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  • Welcome to ALT Magazine & Press: Hazawi Prize Announces 2023 Shortlist: (Sana'a, Yemen) - The shortlist for the 2023 Hazawi Prize for Yemeni Literature has been revealed, announcing the ten writers who have been selected as finalists for this prestigious award.
  • Now in its second yearly round, the Hazawi Prize recognizes exceptional contributions to fiction in Yemeni literature. Organized by the Hazawi Cultural Foundation, this annual prize aims to promote Yemeni literature and support creative writers.
  • This year's shortlist features both emerging and renowned Yemeni authors. The ten works advancing to the final round of judging are:
  • - Abdullah Faisal shortlisted for his novel, Spirits and Secrets.
  • - Aisha Saleh shortlisted for her novel, Under the Ashes
  • - Farouk Merish shortlisted for his novel, A Dignified Stranger
  • - Ahmed Ashraf shortlisted for his novel, A Painful Belt
  • - Ghassan Khalid shortlisted for his novel, A Sky that Rains Fear
  • - Hosam Adel shortlisted for his novel, The Lord of the Black Dog
  • - Asmaa Abdulrazak shortlisted for her novel, Shrapnels
  • - Abdullah Abdu Muhammad shortlisted for his novel, The Road to Sana'a
  • - Najah Bahkeim shortlisted for her novel, The Final Decision
  • - Samir AbdulFattah shortlisted for her novel, What We Cannot See
  • The winner will be revealed at an award ceremony in Sana'a later where they will receive $1,500 USD. Second and third prizes of $1,000 USD each will also be awarded. All shortlisted works are celebrated for chronicling Yemen's rich culture and wartime experiences. This prestigious prize continues highlighting the nation's thriving literary community.

Al-Thajjah – a Novel written by Fikria Shahrah – trans. by Hatem Al-Shamea

Chapter One

It was the season when Mokhtar’s father had deemed him ready for marriage, and Mokhtar assumed the guise of a demure maiden, cloaking himself in an aura of modesty. He was well aware that this façade of shyness was not born out of genuine timidity, but rather an escape from a predetermined fate that would have spanned his entire existence.

Mokhtar gazed into the eyes of his son, mirrors reflecting his own, and beheld a flicker of courage dancing within them, ablaze with confidence and self-assurance. Silently, he stood in awe of his son’s audacious plea for matrimony, considering that he had yet to attain the tender age of eighteen. Omar, undeterred, persisted with conviction:

“Father, you regaled me with tales of your own nuptials at the tender age of eighteen. The time for my own marriage has arrived.”

A subtle wink accompanied this meaningful gesture, signifying his readiness to embark upon the obligations of marital life. Omar’s countenance, bearing the semblance of maturity surpassing his years, was evident in his towering stature akin to his father’s, broad shoulders, chiseled physique, and resolute stride. Such confidence resonated through his every action and uttered word.

Mokhtar raised his hand, gently caressing the back of his son’s head while pulling him closer, his touch infused with tenderness, as he uttered:

“Do not hasten to the culmination of your existence before it has even commenced, my dear fool. Life encompasses more than the mere realm of matrimony.”

Omar, having recently completed his final year of secondary education, appeared to have diligently fulfilled his expected obligations. His father harbored the desire for him to embark on a journey abroad, seeking higher education and the opportunity to immerse himself among diverse cultures, aligning with the aspirations of his beloved mother. However, the decree of his grandfather, Hajj Qaid, mandating Omar’s continuation of university studies within their hometown, presented a formidable obstacle to the realization of Mokhtar’s wishes.

“Very well, Father. Let it be an engagement, then. I fear I will lose entirely.”

Mokhtar emitted a sigh of exasperation, his words murmured to himself:

“You remain oblivious to the weight of relinquishing the entirety of your youth.”

Then, with unwavering reassurance, he addressed his son:

“The two of you are betrothed. Our families have long held an implicit agreement since your earliest days. Therefore, fret not and direct your focus toward the shared tapestry of your future.”
This implicit agreement from childhood, as you mentioned, Father, between my grandfather and her grandfather; now things have changed significantly. My uncle, Tahir Al-Radhi, is no longer the man we once knew.

Suddenly, a disgruntled voice emerged from behind them, the daughter of his cousin, Nahra:

“The civilized world fights against early marriage, and here you are, Omar, wanting to be one of its victims.”

Omar chuckled dismissively:

“And is the man a victim in early marriage? I don’t think so.”

Mokhtar responded, raising his eyebrows with concern:

“Yes, a man can indeed be a victim of early marriage, perhaps even coerced into it.”

Omar laughed in his father’s face, raising his voice:

“Are you implying something, Father?”

It was a day reminiscent of this very day when his father, Qaid Al-Ibi, had summoned him as if rewarding him for his achievement of graduating from the Teachers’ Institute with a diploma, making him a schoolteacher. The news had sparked great pride in the village where they resided in the city of Ibb. Mokhtar would proudly tell anyone who visited his shop that his son had become a teacher and would educate their children at the nearby school alongside the Egyptian and Sudanese teachers.

“We will betroth her to you from the village. City girls are not suitable for marriage.”

The father’s decision was made in secrecy. His mother needed help within the house, and the village girls were accustomed to domestic work, as the saying goes. However, he did not desire a woman whose relationship with her husband would become part of her burdensome duties, which she was raised to endure and fulfill.
He desires an educated woman, someone who knows matters beyond household chores and fulfilling her marital duties.

“Why don’t we consider proposing to the daughter of ‘Uncle Raqeeb,’ for example?” Mokhtar suggested with a hint of shyness.

“She’s too old for you, and his daughters are spoiled,” Mokhtar wondered in astonishment, “How can she be too old when she’s the same age as me and we graduated together from the Al-Moalemeen Institute?”

“My son, a woman should be younger than her husband by several years. Women age quickly, and childbirth takes away from a woman’s beauty. Besides, what do you want? An educated woman to challenge your authority?” his father responded.

Mokhtar argued with himself, “What do you expect? That they would marry you to an educated city girl who has no connection to the daily work in a house filled with dozens of guests every day? A woman who won’t give birth to seven or nine children and more?” His father remained angry, still resentful as to why his offspring was limited to only two sons, Omar and Baha, disregarding the three daughters as if they were insignificant.

His father, Qaid Al-Ibi, had longed for the arrival of Baha, who came after a prolonged hiatus in childbirth. Baha arrived like a dream to his grandfather, Qaid, after Jamil and Fadel had separated and each established their own households. The presence of their children in the large house had become scarce.

Qaid Al-Ibi was blessed with three sons: Mokhtar and his brothers Jamil and Fadel. He had hoped for ten male children, as he always proclaimed, conveniently forgetting about Ghalia and her sisters, whose share of births had been claimed by the village cemetery.

He would always say that a large progeny was a source of pride and honor. To this, Mokhtar’s mother would respond:

“If Allah blesses them, then so be it. Otherwise, one righteous child is better than many.”

Since Mokhtar became aware of himself and his relatives, and their relatives and their relatives’ relatives, they would receive guests throughout the month. They would come for medical treatment in the city or to prepare for weddings, or during holidays for transportation and shopping. They would bring their children and bags of clothes, leaving only their livestock in the village.

Mokhtar’s father, Hajj Qaid Al-Ibi, would repeat in his ear whenever he heard him complaining about not finding a quiet place to study his lessons:

“They bring blessings with them, my son. All this goodness and prosperity come because your father’s house is open to every passerby. Whenever we open our homes to people, Allah opens the doors of sustenance for us.”
The humble shop of his father had transformed into sprawling commercial establishments, where his brothers stood alongside their father, aided by numerous workers. They regarded Haji Qaid’s house as their own majestic abode and saw in him a paternal figure to whom they turned for guidance in life’s affairs. Whether in the village or among the merchants of the city of Ibb, his words were heard and cherished.

Likewise, his mother took on the radiant demeanor of a peacock, strutting proudly amidst the women of her village, surpassing even her predecessor, Halima, the wife of Haji Sultan. She boasted of her husband’s magnanimity and their comfortable life in the city, as their home expanded to accommodate their children, their spouses, and their offspring. Even the burdensome household chores became a testament to her remarkable prowess, which she executed with finesse, a source of immense pride. She reveled in the accolades bestowed upon her culinary creations and gracious hospitality.

Rarely did she permit her guests to assist or set foot in her kitchen to toil alongside her. Instead, she entrusted the weighty tasks of dishwashing, cleaning, and kneading dough to the hands of her young daughters. Yet, each of them, in the eyes of the village women, was regarded as a mature woman. This was true until they married and bore their beautiful and virtuous sons. Although Jamil divorced his wife, who refused to reside in his father’s grand dwelling, his subsequent union with Fathiya served as a splendid compensation for his mother, as Fathiya embodied exceptional talent and kindness as her cherished daughter-in-law.

Haji Qaid’s decision to relocate to the city was driven by his desire for Mokhtar and his brothers to receive an education. However, Jamil and Fadhil later stealthily ventured into the world of trade, abandoning their studies before completion.

The yearning of his father to dwell in the city was not without purpose. The roots of the Al-Ebi family ran deep within the lands of “Thajjah.” Their early ancestors belonged to esteemed lineages, their lives intertwined with the Ziyoud wars against the Ottomans. The Al-Ebi family’s affiliation with the Ottoman army had its consequences; their lands were confiscated, and the remaining kin scattered among the mountains. It was his great-grandfather who chose to settle in the mountains of Ba’adan, dedicating himself to agriculture following the retreat of the Ottomans.
They earned the esteemed title of “Bayt al-Ebi,” a name derived from the city of Ibb, as their family members carried within them a deep affinity for commerce and an enduring love for the bustling urban life. Their trade endeavors extended from the vibrant city of Ibb to the serene villages nestled among the lofty highlands.

In a momentous decision, Mokhtar’s father chose to relinquish the grand ancestral home in the village and the vast expanse of land, entrusting its care to his brother Sultan and his four sons, none of whom had pursued formal education except for Salem, Mokhtar’s steadfast companion. The fertile land lay fertile under their diligent hands, yet their hearts yearned for a distant land, dreaming of a life in Saudi Arabia, despite the abundant blessings bestowed upon them by their own fertile soil.

Hajj Qaid al-Ebi, with great determination, acquired a substantial plot of land in the heart of the city, once owned by the illustrious Al-Radhi family, who now became their neighbors. Adhering to the customary design of grand residences in the city, encompassed by lush walled gardens, often separated by a single wall, Al-Radhi insisted on a lengthy passageway between their respective gardens instead of sharing a common barrier.

Hajj Qaid embarked on the construction of a spacious and structurally robust house, built to withstand the towering heights of future floors. It was destined to become one of the most exquisite dwellings in the region, embodying the essence of the burgeoning new city while harmoniously blending the timeless allure of traditional Yemeni architecture.
Bayt Al-Radhi, like other noble families from the far north, arrived in Ibb decades ago, where the Imam allocated vast expanses of land in Thajjah to them. These lands, inherited by generations of this family, were sold off, as the Radhi family did, and they sold the best and largest plot of land to Hajj Qaid. It was through this transaction that they became neighbors, friends, and, on their way, to becoming in-laws, as their grandchildren Omar and Faten were to be married.

The bond of neighborliness and friendship between the Radhi and Al-Ebi families transcended generations. Mokhtar and Tahir Al-Radhi were inseparable companions from a young age. They were not only friends but grew up as neighbors, sharing meals at the same table, whether in the house of Al-Radhi or the house of Al-Ebi. Mokhtar insisted on being the host, as Tahir’s grandmother did not appreciate having young children in their home.

This friendship did not prevent the occasional childish battles between them, with Mokhtar often emerging as the victor. The most intense conflict occurred when the boys at school learned of the nickname given to Tahir by Al-Radhi, and Mokhtar was accused of being the one behind it. This caused Tahir to feel a sense of resentment towards him, despite Mokhtar’s innocence. The Radhi family’s tongue slipped in front of many witnesses.

As they grew older, the distance between them widened, and they became mere neighbors, preserving the remnants of their old affection. However, the one closest to Mokhtar’s heart and his lifelong companion was Salem, his cousin. Salem was the keeper of his secrets, his confidant, before something mysterious shattered their relationship.
Mokhtar surrendered control to his father from the moment he was born, yet he harbored a desire to safeguard a realm within himself, far removed from the intricacies and conventions of the meticulously orchestrated life.

His physique, inclined towards plenitude, and his stature of average height, combined with the turn of his countenance and the radiance of his broad, polished forehead, projected an assuring and tranquil mien. Despite the occasional adjustment of his eyeglasses upon his eyes, which he would raise every now and then, it did not disturb the semblance of serenity he emanated. Even the tense curve of his shoulders when he sat, reminiscent of a grown child, with his hands resting on his lap, further contributed to his calming features.

Ghalya often reminded him to maintain an upright posture while reading, but sitting without relaxation became his customary demeanor.

He wedded the woman chosen for him by his parents and fulfilled their expectations by becoming a father. He served as an educator for over two decades, with the monotony of the profession failing to diminish the ardor within his heart. Immensely patient, he was overshadowed by a buoyant spirit and a profound sense of contentment in the face of adversity. At times, he appeared indifferent to the circumstances life presented to him. When he was stripped of his position as a school principal, due to the tumultuous events unfolding in the country, he returned and devoted himself as a volunteer teacher to the students who had lost both their education and their instructors. And when he eventually departed from this vocation, following a shocking incident that left a lasting impact on his soul, he never entertained the thought of a return.

Within the realms of reading and contemplation, he discovered solace, penning rare verses that he carefully concealed from prying eyes, sharing them only with Ghalya and Salem. Occasionally, he would dispatch them to Salem during his periods of exile, imploring him to consign them to oblivion. Apart from his cousin and sister, he found himself alone. How deeply it wounded him to witness Salem’s transformation upon his second return from exile.

Mokhtar came to realize that he remained obedient to his father and bound by the social standing of his family, as well as the customs and traditions of his environment. Nevertheless, the domain of his soul belonged to him and him alone.

He found contentment in the affection and love of his wife, never contemplating any other experience to bridge the gap of attention or understanding between them. His sentiments towards her leaned more towards pity than love.
He didn’t envy anyone for the beautiful love stories they lived or the marriages that unfolded exactly as their owners had desired. Mokhtar was taken aback by Salem’s eagerness to marry an educated, city girl, as if it were a means for Salem to assert his superiority over him. It seemed as though surpassing Mokhtar in every aspect was Salem’s ultimate aspiration.

Salem never hesitated to boast about his wife’s self-interest and education in front of Mokhtar. However, this had no impact on Mokhtar’s admiration and love for Fathia.

Sometimes, he felt that despite being in the prime of her youth, she appeared as a frail old woman. It was as if she had never experienced the joys of youth. Since he married her as a child, she had taken on the demeanor of an aged woman, with her sharp intellect, limited conversations, and patient, reserved manner. It was as if time had not aged her.

He would often find himself asking, “Do I appear as old as she does?”

Having already surpassed his forties, he felt youthful and vibrant. His comfortable job as a teacher contrasted with Fathia’s domestic responsibilities, which exhausted her at a young age due to the never-ending household chores and the demands of her mother-in-law.

Furthermore, his carefree personality, which embraced simplicity and ease, was in stark contrast to her stern and methodical character that bordered on monotony and tedium.

She withered from within, burdened by the weight of her responsibilities as Mokhtar’s mother and the mistress of the house. The weight of her suppressed emotions manifested in her prematurely aged appearance.

Yet, amidst it all, there was one woman who never caught his attention—an ordinary neighbor and his old friend, Taher Al-Radhi. She stirred within him a feeling closer to awe. She was a woman who captivated everyone with her charm and wit, but he felt an enigmatic sensation that she was a temptation of a different kind.
His companionship with Taher Al-Radhi had turned into aversion after Taher joined the school as a teacher and his father’s council as a judge. However, Taher’s marriage to Sharifa severed all the ties of friendship. Taher had changed significantly in his dealings with Mokhtar. The agreement for the marriage of Faten and Omar was now only between the two elderly individuals. And with the efforts of Taher’s wife, who hailed from tribal lineage and had a strong friendship with Mokhtar’s mother, she became the conduit for complaints. She would frequently complain to her neighbor about the dominance of her daughter-in-law, Sharifa, who neither respected her nor accorded her the esteem she deserved within the household, unlike the respect daughters-in-law typically showed their aunts. If it weren’t for the remaining respect she had for her uncle, Taher’s wife would have asked her aunt to serve her openly. The conclusion of every complaint session was marked by her well-known statement, etched in the memories of the neighbors for its repetition on every occasion: “No sooner did my righteous mother-in-law pass away with all her authority than Allah replaced her with a daughter-in-law who is even more controlling and ruthless. Oh, Mother of Mokhtar!”

Mokhtar paid no attention to Taher’s aversion or his behavior towards him. Taher’s union with Sharifa awakened in him even greater ambitions for dominance than before. It was as if this woman dictated his every move day and night, and for her sake, he was willing to lose much.

No, he didn’t care about Taher’s actions among the city’s elite and its merchants, or what he did to gain control over everything, just as Salem, his cousin, had changed after his recent return from abroad.

Women’s Agency and Patriarchal Constraints in Fikria Shihra’s “Al-Thajjah”

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