By Hassan Daoud, trans. Marilyn Booth
From the author: The characters in ‘One Hundred and Eighty Sunsets’ don’t belong in any way to this place called Zahraniyya where they live. They came to this place, twenty or so miles from Lebanon’s capital city Beirut, fleeing their areas of origin, because of the war, or the wars, and here they are, in houses new to them, houses being built there. All the while, they are building resentment and hatred toward each other as if, in their turn, they are getting ready for their own coming war.
Amongst these characters are Salma, the alluring young woman who shows herself, revealed breasts and all, to the young men; and Taysir, who sells birds and is mentally challenged; and the two brothers who have lived in Zahraniyya for twenty years of indistinguishable days in the shop their father bought for them. The first excerpt below is narrated by the elder of those brothers, and it opens the novel.
Although twenty years have gone by since my arrival in Zahraniyya, where I still live, it’s as though I’ve realised only now that there’s no cemetery here. It dawned on me suddenly, cutting short the unruly flow of thoughts that compete for attention when we’re trying our cunning best to dodge insomnia. That is to say, I had no warning at all, no inkling, no thoughts in my head leading in that direction. I guess it just detached itself from the crowded jumble of fancies and images, coming forward like a passing word, like a sentence some fellow said to me in the course of my day, a string of words I didn’t hear properly at the time and so the phrase hung there, waiting for the right moment to release its full impact on me. When it did, it flipped me over onto my back. I would go to sleep in that position now, and not on my stomach or either side. My eyes were open wide, trying to make out how much light, or darkness, surrounded me in this room.
No one has been buried over there, in that cleft that cuts between the two hills, a steep incline where nobody has yet built a house. Lying in bed, I mused how, if they wanted a cemetery for themselves, they would have made one over there. Or they could have built it here, on this patch of ground separated from the building I live in only by a lane too narrow for me to even park my car. This bit of land is still vacant. It’s been left to itself, no one building his house here either. The sun has scorched the soil so thoroughly that it has left only blackish sand. I often catch myself thinking that the debilitating heat pulsing through me must rise from the warmth it gives off.
It was a woman, my brother told me. When I asked him whether she was someone we had seen alive, he and I, he told me she’d been confined to bed long before we arrived.
My brother was sixteen, that age when finding companions is a matter of urgency. Within a month of our coming here he had already been inside one or two of those houses. He told me that nothing separated those people from the sea unless it was those sharp rocks that made our feet bleed if we walked across them barefoot. But they could see across the rocks to the whole expanse of sea beyond, as he reminded me. ‘The sea, it’s like the sea belongs to them, as if it is an extension to their houses, since no one can walk along between these houses and the sea if it means having to walk on those rocks.’ We could see how blue the water was too — a vast, intense blue — from the wide glass façade of our shop. But when we were at home, above the shop, if we wanted to get a glimpse of the water we had to go to the very end of our balcony, squeezing ourselves into the narrowest part of it.
We couldn’t see the ocean from where we lived over the shop because the other flat, which was also above it, obstructed our view and left nothing to reach us but the salt and the dampness. Not long after our arrival my brother started repeating that they had cut us off from the sea breeze, as he slid his elongated fingers across his forehead to wipe off the sweat. As if it was them, the people who lived in that flat, who were standing between us and the moving air. He hated it that there were so many of them, which made it harder to get everything straight. It took the two of us a long time to figure it all out: who were the full brothers and who were half siblings, and which children were the two sons of the eldest brother, Atif. ‘They came to Zahraniyya before we did’, explained my father on the day we arrived here. He was showing us the shop that would be ours, and the living space above it but on the back side of the building. ‘You can see the ocean from the shop, all day long’, he said. Yes, that’s what he said so long ago, I remember it, but after that, and ever since, we imagined how lovely the view of the sea must be for the people who get to see it from there, from their broad balcony which was half as big as the interior of a flat.
But the ground floor was entirely ours. We didn’t have to share it with anyone. That first time I went through the front door, which my father opened with some keys he carried on him, I assumed that the huge front area made up the entire shop. It was plenty big enough for what we would be doing. When we went deeper inside, I couldn’t imagine what real use my brother and I would ever make of these rooms. Two of them were so enormous that I had never seen such a space behind any door. I did think they resembled the storerooms that old-time merchants used to put up for housing their wares safely. They were high-ceilinged rooms, two floors in height. In each there was only one small window, set very high in the wall and too narrow to cast more than a dim, meagre light across that immense emptiness.