Giving birth in a Muslim hospital where a sign in English reads, ‘Under no circumstance you must be alone with male doctor. Call sister urgently if male doctor approaches you for examination’; arriving at a British girls school and being asked ‘Do they ride camels there?‘; going to the mother’s-in-law house for dinner, estranged from the husband, trying to explain, ‘I still love him, but it’s over;’ these are a few of the themes in Adhaf Soueif’s tender, moving volume of short stories in I Think Of You, 2007. Some of them first appeared in 1964. None show their age.
Soueif is a Cairo born, British schooled, bi-national citizen of Egypt and England. Best known for her Booker Prize short-listed, A Map of Love, translated into 21 languages, she is the author of several other novels and collections of short stories. She has translated into English Mourid Bargouthi’s prize winning I Saw Ramallah. Her political commentary is available on-line — particularly in regards to Egypt’s Arab Spring of 2011 — and in Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground.
This small book, a re-compilation of two earlier short-story volumes, is a marvelous introduction to her work, gently told, pitch perfect stories of milestone moments in a life. It reads somewhat like a fictionalized memoir, though I have no way of knowing how actually personal it is. The opening story, Knowing, evokes the time –through memory– of a four or five year old as wonderfully as anything I can think of, describing the love of child and grandmother, while bringing us into little known religious observances.
I sit close by on the floor solemnly watching the familiar ritual. This woman is my grandmother. My mother’s mother. “Mama Hajja” I call her…
Her lips move as she nears the end of the Qu’anic verses she is reciting and she slowly bends over to prostrate herself, her forehead touching the floor between her two open palms. The broad, loved back is too great a temptation and I steal up from the floor and clamber onto it. Mama Hajja makes no sign that anything untoward has happened. When it is time, she slowly straightens up. I try to hang on but tumble off her back and onto the floor behind her. I wait. I know that it will soon be time for her second prostration. Sure enough, within a minute she bends over, forehead touching the floor and in a flash I am upon her back. She recites ‘Praise be my lord, most great, three times, slowly, then slowly straightens, tumbling me once more off her back. I settle on the floor behind her. She recites the final greeting to God and Muhammad, and his family and all the prophets that God had ever sent. She turns her head to salute the angels at her right and left shoulders, and almost in the same movement reaches for her slipper. She stretches out her arm behind her back and makes a grab for me … ‘You little monkey, you would have me break my prayers?”
Chez Milou is the very touching story of Milou, an older, unmarried woman, supervising her father’s restaurant –who himself sits at a window as his memory unwinds–, from behind the cash drawer. She remembers a once-possible lover, Philippe, to whom she forthrightly demonstrated her affection at a wedding many years ago, which was not returned. Her niece, Farah, comes to lunch. She is 30 and divorced with an 8 year old son, living with her difficult father, her mother having finally left him. She tells her aunt she will never re-marry, but has thought of getting a “set-up” with an older man – who turns out to be the same Philippe. The quiet shock as we read this, the younger woman not knowing, as she reveals Philippe has shown some “tendresse” towards her, of her aunt’s long ago hopes, is moving in a very elemental way. One can’t help but thinking, these are stories a man would not write, and how lucky we are they are being written.
Melody is a terrifically sad story about the death of a child in a compound for ‘westerners’ in some Mid-Eastern country, told in a cautious, elliptical way that builds up as a kind of mystery, in part because one feels the narrator can’t quite bring herself to get to the point.
The title story is one of the strongest. The narrator is in a Muslim hospital, at the point of giving birth to her second child, and confined because of dangerously high blood pressure. The other women in the ward have face scarfs at the ready in case any man should walk in. The narrator longs to be back at her house, with her young daughter.
“I want to be with her, treading water in the middle of a cool swimming pool, my circling arms breaking up the sun’s reflections into patterns that form and reform while she swims from me to the edge of the pool and from the edge back to me again. I want to hold her foot as she sleeps – on her back, arms and legs flung out wide – and in the dim light, watch her eyes move under the delicate, slightly purple lids and wonder what it is she dreams of.”
As she ruminates on her own condition, and her daughter, somewhat on her husband who calls from a great distance, she thinks of “you,” an older woman friend, who is dying of cancer at the same time.
“I see you once again, sitting up in bed, splendid, your head wrapped in a turban of emerald silk. From the sofa I watched you: lit by the discreet lamp, your bed on a raised dias, a huge gray and white fur rug thrown over the bed clothes. In my light dresss my body was warm with new life, but around your shoulders you drew a dark woolen cloak…
At the end, after the child is born and the friend dies, she thinks
You had everything I wanted: confidence, high cheek-bones, a long-running play, a happy — well, a comparatively happy, second marriage… My dear, oh my dear, you made it look so easy.
These are all terrifically engaging stories, with a perfect cross-over mix of Arabic and Western culture and characters. We are drawn in. We take in new ideas and behaviors in the context of ideas and behaviors that are familiar. At the end of each story we close the book and think, in the deep pools Soueif has provided. I’ve been immersing myself in Arabic fiction for several months now. This small collection is a perfect bridge into a new world of fictional re-presentation of lives more and more mingled with our own.
Here is a 1983 review by Edward Said of Aisha, another volume of short stories from which some of these in the present volume are taken. And here, a 1999 review of A Map of Love, which is immediately on my library list of books to read.
|EGYPT REVOLTS: Special coverage:|
|Guernica: Mar 15: Jamal Mahjoub interviews Ahdaf Soueif|
|BBC Radio: Mar 14: Letters to the Arab World|
|Alwan for Arts: Revolution: Telling the Tale : Ahdaf Soueif and Omar R. Hamilton|
|The Guardian: Mar 9th: In Egypt it was silence or shouting. Now it’s a great conversation|
|The Heyman Center: Mar 08: The Edward Said Annual Lecture|
|Democracy Now!: Mar 8th: “People Were Rediscovering Themselves”|