Mama Butterfly

Eyad Houssami

Illustration by Cody Cobb

Obese widow in her late seventies. Disarmingly charming, going blind. She may be old, but she is lucid and speaks with confident vibrancy. She gets a kick out of her warm flair for humor, and she thinks she's ready to die.

A chaise longue and a small table.
A pair of shoes on the floor.
On the table, an empty glass, a coffee cup and saucer, and a Turkish coffee pot.
A bag of pistachios and a glass pitcher of water on the floor behind the table.

NEHLA is glad—as if she's just welcomed guests she loves into her home. She is seated with her legs extended on the chaise longue. Bare feet. She takes off her glasses and wipes them clean. She pours a cup of coffee. She sips.

NEHLA:  Rashad never lets a day go by.

يعني he never sits around at home. He'd call me from the office: "Get ready, I'm picking you up." Five-thirty, he leaves, he's downstairs, we head to our friends'. And then there's a cocktail hour, so we go have cocktails. He comes back home, changes: "Go to bed, get some sleep."

Sleep? Cocktail hour, and I'm done for the night? Why sleep?

"Ah, I'm meeting my buddy so and so at La Cave des Rois and my pal such and such at Mocombo around eleven . . . twelve . . . one . . . "

We were a group of friends, we'd go out, dance the night away in Beirut. The end of the night, there's this place: Al Ajami . . . in Al Souq Al Taweeleh. Al Souq Al Taweeleh was a narrow street, pavé, a narrow alley in the souqs, the heart of the city. Les meilleurs magasins étaient à Al Souq Al Taweeleh. Les deux côtés, il y avaient des magasins, et à la fin . . . vers la fin . . . une petite boutique qui s'appele Ajami. Où ils vendaient ma'adem, home cooking, drinks, foul mdemmes, hummus, يعني tout ce qu'il y a plats comme plats libanais.

It's gone—Al Ajami is gone now. The war, I don't know, there's nothing left anymore.

Breakfast at Ajami at dawn, and the sun rises at five. We come home, sleep a bit, Rashad gets dressed, goes to work. And I stay at home.

It lasted a good while. Same story, every day, day after day.

I wasn't too thrilled to leave Damascus because I didn't know what I was getting into. I didn't want to marry outside of Damascus. Get married . . . new place, new friends, new people, you lose it.

يعني a girl like me—like me and my sisters—our father died when we were young and especially because we were cute, يعني the first thing we had to do was get married young. Et c'était l'opinion de tout le monde. يعني we needed men to look after us and fast. After Baba's death, I had to step up to the plate: I was in charge. I was nine years old. Still, I did what I wanted to do, and nothing was going to stop me.

Mama'd send me to school at eight, I have lunch there. My brother and sisters go back home at four, I do my études at school. I finish my études at six and go back home. Because Mama has—she needs time. She keeps me at school because she has to bathe my brother and sisters and to teach them. If I were around, she wouldn't be able to do all these things. Therefore, I stay at school so that she has time to do—uh . . . uh . . . —to teach my brother and sisters. Six o'clock, Abu Saïd picks me up, six o'clock. I study, I do my homework, I do my études. And then:

(She echoes the Franciscan nuns.)

"Nehla Auzbashi, éh . . . étudiez ces cents—le . . . eh . . . ces—ces cents vers de la matière!"
"Nehla Auzbashi, lisez cette comédie de Corneille."
"Auzbashi, faîtes ceci."

Donc, I'm reading, reading, reading. Out of nowhere, the nun pulls me aside, and what does she say to me?

"Allez décorez la chappelle."

In the church, there was—in the school, there was a small church. The nuns all pray there. Uh, she says to me, "Allez décorez la chappelle!" C'était mon plaisir d'aller décorer la chappelle ! Why?

THE FLOWERS! IN THE GARDEN! Un grand jardin!

I'd steal to the garden and snip flowers all day long. يعني I was free as a bird in the garden! The berry tree, the peach tree, snip, snip, snip. Every now and again—again and again, actually—even now, I see my garden in my dreams as it was in the Franciscan School . . .

So, I'd snip flowers and decorate the chapel. All by myself.

Le mois de mai, they move the virgin to the garden. There was a grotto in the garden, and they move her to the grotto in May. As they say, "Le mois de mai, c'est le mois de Marie."

Alors, moi, je passais, toute heureuse, mon temps dans le jardin. Snip this flower, trade that vase, swap those flowers. Et je décorais, etcetera! Je m'amusais comme une folle. Seulement, le soir, quand mes—eh mes—mon frère et ma soeur partaient à la maison, I'd sit and read Corneille and Racine and Lamartine and . . . what's his name again? I don't know! All those guys, I'd memorize them all. On m'a appris des choses à n'en plus finir. يعني if you give me a line, I'll spout all the verses off for you, one after another.

And then back home . . .

I used to be an artichoke thief. There was a field in front of our house. A wheat field, and alongside the field—les bordures—artichokes. The
wheat . . . oh it's beautiful at night. You're sound asleep, you hear the sound of the wheat: it's shivering. When it shoots up and turns green, the poppies blossom in between. The view from the balcony takes your breath away. Now, it's all concrete, concrete, concrete . . . يا لطيف.

بقى the bordures were like that—artichokes. And I love artichokes, raw. بقى there was this wall, this tall—uh . . . uh . . . en boue, paille et boue. You know? Dirt and hay. This tall, a low bordure, a wall, but on top they had barbelé. One, two, three. بقى I'd climb onto the wall, duck under the barbelé, swoop down, steal artichokes, and retreat.

Only in the afternoon because Mama would be at a زيارة, and I was free, I had nothing.

One day, the farmer shows up out of nowhere. The farmer comes up out of nowhere, I have to flee. I climb onto the wall, pass over it, and the barbelé, I need to get down—my hand gets caught from here to here in the barbelé. You can probably still feel the scar.

Sotte comme je suis, tu sais les fils de barbelé, on ne peut pas faire ça. On doit faire—la prendre en haut. Moi, je ne le savais pas. I pulled and kept pulling it from my arm until it tore through the skin from here to here.

Back at the house . . . Mama was home. I wrapped it in cotton, I put on a pansement, and I hid it. Mama comes in: "Yella, kids, bath time!" We get into the bathtub; she bathed us because c'était elle qui me baignait les cheveux: j'avais les cheveux très longs. Je ne pouvais pas les laver moi-même. يعني, j'ai gardé mes cheveux . . . jusqu'à l'âge de dix-sept ans. Down to here, long and blond. Je le massais, wrap it, wrap it, twist it, twist it on my head, make a chignon this big. My mom won't ever let me cut it.

It started to bleed.

(She looks at her arm and gazes upward, catching the panicked eyes of her mother.)

"Give me your arm!"
I gave her my arm.
"Give me your right arm!"
I had it behind my back.
"Give me your right arm! . . . What happened?"
I told her, "Nothing, Mama. Just a little scratch."
She took off the pansement and saw the open wound.
"Yeeeeeeeeee! ولي على قامتي!"
When she said ولي على قامتي, I burst into tears.
. . . if I wasn't crying, I was going to get it bad.
"Yeeeeeeeeee! ولي على قامتي! "
She took me to the doctor; he treated me, gave me medicine.
"How did you steal—how did this happen to you?"
I told her. "I was stealing artichokes. I'm an artichoke thief." J'avais l'habitude de ne pas mentir.
She said to me, "Suits you: that's what you'll get until you repent your sin."

(She begins fiddling with her nails.)

Et depuis ce jour, je n'ai plus rien volé. Ni dans le jardin, ni même des fleurs sur la rue.

(She fiddles with her nails in silence for a beat or two.)

You know, when it comes to politics, I wasn't too—يعني—colonialism didn't get to me. For many reasons. Premièrement, notre voisin en bas, c'était un aviateur français. And his wife who came with him to Damascus was really nice. Ils avaient un bébé de l'âge de ma soeur, Wafaa. Et c'était une femme très gentille. Et pour Wafaa, Mama needed milk, she needed—and when, when the lady used to go to the French co-op, she'd take Mama with her. Elle nous achetait du chocolat français, du pain français, le lait Nestlé pour Wafaa. Même les bibrons pour Wafaa. يعني Mama'd buy all sorts of things. Donc, these people were our friends. Donc, we had nothing against . . . we didn't think about politics back then. Eh, c'est—eh—these days, even toddlers run around talking politics, but back then nous n'avions pas d'idées politiques.

بعدين le voisin dans . . . eh . . . eh . . . l'immeuble à côtés, c'était le chef de la police de Damas. Sa femme, Mme Lefèvre, était très gentille aussi.

Donc, nous étions les seules dans Bustan al Raïs avec lesquels ils avaient des contacts. They'd come over, we'd go to their place, downstairs, the pilot's wife, and I remember her son—one blue eye, one green eye. Un très beau bébé. Nous avions des amis français.

Comme nous étions dans une école française et comme maman parlait français, donc, we had relationships with them. Pour moi, la domination française ne me gênait pas. Tu vois? Je n'avais pas d'idées politiques. بس everyone wanted to get rid of the French, donc they got rid of them.

When there'd be riots, et il y a avait des émeutes لكآن, the students'd want to open the door of the school. بس elles étaient tous des filles; il n'y avait pas de garçons avec nous. Only girls and the Franciscan nuns, and we had this giant door. La porte en fer était du côté de la rue principale. Mais il y avait une grande porte en bois qui avait un—une barre de fer comme ça qui était du côté de la rue adjacente. De la rue intérieure. Et l'école était très près de ma maison. يعني comment dire . . . où est la pharmacie? C'est très près. J'allais et je venais à pieds.

Alors, when there'd be riots, all the students want to run outside:

France: Out of Syria! Out, out, out!
France: I don't know what!
They yell the same nonsense every time.

They weren't opening the door. They were afraid of opening the door.
Qui était l'instigatrice?
. . . comme d'habitude.
I opened the door. Yella, je faisais ça, je faisais ça . . . The door opened.
All the girls ran out.
Me, I went home.

(She laughs.)

Elles sortaient par la rue, moi j'allais à la maison parce que je n'avais pas le droit d'y aller! If Mama knew, I'd be beaten or scolded, alors je ne veux être ni battue et ni grondée.

(She is still laughing.)

Why'd I open the door? They had to storm out to the protest, I don't know!

(Laughs.) Pas voit! C'est une émeute. I told you, je suis une rébèle. يعني I want to stir things up. يعني . . . moi, je veux faire quelque chose. Ce que les filles ne pouv—ne devaient—ne pouvaient pas faire, elles avaient peur, je l'ai fait moi, j'ai ouvert la porte. بس elles—elles sont sorties, moi je suis rentrée chez moi. (Giggles.) Et nous allions de deux côtés opposés! J'ai perdu tout le matin. The girls ran out, me I went back home.
Mama says to me, "What are you doing here?"
I told her, "There was a protest."
C'est tout. Je ne peux pas dire plus que ça. Because if I spilled the beans, I would've gotten it, gotten it bad.

translated from the Arabic and French by Eyad Houssami

The first performance of Mama Butterfly on April 6, 2008, at the Danish Institute in Damascus, was banned five hours before curtain.

Mama Butterfly was first published in English and French (translated from the original Arabic by the author) in Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal Issue 2, Memory (American University of Beirut, 2013).

Notes to Directors

The performance should run about fifty minutes, definitely no more than an hour. Nehla remains on the chaise longue for almost the entire performance and adjusts her position every so often. Nehla never dons an artificial voice when she is relating what another character has said. She may subtly vary tempo and pitch to differentiate between herself and others in moments of dialogue.

The text is based on a series of interviews conducted in Beirut in 2007.