Faleeha Hassan


Translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins

"Please, don't! That hurts! Let go of the door. Please! Why are you attacking us again? Please! This is our destiny. Leave the door alone. Don't you feel the pain?"

Then his voice rang out, distorted by suffering: "Granny, help me! Please! She's ripping me apart again. I beg you! Help me! Come here, Granny!"

An elderly woman trailing an old, black wrap rushed in, perspiring profusely. She raced to the girl's hand and forcibly pulled it from the wooden door frame. In voice more like screeching than speaking, she said, "You'll kill both of you trying a stunt like this. You'll both be torn to pieces. Don't you get that, Dummy?"

The girl's palm left the door frame slowly and gradually. As it descended, the girl's body fell and with it the boy's. A voice rose in feminine lament: "I can't bear to live this way any longer! Don't you understand that I perish every minute!" Turning her head toward him, she asked, with tears streaming from her eyes, "Do you enjoy living this way? Are you content? Aren't you tired of me? Of yourself? Of this room?"

Then, weeping profusely, she turned to their grandmother and asked sadly and bitterly, "Granny, can't you see I'm dying? Don't you believe me?"

Her brother, however, observed stoically, "This is our destiny. Destiny created us. How can you protest destiny's creation?"

"Destiny?" she screamed. "Who is destiny? Your father? Your mother?"

Turning to her grandmother, she asked between sobs, "Tell me, Granny: What is destiny? How could it have created us as the frightful creature we are?"

"Calm down, Child. Each of us is destiny's creation. Look carefully at me! Does either of you see anything delightful about me? I'm a solitary old hag who lives in black and exists only to serve others. Do the two of you believe, for instance, that I'm in better shape than you? No way! I can't join my family or relatives for any of their happy celebrations or sad memorials for fear people will question me and intrude on my privacy. Do you think I have no family or relatives? How can I keep in touch with them when I'm in this bind? Believe me: When I sit in my shop, I never chat with people. I just observe them. I see who comes and who goes, who is born and who dies, who sells and who buys, who marries, who is widowed, and who is divorced. That's my life—just watching and waiting. If I ever encounter something called 'destiny,' I'll ask, 'Why did you make us like this? What sin did we commit for you to shape us this way? What made you do that? Or—did you just feel like it?' Yes, if I see him, I'll ask, 'Why did you make my son leave, never to return? Why did you allow the wars' whirlpool to carry him far away? Why did you cause them to arrive with their white uniforms and blue medicine bag stamped with red crescents to give her the vaccine? Why didn't you bite them when they executed their boss' order?' They were laughing: 'Everything for the sake of victory.' Why didn't I hide her from them after she whispered to me, 'Auntie, I'm in the first months of pregnancy. I'm afraid they'll hurt my child'? I was afraid of them. Why should we propagate to fuel his wars? Why was I merely disheartened when my daughter-in-law whispered, 'I feel something inside me that's not a boy or a girl. It's something else. Believe me!' I felt that too but didn't want to believe her, because what could be inside a pregnant woman's belly but a male or female fetus, or possibly twins? I clung to a false hope, which I supported with words that were nothing but words. Useless words! Had I known their injection would disfigure you this way, I would have punctured their eardrums with my screams, making them turn tail and flee. Please: Don't ever ask me about destiny again."

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she spoke.

"Granny, did the injection make us like this?" The boy asked.

"I don't know. . . . Perhaps," the old woman replied, her head bowed toward the ground, as she choked on her tears.

"Umm Ghayib, Umm Ghayib, Auntie Umm Ghayib!" The voice of a local kid pierced the room. Everyone fell silent, and the two bodies retreated with a single motion to the wall, where they pressed their knees with their hands and kept still for fear of being discovered.

Their grandmother, wiping tears from her cheeks with her right hand, whispered, "Please be silent, or they'll discover you. I beg you: Stay still."

With her other hand she adjusted her long, black scarf, which she pulled over her head. Then she replied to the voice, "I'm coming! Coming!"

As she left, she muttered, "Why do they call me 'Umm Ghayib'? Why remind me constantly that my son is gone? Haven't I told them my son's name is Ali?"

In her agitation, she left the door open. Then two bodies stuck out four feet, and two heads looked at each other, wondering with amazement.

The girl observed, "She left the door open."

"Perhaps she just forgot," the boy replied.

"Why didn't destiny forget to conjoin us?" The girl asked. She put her head between her hands and wailed, silently.

"Please don't think I'm happy with our state. The only option, though, is to accept it. Why haven't you realized yet that our one escape will be death? We were created conjoined, and there's no alternative to living conjoined as long as we survive," the boy whispered.

The girl's voice rose as she remarked angrily, glancing at her brother's face, "Your fatalism slays me."

"Who says it's fatalism? These are the facts. Don't you understand? Do you think we'd survive if we were separated? We're conjoined and must remain so. Separation would mean destruction. Living implies being conjoined like this. Calm down. We have each other. We'll never be lonely while we're together."

"Yes," she said sarcastically. "Yes, but who says I'm not lonely? Does being conjoined prevent me from feeling lonely? And other emotions—what about them? Can you answer me? Why must we always sleep together on our back? When we tire of that, we wake up and sit or stand. Wouldn't you like to try sleeping on your side or even on your belly? Why must I get up whenever you need to pee—even when I've been sound asleep? Why must I listen to you snore or else bury my head under the pillow to sleep?"

"Who says you don't snore?"

"If I do and my snoring disturbs you, why don't you shake a leg and try to separate from me? I'd like to see my own shadow outlined alone on the earth I walk across. Do you grasp that when I look in the mirror I want to see my body, alone, all by itself, with all its attributes, without you. Come, come … try to drag yourself to the large mirror on the front of the armoire, so we can both look together and scrutinize our image. If one of our heads vanished, wouldn't we, in our current configuration, be a spider? Yes! We're actually nothing more nor less than a spider. A spider!" She screamed that word as she repeated it. Then she covered her face with both hands and wept.

The boy butted his head against the ground. Then he calmly pulled himself away, and they moved off together to sit down. In a whisper, he began, "You're always cross. I've never known you to do anything but scream and remind us of a condition we're forced to accept. You blame me as if I were responsible. You even refuse to understand that I, just like you, reject our situation, but rejection isn't enough without action. Under these circumstances, though, any action is futile. We're really conjoined, and separating us wouldn't be simple. Believe me: I would accept this operation even if it caused many wounds, bleeding, and even disfigurement. But it would mean death—your death or mine--perhaps we would both die."

"Death? What is there to our life that you to refuse to leave it? Do you call eating, drinking, defecating, and sleeping life? Tell me how many times you've jumped with alarm when you heard a child's voice and trembled for fear he would see us and flee or tell the other kids the secret of our grandmother, who has hidden us for fifteen years? What kind of life forces you to stagnate inside this locked room, even when Granny forgets to lock the house door? What kind of life forces you to smell every foul odor I emit and me to smell your every stink, voluntarily? What kind of life is it that forces you to share the same bed, same chair, and even the same potty?"

Hearing their grandmother's footsteps, they stopped talking and pretended to be calm. Their grandmother entered and asked, "So . . . are you still quarreling? Aren't you too old for this, Sweetheart?" She approached them affectionately.

The boy smiled and looked up at her inquisitively. "Granny, how did you diaper us when we were little?"

The girl objected sarcastically, "That's past history. Ask her about our future. Ask her how they'll place us in our coffin and how wide it will need to be."

Her grandmother cast her a baleful glance. Then looking at her grandson, she reminisced, "I remember that when the nurse emerged from the delivery room to tell me your mother had passed away, I almost fainted. A woman who was also waiting for her daughter to deliver rushed to me and grasped me with both hands while mumbling prayers for the protection of the other new mothers and for God's compassion for your mother. What made me jump with fright, though, was the scream of the nurse charged with bringing you to me. When I heard her scream, I raced desperately into that room. Then I saw the nurse, who had frozen in place and begun to tremble. Her face was disfigured by fear and disgust as she stared at the two of you, placing a hand on her mouth, from time to time, to close it. I rushed to you. Your eyes were still closed, and your hands and feet were hanging down. When I first saw you, I was surprised the nurse was so alarmed, but when I examined you closely. . . ."

The girl interrupted her, "You were alarmed and disgusted like the nurse, weren't you?"

The elderly woman, who seemed distracted, replied a bit hesitantly, "No, I never felt sorrowful, disappointed, or fearful about how things turned out. I was never disgusted by you. I was just afraid that someone would see you and you would become a never-ending spectacle, a carnival attraction for gawkers. When I saw you were conjoined, I felt flustered, because I hadn't brought the clothes your bodies required. I had never imagined you would be the way I found you. So I hastily took the scarf from my head and wrapped it around you. Somehow, I don't remember how, I placed the two of you under my abaya and rushed out. I was confused; partly because I had you with me, I scurried out of the hospital. My thoughts were torn between looking for a safe place for you and wondering who would help me collect your mother's body. The taxi driver I hired to take me home kept staring at me in the rearview mirror. When the vehicle's rough ride over potholes scared you and one of you started to cry, he turned back toward me in alarm and asked, 'What's that noise?' I replied anxiously, 'It's the baby. He must be hungry.' I began to rock you in my arms, trying to seem as natural as possible. When the other one of you started to fuss, I became even more agitated. The man turned round again and asked, 'Are they twins?' 'Yes, yes,' I replied, terminating the conversation by bursting into tears. 'Their mother died in childbirth, and I need to go home to find someone to help me pick up the body and bury her.' The driver, who didn't know whether to believe me or not, turned forward again and sped toward my house.

"When the neighbor woman saw me weeping, she became upset and raced to me, asking, 'What's happened, Umm Ghayib? Where have you been?' I choked up when I told her your mother had died. I don't know where I found the strength to pull her close to me and whisper in a hoarse voice, 'Alawiya, listen to this secret and swear to God you'll never tell anyone.' I was barely able to stick my left hand in my thawb pocket and pull out the house key. 'Take this and open the door,' I instructed her. So my neighbor opened the door, and I rushed you inside, heading to the bedroom, where I set you on the floor, which was spread with a tattered mat. I heard her say, 'In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,' when she rushed in and saw you—your two bodies intertwined and your cords wrapped around your feet before ending at a single placenta. You were fidgeting and crying. I left to search for a blade to cut the cords, after saying, 'Alawiya, watch them till I return.' I don't know how long it took me to find scissors in my store, go to the kitchen, and light the gas cooker. Then I grasped the scissors with a thick piece of cloth and held one blade over the fire till it glowed and then turned black. I turned off the cooker and wiped the scissors with another scrap of cloth in the kitchen. I heard you screeching all this time. I ran back to the room where my neighbor was bent over you, watching you, as your crying became ever louder.

Approaching you, I asked the Alawite woman to help me. She sat opposite me and tried to seize your feet. Then I took the first umbilical cord and severed it. I bound a cotton thread tight around the end and quickly tried to cut the second cord. But pain caused the child to squirm and move his limbs, flailing the air, making both bodies move, so cutting the cord was difficult. My hand had to anticipate the movement of two bodies, to cut at the right place and not hurt you. So I was obliged to place my knee on you and ever so quickly seized the cord to cut it. Your bodies started to squirm beneath me. Then I lifted my knee off you, pivoted, and fastened the second cord with a second cotton thread. You kept on screaming, and I was very frightened. Then I saw a fist rise to seize a dangling lock that had escaped from my scarf, which had almost fallen off my head. You," she said, pointing at her granddaughter, "Tugged on the lock angrily."

She continued, "Your hand relaxed and released my hair when my neighbor placed a little warm water on your lips, sweetened with sugar. You began to taste, with your mouths, a new liquid, instead of fluid from your mother's placenta. You two were lucky to have your first sip of life be sweet. That old lady whispered to you and continued talking to you, as she tried to avoid looking at your faces."

The boy asked, "Were we still naked?"

His grandmother replied, "While my neighbor fed you, I seized the opportunity to search the armoire for a big piece of cloth to wrap you in. All I found was a white prayer cloak. I tore off the top to create a long rectangle and cut from it a sash-like piece that I tore in half. I fetched another piece of clean cloth that I soaked in water and then squeezed firmly to use to wipe the blood off you. Once you fell asleep, I collected the placenta, the remnants of the umbilical cords, and the blood-stained cloth from the ground to put in a black, nylon bag I removed from the room. When I returned, the Alawite woman asked me, 'How will you swaddle them?' So I sat down on the floor and stuck out my feet and told her, 'Come sit beside me and poke out your feet too.' So she did. We spread the white cloth over our feet and forcefully but calmly pulled you toward us and placed you on our out-stretched, cloth-draped feet. I wrapped one side of the cloth over you while she fixed the other side. Then I folded the bottom edge to cover your feet. Next I placed the cloth sash below your backs and folded its ends, bit by bit, over your chests, descending lower. So as not to scare you, I gestured to the Alawite woman to bring me the little bed and pillow I had prepared for the new baby. I lifted you up from her feet, which she gently extracted, so she could go to the armoire, from the top of which she brought the bedding, which she placed on the floor. She stretched her hand out toward you, and together we lifted you, placing you on the bed, which we had spread out, and you slept. Ever since then you've always shared things. Whenever I needed to change your clothes, I would slip out and knock on her door. Then the Alawite would come to help me with the chore, and that continued for many months."

"What about my mother? What happened to her?" The girl asked.

"The Alawite's husband and another, younger man were waiting at the door for us when we emerged, leaving you sleeping. They offered me their condolences, and I rushed off with them to the hospital, while she stayed with you. I told her to feed you only sugar moistened with water till I came back. We hired a taxi. Once we arrived, I rushed ahead of the two men to the nurses' station. The nurses told me her body had been moved to Emergency Services. So I raced there. They asked me for her ID card and certificate of nationality. I handed them these documents, which I had brought to record the birth certificate. Then they asked me to sign some papers, but I told them I don't know how to read or write. So I stamped them with my thumb print. When I saw your mother, lying shrouded on the gurney, I lost control of myself and screamed at the top of my lungs, bitterly pounding my chest repeatedly with both hands. The two men hastened to me and tried to calm me. The Alawite's husband asked the other man to procure a coffin for the body to take her to the mortuary washing area. I stood by her head, wailing, and heard some men who were standing there recite the Qur'an's Fatiha for her soul. It took the man more than an hour to return with the coffin, which he deposited at the Emergency Entrance. Two patients waiting there lifted your mother, one by her head and the other by her feet, after I spread a quilt beneath her. Yes. They set her in the wooden coffin, which they carried after covering it with her abaya, and placed it on the taxi's roof to take to the place corpses are washed and…"

"Auntie! Auntie, do you have cooking oil? Auntie! Where are you?" The voice by the house door interrupted her narrative.

"Yes," she called. "I'm coming. Yes, I have oil. Stay there! I'm coming. Coming!"

The old woman exited rather hurriedly and latched the door to their room. They remained as they were, trying to imagine what had become of their mother. They tried to imagine her--how she had died and what she looked like when she died. They both wept, feeling responsible for her death.

"I wonder what my mother looked like," the girl mused. "I really wish I could see her now. Where do you think Granny hides her picture?"

"I believe probably in the store."


"I don't know … Perhaps so we won't see it and get upset."

"Should our pain prevent us from seeing it?"

"She thinks we're still too young to deal with the pain. She doesn't realize how much pain we cope with every day."

"Let's search for it."

"What about Daddy? Where's his picture, I wonder."

"Which parent do you think we resemble?"

They stood up, pushing off the ground, and began to search for their mother's picture. Their search, though, was in vain. Not finding it, they sat back down and tried to imagine what she had looked like. Each attributed to her the most beautiful features, and they began to smile.

When their grandmother returned, she was astonished to find them so happy, because she had not seen them like this for a long time. "How splendid you are!" She exclaimed. "You seem to be thinking about something lovely!"

They both noticed her at the same time, but the male twin quickly answered, "We've been thinking about Mommy! Granny, which one of us looks like her?"

The old lady tried to hide the pain this question caused her and steeled herself. Sitting down she replied, "You're both her spitting image. She might have been your sister or twin. She was gorgeous: just like the two of you. Even pregnancy didn't change her looks."

"Please let us see her picture, Granny," the girl asked.

"Don't claim you haven't preserved a photo of her—even if it's just a little one," The male twin insisted.

The old woman could not resist her grandchildren's pleas and yielded. As she rose to leave, she said in a sad, low voice, "I'll bring it from there," and pointed toward her store.

They did not have long to wait; their grandmother returned with a dusty, medium-size picture framed in plastic and held it near them. She said, "Here they are. It's their wedding picture. I gave in to their request to have one made. In our clan, it wasn't customary to have wedding pictures taken by a photographer, but your father insisted. I feared that if I didn't humor this request, he wouldn't willingly return to me. So I went to the shop with them and paid attention to the way the photographer portrayed them. At first your mother refused to remove her abaya. She yielded once she saw how delighted your father was with her."

The woman continued telling them everything that happened when the picture was taken. They were speechless. Their tear-filled eyes gazed at the elegant young couple, who sealed their happiness together with a smile.

"My! … Aren't they splendid!" the woman exclaimed, trying to hold back her tears with the edge of her long scarf. She did not listen for a response from them, because her thoughts strayed to a moment when she had been seated as usual in her little store, surrounded by some women who stopped there to analyze news of men—whether sons, husbands, or conscripts.

They were fully engaged in a conversation they wished would offer a slender thread of hope that this war, which had lasted for many years and which still plucked fresh-faced boys in their prime and returned them only days later from its furnace as random body parts in wooden boxes called coffins, which were wrapped in shreds of flags. Just hours later, a poster was hung on the front the martyr's house. Carelessly scrawled on it would be: "Heroic Martyr." No street lacked these posters that boasted of death.

She had a hunch something would happen that day—that perhaps she would receive a box in a flag too. She had sensed it when she dropped the breakfast tray she was bringing to her husband, who was seated, watching his daughter-in-law's pain and distress, which had afflicted her for days.

She had whispered to herself, "God our Shield!" before falling silent again.

She ate listlessly with her husband and daughter-in-law. Then this aged couple left—she to the next room, which she had turned into a shop, and her hunched husband, whose head hung toward the ground and whose gait revealed his sorrow and ill health, to the coffeehouse—while the daughter-in-law tried to stretch out on her back after pacing many steps back and forth in the room and outside it--something her aunt had suggested to speed the delivery.

The old woman opened the shop door to welcome the morning light and quickly turned on the radio, which broadcast odes to war and announcements of the glad tidings of imminent victory. The chatterboxes gathered round the old woman and began to discuss the latest news they had heard. In no time at all a black, rescue squad car drove up, and two policemen got out. They headed to the store and asked for the home of Military Conscript Ali.

The old lady became agitated and screamed at them, "What's happened to him?"

The two officers urged her to be strong, but news of her son's martyrdom made her beat her face and head repeatedly while she look back and forth between the two men and the women, who also began to wail and strike themselves.

A young man raced off to the coffeehouse to summon Ali's father. He wanted him to come to take custody of his boy's remains.

When the pregnant daughter-in-law was startled awake by the clamorous voices, she came to the door, bareheaded, and peered out. Hearing her husband's name repeated by the policemen, she lost her balance. The moment the old woman saw her fall toward the ground, she rushed down the hall to her and pulled her back into the bedroom, assisted by the other women, who all tried to seat her on the floor and prop her up, while one woman raced to fetch some water to sprinkle on the face of the pregnant woman, who had fainted.

The woman continued slapping her breast and head but quickly covered her daughter-in-law with a sheet, which had been lying in a corner. Then she saw a young man rush to the door and enter, crying out, "Auntie, Abu Ali has died!"

In a weak voice, the old lady answered, "I know Ali's aunt died."

"No! Auntie! Abu Ali … your husband has died."

"What?" When the old woman grasped his message, she shrieked, "When?"

"He fell over dead in the coffeehouse when they told him his son was martyred."

"Auntie, Aunt Umm Ghayib! Where are you? Are you here?" Although she scarcely heard these words, the voice brought her back to the present, after the past had materialized before her as clearly as the day all those sorrows overwhelmed her.

She rose and replied, "Yes, yes … I'm coming," and hurried out.

The twins would each have liked to whisper to their parents the new sense of loss they were experiencing now and to insert herself between her parents in that photo. If their parents were alive, though, everything would have been different, of course.

They both wept silently for their parents. They wept these stifled tears for a long time. They wept streams, because these tears had been filling their reservoir for ever so long, before finding release now. Their spirits emitted a low moan. Each of them wished to fall asleep hugging the picture, but being conjoined made that impossible. So they placed it in front of them, leaned it against the wall, and gazed at it through their tears.

"Are you two hungry?" Their grandmother asked as she entered.

They did not reply and continued to stare gravely at their reclaimed treasure. Grief left them no room for hunger.

Their grandmother, thinking she would cheer them up, tried to remove the picture, but they were shocked and shouted in unison, "No! Why?" They thought she meant to return it to its place in the store.

"No! Please don't do that!" The boy begged.

The girl added, "Granny, would you deprive us even of their photo? Don't be as cruel as destiny!"

So they were able to play on her sympathies, and she decided to leave it with them.

In a quavering voice she said, "Yes, I will, but on condition that you listen to what I have to say. I'll hang your parents' picture in your room, if you save a place for me in your lives. I'm your granny who will never give you up. Besides, I'm an old woman who has no life without you. Yes, I meet other people and support us that way. I sell and buy so we can live together. Understand? Don't write me out of your lives or leave me; or we'll all die. I need you just as much as you need me."

They understood then that their grandmother feared the picture might deprive her of them, that their fascination with the family they had lost might suck them in, and that her image as a living, present person might gradually fade, even though she could not survive without them.

They moved their eyes from the picture of a past they had not been able to experience even for a moment, a past that did not seem to have room for them, that they could not fathom and the inescapable present, a present that asked them to obey only its voice, which was represented by an old woman who meant the world to them.

"Yes, Granny," the boy said, gazing at his grandmother, "You are our whole family."

His sister echoed him: "Who else do we have? If you left us, we would surely die."

The woman, who wanted to rush and hug them, instead beamed a sincere smile at them and slowly wiped away her tears. She left, saying, "I'll bring lunch."

Moments later the boy told his sister, "I think Daddy and Mommy were happy together."

"How can you tell?"

"When you sense that someone lives with you voluntarily and that you can confide all your secrets to him and tell him everything you feel—that's happiness!"

"Do you, for example, have secrets?"

"Yes, I do. Who doesn't? You also must have matters you hide from me. Isn't that so?"

"What are your secrets?"

"How can secrets remain secret if we share them?"

"Listen, Brother: Granny knows all our secrets. I think she knows more about us than we know about ourselves. That means we have no secrets."

"That dear woman has burdened herself with our secret."

"Right, but didn't she say another woman learned our secret, too? Why don't we remember anything about her? Where do you suppose she disappeared to?"

"I don't know… "

They fell silent again, and the girl gazed at the photo, scrutinizing it. The man was resting his arm on the back of the bride's chair. She looked shy with her smile and white dress.

Under her breath the girl said, "You're really beautiful! I wish I had lived at least some moments with you. Would you have loved me? I think so, because I love you, Mommy and Daddy."

"Let's stand up and put the picture on that shelf," the boy said, pointing to a shelf high on the wall.

They rose together and placed the picture on the shelf. Just then their grandmother entered carrying a tray of food.

"Granny," the girl said. "Tomorrow we're going to fix lunch. You can taste our cooking."

Smiling, the grandmother replied, "That will be the most delicious food I've ever eaten— If only because the two of you made it."

"Is that true, Granny?" the boy asked.

She replied, "Do you have any reason to doubt that? You are my spirit." Then she bowed her head toward her plate.

"Granny, where's that woman you told us about? The woman who helped you when we were born?" The boy inquired.

"Oh … you mean the Alawite woman. They moved away long ago. I was thinking about her today and told our neighbor, the seamstress, when she came to buy buttons that the next time she sees her she should ask that woman to visit us. She's a truly fine woman and my only friend."

"Granny, do you think she told other people about us?" he asked.

"I don't think so. If she had told even one person, that news would have boomeranged back to me. When secrets leave mouths, they race back to their rightful owners," his grandmother answered.

"What's so great about a person keeping a secret?" The girl asked.

"Do you think keeping a secret is an easy matter, Young Lady? No way! She's a really good woman who helped me a lot. She stood by me many times."

"You mean when our mother died?" the girl inquired.

"Not just then. Do you know, Young Man," she asked the boy, "that she circumcised you? Yes, she did. When you started screaming with pain and had trouble urinating, I went to her for help, so agitated I almost tripped at her door. She said you needed to be circumcised. When she saw how upset and clueless I was, she persuaded the male nurse to lend her a scalpel, disinfectant, and cotton. Perhaps your pain gave her the courage to do that. She asked me to grasp your feet and to hold your legs apart. Then with extreme caution, she approached and cut it. I saw that she was perspiring profusely as your screams and your sister's resounded. You didn't hush till I held the cotton wad, which was soaked in something that smelled like kerosene, to your nose. You fell asleep then, but your sister didn't till I fed her a bottle of milk. If not for the Alawite, Boy, you might not…"

She bowed her head once more toward her plate.

Then she said encouragingly, "Eat up. Doesn't the food taste great?"

"Yes, Granny," the boy responded. "Everything you fix for us is really delicious. In fact, it's the most delicious food in the world."

The girl objected, "How do you know it's the most delicious when it's all you've ever eaten?"

He did not reply and instead kept his gaze fixed on his grandmother's face as she tried to hide her displeasure at what her granddaughter had said.

"I just meant we haven't tried any other cooking besides Granny's. It's certainly tasty, but…" she stammered and could not finish her sentence. She watched as her grandmother tried to swallow a morsel of food with great difficulty. The old woman finally choked down that morsel, straightened herself, and started to rise, saying, "I'll fetch some water. I feel thirsty."

"Granny, don't get up. We'll bring the water," the boy said hastily.

"Yes, we'll get it," the girl agreed.

They pushed off the ground, rose, and headed to the hall leading to the small, galley kitchen, where an electric bulb dangled from the ceiling. A Butagas stove sat at the far end. Beneath the water spigot, which was near the door, stood a metal table covered with a nylon cloth. On it were placed a number of plastic cups and a water bottle that was half full. As they approached, the girl's hand quickly picked up the bottle and placed it beneath the tap, which she turned on, filling it. At the same time, the boy's hand reached for a cup, which he picked up. Then they returned, without finding a word to say, and entered the room as they had left it—shoulder first, because they could not fit through the door frontally. They presented the bottle and cup to their grandmother silently, but their eyes apologized for their stupidity. Their grandmother accepted their offering and invited them to sit down near her.

In a voice fraught with diverse emotions she ventured, "You know … we do not always need to try everything to realize what's best for us. Take me, for example. Since I left my family's house as a bride, this is the only home I have ever known. But I'm convinced that it's the most beautiful house on earth.

"Indeed, it represents my entire life. I even bought it from the previous owner, from whom I used to rent it, after my son was martyred. Yes, I could not leave it. I was married here, I gave birth to my only son here, I married him off here, and you were born and have always lived here. Even so, it hasn't really been a happy house … not at all. My husband died here, after suffering a lot. My precious daughter, whom I loved as much as your father, died here, and I lived here when the war deprived me of the apple of my eye. All the same, it seems to me to be the most beautiful house in the entire world, as I told you, and I shan't leave it till I die. So, do you understand: We can't try everything to discover what's best, because not everyone has alternatives readily available; some experiments just aren't possible. Understand?"

Then she collected the leftovers on the tray, which she carried away to the kitchen.


First published in Arabic as: Ba'idan 'an al-'Ankabut, Harisati Hamama, wa Akrahu Madinati (Erbil: Dar Aras lil-Tiba'a wa-l-Nashr [Aras Press, Aras Publishers] 2012) pp.5-29.


Translator's Note

The author has explained that the gender differentiation of the conjoined twins is a literary device. Biologically speaking, conjoined twins share a gender, barring some transgender issue. Readers troubled by this use of artistic license may think of the twins as Hasan and Husayn (or Zaynab and Nafisa).

William M. Hutchins


Faleeha Hassan was born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1967. She earned an M.A. in Arabic literature and has published several collections of poetry in Arabic: Being a Girl, A Visit to the Museum of Shade, Five Titles for My Friend-The Sea, Though Later On, Poems to Mother, Gardenia Perfume, and her collection of children's poetry, The Guardian of Dreams. Her works of Arabic prose include Hazinia or Shortage of Joy Cells and Water Freckles. Her poems have been translated into English, Italian, German, French, and Kurdish. She has received awards from the Arab Linguists and Translators Association (WATA) and the Najafi Creative Festival for 2012, as well as the Prize of Naziq al-Malaika, the Prize of al-Mu'tamar for poetry, and the short story prize of the Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation.


William Maynard Hutchins, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation in 2005-2006 for his translation from Arabic of The Seven Veils of Seth by Ibrahim al-Koni and again in 2011-2012 for a translation of New Waw by Ibrahim al-Koni. Scheduled for release in 2015 are his translations of French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir, The Scarecrow by Ibrahim al-Koni and A Portal in Space by Mahmoud Saeed .