Laila al-Atrash :مرأة للفصول الخمسة، (A Woman of Five Seasons)
Our heroine is Nadia al-Faqih, married with three children (who play virtually no role in this book). Much of the book is set in Barquais, a fictitious country, clearly based on one of the Gulf states. Apart from Barquais, no other Arab country is mentioned, though we can assume that Nadia, her husband and several of the other characters were originally from Palestine and, like other Palestinians, fled to the Gulf states after the Nakba.
Her husband is Ihsan Natour who, later on, seems to do very well. The books jumps backward and forward so we often only learn the back stories of some of the characters later on. He had planned to go to Barquais for some time and even dropped out of his studies to do so (education doesn’t come from books. Life teaches more). His brother, Jalal had continued his studies and Ihsan despises and is jealous of his brother. However Ihsan is determined to get rich, Their father advised them to get rich and invest in gold not land. He had had a lot of land but had lost it, presumably following the Nakba.
Ihsan’s initial role model is Faris, his brother-in-law. Faris is not educated and apparently not very bright but a chancer. He sees a an opportunity to make money (honestly or dishonestly) and he takes it and he does very well in Barquais. Ihsan follows him to Barquais and while he soon get a a job he is not making the fortune he wants to make. However with an astute bit of business and access to the local wheeler-dealer sheikh (ironically, thanks to his brother) he manages to get on the gravy train. Many others struggle to make their fortune in Barquais and fail miserably.
However there is another key theme in this book. With his success, Ihsan has met and married Nadia, whom he considers something of a trophy wife. She has, in his eyes, three roles: to produce children (which she does), turn him on sexually (which she does. He is obsessed with her long silken tresses) and be a trophy whom he can show off to others (which she hates). He believes in the old Bedouin dictum for women: do whatever he tells you. One of the reasons he marries her is because Jalal seemed to be attracted to her and he was always keen to put one over on Jalal. She had hesitated between the two but it was Ihsan who proposed. She now regrets her decision.
Ihsan is clearly attracted ro Nadia but also wants her to conform to his idea of what a wife should be which is not her idea. She is meant tto mingle with the other rich ladies of Barquais, gossip and read trashy magazines. She, however, hates socialising with these ladies and does not read trashy magazines. Indeed she wants to read and enjoy serious books, which she does. (We do not learn any of the titles but one book she reads is summarised and is clearly Ghassan Kanafani‘s رجال في الشمس (Men in the Sun).) He of course cannot understand why anyone would want to read a book, a perception that includes his older brother.
The second half of the book gets more complex. Ihsan is now playing with the big boys. His main dealings in Barquais are with a man we know only as His Highness who is very rich, very corrupt and someone you do not cross. However, even he is not the top dog. At the top is a man we know only as the Shyoukh, presumably a variation of the word sheikh. We meet him ony once but his presence is felt throughout. He wisely comments The French, the Americans and the British are all pimps.They never give without taking something .
As mentioned there is no mention of the words Palestine/Palestinian. However it is clear that Jalal is very much involved in a Palestinian resistance group and that His Highness is very supportive, which enables Ihsan to leverage his kinship to gain influence with His Highness.
While all of these people are theoretically supporting the cause of Palestine, they seem to be primarily focussed on making lots of money, often by illegal means. Ihsan opens up businesses in London, Paris and Greece and large sums of money are bandied about. One of his staff tells him there are some things you can’t buy. Peoples’ feelings and memories, for instance, but he seemingly does not agree. Nadia is reluctantly dragged in but then she, too, gets in on the action. While Nadia very much stands up for herself, no-one really comes out of this smelling of roses, though we clearly are meant to sympathise with Nadia in her fight against the Barquais patriarchy, not least because all of the male characters are blatantly sexist . However while she rightly stands up for herself, she is not averse to enjoying the trappings of wealth, even if she does often complain about them.
This book goes a bit all over the place but is fascinating as it clearly condemns those people whose focus is on earning money any way they can – dishonesty, treachery, deceit, double-crossing – and whose only concern is their own well-being and desires and to hell with the cause of Palestine and, indeed, to hell with anyone else who is not in some way useful.
First published in 1990 byAl-Mouassasaal-Arabiyya Lil Dirasat Wal Nashr
First published in English in 2001 by Interlink
Translated by Nura Nuwayhid Halwani and Christopher Tingley.