Authors: Hanan Al-Shaykh
Tags: #General Fiction
Also by Hanan al-Shaykh
Women of Sand and Myrrh
The Story of Zahra
FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, SEPTEMBER 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Hanan al-Shaykh
English translation © 1998 by Doubleday,
a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
and colophon are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc.
All of the characters in this book are fictitous, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
“I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops,” “The Funfair,”
“The Keeper of the Virgins,” and “The Scratching of Angels’ Pens” were previously published by Allen & Unwin in 1994.
I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops
was rendered into English by
Catherine Cobham with the author’s cooperation.
Library of Congress Cataloging-In-Publication Data
[Aknusu al-shams ‘an al-shtūh. English]
I sweep the sun off rooftops : stories / Hanan al-Shaykh ;
translated by Catherine Cobham. — 1st Anchor Books ed.
I. Cobham, Catherine. II. Title.
I fell upon
my mother-in-law, biting her nose. I had always hated her nose. The day before I had banged the door in her face and emptied the rubbish bin on her from the balcony as she went to get in the car and drive away. I scattered frangipani blossoms over her and sang to her and put a garland of jasmine around her neck, pulling her toward me and kissing her face and hands and her silk scarf. I took the scarf off her and spread it out on the floor and asked her why we did not hire one of the horse-drawn
carriages printed on it. Some of the time she tried to escape from me and other times she composed herself and made some effort to bring me to my senses, then despaired and looked up at the ceiling, pleading with God to tell her what she had done to deserve a mad daughter-in-law. “I only chose her as a wife for my son because she came from one of the best families,” she protested.
My response was to kick my legs high in the air, demanding to know why I felt so hot, and praying for ice cubes to cool me down, holding out my skirt to receive them. My husband rushed over and tried to pull my skirt over my bare legs and I struggled and bit his hand. All he said as he steered me toward my room was “Is this really how you want us to live, Fatin?”
The two of them finally pushed me into my room and I sat staring at my reflection in the mirror and laughed at my appearance in disbelief. I heard them commiserating with each other over the state of the house, his bad luck in marrying me, and the children’s distress at seeing their mother losing her mind.
His mother suggested taking me to a doctor locally, while he favored sending me back to Lebanon. They debated whether this would provoke too much of a scandal, then he pronounced that I would be a source of shame whichever they did, for I already was, even within those
four walls: I wore no protection during my periods; I calculated how many eyelashes I had, using a pencil to separate them; I stuck flowers in the front of my shoes; I threw things away regardless of their value; I had tried to jump out of the window and fly, and run away in a truck transporting ivory, clinging on to the tusks until the driver found me and handed me over to the police.
I stumbled along in my madness, never meeting my real self except when my eyes fell on the watercolors, which the strange light in this African country had inspired me to paint; it was a light that broke the hold of the sun’s burning rays for a short time at daybreak and dusk. I often wondered if I should tear these paintings down from the walls, in case they were what made my husband keep hoping that the old Fatin would return. (She was the girl who could not even say yes when she was asked to be his bride because, as well as being shy, she was dazzled by the fact that the offer was coming from a member of a wealthy emigrant family.) What really happened was that I did not think too much about whether to accept or refuse. If I finally said yes, it was probably because I was distracted by his mother’s gold bracelet, wondering what logic could possibly lie behind the choice of the charms dangling from it: an acorn, a house, a heart, a mountain, the Lebanese flag and a tortoise.
All I could hear now was my mother-in-law—she who
was used to finding an answer to everything—questioning, scolding, complaining because he could not decide what to do about me, while he merely repeated, “God help us,” in resigned tones.
I felt more hopeful when the doctor came. He asked them to describe how my condition had worsened and if some incident had sparked it. “The sea,” answered my mother-in-law. “It began that time she went to the sea and it poured with rain.”
Then he turned to me and asked me my age. “The age of madness,” I replied.
This answer ensured that he never addressed me again. He asked them if there was any mental illness in my family. When they both shook their heads, I interrupted and said they were lying: they knew about my aunt; the cause of her madness remained a mystery and she had been moved from one psychiatric unit to another. I described how my mother had made me take her a dish of tabbouleh one day, and how she had pushed me against the wall and forced me to swap clothes with her, threatening to kill me if I opened my mouth. She had gone home in my place, slept in my bed, gone to school, played with my friends, married a man living in Africa and had hundreds of children with him. Although she visited Lebanon often, she had never come to visit me in the clinic. I fell silent briefly when I noticed the doctor leaving the room, then renewed my efforts, and
screamed and howled and meowed and brayed and struck my face and banged on the window.
The saga continued and I could no longer bear the passing of time. I was worn out by the waiting and the madness. I decided that in order to resolve the situation I would have to develop my madness and become dangerous.
“She’s crazy. The doctor’s confirmed it,” shouted my mother-in-law. “I guessed as much. Even when she was sane, her eyes had signs of it. I’ll find you another wife once we’ve sent her back to her family. Let them pay for her to be treated. The children will be all right at their boarding schools.” Then she lowered her voice and said very quietly, “Marriage is like everything else in life—a matter of luck. Who says a worm-eaten apple can’t look red and juicy from the outside?”
I listened intently as I floated above the wooden floor, and sank, and tried to rise again. His voice drowned out hers, accusing her of being hard and selfish. He swore he would never marry again, because he was not going to leave me: he could not forget how I used to be when I was well. Marriage was for better or worse. He would have me cured. He loved me, he would never make me look ridiculous by sending me back to my family. He would stand by me. I shook my head, rejecting his compassion, floating farther away. His mother was temporarily infected by my madness and screamed maniacally at him: “I’m telling you she’ll kill
you. She’ll poison you. Shell tear you apart with her teeth. Can’t you see she’s turned into a crazy bitch? Shell burn you alive, or stick a knife in you while you’re asleep.”
Encouraged by her reaction, I became more absorbed in my madness, rising and falling, then floating again, borne along by the sweat that was pouring off me. I heard him shouting back at her, pushing her away, and vowing not to abandon me even if I did take a knife to him. She exploded with rage, trying to make him see that he must extricate himself from my power, for I had procured charms from the magicians at the seaside, where I used to go sketching, and had planned out his fate for him.
“I’ll never leave her. Never,” he interrupted. “I’d give up the world for her.”
When I heard this, I directed my energies to calming myself down, and took the last escape route left open to me: I washed my face, tied back my hair, fastened my robe modestly around me as I used to in the past, and went out to them in the filigree sandals that I had not worn since I went mad. I sat facing them, utterly composed, disregarding their eyes, which stood out from their faces with lives of their own, but full of panic. My calmness made them flex their arms and legs, ready to ward off any sudden attacks, or run for their lives.