“The rain was not in a docile mood.”
Huzama Habayeb’s opening sentence of her novel Velvet (Hoopoe Fiction, 2019), beckons the reader to delve into intertwining worlds: the extravagance of language, love and an impending tragedy.
Hawwa, the protagonist, is a beautiful, talented and resilient woman living in Al-Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan. Through flashbacks narrated in vivid detail, Hawwa’s life unfolds against a backdrop of abuse and an absence of protection. As a child, she assumes the role of protector, particularly to shield her younger brother from her abusive father’s wrath. Her mother, silent and resentful, carries her own wounds which are transmitted to her offspring and manifested in repetitive cycles of detachment, fear and violence.
The young woman’s apprenticeship as a seamstress for Sitt Qamar offers her a glimpse of life beyond the confines of the camp. The latter harbours her own story of love and pain which she shields behind a veneer of independence and success.
Hawwa’s escape is transient, yet meaningful. She is capable of protecting her spirit from the violence that permeates her childhood, adolescence and, later, married life, by escaping into her imaginary realms. As the author shifts between Hawwa’s thoughts and imaginings, to the mundane surroundings interspersed with violent bouts, the protagonist’s ability to weave her determination alongside her imagination becomes a temporary triumph. The difficulties in challenging societal norms, the hidden abuse, and her own experience of feeling unfulfilled as a mother despite constant efforts to bond with her children, are not insurmountable obstacles as far as Hawwa’s awareness goes. There is more to life; there is love. Even in the face of impossibility, or rupture.
In fact, she is a contrast on her own. She has the capacity to rise above the squalor, the abuse, the gossip and the mundane details, to see life through her own untarnished lens. Herein comes the contrast; Hawwa moves past the vacuum yet she is pulled in against her volition. Her story is her own inscription, yet others have conspired to scribble their treachery to soil her dream. The obscene reality which resonates ominously throughout, building up only to fall as gracefully as Hawwa is capable of, echoes in the recurring sensations evoked by the author when she speaks of velvet and rain, two metaphors which, within a love story unshackled by domineering scrutiny, would have evoked an abundance of sensuality.
Instead, Hawwa lives the most beautiful moments of her life hounded by trepidation. She protects the intersection where her dreams and her cherished reality mingle, while consciously fending off the probable intrusions that would bring about a rupture. “In the calm of the evening,” we are told, “Hawwa seems less anxious. She wants to believe that life is hiding peaceful nights for her when she would not have to be on her guard, that it will not begrudge her deferred joy.”
Finally free from her abusive husband, Nazmi, Hawwa has discovered love with Munir after a chance encounter. His voice, we are told, was “as deep as velvet”; a voice which she first heard spoken on a day with hailstones and “clattering rain” in January. For Hawwa, the emotion is a novelty. She visits her friend, Durrat Al-Aim, to ask, “How does love come?” For Hawwa, perhaps, love and rain are synonymous. It is yet another rainy day when she glimpses Munir again and the relationship blossoms, under strict societal norms which thrive under the manipulation of a patriarchal community that refuses the possible combination of honourable autonomy for a woman.
Yet Hawwa allows herself to dream, as she did all her life regardless of the circumstances. While shopping for clothes to wear on her first date, “she felt that the entire universe was dancing to the rhythm of her delight.” The author allows herself the luxury of altering the tone for rain, so fleetingly and yet assertively. As her relationship with Munir blossomed, Hawwa sought “rain, rain and more rain, sent down in endless torrents.” Their meetings are described as happening “beneath waterfalls descending from the skies.” In the midst of their plans for their future, however, Hawwa discovers the illusion of her independence and all the reasons why, in her situation, she separated love from the rest of her life that wasn’t Munir.
Huzama Habayeb employs a skilful narrative which in itself makes this book a gripping read. However, the poetic language employed throughout, the intimate detail, as well as the recollections of moments and feelings are stupendous. Moreover, Habayeb’s novel is also an attempt to portray issues within Palestinian society which are overlooked in the constant depiction of Palestine solely from a political perspective. As the novel imparts, the individual’s liberation must not be overlooked.