EBRD Literature Prize shortlist: This Arabic novel explores the struggle to make sense of death

I’m confused.

I forget so many things and then remember them unexpectedly. I’ll remember Hani, then forget all about him, even though he never leaves my side. He’s always somewhere inside of me silent sometimes, making noise at other times which is one reason why I still love him.

I may have married another man but still I love him so.

It’s as if our love had been born before us.

I immersed myself in the muck of poetry and promiscuity and desire for lots of other men, but I still love him. Many people were born, even more people died, but still I love him. It’s been said that millions of human beings fall in love every second, that millions of betrayals are committed every moment, but still I love him. I had a son and a daughter, grandsons and granddaughters . . . but I never stopped loving him.

There were times when Hani was absent from me. What I mean is that I would forget about him from time to time. I wouldn’t think of him for days or weeks, sometimes months even. But he would always come back to me as though he had never left. He would appear in front of me and my body would heave, quivering feverishly with desire, overwhelmed. His breath lacerated me, as if it were seeping out all of his pores. My heart folded in on itself, rolled up like a cigarette, and for an instant I was stripped bare, caught in delicious and pleasurable astonishment, like the moment when a son comes back to see his mother after being away for a long time.

I feel like his mother, as if I was the woman who gave birth to him, who raised him and watched him grow up, who loved him as though he were a part of her own body. Hani isn’t a part of me, though: he is my totality, the sum of all of my parts. He isn’t just my lover: he’s my friend and my soulmate, my son, and something else besides, something I can’t name or describe, this thing called love. Just the thought of him can make me tremble, the same way I do whenever I lay eyes on him, whether or not he touches me. My heart swells with all kinds of love, each one with its own flavour and smell and voice.

Every time he takes me in his arms my soul is rejuvenated; it feels like the first time our bodies embraced. I wish I had held on much longer than I actually did. I wished I had got my fill of hugging so that I wouldn’t have to go through the kind of pain I now feel. I wish I had run away with him, or that he had kidnapped me, that it was no longer possible for us to be apart.

Reclaiming the love I had lost granted me a kind of happiness I wasn’t going to let anybody take away from me, not ever again, not a third time . . . not a tenth time. I wasn’t going to fall in love with anyone else for the rest of my life. Those few meaningless relationships I’d had taught me that sex without love is a waste of the body, its abandonment, whereas love is what allows us to discover our bodies. I don’t want to waste this body I’ve been given, or the words I have, to lose anything at all on purpose. I cling to the last crusts of bread, the outer edges of everything.

At least that’s what I told Suad once. I tell her everything. Her and her alone. If not for her I would wind up talking to the flowerpots on my balcony. Last week I went to the village to recite the Fatiha over the graves of my mother and father. I passed by our house. The two pomegranate trees that stand side by side next to the fountain, one of which bears sour fruit, the other sweet, called out to me. I was gripped with the desire to speak to their leaves, as if I would be able to confide in them because pomegranate leaves are curled, not flat like the leaves of other trees. The poems I wrote when I was younger and so afraid of my mother and my brother Jawad were buried under a tree. They contained all the feelings I had for Hassan on the day I fell in love with him. Now I felt as though all of my previous feelings were little more than a dry run for the way I would feel about Hani.

I’m not going to lose him, not this time. I don’t care if my husband Saleem divorces me or even kills me. Nothing is going to stand in my way any more. My two children are married, which means my life and my body are my own once again. My relationship with Saleem has been a facade for a long time, even before his body started to sink and then drown in the seas of old age. Eventually he’s going to find out about my upcoming rendezvous with Hani in Paris. Who can predict what’s going to happen between us there. Maybe we’ll arrive at some decisions, maybe we’ll upend our lives altogether. It shouldn’t matter that we’ve reached middle age.

Before he called me two days ago, it had been about twenty days since I last saw him. He needed to have some tests done after being released from the hospital. I would sit on the balcony by myself and gaze out at the water, wondering, How old is the sea? Does it age the same way we do? I’ve changed so much. I’ve witnessed the end of my fifties. I can no longer deal with noise or being around too many people. I’m no longer capable of compromise. I’ve figured out what pleases me and what annoys me. But the more Suad prattles on, the more I remember my grandmother and her friend Jameela, whom I used to watch as a little girl while they gossiped and laughed with one another. Their shoulders would shake without making a sound. I could never understand what they were talking about. Their voices would melt into the stillness and the silence, punctuated only by the sounds of cicadas. On the balcony I would sketch the inquisitive faces of lonely women sitting on benches in the village square. What was left for them now that their children had all been married and their husbands were all dead?

I’m not sure what made me think of the shepherd’s wife who used to visit us when I was a child. She was all alone after her husband’s death and the marriage of all her children. I remember how she used to sit on the ottoman beside my mother and stretch out her legs, rubbing them and then saying, “Aach, aach,” before falling silent once again. She’d do that several times before heading home. One time I asked my mother why she would come all the way from her house on the other side of town to do that. She told me that people crave the familiar smell of others. She came over so she could smell other people and then went home with a fresh supply of human odours.

Excerpted with permission from This Thing Called Love, Alawiya Sobh, translated from the Arabian by Max Weiss, Seagull Books.

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