72 year old Aaliya Saleh has only one mirror in her apartment, and it is smudged. “I don’t think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there’s an issue here,” she says. “I begin this tale with a badly lit reflection.” But it is clear enough for her to see that she has unwittingly dyed her white hair, blue.
Aaliya has lived alone in her apartment in Beirut for all of her adult life. She is divorced and childless, the ‘unnecessary appendage’ of her family. Alone in her apartment, Aaliya reads the hundreds of books she has accumulated around her. Her marriage was brief and unconsummated, to a man she refers to as ‘the impotent insect.’ For the past fifty years, she has been translating her favourite books into Arabic. Her 37 completed manuscripts lie in cardboard boxes in the unused maid’s room and no one has read them but her. “Books into boxes – boxes of paper, loose translated sheets. That’s my life.”
Every January first, she begins a new translation. But this year, she is unable to decide what book to translate. And don’t forget, her hair is blue. So begins this intelligent, witty, and poignant novel. I was only a few pages in when I knew it was one of those rare finds that would stay with me long after I finished. I wanted to devour it and savour it at the same time.
Nothing really happens in the book. Aaliya moves around in her apartment, boiling water for her tea, listening to the sounds and conversations of her neighbours, recollecting memories. She takes a walk to the museum. She has a couple of brief encounters with her mother. But the novel is an exhilarating read. Through the intimacy of interior monologue, Aaliya reflects every reader’s insecurities, memories, mistakes, longings, hopes. In his portrait of a 72-year-old woman living in Beirut, Alameddine shows us ourselves.
Reminiscent of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the novel is infused with the love of literature and art – references to philosophers, painters, novelists and composers, poems. Alameddine takes us inside Aaliya’s bright mind, and we follow her thoughts as she flits from past to present, to the people in her family to those in her books. The cast of characters in her head – Pessoa, Anna Karenina, Flaubert, Spinoza – speak to her constantly as she ruminates on the nature of humanity and toils through her solitary, ritualised, daily routine. Her morning tea in the kitchen, as “the uncaring, intricate world begins to rouse. In time the curtain edges will grow light.” Her Arabic translations from English and French, never from the original language. Her visits to the museum.
As she gets our of bed, her bones aching, limbs swollen, and makes her way to the kitchen to drink her tea, she must do so in a dark kitchen, as “the government electricity is down again.” (Here in Pakistan, we call it loadshedding.) She ruminates about both aging, and living in a city where you cannot rely on electricity.
My books show me what it’s like to live in a reliable country where you flick on a switch and a bulb is guaranteed to shine and remain on.
Compared to the Middle East, William Burroughs’s world or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo is more predictable. Dickens’s Londoners are more trustworthy than the Lebanese. Beirut and its denizens are famously and imfamously unpredictable. Every day is an adventure. This unsteadiness makes us feel a shudder of excitement, of danger, as well as a deadweight of frustration. The spine tingles momentarily and the heart sinks.
Here me on this for a moment. When things turn out as you expect more often than not, do you feel more in control of your destiny? Do you take more responsibility for your life? If that’s the case, why do Americans always behave as if they’re victims?… I wake up every morning not knowing whether I’ll be able to switch on the lights… Life in Beirut is much too random. I can’t force myself to believe I’m in charge of much of my life. Does reliability reinforce your illusion of control? If so, I wonder if in developed countries (I won’t use the hateful term civilized), the treacherous, illusion-crushing process of aging is more difficult to bear. Am I having an easier time than women my age in London?
Alone in her apartment, she listens to the sounds and conversations of her neighbours, ‘The Three Witches’ as she calls them, as they gather for coffee and return from pedicures and blow-dries. She recalls conversations with Ahmad, a young boy who would frequent and later work at her bookstore, and Hannah, her only friend, whose life forms a central thread in the novel. In one of many poignant moments of clarity, she notes: “I can live inside Alice Munro’s skin. But I can’t relate to my own mother. My body is full of sentences and moments, my heart resplendent with lovely turns of phrases, but neither is able to be touched by another.”
Reading through passages in the book is like moving through different phases and times in Aaliya’s life, and by extension, in Beirut. “Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.” As her mind travels between memories of her life, and of books, and of the few people in her life who touched her, “Aaliya, above it all. Aaliya, the separated.’ will be forced to reconsider her life and the space she allows others to occupy in it.
This novel will seep into you gently, but reach so deep that it will linger long after you stop reading. The writing is frank, and sincere, tender. An unexpected sentence will break you heart. Then suddenly it will sting you with its clear, unsugared honesty that will make you uncomfortable no matter how contentedly you are curled up with cushions beneath each limb as you read.
You must read this novel. Read it for Aaliya’s wit and honesty. Read it for heartbreak. Read it for a good laugh. Read it to feel what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin. All fiction is meant to do that. This novel does it particularly well.