Translated from Arabic by Emily Danby
A woman in Damascus wakes in the night, sees a triangle of light where a door is left ajar and walks in. She finds her maid in bed with her husband. She throws the maid out, and immediately regrets it, but finds herself unable to go after her. Over the course of the night, both women go over the events that brought them to this point.
The woman is Hanan, married to an older man, whom she had loved as a cousin but hates as a husband. Frustrated and angry, she spends time with other women like her—wives of successful and well-to-do businessmen—where she finds solace in sex.
The maid, Aliyah, comes from a rough neighbourhood, which Samar Yazbek describes unflinchingly. Her brute of a father is financially reliant on his wife and daughters but does not hesitate to beat them up when the whim takes him. Aliyah hates him and learns fairly early to fight. When she is 10 years old, the father practically sells her to Hanan as a maid. That’s the last Aliyah sees of him—or the rest of her family—for eight years.
Eventually, Hanan seduces Aliyah. But Aliyah is a survivor and knows how to play the game. Living in Hanan’s house protects her from her father and the other thugs living in her neighbourhood. Aliyah uses her seductive power over Hanan to make herself secure, and Hanan becomes completely dependent on her.
The focus in this book is completely on the women. Aliyah grows up fast and learns how to make the system work for her. But she becomes a little too confident of her power, which makes her careless. Hanan is also a victim, forced into a marriage she didn’t want, living out her life without any purpose or meaning. The men are either brutes or ciphers, like Hanan’s husband, only referred to “the old crocodile”.
Samar Yazbek paints a bleak picture where almost all relationships involve some kind of power play, whether it is through sex, class or gender. There is a fair amount of sex but no love—none of the characters seem to really care for each other. Hanan thinks she loves Aliyah but looking back, Hanan cannot remember a single conversation they had. Hanan desires Aliyah and wants to control and possess her. When Aliyah leaves, she wears Hanan’s high-heeled shoes—among all the presents her mistress gives her, there is not a single pair of shoes.