Before the Queen Falls Asleep Huzama Habayeb Review

Before the Queen Falls Asleep Huzama Habayeb Review

Before the Queen Falls Asleep by Huzama Habayeb, translated from the Arabic by Kay Heikkinen, reviewed The BookBlast Diary by Sharif Gemie.

Two people say goodbye at an airport. We’re not sure of their age, ethnicity or gender and we don’t know the location of the airport. The one leaving is reserved, more interested in passport control than in conversation. The other, the narrator, is tense, emotional and reflexive. She wonders: have we become ‘professionals at leaving and travelling, as we have become professionals at living in cities than are not ours, in homelands that belong to others and that spit us out when they tire of us?’ The one leaving says: ‘I love you’. The one staying replies ‘I love you more’.

Habayeb is a Palestinian novelist and poet. In Before the Queen Falls Asleep, her narrative is built on these strange, intimate yet distant encounters. We’re thrown into them, without context or explanation, and yet they make sense. It’s like eavesdropping on friends talking: Habayeb leaves us to work things out for ourselves.

At the airport: is this wife and husband? Mother and child? The details are erratically sketched in: we learn of earrings and eyebrow-plucking and we grow more sure that these are two women. But where are they? There are references to Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol, to Bobby Sands and Allende, to Operation Lead in Gaza and to Billy Elliot. This feels like some crazy mixed-up world, in which the items of the western media have been thrown into something that feels more emotionally-charged and astronomically strange.

By the end of the first chapter, we’re fairly sure that this is a mother and daughter. The daughter’s cool departure at the airport throws the mother into a prolonged contemplation on her own identity and memory. Four chapters follow, meditations on themes of memory, each sewn together with threads of incident, each thread leading to something else. Habayeb considers money and the methods used to keep it safe; the ironies of the names we bear and those we give to others; homes and patterns of home-ownership; unhappy relationships; before a final chapter which goes some way to tying these threads together.

Memory, Exile and Survival

The writing jolts and judders. The focus changes from one paragraph to another without warning, points of context come fifty or a hundred pages too late. Palestine isn’t mentioned until page 67, the fact that Habayeb grew up in a family of eight children isn’t clarified until page 97. I’m tempted to say that the only consistent trait is inconsistency, but that would be unfair. We become familiar with this strange narrator, her fragmented life and her intense thoughts. Her writing is strong and sharp and quickly turns lyrical or aphoristic. For example, Habayeb on her father’s religious culture: ‘He always lived adjacent to religion and across from it, taking from it enough to keep his family and acquaintances from rejecting him.’ Habayeb on her family’s chronic money problems: ‘Every extra penny that entered our house found a patch waiting for that penny to sew onto the fabric of our existence, if not a disaster to be dealt with.’ Habayeb on a married woman dreaming of an affair: ‘. . . her yearning flesh under a hovering, heavy cloud of lust which gave no rain.’ Because of the power of this writing, we’re there with her, even if we’re not quite sure where there is.

Jabel el-Hussein Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, 2008
Jabel el-Hussein Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, 2008 (Wikipedia)

There’s no rest, there’s always something to worry about. Habeyeb’s family aren’t starving, but money is a constant concern. Her father tells her siblings, ‘If you can’t afford it, you don’t need it’. His primary job is as a health technician with Kuwaiti Health Ministry, his secondary job is in a tiny shared store which repairs electrical devices and never makes a profit. Eight children and two adults squeeze into a three-room apartment. They drift between Jordan and Kuwait, between established refugee camps and estates of cheap, private flats. The education of the children depends of changing social policies in Jordan and Kuwait: state schools are free for Palestinians in Jordan, university education is free for Palestinians in Kuwait.

Her parents argue over Huzama from the moment of her birth in 1965. Her father had wanted his first-born to be a boy. They disagree about her name, finally reaching the compromise that her father will choose her name, and then her mother will choose the names of all subsequent daughter. Her father chooses the masculine name ‘Jihad’. It’s not as militant a name as it might sound, for in the 1960s ‘Jihad’ still had resonances of a Sufi quest rather than a terrorist campaign. If Pilgrim’s Progress had been translated into Arabic in the 1960s, it would have been rendered as ‘Pilgrim’s Jihad’.

This masculine name — and other problems — provoke gender-identity issues. Huzama grows up to be a slim, neat person with a taste for masculine shirts and simple jackets. She rejects the traditional flowery, extravagant dresses of Arab girls and has no interest in the all-encompassing dark veils of the rising generation. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she doesn’t submerge her Palestinian identity into Jordan or Kuwaiti culture.

Habayeb’s introspection eventually saves the family. She’s a good student, she learns English and finds well-paid work teaching English, which is always a popular subject in Arab countries. In this capacity, she replaces her father as her family’s principal bread-winner: something for which he’s profoundly grateful.

This is a deceptive work, multi-dimensional, perceptive and subtle beneath its apparent simplicity. It’s a solid, reliable account of the diaspora experience of Palestinian refugees. It’s as if Habayeb tried to write a normal family saga about an abnormal family in an exceptional situation and then, rather than giving up, went on to write something extraordinary. Her writing humanizes the Palestinians: we learn to see them as people, abused and deprived, not as heroes or terrorists. The drifting, context-free quality of the writing expresses the nature of the refugee’s life: as a child, Habayeh did not realise what was unusual about her life or her history.

Before the Queen Falls Asleep must have difficult to translate. Kay Heikkinen’s prose beautifully captures the distinctive strands of awkwardness, rough humour and lyrical aspiration that constitute Habayeb’s memorable novel.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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