Out of the Old Box by Hanan Al-Shaykh

I began to think about the past as I opened an old box where I kept my journalistic articles. I found a series of interviews I had conducted with more than twenty women, entitled ‘Portrayal of prominent Lebanese women’. Looking at their faces on faded sheets of newsprint and in the supplements I could not help but remember the women in my family and neighbourhood who had left their mark on me and who had taken me by the hand to help me embrace womanhood at an early age.

Our house was full of women. We all shared the house with this uncle; and sharing was common among families from Southern Lebanon who had come to Beirut in search of work. Our house was full of women visitors, too, each one a completely different personality. The favourite was a cousin who lived in both Africa and Lebanon and who was twice married. Her social status, in her case based on wealth, was tied in with her strength. She even felt superior to men. She was confident enough to smoke in front of them; to take us to movies whenever she felt like it; to learn to drive a car and to be independent in many other ways. Even her husband asked her opinion about things. When she entered a room, we became like Chagall’s women – flying to her from roofs, windows, doors. Housework stopped. Freedom flowed, perhaps from her beautiful shoes, handbags, sunglasses. With her the women were relaxed, gossiping and pushing the shadow of their men from their consciousness. They were no longer frantic to make themselves available as soon as they heard their man’s footsteps.

In contrast to this visitor, there was another who came regularly from the South for medical reasons. I remember how she used to choose a corner of our sitting room, never leaving it except to visit the doctor. She spent her days criticising indecent women who were not wrapped from head to toe in black like herself. She spat whenever a friend of my mother’s appeared wearing make-up or if she saw someone chewing gum. Gum, according to her, drew attention to a woman’s mouth, which she considered to be an obscenity.

But Adila, who lived facing our house, was the one I was most drawn to. I had been pleading with the flock of pigeons which were going round in circles above the rooftop to take me away with them when I heard a voice trying to imitate the coo of pigeons: ‘Hurry up and hold my wing and take me away!’ I giggled. The voice was Adila’s, and she emerged from behind the sheets she was hanging up: ‘If you’d begged a cat and not the bloody pigeons, I could have mimicked the sound so well it would have made you shit in your pants!’