Questions Never Asked
An elderly couple get on each other’s nerves, bicker, and occasionally enjoy simple moments like eating homemade ta’amiyya together. Their quiet lives revolve around fleeting visits by their two grown sons, trips to the hospital or to collect the pension, and mundane daily tasks like folding laundry, having breakfast, and watching lots of television. Retired government clerk Ustaz Khalil and his wife Ihsan have been married for over 40 years, but seem to still be something of a mystery to each other. Ustaz Khalil has a tendency to think too much about insignificant things and to share his thoughts with his wife. Ihsan is more pragmatic and blunt, exasperated by Khalil’s musings and mocking him in a way that hurts his feelings. All this doesn’t sound like material for great literature, but in the hands of Ibrahim Aslan it turns into the stuff of luminous art.
Readers familiar with Aslan’s fiction will find his latest novella very familiar. Written in his trademark economical prose and very short chapters strung together by the thinnest of plots, Two Bedrooms and a Living Room: A Domestic Sequence is vintage Aslan. Nothing much happens: people eat, drink, and talk to each other; they go to weddings and funerals, they look at old photos, they argue and make up, and life goes on. The people about whom Aslan writes are utterly unexceptional. They’re not “the marginalized”, as lazy critics love to call them. They’re certainly not the rich and pampered. And they’re not downtrodden yet heroic peasants. They’re just ordinary people, what sociologists would call the urban petit bourgeoisie but whom Aslan turns into some of the most compelling, hilarious, and moving portraits of human beings in literature.
As always with Aslan, we never get more than a few sentences to describe a character. His characters come alive through eerily real dialogue, dialogue that captures the absurdities and profundities of everyday conversation, the cadence of how real people speak. Characters are then made even more real with their many little tics: how they doze, how they like their fuul in the morning, what makes them scowl or smile, and when they feel puzzled, lonely, or at peace. Barely a couple of chapters into the novella, I felt like I was sitting in the old couple’s living room, hearing them exchange a few words now and then as they move leisurely from the kitchen to the living room to one of the two bedrooms.
In a chapter titled “End of the Day,” after a visit by their grown sons, Ustaz Khalil follows his wife into the old boys’ room and asks her, “Did that boy Suleiman get taller?”
“What do you mean, get taller?”
“I mean is he taller than before?”
“Before what? When he was little?”
“No, taller than last month, for instance.”
“Does someone still get taller when they’re thirty?”
Abu Suleiman considered his words and asked her, “Then is it me who’s gotten shorter?”
She looked him up and down and said, “How would I know?”
“I don’t know if it’s me who’s gotten shorter or he’s the one who’s become taller.”
“But how would I know?”
“From your point of view (and he straightened his back), am I like I used to be, or have I gotten slightly shorter?”
As he turned to leave the room she called after him, “Why don’t you bring me a tape measure so that I can constantly measure you and measure him.”
The 28 compact chapters each capture a mood, a moment, a lifetime of love and resentment condensed into barely four pages. When read in succession, they mimic the ups and downs of the couple’s daily interactions, a relationship that the author neither stereotypes as bitter nor romanticizes as warm and awww-look-at-the-sweet-old-couple. Ihsan and Ustaz Khalil’s is a real marriage, one marked by familiarity, comfortable silences, and not a little distance. A chapter in which Ihsan makes a touching peace offering to Ustaz Khalil is followed by one where she mocks his deliberativeness, followed by a chapter where Ustaz Khalil tears up at the thought of Ihsan dying and remembers her as a young woman. He methodically thinks through the steps of how he’ll react once the inevitable happens. In the event, Khalil doesn’t follow his sequence.
Aslan’s depiction of Khalil’s grief is breathtaking in its power. In a chapter titled “The Seamstress’s Needle” immediately following Ihsan’s funeral, Khalil opens the closet and stands gazing at the dress clothes that he now wears only on special occasions. He fingers a pair of dark slacks and finds a tear in them, and suddenly finds himself energized by the task of mending them since he hasn’t mended anything since his youth. He pulls out the spool of black thread and needle from the old chocolate tin in the drawer where Ihsan kept them, puts on his reading glasses, and spends three hours trying to thread the needle, to no avail. The chapter ends with this arresting image of a man in mourning:
He nearly wept but stopped himself immediately so that his blood sugar wouldn’t go up. He stuck the needle in the spool and put it in the old chocolate tin with the faded designs, and left it there in front of him without returning it to the drawer.
The second half of the book follows Khalil in the 40 days after Ihsan’s death. He moves to their old apartment, gingerly reacquaints himself with old neighbors and friends, and tries to face life alone. He keeps himself company by living in his memories, of a time when he was surrounded by the din of his young wife and sons and assorted oddball neighbors. The novella’s longest chapter is a haunting memory of Osta Mahmoud the cobbler, an old neighbor of Ustaz Khalil’s who used to live across the hall and was unraveled by the death of his wife al-Hagga Thoraya.
I wouldn’t be too quick to classify Two Bedrooms and a Living Room as a novella about aging. That’s one dimension of this quiet little work. But I saw in it something more philosophical, a meditation on the regrets of a life decently but not quite fully lived. In a chapter titled “Side Alley,” Ustaz Khalil puts on his starched white gallabiyya to go to the Friday prayers. On his way there, he spots a woman sitting on a stoop throwing her chickens bits of crusty old bread. He doesn’t look at the woman, but his eyes follow a brown hen as it pecks to and fro. The call to prayer rouses him and he hurries off, but on his way back he musters the courage to ask the woman about the brown hen.
“Good day, hanem. Regarding the brown hen.”
The woman looked at the hen and waited.
“I mean the brown hen.”
“What about it?”
“I wonder, is it your hen?”
“Who else’s would it be?”
“Actually, just a question.” He thought a bit and added, “Have you had it since it was a chick?”
“This is the answer I was looking for, nothing more, nothing less.” And he remained standing.
The woman said in a low voice, somewhat suspiciously, “And why do you ask?”
“It’s your right to know why I’m asking.” He adjusted his glasses and said, “A long time ago ya sitti, we had a brown chick the same color as this hen. It was one of the chicks the hagga bought to raise them. That chick left and never came back, disappeared. And as I was passing by I spotted your brown hen, and it reminded me of the chick that left and never returned, and it occurred to me to ask you.”
The woman relaxes somewhat and they strike up a friendly yet guarded, polite conversation. Before Ustaz Khalil makes to leave, he says to her:
“You see, I wasted at least 60 years of my life having these kinds of questions. I wanted to ask them but I wasn’t able to, because I was embarrassed. This is a tragedy ya hanem, and the proof is what happened just now. Have you been harmed by the question?”
“God forbid anything bad like that.”
“Because of this, ever since the death of the hagga I’ve decided that any question I have I ought to ask it right away. And you too, any question that preoccupies you, go ahead and ask it. That’s my advice to you. Asking questions is never shameful. Is asking questions shameful?”
“Not at all.”
“I thank you. Salam ‘Alaykum.”