“Flying Carpets” A Shimmering Mix of Real, Unreal
November 27, 2013
“Flying Carpets” is a collection of 21 short stories with themes ranging from the everyday to the supernatural, but there is no break in style. The magic of Hedy Habra’s fluid, imaginative prose is that she is able to evoke mystical elements in the most ordinary occurrences. It is as if there are at least two dimensions of reality, and Habra’s pen draws her characters from one to the other at will. Recurrent imagery of shimmering fish, flying creatures and the occasional magic carpet signify their elusive search for happiness. While these are deeply personal stories, they also show how social norms and expectations complicate the search for personal fulfillment, especially if someone strikes out on a different track. While each story concludes in a literary sense, the questions they raise often remain unresolved, much like in real life.
The stories are grouped in four clusters. The ones in the first cluster are set in Egypt, and focus on how women think — or are made to think — that being married is crucial for their happiness and security. A few dream of breaking the cycle of dependency, like the young woman who skeptically watches a group of widows seeking to discover their prospects for remarriage by engaging in the “kasdir” ritual, a form of fortunetelling hinting at alchemy, which will play a role in later stories. Several engage in fantasies of what life would have been like had they married their first love, while Mariam, an ageing servant tired by the demands of caring for others’ children, dreams of floating away with shimmering sea creatures or taking off “as if on a magic carpet over the roofs, terraces, streets, tramways and gardens of Heliopolis”. (p. 32)
The second cluster of stories is set mainly in Lebanon, and adds complexity to the marriage issue, such as whether the birth of a child can save a flagging marriage, and the social obstacles to inter-faith or inter-racial marriages. When a Christian girl and Muslim boy fall in love at a summer resort in the Lebanese mountains, their parents immediately frame their budding relationship in terms of marriage and the future, which the young couple had not yet contemplated. “The 16-year-old girl imagines her dreams fast forwarded, full speed on a public screen.” (p. 63) The rational collides with the irrational as two female medical students seek the advice of a fortuneteller to find out why the boyfriend of one of them left her. And just when the reader may think Habra is writing from an exclusively female perspective, there are two stories narrated by males.
The third cluster of stories, though arising from very real events, delves deeper into fantasy, while the fourth group enters the realm of the abstract; the settings could be anywhere and nowhere. Imagery of the sea and of flight increases, as does symbolism, dreams, mythological overtones and cosmic forces. The images are often startling, as when humans morph into animals, but at the heart of these stories is still the human search for happiness, belonging and fulfillment. Many characters are desperate, seeking escape from a sterile life through semi-mythical creatures or lovers, like the young girl clutching for something beyond her pitiful existence, who is entranced by a storyteller’s tales of “men and women with condor wings, who had once been condors billions of years ago…” (p. 152)
In another highly original story, “Noor El Qamar” tells of the pitfalls of being regarded as a goddess after falling to earth: “Worshipped and looked after with deference, yet suffering from an indescribable anxiety, that of being lonely and different, I doubted my wisdom and holiness…” (p. 157) Her single satisfying relationship is with Shahir, the stone-cutter, a Michelangelo-like figure, making one wonder if “Noor El Qumar” is inspired by one of his works.
Like the sea creatures she describes, Habra’s writing fairly shimmers. It is at once graceful, enigmatic and haunting, as she forces the reader to look at the hidden side of reality and relationships. An unusual combination of fantasy and realism is her vehicle for conveying human needs and values, and contrasting them with life as one finds it.
Reading “Flying Carpets” makes one wonder where Habra gets her unique ideas and rich, cross-cultural images and symbols. At least part of the answer is surely to be found in her background and broad cultural studies. Born in Egypt of Lebanese heritage, she has lived in both countries, as well as in Greece and Belgium. She obtained a BS in pharmacy (the connection to alchemy?) in Beirut, and later an MA in English literature and a Ph.D. in Spanish literature in the US, where she now teaches Spanish literature at Western Michigan University. She is proficient in Arabic, English, French and Spanish, and has published poetry in the latter three languages. Perhaps all this knowledge and diversity contributed to her outstanding ability to mould language in such inventive ways.