Rabih Alameddine

{EN} An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine

1. “Yet only in Arabic class were we constantly told that we could not master this most difficult of languages, that no matter how much we studied and practiced, we could not possibly hope to write as well as al-Mutanabbi or, heaven forbid, the apex of the language, the Quran itself. Teachers indoctrinated students, just as they had been indoctrinated when younger. None of us can rise above being a failure as an Arab, our original sin.”

2. “I am my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage.”

3. “There are many reasons for not naming a character or someone you’re writing about. You might want to have the book be entirely about the main narrator, or maybe you want the character to remain ephemeral, less fully fleshed.”

4. “I hopped out of bed, still in my nightgown. There’d been no water for weeks; neither my hair nor my nightgown had been washed in ages. I picked up the AK-47 that lay next to me on the right side, where my husband used to sleep all those years earlier. It kept me company in bed for the whole civil war.”

5. “How can one describe the ephemeral qualities of sex beyond the probing, poking, and panting? How can one use inadequate words to describe the ineffable, the beyond words? Those salacious Arabs and their Western counterparts were able to explain the technical aspects, which is helpful, of course, and delightful. Some touched on the spiritual, on the psychological, and metaphor was loved by all. However, to believe that words can in any way mirror or, alas, explain the infinite mystery of sex is akin to believing that reading dark notes on paper can illuminate a Bach partita, or that by studying composition or color one can understand a late Rembrandt self-portrait. Sex, like art, can unsettle a soul, can grind a heart in a mortar. Sex, like literature, can sneak the other within one’s walls, even if for only a moment, a moment before one immures oneself again.”

6. “It is the loneliness, the abject isolation. Hannah reappears in my memories to remind me of how alone I am, how utterly inconsequential my life has become, how sad.”

7. “When my bones ache or my back rebels, I consider the hurt punishment for the years of alienating my body, even dismissing it with some disdain. I deplored my physicality when I was younger, and now it deplores me right back. As I age, my body demands its rightful place in the scheme of my attentions. It stakes its claims.”

8. “Without power, night is night once more, not the cheap imitation that passes for night in a modern city. Without electricity, night is the deep world of darkness once more, the mystery we dread. Darkness visible.”

9. “My mother loves her sons only and never cares to be discreet about it. She treats her youngest daughter as a second-class citizen, a second-gender offspring. I, her eldest, hardly register in her consciousness. Once I stopped trying to impress myself into her life, she forgot about me.”

10. “Let me rephrase: I’d like to consider a possibility concerning our incessant need for causation, whether in books or in life. I’ve trained myself not to keep inferring or expecting causality in literature—the phrase “Correlation does not imply causation” keeps ringing in my head (think Hume)—but I constantly see it, inject it, in life. I, like everyone, want explanations. In other words, I extract explanations where none exist.”

11. “Let me come out and state this, in case you haven’t deduced it yet: I have never published. Once I finish a project, once the rituals of the end are completed, I inter the papers in a box and the box in the bathroom. Putting the project away has become part of the ritual. When I finish my final edit, I lay the manuscript aside for a few days, then read the whole thing one last time. If it is acceptable, I place it in its box, which I tape shut, hoping the seal is airtight, and attach the original books to the outside for easy reference. I store the box in the maid’s room, or now in the maid’s bathroom since the former is filled. After that I’m done with it and hardly think of my translation again. I move on to the next project.”

12. “I understood from the beginning that what I do isn’t publishable. There’s never been a market for it, and I doubt there ever will be. Literature in the Arab world, in and of itself, isn’t sought after. Literature in translation? Translation of a translation? Why bother?”

13. “Now, you may ask why I am so committed to my translations if I don’t care much about them once they’re crated. Well, I’m committed to the process and not the final product. I know this sounds esoteric, and I dislike sounding so, but it’s the act that inspires me, the work itself. Once the book is done, the wonder dissolves and the mystery is solved. It holds little interest after.”

14. “I made translation my master. I made translation my master and my days were no longer alarmingly dreadful. My projects distract me. I work and the days pass.”

15. “During these moments, I am healed of all wounds. I’ll be sitting at my desk and suddenly I don’t wish my life to be any different. I am where I need to be. My heart distends with delight. I feel sacred.”

16. “Of course I received various permutations of the “Who will want to marry you if you read so much?” lecture, but I also had to endure the chilly “Don’t try to be so different from normal people.””

17. “why would I want to be normal? Why would I want to be stupid like everyone else?”

18. “I keep trying to tell myself that she’s an uneducated woman. She believes that if you look up at the stars, warts will sprout on your face. When I was a child, she admonished me whenever I glanced up, just a tap on the back of my head. She was never taught to read or write—I tried to teach her while I was still in school, but as usual, I failed. I can’t keep blaming her. She hasn’t had any opportunities, has had to make do. She’s had a tough life. But I can’t seem to stop criticizing her.”

19. ““Whenever I see a dead body, death seems to me a departure. The corpse looks to me like a suit that was left behind. Someone went away and didn’t need to take the one and only outfit he’d worn.” (Pessoa)”

20. “No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.”

21. “Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote—dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps. I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck. I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I thought I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant—I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant—but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget.”

22. ““Here lies Aaliya, never fully alive, now dead, still alone, still fearful.” “Death, be not proud, for here you have overthrown but a speck.””

23. “Henri Matisse once said, “It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.” I love this quote, love the fact that the most incandescent painter of the twentieth century felt this way. Being different troubled him. Did he genuinely want to paint like everybody else, to be like everybody else? Did he truly wish to belong? It has bothered me all my life that I am not like everybody else. For years, I was able to convince myself that I was special, that being different was a choice. As a matter of fact, I wanted to believe that I was superior, not an artist, not a genius like Matisse, but unlike the rabble. I am unique, an individual, not simply idiosyncratic, but extraordinary. I considered my individualism a virtue, protecting me from collective moods and insanities, helping me float above familial and societal riptides. That gave me comfort. Except it is failing me now. Not just now. For some time, I haven’t been able to wall off my heart adequately.”

24. “Isn’t someone’s life more than a collection of scenes? Isn’t she more than the images I have compiled in my head?”

25. “Although I know the characters of a novel as a collection of scenes as well, as accumulated sentences in my head, I feel I know them better than I do my mother.”

26.”After Hannah died, life became incomprehensible—well, more incomprehensible than usual. I confess that I went through some hard times, hard years. I grieved—whether I grieved enough is difficult to gauge. Life was crazy. Hajj Wardeh passed away that year as well, and I wasn’t sure if Fadia would try to evict me. My mother harped about my apartment. My half brothers tried to break my door and my spirit. It was not pleasant, and then war, the ultimate distraction, broke out. I plunged into my books. I was a voracious reader, but after Hannah’s death I grew insatiable. Books became my milk and honey. I made myself feel better by reciting jejune statements like “Books are the air I breathe,” or, worse, “Life is meaningless without literature,” all in a weak attempt to avoid the fact that I found the world inexplicable and impenetrable. Compared to the complexity of understanding grief, reading Foucault or Blanchot is like perusing a children’s picture book.”

27. “Childhood is played out in a foreign language and our memory of it is a Constance Garnett translation.”

28. “How can I explain my esoteric vocation, my furtive life? This is the private source of meaning in my life. “Translations,” I say. “I’m a translator.” I hesitate. What I said doesn’t ring true in my ears. I sound like a liar. “I was,” I add. My heart feels too exhausted to beat. “I was a translator.””

29. “Kneeling on Fadia’s ancient linen on my kitchen floor, I separate Anna page by page, placing each in order around me. As I extend my arms, I realize I’m genuflecting, as if I’m praying. This is my religion.”

30. “The coffee cup is like a thimble in my hand, makes my fingers and thumb look gigantic. I bring it to my lips and take a sip. The coffee is ambrosia, a flavor of heaven. I am stunned. I have never tasted anything like this. Had I known that coffee could taste so good, I would have gotten drunk on it every day. I want to ask them if this is how it tastes all the time or if it’s a unique brew. Do they use a special ingredient, a pinch of salt maybe, or eye of newt? I wonder where they buy their beans. I don’t know how to ask. I consider the possibility that I find it delicious because of the condition I’m in.”

31. ““Don’t you wish to keep a record of everything you’ve translated?” Joumana asks, pointing to all the boxes. “These writers, I’ve never heard of them. Pessoa? Hamsun? Cortázar? Hedayat? Karasu? Nooteboom? Kertész?” “Wonderful writers,” I say, “even a couple of Nobel Prize winners.” “More to the point,” she says, “I’d like to read them. Others would as well.” “You can read the English translations,” I say. “Wouldn’t that be better? The original translation can at times convey the subtleties of the writer’s language, its diction, its rhythm and rhyme. My version is a translation of a translation. All is doubly lost. My version is nothing.””

32. “There are two kinds of people in this world: people who want to be desired, and people who want to be desired so much that they pretend they don’t.””

33. “Marie-Thérèse may have wanted Vronsky for a husband, but I wanted Hadrian. I wanted someone to erect monuments in my memory, build statues. I wanted someone to dedicate cities in my name.”


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