May 27: “The Spirit Is Engaged Now (Do You Want to Hold?)” by Hanan al-Shaykh

Welcome to the long weekend, Story366! Hopefully you have great plans in store. Me? I’m in Chicago, working at Wrigley Field and tending to that family medical thing that I talked about in yesterday’s post. A little big of follow-up surgery was deemed necessary, but it was minor in comparison to yesterday’s procedure. My sister is resting comfortably, everything a success, on her way to a full recovery. Thanks to those of you who dropped personal notes, wishing her and my family well: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

I started the day, more or less, by tending to the ridiculous beard that I’ve been growing since January of 2015, a long goatee that seems to have stalled in the length department, but gets bushier and shaggier every day. My Wrigley job doesn’t allow facial hair that—to quote my vending supervisor—“gets too crazy,” so I had to coral that mother into something that looked deliberate and suave. My mustache had been covering my lips, its tips handlebarring too far down. The line of the beard on my face had also crept down and out, spreading like a rash. So, I spent a good twenty minutes going to town on it. When the dust settled, I thought it looked pretty dope, but the true test was showing up at Wrigley. I had to stop by the office to pick up my ID, and I ran into that vending supervisor and made sure I talked to her, wanting to test the craziness level of the beard: She didn’t say anything, having talked directly to me, looking straight at me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m golden. The finished product:


Not so crazy, right? Only, why couldn’t I smile for the beard selfie? Anyway, I was prepared to behead that baby if they weren’t going to let me work, but I’m glad I didn’t have to. Tom Ricketts, the Cubs’ Chairman (i.e., owner), walked by me today and I said hi and he said hi and even he didn’t say anything. So, Mike’s beard’s fans: Sleep easy tonight.

Today’s Story366 post is on “The Spirit Is Engaged Now (Do You Want to Hold?),” the second story in Hanan al-Shaykh’s collection I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops, translated by Catherine Cobham and published in America by Anchor Books. This is the first translated book I’ve covered this year, as al-Shaykh is Lebanese and writes in Arabic. I’ve not read a lot of literature from the Middle East, not since Comparative Lit courses in college, and nothing by al Shaykh. As part of Story366’s diversity mission, I sought out authors from this region, and one collection showed up more than any other in my research: I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops. So, here we are.

And I’m glad we’re here. I’ve read the first three stories in al-Shaykh’s book and love all of them. I didn’t know what to expect going in, but as soon as I started reading the stories, I was drawn in by how immediately engaging each story was. Al-Shaykh’s stories are fast paced, but also get right down to conflicts and plots and character interactions. For example, the first story, “A Season of Madness,” depicts a woman’s apparent unraveling, initiating her instability in the first sentence: “I fell upon my mother-in-law, biting her nose.” This is a fun story, the woman wanting her husband to divorce her so she can marry another man, her best plan to go as apeshit as possible, hoping he’ll not want her anymore.

That’s a great story, but I like the second, “The Spirit Is Engaged Now (Do You Want to Hold?)” even more. It’s the story of an unnamed woman who has been through quite a bit of tragedy as of late. Her husband, who had left her for another woman, has died. Even more recently, her mother, a beloved actor, has also died. On top of all that, her daughter is living in the U.S., leaving her alone. The start of the story finds her swimming in misery, never leaving her house, never putting on clean clothes, not communicating with the world. She is woken from this funk by her daughter, who calls to remind her that there’s a dedication ceremony, their neighborhood renaming their street after her mother. Our protagonist gets dressed, gets cleaned up, and heads out.

At the ceremony, she runs into one of her mother’s old friends, Tanta Samia, who claims to have been speaking to her recently deceased mother. Our hero dismisses the old woman, but recalls her mother’s other friends saying similar things. She’s wondering if there’s been a sudden plague of delusion, all of these friends of her mother either losing it or acting cruel beyond measure. She bets on the former, but eventually figures out what Samia and everyone has been talking about: Seances. They’ve been talking to her mother in the afterlife via seances.

Wanting to talk to her mother, too, our hero goes back to her apartment with Samia and Samia’s friend, Nazik. Without hesitation, the ceremony commences. It involves what seems like simple components, a Ouija board (though it’s never called that), a tea cup, and a Quran. Before long, wouldn’t you know it, the three women are talking with our hero’s mother, utilizing some pointed questions and guided hands across the board. Our hero goes through a whole gambit of emotions, mainly shock and joy, but is disappointed that the conversation with Mom is both brief and informal. The dialogue is more like a casual phone call than a communication after so long, under such auspices; it’s not the epic, end-all reunion she’d expected or hoped for.

The casualness of the afternoon continues as the women talk to other people in the same way, taking turns with the tea cup, what they use to point to the letters on the board. There’s even a “wrong number,” the women talking with someone they don’t know, but listening to him, anyway. When it’s our hero’s turn once again to choose a person, she of course chooses the other person she’s recently loss, the one that has far more explaining to do than her mother: her philandering ex-husband.

I won’t reveal how that conversation goes, or where al-Shaykh takes the story after that, but it’s all in the spirit that the author has invoked (okay, that’s a pun) throughout the story. It’s a tragicomic, light-hearted tale about loss and resolution. I like the protagonist in “The Spirit Is Engaged Now (Do You Want to Hold?),”as I like the woman faking madness in “A Season of Madness.” They are real, down-to-Earth people who choose extreme ways to deal with their problems, and those are the best types of characters, really, people I can relate to, people I can root for because they don’t suffer fools, put up with shit, or stand down in the face of adversity. They’re also a little nuts, which I like, because I’m a little nuts, too. At least I like to think I can be when it’s needed.

I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan al-Shaykh is a nice (re)introduction to writers and stories from the Middle East. I’ve gotten ahold of some other books that I’ll cover as the year progresses. I don’t know much about this region of the world, but feel I know a little bit more now, mainly that they have some great writers there. Not that I doubted that, but hey, the proof is in the pudding, and up on my blog today.