Usually in the winter, I like to read wintry books. (In fact, I have a winter reads round-up coming your way soon). But recently I finished a book set in hot and sunny places, and I must admit, it was nice to be immersed in the fictional sunshine during these endlessly grey and snowy Ontario days.
The book is The Night Counter by Alia Yunis, and it is a riff on One Thousand and One Nights (often known in English as The Arabian Nights). For those unfamiliar with the One Thousand and One Nights, it is the tale of the ruler Shahryār, who, upon discovering that his wife has been unfaithful, vows to marry a virgin every night and kill her the following morning, before she can betray him. He carries out this horrific vengeance until the beautiful and cunning Scheherazade offers to marry him, and tells him stories to save her life. Each evening she begins a story but does not finish it, and so each morning he spares her life so that he can hear the end of the tale. This continues for 1001 nights, until eventually he decides to let her live.
The Night Counter, on the other hand, tells the contemporary story of Fatima, an elderly lady who was born and raised in Lebanon until she was 17 years old, at which point she married an older man and emigrated to the United States—Detroit, to be exact. Now in the twilight of her life, she has divorced her (second) husband Ibrahim, split everything exactly in half between them, and moved to West Hollywood to live with her favourite grandson, the would-be actor Amir (in whose arms she has decided to die).
On Fatima’s first night in Hollywood, the immortal Scheherazade, “with her jiggling belts and breasts,” turns up in Fatima’s room, waking her up from sleep. She demands that Fatima tell her a story from her past. And Scheherazade subsequently returns every night, sometimes perching in the window, sometimes in the branches of the fig tree on the lawn, sometimes lounging on Fatima’s bed. But always wanting to hear of Fatima’s loves, her passions, her family.
“‘What if I don’t tell you a story?’ Fatima had asked on the third night.
‘To know you have 1001 nights to tell your stories is a gift and a curse,” Scheherazade had replied. “But when our tales are over, so are our lives. Do you understand what I mean?’
Fatima was no hamara, no stupid donkey. That was how she came to understand that she, Fatima Abdul Aziz Abdullah, would die in Los Angeles, California, USA, when Scheherazade visited her for the 1001st time.”
And thus begin the stories. Gradually, Scheherazade convinces Fatima to branch out from her idealized stories of her childhood in Deir Zeitoon, and to talk about the things that matter—the things that hurt.
One the one hand, this is a story about family—the book weaves the threads of Fatima’s ten children’s lives (plus the lives of myriad grandchildren and one extraordinary great-grandchild) together with Fatima’s memories, her regrets, and her preoccupation of which one of her offspring should inherit her beloved—dare I say fetishized—house in Deir Zeitoon. We see both Fatima and her family struggling with everything from marital strife to loneliness to alcoholism to cancer. It is clear that there has been a rift in the family, although it is not clear at first exactly how or why that happened. The family members barely speak to one another, unless it is to deliver a wholly unnecessary weather report.
It is also a portrait of the lives of Arab-Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. Whether they be professors, housewives, students, down-and-out limo drivers, doctors, or business owners, the shockwaves of fear and prejudice ripple through the lives of all of the Abdullahs.
The book manages to dance with all of these weighty themes and still maintain a light touch, and a wicked sense of humour. The banter between the grumpy Fatima and the saucy Scheherazade is fantastic. The lives of Fatima’s descendants are laced equally with tragedy and comedy. It’s a credit to Alia Yunis that Fatima—with her old-school attitudes and intolerances—is so supremely likeable and sympathetic. There are some other wonderful characters, from the chrome-loving Amir to the allergy-ridden great-granddaughter Decimal.
If, on this “Blue Monday,” you want a shot of sunshine, humour, and a taste of the Arabian Nights, then do yourself a favour and find a copy of The Night Counter. A plate of stuffed grape leaves wouldn’t hurt either.