Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
Finalist for the National Book Award
“Beautiful and absorbing.”—New York Times
An Unnecessary Woman is a breathtaking portrait of one reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, which garnered a wave of rave reviews and love letters to Alameddine’s cranky yet charming septuagenarian protagonist, Aaliya, a character you “can’t help but love” (NPR). Aaliya’s insightful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and her volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left. Here, the gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of one woman's life in the Middle East and an enduring ode to literature and its power to define who we are.
“A paean to the transformative power of reading, to the intellectual asylum from one’s circumstances found in the life of the mind.” —LA Review of Books
“[The novel] throbs with energy…[Aaliya’s] inventive way with words gives unfailing pleasure, no matter how dark the events she describes, how painful the emotions she reveals.” —Washington Post
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About the Author
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You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn't help my concentration.
Let me explain.
First, you should know this about me: I have but one mirror in my home, a smudged one at that. I'm a conscientious cleaner, you might even say compulsive — the sink is immaculately white, its bronze faucets sparkle — but I rarely remember to wipe the mirror clean. I don't think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there's an issue here.
I begin this tale with a badly lit reflection. One of the bathroom's two bulbs has expired. I'm in the midst of the evening ritual of brushing my teeth, facing said mirror, when a halo surrounding my head snares my attention. Toothbrush in right hand still moving up and down, side to side, left hand reaches for reading glasses lying on the little table next to the toilet. Once atop my obtrusive nose they help me see that I'm neither a saint nor saintly but more like the Queen Mother — well, an image of the Queen Mother smudged by a schoolgirl's eraser. No halo this, the blue anomaly is my damp hair. A pigment battle rages atop my head, a catfight of mismatched contestants.
I touch a still-wet lock to test the permanency of the blue tint and end up leaving a sticky stain of toothpaste on it. You can correctly presume that multitasking is not my forte.
I lean over the bathtub, pick up the tube of Bel Argent shampoo I bought yesterday. I read the fine print, squinting even with the reading glasses. Yes, I used ten times the amount prescribed while washing my hair. I enjoy a good lather. Reading instructions happens not to be my forte either.
Funny. My bathroom tiles are rectangular white with interlocking light blue tulips, almost the same shade as my new dye. Luckily, the blue isn't that of the Israeli flag. Can you imagine? Talk about a brawl of mismatched contestants.
Usually vanity isn't one of my concerns, doesn't disconcert me much. However, I'd overheard the three witches discussing the unrelenting whiteness of my hair. Joumana, my upstairs neighbor, had suggested that if I used a shampoo like Bel Argent, the white would be less flat. There you have it.
As I understand it, and I might be wrong as usual, you and I tend to lose short wavelength cones as we age, so we're less able to distinguish the color blue. That's why many people of a certain age have a bluish tint to their hair. Without the tint, they see their hair as pale yellow, or possibly salmon. One hairstylist described on the radio how he finally convinced this old woman that her hair was much too blue. But his client still refused to change the color. It was much more important that she see her hair as natural than the rest of the world do so.
I'd probably get along better with the client.
I too am an old woman, but I have yet to lose many short wavelength cones. I can distinguish the color blue a bit too clearly right now.
Allow me to offer a mild defense for being distracted. At the end of the year, before I begin a new project, I read the translation I've completed. I do minor final corrections, set the pages in order, and place them in the box. This is part of the ritual, which includes imbibing two glasses of red wine. I'll also admit that the last reading allows me to pat myself on the back, to congratulate myself on completing the project. This year, I translated the superb novel Austerlitz, my second translation of W. G. Sebald. I was reading it today, and for some reason, probably the protagonist's unrequited despair, I couldn't stop thinking of Hannah, I couldn't, as if the novel, or my Arabic translation of it, was an inductor into Hannah's world.
Remembering Hannah, my one intimate, is never easy. I still see her before me at the kitchen table, her plate wiped clean of food, her right cheek resting on the palm of her hand, head tilted slightly, listening, offering that rarest of gifts: her unequivocal attention. My voice had no home until her.
During my seventy-two years, she was the one person I cared for, the one I told too much — boasts, hates, joys, cruel disappointments, all jumbled together. I no longer think of her as often as I used to, but she appears in my thoughts every now and then. The traces of Hannah on me are indelible.
Percolating remembrances, red wine, an old woman's shampoo: mix well and wind up with blue hair.
I'll wash my hair once more in the morning, with no more tears baby shampoo this time. Hopefully the blue will fade. I can just imagine what the neighbors will say now.
For most of my adult life, since I was twenty-two, I've begun a translation every January first. I do realize that this is a holiday and most choose to celebrate, most do not choose to work on New Year's Day. Once, as I was leafing through the folio of Beethoven's sonatas, I noticed that only the penultimate, the superb op. 110 in A-flat Major, was dated on the top right corner, as if the composer wanted us to know that he was busy working that Christmas Day in 1821. I too choose to keep busy during holidays.
Over these last fifty years I've translated fewer than forty books — thirty-seven, if I count correctly. Some books took longer than a year, others refused to be translated, and one or two bored me into submission — not the books themselves, but my translations of them. Books in and of themselves are rarely boring, except for memoirs of American presidents (No, No, Nixon) — well, memoirs of Americans in general. It's the "I live in the richest country in the world yet pity me because I grew up with flat feet and a malodorous vagina but I triumph in the end" syndrome. Tfeh!
Books into boxes — boxes of paper, loose translated sheets. That's my life.
I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books. Transmuting this sandy metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass — an hourglass that drains grain by grain. Literature gives me life, and life kills me.
Well, life kills everyone.
But that's a morose subject. Tonight I feel alive — blue hair and red wine alive. The end of the year approaches, the beginning of a new year. The year is dead. Long live the year! I will begin my next project. This is the time that excites me most. I pay no attention to the Christmas decorations that burst into fruitful life in various neighborhoods of my city, or the lights welcoming the New Year. This year, Ashura falls at almost the same time, but I don't care.
Let the people flagellate themselves into a frenzy of remembrance. Wails, whips, blood: the betrayal of Hussein moves me not.
Let the masses cover themselves in gold, frankincense, and Chanel to honor their savior's birth. Trivia matters naught to me.
Beginnings are pregnant with possibilities. As much as I enjoy finishing a translation, it is this time that tickles my marrow most. The ritual of preparation: setting aside the two versions of the book of choice — one English, the other French — the papers, the notebook that's to be filled with actual notes, the 2B graphite pencils with the sharpener and Pearl eraser, the pens. Cleaning the reading room: dusting the side table, vacuuming the curtains and the ancient armchair, navy chenille with knotted fringes hanging off its arms. On the day of genesis, the first of January, I begin the morning with a ceremonial bath, a rite of scrubbing and cleansing, after which I light two candles for Walter Benjamin.
Let there be light, I say.
Yes, I am a tad obsessive. For a nonreligious woman, this is my faith.
This year, though, for the first time in quite a while, I'm not certain about the book I want to work with. This year, for the first time ever, I might have to begin a translation while having blue hair. Aiiee.
I've decided on Roberto Bolaño's unfinished novel 2666, but I'm nurturing doubts. At more than nine hundred pages in both versions, it is no small feat, or no short feat. It will take me at least two years. Should I be taking on such a long-term project? Should I be making accommodations for my age? I'm not talking about dying. I am in good health, and women in my family live long. My mother is still going insane.
Let's put it this way: I don't hesitate when buying green bananas, but I'm slowing down. 2666 is a big project. The Savage Detectives required nineteen months, and I believe my work rate isn't what it was then. So I balk.
Yes, I'm healthy, I have to keep reminding myself. During my biannual checkup earlier this week, my doctor insisted that I was in sturdy health, like iron. He's right, of course, and I'm grateful, but what he should have compared me to was rusty iron. I feel oxidized. What was it that Yourcenar, as Hadrian, wrote about physicians? "A man does not practice medicine for more than thirty years without some falsehood." My doctor has been practicing for longer than that. We've grown old together. He told me that my heart is in good shape, talked to me with his face hidden behind a computer printout of my lab results. Even I, a Luddite, haven't seen such archaic perforated printouts in years. His mobile phone, a BlackBerry lying on the desk next to his left elbow, was definitely the latest model, which should count for something. I do not own one. But then, I have no need for a phone, let alone a smart one; no one calls me.
Please, no pity or insincere compassion. I'm not suggesting that I feel sorry for myself because no one calls me or, worse, that you should feel sorry. No one calls me. That's a fact.
I am alone.
It is a choice I've made, yet it is also a choice made with few other options available. Beiruti society wasn't fond of divorced, childless women in those days.
Still, I made my bed — a simple, comfortable, and adequate bed, I might add.
I was fourteen when I began my first translation, twenty dull pages from a science textbook. It was the year I fell in love with Arabic — not the oral dialect, mind you, but the classical language. I'd studied it since I was a child, of course, as early as I'd studied English or French. Yet only in Arabic class were we constantly told that we could not master this most difficult of languages, that no matter how much we studied and practiced, we could not possibly hope to write as well as al-Mutanabbi or, heaven forbid, the apex of the language, the Quran itself. Teachers indoctrinated students, just as they had been indoctrinated when younger. None of us can rise above being a failure as an Arab, our original sin.
I'd read the Quran and memorized large chunks of it, but all that studying didn't introduce me to the language's magic — forced learning and magic are congenital adversaries.
I was seven when I took my first Quranic class. The teacher — a wide, bespectacled stutterer — would lose her stutter when she recited the Quran; a true miracle, the other teachers claimed. She had it all committed to memory, and when she recited, her eyes glowed, her scarf-covered head swayed on a shaky neck, and her pointing stick twirled before her. In the first row we covered our eyes whenever the pointer came too close — to this day, when I sit in the front seat of a car during a rainstorm, I'm afraid the windshield wipers might poke my eye. The teacher's stick may have appeared dangerous, but it was not what she beat us with. If we made a mistake in reciting, if a girl forgot a word or had trouble recalling a line, the teacher's cheeks contracted and glowed, her lips pursed and shrank; she'd ask the child to come to the front and extend her hand, and would mete out punishment using the most innocuous of implements, the blackboard eraser. It hurt as much as any inquisitor's tool.
As if forced memorization of the Quran — forced memorization of anything — wasn't punishment enough.
"Listen to the words," she exhorted, "listen to the wizardry. Hear the rhythm, hear the poetry."
How could I hear anything when I was either in excruciating pain or fearing that I might soon be?
"The language of the Quran is its miracle," she used to say.
Consider this: In order to elevate the Prophet Moses above all men, God granted him the miracle that would dazzle the people of his era. In those days, magicians were ubiquitous in Egypt, so all of Moses's miracles involved the most imaginative of magic: rod into serpent, river into red blood, Red Sea into parting. During the Prophet Jesus's time, medicine was king. Jesus healed lepers and raised the dead. During our Prophet's time, poetry was admired, and God gifted Muhammad, an illiterate man, with the miracle of a matchless tongue.
"This is our heritage, our inheritance — this is our magic."
I didn't listen then. The teacher frightened faith out of my soul. I didn't care that the Quran had dozens of words for various bodies of water, that it used rhythms and rhymes that hadn't been heard before.
Compared to the Quran's language and its style, those of the other holy books seem childish. It is said that after one glance at the Bible, the Maréchale de Luxembourg exclaimed, "The tone is absolutely frightful! What a pity the Holy Spirit had such poor taste!"
No, I might be able to poke fun at the Quran for its childishly imperious content, but not for its style.
It was finally poetry that opened my eyes; poetry, and not the Quran, that seared itself into the back of my brain — poetry, the lapidary. I'm not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry, or more sensuous for that matter.
I recall the poet who ignited the flame, Antara, the jet-black warrior-poet. I remember the shock of a doomed language being resuscitated.
And I remembered you as spears quenched their thirst In me and white swords dripped with my blood So I longed to kiss the blades that recalled The gleam of your smiling mouth to my mind
Then again, maybe it was Imru' al-Qays. He and Antara are my preferred of the seven included in the legendary Suspended Odes.
But come, my friends, as we stand here mourning, do you see the lightning?
See its glittering, like the flash of two moving hands, amid the thick gathering clouds.
Its glory shines like the lamps of a monk when he has dipped their wicks thick in oil.
I sat down with my companions and watched the lightning and the coming storm.
The language — we hear it all the time. News anchors speak classical Arabic, as do some politicians, definitely Arabic teachers, but what sputters out of their mouths sounds odd and displaced compared to our organic Lebanese tongue, our homemade, homegrown dialect. Television and radio announcers sound foreign to my ears. Those early poems, though, they are alchemy, something miraculous. They opened my ears, opened my mind, like flowers in water.
Yet my first translation was not a poem but twenty dull pages. In the school I attended, the sciences were taught in French. Rarely was Arabic used for physics, chemistry, or mathematics in any of the schools of Beirut, whose main curriculum has always been community conformity. It seems that Arabic is not considered a language for logic. A joke that used to make the rounds when I was a child, probably still going strong: the definition of parallel lines in geometry textbooks in Saudi Arabia is two straight lines that never meet unless God in all His glory wills it.
The twenty pages were a curiosity; I wished to see for myself. My first translation sounded odd and displaced as well.
The translations that followed improved, I hope.
By improved, I mean that I no longer felt as awkward about writing my name on what I translated as I did in the beginning.
My father named me Aaliya, the high one, the above. He loved the name and, I was constantly told, loved me even more. I do not remember. He passed away when I was still a toddler, weeks before my second birthday. He must have been ill, for he died before impregnating my mother with another, as he was supposed to, expected to, particularly since I was female and first. My country in the late 1930s was still trying to pull itself out of the fourteenth century. I'm not sure if it ever succeeded in some ways. My father was barely nineteen when he married and twenty-one when he died, my mother a widow at eighteen. They were supposed to spend aeons together. It was not to be.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Unnecessary Woman"
Copyright © 2013 Rabih Alameddine.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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