The Bag of Wheat
In this literary essay, Kafa Al-Zou‘bi tells us about becoming an author, about the books and authors who have had an influential impact on her life and works.
My father never asked me the question that fathers often ask their sons and daughters: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” My mother didn’t ask me this question either. I was the youngest of seven, with five older sisters and a brother. We lived in the town of Ramtha in northern Jordan, where we shared a two-room, stone and mud-brick house with our mother and father, neither of whom had learned to read or write, and who just barely scraped by. As was common practice in Arab societies, the people in our town never congratulated a family that had a new baby girl. Instead they consoled them with the words, “Everything God gives is good”!
Neither of my parents asked me or any of my sisters about our futures. The only decent future that a girl in our town could realistically hope for was to find a husband to provide for her. Consequently, my parents offered up fervent, humble prayers for the most one could possibly dream of – that the husbands would be well-off, kind and compassionate.
My two oldest sisters deviated neither from the town’s established customs nor from my parents’ dreams. Both of them dropped out of school to marry as soon as acceptable suitors came knocking at our door. But the other four of us, in our first act of rebellion, made up our minds to finish our education.
I think of human life as a dialectical text in which the individual produces and composes his or her reality, after which this reality reproduces and recomposes the individual so that together, they alternate the roles of composer and composed. Human beings produce intellectual, political, social and economic systems, then their lives remain bound within the context of these very systems. In our Arab world, these systems hem people in, restricting the range and development of their mental vision, and binding them with chains of illusion and fear. They form a text in which the Arab individual is doomed to incompleteness, whether in relation to God, who has predetermined their fate, or in relation to a tribal society now transmuted into a political and economic entity which, despite its civilized, urbane exterior, has yet to relinquish its tribal, patriarchal, male-dominated concepts and ways of thinking.
This dialectical equation in which objective reality and the individual recreate each other is a universal human phenomenon. It is also impacted by each individual’s psychological makeup, instincts, will to survive, class struggles, and existential and philosophical questions. However, the Arab experience is uniquely marked by its ties to religion, its historical-cultural heritage, and to colonialism. Given this fact, the Arab woman lives within the subtext of her incompleteness as a female. This subtext is her prison-within-a-prison: her own narrow cell within the slightly more spacious prison of her society.
How are we to rise up against these two predetermined texts when – in keeping with the roles defined for us within them – we are expected to embody both the broader text that shackles society, and the narrower subtext that shackles the woman? In the context of our financially constrained family, we four sisters may not have asked ourselves this question in any explicit way. Even so, we did find an answer to it, not by clashing directly with our surroundings but, rather, by acquiring the tools that would enable us to enter the fray. And the tools were academic achievement and scholarships. This was our first step toward recovering a sense of identity in a situation where we were looked upon as deficient simply for reasons of gender.
When first the oldest, and then the youngest of our foursome won scholarships to attend college, books started making their way into our house. These books were like guests from a realm far removed from the world of the village, its scorching heat, and its soporific noon hours dominated by the drone of flies that served as still another manifestation of boredom and stagnation. It was a realm alien to people who praised God morning and evening for every tragedy that afflicted them, and who constantly asked forgiveness for sins they were helpless to stop committing. Books of literature, poetry and philosophical inquiry, they were guests from a world where words were laden with meanings we had never encountered before, a world of words that brought cherished hopes of justice, equality, and change for the better.
When the number of books in those two mud-brick rooms reached a critical mass, one of my sisters used some of her scholarship money to buy some cheap metal bookshelves, and we went to work covering them with wood-patterned adhesive paper. There were creases in the corners, crooked lines, and gaps we had to patch here and there. But once we had arranged the books on those shelves, they were a library built from the finest mahogany as far as we were concerned, just the way, once we had attached our dreams to our day-to-day reality, that reality had seemed not only less forlorn and harsh, but downright presentable.
I began immersing myself for hours a day in the novels of Emily and Charlotte Bronte and in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I would wander about, lost with Dickens’ waifs in dark, filthy alleyways . . . in distant worlds where I found that other people were persecuted and tormented like us, only in different ways. At that stage, of course, I wasn’t ready for One Hundred Years of Solitude by Márquez or The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, those two magnificent novels that I would end up reading time and time again with ever-renewed enjoyment and wonder. When, at around fifteen, I decided to read them for the first time, I was challenged beyond my ken and bored out of my mind. But I kept up the effort out of pride, counting the pages I had left, until at last I slammed the first book shut, followed by the second. (To hell with that! I decided.)
Not long afterwards, I picked up a pamphlet on Marxist philosophy – dialectical materialism and historical materialism. My sister the university student laughed at me. She told me it would be over my head. Maybe it was her mockery that made me all the more determined to read the book, although it was a challenge I don’t know if I was up to. In any case, little by little, as I reread one paragraph after another, I began to grasp the logic behind Marx’s explanation of Nature, History, and the laws that govern their conflicts and their dialectical evolution. The word “dialectical” sounded strange to my Arab ears, and it took a lot of practice before I could pronounce it, still less understand what it meant.
My initial understanding of that booklet may have been tied to my scientific bent. I adored Physics and Mathematics, and I’d always done quite well in them – so well, in fact, that by the time I was in ninth grade, I’d made up my mind to become a physicist. But every now and then, the immense satisfaction I derived from solving equations and physics problems would give way to a satisfaction of another kind. I would take refuge in a secret notebook where I recorded literary musings about poor, oppressed people. Or about the sound of water dripping from the ceiling into the container my mother would put next to our bed when it rained. Or about the rattling of the door to our mud-brick room when storm winds blew, as though some monster were standing outside in the dark and shaking it, and was sure to break it down at any moment. Or about ghosts that nested among the reeds in the ceiling, making me tremble with fear.
I wrote in response to a vague but urgent need to put things into words, to capture certain moments and release them onto paper, to express an opinion that had been cooking for a long time over a low flame and was finally ready to be “served up”. It would be an opinion on the world in which I found myself living without knowing why, be it the “Why!” that I would later understand to be existential and philosophical in nature, or the “Why!” of daily life that asks: Why did I end up here in particular, in this harsh place where people view a woman as an incomplete entity for the simple reason that she is female, and especially if she comes from a poor family?
As I was getting ready to go abroad, my mother plopped down on a mat on the floor and started to cry. “I’m afraid I’ll never see you again!” she burst out through her tears. Unlike my sisters, who had all accepted scholarships to study in Jordanian universities, I had turned down a similar offer so that I could study in the Soviet Union. I wanted to get a first-hand view of Socialism, justice and equality in action.
It was with pride – an adolescent pride, to be sure – that, on the form I had to fill out in applying to study abroad, I filled in the blank next to “Major” with the word “Physics”. There was nothing to be proud of in such a choice so far as my mother or anybody else was concerned.
“If you studied Engineering or Medicine, the time away from home would at least be justified,” my mother said to me wistfully. She had good reason for her concerns, actually. Those who chose to study in the Soviet Union were forbidden to visit home until they had completed their academic degrees. Students who came back before having their diploma in hand faced the danger of being interrogated by Jordan’s Secret Police and having their passports confiscated unless they agreed to cooperate with the authorities. That was one of the ways Jordanian Intelligence combated clandestine Leftist organizations working to establish Socialism and justice in the country.
I set foot in Moscow Airport in the mid-1980s, at which time Socialism had entered a phase that came to be known as Perestroika, or “restructuring.” It later became apparent that this ‘perestroika’ was in reality nothing but a coffin in which Socialism had placed one foot. Those overseeing Perestroika were in a hurry to see the Socialist system place its other foot in the coffin so that they could pick it up with their fingertips, the way one picks up a bag of garbage, and give it a quick burial: without a funeral, roses or black ribbons, and without a tear being shed.
The first of these stormy gusts of change coincided with the end of my year of language study in Moscow, when suddenly the glitter of my dreams wore off, and my idea of becoming a Physics researcher seemed so unrealistic as to be downright laughable. I had heard a lot of people say that there were no labs in Jordan that did Physics research. Instead, they said, there was a big rush to teach Religion and to open Qur’an memorization centres. And what they were saying was true. It wasn’t yet time to cast the world I had left just a year earlier into the depths of oblivion. Now that the mist of illusion had dissipated, I could see clearly what the future would hold for me if I pursued my major in Physics: I would go back to Jordan to a job as a Physics teacher, and that would be that. I could still hear the echoes of the Friday sermons coming my way from a place now distant, and from years not long past. They rang out with vicious, hostile voices that were taking the country by storm, commanding people to rise up in support of “our mujahidin brothers” in Afghanistan in their holy war in God’s defence. Meanwhile, Israel was storming Beirut and committing bloody murders there, on top of the massacres it was carrying out in occupied Palestine.
It was a time to defend God, not human beings, homelands, reason, philosophy, or the sciences – and hence, Physics, which was, and would remain for some time to come, the prisoner of curricula in which every lesson ended with verses from the Qur’an and prophetic hadiths that refuted any law of Physics that might prompt students to doubt unquestionable premises.
Following my mother’s suggestion, I changed my major to Civil Engineering so that, at the very least, my time away from home would be justified, and I left Moscow to study in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). Then one day during my senior year, I was drawn to a large book display in a bookstore’s front window. After stopping to look at the titles, I went inside, full of trepidation. After all, apart from textbooks, I had never read a book in Russian. Without knowing why, I chose a novel by Soviet writer Valentin Rasputin called, Farewell to Matyora, the first literary work I decided to read in the Russian language. As I ventured into it, every paragraph confronted me with a plethora of unfamiliar words. Sometimes I would look them up in the dictionary, and other times I would guess their meanings from the context. Making my way slowly through the novel, I followed with fascination and pathos the story of a dying mother who resisted death in the hope of seeing one of her children return so that she could say her final farewell to him before the light in her eyes was forever extinguished. I’ve forgotten now how it ended. I do remember, though, that this novel was the one that opened the door for me to start reading Russian literature in its original language. Over a number of years I immersed myself in reading, beginning with the classics: Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Nekrasov, Turgenev, and many others. These were followed by Dostoyevsky, the mighty philosopher with a concern to rescue Russia and reveal the souls of its tormented people. Dostoevsky would delve marvellously into psychological analysis, not only of individual characters, but of the social system as a whole. Then I began reading Soviet literature: Aitmatov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Yesenin, Mayakovsky, Gorky, and others. Then came Mikhail Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn.
Now married to a fellow Jordanian, I was living in Leningrad, Russia’s second largest city, and we had decided to settle there. By this time, the Soviet Union had breathed its last and the Socialist dream had collapsed. I was in daily contact with Russians, I listened to local news media, and I read the newspapers. Even so, I think it was literature itself that helped me most to understand the Russian people and their lived experience. I’ve always been amazed by the comprehensive way Russian literature treats life, by viewing people not as isolated entities but as products of the coalescence of all the components of their society: political, economic, cultural and social. This literature – and particularly the works of Dostoyevsky – concerned itself with deconstructing this reality. It was this concern that led Dostoyevsky to address political issues, especially in his two masterly novels The Brothers Karamazov and The Devils which – like the works of Andrei Bely [pen name of Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev], Bulgakov and others, followed by Solzhenitsyn – foretell what is to come and criticize it beforehand.
I now came and went in a city that was no longer a stranger to me. I was familiar with its people, its highways and byways. I was even raising a family there, and had a two-year-old son. In the crush of exploding chaos and crime, the collapse of government institutions, and the spread of misery as growing numbers of homeless went scraping through garbage bins in search of a bite to eat, I was making the rounds of the city in search of an Engineering job. “I’m an engineer now, Mama. But I’m unemployed!” My voice rang out inside me, but it didn’t reach her.
One day, as I sat holed up in my dormitory room working on my graduation project, a knock came at the door. It was someone from my country who handed me a letter he had received from his family. It wasn’t until I got to the last paragraph that I understood what had led him to show it to me: It contained news of my mother’s passing. My own mother had died.
Later, I was to learn that my mother had been dying as I read Rasputin’s novel Farewell to Matyora. I had always taken a materialist, scientific view of things, and I didn’t believe in the supernatural. At that moment, however – the moment when I learned that my mother had died – I came to see in my reading of that novel a kind of telepathic summons from my mother which I had failed to perceive until after it was too late: “Come, let me see you for the last time!” And in fact, my mother had been asking people to send for me so that she could tell me goodbye. I learned this from a sister of mine who, together with my other sisters, had decided not to inform me of my mother’s passing for fear that it would interfere with my graduation. It was the same request that the mother in Farewell to Matyora had repeated day in and day out over the course of the novel. Had it been a mere coincidence, or a real-life summons that had been reaching me through a piece of literature? As I read it, I would be thinking about my mother, hoping fervently that she was all right, yet not daring to ask about her lest my fears be confirmed. There were times when I would break down in the face of the repeated request in the novel. Wiping away my tears, I would close the book and, feeling suffocated, go out into the street in search of a breath of air. I should have responded to the instinctive, subtle urge to believe what I couldn’t see, and gone to see her. But by that time it would have been too late. Besides which, I hadn’t yet got my diploma, and a visit to my home country at a time when it was under martial law would have meant losing all hope of going back to Russia again.
“It’s too late.” These were the same words my big sister had used. The bite of food in her hand halted halfway to her mouth when I told her I had come back to our hometown not just to visit her, but to visit our mother’s grave. I hadn’t dared try to do so for the entire eight years since her passing for fear that the grief pent up inside me would explode out of control, tearing me to pieces and crushing me at her graveside.
Staring blankly into space, my sister said: “The last time I went to visit her was three years ago. But when we buried her, we forgot to write her name on the tombstone. Nobody took care of that. Besides, people die here every day, and they rarely write their names on tombstones. The cemetery is full of them. So I couldn’t even figure out which grave was hers. I was so confused!”
My mother lived a nameless life in a mud-brick house, and now she’s nameless in her mud grave.
According to Milan Kundera, the “history of an art is a revenge by man against the impersonality of the history of humanity”. It stands against the abstraction of philosophy. It is the invisible ‘I’. It is the meaning of the unknown in Mathematics. It is the Physics of society. It is a geometrical structure. It is definite nouns, and marked graves.
I wasn’t entirely aware of this when, at the age of thirty, I sat one day getting ready to write a reflection on a mud house whose outer walls would sprout grass in spring. I had bought myself a notebook and had begun stealing a few moments here or there, after my two children had gone to sleep, to write a text that had been keeping me awake, though I didn’t know yet what it was or how to write it down. I felt that in order to get the message across, I needed intense solitude, a sky imprisoned in a window, a silence clamouring with echoes, and a pallor to snuff the echoes out. I sighed, wondering how a sigh could convey all this disquiet.
But in the end I started writing. At first I thought it was another one of those reflections that I would jot down on a piece of paper and be done with it. But this reflection kept going, and going. Disconcerted, with tears running down my cheeks, I tried to keep up with the flow of my thoughts as I waited for the moment when they would stop pouring out. It reminded me of the time when, many years earlier, I had poked a hole in a bag of wheat that was being stored in the corner of one of our house’s two mud-brick rooms. All I wanted was to get a handful to roast and snack on while I studied. But the wheat came gushing out of the hole so fast and furiously that I couldn’t get it to stop until my mother came to the rescue.
My mother and father, our two mud-brick rooms, the bookshelves covered with the wood-patterned adhesive paper, the wardrobe with the missing doors, the cold, the wind, the leaky ceiling, the evenings when cars would speed down the nearby international highway that connected Jordan and Syria, stirring up the stagnant air in the village and arousing in me a vague, inchoate longing for a distant world where justice and equality reigned – all this began pouring out of me, forming a vast ocean of pain on paper without my having the faintest idea when the flow would cease.
Not knowing what to call it exactly, I gave the resulting text to a friend of ours who was a professor of literature at Moscow University and a translator of Russian literature. When he called me a couple of days later, he admitted that he had felt awkward taking the manuscript from me, since he hadn’t known how he was going to tell me later what he had been confident would be the case, namely, that what I’d written hadn’t been worth his time, but that he had decided to take a look at the first page before he went to sleep. As it turned out, he told me, he hadn’t slept till the following morning after reading the entire novel. He said he had thoroughly enjoyed it, and that he was thoroughly impressed.
“So, it’s a novel?” I asked, genuinely surprised.
After publishing that piece – which turned out to be my first novel, entitled A Mud Ceiling – I started writing my second, Layla, the Snow and Ludmila, in which I took up the topic of Perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political, social and cultural transformations that took place following that upheaval, in addition to the question of Arab identity with its cultural, historical and religious components, in contrast to Russian identity.
These two were followed by four other novels. Every time I begin a new novel, I try to deconstruct and rewrite this world as a way of understanding it, only to find that, as a result, it has rewritten me. I feel the need at last to answer the question my father never asked me before his death when I was thirteen years old. And the answer is: “I’m going to be a novelist, Baba.”
Translated by Nancy Roberts
Kafa Al-Zou‘bi was born in 1965 in Ar-Ramth, Jordan, where she finished high school in 1984. That same year she travelled to Moscow to study the language before moving to live in Saint Petersburg (then called Leningrad) in 1987 and study for a BA in Civil Engineering at Saint Petersburg University. In 2006 she returned to Jordan. She is the author of five novels. Her third, entitled Laila, the Snow and Ludmilla (2007), dealt with the collapse of the Soviet Union and questions of Arab and Russian identity, and was published in Russian in Moscow in 2010. Her fourth novel, Go Back Home, Khalil (2009), written in Russian, has been published only in Russian. Cold White Sun is her fifth novel, and was shortlisted for the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
first Published in Banipal magazine
republished here with agreement