Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the August 2011 issue

Dolls and Angels

Hannan didn’t realize how late it was or even that it was late. Today was different. It was an extraordinary moment in every respect. Her mother was no longer the woman she knew, and the neighborhood wasn’t the same one that she had always found outside her doorway.

At dawn, before foot traffic picked up or the rusty metal barriers of the shops were raised, her mother had quit her bed, which was located to the left of the door. Hannan remembers that this was after the dawn call to prayer. She also recalls that the Primus stove in the kitchen began to hum melodiously. She didn’t see the washbasin filled and set on the Primus stove; instead she detected these procedures from what she heard and smelled.

The sounds of her mother nicking something on hard metal gave Hannan goose bumps. Her mother was “cleaning” the Primus stove, and the smell, which was strong enough to make a person sick, overwhelmed their home for some minutes. Then it faded away when the kerosene caught fire with a pop, which was followed by a brief echo. Next she heard a monotonous descent into a void as the basin was filled with water. Something heavy suddenly collapsed onto something else, and there was a quick “whoosh.” Then the roar continued with its familiar rhythm, which Hannan knew only too well. The basin had settled on the Primus stove after a drop of water from it had slid into the fire.

Her mother was in the small yard, on the bare ground, moving about barefoot.

She didn’t wake her or at least didn’t mean to wake her the way she did every morning. She tried to perform her chores as quietly as possible. It was still too early to rise, but young Hannan, who slept like the angels, her innocent face resembling those of the heavenly maidens, woke as quickly as lightning. At least this is what her grandmother said one day: “Hannan, you sleep like a heavenly angel and wake up like demons at the slightest sound!” Ever since, the grandmother had kept repeating this anecdote to Hannan’s mother whenever she thought Hannan wouldn’t hear her.

And the little girl did hear, especially when her grandmother hissed feverishly, “Watch out! You two need to do that during the daytime.”

Hannan looked at a corner of the room and saw by the dawn’s meager light that her grandmother, like all the other household effects, was resting tranquilly. She was just a mound that emitted regular, heavy breathing.

Hannan closed her eyes once more and—like the heavenly maidens—fell asleep again, because it was still early. She was dreaming about another kind of doll—not one of the rag dolls her grandmother kept making for her. She wanted a doll that closed its eyes when it slept and sang when it woke!

* * *

That morning Hannan clasped her cloth bag and rushed off to school. This was the same bag she always carried when she left the house. It contained her notebook, a pencil, and half a pita spread with dry za‘atar. That was all Hannan’s bag normally contained, but today, which in no way followed a normal day’s routine, something new had turned up.

Her grandmother had approached her and said, “Take good care of what I’m about to give you.”

Hannan was eager to know what it was and wanted to ask, but her grandmother immediately said, “What do you think about this doll? I made it especially for you yesterday.”

Then she brought the doll out from behind her back.

It resembled all the dolls she had made for Hannan, but this time it was a large red rag doll with large blue button eyes, stuffed with cotton, not with scraps of cloth or straw. Before Hannan could think of anything to say, her grandmother surprised her by saying, “Take her with you to school.”

Hannan was so wild with delight that she couldn’t keep herself from leaping about. She kissed her grandmother, who stood there motionless, and then swept outside, thrusting the doll into her bag. This was the first time she had been allowed to take a doll to school. What a splendid, beautiful day it was! Today her schoolmates would learn how lucky she was to have a grandmother like hers who bathed her, fed her, told her stories, and made beautiful dolls for her. But then Hannan remembered something that diminished her happiness: My grandmother’s dolls always tear when I play with them. They only stay beautiful when they sit on the ground.

Even so, Hannan was able to hold onto her delight, because she had a new doll today, a doll she could show to all her girlfriends at school.

* * *

Her neighborhood was still the same neighborhood, but today it was transformed; it had become a vast space, because Hannan had received permission to play there longer—even as long as she wanted.

When Hannan returned from school she found her grandmother standing at the door. She raced to her and threw herself into her arms. She was happy that the doll hadn’t fallen apart, even though her girlfriends had played with it too. Hannan exclaimed, “Oh, how I love you, Grandmother!” Her grandmother smiled and continued hugging her.

“I’m hungry!” Hannan declared. Her grandmother rose and placed her fingers on the young girl’s head.

“Give me your bag and take the doll. I’ll bring your food out here. Don’t come inside. Play in the neighborhood!”

So it was a really different day, a beautiful day, when Hannan could do what she wished, because the whole neighborhood was her playground for as long as she wanted. She wasn’t forced to sit still in the cramped house.

Her grandmother brought her some food, which Hannan ate impatiently and quickly, because she wanted to rush off to the neighborhood’s alleys where she would find children playing and share in their games. Girls would be playing hopscotch with squares marked in chalk on the ground. What a magnificent day it was! What a fantastic neighborhood it was! And who was responsible for all these wonders? Her grandmother!

* * *

If Hannan had realized that the neighborhood wouldn’t look the same when it grew dark, she would not have felt quite so ecstatic.

The sun had set, and the alleys had emptied of the other boys and girls. Hannan wasn’t used to seeing the neighborhood so dark. Fatigue had also sapped her energy and weakened her small body; she was far from the alley where she lived.

At first Hannan felt bewildered.

Then she was overwhelmed by fear. Why hasn’t Mother or Grandmother come to take me home? Have they forgotten me? Then she started to race home as if a devil was chasing her.

At the final bend, before she turned the corner to her alley, Hannan tripped and fell on her face. Dust coated her eyelashes, and her doll struck a rusty sheet of metal and was torn to bits of cotton and cloth.

Then Hannan wept, and the tears flowing down her cheeks made muddy streaks.

* * *

When Hannan was within a few steps of her house, she saw everything.

The streetlight illuminated the alleyway like moonlight. Her grandmother was hunched over beside the door, her back against the wall. Her mother was crossing the threshold as if escaping from a hand that shoved her from behind. Then the shadow of a man emerged from the doorway behind her. He was looking in every direction!

Hannan didn’t see the man’s face; so she wouldn’t be able to recognize him if she saw him a second time. But she remembered all the particulars of that day: how her mother had risen early and hadn’t banged around the way she normally did every morning, how she had lit the Primus stove to heat water to bathe, how her grandmother had given her a new doll and she had been delighted, and how she had been even more delighted when her grandmother allowed her to take the doll to school.

Hannan also remembered how much fun she had had playing outside till late and all the delicious food she had wolfed down; it had been unusually rich and tasty food, not what she ate every day. The food was different.

Hannan remembered everything.

But what was responsible for all this? Why did these things happen on this day? Who was the man who had left their house behind her mother and looked every which way in the dark? That was something Hannan didn’t know, although she was certain that her new doll had been torn limb from limb and that it had lost an eye.

Hannan entered the house that evening after a long, eventful day, grasping a torn doll that had only one eye.

The other button had fallen in the mud of the alley when she fell . . . and so she wept.

Translation of "Al-Duma wa-l-Mala'ika." Copyright Elias Farkouh. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.

Read more from the August 2011 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.