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Women on a Journey

Women on a Journey
Between Baghdad and London
Translated by Judy Cumberbatch

A novel by a Kurdish-Iraqi writer that gives voice to contemporary Iraqi women’s experiences of political repression, violence, exile, and the yearning for peace.

Series: CMES Modern Middle East Literatures in Translation

Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin
January 2007
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255 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 |

Exiled, displaced, tortured, and grieving—each of the five Iraqi women whose lives and losses come to us through Haifa Zangana's skillfully wrought novel is searching in her own way for peace with a past that continually threatens to swallow up the present.

Majda, the widow of a former Ba'ath party official who was killed by the government he served. Adiba, a political dissident tortured under Saddam Hussein's regime. Um Mohammed, a Kurdish refugee who fled her home for political asylum. Iqbal, a divorced mother whose family in Iraq is suffering the effects of Western economic sanctions. And Sahira, the wife of a Communist politician, struggling with his disillusionment and her own isolation. Bound to one another by a common Iraqi identity and a common location in 1990s London, these women come together across differences in politics, ethnic and class background, age, and even language. In narrating the friendship that develops among them, Zangana captures their warmth and humor as well as their sadness, their feelings of despair along with their search for hope, their sense of uprootedness, and their yearnings for home.

Weaving between the women's memories of Iraq—nostalgic and nightmarish—and their lives as exiles in London, Zangana's novel gives voice to the richness and complexity of Iraqi women's experiences. Through their stories, the novel represents a powerful critique of the violence done to ordinary people by those who hold power both in Iraq and in the West.

  • Introduction
  • Women on a Journey
  • Glossary
  • Notes on the Text

Haifa Zangana, a Kurdish-Iraqi novelist and artist, lives in London. Zangana, who left Baghdad after being tortured under the Ba'ath regime in the 1970s, has published three novels, three collections of stories, and nonfiction articles.


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I finished writing the original Arabic version of Women on a Journey in 2000, before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime and the occupation of Iraq by U.S.-led troops. Like my previous two novels, Through Vast Halls of Memory and Keys to a City, it was published while I was in exile—in London.

Adiba, Sahira, Um Mohammed, Majda, and Iqbal are my five Iraqi women characters in this novel. At literary events, Iraqis often ask me during question time or in secretive whispers on the side whether Adiba is this woman or Sahira that. At one meeting in Sweden, an Iraqi woman stood up to thank me for writing about Iraqi women but, above all, for having written about Adiba, a friend of hers. Needless to say, I hadn't met or heard of her friend. This scene has been repeated many times. (It is worth mentioning that Majda is the exception, though the development of her character is more dramatic than the rest. Her presence is often ignored, by Iraqi readers in particular.) How do you explain why someone identifies with a character to such an extent that she believes she knows the character—or even is the character?

To shed light on the complex relationship that leads to this anomaly in which a reader identifies with the person on whom a character is supposedly based rather than on the character, I have to take a journey, a literary/political/social journey, and stop along the way at different points in time to get a partial glimpse of the background that characterizes Iraqi fiction writing.

Historical Background

As an Iraqi writer, it is impossible to escape the temptation to look back at ancient writers. One cannot resist a trip to Sumer, in southern Iraq. There, Enheduanna (2300 BC), the world's first known writer, recorded her poetry in cuneiform on clay tablets that have withstood the test of time. With such an inspiration, it is no wonder that many of the best Arab poets, in particular women, have continued to emerge from Iraq.

Throughout history, poetry has been a powerful tool for conveying political messages. Poets have often enjoyed prestigious positions as spokespeople for their tribes, emirs, sultans, or even as modern rulers. Poetry has traditionally been the dominant literary genre in Iraq. Therefore, in order to understand the political and social changes in Iraq, and women's roles in particular, it is essential to look at the role played by poetry in both its oral and written forms. Generations of Iraqi women have used oral poetry as an educational tool to complement the Qur'an in teaching their children history, heroic acts, morality, and responsibility. Women have also used poetry for political ends. It is known that women recited poetry during the 1920 revolution to encourage those fighting against British occupation.

While poetry has played an integral role in the region for thousands of years, it wasn't until the twentieth century that the novel became an important part of the Iraqi literary tradition. Since the publication of Mahmud al-Sayyid's Jalal Khalid, the first Iraqi novel, in 1928, fiction writing in Iraq has been dominated by a sense of social and political commitment. Writers have refused to accept the bitter social and political reality and have striven, through the fictional world, to establish an imaginary reality. When they lack the skills or the artistic refinement necessary for writing fiction, they have sometimes succeeded only in recycling political and social reality. Socially and culturally, Arab poets, writers, and intellectuals have expressed new ideas for change and searched for identity.

Jalal Khalid is dedicated to "Iraqi youth, on whom we depend in our struggle to establish freedom and justice." It tells the story of a young man from Baghdad who spends a few years in India. On returning home, he faces the aftermath of the collapse of the 1920 revolution against British occupation. His experience drives him to question the role of the intellectuals, so he decides to publish a literary journal. In Iraq, a literary journal is not a periodical strictly devoted to literature. Due to political repression and the dominance of the political over the literary, literary journals have often been used as covers for political activities or as alternatives to political parties. Today, little has changed. Like Jalal Khalid, many Iraqi writers now dream of publishing a literary journal in an attempt to reach others and affect society.

The establishment of the Iraqi Communist Party in 1932 and the spirit of communism and socialist ideas hugely influenced Iraqi writers. Progressive, leftist ideas took root in Iraq. These ideas introduced writers to the world's literature and art, while at the same time sounding the call to revolutionary change. The Communist Party also celebrated the struggle for social justice. Above all else, the establishment and development of the Communist Party offered Iraqis a political identity with which to overcome sectarian, religious, and ethnic divisions. The shortcoming of the party was its lack of engagement with traditional society and heritage, a failing which proved to be more dangerous than most understood. Islamists and nationalists would fill the gap left by the Communist Party and engage with the traditional elements of society, leading decades later to the often violent political divisions within Iraq. All of this found expression in Iraqi literature.

It was also during the 1930s that fiction writing in its modern form finally began to attract Iraqi women. In 1937 Dalal Khalil Safadi became the first woman to publish an anthology of short stories. In order to appease family and traditions, and to continue publishing, some women poets and writers chose to publish under pseudonyms. The poet Um Nizar's real name was Selma al-Malaika; the name of the poet Sadoof al-Obaidiaya' was Fettina al-Naeeb; and Afra's name was Maqboula al-Hili. Most of their writing was published in magazines and newspapers, rather than in books; hence, it is difficult to acknowledge, document, and study.

In the 1940s, the second generation of Iraqi writers, which included Dhul-Noun Ayyoub and 'Abdul Majid Lutfi, wrote realistic novels. They depicted the life of the poor through unpleasant, unhappy scenes and events. They saw fiction as a way of reproducing the reality of life. Their novels dealt with social issues such as school reform, education and health, land reform, and women's rights; they promoted the education of women, an end to forced marriages, and the abolition of the traditional 'abaya.

There was one exception to this pattern: 'Abdul Malik Nouri. Unlike his contemporaries, Nouri looked deeper into human nature, portraying the individual in his social environment and the influences of colonialism and class struggle upon him. Nouri's writings reflect his interest in sociology and psychoanalysis. He in turn influenced Fuad al-Takarli (b. 1927), a prominent writer of the next generation. Both men greatly admired Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

During the 1950s, arguments surfaced about mastering the techniques of writing, and paying more attention to characterization, plot, setting, and developing one's personal writing style. There was a need to be liberated from the rigid forms which enshrined the era's recurrent themes of social reform. This reflected the fiction writer's need to be more than katib maqala, an essay writer or a mere reporter.

Though writers in the 1950s moved fiction writing one step further in terms of technique, the interests of society were given priority and the concerns and inner life of the individual were again overlooked. Later these concerns were sacrificed still further in the pursuit of ideology and an emphasis on one-party politics.

Women writers were also active in the literary debates of the 1950s. In 1956 Safira Jamil Hafiz published Children and Toys, in which she dealt mainly, like male fiction writers, with social issues. Though at the same time she questioned the meaning of freedom from a woman's perspective.

While the socio-realist novel remained dominant in the 1950s, writers such as al-Takarli came to realize that such an approach limited their imagination and restricted their style. In an article published in al-Mustaqbal Magazine, in May 1953, al-Takarli summarized the intellectual argument about the role of the writer in society and art. He dismissed all previous writers, with the exception of 'Abdul Malik Nouri, describing them as reporters of social events and folk storytellers. He concluded that they were not writing fiction, but were merely assembling daily case reports similar to those compiled in police stations.

Taking into account the lack of freedom under British colonial rule, the literary shortcomings of the period are also understandable given that the art of fiction writing in its modern sense was relatively new, and the language employed was quite different from the spoken language, as is the case in all Arab countries. Because of this, the ability to read and write literature added to the writer's responsibility to society. Writers then and now are expected to represent their people, expressing their hopes, dreams, and ambitions and voicing their problems, especially at times of political upheaval. I myself have often been approached by readers and asked to write about education, women's issues, and social changes. In short, writers are expected to play a role that might be far beyond their capabilities.

Some people still confuse writers with the ardhahalji (re-presenters); from the earliest times and up to present-day Iraq, illiterate or semi-illiterate Iraqis have relied on the services of humble scribes to write their official requests and complaints in the approved manner. The ardhahalji may be able to do no more than read and write legibly. They offer their services for a few pence at a time where they might be needed: on the street corners near any government office. For some readers, then, the writer is a glorified type of scribe.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a period that most Iraqi writers, poets, and artists remember with nostalgia, experimental writing emerged. Young fiction writers sought new forms of expression and issued one manifesto after another on freedom and creativity. Heavily influenced by Western trends both in thought and style, they produced a mishmash of crude or comic imitations of Sartre, Camus, and Kafka, mixed with socio-realistic novels and the odd masterpiece.

Writers made the most of the last few years of relative freedom that Iraqis enjoyed before the rise to power of Saddam Hussein, which led to wars, thirteen years of the most comprehensive sanctions imposed by Western governments in modern history, invasion, and the present-day occupation. The consolidation in the late 1970s and during the 1980s of the Ba'ath regime resulted in tighter ideological control in the cultural sphere. The denial of freedom of expression led to a steady erosion of basic human rights. Iraqis, including writers, began to escape the country in the thousands, seeking refuge throughout the world.

Writers inside Iraq survived the wars and brutality of the regime either by resorting to silence, or by continuing to write but relying on allegory and mysticism. Their characters were extracted from ancient history. Gilgamesh could be found walking relentlessly in the narrow alleys of Baghdad; Nebuchadrezzar, the warrior-king of Babylon, returned from the ancient past to claim endless victories in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988); martyrs tore off their shrouds to recapture rare moments of heroism; and adventurous men and clever women from The Thousand and One Nights revisited war-torn Iraq.

During this period, dozens of second-rate novels, with ambiguous themes and meaningless historical symbols, were published. Yet a few remarkable literary works, such as Basrayatha, by Mohammed Khudair, also emerged. Additionally, the pain that women suffered—the loss of their loved ones, the harsh years of sanctions, and the political oppression—was conveyed by a new generation of women novelists: the late Nuha al-Radhi (Baghdad's Diary), the late Hayat Sharara (Idha al-ayamu aghsaqat, or When Darkness Falls), and Betool al-Khudhari (A Sky So Close).

Writing Home

Beginning in the mid-1980s, a new generation of Iraqi writers, in addition to those who were already well-established, started publishing in exile. Encouraged by a newfound sense of freedom, individuality, security, and independence from both ideological slavery and state oppression, writers in exile have enjoyed the freedom to publish at will.

Writing in exile is characterized by the dominance of memory; uprooted from one's country, the writer relies on memory as a vital tool, enabling him or her to recreate everything that happened in the past and preserve it intact. Memory extends to the present and may overshadow the future. For some, memory becomes life itself. Other writers are happy merely to visit it, using it to reflect on their bitter experiences in Iraq. In their first novels, mostly based on memory, they depict their personal experiences, addressing themes such as serving in the army, wars, imprisonment, fear, and the struggle to escape the country.

The most important issue that has faced Iraqi writers in exile has been political involvement. The majority of them were either members of or ideologically allied to the Communist Party, and were involved in direct political action. They had spent their youth as communists, living and breathing the party; their friends were comrades; and their writings reflected the party line. Understandably, their sense of loss after the collapse of the Soviet Union was enormous, and leaving their country doubled their feelings of isolation. All of a sudden they found themselves in a complete ideological and social void.

The second problem for Iraqi fiction writers in exile is that almost all of them have continued to write in Arabic. This means that they have to rely on translation in order to reach their new readership and become recognized, something which has proven to be very difficult.

My Characters

In this complicated panorama, where do I stand? What about my characters? In reply, I maintain that it is very difficult to separate the personal from the political when both are directed at the same immediate objectives. The same applies to both my fiction and non-fiction writing. I believe that writers should strive to find the right balance between the individual and society, creativity and moral responsibility, imagination and reality. While discovering new domains, they need to tread with great care within old territories—emphasizing through their writing the right of the other to be different. But, above all, I keep reminding myself to beware the trap of ideology.

The five women who are my main characters in this novel are Iraqis, though they are from different ethnic, political, and social backgrounds. They are the carriers of Iraqi history, the storehouses of its collective memory; they represent the struggle, political and social commitment, and resilience of Iraqis, as well as having their own personal experiences, traumas, hopes, and ambitions. At the same time they are refugees. They live in London, stepping carefully in the streets of a new country, full of apprehension and a sense of longing for their families and country. They feel lonely in this strange place and new culture, whose only advantage for them is that it provides a sense of security—a feeling that proves to be false. They stand, metaphorically, on al-at'aba (the threshold), unable to return to their country but at the same time unable to settle in the new one. They are united by their fear of loneliness, despair, isolation, and lack of human contact. Most of the time they live in the past, unable to enjoy the present and not daring to think of the future.

Iqbal, being a single mother and unexpectedly pregnant as a result of her relationship with her English boyfriend, feels that she has to stop and examine her life. She contemplates her present and decides to break the pattern of her existence, which has been dominated by the past. Kurdish Um Mohammed is sheltered by her religious beliefs. Her common sense leads her to understand her son's anger toward all Iraqi Arabs and his refusal to speak Arabic at times of crisis. (For months after the bombardment of my city, Baghdad, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, I couldn't utter a word in English.) Adiba clings to the past, which overshadows every minute of her present. Asked by Dr. Hawkins in one of her sessions, "Do you and your friends talk about Iraq?," Adiba answers, "Do we talk about anything else?"

Sahira lives in the shadow of her husband, who lives in the shadow of a dying ideology. The three are inseparable. 'Abed Kadhim's character, his depression and disintegrating relationship with Sahira, can only be understood in the context of the history of the Iraqi Communist Party and its rapid decline, if not demise, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Losing the party was much more devastating for Kadhim than being forced to leave Iraq. The collapse of the party meant the loss of his life; it marked his own death. Sahira's obsession with 'Abed Kadhim is also an attempt to recapture her lost youth and love.

As I noted earlier, readers hardly mention or recognize Majda's existence. Despite her strong personality, they choose to ignore her, for one simple reason: she is a Ba'athist. Majda the Ba'athist is too painful to accept. For me, Majda was the most challenging character to write. Like many of my readers, I only met Ba'athists when they were in power. They were hated, feared, and despised. They were the secret police, interrogators, and torturers. They were the tools used by the dictatorship to create a climate of fear and control. It would have been much easier not to have had her as a character. But I felt I could not erase Majda's presence by looking sideways. She had to be dealt with. Perhaps, like Adiba, I felt that I should face my fears. Understanding Majda, looking at her life sympathetically, was an essential part of liberating my characters/myself from the complexities of hate and fear. As I wrote about her, watching her rise to power, then her slow decline into the abyss of death, loss, and finally madness, I had to learn to like her as a character in order to understand the Iraqis she symbolized. I had to understand her, and at certain moments be her, to convey her pain as a mother, as a human being.

Now, beyond my characters, in the reality of today's occupied Iraq, a sterile, dark silence extends its shadow over the imaginary. Like most Iraqi fiction writers, I have not written any fiction, not one word, since the war and occupation in 2003. The cruel reality of occupation has turned writing fiction into a meaningless act. Writers are surrounded by death, barbed-wire fences of hypocrisy, and threatened with the loss of their identity, culture, and the erasure of their memory. But, like many Iraqi writers, I miss literary writing. I miss words and the joy of living in the imaginary with my fictional characters. Sometimes, when not writing about the plight of Iraqis under occupation or attending the aza'a of friends and relatives who have been killed, slaughtered, or gone missing in Iraq, I dream of writing a sequel to this novel. Judging by our modern history, I know that Iqbal and Sahira would join in the national struggle against occupation and injustice, and for liberation and freedom.

They all agreed that it would be a good idea to meet once a month. Four Iraqi women sitting in a crowded café in Hampstead, northwest London.

The idea took root. Enthusiasm grew. Suggestions were offered, questions raised. They busied themselves arranging the details of the meeting. They were pleased with the idea. Phrases flew about. We'll meet out somewhere. It'll be better than at someone's house. We're fed up with being at home. Yes. That's right. Meeting at someone's house means someone has to shop and clean and tidy and cook. They agreed. It's impossible to travel a long way in a city like London without having something to eat, or tea and a biscuit.

They also agreed they didn't need to flaunt their hospitality, or compete over which of them had the nicest house and possessions.

Yes ... yes, it will be much better to meet elsewhere.

As their enthusiasm grew, they forgot they were in public. They were sitting so close together that they didn't need to talk loudly. It was such a little café that the other customers wouldn't tolerate the sound of raised voices. But they were blind to everything outside their small circle.

How quickly the minute hand moved across the face of the clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock. The big clock on the wall, which was shaped like a man holding a baby, ticked rhythmically. Tick, tock.

Enthusiasm spread among them, but it was a mere fifteen minutes before boredom crept in. The enthusiasm started getting ready to leave. Tick, tock.

The blaze of interest died down. The voices quieted. The bodies, which had huddled together, warming themselves at the idea and nurturing it, began to cool. They busied themselves sipping their tea or coffee. Majda wound the end of her necklace around her finger, moodily jerking the colored beads which provided the one dissonant note in her otherwise completely black attire.

She added two spoons of sugar to her coffee, then stirred it with a plastic spoon, staring down at it as the delicate and translucent oily film on its surface broke up. She was like someone stirring up a stagnant pond.

"We'll pay for ourselves," she said, jabbing a finger at the others.

Sahira sucked a brown sugar lump taken from the little bowl on the table.

"Don't get so het up, Majda," she said maliciously, in an attempt to provoke her. "Is a cup of tea or coffee so expensive that we have to discuss it a month in advance?"

"I know it's not much, but it's better to agree beforehand so that we're free to order what we want. We can choose what we want and pay for it separately. Supposing one of us wants a meal, and someone else only wants a drink of water? Isn't it better to agree in advance than pretend we want to pay for each other? Otherwise, one day you'll accuse me of not paying because I've forgotten."

Silence fell. They could have done without Majda's outburst. Adiba reflected that it was rare to arrive at an amicable arrangement with Majda. However, they had to keep on trying. She raised the subject of a date for the meeting.

"Which day?"

"What do you mean?"

"Which day shall we meet?"

"Let's see. What do you think—the first Wednesday of the month?"

Um Mohammed disagreed in her heavy Kurdish accent.

"The Kufa Gallery, near me, has meetings on Wednesdays which I like to attend."

"The meetings are in the evening," said Adiba. "We could meet during the day."

"I can't go out more than once a day. I get tired. Fridays would be better."

"I can't make Fridays," interjected Adiba. "I have to interpret in the morning, and I've got my exercise class in the evening. What about the beginning of the week? Monday, for example?"

They concurred.

"What time?"

"Six o'clock in the evening?"

"I don't like going home in the dark," Sahira said. "It makes me nervous."

Um Mohammed agreed with her.

"That's true. The roads aren't safe after dark. Two days ago I heard that one of my neighbors who lives in the same block of flats as I do was attacked by a gang of youths. They almost beat him to death. And for what? Three pounds. Poor man. He only had three pounds in his wallet."

Majda shrugged her shoulders derisively.

"Yet the English are so proud of London. Always boasting about how it is the capital of a first world country."

"London opens its door to all sorts of people," Adiba intervened. "As to safety ... I am sure it's safe."

"You always defend London and its people," Majda sneered. "You talk about safety. Are you saying Baghdad isn't safe? Have you ever heard of a gang of youths attacking an old man in Baghdad for three dinars?"

Adiba sighed as she watched the young waiter joking with the customers at a nearby table, and didn't reply.

Sahira ignored Majda's remarks. "Our street's scary enough during the day, let alone at night. I'd prefer to meet in the afternoon or the middle of the day."

Um Mohammed weighed in with her support.

"The afternoon would be better, since none of us work."

"Iqbal works," Adiba corrected her. "But she has Mondays off."

"Do you think that Iqbal will want to spend her day off with us?" asked Sahira.

"It's only once a month," Majda snapped, putting an end to any further discussion. "She's welcome if she wants to come. If she doesn't, then she's free to meet whom she wants, when she wants."

"Is one o'clock OK?"

"No, it's lunchtime. Everywhere is crowded between twelve and two."

"Two o'clock in the afternoon, then," Majda suggested irritably. "After lunch. We can have a cup of tea or coffee together."

Sahira asked hesitantly, "How long will the meeting last? I mean, when will it end?"

Majda stared at her for a long moment, then abruptly got to her feet, and dramatically and noisily shoved back her chair. The other customers glanced furtively over at her while pretending to carry on with their conversations. The young waiter swiveled around to check what was happening, then got on with clearing a nearby table as soon as he saw there was no reason to be concerned.

Majda laid a pound coin on the table, the exact price of her coffee. Then she put on her black coat and buttoned it up, winding her long black scarf around and around her neck until her head appeared to be mounted on her shoulders through a series of springs like the neck rings of an African tribeswoman.

Her stance gave her an added power as she towered over them, thin, tall, and draped in black. Before concealing her face under a wide-brimmed black hat, she told them:

"I'll see you. At two o'clock. Next month. As we've agreed, there's no need to phone and confirm."

She hurried away.

A heavy silence settled over their circle.

Her abrupt departure put an end to the underlying sense of tension they were unable to express. It left a sudden void. A black hole that absorbed any words they uttered, any sound of laughter.

Tension consists of heavy particles. It doesn't evaporate, doesn't sublimate, but precipitates among souls.

For several minutes after Majda had gone, they continued to stare at the door. She may have been swallowed up by the world outside, but her dark shadow lingered among them long after her departure.

Sahira was elegantly dressed in bright colors and as carefully made-up for her meeting with the women as for a tryst with a lover. Now she hitched the slightly open bodice of her red dress over her cleavage in order to cover up her rounded breasts, which strained against the material and seemed ready to burst out every time she heaved a sigh or groan. She was the first of those left in the now Majda-less circle to speak. She brushed several grains of brown sugar off her dress, and with them, the echo of Majda's presence and her stinging words. She regarded the two women uneasily, then asked,

"Did I say something to upset her?"

"No, no, don't worry," Adiba said sympathetically. "You know what she's like. You can leave the meeting whenever you want. It's not like a party meeting, where you have to be present from start to finish. Why is it all so complicated? We have been meeting like this for months, haven't we? The only thing that's changed is that we are agreeing to meet on a particular day. We shall meet first and spend some time together and then decide what to do. We can go to a local cinema, or we can sit and chat, or go for a walk on Hampstead Heath if the weather's fine. We can do whatever comes up. It's up to us."

"It's not because I don't like being with you all, but I have to tell Kadhim when I'm getting back. He likes to know exactly when I'm getting home so he doesn't worry."

"Why?" Um Mohammed asked.

Sahira shrugged slightly. "I don't really know, to tell you the truth. Perhaps he's worried about my safety! It's strange. When I'm at home, he doesn't notice if I'm there, but as soon as I leave, he starts worrying about me. He wants to know exactly when I'm coming back. Anyway, I'm afraid of staying out late, especially in winter."

"Don't worry," Adiba said. "Even in the depths of winter, it doesn't get dark before four o'clock."

"You live quite close to Majda," Um Mohammed suggested. "You could arrange to go back with her. At least get on the bus together."

"Majda thinks I'm unreliable ever since I was half an hour late for an appointment."

"Spending half an hour in the street in London's awful weather would try the patience of a stone."

Sahira looked at Um Mohammed in astonishment. "In the street? Who said anything about waiting in the street?" she asked. "We had arranged to meet at her flat. I was late. The boiler at home had broken down. The man from the gas board promised to come and mend it in the morning. I waited and waited but he didn't show up until two o'clock in the afternoon. You see, it wasn't my fault."

"Why didn't you phone and let her know?"

"We didn't have a phone, and I couldn't leave the house and call from the public phone box. She got so cross. I don't know why. After all, she was sitting comfortably in her flat."

"Didn't you explain all this to Majda?" Adiba asked. "Did you tell her what had happened?"


"What did she say?"

"She said an appointment was an appointment and it didn't matter whether we'd arranged to meet at home or in the street."

"I don't understand her," said Um Mohammed. "She's strange. Where has she learned such military discipline from?"

Sahira glanced furtively up at the two women.

"From her party," she whispered.

They heard the whisper. They pretended not to. Adiba said,

"She has been through a hard time, and we should try and understand her."

"We've all had a tough time," Sahira said. "Um Mohammed, Iqbal, you. Which of us has lived the nice, quiet life we would have liked? We've all been forced into exile, and had to leave everything, valuable or not, behind. We're all refugees. We've all suffered. But the difference is that we try and tolerate others, like you say. She doesn't think about anyone except herself. She thinks she's the center of the universe. As they say, she thinks she can wipe the floor with everyone else.

"Sahira, 'aini. May I sacrifice myself for your sake!" Um Mohammed interrupted. "You shouldn't speak like that about someone else. Slander's haram; it's forbidden."

"We've all had our misfortunes," Sahira continued, her sense of dislike now thoroughly aroused, "but she thinks she has a monopoly on misery. We all have to look after her and coax her out of her unhappiness. If anyone else dares to complain, she glares at her and puts her down. And why? Because apparently she's the only one who's suffered. Do you remember that time when I told you how worried Kadhim and I were about Shakir's job and whether he would get his contract renewed or not? By the name of God, do you remember how she mocked me? Instead of saying something like 'In sha' Allah, it'll be OK' or 'If God wills, you'll soon get good news' like the rest of you did, she looked at me as if she were a snake and said, 'You're worried about a silly job contract when our homes and lives have been destroyed.'"

She paused for an instant to catch her breath. "I wish I understood . .. Why do we ask her to join us?" she added bitterly. She stopped. Tears glistened in her eyes. "I'd much prefer it if we met on our own."

Um Mohammed straightened the white voile scarf that she wore over her silver gray hair, now braided into a single plait.

"It's true that Majda can be difficult," she said, "but she's good-natured and she needs us. She's a foreigner like us. There are only five of us. Why do we have to argue?"

"All I'm saying is ... if she wants to be friends with people," said Sahira, "then she should show some concern for them and be polite; she should praise God and thank him that we're willing to be friends with her." She gestured excitedly. "No, no, Um Mohammed. Just because your circumstances are difficult doesn't mean that you can look down on other people. On the contrary ..."

"We haven't yet decided where we're going to meet," Adiba interrupted, trying to change the subject of conversation and divert the poisoned barbs away from Majda. "What about this café?"

They agreed.

"And when shall we meet? We've agreed to meet on Monday, but which Monday?"

"Let's see. What's the date today?"

Adiba studied her diary.

"Today's Thursday, October 15th. In a month, it'll be Monday, November 16th. Who'll let Majda know about the date?"

Sahira recalled Majda's parting shot.

"She told us there was no need to call!" she shouted.

Adiba sighed. "Well, I'll phone her," she said, and added, "Iqbal didn't come today. I'm sure there was a good reason. Sahira, could you let her know?"

"I'm seeing her on Sunday evening. She called and asked me to look after her son, as she's invited out to supper. I might even spend the night with her, if Kadhim lets me. I'll certainly tell her."