was a mere dream, and the more I began to believe I should school myself to the realism I was said to lack. Realism meant accepting things as they were, adjusting to them, going along with them to the point of dying to preserve them. I'd remember the stories, some long, some short, that had fixed the whole intricate picture in my mind; the sto¬ries of women whom I'd heard, in those distant gatherings, call down curs¬es and misfortunes - death and chronic deformities even - on their hus¬bands. But if one of them became widowed or divorced, or if her husband took another wife alongside her, she'd fill the world with her crying and wailing. Once I phoned to congratulate a woman on her divorce, and she cursed me and slammed the receiver down. I stood stunned near the tele¬phone, unable to believe what I'd heard, persuading myself, finally, that I'd dialled the wrong number or misunderstood what she said. So I rang her again and began the conversation more carefully. She sighed. "Oh, yes, Afaf!" she burst out. "Your heart does you credit, and so do your brains! Good riddance to him you say? Why good riddance, you fool? He divorces me, and I'm supposed to rejoice? Who'll bring up the children? Him or me? And won't I have to pursue him through the courts, asking him for child support and begging him to leave me this child or that for another year, or even a few more months? And if I should forget about him, would the chil¬dren forget? And if he takes them away from me and bums my heart with anguish, who will I live for, and where? With my brothers, under the feet of their wives?"
When I heard this, things became clear in my mind. "And you, Afaf," I said to myself, "Where would you live? Under the feet of your own broth¬ers' wives?"
I had marvelous brothers, who knew how to usurp a woman's rights. They're actually very respectable men, even though, when our father died, they snatched his inheritance before he was cold in his grave, leaving noth¬ing to us girls except the family name and its good stock. I tried to spur my sisters to action. "What about our share?" I asked them. They repeated, with one voice, "That's our fate!" So there was more than one meaning and tune to the same word! And more than one heavenly reward! Since that time I've learned to repeat the words "our fate" with even greater convic¬tion, and begun to realize their force with utter clarity. And since that time my husband hasn't missed a single opportunity to bring the matter up, to try and stop me taking pride in my family and its great repute, and in the fact that my father was an inspector of schools, more learned than anyone else round about. At a time when fingerprints were people's signatures, my father was writing reports and using the dictionary, looking for the roots of verbs and the meaning of difficult words, My husband used to feel inferior when my father was mentioned, especially when his own was mentioned too, His father was almost illiterate, and was married to two women and had a dozen children, mostly girls, all of them married to men with no money or status - in contrast to my sisters, who were all married to men with good jobs and high social standing; one of them was a deputy minister, and another was a bank manager, and a third was an ambas¬sador. As for my brothers, one was a doctor, the second an engineer, and the third a lawyer. I came, then, from a family of high standing and lineage, and my husband used to regard this as the best quality. But when he heard the story of the inheritance, he was furious and began taunting me with my family, and I had nothing left to boast of.
In a desperate attempt to regain my status with him, I hurried home, crossing the deserts, and the bridge, and the river, and said to my sisters, "Come on, let's go." "Where?" they asked. "Come with me," I insisted, "and you'll see." They followed me out of curiosity - or desperation per¬haps - and we sought the counsel of the family elders, who advised us to close our eyes. "Shame on you!" they said. "Each of your husbands is worth a ton of gold!" "And what if we should get divorced?" I said, con¬tinuing the argument. A single cry issued from all their throats, including my sisters': "God preserve us from your evil words, God preserve us from your evil words!" Everyone gazed into my sisters' eyes, then my sisters gazed into one another's eyes, then they all gazed at me. I was accused, among other things, of being rebellious; that's the way I'd always be, they said, however good my life was. And they agreed that I'd been like that since childhood. I asked what they meant by this, but they didn't deign to answer, and turned to my sisters, ignoring me completely. My sisters were cleverer than me. They absorbed the general mood around them and repeated again, "God preserve us from her evil words!"
We left after I'd been given such a lesson in "fate" that I'd learned it by heart. I began repeating the word in my memory lest I forget it; I'd begin the day, every morning, with the word "fate" and end it with the same, in a whisper at first, then in a loud voice, until with time I became convinced of its wisdom. One day, by chance, I happened upon a political article that greatly impressed me, and, adopting some of its political jargon, said to myself, "It's true, I'm one of the oppressors, not one of the oppressed." My cause was finally lost.
One day I felt a sudden sense of awakening and repeated my protest to one of my sisters. She said, "It would be shameful, Afaf, for us to fight our brothers." The sons of our father deserve his money more than sons-in-law who are perfect strangers. "And what about us?" I screamed. "We're the wives of those strangers," she answered. "And what if those strangers should divorce us?" I retorted. "Afaf!" she shouted. "You're nearly thirty. Grow up! Be realistic!" "Do you think it's so unlikely?" I shouted back. "What guarantee do we have?"
"The only person who can guarantee it is you," she said. "Try and understand. Men need patient handling. What can I tell you? Shall I tell you about my husband's bad temper? About the constant burden of living with him and his violent reactions to the smallest thing? But it's all in the family and hushed up, thank God. Everyone knows your husband spends long evenings out and goes in for certain things, but mine? No one knows about my suffering. We don't let it out!" I clutched her arm. "Tell me!" I begged. "Tell me!" She stopped abruptly, suddenly realizing what she'd said. Then she shot me a look full of suspicion, and I started laughing. I remembered how my mother, sisters, brothers, and all the other members of the family never trusted me with a secret; they used to warn one anoth¬er, "Don't tell that chatterbox!" The warning was always an encourage¬ment to my nose, ever eager for stories, to start twitching, and I'd begin sniffing around and searching. I'd resort to reading Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin learning enough to keep looking till I found out. Then I'd stand on a chair or a bed or by the window and shout, I've got it, I've got it, at last!" My mother would shout, "God! Take her to You and release me!" "If you'd trusted me," I'd retort, "I wouldn't have said anything. But I will now, I'll let the whole world know!" But I never really revealed things outside the family, because I was always ready to make a deal. I'd agree to exchange one secret for another, and one story for another. That's how I built up such a rich collection of tales and anecdotes.
My sister gave me another suspicious look. I pointed to my nose. "Shall I start sniffing?" I said. "Be quiet," she said in desperation, "all that I need is you! Take it from me Afaf, some husbands are sugar-coated, and some are open books, and others are stealthy like a snake in the grass." "Amen!" I shouted, as if totally amazed. "Oh, yes, Amen!" She sensed the sarcasm in my answer and shouted back, "By God, if my husband was like yours, I'd get every last thing I wanted! But you're an imbecile a million times over!" I winked at her. "Do you mean blackmai1?" I said. As she walked away, she shrugged and muttered, "Call it blackmail if you like. What do you call the situation we're in?"
I rushed to her, laughing as I kissed her. I always laughed when I saw how people's reactions revealed their inner secrets; I was totally the¬ oppo¬site of how I'd been when I was still very young and pure, and refused to compromise with any kind of falsehood and insincerity. In those days, when I discovered a situation like this, I'd go out of my mind and start screaming, and my mother would shout, "God! Take her to You and release me!" But now, as I saw my sister reveal those things we'd discov¬ered on the path of life wherever we found a foothold for ourselves, I couldn't stop myself laughing and laughing until my eyes and heart were drowned in tears.
And so I came closer to being realistic. I no longer thought of divorce as a solution to my problem; in fact divorce was a great source of fear, equaled only by my fear of marriage. For what could I do without the mar¬riage? Years of my life had passed without my having any other profession except marriage, and even this I hadn't mastered according to the rules: I wasn't a fruitful wife who'd filled the house with children, and I wasn't the obedient servant, and I wasn't particularly endowed with beauty, or money, or coquetry. Besides, I wasn't in the least happy. I wasn't happy in my wretchedness, or in my husband's humiliation of me, or in his own self-¬reproach when he felt ashamed of himself and wanted to change. I wasn't happy in my present state, or happy contemplating the future. The present was a continuation of the past and the future was a continuation of the pre¬sent. What would I do, in any case if I got divorced? Where would I live and how? Father was dead, and Mother was old now, living with my older brother. My sister-in-law was hot-tempered and irritable as a reaction to my own brother's temper and irritability. My other brothers were no bet¬ter, and nor were their wives. Each one, in fact, had his own responsibili¬ties and burdens, just as he had his own "wise and correct" outlook on things I considered pointless. They were so intent and fixed on these things that they had no time to think about anything else. Whenever one of them saw me reading a newspaper or a book, he'd smile and say, "There's our philosopher again!" And I, for my part, would retort, "There's our empty vessel again!" I'd say it silently, with the expression in my eyes. But since the language of the eyes is well-known and easily understood, they always knew exactly what I meant.
So I ended up being realistic and unrealistic at once. Realistic because I knew divorce wouldn't bring any solution, and unrealistic because the thought of it haunted me night and day, in my dreams and in my prayers. Realistic because I kept my house spotless so as not to give him the least excuse to take any final action against me, and unrealistic because (for all his suspicions about me) I remained faithful and solitary. But I wasn't real¬ly solitary. I had my cat, Anbar, the sink, the dishes, the kitchen knife, and the clothes lines.

Excerpts from Memoirs of an Unrealistic Woman (1986), translated by Salwa Jabsheh and Christopher Tingley. From Modem Palestinian Literature, edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi.

Published by permission of the editor.

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