- Flights and Fortunes
The nature of fiction is to displace readers, to kidnap them across imaginary boundaries. Some narratives do so by exposing the unfamiliar in the familiar, the motivations animating our closest neighbors, complications of plot occurring in the next town or state over. Other stories take us far away, to different times and places. We become intimates of characters who are other from us and with cultures not our own.
For those who like travel, take a ride on Flying Carpets, Hedy Habra's collection of short stories, set in the Arabic world—in Egypt and Lebanon. Habra herself was born in Egypt, grew up in Lebanon, and currently lives in the U.S. As a writer, her experience acts as both bridge and guide. She knows what we need to know in order to make Middle-Eastern culture come alive for a mostly American audience.
But this collection isn't a travelogue. Once we've entered Habra's world, we're dropped off at the back door that leads to the kitchen. Though a few pieces are narrated by male voices, this book lets us in by detailing the smallish world of women, those who live in enclosed spaces, regardless of whether they have jobs or are students. Thus, the collection feels intimate. Its ethos is quiet, frequently pensive, even, at times, resigned. At other times, in Habra's depiction of women's gatherings, one senses the inherent conflict that exists between the rowdiness of the women and the simultaneous pressure to conform that they impose upon each other, acting as society's surrogate.
Because women figure so prominently, then, certain motifs recur that are traditionally associated with them. One of these is fortune-telling. Another is cooking. Another concerns dreams and aspirations, many of them lost or abandoned.
But the act of fortune-telling that weaves itself through this collection is the most significant, in part because it symbolizes the art of storytelling. The very first narrative, "Al Kasdir," takes its name from both the "gray tin that was central to the divination process" as well as to the ritualistic, fortune-telling ceremony itself. All the hallmarks that distinguish Habra's other pieces can be found here: the focus on women, the weak control they have over their lives, the search for authentic love and, through it, for meaning.
The narrator, a young girl, is about to witness her first Kasdir, and she's aware that there is something haram, forbidden or secretive, about the whole thing. This activity is one that women engage in when they gather. They try to discover their futures, to control their destinies. They hope to know what their stories will be, and, like our narrator who can see an outdoor movie screen from her aunt's balcony but cannot hear the dialogue, these women must piece together plot lines through divination/imagination. There is no other, more direct path. Not being the authors of their own tales, they must construct an alternative reality, and the attempt to do so—to control their stories—is somehow subversive.
Even Habra's foray into magical realism, particularly in the story "Flight," the last piece in the collection, can be seen as yet another attempt to enlist the aid of magic to tell a tale. Like fortune-telling, the world that magical realism suggests is alternate and subversive. The narrator here swallows a small [End Page 18] bird that seems to be living inside of her. She worries that her husband, who has been away, will notice her growing belly. She's thickened as if pregnant, which she may be, but not, perhaps, with child. Although we know that a woman's creativity has long been associated primarily with childbirth, that assumption doesn't seem to hold in this case.
The woman in this story is pregnant with words that must be allowed to breathe. Words, she learns, "are at the root of your suffering.... The bird is made of words you keep buried, words that do not belong to you, that need to go...