Kamal Ben Hameda’s novella Under the Tripoli Sky (tr. Adriana Hunter, Peirene 2014) opens with a circumcision. The narrator, a boy called Hadachinou, brings the reader to this event through his own ignorance of what is about to happen. The foreshadowing is exquisite here as Hadachinou watches the local butcher slaughtering a lamb:
Ibrahim’s sharp knife cutting smoothly through the skin as he whistled a well-known pop song.
Rivulets of slow-moving blood, smaller streams coagulating.
The carcass left to the women: removing the offal, the intestines, cutting up the meat, salting it and hanging it out in the sun on the terrace.
The slow, impatient morning, quivering.
Because the reader very quickly knows what is about to happen, Hadachinou’s sense of bewildered expectation creates an immediate line of tension. And this is something Ben Hameda will continue to do throughout the book—an appropriate use of such a young narrator. What Hadachinou understands here is the impending celebration, the feast, but the cutting then comes as a complete surprise and he must be held down. It’s a powerful moment, a threshold between childhood and adulthood.
Just after this is where the novella sets up its preoccupying question, and it’s both well-timed and well-done. As Hadachinou cries after the procedure, the book uses his conflicting sensations to set up an opposition of two distinct worlds. On one side of him is the laughter of the women in another room, separate from his experience—and despite his anger, there is an instant longing to be with them even if they are not paying attention to or not aware of his ordeal. On the other side of him are the quiet, solemn men who leave him alone to cry, dropping money for him as they leave. The boundary between the men’s world and the women is drawn sharply here, with Hadachinou situated exactly between these two worlds and for the next 80 pages this is where he will remain. A bit like a ghost, flitting between the worlds. Observing, recording, trying to understand.
On the surface this is a book about the lives of women in 1960s Tripoli, and Hadachinou takes us through a colorful parade of them—his mother and her friends and neighbors, women of all levels of society, of all backgrounds—but its more quiet subject is the idea of secret access and hidden spaces, both physical and those of a person’s inner world. In many ways Hadachinou is a lonely child and his most intense focus revolves around ideas of relationships and how a person can be a comfort or a joy to another person, or how a person can ruin another person’s life. There are representations of sexual awakening here as well but more than that Hadachinou is intent on looking at intimacy. And by extension, as a reader we are intent on understanding how intimacy works in the historical and nostalgic setting that Ben Hameda evokes.
It is clear that Hadachinou is enthralled by and also sympathetic toward the subjects of his study. Because it is in this vein that he watches the women—wanting to see them, to know them. He is angry when not allowed into their circle, when his mother sends him outside, when he must stop visiting a certain woman. He wants to understand them , he wants to be loved. He wants to know why sometimes they seem to hate their husbands, and what this means for him. He wants to understand the power that he will later yield as well, and so there is the implication that this is the way he will learn to be a man. That his walking the boundary line between the men and the women serves a vital purpose.
Ultimately, what struck me most about Under the Tripoli Sky is the sorrow that runs through its pages. Most of the women deal with abuse, confinement, depression and sickness. And this is where the book takes an interesting approach to nostalgia. There is a real lushness—even a kind of gilding—to the physical descriptions: of the women, the houses, the streets, rooftops and gardens. It is clear that a lot of nostalgic love went into the writing of this book, into the author’s representation of place. And yet so much of the book deals with the unhappiness of these women and the broken elements of their lives. This creates a kind of provocative tension and generated, at least for me, a lot of interesting questions—how to react to the world that Ben Hameda conjures up, how to think about the women and whether they should be pitied, how to judge this society and Hadachinou’s place in it. Ben Hameda certainly doesn’t offer up any answers, and he shouldn’t. And so in this way, beneath its series of events and encounters, the novel spends most of its time examining the complexity of nostalgia and asking the reader to do the same.