CHICAGO: The 2017 winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, which was recently translated into English by Kay Heikkinen, is Huzama Habayeb’s third novel “Velvet.”
The story masterfully and meticulously follows the painfully difficult life of Hawwa in Baqa’a camp, the largest site for Palestinian refugees displaced after the 1967 war, just outside of Amman, in Jordan.
Moving through a life of hardship, poverty, and abuse, and with no semblance of choice or freedom, Hawwa survives by fantasizing about a different life and by learning a craft which allows her a means to survive.
Habayeb’s imagery is strong, the details of her story so well-crafted and laid out that her reader is immediately invested in her pages, in the life of Hawwa, and almost as quickly repelled by the hardships of life that face her.
One of four daughters among the seven children of Mousa and Rabia, Hawwa’s life is not her own. Just like her sisters, she has no choices about how she lives due to a toxic patriarchal familial structure rampant in her house and around the camp, that kills off any aspirations or dreams.
Habayeb creates a vivid picture of a fearful house, of a controlling father, a broken mother, and obedient children who fear repercussions for faltering in their duty. Her every detail is attached to heavy emotion, brimming with a male-dominant environment, as she writes, “as the torment in her life intensified, so did her capacity to fashion illusions.”
The author’s familial structure parallels Mahfouz’s in “Palace Walk.” The patriarchy, the fearful obedience, the prayers for a better, different life echoes in both. But where they differ is in the rawness of Habayeb’s main character.
The reality and desperation of camp life is unkind because of its people and their history, the loss of their homes and land. Their survival has made them hard and their hardships transcend generations.
Told over one long day, but with a lifetime of miserable memories with only small bursts of joy, Habayeb creates a character like Hawwa, who despite it all, is resilient and ensures her survival as paramount to herself and no one else, as she delves into fantasies, and love songs by Fairuz (Lebanese singer), that take her away from her reality.
Habayeb was born and raised in Kuwait but fled to Jordan during the Gulf War. She has established herself as a Palestinian writer. “Velvet” was published in English by Hoopoe, an imprint of The American University in Cairo Press.