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An Excerpt from The Penguin's Song by Hassan Daoud

[Lebanese novelist, Hassan Daoud. Photo from] [Lebanese novelist, Hassan Daoud. Photo from]

[Born in the village of Noumairieh in southern Lebanon in 1950, Hassan Daoud moved as a child to Beirut, though like so many Lebanese families, his retained strong links to the village and returned there every summer. Daoud was educated in Beirut and studied Arabic literature at university. He embarked on a career as a journalist and worked as a reporter throughout Lebanon’s civil war.  From 1979-1988 he wrote for the daily al-Safir, and then joined the staff of the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat. He has focused on cultural reporting as well as on social issues. He is the editor of the ‘Nawafidh’ cultural supplement of the Beirut daily al-Mustaqbal. His work has appeared in the European and North American press as well. In a 2006 essay in the New York Times Magazine, he writes movingly about renovating the family home in Noumairieh, and as in his novels, living spaces are both refuges and places where continuing wars come inside (‘The Last Refugee’, New York Times Magazine, 27 August 2006).

He is the author of two volumes of short stories and eight novels, four of which have already appeared in English translation. (His works have also appeared in French and German translation.)  He is widely respected throughout the Arab world, and his work 180 Sunsets was long-listed for the Arabic Booker Prize. His first novel, Binayat Matild, came out in 1983 (Eng. Trans The House of Mathilde, 1999). Like many of his later novels, it treats the constricted spaces in which individuals and families live, as both effects of and outcomes of the often violent shifts to the political and social order—and the built landscape—of Beirut and of Lebanon over the past several decades. Tracing the minutiae of daily encounters, Daoud provides a profound social and cultural history of his homeland. Mathilde’s apartment becomes a refuge for those fleeing the civil war, in a context where individuals of various backgrounds live together. Daoud’s fiction takes up these histories from the inside out, and often from the social and geographical margins. Family pressures and exclusion from new economic processes are told through the eyes of victims, who are often the elderly or excluded young people. Ayyam Za’ida (1990; Eng. translation Borrowed Time, Telegram, 2009) traces the thought processes of a man in his nineties, increasingly rejected and ignored by his family, in a southern Lebanon town. Typically, the spaces in which he and his family live are concrete expressions of changing patterns of sociability and exclusion.

Ghina’ al-Batriq (1998; The Penguin’s Song) is told in the words of a young and physically deformed man whose family has been pushed, literally, to the margins of Beirut; whose aging father has lost his shop in the old downtown, a wound from which he never recovers.  Family disintegration and economic marginality go together, as the young man struggles with his own isolation and inability to make a life, expressed also in unfulfilled sexual longings. The novel’s precise and dispassionate language is typical of Daoud’s minimalist but rich literary voice.  When it came out, this novel was hailed as ‘the best Lebanese novel of 1998.’ Like all of Daoud’s novels, it is not an easy read, for these are works that eschew easy exoticism or external description. Rooted firmly in Lebanese society and history, they remind us of the significance of the mundane for lives everywhere.]


An Excerpt from The Penguin’s Song

Hassan Daoud

The old mirror they lugged here for me from our old home: why did they not hang it some other way, not like this, so very high above? In that room housing my bed and wardrobe, I had to step back from the mirror—back and further back, just to see my face. Not for very long, since all I needed to do while standing at that distance was to trace the part in my hair with my comb and go over it more firmly, pulling the hair away from the comb’s path and smoothing it above and below. I still comb it this way, parting it from the roots as I first learned to do, or perhaps as I grew accustomed to doing, since I don’t remember my hair looking any other way than this, with a part. In my room, here in our new home, where I both read and sleep, I can peer into the mirror from a normal distance but only if I stand on the bed and hoist myself to match its height. My part is still there, just as it has always been, marching the same route; but the closer I bring my head to the mirror, the more desiccated it looks: the skin is so dry that it is flaking. The hairs around that part have grown coarse, their ends crinkling and frizzing so that from another angle of my head they give the appearance of a thick raised pad.

Nothing about my appearance has changed. Growing a moustache has not helped me to look my age, since very little moustache hair actually appeared and the color, which was already light, bleached with exposure. So my moustache does not stand out from my face and adds nothing to it. No, nothing in my face has changed—not only since its reflection in this same mirror when it last hung in our old home, but also from an earlier time, myself aged thirteen, which was when I began to stare into it as though I had to accustom myself to my own image. I perceived somehow that this was my final image and I would never have another one. Or perhaps the crucial moment is when I began at that same age of thirteen to imagine how my face appeared in the eyes of whoever looked at me and to feel, whenever they were looking at me, that I was seeing myself exactly as they were seeing me.

I see the image of my face alone in that mirror placed so high, floating there without my body beneath it. If I want to see that, it won’t be in the mirror but rather with a gaze downward. I have liked sensing my face and my body looked at separately, as detached parts of me, because that means my face is seen as it is, by and for itself. Indeed, at that age of thirteen I could almost believe that people saw me as I wished to be seen; I could convince myself that they—like me—overlooked whatever they did not like to see in me. But in outsized mirrors, the kind we sit across from in barber shops or find ourselves suddenly, unexpectedly facing in the facades of clothing stores and cinemas, I can’t help but see how my body, puffed out in front, all but assaults my face simply by reaching all the way up to it. In the bus’s rectangular mirror, into which I kept stealing continuous but furtive glances, all day long throughout that school trip, I had to notice how the puffiness began at my lower belly and rose to swell across my chest, forcing my head to hang awkwardly above it. Trying to minimize this blown-up appearance that is mine, I worked to raise my body upward, sitting as if I were standing but only from the midsection up. It tired me out. Sitting there, on the front seat in the bus near the mirror, I knew I was exposing myself to their stares—or to her stare, among the rest of them. But, I thought, the noisy commotion they made would stay in the back and would keep them there, on the bus’s long back seat and in the empty space in front of it. Staying close to the mirror, I could maintain my watch over what was going on behind me. I could keep it all under my gaze, remaining attentive and careful not to be taken unawares by letting go or dozing off, which would expose me even more.

I also thought that by sitting there—and staying near the mirror—I could keep her under my gaze. It was not long, though, before the partygoers singing in the back of the bus attracted her. When she left her seat and rambled back toward them, they began beating the tabla more loudly, the drumbeat celebrating her capture. That’s what they did whenever anyone left his seat to join them. I could see her in the mirror in front of me, standing still with some space separating her from them, as though it was enough to watch them from a distance and enjoy the din they were creating. When she leaned against one of the seats, her back to the mirror, I suddenly thought they would beat the drum louder especially for her, inviting her now to sit on the broad seat they occupied or to stand among their fans in the open space in front of it. But she didn’t; rather, from time to time she twisted around to look behind her, at the first three rows of seats where no one remained seated but me. No, there was no one there but me, looking into the mirror, stealing furtive glances at her. It was as though, when she looked toward where I sat, she was trying to make certain that I was still there, sitting and waiting, staying exactly where I had been a moment before.

Or as if, when she turns to look in my direction, she is trying to make me understand that she apologizes for keeping her distance, or that she is just marking some time, waiting so that when she comes over to me it will look natural, like a mere coincidence as everyone redistributes themselves in the bus once the band in back has grown quiet as they take a break. Or she will make it appear like coming here is just a matter of falling into the seat next to me as the bus shudders or swerves. Or she will seem to be coming deliberately, making it seem as though she has come specially to say a few words that have just come into her mind and that she wants very much to say to someone whose presence, also, has just come into her mind. Or she will come and sit with me, keeping me company, on the pretext—which she will not actually have to explain to anyone—that I am sitting by myself and someone really ought to talk to me.

But the place I had left empty beside me since climbing into the bus remained empty. They did reoccupy other seats, redistributing themselves several times as they rested after singing a set or returning to the bus after little excursions outside. But the seat next to me remained empty. Alone, I stayed in my seat, leaving the proper amount of space clear so that someone could come and sit down if they wanted to do so. Their games would bring them to particular seats that they would soon vacate, only to land on other seats also for a very short time. But I went on sitting in my seat in that place that had become mine. Even though twice I left the bus (just as they did) to take a short walk, I watched myself return to the very same seat, plastering myself to the wall of the bus and the window and leaving the place next to me empty.

It was up to me to get up and go over to them, where they sat at the back of the bus, and to make myself part of their noisy fun. Probably it would have been better for me that way because I could have made them forget my body, not by keeping it distant and hunched over itself but rather by losing it—by making it disappear among the movements and gestures I would extort from it. If I were to clap that is what they would notice, not my pair of tiny hands and the way one flops against the other. If I were to attempt dancing with them they would see my flexing body simply as a series of moves, as if the maneuvers I made were a cloud of dust I would raise to distract their gaze away from me and to occupy her with something other than what she ought not see. I should have been there among them at the back of the bus. But while it was happening, while I was on that school trip, I did not see this until it was already too late. The time in which I could have changed something had already passed. She had stopped looking in that particular direction, that section of the bus where I sat. In fact I couldn’t help but notice—in the mirror—how her attention was now turning entirely to them; how, the more she laughed at what they were doing, the more fully she appeared to have forgotten that only a few moments earlier she had been turning to gaze at me. She forgot, or else she was distracted from looking at me by something else that was going on.

Every time they climbed down from the bus for a little excursion, leaving their tabla behind on the back seat which stretched the width of the bus, I felt as I stared at them—through the windowpane this time, not in the front mirror—as if their only reason for mounting all of that noisy fun was to demonstrate how adept they were at suddenly stopping the clamor and quieting down. Their close huddle would break apart as they moved away from the bus. Four of them grouped together, five, and then three; and there were the last quartet who waited at the door to the bus until their number was complete. Coming back to the bus they would be more scattered and chaotic, looking as though they were rushing to reach the bus fearing it might leave without them.

But, returning to the bus, they will leave behind a couple of walkers dawdling along or trailing their caravan. Through the window I can see one of them walking as slowly as possible next to the girl who accompanies him. And then there’s the one who will appear to me as he turns into the street—for I can see all the way to the head of this street: she will be beside him, walking slowly and lowering her head to study a bit of fauna or a flower she’ll twirl between her palms. I knew it would be her, coming into sight next to him, because she was not among the first group to arrive back at the bus. She comes into sight at the corner, walking at a leisurely pace until she reaches the two steps into the bus. She climbs them slowly, still in no hurry. When we are all on the bus and it moves off, she is not where she was before, inside their little circle, for she has chosen a seat somewhere in the middle, to be alone with him and away from them, and also to keep herself apart from where I sit, another girl altogether now, as if, when she first climbed into the bus, she did not even disclose to me that she had been eagerly awaiting this outing of ours, this trip we would make together. 

[Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

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