Literary CornerThe dreams of Nabila, A Yemeni tale (2/2) [Archives:2005/860/Culture]

July 18 2005

By Abu Alkalmah Al-Tayyibah
Subject Book: The Dreams of Nabila, A Yemeni Tale1

Author: Aziza Abdullah (Abu Luhoum)

Language: Arabic

Publisher: Al-Khaniji Bookshop

Year Published: (1st) 1998

The Dreams of Nabila, is actually a play on words of the names of two characters in the story that Aziza Abdullah relates to us in the narrative. It is also a double narrative story, since Aziza retells the narration of Halima, or Ahlam, the story of a struggling Yemeni woman, who is trying to find her place in the world amidst so much transgression, ignorance and little regard for individual rights, especially those of a woman. The first woman is Ahlam. She is the fighting woman, who starts out as a helpless submissive girl ready to obey her parents and let them map out her life for her. Over time, Ahlam (which means dreams or aspirations in Arabic) becomes a woman that is forced to shoulder heavy responsibilities, of a negligent husband, who divorces her for no direct fault of hers and a father, who is overzealous in his enforcement of social norms, while at the same time ready to submit to his own emotional weaknesses. Nabila comes late in the story, but she is the symbol of all the agony that Ahlam has gone through in life. She is her dear younger brother's daughter, the last of the many children that Ahlam has had to bear responsibility for. Driven by circumstances and her own energy, Ahlam has gone through all this transition from a farming community daughter to a city socialite, yet without really finding anyone who will be ready to listen to her to get at the tons of disillusionment that the hearts must bear. The author places herself in the story as that of a high flying socialite, who still has not been overwhelmed by the nonchalance of rapidly rising socialites, who have forgotten that they also came from the same roots and origins that Ahlam, most of whom have questionable paths to wealth and prominence in the society.

The narrator per chance meets Ahlam in one of the social gatherings for women in Sana'a, where Ahlam has become a regular attendant. Nabila came to this gathering with the child of her brother sick in her arms, but then that is not so unusual for many Yemeni women, who must adhere to a continuous presence in the social life of their peers, even if they are like Ahlam, who is expected to know better. This was part of the rebellious spirit in Ahlam or Hlaimah. Even the sloppy way of how she makes herself up could not hide a hidden beauty, that still stands out in a woman in her fourth decade of age. For five years the author works hard on Ahlam. She got close to her by showing her concern for the child – Nabila – that was in her arms. Her concern was adorned with kindness as she had the child put in the hospital and cared for, even before she got the slightest hint of what Ahlam's and Nabila's background was all about. This concern was much appreciated by Ahlam and she was condescending to reveal her life story to the author/narrator of the tale.

In a privately arranged afternoon chew, Nabila revealed her life story. Coming from the area of Haraz, Ahlam grew up and married and bore a child. She came from a typical farming family that did not have much but managed to get by. Her father and her husband were also Yemeni expatriate workers, who would go on and off to work in the Gulf states, presumably the United Arab Emirates, make a little money and come back to spend it, dividing half for enhancement of their welfare and the other half to enhance their social status. Like all Yemeni families, Ahlam's family went through the ordeals of providers leaving for months sometimes unheard of throughout their absence. Only when they all of a sudden return does some of the deprivation and loneliness suffered by the remaining relatives, especially the young and aspiring Ahlam become addressed somewhat, only to be forced to return to another span of time of loneliness and despair. Because of a dispute over money between her husband and father, Ahlam was not allowed anymore to live with her husband, although she already bore him a son. When she was finally divorced, she suffered the ordeal of not being allowed to see her son, except discreetly. Her life moves on. Her brother has shot her sons (from the first and second marriages) and from there the story moves from the wedding where the accident took place to efforts to get her brother out of jail, the arrangement of the blood money and all the other calamities and ordeals that must be overcome in such a mixed up situation. The husband is bound to avenge the shooting of his son by the brother of his former wife. She undergoes a miscarriage.

The fast paced narration takes us now to Sana'a, where Nabila becomes the informal provider for her mother, her brother and her sons, as well as her brother's daughter Nabila. Her father is dead and for the first time she feels free and ready to shoulder her responsibilities with pleasure. Her husband has once again left for the Gulf to earn a nest egg. Her brother left for the United States. It is up to Ahlam to take over the household. She manages to etch out a living for all that is not extravagant but nevertheless gets them by. Eventually, as her mother in law and half brother decide to evict the rest of the clan out, she transforms into another person. A person seeking revenge against all those who made her life so miserable. She starts off by getting some powerful dignitary to get back the house she worked so hard to build up after her father died. She was able to get rid of her mother in law and her half brother. The story goes on with the new vengeful Ahlam prevailing. The author/narrator wants to help but realizes after five years that it is simply impossible to overcome what an ingrained social order has set in Ahlam in her four decades of ongoing struggle. Where does one start and where does one end? Ahlam is set on her wild anger against society, the hypocrisy she sees and the transgressions that never end.

A great insight into the labyrinth of a modern society yearning to come out of a decaying social regime.

1 The word “riwayah” in Arabic is sometimes used to mean novel, but the book under analysis here is more of a narrative of a tale revealed to the author by its leading player, who the author names as Halimah (Forbearing or enduring) and Ahlam (Dreams – along the lines of hopeful aspirations).