ALWAN Mohammad Hasan
Dar al-saqi , Lebanon , Beirut , 2011 , 319 pages
A man in his mid forties, Ghaleb sits on the side of a river in Oregon, pretending to fish as he thinks back on the life he just left in Saudi Arabia. He observes a friendly beaver.
Beavers remind Ghaleb of his family. With their big wet eyes, like those of his mother, the greedy hands of his half brother. They stick to each other and build dams, exactly like members of his family are stuck together… leaving him out of the flock. Ghaleb is not a beaver.
Born from a first failed marriage, Ghaleb is the family’s loser. Son of a seemingly powerful man in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Ghaleb does not live up to his father’s expectations. Appreciated by his step mother, he is nevertheless not considered as a brother by the siblings born from his father’s second marriage, let alone respected like an eldest brother should be. His own mother despises him for being his father’s son.
Ghaleb refused to work with his father, he had other aspirations in life: writing a sociology PhD thesis, marrying the only woman he ever loved, being happy. But he failed at everything that mattered. Expelled from university, he never completed his studies. His father being originally from the countryside, he was not seen as worthy enough to ask for Ghada’s hand, who married a diplomat instead. He was just good enough to be a secret and forever hungry lover she would satisfy with a fast meeting in different cities of the world.
For years, Ghaleb has been escaping through travel. He’d hop into a plane and go anywhere, as far as possible from his family, whenever he needed to breath. But this time is different. This time, Ghaleb wants out. Somewhat like a teenager in need of attention, he waits for his family to miss him, knowing this will never happen. From a safe distance, he looks upon his past life with some tiredness, but mostly a crystal clear mind. Even his twenty year long affair with Ghada is called into question, as she shows up in an unexpected visit. He will go back to Riyadh a few months later only to attend his father’s funeral.
Beavers is the vivid portrait of a recently enriched family in Riyadh, and a very lucid look on family in general: misunderstandings, disappointments, deceptions, money, relations of power, resentment and petty fights. Through Ghaleb’s recent exile and his memories, the reader gets a substantial grasp of the Saudi society, Even more powerful, the narrator’s extremely sharp and honest assessments.
There was a mirror in my apartment, so small that I sometimes had to wave to it to capture its attention. I’d chosen one this size, just big enough for a quick shave, and hung it low down, so my face wouldn’t catch me by surprise. When I looked at it, it would reflect one side of my jaw and I would shave it. Then I would turn round, so that the other side came into view, and I’d shave that, then lift my head so that my upper lip and part of my nose appeared, and I’d shave there too. Then I would wash my face and flee from the bathroom like a prisoner fleeing a silent interrogation cell.
With a woman in my apartment, the mirror would have been bigger. Mirrors for me raised awkward and persistent questions, like coming face to face with an old rival you haven’t seen for years. That was why I had picked out a small and insignificant mirror, so that it wouldn’t besiege me with questions bigger than myself that I couldn’t answer. As I carried it out of the IKEA store, full of young couples trying to set up cheap love-nests, I thought to myself that it would do for a quick glance before going out, for people who deserved to see a better face than mine. It was never going to play any larger role in my life, anyway.
My face truly was a distorted map. It was a piece of parchment on which a crazed ruler had drawn the lands he had conquered and the history he had made, only to be smudged in the rain. The scars that the boys of the al-Murabba’ neighborhood had inflicted on my left eyebrow were mixed up with those that my father had scattered at random on my temples, forehead and chin. The grass that grew there when my bedroom window looked East over a deserted palace courtyard in al-Nasiriyya mingled with the climbing plants that shielded my eyes from the midday heat of al-Fakhiriyya, when the sun would break into every Riyadh house, hitting the residents in the face.
al-Qondos | translation sample by Peter Clarck
RAYA has world rights to this title.
World rights are available.