The Guest

She has become more like her grandmother than her mother, Hend thinks to herself.

She remembered how she used to squirm in her grandmother’s lap, an angry child with a bare bottom. She was hard to keep up with as a child, light and thin, teething and crawling and speaking well before any of her brothers did. She proved that she was a creature capable of surviving and flourishing on the barest necessities of life. Her mother often left her to her own devices. She would crawl up the hill behind the western balcony right up to the solitary room roofed in wood and clay that looked, for all the world, like a heavenly dome. They called it “the high place.” A woman sat at its door, a woman that they did not call “Grandmother” but rather “the Guest,” though she never once stepped out of the confines of the family home. ”The Guest is sleeping,” they would say, or “The Guest wants such and such” or “Go bring the buttermilk pan from the Guest’s room.”

The Guest was a tiny, timid peasant woman with a green tattoo on her chin. The back of her hand was also covered with tattoos—a bride, a fish, and a lion. Her room always smelled of perfumed candles. She wove rope out of long strands of fiber and mended the holes in old clothes. Her dresses too were embroidered with tiny lions and fishes and dolls. Little Hend would crawl after her mother for half the day, crying and trying to catch hold of the hem of her long robe: “Mama sit. Mama dees.” (Mama sit down so I can nurse). And because her mother was constantly running around taking care of the housework, she would always send her to the Guest’s room. The Guest had no work to keep her busy. She would take the squirming Hend into her lap and stroke her back until she fell asleep. Or she would teach her how to stretch out her hand and feed the chicks and the baby ducklings. When the Guest died, they prayed for her soul: “Her hand was blessed . . . May God have mercy on her,” and they would add, “if she bore witness to the One God before the Angel came to take her away.”

Says her mother: “Your grandfather Muqaawi was big and strong and bedded both slave and freewoman, Arab and non-Arab. But the peasant girl from the Coptic Estate—she was the only one who bore him children. May God rest her soul—if she truly testified before the Angel came for her.”

And this was how Hend came to understand—after the Angel of Death had swept through their house—that the woman who had lived in that solitary room was her grandmother; a small peasant woman who came from the Coptic Estate or “the White Estate” in the days before the Mosque of Light, as the people called it, with its enormous marvel of a marble dome had been built. She was a young girl with the ragged cloth belt of impoverished agricultural day laborers tied around her waist. One day, the Chief of Bedouins with his regal headdress passed through the fields on his stallion and saw the delicate white flowers of the cotton plant blooming from that belt. He saw the girl’s waist, puffed up with cotton blossoms, and straight away divined the auspicious signs of a fertile seed. “She will surely be the mother of a male child,” he said to himself. “The prophet himself—peace and blessings upon him—begat from a Coptic woman.”

Then he pulled her up by the arm onto his horse and rode off with her. The girl’s father, bent and filthy, ran after them brandishing a lump of the fecund mud in his hands. “With God’s blessings,” he murmured, after the Sheikh placed a coin of pure gold in his astonished palm.

She undid the dirty belt from her waist so that he could look upon the body that was like a piece of smooth white cheese. The body, rounded like a morsel of moist halva, surrendered to his touch. The grandmother—whose name would soon become “the Guest”—bathed for the first time in a basin of pure copper and combed out the long, luxuriant hair that Hend would inherit. The fish tattoos flexed and gleamed in the water that streamed over her body and the servants sang to her from the other side of the door.

Whose daughter is this in the village,
you whose shawl has been caught?
I’m betrothed to the Chief of Arabs,
he whose uncle is a prince.

The Chief of Bedouins disliked houses because of their low, cramped roofs. He lived in a large tent pitched in the middle of an open expanse of land. His wives lived in the compound in a series of adjoining mud-brick rooms that opened onto the sandy courtyard. On the other side stood a similar row of rooms, the kitchens and granaries. A group of palm trees stood between the two rows. The Guest was not given one of these rooms in the main compound. She was like a frightened she-camel, and it would take her some time to settle down. The grandfather built two rooms for her up on one of the smaller elevations of Pharaoh’s Hills. She never visited the women down below and not once did she cross the perimeters of the main compound. She never witnessed the hustle and bustle of the kitchens nor smelled the pungent odors of milling day. She would hear the noise and guess at what was happening in the granaries. From a distance she would watch the shadows of the women running back and forth between the rooms. The Guest would sit in front of her house and wait for the young servant girls, pungent with kitchen odors, to come to her. They would step inside quickly and set her meal down with a perfunctory greeting, then run back outside without giving her a chance to exchange a single word. They never called her, “Mistress” or “Auntie,” only “the Guest” or “the master’s foreign woman,” names that were a summing up of her place in the world.

Her husband brought her precious gifts of Damascene silk and fine cotton cloth from Ashmoun. Whenever loneliness crept over her, she would run her hand over one of her black velvet gowns and, taking up the needle, begin to embroider its bodice with sequins and little bits of colored glass. A rope on which she hung these gowns stretched along the length of the wall of her room. As time passed, the gowns piled up on the rope and it sagged like her breasts, from the burden of the heavy weight.

She would perfume her gowns with incense and musk and lay them out in the eye of the noonday sun—to preserve them from moth eggs, or perhaps to provoke the envy of her co-wives. At night she would stuff their pockets with henna and basil leaves and stow them away under the mattresses to smooth out the creases. Then she would sit and keep watch on the gates of the high encircling wall from the corner of her eye.

The Guest was not inclined to conversation. On the rare occasions when she did speak, she would tell the same story about the husband who owned a caravan of camels laden with wooden chests that travelled between Gaza and Khan Younis. The chests were piled high with grain and they came back with olive oil and bars of Aleppo soap, robes of silk and Meccan velvet and Yemeni incense. The wives of this husband were many, she says, but she alone it was who mothered a male child.

The Guest says: “As soon as I emptied my belly of an infant, I’d put him in the basket and send him to the big tent for his father to hold. The child would come back silent and listless every time, and after a night or two, his face would puff up and turn blue and then he would die. When the fifth boy-child came, I said to myself, “The evil eye can shatter rock.” I piled rags over the basket and said to the women, “the boy has died. He’s followed his brothers.” Then I placed him on my breast and he nursed, sleepy and soft like a ball of white cotton. Our Lady Mary came to me in my sleep and took him from my breast and plunged him in holy water and in the morning he was pink and white like a rose. The Savior and the Virgin decreed that he should live when I feared he would go to the place the others had gone. Then I sent him to his father and he said, ‘God be praised’ and named him Ibrahim.”

The Guest loved to exercise her nimble fingers. She loved to willow cotton, peel garlic, and strip corncobs of their brittle husks. She twisted rope out of fiber and the wicks of kerosene lamps out of cotton and she wove mats out of strips of bamboo. If she had nothing else to weave, she would twist thin paper cones out of bits of old newspapers. She used these to light the kerosene lamps in order to save matches. On that hill opposite the tent of the Bedouin Chief, she would weave and sing and see after her hens. From time to time she would dip her feet into the running waters of the canal. She was a peasant and could not live without soil and animals.

Little Hend would fall asleep in the Guest’s lap as she flung open the gates to her world of marvelous stories. She always began these stories in the same way. “If our house were close by . . .” she would whisper, “if our house were close by . . ..” And yet she had no other house. Her house was their house. Hend would squat next to her as she emptied the cotton stuffing from the pillowcases onto the floor and spread it out in the sun, pulling it to make it light and fluffy like spun sugar. In the grandmother’s stories, the maidens endlessly labor over the recalcitrant cotton, pulling and teasing it for the velvety smooth pillows that will catch the sweat of love and childbirth, and the tears of desertion and loss. The pillows that cradle our sleeping faces and catch our dreams at night should be soft and secret. Hend lays her head in the Guest’s lap and listens to her tell a story: “If my father’s house were close by . . .”

“Where is your father’s house?” the girl interrupts her. The Guest laughs as she tries to remember. “Near the village threshing ground? Past the Valley of the Angel? Behind the salt marshes on the White Estate?” (The grandmother does not know that the White Estate on which she lived is now called the Mosque Estate.) She says, trying to pinpoint the very moment: “One day, your grandfather, may he rest in peace, passed our way. I was standing there at the door of the house . . . sweeping the floor? No! I was picking cotton in the fields of the Bedouin tribes . . .” And she tells the story of how he came and took her away on his horse and shut her up in a house with high walls. The Guest gazes at the open sky but she can’t tell east from west, and she does not know if any member of her family is still alive. She still dreams of walking along the bank of that faraway canal, of scrubbing her dress in the running water and scraping the heels of her feet on a sieve at the top of a field planted with broad beans. She strings broad beans together in necklaces that Hend wears around her neck. Hend hops about around her grandmother like a rabbit and scurries off to run her errands. The Guest sends her from time to time to buy a few candles from Salim the druggist’s shop. When Hend returns, she plies her with questions about a long-ago world.

“Is Salim still alive?”

Hend nods her head.

“Does he still run the shop?”

Hend shakes her head.

“Who’s at the counter?”

Hend moves her lips lazily to form a brief answer. “His son.”

“Is Abu Ma’tuq’s house still opposite Salim’s shop?”

Hend doesn’t know who Abu Ma’tuq is. She doesn’t recognize half the names that the Guest remembers, but she nods her head to assure her that everything is still just as it is in her imagination. The threshing machine still stands on the edge of the Bedouin field opposite the Muqaawi Aqueduct and the migrant laborers still live in the salt marshes. All those folk that peopled her memory—shop owners, carpenters, fishmongers—were still there, as she remembered them to be long ago.

Hend had no idea why they called her the Guest, nor why her clothes were stowed away in a wooden chest as though she were ever on the verge of embarking on some voyage or other, or why she took out her velvet gown at the beginning of each season, perfumed it then carefully refolded it and placed it back in the wooden chest. Hend was mesmerized by the dark freckles stamped on her face, the same ones she has inherited along with the long hair, the short stature and a dark and brooding disposition.

She herself is still that same restless child, she muses, always looking for a suitcase in which to pile clothes grown tired of being shut up in closets, a traveling case that she can place under her pillow for safekeeping, a thing to be seized and whisked away in anger, a thing to rest her head upon in sorrow. In her dreams she sees the Guest passing her fingers over her palm and stroking the life-line there. She laughs and says, “The way of Abu Zeid the Wanderer.” Hend did not know then that her life would become a smoldering fire, a long exile, like that of the legendary Abu Zeid. Her restless spirit was no longer content with stories of fleet camels and noble steeds and fiery comets shooting through the corridors of the sky. The journey of winter and summer in those stories was not enough to plug the pit of fear in her heart. Hend slept in the Guest’s lap whenever she grew tired of the coarse, cruel pillows that refused to give up their tenderness. In the dream she says to her, “If my father’s house were close by/ I’d go and bring a plate of raisins/for you to eat and then you’d pray over the beloved/for all lovers pray God to pray for the beloved.” Sleep overcomes her and the dreams that come carry her across the seven seas.

The grandmother died hugging her wooden cross to her chest and was buried in the family crypt with the following epitaph: “The Guest, mother of children, God rest her soul and lead her into His vast gardens of Paradise.” She left nothing behind but a small wooden chest in which she had packed her many dresses of satin and velvet embroidered with fishes and dolls, and a short rope on which had hung a gown of black velvet, fragrant and still, never once soiled by the dusty ground. In a smaller cardboard box she left a few candles and needles and bits of soap, while in the nooks and crannies of the room she had carefully placed a few stray strands of the hair that had fallen out over the years into the washbasin from pregnancy and childbirth, the death of suckling babes, and the endless days, both white and black.

Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London, on behalf of Miral al-Tahawy. Copyright © Miral al-Tahawy 2010. All rights reserved.