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Novel Questions the 'Honor' in Honor Crime
By Kim Jensen
Houses Behind the Trees, by Mohammed El-Bisatie, Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. University of Texas Press, 1998.
Mohammed El-Bisatie's novella, "The Houses Behind the Trees," is a brief, almost dreamlike tale of marital betrayal and thwarted revenge. The story, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, takes place in a small farming village in the Egyptian Delta during the1956 war. In it, a young wife named Saadiya is unfaithful to her much older husband, Mussad, who walks in on the lovers by surprise. He immediately locks Saadiya in the shed and goes to stay with a friend while deciding what to do about the violation.
According to the custom of the day, he is within his rights to kill both of them: his wife and her lover, Amer. But it happens that the young lover is a special favorite of the older man. He practically raised the boy himself, so this complicates matters. During Mussad's baffled retreat, while the villagers (especially Mussad's greedy, small-minded sister) wait for Saadiya's and Amer's death, the narrative swings into a series of flashbacks. These detours into the past offer glimpses of the prior life of the young wife, who is both an orphan and an evacuee from the Suez.
"House Behind the Trees" can best be described as impressionistic. The reader must pay strict attention in order to interpret the obliquely-drawn plot. The writing is dotted with half-sentences and phrases , lending a loosely cinematic feel. Rapid shifts from past to present indicate a gesture toward the stream-of-consciousness approach. References to the particulars of time and space are also indirect; for example, the reader is forced to guess which war the book refers to (judging from certain details, it must be the 1956 occupation by Britain, France, and Israel.) The reader is also asked to decide if, in fact, Saadiya ever committed adultery in the first place. Bisatie's novella thus moves along in a kind of shadowy way, as if the North African heat had soaked into the pores of the story, slowing it, rendering it ambiguous and even, at times, inert.
Since the narrator maintains an aesthetic distance from the characters, there are no strong moral or authorial judgments in the book. Each character is treated with either detachment or muted, subtle sympathy. And while Saadiya is predictably sensualized, (she lounges around in thin robes and velvet slippers, takes long baths, allows herself to be seen uncovered) she is neither demonized nor seen as a rebellious heroine. She, like most of the characters here, lacks any sort of determination or inner force. Most of the villagers are seen as passive and impoverished inhabitants of a world devoid of color and passion. Even the meals described are unappetizingCboiled meat, plain beans.
When reading this sad recitation, where nothing is truly resolved, and where there's an overwhelming sense of inertia verging on despair, readers will probably take divergent points of view. Some readers might look at this disheartening tale and close the book with a resounding "So what?" But, for those who choose to read this war-era piece as an allegory for the Pan-Arabist/ Nasserite Nakbah, the figure drawn here of a wronged man who dies before he can wreak his revenge becomes a terrible and tragically irreversible image.
KIM JENSEN is a writer and teacher who has lived and taught in Palestine. Her co-translations of Mahmoud Darwish have appeared in several North American magazines. She has had her own fiction and poetry published in a variety of literary journals such as Poetry Flash, Quarter After Eight, Fish Stories, and Five Fingers Review.