Elias Khoury will be appearing at the Edinburgh Festival today with leading Moroccan poet and writer Tahar Ben Jelloun. Khoury will be talking about his latest novel in English translation, As Though She Were Sleeping, translated by Humphrey Davies. The novel follows a young Lebanese woman who takes refuge from the world around her in lucid dreams that seem more real than reality itself. In this extract, Meelya and her new husband Mansour have just arrived at the hotel for their honeymoon.
Entering the spacious room, Meelya found a large bed, and a mirror that took up most of the opposite wall. A square table in the middle of the room was covered with an orange tablecloth on which had been placed a bottle of champagne, two large rounds of floppy bread and a dish of white cheese. The bathroom was to the left of the bed, and the stove, which was by the table, had been lit. Mansour locked the door and Meelya heard the driver and Wadeea 1 whispering and guffawing loudly.
Meelya doesn’t remember clearly what took place in the room. She watched Mansour take off his coat and hang it behind the door. She watched him go over to the table and work on the champagne bottle and pop the cork, the white foam overflowing as he poured it into the glasses. He gave his bride a glass and raised his.
“To your health, bride!”
Meelya took a sip and swallowed the white bubbles brimming on the liquid’s surface. Feeling slightly nauseous, she put the glass down on the table and said she wanted a cup of hot tea. Mansour didn’t seem to hear her. He ate a mouthful of cheese and prepared one for his bride. She pushed his hand away and said she wasn’t hungry, so he ate it himself and gulped down the champagne he’d poured for her. Then he poured another glass, and his eyes started to glaze over as if he were thinking strange thoughts. Smiling, Meelya remembered what her mother had said about the foolishness that possesses men on their wedding nights.
The man took her by the hand and led her over to the bed. She felt her throat go dry. This was the long-awaited moment and she had to be brave.
They sat on the end of the bed. Mansour rested his head on her neck and kissed it. A slight shudder ran through the bride’s body and she wanted to lie down. Falling back a bit, she imagined herself flying in Mansour’s arms. Now he would pick her up and fly with her before putting her down again on the bed and taking her.
Meelya fell back onto the bed and waited. The kisses on her neck ceased and the man started to shake. She wanted to hold him to her to make it easier for him, but he jumped up and started taking off his clothes. This was the last thing Meelya had expected – that the groom would stand in the middle of the room and start taking off his clothes and throwing them on the floor. His face had receded, as though he’d put on a mask, and the hair on his shoulders and chest was like a thick black skin.
“Now he’ll launch his attack and conquer me,” thought Meelya, and a strange feeling took hold of her, as though she were standing at a high lookout point waiting for someone to push her over the edge and was resigned to the waiting. She closed her eyes to the image of the terrifying fall and of the two hands that would throw her onto the bed and pull off her dress before ripping at her underclothes.
The wait continued, and she was overcome by drowsiness. As she supported her head with her wrist, a light, fitful sleep stole over her. The fog on the road gathered in her eyes. Shaking herself, she opened them, but instead of seeing Mansour standing naked in the middle of the room, she found that the man had disappeared. She saw his rumpled clothes on the floor and remembered the sight of him struggling out of them – the trousers mixed up with the shoes, the shirt wrapped around his neck, the socks sticking to his feet. Also, she recalled his thick black moustache trembling above his lips, and her waiting smile returned to her. Then she heard a kind of low moaning and realized that it was coming from the bathroom. The moaning grew in volume, accompanied by sounds of retching and gagging. Instead of going to the bathroom, though, to see what had happened to her husband, she lay down on the bed and, without taking off her dress, covered herself with the quilt.
“What kind of a honeymoon is this?” she asked loudly, thinking that the bridegroom, seated on the lavatory, would hear her. When he didn’t reply, she felt afraid, and the man who had been swallowed up by the fog on the summit of Dahr el Baydar appeared before her, shaking, running towards the car making sounds like barks enveloped in moans, then opening the car door and sitting down next to the driver, trembling and gasping. She got up and went over to the stove, where she saw that the fire had died down, put some logs into it and waited for the flames to rise again. Then she went over to the bathroom door and called out to Mansour. He didn’t reply. She knocked several times, but all she could hear was a faint moaning that seemed to come from far away. Becoming warm, she decided to take off her dress. Bending over the suitcase, she took out her long blue nightdress and put it on. She heard the man calling to her. Going back to the bathroom door, she called out, “Open up, Mansour. It’s Meelya.” The voice that answered fell almost to a whisper.
Did he call “Meelya” or “Mother”?
“Open the door, please.”
“Keep your voice down or the driver will hear,” the man said hoarsely.
“Do you want us to get a doctor?”
“Be quiet. Please be quiet.”
The words stopped and the man’s moaning turned strange. Meelya was certain that he was dying and sank to the floor. She found herself kneeling and knocking. She grasped the doorknob as though to pull herself up by it and heard Mansour calling for his mother in a whisper. Hearing him gagging and retching, she begged him to open up. She remained on her knees for a long time, feeling alone and impotent.
“I’m going downstairs to ask the owner to get the doctor.”
“Keep your voice down or the driver will hear and make fun of us.”
Mansour’s voice seemed to come from deep inside a well as he told his wife not to leave the room, that nothing was wrong.
“You get into bed and I’ll join you.”
She doesn’t know how she got to her feet or how she lay down on the bed and covered herself with the quilt and slept.