by Rana Asfour
“Velvet” by Huzama Habayeb, translated from the Arabic by Kay Heikkinen won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2017. Its translation released in 2019 by Hoopoe has won the 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.
The novel, set in Jordan, follows a day in the life of Hawwa, a woman hailing from the grinding hardship of the Palestinian camp of Baqa’a. We meet her at a point when she’s fallen in love - an unexpected miracle in a life that for 40 odd years has known only humiliation & family abuse. The novel unfolds over the day in Hawwa’s life in which she is preparing for a new life that will finally see her leave the camp.
A strong cast of characters & extremely powerful imagery. The author engages the senses in a way that renders readers fully immersed in the narrative, deeply invested in Hawwa. Through Hawwa’s present recollections of her past we are treated to the meager ways women in a domineering patriarchal society scavenge for relief amid the relentless generational sorrow & abuse rendering claustrophobic parts of the novel closer to prison literature than plain fiction.
Just over 250 pages, this is one of the darkest novels I’ve read in a long time. I applaud authors like Habayeb who bravely & brazenly expose societal & domestic violence even though this was a real toughie. I’ve exhausted my reserves of steel on this one. My tears (of sadness & pain, frustration & anger) are another matter.