Ghalib Halasa was an author of seven novels, two short story collections, and several works of journalism, literary criticism, translation and political analysis. He was born in a Jordanian village near Madaba in 1932 and died in Damascus in 1989. He lived in Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut and Damascus and his work is a powerful example of border-crossing engagement and brilliance. His work has only very rarely been translated.
Sultana was first published in 1987 and was Halasa`s second to last novel. It follows the rise and tragic fall of Sultana, an independent woman, and the layers of stories and networks that surround her. In typical Halasa style, it masterfully touches on tensions between Jordanian country and city, the growing Jordanian Communist movement of the 50s, and issues of Arab Left consciousness more broadly.
Yousef, Sultana’s Father, came to the village with his wife and opened up a small store. The store was still small the day Yousef died.
I remember him being tall and very thin. Everything about him was tall and thin. His face with its long wrinkles, his long nose, delicate and always moist. And his jealous eyes, red like a pair of small burning coals were always teary. When you talked to him he listened and his eyelids fluttered continuously, so tears would trickle on the sides of his nose. He would keep listening as he wiped his tears and snotty nose. When he spoke his voice came out nasally, from the throat, like a chicken whining.
His wife was of average height, with a powerful, muscular body. She had a wide mouth, a big red nose and a round face. She was very strong. As strong as her husband was weak. What was annoying about her was her voice, especially when she got into a fight. It was sharp and forceful. That’s what pushed people away: her love of fighting and her loud voice. This led people to avoid the family. The women of the village would say: this floozy sucked all the life out of her husband. That’s probably why there were all these rumors about her in the village; that she was a randy, insatiable woman. The women would warn their men: stay away from her or she’ll suck the life out of you and you’ll be just like Yousef al-Hayik.
And even though no one saw her fight with her husband, it was said that she hit him and he shrunk in fear from her, and that was why he cried all the time.
Sultana was born, and with her the family line stopped. Between the housework, the store, taking care of Yousef who was always sick, and bringing water from far off, her Mother basically left the girl in the street. She played with the boys like she was one of them. Ever since she was a child the rumors revolving around her mother also spun around her.
Girls her age were talking about her before she was fourteen. Her father was sick all the time, and she didn’t have a brother to hold her back and keep her at home. So she did whatever she wanted. She went out with the boys to catch birds. She had a trap made of metal wires. She set it up just like the rest of the boys, luring the birds in with wheat. If it tripped the right wire – the one shaped like a half circle – it closed in on the bird’s neck. Sultana would then tear its neck apart and roast it on a fire she lit on the spot.
A woman said: Sultana was really into riding donkeys. She would get on the donkey and poke it between its shoulders with a sharpened stick. The donkey set off running with her on top. Sometimes the donkey bucked with its back legs and she fell off. The boys stood and stared at her bare thighs and Sultana, with her loud mouth, would scream:
- Whattaya looking at?
The boys laughed and wouldn’t say anything.
- I swear, I’ll fuck your Mothers in the ass!
She got up, approached the first boy, wrapped her arms around him, threw him to the ground and then fell on top of him.
That’s the story Musa tells, who is now a miserable, frowning old man. A group of boys had just finished catching birds in the fields east of the village. Musa had good luck that day and caught five birds that he hung from his belt by their necks. Sultana was with the boys like she always was. Musa whispered to her:
- Hey Sultana, I wanna tell you something.
The two backed away from the other boys. Musa’s face was red and he was finding it difficult to speak. She looked at him, saw his anxiety and said:
- What do you want?
He started stuttering. The girl had a ferocious presence, and a precocious femininity. Her breasts were fully formed and her rear had started to round out. She asked again:
- What do you want? - I . . . I . . .
When he started stammering again, she asked:
- Can’t you talk?
He said: I’ve got five birds.
She sighed audibly. He said:
- We could go to the clearing. Me and you.
- What would we do in the clearing?
- I’d do things to you and then I’d give you the five birds.
- Gimme them then.
He gave her the five birds. She took them and put them in her coat pocket. Then she bent over suddenly and pulled up his shirt, reached her hand between his legs, grabbed his junk and squeezed. She started yelling:
- Come look! He hasn’t got a thing!
The boys turned in shock to face them, with her still yelling:
- He’s like me, he doesn’t have anything.
Musa stood there with his eyes popping out of his head from the pain. Sultana let him go and started running. No one followed her but she kept on running until they couldn’t see her. It is said that since that incident Musa stutters whenever he speaks.
One of the women said that long after this had all happened she asked Sultana about why she ran. The woman said:
- I thought she would say she was embarrassed of the boys.
She laughs and adds:
Sultana told me: Sister, I was afraid they’d gang up on me and take my birds. Beat me up and take my birds. I said: Boys hitting a girl? That’s never happened. She said: Fuck yeah it happened, and it happened to me. Sister, I am strange. Her eyes teared up and she said: I’m strange. Who’s going to protect someone like me? The woman laughs: Damn that Sultana!
The boys really did gang up and try to attack her, but she slipped away like a snake after doling out a few outstandingly vulgar phrases. Later the boys had gotten together in the eastern side of the clearing, and started touching themselves. While they were at it, Sultana dropped in on them. She stood there looking at them totally poised, and then sat down.
They stopped suddenly. One idea popped into all their heads, one course of action. The biggest one said to Sultana:
- Get on your back, girl.
Then he turned to the boys and said:
- One at a time.
He approached her and the other boys surrounded her. They were standing with their members exposed and erect. Sultana laughed. The biggest kid took this as encouragement, so he kept approaching, smiling. Then he stopped. She asked:
- Why stop? Come closer.
That confident, commanding tone made the boy nervous. So he stopped and started laughing short, scattered laughs. His face had turned yellow. She said:
- Closer! Closer!
He said stuttering:
- First lie on your back.
The boy was shivering as if he had a fever, and his teeth were chattering while Sultana looked at him. Suddenly she looked up as if she saw someone at the edge of the clearing. Then she approached the boy, slapped him on the face and kneed him just below the stomach. The boy collapsed and blood flowed from his nose. She stood there staring at him and seemed towering to the other boys. Frightening, appetizing and impossible. She said to the boy on the ground:
- You tell me to get on my back?
She placed a foot on his stomach.
- I’ll put you on your back.
Then she bent over, grabbed his shrunken member and said:
- This worm here, you can put it in . . . your sister.
Then she turned and yelled at them:
- Pull your pants up!
The boys obeyed. Then suddenly they were all around her, at the moment she was about to put her other foot on the boy’s face and had started a kind of slow rhythmic dance. No one can know for certain whether the boys wanted to protect their friend, rape her, or avenge their dignity. They didn’t hit her, but shoved her around and pulled her hair. They also tried grabbing her legs. But Sultana blocked their attacks like a practiced wrestler, and took one of them as a shield. She twisted one of the guy’s thumbs until he was doubled over and then twisted it even more. Then she slipped away and left the clearing. She looked out at them from her refuge above and started throwing rocks at them. They scattered and hid under a tree. Then Sultana disappeared. They made their way cautiously out of the clearing, and each one of them picked up a few rocks and started looking for her in the surrounding area. They couldn’t find her, so they left without making a sound.
* * *
That was a decisive day in Sultana’s life. It became a recurrent, fragmented memory. A naked girl lying on her back, surrounded by a large number of men holding their erect members, pouncing on her one after the other . . . That scene became a repeated waking dream that would come back to her up to the very last moments of her life. She didn’t imagine –in this waking dream – the gang bang ever being interrupted. She saw the boy that had just finished go stand at the back of the line until it was his turn a second time, and then a third and a fourth. On and on with no end.
She watched the boys as they were leaving the clearing. She was hiding in a rock hollow on its east side. She saw them gathering rocks and looking for her. Her sense– after the shock had worn off, and the insult they’d gotten from a girl (just a girl for God’s sake!) had sunk in – was that they were now dangerous. So she hid herself well.
She noticed they weren’t really looking that hard. They were just looking around as they walked back to the village. It seemed they realized that shame would follow them no matter what they did. How would they answer their parents when they asked them about coming at a girl?
She was surprised by their silence. She saw them pass the red earth and cross over into the rocky white ground that rose towards the village. She saw some of them take the path between the orchards, and others take the path along the southern side of the second orchard, while the rest separately climbed up the slope that lead to the cemeteries and the tribal areas, one by one. It was clear – clear to Sultana – that they wanted to separate from each other as quickly as possible.
Sultana dropped down from her hiding place and walked towards the clearing. She sat alone. She started exploring her body, both with her eyes and hands. She touched her breasts. They were full, firm and supple. She started to squeeze and release them. Then she lifted up her shirt. She looked at her erect nipples. She touched one of them with her index finger and gasped. Pleasure surged from the bottom of her stomach and rose like warm water to inundate her. She squeezed her breasts harder, and pinched the nipples that poked through her fingers. She closed her thighs tightly, and started to pant to the rhythm of her body. Suddenly she felt overwhelmed by a spectacular ecstasy and felt her thigh muscles quiver. A warmth flowed between her legs. She gasped and felt like her head was going to shoot off. She screamed. Fatigue snuck up on her, a desire for complete relaxation, so she stretched out half unconscious.
She slept, not knowing for how long, and woke to the sound of approaching footsteps. The lethargy vanished and she felt refreshed. She had the urge to play and run and shout.