Palestinian mother’s saga of navigating love, loss, and liberation

Huzama Habayeb’s novel, deftly translated by Kay Heikkinen, evokes family bonding, tenderness, and women’s resilience with a joyful clamour.

Published : Jun 26, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Huzama Habayeb leavens the tragedies of a community with humour and hope.

Huzama Habayeb leavens the tragedies of a community with humour and hope. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

In the unashamedly emotional opening of Before the Queen Falls Asleep, a mother sees off her daughter who is going abroad to study, clawing her back for one more tearful embrace. She desperately holds on to the glances and words of a girl who is herself desperate for liberty. The daughter, Maleka, is the queen of the title, and the mother who writes this story of her life, of their lives, addresses it directly to her.

There is a reason for the narrator’s appetite for tears. Her family’s homeland was Palestine, and in the first chapter, she describes the images she sees of the massacre of children in Gaza (not the first she has seen, and not the one we are living through now, but one of the numberless massacres in between). It is a recurring catastrophe that shows her that god is capable of not existing. Somewhere between the war crimes on television and the grilled cheese burning in the toaster, we see that Maleka also has an appetite for tears and, while fighting her mother, can cling to her with equal ferocity, demanding to hear her stories.

Before the Queen Falls Asleep
By Huzama Habayeb, translated by Kay Heikkinen
Maclehose Press
Pages: 288
Price: Rs.699

Huzama Habayeb leavens the tragedies of a community with humour and hope. Kay Heikkinen’s translation is smooth and yet evokes a kind of joyful clamour. The narrator, Maleka’s mother, is Jihad, so named because her parents were sure they would have a boy. She grows up to be her father’s son and eventually the man of the family. The day her father chooses to lay on her young shoulders the burden he is incapable of bearing is the day she is leaving home to pursue her studies and dreams.

Wrenching dislocation

The modern word “parentification”, considered a form of abuse in some contexts, describes the inordinate burdens of adulthood placed on a child when the parents are unable or unwilling to carry out their duties. But this is a family that left Palestine in search of refuge and survives dislocation after wrenching dislocation. They are made of sterner stuff.

Cover of Before the Queen Falls Asleep 

Cover of Before the Queen Falls Asleep  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Jihad’s mother and aunts and grandmothers have found ways of negotiating the uncertainties of their lives, and Jihad herself not only shoulders her burdens but soars with them. Through her writing and her teaching, she lifts her entire extended family out of poverty and proves to be a woman of substance.

The burden of womanhood, when Jihad finds out she is pregnant, is just as unwanted. But she protects and raises her daughter through poverty, uncertainty, and danger and ultimately gives her the gift of freedom. Theirs is a community in which parents are named after their children, Abu Jihad or Umm Jihad, as much as the other way around, and even the most unforeseen child defines her mother.

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Within the framework of her negotiation with loads of expectations, Jihad tells her family’s stories as well—they come together to form a kaleidoscope of narratives from which we must discern a continuity. She writes of her aunts who hide money in their provisions jars, in their bras, in the secret pockets stitched into their salwars, even their knickers. The treasures they gather grain by grain are often scattered or plundered wholesale, but it is not all disaster. There is a shared history, banter, flirting, and tenderness in the earning and hoarding of money. With a proper show of domestic humility, a householder often staves off public humiliation.

“There is a shared history, banter, flirting, and tenderness in the earning and hoarding of money. With a proper show of domestic humility, a householder often staves off public humiliation.”

Jihad writes of the marriages that are arranged and paid for, which end in sorrow, violence or detente. Some women wait much of their lives, begging and borrowing from relatives, to wear gold bangles that might draw in a man. Others keep their hair dyed and their eyes on the street. And then there are the women who are simply paid for one day and sent to another house.

The little neighbours who plunder their fruit trees have stories of their own, and they end up eating and sleeping with the rest of Jihad’s numerous and still growing family. A great deal is written about nudity (or what Jihad considers so) and living in this teeming crowd.

Rich with feeling

It is not possible, or necessary, to define where one story ends and another begins in Jihad’s narration. She saves the chronicle of one part of her life for the end, though it is central to the path she chooses. In this last chapter, Jihad finds love, rejection, marriage, and marital rape, in that order. Here, the writing rambles into autobiographical territory and mops up the lives of other family members, but that does not diminish the way Jihad writes about her feelings.

Also Read | Children in war zones face permanent mental health consequences, trauma

She falls in love with that most irresistible kind of man, one who has read her stories and recognises her name. Their passion seems to end in a predictable falling off, but although he walks away, he holds on to the short story that first drew his attention to her and writes it into a play. Years later, Jihad is left with a manuscript that he has written and left for her, its mysteries preserved for her eyes alone. As much an enigma as this ex-lover is the unloved, unloving ex-husband who walks out of her life and is never heard from again.

Jihad, meanwhile, has more to write, more to read, and much more to live.

Latha Anantharaman is a writer and editor based in Palakkad, Kerala.

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