canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Death of Wasila 

by Ghassan Zeineddine

On a morning in late autumn, we found Wasila’s body hanging from the branch of an oak tree in the front courtyard of her house. She was swaying to the gusts of the north wind with a chirping songbird perched on her head. She wore a pink floral dress. Sunshine broke through the leaves and illuminated her face. Her round eyes were wide open, her tongue poking from her mouth. Her head was tilted to a side. A red rose lay on the ground beneath her suspended feet. It must have fallen from her hair.

In our village, which lies in the high reaches of Mount Lebanon and is surrounded by uninhabited mountains dense with pine trees, suicides aren’t common. Villagers either live to a ripe old age or they die young—a poor boy was once attacked by jackals in the forest and eaten whole. But we have few young folk. They’ve left our village to try their fortunes in the city by the sea, a city, we hear, which is inhabited by men and women of ill-repute. A city forsaken by God.

We, the matriarchs of the village, had been anticipating Wasila’s mental breakdown for a very long time. She came from a family notorious for its deranged women. Her grandmother, Lamise, had once been known to walk along the dirt roads conversing with invisible folk. She’d look to her right and left and carry on a fluid conversation. She’d have these conversations day and night, and eventually lost herself to one voice in particular, Scheherazade’s of The Thousand and One Nights. We heard she’d straddle a Persian carpet in the parlor, chanting Aladdin’s name and beseeching him to come and rescue her from the clutches of her terrible family. As we harvested our olives one sunny afternoon in October, Lamise took a rug from the foyer and climbed to the mountaintop and jumped off a steep precipice, expecting to fly through the clouds. We pictured her grinning wildly, her white hair streaming in the wind, when she hit her head on a rock and tumbled down the forest.

Wasila’s mother, Hafiza, confused us with her changing moods. One day she’d treat us to lunch or compliment us on our looks, and the next day, scream to the high heavens that we were all "daughters of whores."

She wrapped her skull with multiple veils to prevent dark angels from penetrating her thoughts. She also started smoking cigarettes and drinking glasses of potent arak until she passed out drunk like buck-toothed Shadi, our village’s lowlife. We once found her unconscious in a ditch down from the church, still clutching an empty liquor bottle. We snorted, appreciating the irony of the scene.

Hafiza joined a band of Eastern European gypsies one summer and was never heard from again.

Wasila was left alone with her father. Her father resorted to his life tendency, which was changing his profession with a frequency nearly matching change in weather. He had already been a plumber, stone layer, gardener, car salesman, glass-producer, landscaper, and factory assembler, but not one pursuit ever satisfied his dire need for success, his supposed "calling." He was squandering their savings by the day.

At school, Wasila was teased as a result of her deranged mother.

"We’re going to send you to the madhouse," boys and girls told her, "far, far away."

Wasila retaliated, but in a manner that only affirmed the students and the principal that she had inherited her mother’s madness. She chased the students with a stick while screaming at the top of her lungs like a crazed wolf.

Wasila’s face was chubby yet pretty: brown eyes and thick lips. She had her mother’s curly black hair, but also her wide hips and stubby legs. Her feet were as flat and wide as stone slabs. She tried to conceal her belly by wearing loose-fitting dresses. During recess, if the students weren’t taunting her, she sat under one of the pine trees in the schoolyard and lost herself in a book. She read anything she could get her hands on. She had a taste for romance novels and the poetry of Kahlil Gibran. She craved melodrama. When she was a teenager, we saw her sitting by her open window and looking out at the expanse of mountains and valleys bathed in moonlight. Was she praying to God to grant her a man? we wondered. But who would ever marry her with her family history?

We suspect Wasila’s dirty mind led to her madness. Many years ago, the gardener’s son, a skinny fifteen-year-old at the time, came over to Wasila’s house one afternoon to prune the branches of the walnut tree on the bottom terrace of the garden. He was at work, he told us, when Wasila walked down and offered him a glass of lemonade with orange-blossom water.

"She was drooling," the gardener’s son said. "I could tell she was after something.

"I climbed down the ladder and gulped the lemonade in one sip. A drop of juice trickled down my chin and neck. Wasila eyed the drop as it disappeared beneath my tattered shirt. I handed the empty glass back to her and was about to resume my work when she asked me if I had ever kissed a girl.

‘"I’ll only kiss my future wife," I said.

"She then grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me toward her.

‘"Close your eyes," she demanded.

"I did as I was told. I was frightened.

"She then kissed me, pushing her tongue inside my mouth. She wanted to swallow my throat! I remembered all those stories of the madwomen in Wasila’s family, and became terrified. What if I contracted her illness by kissing her? What if I woke up in the morning clawing at myself, or forgetting myself, or began singing like a crazy? I broke free, picked up my shears from the ground, and ran as fast as I could up the terraces and back to my home."

Wasila’s father eventually died from failure—all those jobs took a toll on him. After his funeral, Wasila began breeding cats in her madhouse. Close to fifty cats or more, of all different colors and breeds, lived inside the house, eating, drinking, urinating, purring, scratching, and copulating. Those damn cats kept us up at night with their shrill cries. They trailed Wasila like a swarm of bees. She spoke to them as if they were people. When we paid her a visit—to see if she had lost her mind—we sneezed the whole time.

Wasila was in her early thirties, around the same age as her mother when she went mad. She cleaned our houses for a living. Her spinsterhood had worn off her layers of fat and double chin and transformed her into a stout and weathered woman, palms calloused, premature wrinkles lined across her brow and puffy bags under her eyes. She rarely spoke to us, and when we continued to stare deeply into her eyes, she’d ignore us. But once, as we were having tea with semolina cake and watching Wasila scrub the tiled floor in the hallway, she stood up and yelled at us: "I’m not mad, and I’m never going mad."

"And if you do?"

"Then I’ll kill myself."

Wasila, we believe, went truly mad with the arrival of the Syrian peddler this past summer. His name was Mukram Maaleki. He was a young man who had left his parents and two younger sisters in Damascus in search of work to better support them. He crossed the ranges of Mount Lebanon in his mule-drawn cart bearing his wares and found our village on his way. He set up camp in a grove of pine trees off the main road. He was a short man with bristly red hair and deep blue eyes, the deepest blue we had ever seen.

"People say I have the Mediterranean in my eyes," he said.

We figured he had Crusader blood in him, that hundreds of years ago, some brute of a European on his way to sack Jerusalem must have thrown a poor village woman to the ground, ripped her dress apart, and raped her senseless, releasing his vermin seed into her and damning posterity with his impure blood, blood which the peddler had inherited. How else to explain his Western looks?

He was dressed in a dusty black, three-piece suit, and wore patent leather shoes. He smoked a pipe of bitter tobacco. He had a red rose in the lapel of his coat. A petal fell from the flower and floated upon a passing breeze. It landed in the hair of a boy with pimples.

"The petal will bring you plenty of luck with women," the peddler said. "So keep your eyes open."

We were unaccustomed to visitors. But the peddler enticed us with his wares. He displayed silver trinkets, bead necklaces, and chestnut jewelry boxes; watches, clocks, and hour-glasses; a store of medicinal herbs, teas, and perfumes; and his most prized products: glass swans the size of pears and vases painted in the colors of a rainbow with the scripture of the Qur’an carved on it. His merchandise was expensive, the damn crook, but we had never beheld such marvelous items. We bought what we could afford.

The peddler wasn’t only a businessman, or a gypsy for that matter. He was also a storyteller. He brought us news of the world, not only the real world but his imagined one as well. At times we were unable to differentiate the two. He spoke of murders, wars, and the hardships of loners. He recited romantic poems, too, including one by Gibran:

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his
pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him.
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

He also told us heartbreaking love stories which we had little patience for. He used such phrases as "I was mad with love," or "I was feverish with love," which reminded us of the madwomen of Wasila’s family. Then she appeared. She listened to the peddler’s stories as if transfixed by a spell. When his final story came to an end, she looked at the remaining artifacts and bought a vase.

The sun started to set. We prepared to return home.

"It’s time to leave," one of us whispered into Wasila’s ear. "It’s indecent for a woman to remain standing alone with a stranger."

"Get lost," she said.

"Only a madwoman behaves this way."

Wasila ignored us, and began conversing with the peddler. She ate him up with her hungry brown eyes.

Later that evening, we returned to the peddler’s camp and couldn’t believe our eyes. Making our way through the pine forest, we found the peddler and Wasila seated on the ground by a small fire. He was roasting potatoes. We hid behind the bushes and trees and tried to overhear their conversation, but the sounds of the pine branches and cones crackling in the fire drowned their words. After a while, we became tired and sleepy. We were suffering from an onslaught of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. But we remained in the shadows until the break of dawn, when Wasila finally decided to return home.

The peddler didn’t open for business until late in the afternoon. He put a kettle of coffee over the embers of his fire and lit his pipe. We shuffled through his leftover goods and came upon an herb labeled aphrodisiac.

"If you eat that herb," the peddler said, "you’ll live the rest of your life in the clouds."

We passed the herb among ourselves, inspecting its texture and smell, and then handed it to the peddler. We told him no thanks.

He then told us a story about the legendary figure of Antar and his battles in the deserts of Arabia .

"Antar was a dark-skinned slave of remarkable strength and valor," he said. "He was in love with his cousin Abla, a fair-skinned beauty. Abla’s father, a wealthy tribesman, prohibited the two from marrying because of Antar’s lowly origins.

"Antar fought with a broken heart," the peddler continued. "He wept as he butchered his enemies."

He also told us a folktale about a dwarf and his mistress that made us laugh. We were surprised at our reaction, and quickly covered our mouths.

We were listening to his tales when Wasila approached his cart carrying a pot in her hands. She placed it on the embers.

"For lunch," she told him. "Grape leaves and stuffed squash."

"You didn’t have to."

"I wanted to."

We looked at one another in shock. Had Wasila completely lost her mind? She was catering to a man she barely knew. To make things worse, she sat on a stool next to the peddler for the rest of the afternoon. We tried our best, through whispers and gestures, to instruct her to leave, but she remained put.

When the peddler had sold the last of his wares, he wiped his sweaty brow with the back of his hand and confessed that he had never before sold his goods in such record time. We wondered where he’d travel next. We assumed Damascus to restock his supplies, but to our horror he untied his mule from the tree, hitched it to the cart, and motioned for Wasila to join him up on his seat. With reckless abandon, she did, exposing her stubby legs in the process. She even hooked her arm with his. We followed them to Wasila’s house. The peddler had tied his mule to the oak tree in the front courtyard.

We stood outside by the dining room window, eying their every move. She fed him dinner and made him tea. We then tiptoed to another window that looked into the parlor. They sat together on the sofa until late in the evening. God knows what they talked about. He didn’t seem to mind her cats. Finally, she brought him a blanket and a pillow and turned off the lamp. He was soon snoring.

In the days that followed, Wasila didn’t report to work. But she and the peddler were seen together at the café in the souk, or in the woods picking wild flowers, or walking along the shallow river down in the valley. The two were inseparable, and they conversed in a secret language that none of us understood. We figured the peddler had taught her some gypsy talk.

The peddler bought Wasila a pink floral dress from the seamstress. It was long-sleeved and trailed down to her ankles. Unlike the dresses of her paunchy youth, the dress was a tight fit, showing, rather distastefully, the curves of her breasts and her wide hips. She wore the dress every Thursday, the day of the week the peddler arrived, to celebrate their union. She also wore a red rose in her hair to match the rose in his coat lapel.

At night they talked in the parlor, and one time, she slept in his arms on the sofa. We thought of tapping on the window to awaken her, but we didn’t want to expose ourselves. He had his arm over her breasts. We think he even slipped his hand underneath her blouse. On another night we saw them kiss, and we nearly died of shame. Now the peddler would spread rumors to the world that our women were loose and vulnerable. Droves of lecherous men would invade our village to satiate their sexual appetites.

One night we didn’t find either Wasila or the peddler on the sofa in the parlor. We walked from window to window, wondering where they could be hiding. And then we found Wasila in the bedroom, mounted on top of the peddler as naked as the day she was born, her breasts bouncing up and down, her hips moving to and fro. The peddler sat up, held her to him, and buried his face in her breasts. They screamed as loud as Wasila’s cats at night. The noises came to an abrupt end, replaced by whispers and silly giggles. We left Wasila’s house disgusted. We prayed that God would deliver her from her transgression.

We returned the next night, and the night after that. Our husbands complained about our absences, but we shut them up with cooked meals thick with melted lard. On those nights we found Wasila and the peddler engaged in the same fitful behavior, rocking back and forth on the bed like beastly animals. Finally, Wasila returned to cleaning houses. We thought of throwing her out of the village or refusing to employ her. However, she surprised us by being overly polite and amicable.

"You should visit me more often, perhaps for dinner," she suggested.

We grinned, thinking she was nearing a mental collapse. For as she washed the windows or scrubbed the floors or aired the laundry, she was always humming. Most unusual of all, she often laughed at nothing.

Over a big bowl of tabbouli, we discussed what to do with Wasila. We decided not to take action against her. We wanted to see how she’d lose her mind. Would she throw herself off a mountaintop or disappear into the sunset with a band of gypsies? we asked one another. Maybe she’d do something more demented.

While Wasila was at work, the peddler frequented the pool hall to play backgammon or billiards. Or he’d visit our homes and tell us more stories about his real and imaginary worlds. We were surprised at our hospitality. Once we even made him a tray of baklava. Our barber cut his hair for free. The tailor gave him a discount on two suits. The butcher sliced him the finest cuts of meat. Eventually, we thought it would be wise to warn him of Wasila’s family history. He listened to us without interruption and then said three words that left us in a state of disbelief: "I love her."

We could have sworn that on one night, as Wasila was mounting the peddler, she looked up from his chest and stared directly at us. We ducked and held our breath. We blamed one another for attracting Wasila’s attention. We then heard the two of them moaning, and soon the moaning turned into screaming. We peeked once again, and this time we saw her sucking on his middle finger as she continued to thrust her hips against his. Later, we saw her—God help us—sucking on his manhood. He stroked her curly hair as her head bobbed.

Wasila’s nightly activities weren’t only confined to the bedroom. We spotted them engaged in sexual intercourse on the kitchen counter, on the carpeted floor of the parlor, and by the stove in the winter room. One day, we found them in the shade of a weeping willow tree by the river. They were feeding each other grapes as they sat naked under the sloping branches. The peddler held a vine above her open mouth. She reached for it with her slimy tongue.

Time passed fitfully. The summer was almost over. The figs were still in bloom. The buds of apple trees were sprouting. We preserved vegetables and fruits in glass jars for winter, and cut logs of pinewood to last us through till spring. It was on a September morning that Wasila stormed into the souk and with a desperate look on her face asked villagers if they had seen the peddler.

"He should be with you, no?" we said.

"His mule and cart are still at my house. But he’s not. He seems to have disappeared into the wind."

She was crying and pulling on her hair.

We accompanied her from one side of the mountain to the other, in search of the peddler. If she found him, we wanted to be there. Our search proved futile. We were all sweaty and exhausted. Finally, at dusk, the peddler appeared on the main road. Wasila ran to him in tears.

"Mukram, where’ve you been?" she wailed.

"I went out for a walk."

"You left without telling me."

"I’m my own person, Wasila."

That night, Wasila and the peddler slept on the same bed, but with their backs turned to each other. We heard Wasila sobbing softly.

The following morning, we gathered at one of our homes to watch Wasila clean. She was silent and unresponsive. If we told her she had missed a dust spot on the window, she stared at us with murder in her eyes.

"What about that dinner?" we asked her. "The one you promised us."

"Cook for yourselves," she snapped.

Days later, Wasila had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes. She offered us butter cookies which she had baked that morning. Like her mother, we thought, she was turning into several different persons. We wondered if she’d start cussing at people.

"I made them especially for you," she said.

We peered into her eyes.

"I’m not mad," she chuckled. She was wearing the pink dress and had a red rose in her hair.

"Mukram and I are getting married, and you’re all invited to the wedding," she said.

The wedding was to be held on the last day of September at her house. Wasila promised to stage the best night of our lives. She and the peddler made arrangements with the carpenter to set up a huge tent in the courtyard for the guests. The peddler asked for musicians, but none of us played any instruments, let alone sang.

"I’ll play the derbake," he said, "and make you dance the dabké throughout the night."

Wasila and the peddler planned to roast six whole lambs, and to grille chicken and a horde of small birds. She requested from the florist bouquets of roses and jasmine for each table. She fitted herself for a wedding dress.

When we asked the peddler if his family from Damascus would attend the wedding, he said he’d stage another one in Syria .

"He’s probably embarrassed of Wasila," we said.

The carpenter constructed the tent. The day before the wedding, we were at home choosing our clothes for the celebration when we heard someone wailing on the road. We went outside and saw Wasila walking aimlessly. She had a letter in her hand. She handed the letter to us, pleading for an explanation.

The letter said:

Dear Wasila,

Please forgive me for leaving you. I might be a romantic, but I’m also a wanderer, a drifter, a loner. My home is the road. I wouldn’t have been able to make you happy.

I’ll savor our time together, the love we gave one another. You were very generous to me, perhaps too generous. At times I found your love overwhelming.

Don’t bother to look for me. You won’t find me. No one has, not even my family.

I’ll never forget you.


Mukram Maaleki

"I need to find him," Wasila said.

We told her the only place she’d find him was in the afterlife, assuming both of them reached it.

"But why did he leave me?"

We waved the letter in the air. "Didn’t you read it?"

"I don’t understand the letter. How can love be overwhelming? Isn’t that what people want? To be loved and cared for?"

"He was hiding his true reason for leaving you," we said. "He left because you’re mad. No one marries madwomen."

"He proposed to me. He spoke of raising children, of planting more fruits and vegetables in the garden, of traveling around the world and discovering new places, of—"

"What will you do about all the food you prepared?" we asked. "You don’t want it to go to waste."

She buried her face in her hands.

"Eat without me," she said.

And that’s exactly what we did. We went to Wasila’s house and finished roasting the lamb, and grilled the birds over a fire pit. We ate under the tent, gorging on the food until our bellies were full. We licked our greasy fingers between dishes and picked bits of food lodged in our teeth. We passed around jugs of wine to slack our thirst. Meanwhile, Wasila sat in a chair in a far corner, reading the letter. She must have read it a hundred times.

"The mad are terribly obsessive," we said, and then burped.

We could barely move from our chairs after the meal. We asked Wasila for coffee. She looked up from the letter and said, "Am I truly going mad? There’s an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach."

"It was only a matter of time," we said.

"But I was so happy. He made me happy."

"You were also mad when you were happy—humming all the time, laughing by yourself. It was very strange."

"I’ve never loved anyone before."

"He must have fed you those aphrodisiacs."

Wasila aged with each passing day. She lost weight. Her bones showed through her skin. She’d often weep as she worked. She’d also have outbursts where she’d start pounding her fists on the floor or against a wall.

"How could he leave me?" she’d cry. "I was so good to him. I loved him so much."

At her home she raved to her cats about the peddler. She’d curse him (using the same vulgar words that her mother had used as she smoked her cigarettes) and in the next moment, praise his graces.

We knew she had lost her mind for good. Things were about to get better or worse, depending on the way you looked at it.

On a morning in late autumn, Wasila didn’t report to work. We walked to her house and found her hanging from the branch of the oak tree, clothed in her pink dress, a red rose on the ground beneath her suspended feet. A blue songbird was chirping on the crown of her skull. It chirped incessantly, as if it was singing a song on Wasila’s behalf. It then spread its wings and flew between the branches and soared through the sky. We lost sight of it in the milky clouds.

We had to bury Wasila before her corpse started to smell. We had our men cut her down from the tree and lay her on the ground. Her open eyes and protruding tongue haunted us. She was staring directly at us. We covered her with a white sheet.

The men dug a hole in the garden. The carpenter brought over one of his pinewood coffins. Wasila was lifted and placed in the coffin. Some of her cats ran between our legs. We thought of throwing them inside the coffin with Wasila and nailing it shut, but decided against it at the last moment.

After the burial, we walked through the rooms of Wasila’s house, ruffling through her cabinets and drawers, in search of nothing in particular. She had hundreds of books in her bedroom. We read a few of the titles—Lamya’s Love, Lovers in the Levant , The Lebanese Stallion—and rolled our eyes. In the parlor we saw one of the peddler’s vases on a coffee table reflecting multi-colored light. Beneath it was a letter. We opened it and saw it was addressed to us.

The letter said:

I have decided to take my life because it has become intolerable. I’ve been struck by an illness that has left me miserable. I wake up in the mornings with unbearable anguish. I can barely sleep at night. I have nightmares in which Mukram is leaving me, riding his mule-drawn cart into the distance.

This illness has made me lonelier. My cats lick me, but they can’t heal my woes. I don’t want to live alone anymore, not after experiencing the days filled with love I spent with Mukram. I will only get worse, so I’m leaving this sad world before I do.

As for my house and belongings, I bequeath them to you. My only request is that you feed the cats.

So long,


We folded the letter and placed it beneath the vase. In the future, if anyone had any questions about the origins of this house, a house of madwomen, they’d be able to read the letter.

Dusk was upon us. The north wind was blowing hard, chilling us to the bone. We returned to our homes and lit fires in our stoves. Later that night, we heard the sound of children crying on the main road. When we walked outside, we saw Wasila’s cats, dozens of them, meowing to the whistling of the wind. They were calling for Wasila.

But she was gone.


Ghassan Zeineddine writes: I teach academic and creative writing at The American University of Beirut. I am a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University. I am currently working on my first novel set in Beirut in the 1960s. 





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