A Girl Made of Dust

A Girl Made of Dust

2.5 2
by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi

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"Ten-year-old Ruba lives in a village outside Beirut. From her family home, she can see the buildings shimmering on the horizon and the sea stretched out beside them. She can also hear the rumble of the shelling - this is Lebanon in the 1980s and civil war is tearing the country apart." "Ruba, however, has her own worries. Her father hardly ever speaks and spends

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"Ten-year-old Ruba lives in a village outside Beirut. From her family home, she can see the buildings shimmering on the horizon and the sea stretched out beside them. She can also hear the rumble of the shelling - this is Lebanon in the 1980s and civil war is tearing the country apart." "Ruba, however, has her own worries. Her father hardly ever speaks and spends most of his days sitting in his armchair, avoiding work and family. Her elder brother, Naji, has started to spend his time with older boys - and some of them have guns." When Ruba uncovers her father's secret, she starts a journey that takes her from childhood to the beginnings of adulthood. And she realises, as Israeli troops invade and danger comes ever closer, that she may not be able to keep her family safe.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This debut novel, written by a woman who experienced firsthand the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s, weaves the horrors of war with the love and devotion of family. Ruba is seven years old, living in a small Christian village outside of Beirut during the Israeli invasion. Her father is depressed and lethargic; her older brother, Naji, avoids the family, more interested in guns and the local thugs. As the conflict draws closer to the town, causing acts of inhumanity based on religious differences, Ruba learns a secret from her father's past that forces her to face the reality and cruelty around her. Abi-Ezzi walks the delicate tightrope between man's inhumanity and the power and strength family members must draw upon in order to survive. The book is beautifully written, lyrical, with vivid, sensual descriptions that are sophisticated yet completely believable as experienced and retained by a child. ("My bedroom smelt of cotton and books, Mami and Papi's room smelled of ironed sheets.") This disturbing, beautiful book, in turn hopeful and despairing, brings clarity and compassion to an untenable situation. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

Abi-Ezzi, whose family emigrated from Lebanon to England, sets her debut novel during her native country's civil war. Eight-year-old Ruba Khouri lives with her family in Ein Douwra, outside of Beirut. Her father has isolated himself inside the family home, and her older brother has also withdrawn, becoming involved with some dubious characters. As the war intensifies, so do the tensions within Ruba's home. Her mother becomes increasingly dismayed by her husband's inability to take any initiative with either his business or his children. In one particularly affecting scene, Ruba discovers a troubling incident in her father's past, and her longing to understand what happened reflects her tendency to internalize others' burdens and make herself responsible for her family's welfare. Abi-Ezzi deftly tells this story through Ruba's eyes, allowing the reader to experience her loss of innocence as she learns of the complexities of the world. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/09.]
—Cristella Bond

Kirkus Reviews
War-ravaged Lebanon, seen through the eyes of a brave, wise child. Debut novelist Abi-Ezzi, who moved to London in 1983, gives readers the outlines of her homeland's major conflicts, but she focuses on the intimate wars inside the narrator's tiny clan. The book concerns eight-year-old Ruba and her family. Maronite Christians, they seek safety for her older brother, already drawn to guns, and for Papi (father), paralyzed by a mysterious trauma. He returned to their village one day from Beirut as a zombie, closed his shop and retreated; now he rarely speaks except to rage at the Palestinians. At Ruba's birthday party, he frightens her girlfriends and barks at Mami (mother). Even his successful, ever-upbeat brother, who drives a Mercedes so beautiful it makes Mami cry, can't rouse him, but circumstances and his daughter do. As Israeli troops mount an offensive, Ruba calls upon Papi's dormant courage and, ultimately, frees him. At the end, "no longer a cactus standing motionless in a pot full of dry cracked earth," he has reclaimed his life, his dignity and his family's respect. In order to enact this emancipation, however, Ruba first must exhume the secrets of Papi's painful past. In lean, lyrical prose, the author juxtaposes scenes of everyday pleasure (eating sugared almonds, hunting snails) with surrealist horrors (playing in a forest, Ruba comes upon a glass eyeball) to depict coming of age in the line of fire. Part folk tale, part reportage, this moving portrait achieves a dark poetry. Agent: Isobel Dixon/Blake Friedmann

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Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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Chapter One

‘It’s thanks to the ’adra that you didn’t get killed today.’ Teta crossed herself, and her lips moved in a silent prayer as we sat on her bed folding clothes that were stiff and bent in strange shapes from the sun.

The room seemed darker and heavier than usual, with its old furniture, and the tired curtains that wanted to lie down if only the hooks would let them. Through the window, the tops of the pine trees dropped into the valley, where white stone buildings stuck out tall from between them like giant fingers; and further down still to Beirut, which lay stretched out beside the sea. The hot sky had bleached itself white and cicadas hummed back and forth, back and forth, as if they were sawing the trees. Teta had said once that each time they stopped a person had died, but they didn’t stop often: their throbbing started early in the morning when the light came over the mountains and didn’t stop till it went away again.

‘I fell all the way down from the ledge. The earth crumbled and it was so far, higher than the ceiling.’

‘What? Are you a half-wit, Ruba, to be playing in the forest next to a steep fall like that? Are you, girl?’ She touched my cheek. ‘In any case she’s the one who saved you.’

‘The Virgin?’ I gazed at the little yellow-haired plastic woman in a blue dress standing on the dressing-table. She was really only a bottle filled with holy water that you could see if you unscrewed her crown and I didn’t see how she could have saved me that morning.

Teta nodded. ‘You could have fallen as far as hell itself and you wouldn’t have been killed. The Blessed Virgin wouldn’t have let you die.’

‘Is that her job? Is that what she does?’

‘Does?’ Teta gave me a look. ‘She’s not a belly-dancer, child, she’s the Mother of Christ.’

I didn’t really want to hear about the Virgin Mary unless Teta put her into a story and made her do something exciting like swim out to sea, or play hide-and-seek with God, or dig a tunnel all the way to Beirut and live in it.

The huge pair of grey-white pants I was trying to fold didn’t want to be made small. They were grandmother pants; no one but grandmothers ever wore that sort.

‘But she couldn’t have saved me because she wasn’t even there.’

Teta smiled. ‘She was there.’

Maybe Teta was right. Perhaps the Virgin had wanted me to fall; she had made me fall so I could find the glass eye.

‘If only she’d help your father as well,’ Teta murmured.

I looked up from the pants, but she didn’t say anything more, just carried on untangling, shaking and folding. A thin green blouse slid out from the pile, was laid flat and smoothed: Teta’s hands were slow and heavy, and things obeyed them.

‘Does she really look like that?’ I pointed at the plastic bottle full of holy water. ‘Or like Teta Fadia? Teta Fadia looks like an angel.’ A photograph of Teta’s mother, wedged into the frame of the dressing-table mirror, showed a woman older than anyone I’d ever seen bent over a walking-stick. Her white hair was parted in the middle and tied back, and she wore a pair of horn-rimmed glasses; but behind them was a kind, soft face.

‘She was an angel,’ said Teta. ‘Haven’t I told you how it’s because of her that I can read? “Why should my sons go to the school and not my daughter?” she used to say. “Aren’t I a daughter?” And so my brothers and I took turns to tend the goats and go to school.’

Teta didn’t look like her mother. There was still a lot of black in her hair, she was strong with large hips, and her face was neither soft nor beautiful, just round and wrinkled and wonderful.

As I watched her smiling reflection in the mirror folding and stacking, I fingered the glass eye in my pocket. It was hard and dense, and I hadn’t told anybody about it.

‘Naji will have come back. I’m going to see.’ When early afternoon had changed into late afternoon and the shops were reopening, Mami had gone with Naji to buy food and house-things. Only Papi was at home.

Teta’s heavy hands shook out a towel. ‘Yes. Go and find your brother.’

My shoes squeaked down the tiled floor of the corridor. Light came in through the doors leading onto the large balcony, but the middle of the flat was as quiet and dim as if it was under water. The bulb above the sink in the corridor was switched on, and in the shadows, the sewing-machine with ‘Singer’ on it was crouched like a black bear. I put up my nose as I passed the bunch of dried lavender that hung from a nail in the wall: it smelt of sleep and open spaces.

Above the wooden double doors, a huge embroidered picture of Christ’s head bled and shone out great beams of light, the eyes staring up at the top of the frame so that the whites showed. In the dining room there was another picture of him, only in that one he was eating with a lot of other men. Teta said it was his last supper, but wouldn’t say what the food was or where the women who’d prepared it had gone.

The door shivered shut and I headed up the stairs into the white sunshine.

The August sun shone like Jesus, and across the road, large black flies worried the thin dogs and cats that stepped among the rubbish or leapt onto the garbage drums. At midday, sweating shopkeepers pulled down their shutters, went home to have lunch and rest, and the afternoon slump set in. People and plants wilted together; only the pine trees remained upright like soldiers in the heat. Dust rose and settled whenever a car chugged slowly uphill, cats and young women yawned, and the town waited for the shadows to grow long.

I didn’t want to be alone in the house with Papi, so I stayed on the veranda that ran three-quarters of the way round the building. Sliding down to the floor, I sat with my back to the wall.

Mami always said that time passed quickly, and maybe it did in other places — in Beirut or on the beach or in the Roman temples at Baalbek that were in our history books at school, or at the top of the snowiest mountain — but here in Ein Douwra, it went slowly. The Rose Man came down the stairs onto the far end of the veranda, smiled at his roses as he walked past them, and carried on up the hill, easing himself from foot to foot, lifting and settling his stick, stopping at every fifth or sixth step to rest and look around. He was slow, and time moved even slower than he did. It had taken for ever to get to 1981, and would take for ever again to reach my eighth birthday.

Finally there was a crunch of gravel and Mami appeared, sweating and red-faced, weighed down with bags of shopping. Naji came behind, carrying two more and stamping his feet in time to a song he was chanting. He followed Mami into the house, and a minute later came back out again. ‘What happened to you?’ he asked, looking at my cuts.

I turned first one way and then the other to show Naji the best ones.

‘What happened?’

‘I fell down that ledge in the forest, the steep one.’ I pointed the short distance down the slope to where the trees were singing, their chirps stitched together in an endless row. The forest was the best place to be, with its green pine needles and grasses, its brown trunks and rock, its bright coloured flowers, gleaming insects, thorn bushes, and the dry red earth of its narrow paths. ‘The skin tore as I slid down. There are still bits of grit in, see?’ I poked at the black specks on my knee.

Naji’s eyebrows rose as if he didn’t believe me.

‘I did! I tried to get hold of some roots but I couldn’t.’

‘What was at the bottom, if you fell?’

‘There were all sorts of things — twigs and a rusty can and pine cones.’ My fingers still smelt of the young cones that had been all hard and green with a silver diamond on each scale. ‘And then I found . . .’

His eyes lit up. ‘What?’

‘Nothing. When I got back and you and Mami weren’t here, I went to Teta’s, and she touched me all over to check that every bit of me was still there. It tickled! And there was blood on my shirt from the cut on my shoulder. It looked like a flower — it got bigger . . . like a rose! — and then Teta put spiriton my scratches, which hurt even more than falling over.’

But Naji was two years older than me and wasn’t interested in such things. He went inside. When he came back he was carrying a Matchbox car, his bag of marbles and the blue tin box that lived on the top shelf of his bookcase where I couldn’t reach. He kept his most precious things in it.

‘Teta said it was the Virgin who stopped me dying when I fell.’

He stroked the little white sports car. ‘It’s a Lamborghini. Look.’ He flicked the doors so they opened upwards, then closed them again.

‘Do you think it’s true, Naji?’

He ran the car quickly across one palm so the wheels whizzed. ‘No. The Virgin Mary’s not here at all. Didn’t you hear how they saw her in a building site in Beirut?’

‘Who saw her?’

‘Just people. Gabriel’s mother told us. She said miracles were happening just twenty kilometres down the road from here in Beirut.’

‘But Teta doesn’t lie.’

He shrugged.

A rumble of shelling was coming from somewhere as Naji emptied his pockets to see if there was anything precious to add to the box. There was a long piece of string with knots tied in it, his old penknife, a little block of wood with a hole bored through it, a round of caps and some more marbles.

‘I’ve got a marble too,’ I said.

Naji’s black eyebrows lowered. ‘Where is it? When did you get it?’

‘Today. I found it.’ It was still in my pocket, warm from being against me all afternoon. ‘Here!’ I plopped it into his hand.

He gasped. The glass eye jumped up and down twice in his palm, and I sat on my heels and laughed.

‘Where did you get it?’

I told him how I’d found it in the forest, and he turned the eye over, examining it closely. It looked funny lying in his hand without a body round it, and I thought about people being made up of separate parts — ears and fingers, hair and belly-buttons.

‘Do you think it’s hers?’

He glanced up. ‘Whose?’


He peered more closely, as if it might have her name on it. ‘The witch?’

I nodded.


Ever since we were old enough to think, we’d known she’d put a spell on Papi to make him the way he was.

‘I know!’ I cried. ‘It’s the evil eye!’

Naji looked doubtful. ‘Maybe.’

‘She’s probably got more than one so she can swap them round depending who she wants to put the evil eye on. Big eyes for big curses and little ones for smaller curses — a drawer full, all rolling about when she opens it!’

Naji sighed, which meant he didn’t think I knew anything. ‘There’s only one evil eye,’ he said, ‘but if it is hers she can’t put a curse on us because we’ve got it.’ His face lit up. ‘Like a miracle. Miracles are always happening.’

‘What other miracles happen?’

He put the glass eye to his, maybe to find out if he could see with it. ‘Mar Sharbel.’

‘What’s he ever done?’

‘He’s our saint and there’s always stuff about him, how sick people get better.’

The rumble of shelling that was always in the background came again, carried on the still air. ‘How?’

He waved his hand, as if there were too many instances to remember. ‘If they’re blind they grow new eyes, or new legs if they can’t walk.’

But we weren’t missing any legs, arms, eyes or even teeth. We were only missing Papi.

Mami talked to herself — made noises, her face twisted or frowning or sad: the slight sucking in of breath when she cut herself, the annoyed ‘tut’ when she was rolling up fatayir into parcels and the dough wouldn’t stick together, the ‘ach’ when she straightened up from making beds, the long sigh like the sea when she sat down at the end of the day. She even talked to the chicken when she was preparing it for the oven, sympathetically as if she was sorry. And then there was the sound of her: the rustle of the underskirt against her legs, the clack of her wooden slippers, the tinkling of her two gold bangles, the click of her hips as she shifted from one foot to the other, the tiny tick when she bit down on hairpins while coiling her hair.

Papi didn’t make these noises. He was as quiet as a stone.

Perhaps Mami liked to cook because the kitchen talked back to her: the bubble and hiss of the pots, the crushing and chopping that came from the board, the clatter and tinkle of knives and glasses, the creak of the table, the whirr of the fridge, and the tlup-tlup-tlup of the dripping tap.

Naji must have left footprints when he left to go to Gabriel’s because the stretch of kitchen floor between the dining room and the veranda door was newly cleaned and wet. I almost sent a tray crashing to the white-tiled floor.

‘Be careful, ya Ruba!’

There were trays everywhere — along the counter and gas hob, on top of the fridge, on two chairs Mami had brought in from the dining room — all covered with pastry dough. ‘Why are you cooking so many?’

Mami’s face was red from the heat as she wiped her hands on a cloth. ‘They won’t make much in the end.’ Sweat had settled on her upper lip, and she wiped it off with a downward sweep of her forefinger.

‘Are they all the same?’

She nodded and started to roll out a new square. Then she lifted it onto her knuckles and, elbows spread sideways, stretched it so thin I could see her face through it. Three times it tore and had to be mended, but finally she cut it up and piled layers of dough on top of each other, brushing them with butter and sprinkling nuts as she went. Several ripped, and a ragged ball of useless skin-like pastry grew.

‘Here — chop these nice and fine.’ Flour smeared her face as she brushed her hair back with her arm.

It was hard to chop the pistachios. One flew up and hit the saint on the calendar that hadn’t been turned for two months. Another spun out onto the floor.

‘Patience. Patience will extract sugar from a lemon.’

I rolled a nut between my fingers. ‘How?’

But she didn’t answer. Two trays came out of the oven and two more went in, the layers of filo like dragonfly wings that crackled when I touched them.

Mami wasn’t taking any notice. Bent low, she was arranging more pastry on a tray; like that, her hair looked like a giant snail sitting on the back of her head. Then, as I stepped up close, her eyes widened. ‘Ruba, what happened?’ A loose strand of her hair tickled my cheek as she leant down, her eyes round and black-rimmed. The light from the window showed specks of flour floating next to her ear in the thick heat.

‘I fell. It’s all right, Teta put spirit on them,’ I explained.

She checked me quickly, then carried on working and moving among the jigsaw puzzle of trays. The green of her dress was dark under the armpits, and her arms wobbled in the heat from the oven.

From the living room came the faint tack-tack-tack of Papi’s worry beads passing through his thumb and finger one by one, again and again and again.

‘Mami, why do you cook all the time?’

‘It keeps my thoughts busy.’

‘Is that why you didn’t notice my cuts?’

She looked worried. ‘Yes.’

After the cooking came the washing. Then the clothes were hung out on the veranda and Mami watered the fuchsias, marigolds and geraniums set out against the walls. She flickered in and out of the sun as she passed behind the hanging clothes, and water spilt out dark from the bottom of the pots. Mami was good at taking care of things, at making sure they had enough food and water. Thin streams slid across the veranda and into the gutter. They oozed out from the bottom of every pot except for the leaning cactus tied to a pole that stood alone in the corner. Mami didn’t like it and kept hoping it would die, but it wouldn’t. She didn’t want to throw it away yet I knew she didn’t want to water it either. Perhaps her heart had dried out and withered in the heat like a fig. For a moment I pictured it, purple and shrunken, inside her chest. ‘Mami, when will you water the cactus?’

She glanced over her shoulder. ‘I don’t know. Soon.’

‘How soon?’

The plastic washing-line creaked but there was no answer. She gave the last few drops to the fuchsia, while further along the wall, the earth round the cactus stayed cracked and hard.

Papi watched silently from his armchair as I crossed the living room, his large dark eyes fixed on me; except for them, he didn’t move. A woman was singing out of the little radio he kept on the shelf near his chair.

‘They put up roadblocks,
They dimmed all the signs,
They planted cannons,
They mined the squares.
Where are you, love?
After you we became the love that screams.’

I found a book and sat on the sofa. Above my picture of Ali Baba with the forty thieves, Papi’s face looked even more square than usual — a big brown square with a funny reddish mark on his forehead like shoe polish that I had always wanted to rub off. And all the time, the tack-tack-tack of his worry beads.

The woman was still singing — ‘It is the second summer, the moon is broken’ — and Papi was staring at the cuts on my legs.

‘I fell, that’s all. It didn’t hurt much.’

There were black hairs on his arms where the sleeves were rolled up, on the backs of the hands and above each knuckle; and below that, on his toes in their black leather slippers, on the big ones and the smaller ones lined up in a neat row beside them.

‘You must be careful.’

O love of days, they will come back, Beirut, the days will come back . . .’

The reddish mark over his eyebrow seemed bigger now. It reminded me of what Soeur Thérèse had said last time she came in to school to teach us about God and the Bible, watching through her glasses with eyes that saw everything, ready to use the telling-off voice that came straight out of her nose. She talked about Cain and Abel, and how the bad brother had a mark on his head.

In the vase on the table the plastic flowers were dusty, and the smell of burnt pastry hung in the air. Papi had turned into a statue with its eyes fixed on the floor. When he lifted his head again he seemed surprised that I was still there. As I left, it came to me that he was like the cactus. He sat in the corner all hard and dry, as though someone had forgotten to water him.

From the Hardcover edition.

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