Hayat and the Rain—fiction from Mona Alshammari

2 July, 2023,
The power of the imagination may not be enough to save a young girl’s hopes when faced with rural poverty.


Mona Alshammari

Translated from the Arabic by Ibrahim Sayed Fawzy


For two days, we were confined to our homes. Life came to a standstill, while the rain poured relentlessly. School gates were closed. Winter arrived unexpectedly, as it always did.

Umm Ghanem brought us a pot of fresh milk. When my mother boiled it, the aroma was irresistible.

“Isn’t she poor? How can she afford to bring us milk?” I shoved the question in my mother’s face, as I was wont to do.

“Your father is friends with their sheikh who asks Umm Ghanem to set aside our share whenever cows are milked,” explained Mother.

Umm Ghanem offered to help but my mother refused, “You’d better go to your disabled son.” Then, my mother slipped some money and a parcel of our clothes, which no longer fit us, into Umm Ghanem’s hands.

Being stuck at home was dreary, and I yearned for school. I missed school when I was absent for a long time. But once I returned, I’d have troubles as though I had been stolen from my swaddling blanket, deprived of my mother’s warmth.

Eventually, the rains stopped, and we were back to school just like sprouts blooming under sunlight. But Hayat was nowhere to be found.

Hayat’s prolonged illness and absence prompted our Palestinian teacher to ask, “Who knows where Hayat lives?” Bewilderment swallowed us like an easily swallowed morsel. We looked at each other, and then everyone turned and looked at me.

I knew Hayat no more than the other pupils. I had no idea of the location of her home. All I knew was that we would see each other, sometimes by accident, along the chilly road to our school overlooking the sea. Our teeth would chatter, because of a bitter cold, as we engaged in conversation. We would see our breath in the cold before uttering a single word, with our rucksacks as heavy as rocks on our backs. My fingertips were hidden in woolen gloves, and my head covered by a snug beanie. Hayat’s bare head and hands, though, were exposed to the bite of winter. Only our steps stopped us from freezing. We usually kept walking, complaining and gossiping about our teachers.

The teacher again threw her question like a ring around the class. “Who knows Hayat’s home?” But her question fell like a deadweight, in the white-tiled classroom.

Hayat was a budding writer. However, she was struggling to come to class because of a persistent cold, which caused rheumatism on her bones and made her chest asthmatic.

Two days later, I caught a glimpse of Hayat walking early to school; she looked like a humpbacked old woman. I called out to her from afar, and jogged towards her as though she was a dream — sickly-looking but smiling and waving to me. I asked her where her home was, since our teacher wanted us to bring her assignments and schoolwork.

“Over there, behind the sheikhs’ homes,” she pointed slowly.

“Last night was gloomy, there was an electricity cut,” I recounted, “We were nearly frozen till my father lit the coal heater. Although I was nearly asleep, once my brothers and sisters threw chestnuts onto the fire, the smell and hissing woke me up.”

Hayat watched me with a sickly, enigmatic smile. “We live in complete darkness,” was all she said.

Mystery and misery had made her face radiant. It almost always seemed like she had fallen into an invisible trap. She appeared older than she really was, spoke little and avoided details. With an eccentric pride, she resisted the tempo of childhood — laughter, the school’s hustle and bustle, troublemaking and adolescent tricks. I was the opposite and enjoyed myself in the playground, clambering onto a friend’s back to climb the school wall and gaze at the flight of seagulls above the shore. Hayat, though, would stay seated in the playground, reading a book of poems she borrowed from the school library.

“Read at home,” I’d yell at her. “Come and enjoy your life, Hayat!”

The rain gushed. I, delighted, welcomed it with open arms. I danced with the other kids under the scattered showers. But Hayat averted her face from the rain, as if it was a sin to be avoided. She slipped her book in her woolen pullover — lest it might get wet — and rushed off to class out of sight. While I continued to sway and twirl, looking at the sky, mouth open to catch raindrops, spinning like a ceiling fan.

Soon after, the voice of our teacher rang out over the school’s loudspeaker, “Go to your classes right away. Grab your rucksacks.” Later, the bell rang, telling us to go home. We were dismissed early due to the threat of inclement weather. Hayat loathed rain like she despised a lurking enemy.

Along the way back, our red noses picked up the acrid aroma of burning grass and firewood, used for heating in some of the muddy houses without electricity. The sky was grey, dotted with dark, scattered clouds. Puddles, here and there, swallowed the sandy road. Hayat and I avoided these as though we were walking on smoldering coals. I strolled towards our neighborhood while Hayat continued on her solitary walk. How I had to suppress my desire to follow her and find out where she lived! But I relented out of fear of my parents.

On returning home, I found Umm Ghanem in front of our green wooden door, moving clothes, coal, candles, food, reams of sackcloth my father had brought from his shop, and tarpaulin. Jubilant, she bore them on her shoulders, alongside her husband, Abu Ghanem, as she fervently prayed for us. When I was about to go inside, Umm Ghanem planted a kiss on my head and said, “Welcome, dear!” Then she left before I besieged my mother with questions.

“What does this woman do with all that sackcloth?”

“Poor people, may Allah help them.”

“I know, I know. But sackcloth?”

“Go to your room and change your school uniform.”

I was preoccupied, the rest of the day, with my Arabic assignment: writing about ‘my room.’ I composed it in flowery language, and embellished it with rhetorical devices. I did my best, but in class our teacher asked Hayat to read her piece aloud.

Hayat recited verses of poetry, which described a pink room ornamented with purple inscriptions on the wall; flying butterflies; a moon in the middle of phosphorescent stars; a small desk to write her diaries and dentelle curtains swinging with the wind. Envy ate away at me. Her bedroom resembled those belonging to princesses that I had read about in the Green Library Series of Children’s Stories. Hayat’s room was way more elegant and beautiful than my silent, colorless and odorless stone white room. The teacher praised Hayat and asked the class to clap for her. Hayat was deeply touched; tears glistened in her eyes.

Her absence concerned us more than her presence. Winter still was her first foe, and rain was her sorrow that would only grow.

It was a scary night. Beams of lightning and screams of thunder in the dark sky tore at our hearts. Continuous and heavy downpour perforated the cracked walls of muddy homes. Deafening thunder exploded for hours. My father and brother opened the front door, while I stood on the door’s other side, holding its lintel. Fogs were everywhere. Then I saw hell, in a whip of light, and scattered lines of flare. Pulsating veins of lightning on the horizon penetrated the darkness, and creepy thunder claps left us breathless. I looked at power poles, seemingly about to fall over our heads. There was not a single passerby on the road. Who would risk their life and walk under the sky’s wrath?

“Is the day of resurrection approaching?” I asked my father, who didn’t reply.

He just kept repeating, “La Ilah ella Allah, la Hawl wala quat ella bellah, Astaghfirullah!”

My horrified mother behind my father repeated his words: “No God but Allah, there’s no power or strength except God’s, I seek forgiveness of Allah.”

Titan-like, a vigorous wind pushed our wooden door. Although we fought the wind with all our strength and pushed back the door, the wind persisted. It was about to steal me when my father caught my body with one hand and with the other threw me behind him. We held our breaths and finally were able to shut the door. My father asked my brother and mother to keep the door closed with their backs until he returned.

Stubborn wind shook and pushed them as if they were tree trunks. Like sparrows in panic, they pushed against it from the inside, but the wind absorbed all their strength. Then after that it seemingly died down, moaning like a pregnant woman in labor, whose voice was sad and faint, all of a sudden it grew louder and turned into a thunderous rumble. My father hurriedly came back with two heavy gas cylinders. He ordered my brother to move away as he put a cylinder in my brother’s place, and then my mother’s. My mother grabbed me and stood me in front of the heater, where I changed out of my wet clothes.

Anxiety overwhelmed my father. “It’s a stormy night,” he said, “We have to light the coal fire right now.”

In the morning, the storm died down. The wind gathered up its disturbing remnants of sobs and sorrows. Clouds, though, were scattered on the horizon like kisses on a handkerchief, patchy, with a slight drizzle. My father welcomed the Iranian blacksmith who busily took the measurements of our green wooden door, wrecked by yesterday’s storm.

Two days later, he installed a heavy black door made of iron. The fragile, vintage green wooden door that was discarded tore at my heart. Although Abu Ghanem, happy with his prey, shouldered the remnants of the door. I bid farewell to it as though it was my first love. My defeated tears objected, but my mouth didn’t utter a single word.

Only my father understood and tried to console me, “You saw what happened to it two days ago? It was about to break and leave us exposed to the sky. It’s no longer strong and has to be replaced.”

“But I love it,” I cried. “It was warm; this iron one is heartless and cold.”

My father burst out laughing.

Three days later, the ground absorbed the water from the storms, the roads dried and the sun rose in the sky, like a shirt adorning the horizon. We went back to school, but Hayat’s long absence worried us. The teacher collected the students’ donations, and handed me a sum of money.

“Buy Hayat a present with this, and visit her on behalf of us. Remember us to her, and take with you all the subjects’ worksheets and assignments,” instructed the teacher.

“But I haven’t visited her before. I don’t know her address,” I replied in all innocence.

The teacher ignored my words. “We should love good and success for others,” she counselled, “If we don’t send Hayat what she’s missed from the curriculum, she’ll fall behind us and might fail. Isn’t she living near you? The one who asks never gets lost.”

I returned home burdened by my task. When I told my mother, she suggested I accompany my elder brother to my father’s shop and buy a box of Mackintosh’s Quality Street Chocolate. Then we would go to my friend’s home but my brother would wait for me outside. The time allowed would only be for ten minutes. I acted upon her suggestion. I searched for Hayat’s home behind the sheikh’s homes looking over the sea. However, I only found cowsheds made of mud, with short, truncated walls. We searched the area but in vain.

“No, no! We’re lost.”

My brother grumbled, “I know this neighborhood well. There’s nothing here except for cowsheds. Enter here, at the beginning of this entrance you might find her.”

“No! It’s not possible that Hayat lives here — and I can’t enter alone,” I objected.

My brother dragged me by my shoulder towards an entrance without a door, which lead to a wide corridor. Then he shouted, “Anyone here?”

I felt my heart shivering like a dry palm leaf. Only darkness and a shaft of late afternoon’s sunlight shared the place. From a distance I heard a female voice I recognized.

“Welcome!” It was Umm Ghanem. She kissed my head as usual, “Please, go ahead! Welcome! Welcome!” My brother withdrew, leaving myriad questions plowing up my brain.

“I’ve come to see Hayat,” I said.

“Hayat is pained by her rheumatism and asthma. It’s because of the harmful storm. Hayat’s here, come in! Hayat, your friend wants to see you.”

Umm Ghanem guided me. On the right were cowsheds — yards with open roofs, surrounded by muddy walls. A part of these yards was covered with worn-out corrugated sheets, and each yard housed five cows. The odor of vile dung odor crushed my spirit, and made me feel nauseous. Mud, humidity and flies carried any resistance I felt away. And on the left, there were other cowsheds without doors, but these were closed by a fabricated ceiling composed of some twigs and tarpaulin to prevent rain from seeping in. Gunny sacks were spread on the ground. And above these gunny sacks, old carpets were spread out, with some places for sitting and sleeping. I kept walking; details hurt my eyes. A cowshed was used as a kitchen, a disabled boy was sleeping in another. I guessed he was Umm and Abu Ghanem’s disabled son, Ghanem.

In a cowshed I spotted Hayat lying on her bed, devoured by the heat like a hot loaf of bread. When she saw me, she shuddered as if she had encountered a jinn. My heart was torn asunder by such a horrible nightmare. Damn poverty! She was in a fit of coughing, her red eyes were tearing lightly, and then they poured. “Was she coughing or crying?” I asked myself.

With one hand Umm Ghanem held a copper pan to give Hayat some hot milk, as she hemmed and hawed and gently hit Hayat’s back with the other. Hayat’s snot, tears and saliva mixed together. She sipped the hot milk and raised her palm, “Stop, mum.”

I apologized immediately, “I’m sorry to visit you unexpectedly.”

“No, habibty! We’re grateful that you’ve come to see Hayat,” Umm Ghanem said in a whisper of shyness, like a melancholic teardrop.

I handed Hayat the Mackintosh Chocolate box and the school assignments. I cut the conversation short, since the well of words had dried up inside me. I excused myself by saying my elder brother was waiting for me outside. “A speedy recovery! Get well soon, Hayat!” I didn’t hear Hayat’s voice, because Umm Ghanem was standing behind me, praying for me and my family.

Before leaving, I gave Hayat a farewell look. Like me, she had barely absorbed the shock of my visit. I glanced over at Abu Ghanem, who was busy cutting down the limbs of our green wooden door for heating.


Mona Al-Shammari (born 1966) is a Kuwaiti novelist and writer. She studied theater and drama at Kuwait University. Her first short stories were published in the late 1980s. She won a prize from the Emirati Writers’ Union, in 1990. Her novels include No Music in Al Ahmadi, which was adapted for the screen, and The Maids of the Shrine that was nominated for the Arabic Booker Prize.

Ibrahim Sayed Fawzy, an Egyptian literary translator and academic, is an assistant lecturer in the English Department, Faculty of Arts, Fayoum University, Egypt. His translations have appeared in ArabLit Quarterly, Words Without Borders, The Markaz Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and elsewhere. His first monograph, Belonging to Prison, will be published by Cambridge Scholars in the summer. In 2023, he finished a six-month mentorship with the British National Centre for Writing as part of their Emerging Literary Translators program, where he was mentored by Sawad Hussain.

fictionKuwaitrural povertyshort story

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