Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Alligator and Other Stories – the debut short story collection from an exciting talent to watch
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Get comfortable this evening with a cup of hot chocolate and an excerpt from Alligator and Other Stories, the debut from Dima Alzayat!
Alzayat is an award-winning young Syrian–American writer who captures the many ways we can be displaced and made to feel ‘other’.
About the book
In Alligator and Other Stories, Dima Alzayat captures luminously the many ways of feeling displaced: as a Syrian, as an Arab, as an immigrant, as a woman. Often told through the lens everyday scenarios, her stories are rich, relatable, and full of nuance. Each story is a snapshot of those moments when unusual circumstances suddenly distinguish us from our neighbours, throw into relief the fact that we are ‘other’.
There are ‘dangerous’ women transgressing in ‘Daughters of Manat’, and ‘A Girl in Three Acts’; In ‘Only Those Who Struggle Succeed’ a young woman will let nothing stand in the way of career success, only to discover the boulder that others have placed in her path; in ‘Ghusl’, a young woman carefully washes her brother’s body as she prepares him for burial and looks back on their childhood together; ‘Disappearance’ loosens the boundaries of diaspora or immigrant stories, and features protagonists whose ethnicity is neither central nor vital; and ‘Alligator’, the centrepiece that connects the thematic threads running throughout this book, is an incredible work: a compilation of first-person accounts, newspaper clippings, letters, real and fictionalised historical and legal documents, scripts and social media posts, which tell the story of a Syrian–American couple killed by their town’s police department and a vigilante lynch mob.
Each of these stories is startling and real, but delivers an emotional punch that lingers long after reading.
Read the excerpt:
DAUGHTERS OF MANĀT
She woke to the same slight wind drifting through the drapes. Again the early dawn shadows spread across the ceiling, gray forms that appeared to be reflections of other shadows, a mirrored image from time primordial, its source erased. Outside, the ensemble of birds grew louder. A quavering tangle of notes. Who else do they wake?
In the bathroom she brushed her teeth, combed her hair, and in the mirror saw only the outline of her face. With the lights off she dressed, a long dark skirt and a light blouse, thick tights and high boots. She passed a makeup brush across her cheeks and with her moistened fingertips smoothed her brows. The sound of her heels on the stone floor crushed the birds’ chorus, and when for a moment she stopped moving, only a single warbler’s interlude reached her ears. A thin melody that trilled and rattled. She walked to the window and opened the drapes, lifted the pane. Stepped onto the windowsill and jumped.
As she fell her skirt unfurled and blossomed, and those who saw her from beneath said she glided across the sky. Her body blocked the rising sun but her sheer blouse absorbed the early rays so that she glowed. A baker opening his shop watched her beam brighter as she moved, until she was an orb ablaze, a burning Venus. A pastor on his way to the day’s first service paused in the street to cross himself and plead the precious blood of Jesus. The Lord of Phosphorus was again in their midst.
She felt as she fell that time had slowed. Before her the earth spread indefinitely and though she knew she hovered high above the ground it seemed to her that there was but one plane and that it contained land and sky alike. This flattening allowed her to see far beyond her street, her city. She could make out the curve of Africa’s horn and the blue of the Red Sea. What else did she see? A Simien fox hunting a mole rat, a masked butterflyfish searching for its mate. She realized the earth was smaller than she had been led to believe, that only its curvature had made its parts seem discrete.
By the time she was twelve, my aunt Zaynab was taller than her father in stature and fuller than her mother in shape. Her hair was black and bright and reached down to her waist. Her lids were rimmed in double rows of lashes, a genetic mutation that made her eyes gleam like polished sunstone. Boys she had grown up with, neighbors’ children, who used to tackle her to the ground in games of tag and give her piggyback rides up and down the narrow, hilly streets of East Amman, now moved out of her way with quiet reverence, with mild hostility.
After months of turning away suitors who stood at the front door with sweaty palms gripping boxes of sweets, and chasing away others who trailed their daughter home from school and hissed at her heels, my grandparents decided something had to be done. Zaynab herself had learned to not mind the stares and catcalls. She had a quick wit and a serrated tongue that could raze the confidence of even the most cavalier suitor and to her the boys were more like feral cats, skittish and afraid. But, as they say, it was a different time, and girls like that had to be looked after in measured ways. And so by age twelve, my aunt was married.
The man was in his twenties and came from a devout family that agreed to my grandmother’s demand that Zaynab remain chaste until she reached womanhood. The first time I heard Zaynab’s story I wondered how they could tell. Would it be when she grew taller? Was that how I, too, would become a woman? My own mother was shorter than some children. Was she not one?
Child or not, Zaynab was put to work in her in-laws’ home, sweeping the courtyard and scrubbing the tiles, pulling hair clots from drains and chopping onions for soups. Crates of onions, pyramids of onions. So many that even in her old age my aunt despised them, would cover her nose with her sleeve, curse the day she was born and rush outside to escape their smell.
I don’t know how long young Zaynab had to endure her husband’s family – my grandmother would say two weeks, Zaynab claimed two months – but every day at sunset my aunt would escape her in-laws and return to her family. Each night she stayed later and later in her parents’ house, cursing both families and bemoaning her fate, crying hot tears and spitting at the floor, promising misfortune for them all. Each night she was dragged back to her new home, her hair wild and voice hoarse.
When the neighbors intervened, it was with prayers and support, teas and ointments, but nothing worked. Zaynab remained ferocious, going so far as to cut off her black, bright hair – so short that the tops of her ears protruded. ‘Like a boy elf!’ my grandmother would say. Zaynab threatened to do more, to take to the streets and humiliate them, to scream their names to strangers. Finally it was agreed that a mistake had been made, and to everyone’s relief, the marriage was annulled.
My aunt Zaynab looked after me while my parents were at work. She was seventeen years older than my mother and her own children were grown and gone by the time I came along. I spent more time with her than I did with anyone else and for years I thought this meant I was destined to become as ugly as she was. Arthritis gnarled her fingers into claws and too much bleach made her scalp look like parched earth. ‘You think it matters how shapely your mouth is, how long your nails are?’ she would say to me, leaning in close enough for me to taste her cigarette breath.
On my tenth birthday she made white cupcakes frosted purple and dropped them off at my school after lunch. As she stood in the classroom doorway holding the tray, she peered around the teacher to find me, her squinted eyes darting among the rows of children. I gave her a quick look of thanks and turned away, hoping no one would see her. That afternoon we had a classroom party and wore pointed hats. Beneath colorful streamers and floating balloons my friend Oni kissed me on the mouth in between bites of cake. Disney songs played from a small cassette player on the teacher’s desk and the teacher, Ms. Nolan, was busy showing a student how to properly take Harry the hamster out of his cage, how to hold him with cupped hands so he felt safe.
Licking frosting off my lips, I giggled at Oni, who smeared more frosting on her mouth and leaned in to kiss me again, but within inches of my face she was snapped back by Ms. Nolan’s hands and led outside. I put down my cupcake and looked around at the other kids. I wondered if they had been watching us. What had they seen? Some of them crowded near the window, pushing and pulling one another to get a look. Through the glass I watched Ms. Nolan’s mouth move rapidly as she spoke and Oni’s lips tremble like she might cry.
A sudden scream caused us to turn away from the window to see the kid who had been holding Harry chasing the hamster across the room. Soon, more than two dozen students were on the hunt, trying to catch Harry and put him back in his cage. But the hamster was frightened and wouldn’t stop scurrying, kept weaving his way between backpacks and books, desk legs and human ones. It wasn’t long before laughter gave way to shrieks. Papers flew through the air and kids tripped over one another in pursuit. By the time Ms. Nolan heard the racket and rushed back inside, it was too late. Someone had stepped on Harry and one of his beady black eyes had popped from its socket, dangled at the end of a thin bloodied nerve and stared at the carpet.
You wake, stale smoke clinging to your tongue, whiskey rising from your skin. The first few drinks of water scrape like sediment against your throat and you force yourself to swallow. At the bathroom sink you scrub smeared liner from your lids but a faded gray rims your eyes, impervious to soap and water, insisting on its permanence. You brush your teeth and gargle and brush a second time as you turn on the coffee maker in the kitchen. When you comb your hair, the finest strands come loose from their follicles and fall. After five, ten, fifteen years on your head, they become invisible when they reach the carpet beneath your feet. What else do you shed unaware?
Between sips of coffee you squeeze beige paste from a tube and rub it into your skin until even freckles disappear. The mascara is dry and clumps between your lashes, and you hold its wand beneath a trickling faucet for a second, two, and push it back into the tube, give it a shake and again twist it open. Count to five strokes per eye. When you run lipstick across your lips you feel their dryness, the creases where the color will gather and form threadlike veins of red. You button a blouse and as you pull on a pair of tights, you notice a run in one of the legs. The skirt, despite its length, cannot cover it. When you open the window a fly buzzes past your ear and over your shoulder. Perfectly still it perches on the dresser, facing you, its eyes examining you.
As you fall you wonder what you will sound like on the asphalt, if your face will look like those in movies, wide-eyed in surprise. You hope the bleeding is mostly internal so no one will become sick at the sight. Moments pass before you realize the fall has slowed, that you are adrift in the air and that while you cannot control where you go, you may turn in any direction you like. You feel your eyes changing, pushing against their sockets as each becomes a thousand eyes, and though they no longer move, they see all things, millions of images converging to one.
That is when you see them, standing side by side. The eldest among them is garbed in black and the second glows like the sun. Only the youngest draws near, hands you one of two swords she holds and whispers in your ear. What does she say? She asks why you have stopped calling her from the rooftop in worship, why your children no longer bear her name. You tell her you have neither rooftop nor children and that you never learned to pray. You try to follow her, to float as she does, but again you begin to fall.
When I was seventeen I had sex for the first time in the laundry room of my boyfriend’s house. His parents were in the kitchen making dinner and we were supposed to be in the family room listening to music and studying for a physics midterm. Instead the music’s volume was turned low so we could hear approaching feet as we reached for each other beneath the open textbooks on our laps. He had leaned over and kissed my neck, his fingers reaching farther down, and though we’d touched each other before, it was the first time it felt fervent, nearly urgent.
Aside from the washer and dryer the room had shelves of cleaning products and mops and brooms that hung from hooks. I wrapped my fingers around his neck and kissed his mouth, and again I felt the same rise and swell inside me as I pulled down my pants and then his. He let out a small laugh and I did too and we kissed again to silence our nerves. For the first few minutes our movements were careful and cautious as we fumbled with each other’s bodies and tried to quiet our breaths.
When finally we got going, pushing against one another in that small space, I felt my body birth desire and fulfill it, felt this to be significant and myself significant with it despite where I was. The room was hot and we were sweaty and my body began to slip from his hands. But he tightened his grip and hoisted me higher and held me closer. ‘You’re so fucking pretty,’ he said and he pushed himself deeper inside me. ‘You’re so fucking pretty,’ he said again and I felt his arms grow strong against mine.
Zaynab’s second marriage was to a man with clear blue eyes and a dark mustache. Though he had a large belly and limbs like meatless chicken bones it was agreed he was a handsome man. During her engagement party, she changed outfits a half-dozen times, in and out of dresses beaded and sequined, pumps and sandals high-heeled and shiny. Her husband clasped strands of pearls around her neck and slid thick gold bangles over her wrists. By then she was nineteen and even more beautiful than before. The envy of every girl in the neighborhood, my grandmother said. Those who were not invited crowded around the windows to catch sight of her, to watch how she styled her hair for each dress, how her eyes glowed bright yellow.
Still she remained as brazen as ever, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers with her new husband and his friends well into the night. Her dresses grew shorter and her hips wider and everyone who saw her offered warning. ‘The smoking will make your skin sallow,’ they said. ‘So much beer will make you gain weight.’ She sent them off with jokes and stories, pinching the fat of their arms and pulling on the skin that sagged from their faces. But at my grandmother’s insistence she began to wear an amulet, a sapphire eye that hung from a chain around her neck and rested in the space between her breasts.
When, after five years of marriage, she still could not conceive, everyone agreed there was no one to blame but those who had envied her, had quietly cursed her health and beauty for so long. My grandmother took her to healers, to soothsayers and sheikhs, and finally, to the best fertility clinics in Europe. It would take my aunt Zaynab another five years to get pregnant and give birth to my cousin, Reem. It would take only three months after that for her to walk in on her husband in bed with another woman, his bulbous belly bouncing atop her behind.
Here the story gets murky. Soon after discovering her husband’s infidelity, Zaynab lost control of the left side of her face. Her eyelid drooped and even when she slept, remained ajar. Half of her mouth sagged so she could no longer smile. My grandmother said a stroke had caused the paralysis. My mother thought it was shock. After all, how could Zaynab bear the news that the woman was not only her husband’s lover, but also his second wife and mother to his other three children?
In my first year of college a guy my roommate had gone on four dates with punched her so that her eye turned black and her nose bled. At a party the night before, a friend of his had seen her kissing someone else, and the next evening he waited for her in the hallway of our apartment building to ask if it was true. As she unlocked our door, she admitted that it was. She began to apologize when she felt his knuckles bash into her face, continued to feel them across her body. ‘I fucking liked you,’ he said several times as he hit her.
I came home from class to find her on our living-room floor, folded over, her face covered in blood. I had never imagined her tall body could look so small. She had bruises on her arms and neck, spit in her hair. At the hospital she was admitted and treated and then interviewed by two social workers, a therapist, and three cops. With one eye bandaged she looked at each of them directly, with her mouth swollen nearly shut she repeated her answers. When they left my eyes wandered to her naked feet, the chipped red polish she had the night before complained she didn’t have time to fix.
The guy was arrested and bailed out in under an hour. His hearing was set for three weeks later, and in the courthouse I sat and listened to my roommate give the same answers and repeat them while staring at the person that had drawn blood from her body. I listened as the judge sentenced that person to a year of counseling and six months of community service after a tepid exchange with the prosecutor and the defense attorney about what to call his crime. Had he inflicted serious bodily injury? What were the benchmarks of injury? Was it a matter of simple or aggravated battery? Domestic battery demanded an intimate relationship. What constituted intimacy?
It will feel heavier today, the rising. Our bodies’ weight will suffocate us, press upon our shoulders and lungs and make it difficult to breathe. We will want to stay in bed, to lift the covers above our heads and let our lungs heave in silence. To imagine a slate that wipes black to gray and gray to white will help us move. In the bathroom mirror, we will see your face, not ours. Your eyes like veiled opals, your brows like question marks. Where do you roost? From where do you watch?
When the coffee boils, we will pour it and drink at once so it scalds our tongues. Our knuckles will ache and we will rub them in apology. We will remember how our fingers clutched at playground bars and how we were strong enough to catapult our bodies through the air, to land on tanbark whose splinters were incidental to the miracle of flight. We are older now, we will say. There are wrinkles, delicate but discernible. Skin thinner and less even. The makeup does not hide it and instead we will cover our marks with clothing. Cotton and wool and silk that know how to do what we still don’t. We will wrap a scarf around our necks and tighten it until we feel veins throbbing and pulse slowing, and release. When we open the window cold air will hit our faces and we will lean against the windowsill and inhale. We will try to forget that the air we breathe is not ours.
Outside we will walk the length of the street while staring at the sidewalk. A dime-sized egg speckled violet just fallen from its nest and cracked, its yolk spilling onto the asphalt, will have us looking for signs of life. A black eye; an unformed beak. We will feel exhausted, reach for mental lists of who does what where and resist the urge to lie beside the broken shell in mourning. Instead with newspaper we will pick it up and place it at the foot of the fenced-in tree. Dust to dust, life to mud. The warbling in the branches will be low-pitched and hoarse, and it will quaver in our ears for hours.
The day will pass and the light will become dark. From the window we will watch the crescent moon cradle the sun before both disappear. That is when we will call to you with our loudest voice. You are black stone and white granite but are you not also our mothers? By the salt, by the fire, why have you forsaken us? Again we will hear only silence.
When I shaved my head my grandmother refused to speak to me. ‘Tell her she looks like a boy,’ she said to my father when I came home to visit. All weekend she walked around the house with her beads in hand, muttering spells and prayers and shaking her head. ‘Tell her she will never find a husband with her hair like a boy,’ she said.
I was about to graduate college and two months pregnant. My friend Alex drove me to the clinic twice in one week. The first time, the nurse spread a cool gel on my stomach and moved the ultrasound wand in circles. She directed my face to the screen, but I was already looking at the gray mass moving there. She began to explain the image, its fuzzy sections and barely visible parts, and if she saw my eyelids close she pretended she hadn’t. On the second visit, the doctor was an ugly woman who put me to sleep and performed the procedure. When I woke up, she said kind words and held my hand.
‘Maybe now was not a good time to look so hostile, no?’ my college counselor suggested when he saw my shaved head. I was going on as many job interviews as I could, determined to not move back home after graduation. It wasn’t until my sixth interview that a receptionist called me back to her desk after I had met with the office manager. ‘This might not be my place but maybe you should think about wearing a wig, just until you’re done with treatment or until it grows back. I’m just trying to be helpful. It makes people pretty uncomfortable to see others that way.’
At the graduation ceremony my parents’ smiles beamed from the audience when I was introduced as the class speaker, and I could hear their claps above all others when I finished my speech. At the reception a professor told them how proud they should be and lauded them for raising a strong daughter. My father assured him that he was more than proud, that I had proven myself as worthy as any person. ‘Man or woman,’ he added. My mother smiled and nodded, and turned to me as the professor walked away. ‘So many good things ahead,’ she said. ‘Thank God your hair is growing back.’
Eventually Zaynab’s face returned to normal. She had spent the worst of those days crying, my mother said. Moans slow and long like some ancient call. But it was not long before she became placid, speaking only when necessary, unable to draw together enough energy even for her infant daughter. It was only when she regained control of her facial muscles, when she could smile and grimace at will, that she seemed to re-ignite. If she was biting before, she was now caustic. If her jokes had been improper, they were now vulgar.
She was not allowed to divorce her husband, not that she had wanted to. Instead she smeared the name of his second wife to any and all willing listeners, of which there were many. At him she hurled every insult, from sunup to sundown, until he ceased to come home. When relatives visiting from other towns would ask where he was, a content smirk would stretch across her face as she answered. ‘Oh, he works a lot. Works late into the night, really. May God bless his loins.’ Or, ‘Who? Oh! Is that the impish man on the nightly shows?’ People were aghast, my grandmother said, or pretended to be anyway. They knew the stories and they all claimed to know the truth. They demanded that Zaynab be the one to answer.
So when Zaynab began to spend her free time in the corner shop chatting with its owner, a man known for his throaty laugh and dirty jokes, no one voiced an objection. Not because they approved, but because they did not dare. Only my grandmother tried to reason with her. ‘What will people say?’ she begged. ‘You have a daughter to consider. Who will want to marry someone with a loose mother?’
One day Zaynab packed a suitcase and my then three-year-old cousin and without telling friend or family, neighbor or stranger, eloped with the man from the corner shop. ‘Maybe now people will stop talking,’ my grandmother said, her face wet from wailing. ‘Don’t be silly,’ my grandfather said. ‘They’ll talk even from their graves.’ After six months in the U.S., my aunt Zaynab gave birth to a second daughter, my cousin Farah. And then every other year for the ten years she was married, she gave birth to one more.
I have been moving now for five years. At times I stayed in places long enough to memorize where the shadows fell at dawn, to learn which birds sang in the trees. But eventually I left. For three months I dug foundations and mixed concrete in one place. For a full year I planted seedlings and watered the plants that grew from them. I learned to weave chairs from bamboo, to build protective barriers around turtle nests and runways so the hatchlings could find their way to the ocean without getting lost. In all this time, I have not gone home. On the phone my mother’s voice has grown colder, my father no longer asks when I will come back. Only my aunt Zaynab laughs at the sound of my voice.
When her third and final husband died, Zaynab refused to mourn. My grandmother, older and widowed by then, did not interfere. Even when Zaynab was seen laughing in public, wearing yellow and violet, her hair newly bleached and permed, my grandmother shook her open palms at those who spoke. ‘Enough,’ she said. ‘Words have a taste, just like food.’
A month before I had left I’d swallowed fistfuls of pills and at the hospital they pumped my stomach twice to get them out. I had taken them while in bed, had pulled the covers above my head and closed my eyes. Falling asleep I had seen a lionfish swimming among the corals, a koala perched on a eucalyptus tree. The air was clear, and I could breathe. I woke up in a hospital room filled with the smell of disinfectant and the sound of my parents’ screams. They yelled at doctors, at nurses, at me. ‘Please get better,’ they said. ‘Please make her better.’ As everyone else moved about the room in fevered frenzy, only my grandmother stood still, rubbing my feet with one hand and working her beads with the other. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘Hundreds of female names in our language, but ours means triumph and nothing else.’
When she died two years ago I sat near a drying river thousands of miles from home and tried to imagine what she was like as a girl. I had seen only a single photo from before she was married; already by then her eyes were those of a woman, an island in rolling ocean. She had been married at fifteen, had borne seven children before she was twenty-four. With her hands she had sorted a lifetime of rice and lentils, had gutted fish and deboned chicken. She knew how to upholster furniture and help grapevine spread and climb, how to cover bruises and scars so no one could see them, how to measure the value of her life and still rise.
They sleep, and in shadowed lands unsheathe their swords and thrust them at who comes. False warriors swathed in robes try to crush them with their stones, stab them with their daggers. But the morning star appears, flushes the sky a milky pearl and lights their way. The blood they draw is soiled but feeds the land. Clusters of acacia trees sprout and grow at their feet, their flowers shade them as the day grows hot. Three cranes, with black-tipped wings and bright red crowns, circle above them, exalted monarchs of their skies.
When they wake it is in gardens, labyrinthine and immense. Thick walls of boxwood keep them from seeing in any direction and they are not tall enough to peer over the edges. Instead they call to one another through the plants, follow each other’s footsteps as they fade. Though the road is sinuous, eventually they find its end, a sheer cliff’s edge that beckons them to fall. They retreat, some quicker than others, some lingering near the tip, considering the weightlessness of their bodies if they fall, the weight of them if they stay.
It is only when the first one tilts over, seemingly stumbles into air, that more approach. One by one now they jump, some with eyes closed and legs pulled up toward thumping chests; others with arms spread and flapping, voices echoing as they go. Some dive, headfirst, arms at their sides, bodies like arrows. At different speeds they descend, some directly down like raindrops, others more slowly, in smooth, undulating motion as if across invisible hills.
What do they see? A gazelle nursing a lion, a camel running through a valley, its face unbridled, its back unfettered, the air damp, clear.