Book Review - Before the Queen Falls Asleep

Huzama Habayeb’s evocative novel about a displaced Palestinian family neatly illustrates Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s epigraph to his 2002 memoir, Living to Tell the Tale: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

Before the Queen Falls Asleepnimbly translated by Kay Heikkinen, is a layered exploration of memory, exile and survival. Offering parallels with her own life, Habayeb’s female protagonist is a second-generation Palestinian refugee, raised in Kuwait, who becomes a successful writer.

Given a boy’s name, Jihad is treated like the eldest son by her parents. She does well at school, teaches English and shares the financial burdens of an expanding household with her father. Only later does she question his abdication of responsibility: “Perhaps he wanted me to make up for his many shortcomings; in the process I became much less.” At Kuwait University, Jihad starts writing fiction, but her brief independence and creative flourishing is shattered by the Gulf war. The family move to Jordan, where they rebuild their lives in another overcrowded house.

Now middle-aged and living in Dubai, Jihad revisits her past with her daughter Maleka (meaning “queen”) who is about to leave home for university abroad. The tales she tells – about the Palestinian diaspora, motherhood, love and loss – are a study in resilience. In a chapter on frugality, for instance, we learn of the family’s “secret hiding places” for their meagre savings. Jihad’s aunt conceals coins in her ample bosom, one grandmother stows precious dinars in her long knickers, another hides her earnings in small linen pouches stashed in jars of dried grains.

All the while, Jihad circles around her story’s emotional heart: a doomed love affair and the circumstances of Maleka’s conception. By focusing on family and neighbours, she delays having to confront her own pain. But as Garcia Márquez observed, our recollections define our lives. Habayeb’s narrative is deliberately meandering, like memory, but her affecting denouement is worth the wait. 

Originally published by The Observer