Peirene Press specialise in high-quality fiction, mostly European – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. They curate their books by theme, and Under the Tripoli Sky (a novella by Libyan-born writer Kamal Ben Hameda, first published in French in 2011) is the third in their Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series. I’ve already reviewed the second book in this series, The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, and the first (The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov) is in my tbr pile.
Under the Tripoli Sky takes us back to the 1960s where we meet Hadachinou, a young Muslim boy living in Tripoli with his parents and two elder brothers. The novella takes the form a series of vignettes in which Hadachinou observes his mother, aunts and other women in the community as they go about their days cooking and taking care of their homes and families. Hadachinou’s mother often seems oblivious to the young boy’s presence when other women are around, thereby giving him ample opportunity to listen to their discussions and gain a sense of their lives. It soon becomes clear that many of the women suffer at the hands of their husbands and other men in the community. For instance, Hadachinou’s Aunt Hiba feels the need to hide her face and back away from people in shame, even her young nephew:
She didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband, Uncle Saïd, who went through life with a big full belly, chain-smoking and raining down blows and instructions on the unfortunate woman. He beat her whatever state he was in, drunk of first thing in the morning, and on any grounds. Not enough salt in the couscous or, no, too much! She’d overdone the flavouring or, no, she hadn’t put in enough! (pg, 27)
And as Hadachinou’s characterful great-aunt Nafissa summarises, ‘the only thing men are interested in is destroying with one hand what they’ve created with the other.’
They swagger about in front of their wives and children, but when they get together in their bistros and their mosques they draw in their horns. They’re deceitful and servile when they don’t have any power, and depraved and offensive when they do.’ (pg. 35)
Hadachinou’s mother takes comfort from her friendship with her childhood friend, Jamila, and the novella contains some beautiful passages as the young boy watches the women discussing their secrets and hopes for the future:
I stepped forward cautiously and saw them through half-open curtains, in the muted light of the living room. Wrapped in a single peaceful moment, like a beautiful calm sky after whirlwinds and storms, wind and rain have cleared. Simply there together: my mother and her soul sister, her alter ego, Jamila. Two innocent, well-behaved girls who wanted nothing else than to spend time together uninterrupted, their bodies resting full length on a humble old carpet and their arms dancing about to articulate their words more fully. (pg. 51)
The women in the community come together over tea and pastries, and family life tends to revolve around the preparation and serving of a selection of tempting dishes. This is not a book to read when you’re feeling hungry as the evocative descriptions of food will have you heading for the kitchen:
Fella really loved honey sweets, particularly the ones flavoured with rose water. She often cooked them herself on an old stove in her tiny kitchenette, using a slow flame to simmer the caramel made of pure spring water, acacia honey, lavender and rose water. Then she generously offered it to everyone in the neighbourhood. (pg. 29-30)
But at the centre of many of the novella’s vignettes lies the tension between the men and women in the community, a relationship characterised by episodes of abuse and violence. We hear a number of distressing and brutal stories: a man who forces himself upon his wife; a woman who kills her violent husband; a woman who takes her own life in a terrifying manner in order to avoid an arranged marriage. And this tale of a woman who seeks medical help without first gaining the permission of her husband:
Do you know what one local man did to his wife when she went to hospital to see a doctor without his permission? She was having trouble breathing, poor thing, and was often terribly out of breath. Every time she complained about it to her husband, he brushed her aside with a “stop being such a pain! I’ve got better things to be doing…Go on, piss off, filthy thing!” And when he found out that she’d dared go to the doctor, he sliced off her nose and rejected her, saying, “Now you’ve got no nostrils you’ll be able to breathe perfectly well.” (pgs. 85-86)
During the novella, there is a sense that Hadachinou is going through a period of self-discovery, and when Siddena, a fifteen-year-old black girl comes to live with his family to help with the household chores, the young boy is attracted to this fascinating girl. While Under the Tripoli Sky is a coming-of-age story, there is a distinct maturity to Hadachinou’s voice which suggests he is looking back on his days as a young boy a number of years down the line.
Under the Tripoli Sky presents an interesting and sensitively-written insight into the different cultures in Tripoli in the 1960s (the city is inhabited by Muslims, Jews, Christians and the American military). The threat of violence and tension lingers, both within the homes of the families we meet and the city itself (there are references to Mussolini’s arrival in Tripoli many years before). Some sections of Under the Tripoli Sky may make for uncomfortable reading, but as is often the case with translated fiction, this novella offers us a window into another part of the world.
Grant at 1streading has also reviewed this book.
Under the Tripoli Sky (tr. by Adriana Hunter) is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.