By Iman Humaydan, trans. Michelle Hartman
Mariam, a Lebanese Druze who has moved with her English husband to Kenya, returns for a brief stay in Beirut, the hometown she left fifteen years before. There, she must settle accounts of the past, take care of the house to which she is the sole heir since the death of her husband’s brother during the civil war, and revisit family history.
“My daughter, do you want the English to take our inheritance?” she asks me after I came back, when I’m trying to help Olga out of bed and walk a little over to her wardrobe. By this, she means Chris and also his children from his two previous marriages.
She says this while advising me to register the house in the name of male relatives on my father’s side. This is the very same predicament Nahil finds herself in. Her desire for a male heir when it’s impossible to locate this heir, means that she’s not prevented from giving me what’s mine.
She opens the drawers of her wardrobe and takes out a bronze key ring with five keys hanging from it. She also takes out documents and property deeds. She gives them to me, saying with great sadness that the Zuqaq al-Blat house has become my property now after Salama’s madness and the death of Baha’, the only male heir. She’s still waiting for Salama to come back, when I tell her about his situation in Australia she says that I’m complicating matters and exaggerating the picture of his mental state. No doubt he’ll be cured when he returns. Doctors here are better, she says, as soon as his feet touch the ground in the airport he’ll feel better.
Nahil doesn’t ask me what I’ll do… if I even want this inheritance or if it means anything to me. Of course it doesn’t cross her mind to bring me a man, as she did with my father, to marry him to me so that I could be blessed with a son to carry on the family name and the family home. However this won’t ever happen even if I produce one thousand sons. My son won’t carry my name. Indeed from the beginning my name will be lost in the same way that I lost it myself after I married. Many years separate me from Nahil, of course, but the issue of the name and the inheritance in our two different times remains the same. A young woman still leaves her family home to go to her husband’s home and family all alone, denuded of everything, even her name. Thus, you have to have a male to pass on an inheritance. It must be a boy. The presence of a girl is useless, even one hundred girls. This is not only about our times today, but all times. Why is Nahil so concerned about a male heir? Isn’t she a woman? How should a woman be expected to defend her own burial when she is still alive?
Nahil’s contradictory qualities perplex me, though I always guard a giant love for her deep in my heart. Isn’t it she who teaches all of the girls in the village how to read and write, when she’s a young woman teaching in the French girls’ school? In order for her to complete everything she wants to, she comes up with a clever strategy in a closed society in which it’s easier for a father to have his daughter die than to say that she’s learning how to read and write.
The families go crazy when she asks the girls one day to come with a chalkboard to write on. They visit Nahil’s father in protest and ask him about her teaching their daughters to read and write. Her father calls her in to ask her about this and she comes in the room, greets the girls’ families, asking them about their crops and their relatives. She then invites them to stay for a bit longer, presenting them with sweets that she’s prepared herself.
She tells them that she’s teaching their daughters the letters connected to sewing, cutting garments and housekeeping only because they are necessary. As for the letters connected to love and rejecting customs and traditions, “That’s monstrous… clearly not!” She tells them that she is like them, i.e. like the families, she would never sanction educating their daughters!
She’s a strong woman. Despite this strength, her husband Hamza keeps his relationship with a woman from Zahleh secret for more than thirty years without her knowing. When Hamza dies, Nahil forgets everything bad about him. She mourns him, cries over his corpse, and asks for forgiveness for him. The truth disappears at the moment of his death. It’s as though this truth is erased; it becomes absent at that moment as though it had never been, as though it hadn’t ever been there to start with. When I try to remind her of things about Hamza and his love stories that she did and didn’t know, she starts repeating, “Oh Abu Ibrahim…Oh Abu Ibrahim, what’s all this talk?” trying to get up from the chair which each year starts seeming bigger and bigger than her emaciated body.
Her magic powers don’t mean that she knows about Hamza’s movements. He keeps telling her that he wants to store up ice and sell it during in the summer to merchants and people riding on the train between Beirut and Damascus who stop in the ‘Ayn Soufar station. Selling ice in Soufar stops after refrigerators started becoming widespread, the train also stops and there isn’t a station there anymore. But Hamza keeps on saying that he works there and Nahil keeps up the appearance of believing him. After his death, she finds lots of letters amongst his papers as well as verses of poetry and love poems that perhaps he intended to send to the woman who he loved. But this all remains in his leather suitcase, preserved with care in the wooden cupboard above the door. This life of his doesn’t prevent Nahil from going, after his death, to a photography studio to have color added to his photo and hanging it on the wall.
The day we leave for Australia, Hamza’s colored photograph is still hanging in the middle of the living room. By talking about him, Nahil keeps his presence in the house strong. Sometimes I think that she’s making Hamza into a fairytale hero—a man everyone fears, especially my father. Nahil makes sure he’s still ever-present in the house, she always recounts stories about him and keeps his picture hanging in the living room.
After his death, Nahil takes the original black and white picture to Harut, the photographer, near our house in Zuqaq al-Blat, and asks him to color it.
In the beginning, Harut is perplexed by Nahil’s request. He tells her that men never ask to change the color of their photographs, only women do. Nahil insists, almost losing her patience, “Hamza entrusted it to me and died, how can you know what he would have wanted?” She takes his small cloth belt out of her bag and gives all the money in it to Harut, saying, “If you don’t know how to color it, I’ll take it to Vicken.” Vicken is the owner of a studio near AUB. She doesn’t want Harut to choose only the colors he wants for Hamza; she wants all the colors.
She stands in front of him with the picture in her hand and starts describing the color of the shirt that he’s wearing in the picture, the color of the trousers and also of the tarboush, though they all seem to be the same color. Before leaving the studio, she wants to be sure of everything. Every time he shows her a colored photograph taken from the black box behind the curtain, she shakes her head disapprovingly and asks him to redo it. Harut colors my grandfather’s cheeks red, and his lips too, so he looks like a clown dressed up in a fighter’s clothes. As for the weapon that looks frightening in black and white, in the new picture it seems to be made of plastic, the kind children carry when they’re playing war.
The male line in our house ends with my brother’s death. Nahil’s repeated complaint is no use—she wants more male children for my father, but my mother Nadia refuses to have more than two children: my brother Baha’ and me. She’s afraid that another pregnancy would end with the baby dying and so she refuses to have a big family. She’s carried this with her from her own childhood; it’s a fear that she’s been living out from the first time she gave birth; it pre-dates even her marriage to Salama.