Today, on the last day of Arabic on GLLI this year, we share an excerpt of Hassan Daoud’s No Road to Paradise, forthcoming this spring from Hoopoe Fiction.
Daoud, an acclaimed and prolific Lebanese novelist, won the 2015 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for No Road. Other works of his translated into English include The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine, translated by novelist and short-story writer Randa Jarrar; Borrowed Time, translated by Michael K Scott; The House of Mathilde, translated by Peter Theroux; and The Penguin’s Song, translated by Marilyn Booth.
This excerpt, like the rest of No Road, was translated by Marilyn Booth.
Although I have been putting on the abaya and turban of my shaykhly profession since I was a very young man, I still find myself reacting as though I always had to put them on in spite of myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to manage walking properly in this garb; or how, wearing it, I ought to address people on the way home; or how, as a man of the cloth, I must conduct congregational prayers or give a sermon as I stood before the worshipers in one or another Hussainiya. I could handle all of that perfectly well. Lingering in their seats after the prayer service, the congregation would be moved enough by what they had heard from me to raise prayer after prayer for Muhammad and his sacred family. But what I felt inside, every time I reached for my turban before leaving the house, was that I was having to urge myself on, as if I was saying to myself, each time, Come on, you! Let’s go to work now. In the photograph that hangs in the room where I receive guests and where I normally sit, the two of them—my father and my grandfather, Sayyid Murtada—look like they couldn’t be happier together wearing the robes of the Shi‘i ulema. My father is showing how completely comfortable he is, since he has neglected even to have his cloak pressed. The stitching shows clearly even in the photograph: the thread is heavy enough to be visible, wandering unevenly across the fabric as if he had sewed up the abaya with his own hands, using a pack needle rather than the thinner version a tailor would use. It’s like what men wear into battle, I used to say to my brother Adnan, comparing my father’s outfit to a soldier’s uniform. Only when I had been out there in Najaf did I realize that my father’s inattention to what he wore was a matter of principle. It stood for a particular kind of religious practice, or an outlook, that he had adopted along with some of his classmates there.
I want to study at the university and they’ve offered me a place. That’s what I said to him. Once. And then I had to say it again. Whenever my father did not want to hear something, he simply acted as though he hadn’t heard it. He would go on stroking his beard—if that is what he had been doing when the unwelcome words were said—or if he had been pacing as he pondered some issue or other, he went on pacing, without breaking the rhythm of his gait. He only had one thing to say to me about this, and he only said it once. I was the one who must go to Najaf for training as an imam, he told me, and not my brother, who loathed study of any kind. It looked to me like I was being offered up as a sacrifice. Even worse, like other sacrificial victims, I had no right to object or even to ask any questions. Tell him to talk to his brother, I demanded of my mother. Mama, tell him to talk to Sayyid Aqil about sending one of his sons. My mother was the only person my father ever listened to, even if he wasn’t going to act on what she said. The sons of your Uncle Aqil will be just like their father, she would answer me, forcing me to reflect on how he—my Uncle Sayyid Aqil, that is—always planted himself among the women when he was at our house. He teased them and told jokes to make them laugh, oblivious to his enormous body and the fact that it was draped in the robes of a religious scholar.
When I started wearing the cloak and turban of the religious, I felt like I was living in someone else’s clothes. The sensation was so strong that when I returned to my village for the summer breaks, I even felt surprised myself at who I seemed to be. I felt a stranger in my own skin every time someone stared at me on the street. That first quick glance, before he alters his course to come to me and say, As-salaamu alaykum. I can tell he is thinking I am too young to be dressed as an imam. After greeting me and going on his way he turns back to stare at me, perhaps dropping back to walk behind me as he tries to ascertain whether what he finds so disconcerting about me is really there. Surely he is studying the way I walk. I had never been confident that it was the appropriate gait for a man who stands before other men to lead them in worship. I pick my feet up when I walk, and swing my arms to match my stride. Anyone seeing my light, bouncy walk through the village must have thought I was feeling particularly happy about something.
Even my practice sessions in front of the mirror at home couldn’t alter the way I walked, nor did the single comment my father once made about it. I walked, he remarked, as though I had dance steps in my head and they might move down to my feet at any moment. Sometimes I did think at least that surely something would happen to completely change the way my feet and body moved. The bones in my feet might start aching, and the pain would slow me down; or I might come down with an infection that would send contractions shooting through my spinal column. I tried out alternatives in front of the mirror: I tried taking steps with just the edge of my foot touching the floor instead of the whole foot coming down solidly all at once. I would start trembling in that room where I was alone—for even here in our house it wouldn’t look good if someone saw me imagining my own movements in front of the mirror. I would practice walking toward the mirror, but it was such a small room and only a few steps separated the mirror from the facing wall. Hilw, ismallah alayk! my mother would have exclaimed if she had seen me standing there and staring into the mirror at my own body, or bringing my face closer to it so I could study every detail.
Cute, may God bless your little heart! . . . This word hilw, on my mother’s tongue, was the equivalent of a curt dismissive nod of my father’s head along with a sharp little gesture of his hand. He didn’t like it, and it was his way of saying he was chasing away whatever it was he didn’t want to see. My father believed mirrors were only for women. Every time I saw him talking to the people who used to come around to our house I would say to myself, He doesn’t even know what his face looks like when he speaks. It’s not just that he doesn’t look in mirrors now, I would think, but that he never ever looked into them before. My father would lift his upper lip off his teeth and gums as he stared at the person he was speaking to, staring hard as though his narrow little eyes weren’t big enough to allow him to see clearly. In the presence of his congregations at the Hussainiya, he would yank off his turban, unconcerned about exposing the pale ring of flesh on his head that was whiter than the rest because it had always been concealed beneath the folds. And if, at a certain moment, he straightened up to tug at what he had on beneath the jubba he wore under his abaya, rearranging what was down there, beneath his robe and cloak, full in front of the two hundred or so people who had come to hear him, I would tell myself that he must be doing this deliberately. He must have been confident that people would not whisper to each other, disapproving of his behavior, as they huddled there together where they sat. They wouldn’t have to work at suppressing their laughter either, since in such circumstances it wouldn’t even occur to them to laugh.
That is because they trusted him, and they believed in him. They obeyed him, too. He wasn’t simply testing their loyalty when he accused them, for example, of being lazy, inactive people who were always sitting on their backsides, and so—he would go on to say—it wasn’t surprising if they found their rights gobbled up. Once they had even jumped up from their tables, abandoning their packs of cards and the money they were gambling with, when they saw him coming to the square where their card tables were set out from one end to the other. I was with him. I was already a man of religion like he was. I stood watching as he overturned the tables with his own hands, first one and then the next. By then the men had gotten up and scattered to the edges of the square. Come on, he said to me as he started to walk away, leaving the men standing where they were, waiting for us to get out of sight so that they could retrieve their coins and their cards and the other belongings that were spilled across the square.
From No Road to Paradise by Hassan Daoud, translated by Marilyn Booth, published by Hoopoe (an imprint of the American University in Cairo Press). Copyright © 2017. Reproduced by permission.