Relative values

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the autobiographical novel Nurinkurin (‘Upside down, inside out’, WSOY, 2003). Interview by Anna-Leena Nissilä

The soldier rides on a scarf
waving a donkey

‘Now it’s your turn to go on,’ says my brother on the back seat, turning his head toward the window so that he can concentrate on his poetic muse.

Father looks in the mirror, wrinkling his face in pain. ‘The object, in other words, is of no significance to you. What happened to your case endings and your grammar?’

From the back seat we shout eagerly: ‘The poet has special privileges which are not accorded to others.’

Father shakes his head: ‘You can be creative, but silly content and broken language do not make poetry.’

‘Oh yes they do. Don’t disturb our creative spirit. When you speak, our connection with her is broken. Don’t cut off the source of our inspiration.’

Father’s collection of poetry has appeared in Beirut, a city we have only heard of. It is a city in which mother’s relatives visited cafés or each others’ houses in the evenings, that is, before 1948. The television shows Beirut as modern furniture, air-conditioned, glass-walled restaurants, artificially lit beaches, mini skirts and smooth-faced men whose name is Jean-Pierre or Junblat.

Father received one copy of his poetry collection. The book is small, handsome, wine-red. On the shiny cover are the words, I carry my blood in my palm. Father could, naturally, not have published his poetry ‘here’. But invisible, wonderful, bespectacled people communicated mysteriously across the border. Father is moved.

We children do not read father’s poetry, in fact we do not read anything to do with the family. Frankly, we do not read anyone’s poetry. Our home swarms with writers and poets who are quoted. We do not know their texts. I can say what the poets who lounge around our living room are like, which is talkative, which sharp, who has double standards, who is impatient. To avoid drowning in the overflowing literature in our home, my brother and I employ two strategies. First: we don’t know anything about anything and we don’t talk about it. Second: we form a united front which mocks stupid ‘culture’ and inaugurate a competition in which we children make ‘art’. My brother begins: ‘When the sun rose over the horizon…’. Before he can continue he holds his stomach and gets laughter cramps.

‘It’s so stupid. That eternal sensitivity to the sun and light. Ooh, ooh.’

Prose belongs to the dining table, but in the car mother coughs and joins in with a contribution that contains the words, ‘political hen’. Father looks at his wife, smiles and says: ‘So you support them in their stupidity?’

‘Show me this isn’t dadaism. Or is it really true that words have whiskers and sweaty armpits, everything he says is apt. And the same out of other people’s mouths is stupid? Is poetry and juggling with words reserved for blokes?’

Father shakes his head. ‘On the right Saladin fought the crusaders with his Arab army in 1187 and won.’

We glance at the Marj Ibn-Amer valley. I see broken armour, noise and blood.

‘How could they have left their families, their work, their familiar food and homes, travelled uncomfortably across Europe and come here to wave their swords at our necks?’

‘The crusaders wanted to liberate the holy Christian sites and when they reached Jerusalem, they killed everyone they met. It is said that the streets of the old city ran with blood. Since then they’ve come here from Europe every now and then to divide the land, to give it away to other people, to invent laws. And at a suitable moment they disappear, but they always come back again.’

‘Who will be the first to see Lake Tiberias?’

We juggle for a moment on the back seat. My little sister sits with her feet in front of her, her lips red and thick, on her scalp a babyish sweet and her soot-black curls in ringlets.

‘I just have to smooch you,’ says my brother, pressing my sister’s face. A massive sound of kissing fills the car and my brother is apparently incapable of stopping. Well, the alternatives are the crusaders or flying chickens it la dada. My little sister cannot breathe and her face is squashed lengthways like a squeezed lemon. My brother stops and remarks, ‘Ahh!’

Arriving in the town of Tiberias is always exciting. Lake Tiberias, Genesaret, is below sea level and belongs to the same family as the Dead Sea. They are of mixed race, both of them points of contact between the continents of Africa and of Asia. According to the continental plates, we are not in Asia, but the locals think differently. It is difficult to avoid the thought of the two of them deciding to separate one day and start swimming in different directions. One says: ‘I am African and here I am chatting away internationally. Bye.’ We would shout horribly, as if we were drowning in the bowls of the earth and God would once again invent a man who must be saved in order for someone to continue our family.

‘I can see it, I can see it, a blue surface.’

After a long journey we come to a point where the entire landscape opens out. We can see a large lake, relatively bare shores. The direction is down and the road takes us still lower.

‘Open the other window too, I’m boiling.’

We drive two hundred metres below sea level. On the left is a Russian church built of black stone, and the remains of the old city wall, too, are black. This is not God’s grill, and the city has not burned. A certain volcano merely erupted one last time and exploded right down to its guts. Once, when there were no people here yet.

‘Let’s go to the Roman baths.’

‘Your uncles are waiting for us. We’ll go to the hot springs another time.’

We drive along the shore. If you were to drive along the side of the road, you could easily get your car wet; the shore is low and stony, with a eucalyptus tree growing here and there. We stop in a green place where there are trees and shade. Four car doors shut, one after another. We walk through the palms and begin to hear voices. Laughter and splashing. I’m nervous.

Now I can see my cousin running in her nappy toward the water. And now all my uncles with their wives and some of their children. In the water, only the upper bodies of the children are visible. The rest of my cousins have saved space in the lake and turned into Siamese twins, standing each others’ shoulders and holding their noses as if they were threatened from below by a great fart.

‘Hanna and his family have arrived!’

Now all the grown-ups notice us and greet us.


My uncle claps his hands enthusiastically and walks toward us, smiling. ‘Fetch a cold watermelon from the water, children!’

A cousin who is my brother’s age runs, lips blue from swimming, to the shore, spins a cool melon which is bathing in the water, taps it on the head and brings it to the shore for sacrifice.

We are close to my mother in neatly pressed cotton clothes, our skin protected. We know without discussing it that we will not be eating from the fragrant grill, for it is not hygienic to eat outdoors. We will not be going into the water, because even the local hospitals dump their effluent there. We will not be taking off our clothes because there could be scorpions on the ground, and the sun is not healthy between ten and three.

We smile and accept our uncles’ kisses. We eat the sweet, moist, cold melon and let the pink juice flow down our chins. A lovely mess. Our cousins and their families stay to spend the night under the moon in their tents, under the trees, swim in the water and whisper on the shore. During the day they grill fragrant meat and vegetables, run through the water, on the shore and in the air.

In the car mother praises the refinement of father’s relatives. ‘They take life naturally and are always happy. It must be in their genes. We must get home in time so that the children can wash and go to sleep before bedtime.’

The sun has not yet set. My sister’s head is sweaty in my lap. My mother turns, covers my sister’s head with a cotton scarf and feels her forehead. ‘Everything’s fine.’

The doorbell rings and at the door stands a priest. His dress reveals that he is not one of our Anglican Protestants. I guess that he is a Greek Orthodox. He takes his hat off. Right in front of my eyes is a large, handsome, gold cross with a violet stone. In his hand he has a big book or notebook. ‘Are your parents at home?’

My big-eared brother comes and stands beside me. His hair standing on end, he examines the priest from head to toes. He nods and I say: ‘Mother is at home.’


Mother comes to the door and the gentleman explains. ‘Good day madam, I am a relative of your husband’s. I am sure you have heard of me. I am the priest of the village of Der El-Asad. I too am of the Abu-Hanna family. I am putting together our family tree and I have come to collect information about your family.’’

‘Welcome, come in. Please sit down. I have heard of you. What a pity my husband is not here, he knows his own family better than I do. But we will tell you everything we know.’

I did not know that in our family there could be anything but protestants. I had not heard of the man or of the village called the Lion’s fountain. The priest sits down in the middle of the sofa and places his thick book on the dark table. My brother and I sit on the sofa either side of the priest. The priest’s eyes are on my mother’s straight trousers, her short shirt and her short hair. An Orthodox priest is abuuna, or ‘our father’, while our priests are qassees, and therefore not anyone’s father. An Orthodox priest does not marry after ordination, while ours can marry when they want. Only the Catholics have nuns, and they are not called mothers, but sisters. No one, however, has a mother – or father-in-law, although the nuns, in other words sisters, are engaged to Jesus and they often have engagement rings. They never get married, perhaps because Jesus would have to choose one as his wife and there are thousands of them.

In the village of the Lion’s fountain wives clearly do not sit in trousers talking to strange men just like that. But abuuna’s attitude is discerning, not disapproving. He plainly considers my mother amusing and intelligent. He coughs briefly and sets his hand on the edge of the thick book as if it were a new-born baby with a chill: ‘First, of course, were Adam and Eve. They are the oldest members of our family tree, our forefather and foremother.’

My brother and I immediately look our mother in the eye and begin to open our mouths. Our mother has told us many stories, and fig-Adam does not appear in any of them. Even our priest uncle has told us that Adam is for outline only, and not a real person. Now abuuna is explaining that the roots of our family lay in imaginary fig-characters. Mother’s gaze in our direction is stern, but her lips are smiling. Mother nods for the priest to continue.

I can ask my priest uncle whatever I like and he answers in a way I can understand. I am sure Jesus appears to everyone in a different form. In the living room abuuna explains and I am uneasy. Adam and Eve are all very well, but their children are a different matter. How can it be possible that right at the beginning God made the first human descendants and then set them killing each other? Didn’t God have a mother to say: ‘Badly done homework. Pick up your rubber, do the people again, do your work properly.’

And that is not all. When the religious knowledge class focuses on explaining having and children and husbands and wives, no one explains to us who Adam and Eve’s children married. Each other? Surely not their mother and father?

At school I could not ask about this since one boy coughed, two were asleep, one was breathing deeply and the nun rattled the keys that hung in the folds of her thick skirt. ‘Why did God create sin?’ I asked.

The nun raised her eyes to look directly into mine and they were full of anger. ‘God did not create sin. Some of the angels of heaven rebelled. They went to hell. Satan is the one who tempts us to sin. God has given humankind a fine gift: freedom of choice, we can choose between good and evil.’

At this stage I did not yet realise what I was getting into. ‘Who created Satan?’

The nun’s anger was great. ‘Satan, too, was an angel, who one day decided to rebel.’

I did not want to ask why God created rebellion. I knew that if I asked something else it would be rebellion and I would be told whose relative I was.

One day God created everything all by himself, on another he fought against Satan. Couldn’t God just do good, pure good?

The waters rise and everything is destroyed. God looks down and realises that soon everyone will drown. So that he will not once again be surrounded by nothingness and have to breathe life into clay once more to create sinful people, he looks and finds one good man and saves him and his family. We do not know whether the saved man’s wife was good, but she gets in as a dependent. Noah boards the ark and soon the world is full of people. I raise my forefinger and am permitted to speak: ‘Were there perhaps other people in the ark but Noah and his family?’

The answer comes without delay and is clearly negative. I blush as I ponder once more with whom Noah’s children have had children. My family tree does not look very beautiful, whether it is Hemitic or Semitic. One incestuous act after another.

Time passes and people live here and there and cultivate the land and increase. One day God wakes up and notices that objectionable lives are being lived villages right next door to us, Sodom and Gomorrah. For some unfathomable reason God decides to destroy the vice himself. The places are burned complete with living people and fortunately one man is always saved; he can take his family with him. The family flees and homes are burned. God had given extraordinary orders, like: ‘Don’t look back.’ And like Adam, Lot runs and it doesn’t even occur to him to look at his home and his town burning. Lot’s wife takes a glance. Poor woman, she is transformed into a column of salt. Because God knows everything in advance, he knew that the woman would turn into a column of salt and so, in his wisdom, he gave the following generations the capital for the cosmetics industry of the Dead Sea. Today we spread the curious woman on our faces in the form of mineral salts.

I ran with Lot. I empathised with his daughters. I knew that they will soon turn round and see their mother turned into a white column. Because the father is the only good man worth saving, he does not even glance at his wife. The girls definitely stop and hug their solidifying mother, weep and are unable to continue their journey. But the family carries on and soon it is time to have children. Everyone goes into a cave, and the daughters get their father drunk and the father nods, after all he has just lost his wife. And turn by turn they all sleep with each other, quite different from sinful Gomorrah. Thus is God’s will fulfilled.

There is an empty feeling in my tummy and I have a sore throat. I do not understand God’s logic. My job is to learn new stories every day, to learn their morals. I am completely lost.

‘You do know how the story goes on? Do you? At school I am sure you have learned about the great flood. Naturally our forefather Noah had three sons. And of course one of them as Sem. We and the Jews re naturally the children of Sem, and we speak Semitic languages,’ abuuna explains.

We all belong to the universal forefathers. When we get to Abraham and his children, things hot up again. Abraham wanders and is fed up with his wife and takes another wife and has children and soon the old wife, too, has children. Thus the Arabs and the Jews are born. Abraham wanders through the desert and the Jews live in the Fertile Crescent, in other words Iraq. A bell goes off in my head. ‘Mother, why do the Jews say they want to return to their homeland, although it is not Iraq?’

‘This is a different story, let’s listen to the story about our family roots and we’ll go back to that later.’

Abuuna is astonished. He is not used to being interrupted. He is not used to questions that have nothing to do with the Bible. He is a gentle man who has his feet on the ground, so he smiles and continues: ‘We are of course Sabaeans. In Yemen there was a fine culture in which the first apartment blocks in history were built, great ships sailed to India, China, Africa and who knows where else fetching silk and spices and they were sold on as far as Europe.’

I know that Yemen had the oldest, gingerbread-like apartment blocks, green mountains, tasty food, silk on the skin, pearl divers and international contacts. Who in their right mind would live voluntarily in the northern desert, where the sand is flavoured with sand and dates, you have your own shadow in addition to the camel’s, and your own brothers and sisters for company? The desert has desert people and the towns have townspeople. I still wonder at the same thing now. Why would a curious person like abuuna want to live in a dusty lion’s fountain village when he could see what the city of Haifa was?

‘We lived happily in this prosperous and rich culture. Because we watered our hills with a complicated irrigation system, we were dependent on a great dam, the Ma’reb dam. And one day…’.

My brother continues: ‘People shouted and fled. The water exploded and submerged houses and fields. The dam was destroyed and everyone fled in different directions. That was the end of the culture and people of Saba.’

‘Ah, the boy knows,’ abuuna enthuses. Mother goes to the kitchen to peel fruit and make coffee. We have advanced many pages in the history of our family tree.

‘Christian Arabs lived in two kingdoms, Manadhir and Ghasasina. They were allies of different empires, one of Byzantium, the other of Persia, and naturally they fought among themselves. We are from the kingdom of Ghasasina.

I look at my brother, my brother looks at the priest and the priest looks at me. ‘Now we reach an interesting point which is familiar to you.’

The story of the Abu-Hanna family begins. This time there is no fig-leaf, no ark and no dam. Not even any peculiar names. At some point someone gave birth to a boy whose name was Hanna, or John, and he was called Johns’s father. Soon the whole family was Johns’s father. And this was the origin of the surname Abu-Hanna. No mystery, heroism or even a sense of humour. Mother comes back with the coffee and fruit. Mother¨’s gaze says: ‘This is for the priest, you will have your fruit after dinner.’

We do not obey; instead, pieces of watermelon and peach, halved apricots, grape-balls, guava cubes and slices of banana disappear into our balloon cheeks in different combinations. Some fresh orange juice, and we can no longer speak. Abuuna begins a new row on which he first writes our father’s name. Then he writes a couple of words about our mother’s family and asks each of us to write our names in the book. Thus we concentrate on setting down in the history books a sequel to the Bible so that future generations can know their modern bible.

I smell of chlorine from my piano teacher’s pool. Mrs Gruber has invited all piano-playing girls in our family to her home to swim. The pool is designed for two, but the five of us jump merrily into it. I get out and go to fetch something to drink. In the beautifully cool and dark corridor is a wicker chair and a copy of Stern magazine; my Jewish teacher’s husband is German. I take the magazine in my hand. The shiny page stops me in my tracks; my eyes are glued to the magazine. I do not know what the picture is trying to say. The face and arms of the man in the picture have been cropped. I have seen small boys’ penises by the kilo because I spend my time with women and women care for little boys. They are dressed and undressed and they are at the mercy of other people. I have seen more willies that look like little pickled aubergines than I have seen trains.

In the shiny picture, my gaze sinks into the hair. No one has told me that when boys grow up they get women’s sexual organs. The sexual organ of an adult woman is of course hair, and of men is the boys’ swinging willy. In the magazine the people are white, in other words the hair on their heads is limp and floppy, but down below it becomes vigorous and curly. When a white boy grows into a man, he gets a woman’s sexual organs with African hair.

Two strange, impudent and curious bumps appear on my front. Like two dark eyes. Without leave, they just float to the surface and begin to stare. My upper body looks like the church of Notre Dame from which funny torsos crane. I cannot relate to them. No one talks about them, but when people talk to me, they begin by glancing at the bumps as if they were asking them permission to speak to me.

I did not immediately realise that these were my first breasts. I went to a small boutique, really a small shop kept by one of us on the edge of Haifa, in the ghetto. The shop was by the side of a road, opposite our church, but in order to get there one had to jump over an eternal flood. Beside the shop was a tiny weeny dark alley. ‘Real people’ lived there. You could smell them from the street: fresh oregano and toasted summaq, za’tar mixture. The voice of the legendary singer Um-Kulthum sounds out and then, straight away, the violin, the sound stretches and stretches until your eyelids droop with tiredness. Just at the point of falling asleep, seventy-three quick Egyptian violinists have an attack of hysteria and whine you back to life. This is the music that is to be heard everywhere, which mother does not play to us. She believes that it is by precisely this method that Arabs are made phlegmatic. To elucidate her own scientific conclusion, mother explains that this music is used as a method of torture in prisons. My smiling father likes music very much and longs for these tones. They are played everywhere and penetrate through the cracks in the walls, windows and doors of our sanctum.

I go alone to the shop and the lady does not smile. Strangely, the lady has my mother’s name, although they are like thesis and antithesis. My mother has an ordinary name, Samia, ‘noble’, but I have not heard anyone else called by the same name. The lady gives me a bright yellow blouse whose material is pierced to make modern lace. At breast level there is a horizontal section decorated with a couple of little flowers. I can just and just fit into the little fitting room and stare at the dust on the floor. I try on the new blouse, although I can hear my mother’s voice: ‘Not very good.’ My new arrivals attract all the attention. Do I have to start competing with my bosoms for attention? I am used to looking at all of myself in the mirror. I stare at my breasts to shame them into disappearing. The pedagogical method borrowed from the nuns does not help. Now two almost black nipples are visible through the blouse, they are like devils’ horns, thick and straight. They look as if they are here to stay. Grown-up women have fabric breasts, beneath their necklines are cotton breasts, lace breasts, stiff and geometrical neat. These are a different matter entirely, these shameful space-meat nipples. Unheardof and perverse.

I don’t take the shirt. I let time pass. We shall see whether I shall have to join the extra-large t-shirt club to keep my secret from the city. Half a year later I have forgotten my new breasts, I have new problems. Three bright red acne swellings appear on my forehead and two days later my behind broadens so that I have to pay an emergency visit to the shops. So many new worries, my breasts can look after themselves. My mother brings home acne medicine from work. It helps my horned forehead. My father, who kisses me evening and morning, pinches my cheek, wrinkles his nose and asks: ‘What have you done to yourself? Why do you smell so awful?’

There are two alternatives. Either give up father’s gestures of affection or give up treating the acne. There is a rough thicket on my head and red volcanoes on my forehead. The acne ointment wins.

I sit in the bath and shower my knees. What on earth is has happened to them? The shower no longer falls like a wild waterfall, now it has turned into many small streams. My legs present obstacles. Long black hairs cover my legs, they steal the show and hinder the progress of the water. More uninvited guests who have come to cover me. I shower the hairs and follow the laws of physics: how water behaves under different conditions. The hairs turn in one direction like wet ears of corn in a field. It’s no bad thing that they’re there, but womanhood is, of course, a struggle against hair: eyebrows, whiskers, underarm hair, neck down, hairy legs, hairy arms. We look in the mirror and pull faces in horror. ‘Help! I’ve got four new hairs on my chin!’ Girls become men when they grow into women.

The climax of a wedding comes when women gather together and concentrate their powers on tearing the dinosaurs from their legs, their forearms, their faces and their underarms. They try to become less like men. It demands the rage and persistence of an ape, for it hurts like hell. The sticky business is carried out where there are no men, windows closed, giggling and suffering. Someone melts sugar in lemon juice. It’s hot anyway, the sugar boils and the sweating skin is dried. The marriage of sugar and lemon results in a honeyed, sticky, red-hot mass, and it is splashed on whatever part of the body demands it. The sound landscape is sado-masochistically erotic. Laughter, pain, giggles mixed with tears, nerves and whimpering. That’s what happens elsewhere. In our family such things are not done, much less talked about.

Mother sometimes has hairs, sometimes black dots and sometimes yellowish-white hairless legs. Mother comes out on to my uncle’s hot balcony under the midday sun. ‘Your cousin asked when you’re going to shave your legs – the hair’s terribly long. But did you know that western women put oil on their legs because naturalness is beautiful to them? You shouldn’t remove your hair.’

I look away, and that is the end of the subject. I don’t know what to think of hair, my leg hair, westerners or women. I know that if I think for a moment what my opinion is, I will have to push my thoughts deep inside me. And there is not much space left down there. It is also clear that I used to be part of the same group as my uncle’s daughters. Now I am alone in my own caste. My cousins’ principles do not apply to me. In fact no principles apply to me.

At night I wake covered in sweat. I feel a terrible pain in my legs. My skin itches and arrows pierce my skin from inside to out. I sit up, legs bent; the great tail-feathers of a peacock glow in the darkness. They rush down from my knees with incredible speed and cover my legs. Soon they form a thick, iridescent, colourful and long quilt. The quilt covered me from then on, although it was invisible to everyone else.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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