Authors: Khaled Khalifa
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For Amina Muhammad Ali
THE MAIN CHARACTERS
The nameless narrator, a teenage girl and member of an old Sunni family in Aleppo
Her mother and father, a fish trader
Her brothers: Hossam and Humam
Her three maternal aunts: Maryam, Safaa and Marwa
Her maternal grandmother and grandfather, a carpet trader
Her three maternal uncles: Selim, Bakr and Omar
Radwan, an old blind family retainer
Khalil, the grandfather’s driver
Hajja Radia and Hajja Souad, leaders of local prayer circles
The narrator’s classmates at middle school:
In Nazdaly, Turkey: Esmat Ajqabash, the owner of a khan in a remote part of the country
Wasal, his wife
Zahra, the daughter of Khalil and Wasal, later Bakr’s wife
Wasal’s lovers in Mosul, Iraq: Khalil, the grandfather’s driver; Mister John, an English expat; in London, a Pakistani cab driver; Abdel Ghany Bilany, a Syrian trader; a Spanish sailor
The narrator’s fellow students at secondary school:
Nada, who has a lover, Abu Ramy, in the death squad
Ghada, who has a middle-aged lover, an officer in the Mukhabarat
Hana, a member of the same religious circle
Rima, Omar’s wife
Abdullah, a Yemeni man, Bakr’s friend and associate, later to marry Safaa as his second wife
Zeina, Abdullah’s first wife
Prince Shebab El Din, a Saudi prince, schoolfriend of Abdullah, and later a close associate of Abdullah and Bakr
Alya, a member of the religious organization and mentor of the narrator
Nadhir Mansoury, a death squad officer who later marries Marwa
Jalal, Selim’s son
Philip Anderson, a CIA operative
Saleh, a former Communist protégé of Abdullah
Um Jalal, Selim’s wife
The narrator’s cellmates in the desert prison, including:
Sheikh Nadim Al Salaty, an associate of Abdullah’s in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan
Women Led by the Blind
of the ancient cupboard made me a woman obsessed with bolting doors and exploring drawers, looking for the old photographs I had carefully placed there myself one day. A picture of my mother shaking the single lemon tree in the courtyard, with me standing beside her with shining eyes; of my father in military dress, smooth-chinned and sharp-eyed; of my brother Hossam wearing his school uniform and laughing, holding our younger brother Humam who was swathed in a blue blanket; of me in my long black clothes, my face circular in the middle of the black sheet and my body completely concealed, in front of a faded picture of hunters and their dogs in pursuit of a fleeing gazelle.
The picture had been placed there by the photographer to whose studio my father had accompanied me. The photographer took me by the hand and sat me down on a cold wooden chair, cajoling me kindly, and directed me to look towards his thumb near the camera shutter. ‘Laugh,’ he said to me. I didn’t know how. I looked at my father, seeking permission, then back to the thumb of the photographer; I grimaced as if I really was laughing. I can still remember the click of the camera and the solemnity of that moment with total clarity, as if I had only just left the studio that smelled heavily of mothballs and on whose clothes hooks were hung faded outfits of army officers and peasants, Mexican hats and cowboy costumes, like the one Terence Hill wore in
Trinity is Still My Name
. My small hand was weak in my father’s palm which clutched mine in fear of losing me amongst the crowds on Telal Street.
I am still searching for the smell of that ancient cupboard, placed in the room that the eldest of my aunts, Maryam, had designated for me after she sat facing my father and convinced him to let her take me to live with her and Safaa, my middle aunt. She told him that they were lonely after the death of my grandparents and the marriage of my youngest aunt, Marwa. My father nodded his head in agreement and then laid down some conditions which I didn’t hear. After Maryam agreed to them, she and my mother began to gather up my clothes, my books and my other personal belongings. They were strewn all over the small room my father had built for me in the open space close to the kitchen after two small, firm mounds rose on my chest, their increasing weight causing me to speak less and less.
In my grandfather’s house I was very pleased with my high-ceilinged room, the strictly observed mealtimes, and the regular visits to the hammam
every Thursday, and to Hajja Radia’s house every Friday evening, like rituals whose necessity I didn’t understand. The first thing that worried me was the cacophonous chanting of the women behind Hajja Radia. They made me nervous – I almost suffocated in the crowded room, but I didn’t dare flee. But on later visits the smell of sweat mixed with women’s perfume began to relax me, like a woman whose desires are inflamed by chanting.
During the first year I lived in the large house I found the enormous spaces bewildering. I was half lost among stairs of stone and banisters of iron, the wide rooms, the high, decorated ceilings delicately coloured by a Samarkandi artist. My grandfather had brought him back from Samarkand after one of his journeys there to look for Persian carpets, and my grandmother assigned him the best quarters during his six-month stay in their house. Every morning, he would wake up at five o’clock, perform the ritual ablutions with my grandfather, and then both of them would go to Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque, after eating the breakfast my grandmother had already prepared and laid out for them on the low table close to the large pool.
The Samarkandi wasn’t known to have a name. He used to return from the mosque and enter his small room to mix his colours and clean his brushes, and then he would close his eyes and withdraw into an ecstasy of painting like a devout worshipper. He transformed the ceilings of the three large rooms into everlasting masterpieces. His fame spread among the rich families who vied with each other in the decoration of their homes, but the Samarkandi continued to live in the house in silence, with the exception of a few words to my grandfather, until he left for Paris with his Aleppan wife and child. He left with a French officer who had been bewitched by the hands of this Samarkandi who ‘created masterpieces
out of thin air’. His ceilings bore perpetual witness that he had, at one time, lived in the city of Aleppo. His leaving was like a death for my grandfather, who had discovered the Samarkandi’s talents and interceded on his behalf in his marriage to Bint Aboud Samadi.
Before his departure, the Samarkandi had come to the house in clean clothes, his small eyes laughing. My grandfather embraced him warmly and kissed him goodbye; the artist said, ‘You are my father.’ Afterwards, he sent a letter with his address in Paris and a photograph, an unheard-of miracle, showing himself, his wife and his child standing in a park. His wife was wearing brightly coloured clothes; her large white breasts were on display and she wore a stylish beret instead of a proper head covering. My grandfather laughed and gave the picture to my grandmother, who sneered at the unveiled face and threw it into the fireplace. She never again mentioned the bare face of Bint Aboud Samadi, even when she came to visit twenty years later together with her son. He wore a suit which was overpowering in its elegance, and there wafted from him a strong fragrance which disconcerted Maryam.
The Samarkandi’s son was astonished by our spacious house, by its stone arches and its vaulted doorway, and by the two pillars decorated in Corinthian style and added by my grandfather, thereby turning what was supposed to be an entrance hall into his own room. The son scrutinized the house, then took out his camera to meticulously record every detail of the house’s angles and his father’s ceilings, while his mother (a true Parisienne) sipped coffee quietly and composedly with my grandfather. He was expansive, beaming with joy at hearing news of his Samarkandi son, who still recalled him as the saviour who had lifted him from a corner of the ancient souk into the welcoming space of the world, and he repeated as much to his visitors, students and teachers of decorative art. My grandfather was delighted with this Aleppan woman who had removed her black clothes and consistently demonstrated astonishing adaptability, having swiftly learned French to be of assistance to her husband, who declared her to be his world. Husband and wife worked as determined as tortoises climbing rugged mountains.
Maryam remained alone, struck with confusion by the perfume which embedded itself deep within her pores, and then within her heart. She stole glances at the Samarkandi’s son and examined him furtively, frightened that someone would notice her ever-longer, stupefied stares as he leaned over to focus the camera on a corner and record in minute detail the care taken in the harmonious composition of stone, walnut and coloured lines; much of it remained a riddle whose meaning no one could understand. After they left, my grandmother, without looking into my grandfather’s eyes, said that he had been too indulgent towards Bint Aboud Samadi. Maryam was distraught that the son had gone, and she reflected on her sin. She was unaware, even then, of how it had happened.
* * *
Like all the women of my grandfather’s family, of whom my mother was one, Maryam had a round face with a high forehead and clear green eyes; her fingers were long and soft like those of all women in old aristocratic Syrian families; her figure was tall and sensual, but her unexceptional chest was formed by two unappetizing breasts, above which was a neck of average length. This all created an impression of ugliness which green eyes could not hide.