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As Though She Were Sleeping

[The cover of the Arabic original of As Though She were Sleeping. Image from Elias Khoury] [The cover of the Arabic original of As Though She were Sleeping. Image from Elias Khoury]

[This excerpt is from Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Ka’annaha Na’ima) which was translated by Marilyn Booth and published by Archipelago Books this month. Marilyn Booth holds the Iraq Chair in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her publications include Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces and May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt. She has translated over a dozen works of Arabic fiction.]

Milia’s eyelashes drew apart over eyes still curtained in drowsi­ness. She would just close them again, she decided; she would pick up the trail of her dream. She saw a small white candle giving off a wan light that trembled and flickered through the fog. His fist closed tightly around the candle, Mansour walked ahead directly in front of the taxi, the wind buf­feting his long overcoat, but she could not make out her husband’s features clearly. She reached for the glass of water that she kept habitually on the bedside table but found no glass there. She was thirsty. The dryness diffused along her tongue and broke against the roof of her mouth and down her throat. She dragged her left arm out from beneath her head on the pillow to arrest the numbness creeping from her upper arm toward her neck. She turned over in bed, and over again, and then lay finally still on her back. She put out her hand for the glass of water and found no table there. She shud­dered, jerked upright, and suddenly found herself sitting against a wooden headboard. Where had it gone, that familiar white wall against which she propped her head? She could always sense the peeling white paint crack­ing and splintering beneath her long hair, even commingling with it as she rested her head on the wall. She pressed her arms to her chest, just touching the warm skin of her breasts. Suddenly she was afraid and the coldness of it slunk into her thighs. She placed a hand there to press away the trembling in her legs. Her palm brushed against naked skin, glided upward as far as the top of her thighs went, and she felt blood collecting there. Gone cold, the blood had formed a solid mass at the lowest curve of her belly.

This is marriage, she said, her voice almost a whisper, and closed her eyes again. Milia’s memory preserved the scene at Dahr el-Baydar as though it were a shadow play etched black and solid on the wall. Her husband, Mr. Man-sour Hourani, holds a small candle before him as he steps forward in front of the car, still wearing his black wedding suit though a long olive-green overcoat covers it. The young woman in her white bridal finery sits on the backseat, swathed in darkness, staring at the driver’s bald head glinting with dandruff. Once they are in Nazareth, she decides, she will tell her husband how his image has been imprinted permanently on her eyes – today, on this evening – as a black wraith fading and disintegrating, appearing and disap­pearing ahead of the car whose headlights cannot cut through the viscous fog blanketing the heights of Dahr el-Baydar on this snow-mantled night. At three o’clock, on the afternoon of Saturday the twelfth of January, in the year 1946, Mansour and Milia were married in the Church of the Blessed Archangel Mikhail, their union blessed by Father Boulos Saba. Fol­lowing the service, the bridal pair stood before the church door surrounded by Milia’s family tendering their congratulations. The tears collected in Milia’s eyes so heavily that she could not make out even a single well-wisher, as familiar to her as they all were. Her tears overwhelmed her, spurting out as if intending flight before landing heavily on her pale cheeks. Mansour, the thin line of his lips wholly captured and partly transformed by a broad smile that revealed his small lustrous teeth, was oblivious to his bride’s weeping until he heard her mother scolding her. Shame on you, dear – Milia, stop it! Ayb. For shame – are we burying someone, girl? It’s a wedding, after all. And when all of the guests had gone, carrying away the little silver boxes filled with sweets; and when no one was left in the churchyard apart from members of the family, the mother went to her daughter. She pulled the younger woman to her chest and, their bodies quivering, mother and daughter wept together. Then the mother pushed her daughter away. Even if you are breaking my heart, dearest, leave us to do the crying. You must show how happy you are! Come, now, we want to see it on your face! The bride smiled, choking back her tears, while the mother went on crying before releasing the joyful trill – yuuyuuyuu! – of her celebratory zaghruda into the air. Milia’s brothers clustered around the newlyweds. It was Musa who par­ticularly caught the bride’s attention, though. The pupils of his eyes seemed to cringe and recede inside their sockets. She sensed danger but could not define where it was coming from. She raised her arm, unconsciously almost, as if to shield her husband’s face from her brother’s stare. Milia opened her eyes and saw nothing but the darkness of the night. She made up her mind to keep going. She would follow this odd dream of hers, for even in the face of her fear it reassured her. Finally the dream-spaces had come back to inhabit her nights. In her dreams Milia had seen herself a small girl of seven, her skin tawny and her hair short and curly. The little girl scampered and darted among the grown-ups, espying everything there was to see. And when Milia got up in the morning she would tell things exactly as she pleased. But the reactions were always unpleasant: everyone stared at her, startled and dismayed, for these dreams of hers were like prophecies that somehow always come to fruition. But here and now, in this unfamiliar bed tucked inside of a murky blackness that thickened to press hard against her eyes, she dreamed of herself, a woman of twenty-four, her naked body lying full length across a bed not her own, her head on an unfamiliar pillow. Milia opened her eyes to arrange her dream properly before going back to sleep. She saw nothing but a pair of eyes open upon the darkness. She opened her eyes. She saw her own eyes, open. She was afraid. The man leaned against the trunk of the lilac tree. He told her about the sky-blue glow that tinted the whiteness of her eyes and gave them a heavenly look. Her pale-white skin and her long neck, he said, had brought him here, not to mention her honey-toned eyes and the chestnut color of her hair streaming down her shoulders. All the way from his distant city her image had carried him. Here, to marry her. And he said he loved her. Where had he said these things? And why, awakening from this dream, did she find the dream still there, and why did it leave her seeing nothing but a pair of eyes open upon the darkness? Milia decided to get out of bed and fetch a glass of water. She saw her own white nakedness reflected in the twin mirrors of her eyes. She closed her eyes again and made up her mind to ask the man who slept on this bed beside her, his back turned, to come back inside the car because she was worried for his safety. She closed her eyes and saw herself slipping: she was drifting into the white vapor outside. She forgot her thirst at the sight of a woman naked and prone, before her a windshield fogged over with human breath and a man walking in front of the car carrying the trembling flame of a candle as if he would pierce the solid fog in his black wedding suit and his olive-green overcoat. Silence; a naked woman; a vehicle creeping almost imperceptibly through the dreary fog; a driver hunched close over the steering wheel try­ing to see the road through a windshield splotched with white; and a man walking before the car draped in white fog and clutching a white candle. The candle went out or at least it looked that way to her. The man came to a stop, standing in the middle of the road, opening his overcoat as if try­ing to shelter the candle inside so that he might ignite its flame again. He crooked his back and leaned into the wind; the flaps of his coat flew upward, but the man himself remained motionless, there, outside on the road. The driver’s breathing accelerated, coming faster and louder. Every so often he opened the car window, sticking his head out and shouting into the wind, but she could not make out any of his words. Milia was cold. A sharp pain lanced her belly. She tried to cover herself, wrapping her body as fully as she could in the brown overcoat and press­ing her crossed arms to her chest. She could hear her teeth chattering as she enfolded herself in the coat and the darkness. The candle was useless, she thought. She made up her mind to get out of the car. If the headlights weren’t able to slice through the fog, she wanted to say to that man, what could a candle possibly do? She would tell him to come back to the car, except she did not dare to leave the car, naked and cold as she was. Who had put the bed in the car? Why was she naked? After all, when get­ting ready for bed she always put on her long blue nightgown that covered her body and legs all the way to her ankles. She did not even undo her bra. What had made her resolve never to remove it was the sight, long ago, of her grandmother’s elongated, pendulous breasts. She thought of that image of Grandmama as an alarming warning that her own adult breasts might well droop all the way to her belly, and so she had decided to brace them at all times, even when sleeping. But now it appeared she had on neither a nightgown nor a bra. The driver’s breathing had grown even louder as he pressed his chest heavily against the steering wheel, his eyes plastered to the windshield. Milia was afraid. The man whom she glimpsed through the fog was moving farther away, almost as though he were flying. His overcoat bal­looned with the wind and he looked a lone figure beating his wings against the wind high above the precipitous wadi. In the dream Milia saw herself a pale-white figure. She did not fully understand where this pallor had come from. The body she inhabited during the day was not hers but rather a reflection from other people’s eyes. Her mother had desired a light-skinned daughter with a full figure and so Milia’s body had grown lighter in color as it filled out, purely for her mother’s sake. At night, though, her body was entirely her own. She was seven years old; her skin was brown and her body lean. Her eyes were big and wide and took over the whole of her face; her hair was black and curly and her nose so small and slender it seemed barely sketched in beneath the long thin sweep of eyebrow. She wore shorts and ran barefoot. Her eyes borrowed a pair of green irises to replace the light brown ones that people saw by day. Those irises floated in a white expanse shot through with a blue so evanescent it was barely perceptible to the eye. Little Milia is in love with the nighttime through whose narrow lanes she scampers. She lies down on her bed and opens her eyes so that the night comes drawn in dark pencil around her eyelids. When the darkness becomes total she closes her eyes and walks into her dreams. When morning comes she has not swept those dreams from her eyes. She leaves them there, circles sketched in invisible ink so that she can bring them back whenever she wishes. She closes her eyes: this is all she has to do for the voices to dwindle to nothing and the lights to blot out. And then she can go to that place where she sees everything and discovers all the secrets that are there to find. Milia did not let on to anyone that she was keeping her dreams hidden away, concealed in a deep reservoir beneath the darkness. In the murky blackness she would dig, carving a place to lay down her dreams. She would go to her hollowed-out dreampit whenever she wanted those dreams. There she could extract the dreams she sought and dream them all over again. This dream, though, comes from no place: in the dreampit this Milia does not exist. Milia of the night is not Milia of the day. Where do the images of daylight come from, then? How are they made? Is it because she has gotten married? Is this what marriage is? Milia is finding it hard to swallow or to breathe, and she shivers inces­santly from the cold. The nighttime is a deep well and she crouches at the very bottom. The driver moans as if with pain and his breathing grows louder and heavier, seeming almost to cuff her lightly on the neck. She tries to ask the driver – whose bald head is all she can see – what the matter with him is, but her voice has dissolved. She tries to raise her head from the pil­low but her head has grown too heavy. Suddenly the driver leaves the car. He has disappeared and Mansour has disappeared and the naked woman is alone in bed. The fog swallows her and the snow falls all around. She tries to pick up her left foot, stiff with the cold, but cannot. She has the sensation of falling out of bed. A terrible pain hits her between the thighs, a knife stabs her, and there’s blood. She screams. She means to scream that the driver is violating her. But her voice is gone and her mouth has filled up with cotton. Alone in the gloom and the cold, Milia decided to open her eyes and pull herself from this particular dream. She saw a white face framed by a pair of white wings. She put her right hand out to it and feathers clung to her fingertips. She cried out, asking the face to save her, but the face did not hear her voice. What she meant to say, what she wanted to say, was that she yearned to go home. That she no longer wanted marriage. But in the end she did not say it. The winged face circled above the car, above the wadi, above the two men. The face floated away, feather-wings dropping from it like the snowflakes falling in front of the pale glow from the car’s headlights. She did not want to spend their honeymoon in Shtoura, Milia said. Snow was falling over the high plains of Dahr el-Baydar and it was very cold. There was no need for the Hotel Massabki, she said, no need for any honey right now. We can stay in Beirut for a couple of days with my family, she said, and then we can go directly to Nazareth. It was December, after all, said her mother. Kanun, a month when no one could imagine honeymooning there. Think again, she said. Change your plans. Come summertime, have all the honey you want.


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