An Unnecessary Woman

by Rabih Alameddine

Paperback, 291 pages, Pgw, List Price: $16 | purchase

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An Unnecessary Woman
Rabih Alameddine

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Hardcover, 291 pages, Pgw, $25, published February 4 2014 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

An Unnecessary Woman
Rabih Alameddine

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NPR Summary

An obsessive introvert in Beirut, eschewed by her family and neighbors for her divorced status and lack of religious reverence, quietly translates favorite books into Arabic while struggling with her aging body, until an unthinkable disaster threatens what little life remains to her.

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Awards and Recognition

3 weeks on NPR Paperback Fiction Bestseller List

NPR stories about An Unnecessary Woman

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: An Unnecessary Woman

You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn't help my concentration.

Let me explain.

First, you should know this about me: I have but one mirror in my home, a smudged one at that. I'm a conscientious cleaner, you might even say compulsive — the sink is immaculately white, its bronze faucets sparkle — but I rarely remember to wipe the mirror clean. I don't think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there's an issue here.

I begin this tale with a badly lit reflection. One of the bathroom's two bulbs has expired. I'm in the midst of the evening ritual of brushing my teeth, facing said mirror, when a halo surrounding my head snares my attention. Toothbrush in right hand still moving up and down and side to side, left hand reaches for reading glasses lying on the little table next to the toilet. Once on my face atop my obtrusive nose they help me see that I'm neither a saint nor saintly but more like the Queen Mother — well, an image of the Queen Mother smudged by a schoolgirl's eraser. No halo this, the blue anomaly is my damp hair. A pigment battle rages atop my head, a catfight of mismatched contestants.

I touch a still-wet lock to test the permanency of the blue tint and end up leaving a sticky stain of toothpaste on it. You can correctly presume that multitasking is not my forté.

I lean over the bathtub, pick up the tube of Bel Argent shampoo I bought yesterday. I read the fine print, squinting even with the reading glasses. Yes, I used ten times the amount prescribed while washing my hair. I enjoy a good lather. Reading instructions happens not to be my forté either.

Funny. My bathroom tile is rectangular white with two interlocking light blue tulips, and that is almost the same shade as my new dye. Luckily, the blue isn't that of the Israeli flag. Can you imagine? Talk about a brawl of mismatched contestants.

Usually, vanity isn't one of my concerns, doesn't disconcert me much. However, I'd overheard the three witches discussing the unrelenting whiteness of my hair. Joumana, my upstairs neighbor, had suggested that if I used a shampoo like Bel Argent, the white would be less flat. There you have it.

As I understand it, and I might be wrong as usual, you and I tend to lose short wavelength cones as we age, so we're less able to distinguish the color blue. That's why many people of a certain age have a bluish tint to their hair. Without the tint, they see their hair as pale yellow, or possibly salmon. One hairstylist was describing on the radio how he finally convinced this old woman that her hair was much too blue. However, his client refused to change the color. It was much more important that she see her hair as natural than that the rest of the world do so.

I'd probably get along with the client better than I would with the hairdresser.
I too am an old woman, but I have yet to lose many short wavelength cones. I can distinguish the color blue a bit too clearly right now.

Allow me, my dear friend, to offer a mild defense for being distracted. At the end of the year, before I begin a new project, I read the translation I've completed. I do final corrections (minor), set the pages in order, and place them in the box. This is part of the ritual, which includes imbibing two glasses of red wine. I also have to admit that the last reading allows me to pat myself on the back, to congratulate myself on completing the project. This year, I translated the superb novel Austerlitz, my second translation of W. G. Sebald. I was reading it today, and for some reason, probably the protagonist's unrequited despair, I couldn't stop thinking of Hannah, I couldn't, as if the novel, or my Arabic translation of it, was an inductor into Hannah's world.

Remembering Hannah, my one intimate, is never easy. I still see her before me at the kitchen table, her plate wiped clean of food, her right cheek resting on the palm of her hand, head tilted slightly, listening, offering that rarest of gifts, her unequivocal attention. My voice had no home until her.

During my seventy-two years, she was the one person I cared for, the one I told too much — boasts, hates, joys, cruel disappointments, all jumbled together. I no longer think of her as often as I used to, but she magically appears in my thoughts every now and then. The traces of Hannah on me have become indelible. Percolating remembrances, red wine, an old woman's shampoo: mix well and end up with blue hair.

I'll wash my hair once more in the morning, with no-more-tears baby shampoo this time. Hopefully the blue will fade. I can just imagine what the neighbors will say now.

For most of my adult life, since I was twenty-two, I've begun a translation every January first. I do realize that this a holiday and most choose to celebrate, most do not consider working on New Year's Day. Once, as I was leafing through the folio of Beethoven's sonatas, I noticed that only the penultimate, the superb 110 in A-flat major, was dated on the top right corner, as if the composer wanted us to know that he was busy working that Christmas Day in 1821. I too choose to keep busy during holidays.

Over these last fifty years I've translated fewer than forty books — thirty-seven, if I've counted correctly. Some books took longer than a year, others refused to be translated, and one or two bored me into submission — not the books themselves, but my translation of them. Books in and of themselves are rarely boring, except for memoirs of American presidents (No, No, Nixon) — well, memoirs of Americans in general. It's the "I live in the richest country in the world yet pity me because I grew up with flat feet and a malodorous vagina but I triumph in the end" syndrome. Tfeh!

Excerpted from An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Copyright © 2014 Rabih Alameddine. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press.
All rights reserved.