Culture

A young woman dreaming in Palestine

BEIRUT: If Elias Khoury’s novel “As Though She Were Sleeping” is to be believed, then there exists to this day a secret tribe of women in Lebanon who prepare qatayif with pine nuts rather than almonds or walnuts. Based on a centuries-old remedy for impotence, the dish is said to stir sexual desires, much to the pleasure or shame of diners.

The Meelyaites, as they are known, learned this particular variation on the obscenely sweet, lightly fried, stuffed and folded Arabic pancake from their husbands, the brothers of Meelya, who inherited an arsenal of pine-nut heavy recipes from two generations back.

Meelya’s grandfather, Saleem was stricken with the mumps after fathering his one and only son, Youssef. The illness all but destroyed Saleem’s testicles, and his doctors prescribed pine nuts and honey to restore his manhood.

In the end, Saleem’s cure was the Egyptian mistress of a Beiruti aristocrat, but pine nuts remained firmly lodged in the family lore. Meelya used them liberally to develop a cuisine that tastes, unintentionally, of sex. For two generations since, the men in her family have convinced their wives to take up Meelya’s recipes.

Why should readers believe anything in Khoury’s book, which is, after all, a thoroughgoing work of fiction? They shouldn’t. Then again, many of the stories woven into “As Though She Were Sleeping” are tied to or tangled up in facts.

On the most structural level, the book is set in Mandate Palestine and unfolds over the course of three nights in December 1947. The sweeping historical backdrop is the impending loss of Palestine.

For the most part, however, Khoury leaves the disturbances of the day, which become ever more violent and disastrous as the book progresses, to rumble in the distance.

At the forefront of the novel, Meelya Shaheen is nine months pregnant and about to give birth in Nasra (Nazareth), where she has come to live with her husband, Mansour Hourani. Lying delirious on a bed in the Italian hospital, Meelya dreams, and readers are plunged into the seas of memory and fantasy churning in her head.

Were it not for the book’s division into three parts – “The First Night,” “The Second Night” and “The Third Night” – it would be almost impossible for readers to steady themselves in the novel’s present tense. Humphrey Davies, who translated “As Though She Were Sleeping” from Arabic to English, describes it as “one of the least linear narratives that’s ever been put on paper.”

Curiously, Davies’ translation, just published in the U.K. by MacLehose Press, is the first of two. Next June, Archipelago Books is publishing a second translation, by Marilyn Booth, in the U.S.

This gives Khoury’s English-language readers a rare chance to compare different approaches to the formidable task of rendering Arabic dialects and quotidian speech in English. It is also a sign that the translation engine bringing Khoury’s works to a wider readership is now keeping pace his output. While his last book to appear in English, “White Masks,” translated by Maia Tabet last year, was written in 1981, “As Though She Were Sleeping” came out in Arabic four years ago, his most recent, completed work.

For an international audience, Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun” remains the big book, epic and political and still the one to which new readers are likely to turn first.

But “As Though She Were Sleeping” is a monumental achievement on the avant-garde end of Khoury’s fiction, a postmodern knot of narrative fragmentation that honors a literary tradition as old as Abbasid poetry and “A Thousand and One Nights.”

Meelya’s dreams dance from one story to another, jumping back and forth between various points in the 19th and 20th centuries. On occasion, they lurch into the future, as Meelya also dreams in prophetic visions, most harrowingly in the destruction of Jaffa.

Like a high literary equivalent of Christopher Nolan’s recent film “Inception,” Meelya tunnels into the dreams of other people as well, from her husband Mansour and her brother Moussa to the colorful characters in their families, such as her grandfather’s Egyptian mistress and Iskander, the eldest son of Moussa, “who would one day catch the shameful sickness of literature” and work for a newspaper.

Meelya’s constant dreaming causes her family a good deal of consternation, for it is not merely an affliction of imminent childbirth but a condition she has harbored all of her life. Whenever faced with hardship, tragedy or danger, Meelya falls asleep – when she breaks her leg, when she is jilted twice, when her new husband brings her to a country on fire and about to explode.

It isn’t totally clear whether Khoury intends his readers to interpret this as a literary device, as an extended, book-length metaphor for fiction – dreams as a creative escape from the cruelties of reality – or a sign of serious illness, either narcolepsy or madness, in his main character.

The women in Meelya’s family seem to suffer a strain of hysteria that manifests itself in extreme religiosity. Saada, her mother, spends her dying days in a convent with Sister Milaneh, who has terrorized the family for decades with her strict observance of Greek Orthodoxy.

Meelya learns to organize her dreams into categories, and many of them are born of, well, hormonal surges. A dream of a sheep clamoring onto her chest appears with menstruation. The image of birds crashing into one another in mid-flight comes with a lover’s betrayal. A vision of a blue woman arrives with pregnancy.

The longest and deepest of Meelya’s dreams is death, which hovers all over the novel. (No spoiler here: The fact that she will die in childbirth is clear by page 69.)

As the end nears, Meelya veers into religious territory and takes to roaming the streets of Nasra, imagining that a monk named Tanyous is accompanying her on her journeys.

Khoury, however, undercuts every instance of religious fervor. Moussa’s son Iskander, for example, uncovers a curious if tenuous connection between Meelya and Maryka Spiridon – the notorious owner of one of Beirut’s old brothels. Madame Maryka, it seems, had a passionate affair with Sister Milaneh, which casts Saada’s fierce ardor for the sanctimonious woman in a rather different light.

“As Though She Were Sleeping” packs into three days at the end of Meelya’s life a history of a house, two families, several cities, Palestine, Arabic poetry, the Greek Orthodox Church, and more. Ultimately, though, a book about dreaming is a book about writing, language and the telling of stories.

Just as Meelya nestles one dream inside another and buries them all in a secret pit, Khoury winds one story around another – about a fragrant dish, a land lost, a poet aggrieved, a father who knocks out a son’s eye, or a brother hanged from church bells – to create a refuge, a haven and an art, in the face of unending sorrow and devastation.

Elias Khoury’s “As Though She Were Sleeping,” translated by Humphrey Davies and published by MacLehose Press, is available now in bookstores throughout Beirut.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 27, 2011, on page 16.

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