Chapter Excerpt

You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration.

Let me explain.

First, you should know this about me: I have but one mirror in my home, a smudged one at that. I’m a conscientious cleaner, you might even say compulsive—the sink is immaculately white, its bronze faucets sparkle—but I rarely remember to wipe the mirror clean. I don’t think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there’s an issue here.

I begin this tale with a badly lit reflection. One of the bathroom’s two bulbs has expired. I’m in the midst of the evening ritual of brushing my teeth, facing said mirror, when a halo surrounding my head snares my attention. Toothbrush in right hand still moving up and down and side to side, left hand reaches for reading glasses lying on the little table next to the toilet. Once on my face atop my obtrusive nose they help me see that I’m neither a saint nor saintly but more like the Queen Mother—well, an image of the Queen Mother smudged by a schoolgirl’s eraser. No halo this, the blue anomaly is my damp hair. A pigment battle rages atop my head, a catfight of mismatched contestants.

I touch a still-wet lock to test the permanency of the blue tint and end up leaving a sticky stain of toothpaste on it. You can correctly presume that multitasking is not my forté.

I lean over the bathtub, pick up the tube of Bel Argent shampoo I bought yesterday. I read the fine print, squinting even with the reading glasses. Yes, I used ten times the amount prescribed while washing my hair. I enjoy a good lather. Reading instructions happens not to be my forté either.

Funny. My bathroom tile is rectangular white with two interlocking light blue tulips, and that is almost the same shade as my new dye. Luckily, the blue isn’t that of the Israeli flag. Can you imagine? Talk about a brawl of mismatched contestants.

Usually, vanity isn’t one of my concerns, doesn’t disconcert me much. However, I’d overheard the three witches discussing the unrelenting whiteness of my hair. Joumana, my upstairs neighbor, had suggested that if I used a shampoo like Bel Argent, the white would be less flat. There you have it.

As I understand it, and I might be wrong as usual, you and I tend to lose short wavelength cones as we age, so we’re less able to distinguish the color blue. That’s why many people of a certain age have a bluish tint to their hair. Without the tint, they see their hair as pale yellow, or possibly salmon. One hairstylist was describing on the radio how he finally convinced this old woman that her hair was much too blue. However, his client refused to change the color. It was much more important that she see her hair as natural than that the rest of the world do so.

I’d probably get along with the client better than I would with the hairdresser.
I too am an old woman, but I have yet to lose many short wavelength cones. I can distinguish the color blue a bit too clearly right now.

Allow me, my dear friend, to offer a mild defense for being distracted. At the end of the year, before I begin a new project, I read the translation I’ve completed. I do final corrections (minor), set the pages in order, and place them in the box. This is part of the ritual, which includes imbibing two glasses of red wine. I also have to admit that the last reading allows me to pat myself on the back, to congratulate myself on completing the project. This year, I translated the superb novel Austerlitz, my second translation of W. G. Sebald. I was reading it today, and for some reason, probably the protagonist’s unrequited despair, I couldn’t stop thinking of Hannah, I couldn’t, as if the novel, or my Arabic translation of it, was an inductor into Hannah’s world.

Remembering Hannah, my one intimate, is never easy. I still see her before me at the kitchen table, her plate wiped clean of food, her right cheek resting on the palm of her hand, head tilted slightly, listening, offering that rarest of gifts, her unequivocal attention. My voice had no home until her.

During my seventy-two years, she was the one person I cared for, the one I told too much—boasts, hates, joys, cruel disappointments, all jumbled together. I no longer think of her as often as I used to, but she magically appears in my thoughts every now and then. The traces of Hannah on me have become indelible.
Percolating remembrances, red wine, an old woman’s shampoo: mix well and end up with blue hair.

I’ll wash my hair once more in the morning, with no-more-tears baby shampoo this time. Hopefully the blue will fade. I can just imagine what the neighbors will say now.


For most of my adult life, since I was twenty-two, I’ve begun a translation every January first. I do realize that this a holiday and most choose to celebrate, most do not consider working on New Year’s Day. Once, as I was leafing through the folio of Beethoven’s sonatas, I noticed that only the penultimate, the superb 110 in A-flat major, was dated on the top right corner, as if the composer wanted us to know that he was busy working that Christmas Day in 1821. I too choose to keep busy during holidays.

Over these last fifty years I’ve translated fewer than forty books—thirty-seven, if I’ve counted correctly. Some books took longer than a year, others refused to be translated, and one or two bored me into submission—not the books themselves, but my translation of them. Books in and of themselves are rarely boring, except for memoirs of American presidents (No, No, Nixon)—well, memoirs of Americans in general. It’s the “I live in the richest country in the world yet pity me because I grew up with flat feet and a malodorous vagina but I triumph in the end” syndrome. Tfeh!

Books into boxes—boxes of paper, of loose translated sheets. That’s my life.
I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that playpen that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my world of books. To continue the metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass—an hourglass that drains grain by grain. Literature gives me life, and life kills me.

Well, life kills everyone.

But that’s a morose subject. Tonight I feel alive—blue hair and red wine alive. The end of the year approaches, the beginning of a new year. The year is dead. Long live the year. I will begin my next project. This is the time that excites me most. I pay no attention to the Christmas decorations that burst into fruitful life in various neighborhoods of my city, or the lights welcoming the New Year in other parts. This year, Ashura falls at almost the same time, but I don’t care.

Let the people flagellate themselves into a frenzy of remembrance. Wails, whips, blood: the betrayal of Hussein moves me not.

Let the masses cover themselves in gold, frankincense, and Chanel to honor their savior’s birth. Trivia matters naught to me.

Beginnings are pregnant with possibilities. As much as I enjoy finishing a translation, it is this time that tickles my marrow most. The ritual of preparation: setting aside the two versions of the book of choice, the papers, the notebook that’s to be filled with actual notes, the 2B graphite pencils with the sharpener and Pearl eraser, the pens. Cleaning the reading room, dusting the side table, vacuuming the curtains and the ancient armchair, a navy chenille with knotted fringes hanging off its arms. On the day of genesis, the first of January, I begin the morning with a ceremonial bath, a rite of scrubbing and cleansing, after which I light two candles for Walter Benjamin.

Let there be light, I say.

Yes, my dear friend, I am a tad obsessive. For a nonreligious woman, this is my faith.
This year, though, for the first time in quite a while, I’m not certain about the book I want to work with. This year, for the first time ever, I might have to begin a translation while having blue hair. Aiiee.

I’ve decided on Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished novel 2666, but I’m nurturing doubts. At over nine hundred pages (in both the English and French versions), it is no small feat, or no short feat. It will take me at least two years. Should I be taking on such long-term projects? Should I be making accommodation for my age? I’m not talking about my dying. I am in good health, and women in my family live long. My mother is still going insane. Let’s put it this way: I don’t hesitate when buying green bananas, but I’m slowing down. 2666 is a big project. Savage Detectives required nineteen months, and I believe my work rate isn’t what it was then. So I balk.

Yes, I’m healthy, I have to keep reminding myself. During my biannual checkup earlier this week, my doctor insisted that I was in sturdy health, like iron. He’s right, of course, and I’m grateful, but what he should have compared me to was rusty iron. I feel oxidized. What was it that Yourcenar, as Hadrian, wrote about physicians? A man does not practice medicine for more than thirty years without some falsehood. My doctor has been practicing for longer than that. We’ve grown old together. He told me that my heart is in good shape, talked to me with his face hidden behind a computer printout of my lab results. Even I, a Luddite, haven’t seen such archaic perforated printouts in years. His mobile phone, a Blackberry lying on the desk next to his left elbow, was definitely the latest model, which should count for something. I have yet to own one. But then, I have no need for a phone, let alone a smart one; no one calls me.

Please, no pity or insincere compassion. I’m not suggesting that I feel sorry for myself because no one calls me, or worse, that you should feel sorry. No one calls me. That’s a fact.

I am alone.

It is a choice I’ve made, yet it’s also a choice made with few other options available. Beiruti society wasn’t fond of divorced childless women in those days.

Still, I made my bed—a simple, comfortable, and adequate bed, I might add.


I was fourteen when I began my first translation, twenty dull pages from a science textbook. It was the year I fell in love with Arabic—not the oral dialect, mind you, but the classical language. I’d studied it since I was a child, of course, as early as I’d studied English or French. Yet only in Arabic class were we constantly told that we could not master this most difficult of languages, that no matter how much we studied and practiced, we could not possibly hope to write as well as Mutanabbi, or heaven forbid, the apex of the language, the Quran itself. Teachers indoctrinated students, just as they had been indoctrinated when younger. None of us can rise above being a failure as an Arab, our original sin.

I’d read the Quran and memorized large chunks of it, but all that studying didn’t introduce me to the language’s magic—forced learning and magic are congenital adversaries.

I was seven when I took my first Quranic class. The teacher, a wide, bespectacled stutterer, would lose her stutter when she recited the Quran; a true miracle, the other teachers claimed.


Excerpted from An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
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