‘La compagnie des Tripolitaines’ (‘Under the Tripoli Sky’) by Kamal Ben Hameda (Review)

The most recent release from Peirene Press, Emmanuelle Pagano’s Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis) marks the end of the publisher’s first decade of books, and in that time, they’ve brought out a set of three thematically linked books each year, in addition to a few extra works under the Peirene Now! label.  While I haven’t got around to any of the latter series yet (despite having two on my shelves…), I’ve been steadily making my way through the others, either in the Peirene version or the original language, and today sees me take a look at my twenty-seventh title from the range.  This one first appeared in English in 2014 as part of the Coming of Age series, but as you’ll see, there’s a lot more to it than the simple story of a boy’s childhood.  In fact, you could argue that it’s not really about him at all…

La compagnie des Tripolitaines (Under the Tripoli Sky, translated by Adriana Hunter) is a short series of sketches by Kamal Ben Hameda, a writer looking back at his formative years in the Libyan capital.  Having left his country as a young man owing to his dissatisfaction with the oppression and sécheresse intellectuelle (intellectual poverty, or ‘drought’) he felt there, Ben Hameda, better known for his poetry, decided to examine a particular subject through the eyes of a young boy, namely the treatment of women in Tripoli.

The original title can be translated as ‘The Company of Tripoli Women’, which certainly isn’t as snappy as that of the English-language version but gives the reader a far better idea of what to expect.  This company, or group, of women takes centre-stage in the book, with our young hero Hadachinou spending most of his time visiting those living in his neighbourhood.  The women tend to stick together and look forward to meeting up behind closed doors whenever possible, eating, drinking and laughing as they attempt to forget, if only for a short while, the people casting a shadow over their lives – their husbands.

Through the little anecdotes Hadachnou relates, we get to know the women of the neighbourhood (his ‘aunts’) and learn indirectly about the problems married women face in his home town.  There’s Aunt Hiba, who is regularly beaten by her husband (Hadachinou also sees him abusing his wife in a different way…), and Aunt Zohra, whose mean husband refuses to allow his wife little luxuries, such as sweets and cakes, despite owning a grocery store.  Perhaps the most upsetting story involves the beautiful young Zaïneb, whose dreams are shattered when she’s forced to marry a man she doesn’t love, a tale with a dramatic and heart-rending conclusion.

However, we also meet a number of women who don’t fit this mould.  Hadachinou frequently drops by the house of Fella, a Jewish single mother whose affair with a black American GI resulted in a daughter.  With no man in her life, Fella is an outcast in many ways but far freer in others, and she’s not the only one who isn’t tied down.  Another of Hadachinou’s favourites is Jamila, his mother’s seductive friend, whose lifestyle and charms give rise to rumours among the women.  Luckily, Hadachinou’s Great-Aunt Nafissa is there to set them straight when they get too vindictive:

« Laissez Jamila tranquille, vivre sa vie ; c’est la jalousie qui vous fait voir le mal partout ; elle et ses amies, elles se donnent les libertés qui vous manquent, et que vous leur enviez, parce que vos maris vous tiennent à la corde ! »
p.65 (Éditions Elyzad, 2011)

“Let Jamila live her own life; it’s jealousy that makes you see evil everywhere; she and her friends, they allow themselves the freedoms you lack, and that you envy them for, because your husbands have you on a tight leash!”
*** (my translation)

Sadly, despite the restrictions imposed on them by their husbands, the women often turn against those who defy the social laws imposed by men.

The second meaning of company also plays an important part in the book, with the young boy enjoying the moments he’s able to spend with the older women.  He’s seduced by the heady scents of their perfume and the time spent snuggling up to warm flesh, but he actually simply enjoys their company, too, preferring to quietly observe their laughter and joy rather than play with other children.  He’s a witness to another side of the women, one not seen by (and probably unsupected by) the older men, who keep their wives jealously locked away lest any other man should see something in them.

Of course, La compagnie des Tripolitaines is about the city it’s set in, too.  Almost in passing, the writer describes Tripoli as a multicultural place, with Hadachinou visiting mosques, synagogues and churches in the company of neighbours and hearing stories of ancestors, whether Arabs, Berbers or Italians.  One section details a number of trips to the fair, and the delights to be found there, and there’s even a fascinating glimpse of the city’s red-light district, with our curious little friend finding some new women to annoy and cuddle up to.

It’s all beautifully written, an evocative book of sensations describing the blistering midday heat, the dust, the sweat and the silence of the Tripoli afternoons.  The many scenes hang together lightly rather than being tightly linked, and on several occasions it took me a while before realising that we’d moved on to a different story.  One example of the poetic nature of the text comes from when Hadachinou is spying on the call girls and says Au fils des jours les filles de joies finirent par me réperer.” (p.67)   The sentence literally means something like “After a few days, the girls of joy/pleasure ended up noticing me.”, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring as the original with its clever repetition of sounds (fils/filles, jours/joies).  I wonder how Hunter dealt with that line 😉

It all makes for a brief but enjoyable look back at a childhood, and a glimpse inside a world of warmth and laughter, all the while knowing that this is to be a fleeting period of happiness for Hadchinou.  As one of his mother’s friends exclaims on spotting him eavesdropping:

« Ah, tiens ! Le petit Hadachinou, tu es là ! Tu peux écouter toi aussi, tu sauras ce que c’est que d’être femme quand tu feras partie de la race des hommes ! » (p.90)

“Oh, look!  Little Hadachinou’s here!  You can listen, too, you’ll find out what it’s like to be a woman when you become part of the race of men! ***

Ironically, the start of the book shows us the end of this happy time, with one of the first scenes showing poor Hadachinou’s circumcision, allowing him to cross the threshhold into manhood.  Sadly, this literal cut is also a metaphorical one.  It’s the start of a separation he never wanted, leaving him with just the memories of the happy time he spent in the world of women…

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