Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery: A tragic narrative of an unwanted love

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Bahaa’ Taher’s standing as a short story writer and novelist was well established by the time this text, his third novel, was published in the original Arabic in his native Egypt in 1991. The present first English translation (by Barbara Romaine) appeared in 1996.

This tragic narrative of an unwanted love that begets a terrible revenge and obsessive hatred, offset by several touching examples of wise benignity, is set in a small village in Upper Egypt in the vicinity of Luxor – in most ways an ordinary village of poor Muslim peasant farmers, whose settlement is distinguished mainly by its having an ancient Christian monastery nearby. The Orthodox monks and the villagers live side by side without any tensions and one of the monks in particular, the miqaddisBishai, is a village favourite for his easy-going friendliness and his fund of agricultural knowledge. He bears the “title” miqaddis because he undertook the Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem, though thankfully (in his view) before the establishment of the state of Israel. Indeed, the disputes around the Suez Canal and the subsequent war with Israel show up faintly and intermittently on the sidelines of the narrative, which is much more centrally concerned with the intensely personal drama in its midst.

The Aunt Safiyya of the title is actually the cousin of the narrator, who tells the novel’s tale reminiscently. She was an orphan brought up in their household along with the narrator, his three sisters being always less interesting to him than the remarkably beautiful Safiyya, who was only about eight years his senior. In this small village, where almost everyone is related to everyone else, there is another strikingly good-looking person, several years older than the narrator and Safiyya, and a cousin to both of them. He, too, is orphaned and a sought-after bachelor with a local “gypsy girl”, the “golden-haired Amuna el-Baida el-Halabiyya” as his most unashamedly open admirer. Everyone – and as it transpires, Safiyya, too – assumes that the handsome bachelor Harbi will one day propose to Safiyya, although she is initially too young. So the narrator’s father placates and sends away all Safiyya’s many suitors, who start flocking to the house from the time she is about ten years old, in anticipation of Harbi’s request for her hand. Harbi is the ward and nephew of the richest and most important man in their community, the consul-bey, who has a palatial home in Luxor and who owns huge farmlands, managed for him by Harbi, who is also his likely heir, since the bey was twice married and widowed without issue. By the time Safiyya is sixteen, an event entirely unanticipated by Safiyya and the narrator’s family intervenes and changes the expected course of things to initiate a tragic sequence of later occurrences – radically altering loves and loyalties in the extended family and the village.

One day the middle-aged and (as always) impeccably dressed bey (bey is a term vaguely akin to Lord) arrives on a visit to the narrator’s family home. He is accompanied (as often) by Harbi. The purpose of the visit, as it turns out, is for the bey to ask the narrator’s father’s permission to marry Safiyya. So taken aback is the boy’s father – an admirably upright and humanely principled person – that he can only half splutter that it would be for Safiyya to say, as he would not want to force her into a lifelong relationship she was not inclined to accept. Safiyya herself is interested in only one thing: what Harbi’s attitude is to the proposed marriage. When she is told that after her guardian-uncle (the narrator’s father) had insisted on first obtaining Safiyya’s consent, Harbi had clapped his hands and said, “Then it’s settled – thanks be to god! All we have to do is to let the one concerned decide”, Safiyya, with a “strange gleam” in her eyes, pronounces: “Then I agree, Father … I will marry the consul, and I’ll bear him a son” (42-3).

The narrator had, some time earlier, come across Safiyya secretly singing the love song that the “gypsy girl”, with whom the unmarried Harbi had a well-known but “allowed” relationship, had composed for him. When Safiyya discovered that the narrator had overheard her sad singing of this usually cheerful song, she had turned on him harshly and chased him off; that was the first time he had noticed the “strange gleam” in her eyes. Yet, he says, he never knew for certain whether Safiyya loved Harbi, despite her having on another occasion described his good looks as resembling “the rising moon” (preceded by “Dear God! …” (38)). What he does find remarkable is the (from the start) complete and almost fanatic nature of Safiyya’s devotion to her elderly husband. He puts it as follows:

I remain puzzled, even to this day – though I am much older now – by the question: how could Safiyya, after that first beautiful love of hers, so love that man who was more than three times her age? But will I ever happen upon the real answer to this question? Will I ever find out whether she had a particular reason for loving the bey, or whether she loved him out of a kind of weakness, or whether she simply loved him the way any woman might love any man? (45)

Safiyya falls pregnant soon after the marriage and gives birth to a little boy, who is given the name Hassaan. But instead of this bringing unmitigated joy to all concerned, a rumour soon begins going round that Harbi had sworn to kill the baby because he has now been replaced as the bey’s heir by the newborn infant. The source of the ugly rumour is never identified, though there are vague hints in the narrative that it might have been Safiyya herself; at the least, she does nothing to dissuade the bey of his fury against his erstwhile well-loved and unfailingly loyal nephew and ward. Nor can the narrator’s father achieve anything in day-long efforts to disabuse the bey of his now bitter hatred of Harbi, who is, of course, forbidden the home of the bey. The ugliness of the situation intensifies when, soon thereafter, the glass window of the room in which the baby sleeps is shattered one night by a large stone; and the suspicion immediately falls on the devastated Harbi.

And even more awful events ensue. Not content with bringing in from elsewhere a set of brutal bodyguards who are rude and harsh in their dealings with all visitors to the bey and Safiyya’s home, the bey actually sets off (not many days after the stoning incident) to assault and humiliate his godson Harbi – with a view to forcing him to flee the village.

Not that he will hit him in person, except for the first time; the bey gets his bodyguards to do so, expecting them to obey his orders in full and exactly. Harbi, not expecting anything of the kind, is overseeing work in the bey’s farmlands when the latter’s car drives up with him and his henchmen. The bey chases away the peasants, not yet noticing that the narrator, who was visiting Harbi and becomes a witness to the terrible events that follow, is on the scene too. Harbi “stood tall and proud”, notes the narrator and said, “Welcome, Uncle. You have honoured your village and your land with your presence.” The next moment the bey “reached out all at once and struck Harbi’s cheek with a blow that caused the bey’s tarbush [Muslim fez or headgear] and his entire, aging body to shake. He shouts at Harbi: “You dare to use that smooth tongue of yours with me, you dog?” (53). Though he instinctively tenses to counter-attack, the much younger, lithe and strong Harbi restrains himself and apologises in all humility to the bey who has, he says, been like a father to him. Four rifles are pointing at Harbi, who has not yet even noticed them. When the boy narrator cries out at the bey: “Please, yabey, please don’t hurt Harbi!”, the bey notices him for the first time and orders him to go home. The boy refuses to leave and clings to Harbi, so the bey, in his fixated, vengeful fury, gets the guards to get the youngster out of the way, which one of them does by giving this mere boy a full-strength blow to the chest so that he falls down, sprawling and unable to move, hardly able to breathe, but still watching everything.

The bey orders his men to strip Harbi; a deliberate humiliation, since he is being touched by strangers’ hands. Harbi fights valiantly against the four attackers while appealing vainly to the bey to have them desist. The blood-spattered and near-naked Harbi is told: “I’ll make you wish for death, but you won’t die.” When farm workers passing by attempt to intervene and stop the dreadful event, the bey shrieks at the boldest one: “All of you would kill my son if you could, and rob me of my estate while I’m still alive! Get out, you dogs!” (55). One of these men orders another to run and fetch the boy’s father, since he (known as “the hagg” because he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca) is the only person who could possibly prevail with the bey to desist. The bey had evidently choreographed the whole episode in his mind before coming. The men are ordered to tie the half-naked and already bleeding Harbi to a sturdy nearby palm tree and then to pull on the ends of the rope so that Harbi’s back gets, so to speak, “grated” and his skin and then top layer of flesh on his back shredded by the very rough bark of the tree. While this torture proceeds, the bey screams at Harbi that he will now have to flee the village. Even though Harbi bellows out that it is “enough” – still addressing the bey as “Uncle” – and even the men warn the bey that they are not prepared to go on since the process will kill Harbi and their “agreement didn’t include murder”, it is stopped only when Harbi himself, once more screaming only the word “Enough!”, breaks the rope with sheer muscular force, unties himself and seizes a rifle, with which he prods the bey in the chest. The bey yells at his men to shoot Harbi, who “kept on shouting, ‘Enough! E-NOOOOOUUUGH!’” (58), and then Harbi fires one shot into the bey’s heart, killing him.

The boy at that instant sees his father running up, trying to prevent Harbi from doing what he has already done. A staggering Harbi runs off, “bent over in pain” and carrying the fatal rifle. His life has effectively been “ruined”, after all (59).

Close to nightfall the boy’s father finds Harbi, face down in the sand and still clutching the rifle. He takes the dreadfully injured man to Luxor hospital and once he recovers consciousness, persuades him to turn himself in to the police. Harbi’s initial sentence of fifteen years’ hard labour (and of course imprisonment) is commuted to ten years upon appeal. The injured and devastated boy, who dearly loves Harbi, is ill for many weeks afterwards. He is told that his aunt Safiyya initially spoke no word upon being brought the news, but then told her baby son Hassaan that it was their “fate” (61). She shuts up the palatial city home, lets the servants go and returns to the bey’s village home with her baby boy, never again dressing in city finery and wearing only the drab, dark, plain clothing of the village women. She has committed herself to an ancient village code: of not mourning the bey until the closest male relative of the dead man, her son, has killed his father’s killer, Harbi. She runs the bey’s estate with an iron hand, unlike all other village women, and she dresses and behaves like, and assumes the status of, an elderly woman within the community. Most of her beauty is quite quickly erased by the way she dresses and acts now, and in the bitterness and vengefulness that are now her sole reason for living and even for bringing up her son. She speaks to and of the bey as if he were still alive and as if this eerie conduct were perfectly natural. The boy’s father quarrels with Safiyya when she names a donkey of hers “Harbi” and orders her little boy to beat him, while the boy’s mother has a loyalty and commitment to Safiyya that lets her make allowances for the prematurely aged woman’s near demented state and her commitment to the ancient honour code of their extended family. The village community as a whole is likewise divided over the matter of Safiyya’s conduct.

The next complication occurs when Harbi is given early release because his health is failing. The boy’s wise, deeply concerned father devises a solution: Harbi cannot stay in Cairo because he needs to be nursed and looked after and because Safiyya will not let the distance to the coastal city deter her from her murderous plan. He comes to an agreement with the monastery monks (with whom he has always been on good terms) that Harbi will be allowed to take sanctuary with them, living in a little hut that will be built for him in the middle of the monks’ extended and securely walled farmlands.

An interesting new dimension is added to the narrative when Harbi is visited at the monastery by an “extremely unChristian” group of clearly dangerous men: roaming outlaws whose leader is a giant of a man named Faris, whose undying friendship Harbi had earned when he had compassionately assisted the big man, his fellow prisoner, who had been unable to perform his rock-shattering task for a while because of an eye ailment. Wild bunch as they are, the men (after the first time always visiting outside the walls of the monastery) are tolerated by the monks, certainly to some extent because these rough men are nevertheless governed by a code of honour upheld and administered by Faris. In the same group there is also the proverbial “bad lot”, a man named Hinein, whom Faris eventually ejects from his outlaw group. Hinein had made a “joke” about the monastery’s probably possessing a great deal of gold and other “lootable” treasure.

Not long hereafter, during a prolonged absence of Faris and his group, another lot of outlaws begin to terrorise and rob the villagers, especially on the way to Luxor or to the monastery. It is the wise though foolish-seeming old monk miqaddisBishai who cleverly surmises who the leader of this group is and who is really footing the bill for the new menace. It all comes out when Hinein just misses Harbi by rushing at him on horseback one day – nearly managing a fatal shot. Harbi fires back and it is Hinein who is found, dead, sometime later. He had been hired by Safiyya when, upon hearing that Harbi’s health was rapidly deteriorating while her son was still far too young to avenge his dead father, she decided that an attempt at taking vengeance on Harbi could not be delayed. But Harbi’s health sinks rapidly. He is as devastated a human being as Safiyya is, in her own different and half demented way. Harbi says of himself, “I’m like a sterile palm tree, my young friend, that gives no dates and casts no shade. I was finished a long time ago, but death won’t have me” (108). These sad and bitter words indicate the awfulness of life as an outcast and how entirely inappropriate Safiyya’s vengeful fantasies about Harbi are. Not long after, in a beautifully evoked and affecting scene, Harbi dies, bewept by the narrator’s father and by the miqaddisBishai, Harbi’s companion and confidant during his life of isolation as refugee within the monastery grounds.

Safiyya does not last long after Harbi’s death, either. When she gets the news that she (and the son she had consecrated to this intended act) have been forever deprived of the opportunity of killing Harbi or having him killed, she cries out in furious protest at her dead husband and rains curses on “you all!” (119). Then she stops speaking, eating or drinking. She pulls the needles of intravenous feeding out of her arms and refuses to be taken to the hospital.

The last words she speaks, as she comes briefly out of the comatose state to which she has been reduced, are uttered when the narrator and his father are visiting her. She addresses the former: “Yes, father. Excuse me, I can’t get up. If Harbi asks for my hand, tell the bey I agree. You must speak for me, father … and I agree to any dowry Harbi proposes … don’t worry about the dowry …” After uttering this poignantly revealing sentence, Safiyya lapses into her final coma and dies soon afterwards.

The novel concludes with the narrator describing how much he sees the village changing, as is observable during his brief visits during his later life. He describes how the endearing old monk Bishai, too, dies and how after he loses his father (who dies, as is the great hope of all Muslims, on his second pilgrimage to Mecca), his mother comes to live with him in Cairo. One of his sisters and her husband work for Hassaan’s export-import business in Germany; the other sisters, too, have left the village or the country. The narrator, we learn at last, is an archaeologist. His terrible, sad and memorable tale of his family members and their entangled fates has indeed been an act of narrative excavation which would leave few readers untouched.


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