“One of the most beautiful Arab novels I have read in recent years”


The Virgin’s Conception


A review by Hussam ul-deen Mohamed


Traces of a Tattoo is one of the most beautiful Arab novels I have read in recent years. It acquainted me with this surprising solitary writer, jeweller and skilled craftsman who proved both creative and entertaining. But this novel is not simply about achieving the challenging balance between creativity and entertainment. It carries several layers that need to be studied carefully if the reader is to avoid being carried away by its deceptive simplicity and easy reading as well as by its “exquisite” text.

The theme of Traces of a Tattoo is knitted over the open, double-wound of two lovers who were separated each believing to have been let down by the other. They are: Hisham, the Palestinian young man who, still suffering from the separation, immigrated to Britain, and Alia, the beautiful Damascne young girl who had to accept a marriage proposal from a man she did not love. Reunited in London twenty four years later by coincidence, their old love story is reopened but with a new dimension of a tender and fresh version of their love story developing between Wissam, Hisham’s son, and Aroub, Alia’s daughter. With this simple theme serving as background, the novelist tackles extremely complicated topics: past versus present, East versus West, sex versus marriage etc.

Identity In Relation To The Beloved

In the reunion scene, the dramatic opening of the novel is unveiled when Hisham discovers that a certain woman whose handbag has been snatched by a dangerous pickpocket is none other than his old beloved, Alia. Henceforth, the novel’s dialogue starts to take multiple meanings and go into deeper levels. When the policeman asks: “Sir! Who are you?” Hisham is caught off-guard. “Who am I?”, he wonders more to himself than to the policeman. Then, still unable to find an answer quickly enough, he mutters: “A friend; an old friend.” A little later on, when Alia introduces her daughter to Hisham, the latter is once again addressed by the policeman: “Did you see anything?”. When Hisham replies that he had seen everything, Alia is struck hard. She explodes in Arabic: “You have seen everything and left me on my own?”

In just two lines all the suffering that is still alive inside Hisham and Alia is summed up. Alia thinks Hisham abandoned her when they were young lovers. Hisham, on the other hand, thinks the opposite and he is therefore confused and bewildered. He had been thinking of his deceased wife, sadly remembering their days together when suddenly the past re-emerged an unfinished business as if to say that no one is spared the dues of time. His answers, while not rough and blaming as Alia’s, reflected, right from the beginning, both his confusion and the burdens time have left on his shoulder. He has seen it all– life and death, and the fall and departure of those dear to his heart. Because Alia’s wound remains open and hurting, she acts like a wounded and provoked lioness. Hisham is preoccupied in his bewilderment to such a degree as explained by the 10th century Arab poet Al-Mutanabbi who says in a very famous verse: “When arrows strike me they fall one on top of the other …” ,

Hisham appears to misunderstand things, thus putting himself in trouble with those around him. Hisham and Alia try their best to avoid talking about their old story but a third party always manages to drag them into the arena. At the opening of the novel, it is the policeman investigating the theft incident who, unknowingly, plays that part brushing off the dust. Having explained to Alia and her daughter what they should do, the policeman goes on to suggest, “Maybe the gentleman over here could help you!” Hisham agrees, “Of course!”

Aroub plays the same part later on. While listening to Hisham and her mother talking about their university colleagues, she suddenly asks: “What about the love stories?” The novelist describes the reaction of Hisham and Alia in the following passage: “Hisham pretended to be searching for the exit. Alia, with her smile suddenly fading away, having suspected her daughter had meant her in her innocent remark, says: “What love stories!” This is just how Bishtawi had opened the scene and the dramatic potential of his wonderful novel becomes suddenly obvious.

Traces of a Tattoo is built on a debate which takes different forms and meanings. In the course of the novel various elements are debated, most importantly the relationship between the male and the female, one of the main mover of events. There is also the debate of concepts such as: science versus creativity, order versus chaos, mind versus passion, progress versus backwardness, past versus present etc. All these are dealt with in the framework of the relationship between Aroub and Wissam. Aroub is rather rash and passionate but full of creative ideas that interact with the technical abilities of Hisham. In chapter 8, for example, a digression is made from Aroub’s (illusionary) pregnancy to gain her first experience of dealing with e-mail and the Internet. The symbolic conception signifies Aroub’s ability to carry the latest version of science when she is given a proper chance.

But the larger picture of the male-female relationship signifies the positive interaction between the two versions of Arabic heritage, the homegrown as represented by Aroub, and the expatriate as represented by Wissam. It also provides a solution to the problem of interaction between the self and the other. This very problem used to be depicted in the Arabic novel as a form of sexual contest with the male being an Arab and the female a European, and often exploding into an open or hidden conflict. In Traces of a Tattoo the arrow shoots into the right circle, meaning that a congestion of hostile attitudes (between East and West) may lead to a get-together and pacification rather than conflict.

The Change Of Ideas

At one of its levels, Traces of a Tattoo is a study of various types of change. The first is the change of ideas. How do people change? Are they changed by circumstances? Are they changed by the people themselves when they decide they want to change their lives and circumstances? Thus the novel tackles the topics of fate and destiny, and the ways by which they are written and sealed. This appears in a conversation between Alia and Hisham.
“This is our fate, is it not?”Alia asks. “It must be,” Hisham answers. “Wrapped in sadness more than anything else, it seems. But, mind you,’ he adds, ‘we seem to make it even worse. If sadness does come with fate, we make sure it does.”
“Do we make our sadness?”
“Not always, but we do, all the same.”
“How does one bring sadness to oneself?”
The dialogue goes on and on, along the same lines. The hero and heroine have reached a point where they can only question their fate and their responsibility thereof. Then the dialogue ascends to a level higher than the fate of two individuals. The novelist does not want his characters to become wailing trumpets on the ruins of the past. After all, responsibility is an individual conception. Even victories and defeats are individual. Sometimes it is sufficient for an individual to win against a personal defeat in order to win victory over all other defeats.

Hisham seems aware of this complicated debate between the individual and the collective conscience. At one point he emphasises the world’s individual character when he says, “All the experiences of the world do not equal to a single moment of true love.” But, when Alia, in this beautiful and extremely serious and demonstrative dialogue, returns things to their individual basis by saying: “We could do nothing, neither I nor you,” Hisham pushes things back to their collective level by saying: “Neither you nor I or anyone else in this world.”

To investigate change, the novel draws a number of intersecting lines. In the process it demonstrates the overwhelming power of events in effecting change. In the opening chapters, Aroub appears rather wild, careless in what she says, and too preoccupied with her own inconvenience. Simply put, she does not care much about the feelings of her mother, Hisham’s, Wissam’s or all others. Too preoccupied to reach the US to attend her uncle’s wedding, she does not have the faintest desire to think about her present conditions or how logically they could be resolved. But, this very Aroub who appears at the beginning a creature given to bemoaning and complaining, aloof and a bit insolent, reveals, with the intensifying dramatic momentum, a soul empowered by determination and perseverance. She is capable of attaining what she wants without blemishing her acutely sensitive and passionate nature. Even her father who arranges for her a marriage with suicidal consequences is not excluded from her burning feelings. At the outset, Aroub is provoked by the mere mention of her father in the presence of Hisham whom she considers a stranger. She is gripped by a fit of jealousy for her mother and a desire to protect her from this stranger. When Alia begs for advice from Hisham, Aroub is extremely protective. “Why him?” she exclaims, “He is not my father.” But, once in love with Wissam, Aroub gradually overcomes her traditional reservations towards her mother, her father, her uncle, Hisham and Wissam.

Wissam who is British by birth, Arab by ancestry, also undergoes a change. He is suddenly burned by the flames of love and within a few days the course of his life changes, narrowing down to one objective: convincing Aroub to marry him. The achievement of this goal becomes a victory over himself and, within the general purpose of the novel, a victory over the defeat suffered by the two characters who failed to unite in matrimony, his father Hisham and Alia, the mother of his beloved.

Image: Sonia D., private share


If characters do often change at the end of a story, the change in Traces of a Tattoo is not a part of the conclusion- not in terms of drawing a lesson or effecting an entertaining and happy ending based on coincidences. Neither is it, we suspect, the narrator’s revenge for a personal story, or a mechanism to satisfy the reader’s whim and desire of helping the characters achieve the aspirations of writer and reader alike. Indeed, there is something genuine in Bishtawi’s dramatisation and story. The reader himself should change in order for Aroub, the symbol of The Arab girl, to achieve victory over circumstances that conspire to prevent her from achieving an all too solid and basic right of life- marrying the man she loves. This explains, perhaps, why many Arab girls still cannot help Aroub in the sense of being convinced of her ability to achieve what she has achieved in the novel and, consequently, cannot identify much with her although she is — the reader can swear to that– a real person, flesh and blood, as much as a fictional character and the creation of the writer’s imagination that is built into a symbol of various meanings. Aroub could overcome her conditions and all the forces that seek to ruin her life– a life which was, in a single moment, tied to the idea of love and personal choice once and for all. How many Arab girls have the capability of being Aroub, not a copy, negative or otherwise, of Alia?

But Aroub is not, of course, alone. There is, first, Wissam, and second the combined presence of Hisham and Alia, not as father and mother, but as a lesson. The failure of Hisham and Alia in getting married and their consequent regret constitute a motive, one of many, for Wissam and Aroub. The latter are not there only as young lovers but also as the symbol of a force strong enough to turn a failed past into a fruitful present and future shielded against frustration.

As for regret, the novel is, in its internal structure, one of regret but a regret which seeks to forgive. The narrator says in the beginning of the novel through Hisham: “Fast will come the moment of departure. You will leave the house to the airport and the joy will leave as well. It will linger for a moment before being stored in the memory along with many things like itself. She could have been his daughter and her mother could have been his wife. But it has not happened that way. It would have been a great loss had he not found someone like his wife to give him Wissam. Aroub is also a compensation.”

In Traces of a Tattoo we find out that fear could evaporate once one starts to change or simply disregard it. Alia, for example, is fearful that her brother in America would find out that she had stayed at Hisham’s house. But once she arrives in America the wall of fear suddenly crumbles, completely, and we find the uncle assisting in finding a solution to the young lovers’ problem. In another instance, Aroub is hit by the arrows of Wissam’s love. She talks about it to her mother so innocently and boldly and when the latter scolds her, saying, “Aroub! I do not know you to be so light headed. What happened to you?” Aroub retorts: “Fallen in love- that’s what happened. Fallen in love with this person who is sitting there like a bucket- not seeing, not hearing.” And when her mother tells her not to insult their host, Aroub replies:” Since when falling in love is an insult?”

East Versus West

One of the novel’s dramatic lines is a series of questions about the Western and Eastern mentalities. Hisham, while an Arab in origin, no longer thinks as one. When he offers to host Alia and her daughter in his house, Alia is shocked,” You don’t know the meaning of what you’ve just said. You don’t think like us.” Hisham replies,” If we were to think without logic, what is the use of thinking in the first place?” Again Alia says to Aroub who does not like to lie:” Then do lie once, sweetie, and do not think like the expatriates. They are different from us and so are their habits.”

Aroub observes a strange habit in the behaviour of Hisham and his son, the habit of erecting a barrier to hide their private thoughts. This is practiced by the father, then by the son. That is how the novel depicts the practice:” She could not penetrate into his eyes. She did not like the mask she had found on his father before him.” (P 136). British Arlene also observes: “Wissam is not an Arab, not a hundred percent.” (p156). The reader may find Hisham’s British cold and noncommittal attitude to events as surprising. But this initial attitude appears to be an act of defence on the part of a memory that is fractured and and painful. It also seems justified as Hisham does not want to impose on the two women. He does not hesitate to offer help but would rather wait for Alia to ask for it just in case she does not want it.

Incidentally, it would be hard to explain the fluency with which Aroub converses with Wissam in English. But the encounter between the English speaking Wissam (he also understands a little Arabic) and Aroub who has learned the language in her home country, resolves the query-concept expressed as a concern by people like Hisham, “Are we, the Arabs living in strange lands, to lose the future we have incorporated in our sons? Is our past going to grow then discontinue with our sons becoming genetic creatures whom we helped produce but became different from us in face, hand and tongue.” The encounter also offers a solution to the relationship between the Arab youth living in its home country and civilisation as embodied in learning a language like English. The narrator gives British Arlene the role of Shehrazade of the Arabian Nights and, through her, judges the traditional Eastern concept of the relationship between the sexes. She is put face to face with her equally imaginary husband, Shehrayar who says to her,” How dare you talk to us like that? I’m your master and husband.” By way of reaction, she screams out a reply in kind,” You can’t be serious. You are my husband, yes, but you are the master of my shoes and will remain so until I choose to make you my master.”

But the comparison between East and the West is not a one-way road with the West always on the positive side and the East on the negative. After all, it is Aroub who wins Wissam’s heart, scoring a victory over Western Arlene. She does that without having to give, in Aroub’s own words, what Wissam is used to have as a young man living in the West. Even when she is ready for intimacy, there is always a point where she draws the line. “No, No, No!” she warns herself, “This is the limit. This and no further even if he were the last man on earth. By God! I’m not Arlene.” This scene presents Aroub not as a girl lacking courage, but as an Arab in a modern character that deals with sex in a different way. This becomes the subject of discussion between Aroub and Wissam over several pages (219-225) and later on in the following chapter.

I guess I know how determined the writer is in entrenching the symbol of The Arab girl in the name of Aroub. As far as I know, the name is extremely rich in connotation and could carry more than the idea of a representative Arab girl. In old times, the name had a relationship with fertility. Several tribes in Yemen still use it in that meaning. The reason could, perhaps, be the presence of a goddess of fertility in that name. Likewise, I would also venture to suggest that the name served as origin for Europa, the princess whom Zeus kidnapped from the lands of Canaan in Palestine and gave her name to the continent. The meaning of Aroub would then include: Europe and sunset.

Reincarnation and the Conflict of Generations

But history, in Traces of a Tattoo, is not cuts from the past and pastes into the present. Nor is it a separation between East and West. This would lead us to what could be described as reincarnation but only in the sense of the recurrence of circumstances in more than one generation within the same family. Aroub and Wissam are the reincarnations of Alia and Hisham. This is scrupulously studied even at the linguistic level. In Arabic, the names of both Aroub and Alia begin with the same vowel with Aroub’s name ending in a consonant which alphabetically comes immediately after the last letter in Alia’s name. The names of Hisham and Wissam both end in the same two letters, but in the first two letters of both names, Wissam’s share is the letter that comes immediately after his father’s letter. This converted similarity between the names of Hisham-Wissam and Alia-Aroub is interesting as it signifies that names (i.e. persons) also play a role so as to reflect the universal status of meanings such as male and female.

The element of reincarnation is used many times. Likewise, comparisons are made between Alia-Hisham and Wissam-Aroub in many different ways. In one instance, Alia says of her daughter,” She won’t agree, I know. She is stubborn like no other.” Hisham says,” Not even her mother.” Then again when Alia, referring to her daughter, says, “She is hot in temper like an aspirin,” Hisham says, “Like her mother, you mean,” Alia agrees,” Almost.” Later, when Hisham beholds Aroub emerging from a hot bath with blushful cheeks, glowing eyes and shiny forehead, the narrator explains,” For a moment he imagined seeing, at the top of the stairs of his house, a girl he last saw 24 years earlier. Time has clouded the face in his memory with fog which dissipated suddenly as he looked at her daughter standing in front of him. He looked at her in surprise.” In the same chapter, we find the following passage, “He said to two images that have suddenly merged into one. It would have been regrettable had I not succeeded in convincing your mother to stay.”

From among a variety of perspectives used in the novel, the most surprising is one that enables the young lovers to look at themselves in the images of their parents. Aroub, for one: “She looked at him but was actually looking at his son through him.” This father-son, mother-daughter parallelism plays the role of the dynamo in the novel, especially as the son and daughter enthuse their parents to rearrange their lives. When Alia reprimands her daughter for having stayed up late in Wissam’s room and accepted expensive presents, “and for other matters that crossed her mind but dared not speak of,” Aroub gives a fiery reply, putting her mother on the edge. “Could she ignore what her daughter has just said? She could not. She gets courage and says: “Enjoy what you like and live the life you want. I will not interfere again.”

Keys to hidden secrets

The novel provides the reader with tips thereby to crack open secrets that the narrator is so frugal in illuminating. On page 53, when Alia and Aroub meet Hisham’s son, the incident is narrated as such: “Wissam turned to the mother and the restaurant’s lights suddenly dropped on his face. Having seen it, the mother whooped in utter surprise and looked at her daughter. But Aroub had already looked and seen. Both opened their eyes wide.” The reason is that both had seen the astonishing similarity between Wissam and Aroub’s brother. This dramatic line is kept a hidden secret, although a reference is made at the end of the novel as Alia’s husband speaks his mind to his wife as to the true father of his son.

The restaurant scene is reminiscent of a famous shot in “Once Upon A Time in America” in which the heroine unsuccessfully tries to hide her son from her old lover Robert De Niro for fear he would see in him the image of his old friend who had doubled-crossed him, killed his friends and took his girl. In the movie, looking at the son would have uncovered the betrayal of a friend and a beloved.

Nonetheless, the narrator sheds a glint of light here and another there for the reader to combine into a clear picture. In one instance, Hisham discovers new details about his separation from Alia. The latter reveals to him that Tayseer, an acquaintance who played the go-between while Hisham was in prison, told her that Hisham would be released after one year — not two weeks as Hisham had actually told him. But still she says:” Even if he had said two weeks I wouldn’t have believed him. It would have been just a possibility and I there was not place for possibilities at the time.” For one reason or another, this tiny reference does not catch Hisham’s attention.

Ready for the screen

The first similarity between Traces of a Tattoo and the seventh art is its emphasis on dialogue- the basic element of a motion picture. The novel’s dialogue is graceful and intelligent and, at times, complements the narrative’s role and purpose. The narrative part, meanwhile, focuses, like the scenario, on elements required in filmmaking. Consequently, the novel is ready for the large and small screens without the need for major adaptation by the scriptwriter.

During the first discussion between Alia and Hisham about their two different versions of the events that led up to the separation, Alia says:”Strange! I heard a different story.” When Hisham replies there was no other story, Alia says: “There was. Have you seen Fanny, the movie?” What is presented here is the idea of interchangeability between fact and fiction through an element which is not without meaning, the story of a film. It is done elsewhere where there is interchangeability among the elements of the motion picture, literature and reality (i.e. the fictional reality of the novel) as in the following dialogue between Hisham and Alia:
“On a recent visit to Dubai, I watched an old Egyptian film that seemed to say first love is a big illusion.”
“The director wanted to contradict Al Dhubyani (the famous Arab love poet). It is not that easy.”
“Many have contradicted Al Dhubyani. Deek el-Gin, for one.”
“He comes from Homs,” she says, giggling. “What else would you expect?”
“So it is not an illusion?”
“Not if a true love.’
“So it wasn’t an illusion?”
“No! it was not.”

Treachery and theft

What is the story of this blade which does not exactly touch Hisham but is a recurrent image tied to his separation from Alia? (pages 24, 34, 110). The pickpocket incident which takes place in the opening chapter cannot be without implications. For two persons who separated from each other believing to have been betrayed by the other, why should they be reunited in London by a theft? It is true that the pickpocket was a Brazilian, but could the encounter itself, in this particular venue (London) carry a degree of symbolism? Is it possible to dig into the “novel’s inner soul” (provided such a term existed) for that “big theft” which drove Hisham, the Palestinian, out of his homeland leaving him with no choice but to join the resistance ranks, get imprisoned and, consequently, separated from his beloved? Could we give Alia symbolic possibilities, as we can easily do with Aroub? We may make use of the signs left for us by a writer keen on detail, as Alia’s name does actually signify “highness.” But if Aroub’s name refers to the Arab girl, what does Alia’s name refer to? At the symbolic level, Alia’s name stands for a lost dream whose fulfilment would have meant using life for achieving a real goal, not squandering it in strange lands.

The theft incident and the feeling of having been betrayed (as symbolised by the threatening blade of the pickpocket’s jack-knife, or better still, by a hidden accessory, remind us, in a way or another, of what Britain had committed when it assisted the Israeli thief and used weapons, when the need arose, to prevent the victim (the Palestinian) from apprehending the thief. There is another detail of significance: the loss of the passports of Alia and Aroub. The thief has stolen the symbol of identity that is later retrieved by Wissam’s computer skills.

The separation between Hisham and Alia was not the first act of treachery that targeted the Palestinian in Hisham. Consequently, he sees the blade always ready and threatening. This makes him cautious, on the one hand, and, on the other, not cautious at all. The reason is that having been wounded psychologically he has become more likely to become an easy target for romantic damage as symbolised in the act of falling in love one time after the other, or searching for the lost rights, ideal and justice.

Language and imagery

Adel Bishtawi’s linguistic formula adds something new to the Arabic novel. The novel’s language is a very beautiful adaptation of classic Arabic. It offers the reader an element of entertainment. It sometimes uses “exotic” vocabulary but the writer helps the reader understand and enjoy those virgin and fresh words in a beautiful way. The novel emphasises dialogue but the narrative element is not superfluous. It is extremely vital and intrinsic. As to the novel’s artistic imagery, it is very successful. Examples: “Alia left the smile on her lips but coloured it in yellow and said…” (P 51) “Aroub opened over Wissam an umbrella of scorn full of bright colours.” (P 56) “His hands reached into his brains where he lodged over time a repository of masks to use in formal meetings. He pulled out one and put it on so that she would not see what was inside his mind.” (P 86).

Let’s see how Aroub is depicted with her invented idea of pregnancy and how beautifully she plays the part: “She pressed softly on her belly and the billow gave in under her hand. It surprised her that she did not feel pain, that the pressing did not scare the fetus swimming in its strange mixture, including a light touch of its urine, that the foetus did not try to escape and did not kick the wall of his strange world to draw his mother’s attention to the approaching danger.” (P 169).

Actually, language is one of the main concerns of the novel. In many instances, Wissam and Aroub argue about a vocabulary or the dictionary is mentioned. In order for the two to understand each other they always needed this dictionary which became, at times, an element of connection between them. (P 202).

Adel Bishtawi’s Traces of a Tattoo is a perfect example of the Arabic novel’s ability to explore new depths in the human soul. It also, and this is something which this reading unfortunately did not attempt to study, presents the first contribution in a long series of Arabic novels that investigated the “self” and the “other,” without the self or the other being subject to the conditions of dispossession or sexual contest which is marked by intolerance and hysteria. In conclusion, Traces of a Tattoo will be a major landmark in modern Arabic literature and will consecrate its writer one of the most important contemporary Arab novelists.

Translated by Muhammad Khaled from the original text published by Al Quds Al Arabi Newspaper (London). T-T-99-19-5&6-04M.

About the author

Adel Bishtawi

Adel S (Said) Bishtawi was born in Nazareth, Palestine, 1945. He read English Literature at Damascus University, attended short courses of familiarisation of languages including Latin, German and Russian, and attended a course in Linguistics at the Central London Polytechnic.

Adel published more than 20 books in both English and Arabic. the last of which is Only When Desire Screams co-authored by Selvi Sado. A journalist since the late 1960s, he became Front Page Editor of Al Arab Newspaper (London), the first pan Arab Newspaper launched in Europe. In 1978, he joined Jihad Al Khazin in launching Asharq Al Awsat Newspaper (London) as Business and Supplements Editor. In 1980, he was appointed Central Managing Editor of the Emirates News Agency in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In 1988, he joined Jamil Mrowa (who later re-launched the Daily Star in Beirut in 1996) in London for the re-launch of Al Hayat Newspaper and continued under the editorship of Jihad Al Khazin until he left in April 2001 to dedicate what is left of his time to literary and historical writing. as well as investigating origins by means of historical and etymological linguistics.

Adel produced and co-produced a number of TV documentaries. He produced, directed and wrote “Muslims along the Silk Road”, a five part-60-minutes-each documentary tracing Muslim culture and heritage and the legacy of Muslim pioneers and merchants along the Silk Road starting from China.

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