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The Palm House

The Palm House

Tarek Eltayeb
Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Palm House
    Book Description:

    After coming to Vienna from Sudan to win a better life for himself, Hamza struggles to escape from the margins of society and the stigma of the immigrant. Following several years of hardship, his fortunes begin to change when he meets Sandra, a young Austrian woman, who shows him the Palm House. In this famous Viennese greenhouse, the frost of Hamza’s heart begins to thaw, and he slowly opens himself to Sandra, revealing his bitter yet beautiful past in Sudan and beyond. This masterful novel draws on the 1001 Nights as well as Sudanese folk traditions, and demonstrates the remarkable power of storytelling to overcome even the most dire circumstances. Critically acclaimed across the Arab world, this novel can be read on its own, or as a sequel to Eltayeb’s first novel, Cities without Palms (AUC Press, 2009).

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-161-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. 1
    (pp. 1-18)

    Poor cities are more merciful to the poor and the destitute than wealthy ones. In poor cities, everyone is equally impoverished, and there are no contrasts to show the destitute just how far down life’s ladder they actually are. Wealthy cities, however, are excessive in their cruelty, for they allow the rich to flaunt the luxuries that others cannot afford. In these cities, you often hear sentences that begin with the words “we’ve got” or “you’ve got.” People like me, people who have so little warmth and so little joy in their lives, feel this cruelty, this great gap, even...

  3. 2
    (pp. 19-37)

    On the last steps of the narrow spiral staircase leading to the fifth floor, my paper shopping bag finally breaks. I had been pressing it tightly against my chest, worried that this would happen. There was a very light drizzle the whole way home, so light that I did not think to open my umbrella, but I was quickly soaked to the bone. I shifted the heavy and overloaded bag from one arm to the other every hundred meters or so, but when I realized that it was almost as soaked as I was and was about to tear, I...

  4. 3
    (pp. 38-61)

    I draw my ‘devil’s’ hand to my nose to smell that soothing fragrance with which I perfumed it before heading out. It makes me feel as if I’m walking in a veil of enchantment. It’s like a drug that gently draws me into distant worlds, into the past. Hakima curls herself up at my chest and falls asleep on her side. I open my coat up a bit for her—it’s warm here.

    I’m here again, after just a few days’ absence: here at the Palm House.

    I seem to be addicted to this place. It’s becoming the wellspring of...

  5. 4
    (pp. 62-86)

    When I wake from my dream, the sun has disappeared entirely. Hakima is restlessly shifting about, and I can tell that she wants to move. I get up sluggishly. The dream weighs heavily on me here in the Palm House. As Hakima and I leave, I call Sandra from a phone booth at the outer gate. She’s happy to hear from me, but I don’t say much because I prefer listening to her voice. After she asks me how I’m doing and what I’m up to, her first questions—as usual—are about Hakima. She asks what Hakima has done...

  6. 5
    (pp. 87-104)

    My absurd work selling papers ends at ten o’clock, and I leave this place where I’ve almost frozen solid. I ride the tram two stops to Kagran. Inside the tram, I take off my coldKronejacket and put it in a different bag, and then count the unsold papers that I’ll be returning to the man we call “the paper boss” at the station. He too counts them, discovering that there are ten unsold newspapers too many, and says that he can only buy five from me. I wait for my colleagues to return, hoping to find someone whose...

  7. 6
    (pp. 105-118)

    Hakima has everything she needs in Sandra’s apartment. I ask her if I can take a quick bath, and she reproaches me for asking, saying that this is my home too. When I get out of the bath she surprises me: she’s prepared the table with the delicate touch of an artist. There are two roses in a small vase at the middle of the table, beside a beautiful blue candle she has lit. She opens a bottle of red wine from the Krems region for us. The sight of her face partially covered by her hair in the quivering...

  8. 7
    (pp. 119-137)

    I draw Sandra closer to me, pressing our bodies together. I seem to have tired her out with my story. There’s a look of purity to her face as she sleeps, and I catch a final glimpse of it as the candle goes out, melted away, after having performed the most exquisite of its tasks. I sink into a wholesome sleep with Sandra’s breath on my face. That night I sleep as never before, deliciously exhausted. I sleep naked for the first time in my life, and the amazing thing is that I’m doing it in the middle of winter....

  9. 8
    (pp. 138-157)

    At the thought of my sandals descending from the sky, Sandra laughs until tears start streaming down her face, and I laugh with her. Hakima pounces onto the bed, as if to join us in our laughter. She meows in that loud familiar way of hers.

    “Maybe she’s hungry?” Sandra asks me.

    “No, I don’t think so. She always acts like this whenever I start laughing.”

    “What do you think she wants?”

    “Maybe she wants me to keep laughing. Or maybe she wants me to stop!”

    Sandra laughs again and strokes Hakima’s soft fur. Hakima purrs and turns herself round...

  10. 9
    (pp. 158-178)

    It’s almost eleven o’clock. I head with Sandra toward Burggasse—the name means ‘castle alley,’ despite the fact that it’s a long, broad street. I put my arm around her waist and feel her sun-like warmth flow into my fingers. As she too puts her arm around my waist, she repeats her question, “Will you come back to the apartment with me? It’s close.”

    “I’ve got to get up early tomorrow for my damned work.”

    “Why don’t you go straight there in the morning from my place?”

    “My jacket’s at my apartment, and the rest of my stuff too.”


  11. 10
    (pp. 179-196)

    The days and weeks go by pleasantly. Sandra and I meet occasionally at my place, and more often at the Palm House, and most of the time at Sandra’s. One Friday I leave Hakima at Sandra’s. We’ll be meeting at the Palm House in the afternoon. Once again, I’m filling in for a coworker of mine who distributes flyers at people’s homes. As my luck would have it, it’s a rainy day. I drag along the heavy trolley filled with flyers, which I’ve covered with plastic because of all the rain, and distribute them around a large residential neighborhood that...

  12. 11
    (pp. 197-215)

    The weather’s improving, and that beautiful summer that I love begins. I can take off some of these heavy clothes now; and by telling my story to Sandra, I can also peel off many of the burdens of my past life. The Palm House becomes my favorite place to tell her most of it, this soothing place that has returned the balance to my life after many long years where I had no faith in anything at all in the world. Life is good with Sandra and Hakima beside me.

    I call Amm Rikabi about once a month to ask...

  13. 12
    (pp. 216-243)

    As I lie on the bed, all these events from the past run through my mind. I can’t stop the memories from coming and going as they please. Hakima is looking for a comfortable nook beside me to finish her nap. People and places flow through my mind in quick succession. The loud siren of a passing ambulance fills the room, and its flashing blue lights flicker for a moment on the roof. At that instant, I try to focus on the difference between the sound of an ambulance and that of a police car. Suddenly, I remember I have...

  14. 13
    (pp. 244-262)

    The Christmas holidays are just a few days away, and the city looks completely different now, and is much more lively than usual. Many Christmas markets have opened up, and the smell of steaming mulled wine is all over the place. The people seem different now too: they’re more liberal in their greetings, but also more stressed. Everyone’s walking around with enormous shopping bags, and there are crowds everywhere, and lots of traffic jams. The stores are all decked out in bright colors and lights, and people are hoping for snow during the holidays.

    Sandra is busy getting gifts ready...

  15. 14
    (pp. 263-286)

    This is the last call for Egypt Air flight 802 to Cairo. All passengers should proceed to Departure Gate A immediately.” The weather outside the airport is cloudy and rainy. The announcement of the last call fades away. Completely drenched, the cat shivers pitifully.

    I open the door of the apartment and walk inside; I am surprised that Hakima doesn’t rush at me like she usually does. I take off my shoes and hear a faint movement behind the closed living room door—I thought I had left it open in the morning. It’s three in the afternoon, and Sandra...

  16. Glossary
    (pp. 287-294)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 295-296)