The following is from Raja Alem’s novel, The Dove's Necklace. Raja Alem was born in Mecca and now lives in Paris. She has received many awards in the Arab world and in Europe for her novels, plays, stories, and other writing. In 2011, she became the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The Lane of Many Heads
The only thing you can know for certain in this entire book is where the body was found: the Lane of Many Heads, a narrow alley with many heads.
The first thing you should know, though, is that it’s not me who’s foolish enough to try to write about a place like the Lane of Many Heads; this is the Lane itself speaking, me and my many heads. I am that narrow alley in Mecca, off the highway where pilgrims make their ablutions and don their white robes to begin the Umrah rituals: the cleansing of the soul, washing away the past year’s sins in preparation for another year of debauchery.
I’m the Lane of Many Heads, a champion at holding my breath; it’s a title I’ve earned through my enviable skill at confronting the impossible. Since no one ever bothered to dignify me with streetlights, I’ve learned to sit in the darkness, getting high on deep drags of the stink of trash and sewage, the clamor of discordant voices, like any old forgotten backstreet. I like to hold my breath for a few minutes before I slowly let it out through my mouth in rumors and legends and whispers of forbidden things. It’s how I torment the people who live here, how I’m able to send them trailing through their history for some antidote to the unholy gloom they live with, something to protect them from the atomic age that’s about to crush them.
My story may not go as far back as the tribe of Jurhum and the Amalekites—it’s true—but I can at least say I’ve witnessed the collapse of one great kingdom and the rise of another, as well as many wars and much blood. I know enough to be able to tell the story of one of the Hijaz’s greatest valleys, al-Numan, whose name, as any dictionary will tell you, is one of many words for blood, one of the many disguises it likes to hide behind.
My name’s all right, I guess, but I probably envy Elbow Alley most of all. That’s where the Prophet’s companion Abu Bakr had his silk shop and house, or so they say. In the wall opposite the house, there’s a stone that passerby touch because they think that every time they do it, the Prophet receives a blessing. This may, in fact, be the very stone the Prophet was referring to when he said “There is a stone in Mecca that used to bless me on the nights when I received revelation.” Across from this stone, on the left as you’re approaching, there’s a slab in the wall with an elbow-shaped depression at its center, and this, too, is visited by the masses, who believe it’s where the Prophet used to rest while chatting to the adjacent stone, his sublime elbow eventually wearing a groove into the wall. People also say that any Meccan who suffers from impotence or infertility need only walk from Khadija’s house to this stone, to be blessed with all the children they could ever want.
Of course, I’d love to be the kind of street that’s the star of its own magical fable, an alley with walls that chat to passerby and respond to the touch of their fingertips. I know I can’t compete with those kinds of streets and their legends, but I’ve still got more going for me than scores of others. I like to think I’m better than Embrace-Me Way, which is so narrow that the only way two people can get down it is if they entwine their bodies like lovers; there’s not a step you could take in that alley that wouldn’t get you stoned to death. Or what about Funeral Lane, the tragic path that people only go down once? Or Mortar Alley, which likes to grind down the cheerful souls whom I actually welcome into my nooks and corners? I’m the Lane of Many Heads; I’m better than that…
Lane of Many Heads. Why the hell have I put up with this overpopulated, headbutt-evoking name for so long? A long time ago, well before I came to life, the heads of four men were found buried here, beside one of the stations of pilgrimage. Please notice that I make no mention of the woman’s corpse that’s at the heart of this book, the only reason I broke my silence. No, instead I’m telling you about four heads, which were lopped off during the reign of one of Mecca’s Sharifs—maybe Sharif Awn’s—or under one of the Ottoman viceroys. These four men, you see, had taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the arrival of a new kiswa. A drape of green and red silk, the kiswa that covered the Kaaba was brought every year from Tinnis in Egypt in a great celebratory procession, and every year the Sharif and his soldiers, as well as the rest of Meccan high society, went out to meet the procession, while the attendants laid the old covering in a pile near Victory Gate, which faces Mount Marwa. They would leave it there for the Shayba clan to come collect it and take it to the jewelers’ market, where the gold and silver thread that had been used to embroider the glorious names of God onto it would be melted down. This was the Shayba clan’s annual stipend. The four men waited until the Sharif and his soldiers were out of the way, then dashed in and made off with the old covering on camelback down the pilgrimage route. When the Sharifs soldier’s finally tracked them down, they discovered that the men had pitched the covering like a tent and were receiving the poor, the sick, lepers and madmen, who, after lying beneath the cloth, emerged as if born anew, cured of their diseases, disfigurements, and woes, and occasionally of their earthly bodies themselves!
News of the theft and the miracles the thieves had wrought was hushed up, lest other greedy souls attempt to imitate their blasphemy. Instead stories were spread about how the four men had snuck into Mecca dressed as pilgrims, as so many Western travelers and other outsiders had done before, be they Jews, Christians, false prophets—all manner of the damned. The Chief Judge of Mecca was forced to issue a snap ruling, saying that the men were heretics and must be executed, and so one night they were simply beheaded. Their bodies were thrown into the Yakhour well, the final resting place of all Mecca’s garbage, and their heads were stuck on spikes in the spot where they’d been apprehended. At this point, the plot requires me to mention the woman who used to walk here barefoot from Mecca every day to sit beneath the heads and mourn them with poems and songs, occasionally reciting verses from the Quran, which were believed to protect the dead from the torments of the grave. People said she must have been in love with all four of them to turn up each morning, her feet bunt by the scorching Meccan sand, and sit their making conversation with the severed heads, goading them to compete with one another for her affections. She even used to wait until the nightfall to retrace her steps towards home so as not to arouse gossip. This alley sprang up out of that woman’s tender whisperings of grief, and so I must confess that I am nothing more than the water of desire pooling in a woman’s lap or in the lacerations of her heart and hands, even though she never shed a tear for those four severed heads; not even crows circled overhead, pecking at them incessantly, hoping to snatch a chunk of eyeball or flesh. The woman did nothing but lament and sigh, until the alley was rent in two, and I can tell you now that the culprit behind the split was none other than feeling itself. At the top of the alley beside the Radwa Mosque, in the midst of the hordes of seeking pilgrims, there was a longing, and at the end of the alley by the shops that dealt in the instruments of passionate music, there was ecstasy, and in the middle, a history that buried its head in the sand, humming the call of demons and fading away into nothingness. And yet along the edges of the alley, the doors to sadness were still open a crack, and the windows stayed up late looking for love, while the grandest gates of all were the ones that made room for secrets…
Before the Body
I told you this story would begin with a body, but because it’s my story I’ve decided we’re going to hold off on the body for the moment. Let’s not worry about the dead for now, not while we can still chase the living. I’d gone to great lengths to hide all traces of love ad revenge, but the body gave us away. So when I mention Azza or say everything there is to know about Aisha, I’m not being lazy and simply picking the first girl who comes to mind; the body could’ve been any of the girls from the Lane of Many Heads, really. I should be more precise: I mustn’t mix up the names of the parties involved or hurry to point the finger at whoever did it. Not before we’ve been through the story, and heard and compared the different versions of events told by the four heads, each of whom was a suspect at one point or another. Those heads of coal shall tell their stories, from beyond the veil that separates me from them.
There was Yusuf the history nerd. He had a bachelor’s degree in history from Umm al-Qura University, signed by the dean in green and sealed with an unfakeable blue. He got it for his research paper on historical minarets in the mountains around Mecca. Yusuf was the Lane of Many Heads’ Minaret of Love, calling to his two beloveds, Azza and Mecca, and he didn’t climb down off his family’s roof—or his delirium—until he managed to combine them into one.
Then there was Mu’az, who was being trained to take over from his aged father as prayer leader at the mosque. In the meanwhile he decided to kill time by helping out at the photography studio. There was also Khalil, who had a suspended pilot’s license and rejection letters from every single private airline. And, last of all, there was the adopted son of al-Ashi the cook, the Eunuchs’ Goat, who gathered human limbs to practice his perversion. They all deserved to have their heads paraded on spikes…
Mu’az, the photographer’s apprentice, was leaping between two roofs when he froze in mid-air, transfixed by what he saw below. Deep in the cleft between the two houses was the body. In her death the woman was a breathtaking nude portrait, one leg bent and the other stretched languidly out, rebellious breasts pointing in opposite directions, reveling in the attention of the sudden crowd, who were captivated by the bloom of darkness between her legs.
“Such perfect death! What a shot!” cried Mu’az as he snapped a photo.
At one end of the alley, an oud fell silent, though a drum still rattled under the amateur’s clumsy hand. From the other end came a squat penguin of a women in a flapping black abaya and white mourning dress—Kawthar, the wife of Yabis the sewage cleaner, mother to Ahmad the émigré. “For the love of God, cover the poor woman up!” she cried as she waddled back and forth around the body. The crowd jostled against her great hunched back, which shielded the dead woman from sight.
An older man with an orange beard broke through the commotion with his cane. His liquid blue eyes settled on the woman’s nipples, each looking pertly out to his side, and he was struck by one terror only: “May my daughter Azza never have a body like this, shameless even in death!”
To prevent the murdered woman from possessing his daughter’s body, Sheikh Muzahim muttered to himself, “Azza’s like a falcon. When I slapped her yesterday, her eyes pecked me to pieces. Azza doesn’t live like this, and she’s not going to die like this either. Lord, let it be a simple death, dignified, and let me awaken among the houris in the pools of Paradise!”
“Hmm Hmm Hmm…” Inside houses women murmured, and outside mothers blew on the corpse to keep disgrace from spreading to the other girls in the Lane of Many Heads.
An officer, two police cars, and an ambulance rushed through my narrow entrance into the confused melee around the body. Everyone fell silent when it came time to record the victim’s name on the official forms.
For the first time, the woman lay unveiled in the alley for all eyes to see. They covered her in white and lifted her onto a stretcher; her slender right leg escaped and dangled over the side, trailing in my dust all the way to the ambulance, where the nurse gathered her up and thrust her inside the van alongside festoons of resuscitating equipment.
The dead woman left no mark except for the line that her neatly trimmed, rose-scented toenails traced across my back and the bloodstain between the houses of Sheikh Muzahim and Aisha the schoolteacher.
From THE DOVE’S NECKLACE. Used with permission of The Overlook Press. Copyright © 2014 by Raja Alem.