PART ONE Two Women by the Sea
To reach the sea, Huda and Yvonne travel like a pair of ants, one behind the other. Two very cautious ants, as the road twists and turns deceptively, and motorists are surprised by the sudden appearance of people on foot, and by overhanging branches, extending in all directions.
‘Let’s cross over to the pavement,’ Yvonne begs Huda, trying to free her hair from a trailing branch.
They stop for a moment, then set off on their way again, the never-ending stream of cars moving so quickly that their passengers hardly have time to turn their heads and glance fleetingly at the two women, who are in fact extremely pretty. One dark, one fair; one tall, one average height; both perfectly in tune with the summer weather: yellow shorts, barely skimming the top of the thighs, a short blue skirt with white polka dots, white T-shirts, and trainers so light and airy they almost lift them clear of the asphalt.
‘Are we going the right way?’ asks Yvonne, clearly anxious.
‘According to the map . . . ' Huda answers, wishing that her friend would have second thoughts about going to the sea, as she had washed her hair the day before yesterday in preparation for the trip. This hair-washing involved an elaborate process of applying oil and allowing it to soak in, then washing it, spreading shea butter on it – which felt disgusting – and then rinsing, applying conditioner, wrapping each strand around rollers and sitting under a dryer, then brushing out each strand using a hand dryer. After this, she no longer had curly hair; instead it hung straight down over her shoulders, shiny as an aubergine.
They go off on a footpath, which rises steeply. Huge overhanging trees, and houses, or rather villas, apparently empty, surrounded by neglected gardens, black figs spattered on the asphalt, olive trees and dozens of squashes like orange footballs bearing no relation to the soft green plants which produced them. They turn on to a road with high walls on either side, and when there is no sign of the sea, Huda is filled with doubt. She examines the map and is not reassured. They follow the road to the end, and the minute they take another turn, on to a narrow track, they suddenly see the blue line on the horizon. Unable to suppress her delight, Yvonne begins running towards the sea, while Huda follows, worried and apprehensive. But getting to the sea is not as easy as it looks. High rocks, trees, stones and crashing waves stand guard over it. Have they come the wrong way? In their confusion they fail to notice the gap in the wall until a man rides up on his motorbike, dismounts, and climbs through it. Cautiously they follow and find themselves in a rock garden perched right on the seafront. The tension suddenly vanishes from Huda’s mind as she stands confronted by white rocks like huge cacti. In the middle of one rock, that has a flattened top, yellow plants grow, the colour and texture of Yvonne’s hair. Every time the water attacks them, the plants float briefly, then become still and smooth again. Huda secretly envies Yvonne’s hair. They stand together contemplating these plants in surprise.
‘They’re like a woman’s pubic hair,’ says Yvonne.
‘Is yours platinum blonde?’ Huda asks. The rocks are otherworldly and she feels an overwhelming desire to walk on them, especially when she notices a young man and woman strolling over them quite casually.
‘Let’s go on those rocks.’
‘No. Let’s choose a place to sit,’ Yvonne answers at once.
She walks over the red earth, where there are pine trees growing. Huda notices the resin dripping from one tree. They descend along a small path, just a few steps from the sea, and find nature has mixed sea and shore together. Patches of blue water surge between the rocks, with a single outlet connecting them to the wider sea.
Delighted, Huda breathes freely again. ‘It would be difficult to swim here,’ she says. ‘Impossible, in fact. Never mind, we can sunbathe and sleep.’
‘You must be crazy! We’ll swim over the stones and seaweed till we get there.’ Yvonne gestures vaguely with her hand, and Huda understands that ‘there’ means the open sea, just water and gentle waves, not like here on the shore, where it crashes against the rocks, white foam flying, raging.
‘I’ve got a book . . . you go and swim.’
‘Are you joking? Did madam come all the way from Toronto and me from London so we could read? I don’t think so. I’ve got jelly shoes that are great for swimming. You could walk over anything in them.’
Huda chooses a place under the trees but Yvonne wants to sit right beside the sea, in the sun, away from the trees and rocks. They spread out the towels. Yvonne strips down to her bikini, reaches out a hand to help Huda, who is slow to take off her skirt, claiming the zip is stuck. ‘You go first. Anyway I want to climb on the rocks before I swim.’
Yvonne races towards the sea, stumbles on pebbles and sharp stones, scrapes her leg, but is unconcerned. She throws herself into the waves and swims, striking out in the water as if to confirm that she is actually there, in the Mediterranean, the only real sea as far as she is concerned. She wants to bite the water, hold it in her teeth, such is her desire for it. She dives like a duck, rediscovering its intimate spaces, a visitor after a long absence, savouring the taste of it, the coldness, the saltiness, the silence. Then she stretches one arm out on the surface of the water like a cat, then the other, swimming fast now, so that the sea can’t escape from her, drinking in the air, embracing the water and exhaling, no longer seeing anything but the colour blue mixing the sky and sea together. She closes her eyes as if she has finally come home after a long journey
Copyright © 2018 by Hanan al-Shaykh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.