“Fatima and The Handsome Jew”—Excerpt from Ali Al-Muqri’s Novel

15 August, 2022
Yemeni Jew at a tra­di­tion­al wed­ding (pho­to cour­tesy Talia Collis/Vogue).

 

Exclu­sive excerpt from The Hand­some Jew, a nov­el by Ali Al-Muqri
Trans­lat­ed by Mbarek Sryfi
Dar Arab 2022
ISBN 9781788710879

The Markaz Review book­group will dis­cuss The Hand­some Jew, mod­er­at­ed by Rana Asfour and with trans­la­tor Mbarek Sry­fi, on August 28, 2022. Info.

 

Ali Al-Muqri

 

And then it was the year 1054 AH (AD1644 ‑1645), dur­ing which, after the wind of years had crushed me and death debil­i­tat­ed me, I decid­ed to record these sto­ries about Fatima’s days and her time, up to this year when I mar­ried a dream, and we had twins: hope and catastrophe.

It all began sev­en years ago. Over the course of those years, I did some chores for her fam­i­ly, and they reward­ed me, gen­er­ous­ly, with what­ev­er they had, be it corn, bread, or can­dy. At first, I didn’t like the idea of going to their house. I would spend most of my time with my new friend, a dog I picked up as a pup­py in the street with­out its mother’s knowl­edge; I brand­ed the tip of its ear with a knife and called it ‘Allus.

The Hand­some Jew is avail­able in print and Kin­dle.

I wasn’t able to take it with me until the third time. That day, my father asked me to car­ry some fire­wood to the mufti’s house, which was how the man was known in the vil­lage of Ray­dah. My moth­er picked out a pile from the sticks she had gath­ered from the moun­tains, tied it up with a tree- fibre rope, and put it on my head. I dragged my dog along. He would stop when­ev­er he saw some­thing mov­ing. But with the dog beside me, I didn’t feel the weight of the wood the way I had the last two times.

Amat al-Raouf skil­ful­ly ignored us, both boy and dog. Her sis­ter Fati­ma would usu­al­ly open the door when she heard me yelling “Hel­lo there! Any­one home?” She would then take me to the third-floor roof, where the fam­i­ly cooked and baked bread. There, I would deposit my load, with ‘Allus wait­ing patient­ly all the while by the front door.

By the time my eyes began to open a bit, as I fought the prick­ly pain on my head, Fati­ma would have unfurled her smile all over the place. She would linger, before get­ting me what­ev­er her father, moth­er, or she her­self decid­ed to give me for what I’d brought. Even before that, she would lift up my spirits.

“What a strong man!” she would say to praise me, and go on to pray, “God bless you… May He make you rich and strong… may He pro­tect you!”

“May God keep you young and bring joy to your years” were words that made my day, com­pli­ment­ing my com­ing of age, while every­one else around me insist­ed on remind­ing me that I was younger than her. I was twelve at the time, and, accord­ing to my moth­er, she was five years my senior.

Many times, Fati­ma would give me a cup of tea and gaze at me in admi­ra­tion. I didn’t know what attract­ed her. She would rarely say any­thing. Some­times, she would hold my head and pull my face to her waist, or she would bend over and touch her chest. Once there, she’d whis­per, “What’s wrong? What’s the mat­ter?” 

2

One morn­ing, she sur­prised me. She announced that, the next day, she was going to start teach­ing me to read and write. With that in mind, I had to get ready to spend every morn­ing with her.

“Don’t they teach you at home, my hand­some Jew?”

I felt my stom­ach flut­ter as she ten­der­ly and flir­ta­tious­ly artic­u­lat­ed those words, which I wasn’t used to. Was I her Jew? Her own Jew. Not only that, but, in her eyes, I was hand­some. Not know­ing the mean­ing of read­ing and writ­ing, I answered her ques­tion with a shrug.

At home, I asked my father about it. He explained that the say­ings and prayers he used in his invo­ca­tions were found in old man­u­scripts, that they were record­ed on tablets, parch­ments, and papyrus­es for those who knew how to read, by those who knew how to write. He him­self did not know how to read or write, he told me, but he observed the prayers and heard the say­ings and hymns from oth­er peo­ple who had heard them from the ancestors.

When I told him that the mufti’s daugh­ter was going to teach me read­ing and writ­ing, he looked stunned. He stared at me for a long time with­out say­ing a word. Long min­utes elapsed before I heard him mum­ble some­thing indis­tinct­ly to himself.

That night, he woke me up. “Lis­ten to me very care­ful­ly. Learn­ing how to read and write with them is all good. But…be care­ful. Make sure not to learn their reli­gion and their Quran…they are Mus­lims, son, and we are Jews…do you understand?”

I nod­ded. Yet, the next morn­ing, he repeat­ed what he had said. He hand­ed me a leather bag cov­ered with lamb­swool, in which he put a clay tablet for writ­ing, a ceram­ic inkwell filled with a vivid brown liq­uid, and a stick resem­bling a tooth-clean­ing mis­wak for writ­ing. For eras­ing, he gave me a piece of silk like a small pil­low, filled with cot­ton, that you wet when in use.

As Fati­ma wel­comed me, her expres­sion was full of delight. She invit­ed me to their long room, which they called the diwan, and there we sat fac­ing each oth­er. She began writ­ing on the tablet, “S…A…L…E…M…Salem.” I rel­ished my name as her lips enun­ci­at­ed it. I felt like some­one stum­bling onto his name and exis­tence for the very first time. She held my hand as she taught me how to draw the let­ters and say them aloud.

“Hand­some,” she told me after that first les­son, “very handsome…You’re so smart!” “Now, what would you like?” she went on with a smile. “Do you want me to write your name as ‘Salem the Jew’ or ‘Salem the hand­some,’ or, you know what, ‘the hand­some Jew’? What do you think?”

I shrank back, not know­ing what to say. I sim­ply low­ered my head, so that my eyes avoid­ed hers.

“The hand­some Jew, then,” she said. “I know you like it when I call you that.”

Pho­to­graph of a young Yemeni Jew, ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry (pho­to Ephraim Moshe Lilien).

She spelled out the let­ters of my name and my new moniker, and she kept repeat­ing them in a tone that sound­ed like chanting.

That is how I start­ed get­ting lessons from her every morn­ing. First, she taught me the alpha­bet, from Aleph to Yaa’. Then she taught me how to con­nect two let­ters or more to form a word, “Father, moth­er, free, affec­tion, love.”

When I start­ed writ­ing and read­ing in com­plete words and sen­tences, she brought a book with col­ored writ­ing, which she asked me to read. I saw dec­o­rat­ed words, inter­laced and dot­ted let­ters, in a wide font that made read­ing dif­fi­cult. But, as soon as I heard Fatima’s voice read­ing them, I learned them by heart.

As a mat­ter of fact, what I learned by heart was her voice, not the words, which I could nev­er match. Her per­for­mance of them, in a melo­di­ous voice, drew me in and amazed me. I kept on repeat­ing them in the same style, either in front of her, on the road, or at home:

By the sun and its brightness,

And by the moon—when it fol­lows it, And by the day—when it dis­plays it, And by the night—when it cov­ers it,

And by the sky—and He who con­struct­ed it, And by the earth—and He who spread it,

And by the soul—and He who pro­por­tioned it.

I also enjoyed oth­er words:

By the morn­ing brightness,

And by the night when it cov­ers all with dark­ness, Your Lord has not tak­en leave of you,

O Muham­mad, nor has He despised you.

And the Here­after is bet­ter for you than the first life.

And your Lord will give unto you, and you will be sat­is­fied. Did He not find you an orphan and give you refuge?

He found you lost and guid­ed you,

And He found you poor and made you self-suf­fi­cient. So as for the orphan, do not oppress him.

And as for the peti­tion­er, do not repel him.

At home, when my father heard my voice as I recit­ed those words, he almost lost it. He kept stand­ing up and sit­ting down, com­ing and going back and forth, yelling, “Oh God Almighty…Oh God Almighty.” My moth­er tried to calm him down while ask­ing him what was the matter.

“What’s wrong? He’s just repeat­ing Ara­bic hymns, talk­ing about the sun, the moon, and pro­vid­ing for orphans.”

He raised his voice, “What’s wrong? What are you say­ing, whore? This is the Quran…This is the Muslim’s religion…They’ll ruin the boy…They’ll ruin the Jew’s son… They’ll ruin the Jew’s son…Oh God Almighty…Oh God Almighty!”

Our neigh­bor As‘ad heard him and called out from his roof, “What’s going on, al-Naqqash? What’s happened?”

Soon, he pushed open the door to our house and asked again. What he learned was soon known to the whole neighborhood.

Even though it was noth­ing, what Fati­ma had done was like ignit­ing a fire in the Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood. She had just taught me how to read and write.

 

forbidden loveintoleranceIslamJewsreligious barriersYemen

Ali al-Muqri (علي المقري) (born in Taiz) is a Yemeni novelist and writer. He has worked as a cultural editor for several publications and was subject to three takfiri campaigns in 1997, 2003 and 2013 by religious extremists for his opinions and writing, which they considered in defiance of religious tradition, especially Al-Khamar wa-al-nabidh fi al-Islam (Wine and Nabid in Islam) and Ḥurma. Two of his recent novels Black Taste, Black Odor and The Handsome Jew have been long listed for the Arab Booker Prize. He has also been awarded the French Prize for Arabic Literature for Ḥurma, translated into French by Khaled Osman and Ola Mehanna. Some of Al-Muqri's work has appeared in The New York Times, the French daily, Libération and in Banipal magazine. Ali al-Muqri became the chief-editor of Al-Ḥikmah in 1997, a journal of the Yemeni Writers Association. As of 2007 he has served as the editor of the literary journal, Ǧaymān. These days, Ali al-Muqri lives in Paris, France. He tweets @AliAlMuqri.

guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments