Winner of the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, Huzama Habayeb’s Velvet, tr. Kay Heikkenen, is a multi-generational novel tells a late-in-life love story between two Palestinian refugees living in Jordan’s Baqa’a camp.
The review on Words Without Borders opens:
Ours is an age when criticism often celebrates fat-free sentences, restrained ironies, and hope that’s caged in self-awareness—novels that walk before us like sunken-cheeked, unsmiling catwalk models. Huzama Habayeb’s Velvet, by contrast, is unafraid of its fullness: its gold jewelry, its fleshy abundance, its black velvet, and most of all, its melancholic and romantic lyrics, as sung by legendary Lebanese diva Fairouz. Velvet is a novel crammed with love and loss as it follows the gripping late-in-life love story of Hawwa and Munir, Palestinian refugees living in Jordan’s Baqa’a camp. Yet as their romance unfolds, Habayeb casts a wider look at the world around them, deftly inscribing and disassembling powerful mythologies of motherhood and exile.
Velvet, which won the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, is a multigenerational novel with a wide cast of characters. Yet it is Hawwa’s story from beginning to end. “Hawwa” is the Arabic word for “Eve,” an allusion that, unfortunately, isn’t carried into Kay Heikkenen’s able translation. Although born in poverty and exile, Hawwa has talent. She is attractive, strong, and clever; she is a gifted dressmaker. We might expect that she or her children will rise up from poverty, or that motherhood and hard work will have rewards. Yet Habayeb confounds any such expectations.
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