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 husbandâ€™s brother during the civil war, and revisit family history.
â€œMy daughter, do you want the English to take our inheritance?â€ she asks me after I came back, when Iâ€™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 fatherâ€™s side. This is the very same predicament Nahil finds herself in. Her desire for a male heir when itâ€™s impossible to locate this heir, means that sheâ€™s not prevented from giving me whatâ€™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 Salamaâ€™s madness and the death of Bahaâ€™, the only male heir. Sheâ€™s still waiting for Salama to come back, when I tell her about his situation in Australia she says that Iâ€™m complicating matters and exaggerating the picture of his mental state. No doubt heâ€™ll be cured when he returns. Doctors here are better, she says, as soon as his feet touch the ground in the airport heâ€™ll feel better.
Nahil doesnâ€™t ask me what Iâ€™ll doâ€¦ if I even want this inheritance or if it means anything to me. Of course it doesnâ€™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 wonâ€™t ever happen even if I produce one thousand sons. My son wonâ€™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 husbandâ€™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? Isnâ€™t she a woman? How should a woman be expected to defend her own burial when she is still alive?
Nahilâ€™s contradictory qualities perplex me, though I always guard a giant love for her deep in my heart. Isnâ€™t it she who teaches all of the girls in the village how to read and write, when sheâ€™s a young woman teaching in the French girlsâ€™ school? In order for her to complete everything she wants to, she comes up with a clever strategy in a closed society in which itâ€™s easier for a father to have his daughter die than to say that sheâ€™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 Nahilâ€™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 girlsâ€™ families, asking them about their crops and their relatives. She then invites them to stay for a bit longer, presenting them with sweets that sheâ€™s prepared herself.
She tells them that sheâ€™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, â€œThatâ€™s monstrousâ€¦ clearly not!â€ She tells them that she is like them, i.e. like the families, she would never sanction educating their daughters!
Sheâ€™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. Itâ€™s as though this truth is erased; it becomes absent at that moment as though it had never been, as though it hadnâ€™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 didnâ€™t know, she starts repeating, â€œOh Abu Ibrahimâ€¦Oh Abu Ibrahim, whatâ€™s all this talk?â€ 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 Hamzaâ€™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 â€˜Ayn Soufar station. Selling ice in Soufar stops after refrigerators started becoming widespread, the train also stops and there isnâ€™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 doesnâ€™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, Hamzaâ€™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 sheâ€™s making Hamza into a fairytale heroâ€”a man everyone fears, especially my father. Nahil makes sure heâ€™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 Nahilâ€™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, â€œHamza entrusted it to me and died, how can you know what he would have wanted?â€ She takes his small cloth belt out of her bag and gives all the money in it to Harut, saying, â€œIf you donâ€™t know how to color it, Iâ€™ll take it to Vicken.â€ Vicken is the owner of a studio near AUB. She doesnâ€™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 heâ€™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 grandfatherâ€™s cheeks red, and his lips too, so he looks like a clown dressed up in a fighterâ€™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 theyâ€™re playing war.
The male line in our house ends with my brotherâ€™s death. Nahilâ€™s repeated complaint is no useâ€”she wants more male children for my father, but my mother Nadia refuses to have more than two children: my brother Bahaâ€™ and me. Sheâ€™s afraid that another pregnancy would end with the baby dying and so she refuses to have a big family. Sheâ€™s carried this with her from her own childhood; itâ€™s a fear that sheâ€™s been living out from the first time she gave birth; it pre-dates even her marriage to Salama.