Loreena Stanga talks lightness in Hanna Al Shaykh’s “The Keeper of the Virgins”

Hanna Al Shaykh’s, “The Keeper of the Virgins” follows an unnamed dwarf in a world that pities or scoffs at him. The dwarf meanders about his life, immersed in study, reflection and writing. Each day, he leaves his family home afoot and makes the two-hour trip to the convent with the hope of catching a glimpse of Georgette, a woman from whom he had developed a keen sense of companionship that lived within its walls. In desperation to live within the walls of the convent, where the “pure ones” live, the dwarf rushes past the gates to seize his opportunity while the Lord Bishop is paying his annual visit. The dwarf is well known to the nuns as they too observed the dwarf during his daily dedicated vigil outside the gates. To his surprise, upon his first introduction to the Lord Bishop and the convent, they accept the dwarf and offer him the position of Watchman. The dwarf’s family, who had previously only lent him grudging acceptance, realizes he does not return home. With the family fearing the worse, the brother travels to the convent in search of him. The dwarf speaks to his brother once, and only to confirm that he is well, even satisfied and welcomed. Inside the convent, he is accepted and given the unconditional manifestations of love from the nuns, which the outside world has never experienced.

The themes that Al Shaykh’s uses in this story deal with obsession and unconditional acceptance. After the dwarf’s entrance into the convent, the mother and brother begin to worry about his absence. They lament about how badly they had personally treated the dwarf, and the brother races to the convent in search of him. The new contrast, between the brother and the dwarf, is a parable-like conversion of worth. To his family, the dwarf was a burden, an embarrassment to his brother and his mother. Inside the walls, he finds his divine calling. He is successful in his endeavors to support the nuns in their devotion to Jesus, and this new purpose takes place of his previous obsession on the outside of the wall. Now he is fulfilled by an overwhelming sense of acceptance by his new family, the nuns. Inside the convent, his new life has brilliant color and divine purpose, something the dwarf was missing in the outside world.

Outside the gates of the convent, his family dwells near the gate in the same manner the dwarf did before. To stay within the confines of the convent, the dwarf must ignore the pleas of his family. His new fervent obsession with the nuns allows him to grow “used to the obligatory link being severed.” Italo Calvino argues the opposition between lightness and weight in his lecture series called Six Memos for the next Millennium. Calvino says, “I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structures of the stories.” This is a technique Al- Shaykh has accomplished with the disconnection of the dwarf from his family. Initially, the separation from his family was difficult, but the dwarf was able to recognize the darkness of the outside world. This world did not accept his ideas or his place in it without pity. This theme of acceptance is solidified further after the dwarf is shown the rotting corpse of someone unidentified in the story, but whom I believe is Georgette. His infatuation with Georgette moved him to travel to the convent each day. The realization of her death was softening by the senior nun’s reassurance that the dwarf had a divine purpose. Although the focal point of his obsession was lost forever, his new niche as the watchman provided him a sense of contentment of loving acceptance. The eerie transfer of obsession from the dwarf to his family allows the reader to have a sense of justification for the dedicated dwarf.

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