Authors: Hanan al-Shaykh
I told her everything and she sighed, saying, “You should not be distressed, cousin, her signs must give you great hope. The five fingers mean return to me in five days. The red handkerchief and the mirror and her head out of the window mean sit in the dyer’s studio until you hear from me.”
“How right you are, cousin,” I said, joyfully. “There is a Jewish dyer of wool and rugs in the lane where she lives.”
But when I realised that I wouldn’t see the young woman again for five days, I wept.
“Be strong, my cousin,” Aziza told me. “Think of the lovers who wait month after month—even years—before they are finally united. Rely upon me and I promise that I will help and protect you, just as the dove protects its chicks beneath its wings.”
She got up and prepared me some food and drink, but I could not swallow even one morsel. Aziza sought to distract me with tales of love and passion, leaving my side only when exhaustion overtook me and I slept. When I awoke, even in the dead of night, I would find her beside me, tears coursing down her cheeks.
The five days dragged, as if it was five centuries that had passed. When the time came I left my bed and found hot water waiting for me. I bathed and dressed in fresh clothes.
“God be with you,” Aziza said to me. “I hope that you get what you want from your beloved.”
I hurried to the Jewish dyer’s shop and to my mortification found that not only was the shop closed up, but so was the young woman’s window. I thought of taking my own life, such was my distress, but instead I remained like a statue on the bench beneath her window until the hour of midnight struck and I dragged myself home. I found Aziza standing, one arm clutching a peg on the wall, the other pressed to her heart, sighing and singing to herself:
“The furnace in my heart could melt copper,
My tears could drench thirty deserts.
My love can be no greater than what I cherish,
Yet my lover sees my passion as a blemish.”
As soon as she saw me, Aziza wiped away her tears and smiled. “Why have you not spent the night with your beloved and finally achieved that for which you have ached?”
Realising that she was mocking me, I kicked her with all my strength, so that she fell to the ground and struck her head upon the threshold. Blood poured from her wound, but she got up without uttering a word and wiped her face.
“Nothing happened, just nothing! That is why I am in such a rage,” I told her.
“You are mistaken,” Aziza told me. “There is good reason for hope in the lady’s actions. She wishes to know whether you truly love her and so she has hidden herself away in order to test you. You must go to her tomorrow, for if you do not, she will assume that you have no patience. Oh, cousin! I am glad that happiness is within reach!”
My cousin’s words failed to soothe me, however, and I felt only more desperate. She offered me some food, but I pushed it away, shouting, “Every damned lover is but a fool who can no longer eat or sleep.”
“But that is precisely what love is about,” Aziza told me.
At first light the next day I ran down the lane and sat on the bench beneath the window. After a very short time the woman opened the window and when she saw me she smiled, her smile grew wider and she laughed! She disappeared for a moment and then returned carrying a lamp and a potted plant. She let her hair fall over her face and then put the lamp over the top of the plant and slammed the window shut.
It is strange how my love seemed to grow and intensify and yet at the same time I was tiring of these mysterious signals. I had yet to hear her utter a single word. Perhaps she was deaf and dumb?
I returned home, yet again perplexed and melancholy, but still deeply in love. I found my cousin with her head bandaged, weeping and singing to herself:
“Wherever you may come and go,
You are still secure in the depths of my heart.”
She saw me through her tears and fell silent for a moment, then roused herself and asked me what had happened.
“At last you have reached what your soul has always desired,” she told me when I described what had taken place. “When she let her hair loose around her face she was telling you to come to her at night, when darkness falls on the day, the pot means that you should meet her in her garden and the lamp tells you to seek out a light in the darkness.”
And yet rather than feel joy at this, I shouted at my cousin. “Each time you promise that I will finally meet her and yet I don’t. I think that perhaps your interpretations are wrong.”
Aziza laughed, saying, “Just be patient, and don’t forget that God is always with those who show forbearance.”
I sat down and pleaded, “God, let the sun set even before it is time for night to fall.”
I fidgeted away the hours, while my cousin sat nearby, sighing and weeping. Soon night fell and I was overjoyed and raced to the door, as if someone had released me from a long imprisonment.
Aziza called me back and gave me a piece of musk, saying, “Chew it when you see her and when your beloved gives you what you so desire, recite these lines:
“ ‘Lovers, in the name of God,
Tell me how can one relieve this endless desperation?’ ”
When I reached the lane I circled the house of the young woman and found my way into her garden at the back, for she had left the gate open for me. I followed a light in the distance and found a beautiful pergola inlaid with ebony and ivory, with a lamp hanging inside and furnished with comfortable seats and feather mattresses and cushions dotted about. Candles flickered and I could hear the soothing sound of a water fountain, next to which stood a table, spread with flowers and herbs and upon which stood a jug of wine and many delicacies, grilled chicken and game birds, fruit and sweetmeats. I waited there for many hours and when she did not come I realised I was famished and I fell upon the food as if it was the young woman I was finally devouring. I ate until I was full and then I stretched myself happily out among the cushions to wait some more.
I woke suddenly, hot and drenched in sweat. The sun was beating down on me, as if it was smothering me with its rays. It was morning and I jumped up as though I’d been bitten by a snake. A piece of coal and some salt had been placed upon my stomach.
The garden was empty and there was no sign of the pergola or the cushions, the candles or the beautifully laden table. Filled with rage and utter despair I returned to my cousin once more, to find her weeping and saying:
“Forgive me if I shed these black tears.
But your beloved loves you back
While the one I adore doesn’t love me at all.
How compassionate and kind God is to you.”
She stopped crying and came over to me and sniffed at my clothing.
“That is not the scent of one who has enjoyed his beloved,” she said. “And now I fear for you, Aziz. I know full well that women may tease men, but this woman has deliberately wounded your heart—she has aimed to hurt you as much as she possibly could. The salt that she left on your stomach means you are a pallid dish which needs salt to add flavour, lest you be spat out. And as if this was not insult enough, she leaves you with a piece of charcoal, meaning that she wishes God would blacken your face, since you claim to be in love but your passion really lies in eating and drinking—you are a charlatan lover. So, my cousin, this woman is hard and cruel, it is she who is deceitful, not you. Why did she not wake you when she found you asleep? How I wish that God would release you from her clutches!”
“On the contrary,” I thought to myself as I listened to Aziza. “My beloved was right—I fell asleep when it is known that true lovers are insomniacs. I was unjust to myself and to my lover when I allowed greed to overtake desire.”
I thumped my chest and wept at my bad fortune, and pleaded with my cousin to help me, threatening to kill myself if she would not. Aziza said, “If you asked for my eye, cousin, I would pull it out from beneath my eyelid for you. How I wish I could come and go from this house as I please so I might bring the two of you together, for your sake rather than for hers. Listen to me, Aziz. Go back to her again, but this time you must not touch even one morsel of food, for that will be the spur to your appetite and you know that a full belly will only make you sleepy. Go to her and don’t forget to recite these lines before you leave:
“ ‘Lovers, in the name of God,
Tell me how can one relieve this endless desperation?’ ”
I entered the garden and saw that everything was as it had been the night before. This time, I didn’t touch a morsel of food; instead, I sat and walked and waited, but slowly boredom crept upon me and I found myself at the table once more, saying that I’d have just one spoon of yoghurt to soothe my beating heart. But it was just as Aziza told me: one mouthful only aroused my appetite and I was unable to stop sampling the many dishes laid out on the table. Before I knew it I was full, but now, instead of lying down, I sat with my head in my hands. And yet, despite my efforts, I found that I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed that I was fully awake, slapping my face and sprinkling my eyes with water and rubbing my eyes so as not to doze off and to remain alert for our encounter. But in reality I missed my opportunity and once more the sun woke me, slashing me with its hot whips, and I found myself staggering for home, weeping. There I found Aziza, the tears running down her cheeks as she sang:
“My heart is shattered,
My body is bleeding.
Yet whatever pain my cousin inflicts on me
I welcome it with all my soul.”
I felt furiously angry, I reproached and cursed her and threw the items my beloved had left on my stomach at her. But my cousin ignored my tantrum and my angry words and knelt before me, saying, “This large dice means that although you were waiting for her, your heart was absent. With the date stone she is telling you that were you her true lover you would have stayed awake, for your heart would’ve been on fire, just as the date stone ignites the coal. As for the carob seed, she means that you must prepare yourself for separation from her and endure it with the patience of Job.”
When I heard the word “separation” I clutched my cousin’s dress and wept and pleaded, “Help me, Aziza, and save me before I perish and die.”
And my cousin, who seemed on that day distant and distracted (although I didn’t care to know by what), answered me in a low voice. “I feel as though my thoughts are tossed upon a raging sea.”
She fell silent for a while but then seemed to take pity on me, for she said, “Go to her tonight and reconcile with her. I cannot give you advice other than these words, ‘Do not eat. Do not eat.’ ”
Then she prepared me a delicious meal and fed it to me herself, as if I were a lamb, so that I would not be tempted by the aroma of the delicacies that would be laid out before me in the garden that evening.
And so I returned that evening, dressed in a new suit which Aziza had sewn for me, and which she had carefully dressed me in, making me first promise to say to the girl:
“Lovers, in the name of God,
Tell me how can one relieve this endless desperation?”
I found myself once more in the garden, tense and waiting for the woman, just like a tiger ready to pounce. So attuned was I to the tiniest of sounds that I heard even the minute rustling of a nightingale preparing itself for sleep. But the silence and tranquillity, with the moon and stars hanging above me, and the intensity of my desire and passion, made me relax a little and pour myself a glass of wine, so confident was I that I would not fall asleep. I poured myself a second glass, pulling my eyes open all the while to ensure that they were not drooping, for I thought that a little more wine would help me to be lucid and eloquent when I finally met my beloved. And then, when she again failed to appear, my
mood changed to one of utter irritation and impatience and so I drank glass after glass, until I lost count of how much wine I had consumed. And then I slept, just as I had on the two previous evenings. I was woken again by the fierce rays of the sun, and found that I was stretched out in the garden, with a knife and a copper coin upon my stomach.
I raced back home with the knife in my hand, and I must have looked insane, for people shrank back and even ran to avoid my path. As I reached our home, I heard the keening of my cousin:
“I am alone in this cursed house.
Its walls tighten around my soul
Its windows waft towards me the foulest fumes
Its doors clench me by the throat.”
Her words moved me as if she was expressing what I myself felt so powerfully in my heart and mind. It seemed that I lost consciousness for a time and then I woke to find my face drenched in rose water.
“The coin is her right eye and the knife is for slaughter,” Aziza told me.
I screamed in horror, “Oh God, is my beloved going to take out her eye?”
But my cousin said, “No, don’t be alarmed, she is telling you, ‘By God the Magnificent, I swear by my right eye that if you ever come back to my garden and sleep, be certain that I will slaughter you with this knife.’ ”
I shook and trembled, not with fright but out of love and compassion. My cousin registered the half smile on my face and guessed what I was thinking.
“I am so worried about you, cousin,” she pleaded with me. “This woman is hard, calculating, crafty and her heart is filled with hatred, tarnished black.”
But I pleaded with her in turn, “Help me and tell me what to do, Aziza.”
“If you asked for my eye, my cousin Aziz, I would pull it out from beneath my eyelid for you. Come to bed and sleep, this is what you need now, try to sleep as though you are hibernating.”
She took me by the hand and led me to my bed, where she massaged my shoulders and limbs, fanning my face until I fell asleep and didn’t wake until the sun had set. When Aziza saw that I had woken, she jumped up, wiping away her tears. Then she forced me to eat a large meal, made me drink tamarind, washed my face and hands and then took me in her arms and held me tight to her, saying, “Aziz, you must listen carefully. Your beloved will not appear before the last hours of the night. So do not sit and wait, but seek to keep yourself occupied. Take a stroll in the garden, making sure to smell the flowers, especially the jasmine, for its fragrance will surely dominate your senses and overpower the aroma of the banquet.”