The Silent Space between Men and Women in The House of Matilde and the Priority of the Place in both

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The Silent Space between Men and Women in

The House of Matilde and the Priority of the Place in both

 

Dr. Haybat Abdul Samad*

 

No one can deny the essential difference between the social powers of men projected outside homes and that of women projected inside homes, especially in patriarchal societies that live under the influence of war. No matter what his/her gender is, every individual forms a social identity that develops through society empowered by space and time. Thus, any action in a realistic and traditional mode of story has to have characters that help in developing it as well as putting it into motion; however, this issue is not found in Hassan Daoud’s novel The House of Matilde or Binayat Matilde. It is simply because in the story there is no male or female character as important as the place itself, the Matilde Building.

All the characters in this story do not develop or change with the development of its plot. The story takes place in a city “with visible nostalgia, was “very special,” a beautiful city that underwent an extraordinary transformation as a result of the civil war,” says Zuberino, in his comment on the story. Daoud says that the city, Beirut, has become segregated. It has split between north and south where “on the Shiite side, you’ll find bookshops that stock little else apart from books and pamphlets on Shiite icons like Imam Hassan, Imam Hussein and the Mahdi.

Zuberino claims that for Daoud, The House of Mathilde was “the story of his own family and the building that they all lived in in pre-war Beirut”. In The House of Mathilde, he adds, Muslim and Christian, Armenian and French and Russian families “all lived cheek by jowl without conflict or rancour.” The novel appears to be a simple one from the surface but proves to be very deep from inside. It is a realistic story about a group of people living together somewhere in an apartment which war is tearing about gradually and leaving it as a place no more proper for living:

 “لم تعد البناية صالحة للسّكن”. (ص: 11،41)

The reader could easily differentiate between the social powers of men and that of women although the whole story reveals a monotony of life and a motionless and marginalized type of characters. We see Matilde, who is one of the characters herself, always silent and when she speaks, she is very brief. In addition, we have the aunt whose role does not exceed the limits of her house where the reader watches some of her gossips about her brother’s family before they go to live separately in another place leaving the house to the aunt and her family.

Ken Seigneurie conceives of the distinctness of character as being reinforced by the total absence of direct speech in the novel (102). The novel shares with its reader the lives of some people coming in and out of the building set in Beirut. Within the help of flashbacks, the narrator who is one of the residents in the building is telling the story of those members in the families coming from different religions, different origins, different regions and different statuses. Many of these family members have their life changed; some died, some have their

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* Assistant professor at the Lebanese University.

social status changed, some suffered, but most of them left the place. The rest are left alone to witness all that is going on around in the area.

All the events took place in the past, and of all the inhabitants that are considered characters in the story there is only the aunt who is left alone watching and investigating the events that later took place in the building . Nevertheless, her role is limited to her house and her neighbors’ houses. She is shown powerless and conquered by loneliness and the violence of war. Hence, her role is restricted to some pre-prepared relationships with the original inhabitants in the building. Her focal aim is just to look as modern as those inhabitants look like since they already put in her mind that they came from a different background:

“تقول عن عمّتي إنّها تحبّ أن تفعل مثل سكان البناية المسيحيّين، والأرمن، والأجانب، وهي تستحي أن  يدخل أحد منهم إلى بيتنا”.  (ص: 29)

The novel does not look like a war novel although it is written in the context of war. The events in the story are all a result of war which confirms the sectarian tensions among people and exposes basic changes on their daily life. Samira Aghacy believes that the establishment of boundaries between the neighbors of different sects are made clear through the images of the windows, doors, and walls which mark the boundaries between tenants and the other groups that have overtaken the streets and are threatening to overturn their building and their homes (212). War has recently changed the nature of one’s relationship with his/her surrounding because it confirms the boundaries between neighbors who were in the past days living together quite peacefully and united.

Ken Seigneurie argues against the idea of considering the every day life of people as irrelevant from war, and he sees that this novel refuses to treat the everyday life of the nation as an innocent irrelevance of the war; and he shows that the novel suggests rather that it is the ground from which war springs (102). In other words, there is a serious relationship between life before war and war itself because the seeds of war are planted by people ahead of time. Thus, war is the result of the foundation that people worked on in the past. Before war, a building like Matilde was inhabited by people of different regions and sects. There were the Russian, the French, the Armenian, the Muslim and the Christian. They were coping without any complexities. War took place and poisoned its atmosphere leading to the departure of nearly all the residents.

Daoud does not reveal the war times as they are revealed in any war novel; the atmosphere of fights and bloodshed in the Lebanese daily lives does not take a space in his novel. Instead, he focuses on one of the buildings named Matilde and presents a nostalgic narrator who is telling the stories of its residents, their relationships, their departure, and their panic under the influence of different backgrounds in a war atmosphere of horror. Despite the fact that the entire story is about the lives of women and the light is shed on the details they live and pay attention to, this novel reveals the direct wound of both men and women from the war in spite of the huge distance that keeps them apart from each other.

The series of events are as if performed on a stage revealed through the Matilde building and the only director is the narrator because the characters’ voices are all heard through his voice. This unique place and such a unique voice make the essential difference between the social powers of men and that of women limited to a specific place at a specific time from a specific point of view. In other words, social powers appear in such a figure just through this novel and not necessarily through other works. None of the characters develop or change; none rebelled against his/her miserable situation, and none is seen spreading his/her power to prove his /her identity. It is the narrator who told us for instance that his family moved to the building from the south, that Abou Ibrahim Kilani died, that Nabila Shibani is thinking of changing the furniture, that a milkman comes to live in the building with his family, and that a young Shiite guy recently shared Matilde’s house and lived with her to end up killing her in unclear circumstances.

War has changed the relations among people and has helped in raising such a distance between the family members especially between husbands and wives. The novel reveals that clearly in that scene which shows men alone eating, drinking, speaking, thinking, and even expressing their anxiety towards war with each other. The novel, according to Segneurie, “maps the displacement of a predominantly European and Lebanese Christian population by Lebanese Muslims and refugees who flee the impoverished and war-riven south of the country.” (41) In addition, the narrator traces the inevitable shift in social-class demographics and demonstrates the decline of male authority within a patriarchal system as men during the war are forced to spend more time at home where women hold sway (42).  For instance, when the author was describing the relation between his uncle and the aunt’s husband, it is a completely distinct life which is far from that of the women in the house:

“أحيانا كانا يخليان الشرفة ويتّجهان إلى الباب متكلّمين ومسرعين، يهبطان الدّرج بينما الكلام بينهما مستمرّ لا ينقطع. يصعدان السّيّارة العموميّة اللامعة، ويذهبان، كأنّهما في مَهَمّة، ويرجعان كأنّهما قد غيّرا رأييهما قبل قليل من إنجازها.” (ص: 66)

A rare spirit of communication between men and women was traced; as if each has had a separate tension and a different perspective. A silent space is obvious between men and women in the story. The husband leaves his wife at home not telling her where he is going and even not informing her about his departure from the house. It is as if war is a space that opens up an opportunity for men to do what they want taking an advantage of having their women stay at home taking care of the kids and of the house work. When he comes, he does not even bother to try and communicate with her or even with the kids.

On the other hand, women are shown hopelessly roaming in their houses gossiping about each other as if their social powers can only be applied inside their houses. And what powers! Women are powerlessly detecting small things which men cannot. What does this neighbor do? What does that one wear? Who entered the building? And how rich is this woman? And many more similar gossiping questions. They are spending time on unimportant things, like chattering, and projecting their emphasis on the issues that take place inside the house yet nothing about the outside because this world is very strange and nearly unknown to them. Thus, their patriarchal society forbids them to get out of the house in order for them to work and take part of the responsibilities that their men are holding outside the house; so, they play such a marginalized role which makes no sense in the outside world. Later, the novel shows how neighbors are no more visiting each other and most of the doors and windows are kept closed, a symbol of the tight boundaries among people of different social classes or religions who are living in the same building.

So, it is neither men nor women who are providing the development of events. The events are happening for no reason, or at least the reader is not aware of the motivation behind the evil act of killing Matilde for instance. Even death and life are taking place without a prior introduction or a convincing motivation.

However, while some male characters play the role of destructors, some female characters play the role of constructors. The man who kills for instance; that stranger who rents a small space in Matilde’s house and puts an end to a lady’s life, Matilde’s life, in an awful way by cutting her body organs into pieces, and for absurd reasons. The same applies to that woman who gives birth to a child, the narrator’s mother, with neither acknowledging the reader that the woman was pregnant, nor at least giving introductions for the event in preparation for what is going to happen in the novel. The child later on becomes a part of the work he is reading. The situation is terrible; the weather is cold, the women are chaotically here and there, and the children are imprisoned in the kitchen for a while before they hear the voice of their new born sister:

“لم تسمح لنا عمّتي أن نجلس في الصالون مع القريبات اللواتي أتين للمناسبة. كانت واحدة منهنّ تأتي إلى المطبخ كي تغلي قهوة للزائرات…” (ص: 27)

Samira Aghacy sees the different social powers of men and women as having women in varying stages of decline, exposed, terrified of the brute male force that lurks outside the building on the streets, and that can be seen from their windows and balconies (209).  A man like the stranger who rented Matilde’s house activates his power and puts his abilities into power; he appears to be silent and is secretly planning his awful act of violence applying it on Matilde, the woman who decided to help him and offer him a shelter. This shows how women are the weak organ in such a patriarchal society. The plan of the man is done silently although Mme Khayyatt said that she heard Matilde screaming twice:

“… وحين استفاقت مدام خيّاط من إغمائها قالت: إنّها سمعت صوت “ماتيلد” المستغيث، لكن لم تصدّق ذلك. أطلقت “ماتيلد” صرختين، ثمّ سكتت…” (ص: 170)

The reader is shocked by this violent and sudden happening.  Definitely, there is a symbol here. The killer is an immigrant from the South Shiite group, and the victim is a middle-class Christian and an original inhabitant of the building. This indicates the socio-political changes that war imposes on society and reveals the fact that middle-class Christians are no more dominating the place and the substitute is the Shiite immigrants. This conclusion is confirmed by the previous event of birth in the Shiite group. These people are settling their lives in an area where they did not belong in the past. Seigneurie thinks that the novel shows the gradual displacement of a primarily Christian or westernized middle class by the lower-middle-class, primarily Shiite Muslim immigrants from the south (104).

          Women are victims of pain, of death and of being reproductive yet never productive.  War is made by men in spite of being presented as men of words not men of actions and once the narrator’s aunt commented by saying that the house is not for men to stay in:

“أنّ البيت لم يخلق للرجال.” (ص: 163)

…and women just submit to war and to their men’s mood no matter what their opinion is or what they feel towards things. Life and death in the novel coexist together; death is in the Christian community and life is in the Shiite community. Life and death represent the major events in the story and yet they happen for no logical reason; it is just absurd, as many events in the war. There is no rising action, no development of events, no climax and even no resolution.

The murder of Matilde is supposed to be the climax or the main event in the story and yet it is not a result of a sequence of events or the development of a certain character. It is a motionless event of death happening in an area where a monotony of life is taking place among quite a huge group of characters living in the shade of war, marginalized and subordinated to violence practiced in the street.  Even when a man has no more social power to be proud of, he uses his physical power to satisfy a feeling of superiority over women in his society. This might occur to be a normal attitude in middle class societies but surely not in lower patriarchal social classes. This is clearly revealed in the novel when the uncle starts practicing the boxing game. The bag he uses for his sport clothes has become his unique companion while coming up and down the stairs:

“منذ أن انتسب عمّي إلى نادي الملاكمة لم يعد يُشاهد إلاّ طالعًا نازلاً على الدرج. كان يهبط الدرج مسرعًا، ويعلّي يده قليلاً فيما هو ينعطف بين سلّمين. في يده الأخرى كانت محفظته الرّياضيّة السوداء المصنوعة من الجلد القاسي.” (ص: 47)

Matilde, the victim, is one of the residents who is witnessing the changes in the building and is treating the new comers as strangers. She is always alone and aware of everything around her. She never disturbs, and her movements are predictable and restricted. (Seigneurie, 109).  Once she opens her door to one of those new comers, she meets her destiny and pays for that good action with her entire life. Her death drives the story to an end without announcing a start. None of the neighbors do comment on this stranger living in Matilde’s house but she herself has always felt threatened by him and anxious about his behavior even if he reflects her repressed sexual desires:

“… كانت في أحيان  كثيرة، تفاجأ بوجوده خلفها في المطبخ، أو في واحدة من الغرف. تحسّه فجأة، وهكذا، كأنّه لم يأت من الباب، أو كأنّه كان في الغرفة قبل دخولها إليها.  تبقى خائفة للحظات، ثمّ تطلق كلمة. فقط لتقول شيئًا، وتسمع جوابًا عليه. وحين تخرج قبله يتقلّص ظهرها، كأنّها تحاذر يدًا تلمسها، أو تدفعها إلى الأمام.” (ص: 160)

          In a completely different way, men never show that they are afraid, even if they are. They show a bit of awareness but not fear. In war, their role is very harsh and in the opposite direction from that of women; they all prove that they have courage and strength. They show their power by keeping a distance between them and women. War makes of the world an illogical place which results in their illogical behavior. Because war is played outside the house, it is a man’s game which women respond to indoors fearfully and passively.

The influence of war is passive on both men and women, and the reader of this novel manages to live the influence of war on its characters, tolerating the individual failure to cope and finding coherence with people of different sects, but he watches their struggle for survival in vain. Their suffering is evidence of violence and sectarianism in a world that war is fragmenting, and a place which is, within its people, falling into pieces leading them to unknown places and confusing futures.

Hence, as the story ends with the hopelessness of the aunt to keep the building from complete destruction:

         “… كانت قضيّته الأولى، لذلك بلغ ما بذله فيها من العرق، واللهاث حدًّا جعل عمّتي توقن أنّها ستخسرها لا محالة.  (ص: 147)

         …, the reader comes up with the conclusion that although men’s social powers differ from that of women especially in lower class societies, still both of them fail to prove their real power in front of the stronger power of war. Thus, society has its system been changed and the familiar and peaceful life lived with the protection of values disappearing because of the absurd reasons of war and death.

THE WORKS CITED

  1. Aghacy, Samira. “To See with the Naked Eye: Problems of Vision in Hassan Daoud’s The Matilde Building.” Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 2 (2000): 205 -16.
  2. Seigneurie, Ken. Standing by the Ruins: Elagiac Humanism in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon. Oxford University Press, (2011) 41-42, 102-109
  3. Zuberino, Guest Author at LAU. Daoud on the Present, and Possibilities, of Arabic Fiction. June 19, 2011
  4. داوود، حســــــن. بنايـة ماتيــلد (روايــة) دار الــنهار، طبعة ثــانيــة، شــباط 1999 بيــروت – لبنــان

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