Monthly Archives: June 2013

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk: Book I of the Cairo Trilogy

I suppose it is impossible to pick up a Mahfouz book without unrealistically high expectations: he won the Nobel Prize (and gave this beautiful acceptance speech), is commonly regarded as the creator and foremost practitioner of the contemporary Arab novel form, and to top it all, my translation’s blurb compares him to Flaubert, Balzac and Proust. Well, Palace Walk does not disappoint. It is the story of an Egyptian family, set in Cairo during the years 1917 – 1919, the time of the First Egyptian Revolution – and its signal achievement, in my opinion, is how it infuses into a simple narrative, different layers and levels of meaning, complex but never abstruse, intertwined but never dense. The trials and tribulations of the al-Jawad family come to stand for not only the turmoil in Egypt at that crucial historical moment, but also speak to more universal and timeless themes such as authority and power, the workings of ideology, the societally-imposed relations between the sexes, and so on. It is this, its broad horizon, as well as – simultaneously – its great depth – that makes Palace Walk a unique and fascinating work of literature.

Al-Sayid Ahmad Abd Al-Jawad is a prosperous shopkeeper, living with his large family upon the Palace Walk street in Cairo. A philanderer, a drinker and a carouser out of doors, he nevertheless imposes upon his own household – his wife Amina, his four sons and his two daughters – an iron regime of discipline, sobriety and restraint, subject to his own ultimate authority. So successful is his imposition, that his family members obey him not only out of fear, but out of love, admiration and respect as well. In Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the old servant Firs has been so thoroughly indoctrinated, that he considers the emancipation of the serfs to be a disaster, and yearns for the “good old days” when people admired their lords and masters; al-Jawad’s family is a household of Firs, especially his wife Amina, who considers it entirely natural – and even right – that her husband carry on a series of illicit sexual affairs behind her back, while confining her for twenty years to the same house. As the events of the book unfold, al-Jawad’s actions towards his family grow progressively more tyrannical, arbitrary and egregious: he reject his son Fahmy’s request to marry a girl he is in love with; he rejects a proposal for his younger daughter Aisha from a man she is in love with, on the ground that until her elder sister, Khadija, is married, she will not be – but promptly gives her away when a new proposal comes from a family of prestige and honour; when his wife dares to travel out of the house to visit the nearby shrine while he is away on business, al-Jawad, on his return, throws her out of the house. At each stage, we feel that the breaking point has come at last – that this, this muse be the point of revolt, because surely nobody can bear this without their blood boiling over – but at each stage, the household submits, and not only out of fear and with resentment (which would be understandable), but with a sense of conviction, and with continuing and undiminished love and admiration for the patriarch. It is a chilling reminder – through everyday events of marriage, births, coffee evenings in the family living room – about how ideology can reduce human beings to becoming willing – and even joyous – participants in their own slavery and servitude, as long as they can be convinced that it is both right and for their own good, a good they could not achieve if they were to take the risk of thinking for themselves.

If most of al-Jawad’s family provides us with a poisonous draughts of the stifling, suffocating force of norms and tradition, then the youngest son, Kamal, all of ten years old, is our heady antidote. Whereas the rest of them – and especially Amina – impress upon us how ideology can turn the most contingent of human arrangements into immutable and unquestionable background truths about the very nature of existence, Kamal on the other hand, with his incessant questioning, reminds us that even our universals are never beyond challenge. For example, his intervention in a conversation about marriage, after Amina observes, as an aside, that marriage is the inevitable fate of all human beings:

Kamal had been following the conversation with interest, and at this point his shrill voice rang out, asking unexpectedly, “Mother, why is marriage the fate of every living creature?”

His mother ignored his question. The only response he received was a loud laugh from Yasin.

And later, in his own dreams of playing god, this is what he wishes “for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged” – a striking contrast to the repeated invocations of God’s mercy and forgiveness for all kinds of sins, real and imagined, that occur throughout the book. Kamal’s utter and willful failure to understand marriage, religion – and even, later on, the nationalist revolution, when he befriends the British officers besieging their street – has great comic effect, but also, more deeply and disturbingly, reminds us that for a mind free of ideological trappings, these institutions may appear arbitrary and absurd.  

So, while at one level, the relationships between the members of al-Jawad’s family reflect those  eternal themes of the human condition – power, dominance, ideology and human responses to all of these – at a more concrete level, it is a critique of societies that treat women like chattel; societies far removed enough from our own to seem like parodies or caricatures, and yet, not quite so alien as to be unrecognisable. Here again, Mahfouz paints subtle strokes, revealing so much through a single, striking image than by descriptions of events. This picture, for instance, of Amina turning back as she steels herself to venture out into the world (on the way to the shrine at the other end of the street) is unforgettable, and in its own way says more then all accounts of al-Jawad’s behaviour towards the female members of his household:

She stopped for a moment before plunging into the alley. She turned to look at her latticed balcony. She could make out the shadows of her two daughters behind one panel. Another panel was raised to reveal the smiling faces of Fahmy and Yasin. 

As the book progresses, al-Jawad’s philandering lifestyle gradually unravels before his sons even as they grow to manhood – matching, in perhaps some way, the rise of the Egyptian nationalist revolutionary movement against British colonial rule. And when the British besiege Palace Walk, and the family is confined to the home, it is Yasin’s personal frustration that clearly comes to stand for the frustration of a nation that, as it labours under colonial yoke, modernity seems to be irrevocably passing by:

Today he felt depressed and humiliated, forcibly and tyrannically separated from the flow of time which was plunging ahead outside the house with its many pleasures. He was like a branch that turns into firewood when cut from the tree.

The last line could, with nothing more, refer as much to Egypt under the protectorate as it does to Yasin and his private sorrow.

Al-Jawad’s son, Fahmy, in the middle of his law studies, is caught up utterly in the revolution, putting him at odds with the rest of the family, who are both ignorant and either do not care or are openly hostile towards his participation in it – and it is from Fahmy’s perspective that the story is told. Mahfouz’s treatment of the revolution is interesting and complex. Like Milan Kundera, he is under no illusions about the nature of the attraction that revolution holds for youth:

A person forgets himself in a crowd of people. He rises above himself. What are my personal ambitions? Nothing. How my heart is pounding.

And, as Yasin astutle points out to Fahmy:

You seem to have been waiting all your life for a movement like this to throw your heart into it. 

Yet neither is Mahfouz as cynical about revolution as Kundera is:

If the awesome upheaval had not occurred, Fahmy would have perished from grief and distress. He could not have stood for life to continue on in its calm, deliberate way, treading beneath it the destinies and hopes of men. The upheaval had been necessary in order to relieve the pressure in the nation’s breast and in his own. 

And in his authorial voice, there is a sense of the oceanic feeling that revolution brings with it; muted, self-aware and critical, but present. So it is perhaps fitting that a successful revolution – but accompanied by personal tragedy – is what brings the curtain down upon this book. You feel that it could have been the only possible ending to this work, that effortlessly combines so much personal detail on the one hand, and world-historical events on the other, into one continuous canvas.

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Filed under Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz, Uncategorized

“This world is an orphanage for fallen stars”: narrative, war and orientalism in Ismail Kadare’s “The Siege”

A few months ago I read – and was utterly bewitched by – Ismail Kadare’s beautiful and complex explorations into oral epic and national culture in the wonderful The File on H (reviewed here). The Siege continues with some similar themes, dealing with the intertwined relationships between myth, war, history and the construction of a national narrative. Brilliant as Kadare is at this, The Siege also has, I believe, some serious problem: both in terms of its formal characteristics as a work of literature and, insofar as the two can be separated, its politics – problems that undermine its value as a work of art. So let me try to explain.

The Siege is a novel about an Ottoman Army’s attempts to besiege and capture an unnamed borderland Albanian fortress, at an unnamed time. Somewhere towards the end of the book, the army’s architect is called away to the capital to prepare for the assault on Constantinople; since Constantinople fell in 1453, we can fix the approximate date of events as 1450, which would put it right in the middle of the Ottoman Empire-Albania wars, about twenty years before the ultimate defeat of the Albanian kingdom. What is particularly interesting about The Siege is that the story, written by an Albanian writer, writing at the time of a fever pitch of nationalism (the 1960s, during the height of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime), is nonetheless told from the point of view of the Turks, the invading army – in particular, from the perspective of the Turkish chronicler, Mevla Celebi, and detailing – apart from the events of the siege – the interactions and conversations between a few of his close friends in the army. The perspectives of the Christian soldiers in the fortress are, on the other hand, told through the account of one unnamed warrior, occurring as brief, one-page interludes between chapters. Ostensibly, then, this is about the war as seen by the separate, individual participants of one side – the side that the reader is not expected to sympathise with, either in the abstract, or in the concrete context of the writing of this novel. That, in itself, makes it unique.

The first, striking thing that one must mention about Kadare, I suppose, is his use of language. His use of adjectives and verbs to establish image and atmosphere is brilliant. In particular, it is the economy and precision of his language – and the corresponding swiftness and accuracy of the vision that it imposes upon the reader’s mind – that is particularly worthy of comment. “A faint glow,” he tells us, was “leaking out of the tents.” Banners “swim like flotsam over the turbid ocean of soldiers.” There are people who are “craftsmen in the rotting and corroding of nations.” And this, one of the best descriptions of a battle-scene that I have read, astoundingly effective in its very sparseness and brevity:

A thick pall of yellowish dust obscured parts of the tableau from time to time, just as it revealed others more horrible as it slowly moved away on the wind.

Demystification seems to be a common theme with Eastern European writers, living as they did under brutal Stalinist regimes that depended, for their survival, on maintaining false consciousness through myth, allegory and narrative. Many passages in The Siege are strongly reminiscent of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. While Kundera wants to demystify love and revolution, Kadare’s theme is war. As Mevla watches war preparations at the beginning of the siege, he thinks to himself that “… no chronicle ever mentioned the tying and untying of soldiers’ backpacks. As for flea-hunting, that was never spoken of either… pay was also never mentioned in that kind of narrative.” This theme is repeated throughout the novel. Beautiful images of the army are turned into the language of flotsam and jestam. And right at the very end, when an attempt to take the fortress by introducing the plague into it through infected animals has failed, the doctor tells Mevla, with some degree of bitterness:  “I’m sure you’ll manage not to write about rats in your chronicle” – accepting, as it is, the fact that chronicles and accounts portray an aestheticised, romanticised vision of war that is fundamentally at odds with the grimy, dirty business that it actually is. Kadare is unsparing even in death: as the commander goes to his, “he would have liked to have thought a sublime thought, but he could not.” War is ignominious – and so is death.

Much like in The File on H, Kadare is at his best when dealing with how myth and narrative intertwine with politics and the construction of a national identity. As the siege wears on, the Turks wonder why the Albanians – led by their charismatic and mysterious leader, Skanderberg – are bent upon a resistance that is so evidently futile. Not so the Quartermaster-general of the Turkish army, who understands Skanderberg’s motivations only too well:

“He’s in the process of achieving an uncommon exploit… an extraordinary exploit… just now I was telling you about the heavens where people put their relics for safekeeping… well, as from now, that man is aiming for the heavens… I don’t know if you get my meaning. He’s trying to create a second Albania, outside anyone’s reach, a kind of immaterial Albania. So that when one day this Albania, the terrestrial one, falls to the Empire, that other, ghostly Albania, its shadow-self, will go on wandering among the clouds… do you see what I mean? He’s devoted himself to a task which almost nobody has ever thought of before… how to reuse a defeat. Or, to put it another way, the eternal recycling of defeat in battle… you see Mevla, he’s trying to oblige us to fight his shadow. To vanquish a ghost, so to speak, the image of his own defeat. But how can you overcome a defeat, a rout? It’s like trying to hollow out a ravine. It already is hollow! You could make no different to it, whereas you could yourself fall into it…” 

The idea, of course, is that resistance – even futile, doomed resistance – engenders a narrative that exists parallel to physical conquest, and is bound to outlast it. Almost perversely, it is the inevitability of conquest and the futility of physical resistance that ensures that the narrative itself is more tightly-knit, stronger and built to endure for longer. And it is that narrative that creates something that did not exist before it, before its own creation out of an unequal battle – an Albania that goes beyond physical borders, rocks, trees, stones, rivers, an agglomeration of human beings – but rather, an Albania that exists in legends, stories and songs, a collection of narratives bound together by the common theme of resisting an invincible enemy, a theme that coheres and unites them, and constructs a unified Albania – an Albania that, because it only exists in the collective mind of the people (a collectivity that in itself has come into being because of the way that the narrative has been shaped out of communal resistance) is, by its very nature, indestructible. The Quartermaster-General understands precisely what is at stake, therefore, when he speaks of their plans after completing the physical conquest:

“We will leave the people their faith. As for their language, for the time being we will only prohibit it from being written down.”

Because language, of course (not religion, but language) – and, in particular, written language is what ensures the continuity and coherence of the narrative, and thus, in turn, the continued indestructibility of Albania, dormant but not dead, only suppressed until the time comes when the physical conditions are right once more. As the Quartermaster-General points out, that is the only way in which Skanderberg can win – with a timeframe that spans generations:

For the moment he is dragging Albania into the abyss, believing that he is making his nation unattainable, in his own image, by making it also pass out of its own time, into another dimension. He may well be right. It would be pointless for us to try to separate Skanderberg from Albania. Even if we wanted to we would not be able to do it… what he’s working towards is to give Albania a cloud of invulnerability, to give it a form which casts it up and beyond the vicissitudes of the present – a metaform, it I may say, which makes it able to resucitate… he is trying to crucify Albania, as their God was crucified, so that like Christ, Albania will be resurrected. He doesn’t care whether it is on the third day, the third century, or the third millennium after his death… what matters is his vision of the future.

So, just as the very crucifixion of Christ ensured his immortality by ensuring the construction of a myth around his person, so too does the (physical) crucifixion of Albania in battle ensure its own survival until the time of resurrection.

One last point about the positive qualities of this book ought, I believe, to be mentioned: the details of the siege are meticulously – even painstakingly – researched, and presented with a fine attention to detail. As a piece of military history, it makes for fine reading.

Now, on to the problems. The most glaring, in my opinion, is the characterisation (or lack thereof). At no point, it seems to me, thus Kadare attempt to make us care about his primary characters. We are not told their back-stories. We are told very little about their thoughts and perceptions outside of their observations of the siege, and themes associated with that. They are, of course, individuals – make no mistake about that – but individuals with whom it is very difficult to sympathise, whose tragedies it is difficult to be moved by, whose joys it is nearly impossible to share in, because we simply do not know them well enough to feel for them. Perhaps that is the idea – again, considering the context – but it makes for bad novelistic practice, especially because the event itself (a military siege) is fairly commonplace (unless you’re a historically -inclined Albanian with a nationalistic streak).

But now, onto a more serious problem. Kadare’s work betrays, at many points, a near-shockingly uncritical application of some of the most common Orientalist tropes. The work of Edward Said, in particular, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, provides a particularly acute critical vision. To the most serious charge that Said lays against the Orientalists, Kadare is not guilty – he does not reduce his orientals to a nameless, faceless mass – his story does have individuals (not very well-drawn individuals, as I suggested above, but individuals nonetheless). But that is where the good news ends. Viciousness, cruelty, tyranny, irrationalism, unpredictably and mysticism – all qualities attributed to the “East”, as Said demonstrates, in order to contrast it to the more Occidental – and perceivedly superior – qualities such as rationality, self-discipline, enlightened free thought – are in full play. The pre-War battle dance of the dervishes is described with all the fascinated horror of a Richard Burton in Mecca; show-trials and random executions, expressly for the purpose of maintaining army morale, become more and more frequent as time goes on, with the express involvement of some of the most sympathetic and intelligent Turk characters, such as the Quartermaster-General (compare this, for instance, with how two of the Christian soldiers are only sent to jail for raising their weapons against each other right in the middle of the siege). The strict hierarchical nature and instances of personal tyranny abound; it is no surprise, therefore, that there comes a time when the mask falls, and we find this statement:

“What we saw spread out beneath us was Asia in all its mysticism and barbarity, a dark grave ready to swallow us all.”

This could be right out of a Said book, the part where he demonstrates through examples. Of course, one may argue that this is actually said by one of the Chritisn soldiers, and Kadare in no need subscribe to this view – but much like the similar response made to claims of Joseph Conrad’s racism, the critical point is that Kadare makes absolutely no effort to dissociate the writer’s voice – his own voice – from the expression of such opinions, and such absence must be taken to mean at least implied, tacit support. And such a crude usage of the most unsubtle of orientalist tropes makes for, I think, a serious weakness in the book as a whole.

Nonetheless, and despite such misgivings – the book is most certainly worth a read – especially after The File on H.

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Filed under Albania, Edward Said, European Writing, Ismail Kadare, Postcolonial Theory

“If men believe that they’ll outlive an empire, they will.”: Ibrahim Nasrallah, “A Time of White Horses”

History records that about four hundred Palestinian villages were obliterated during the war of 1948, the nakba. Ibrahim Nasrallah’s A Time of White Horses is a story of one such village, the village of Hadiya, through the first half of the 20th century. It is the story of a community living upon the precariously shifting sands of an ever-changing world, first under the Ottoman Empire, then under the British Mandate, and finally through the conflagration of 1948. At one level,  it is a simple narrative of individual human lives, loves and sacrifices, turning upon the cycle of seasons, centred upon the near-mythological figure of the horse in Palestinian consciousness; but by the closing of the day, it comes to stand for something much more – the collective story of a nation, of dispossession, loss, resistance and – ultimately – exile. If men believe they’ll outlive an empire, they will – says one of the characters in the middle of the book, when everything yet hangs in the balance, and hopes of a happy ending have not yet entirely been dashed. Yet Nasrallah does not allow us to have the comfort of believing in that aphorism. Rather, we’re left with a bleak, despairing sense of inevitability, forced to believe, rather, in the truth of the opposite sentiment, voiced by the father of the young Yasmin, as he is persuading her to break off her engagement to a revolutionary: “Empires survive longer than people do. And this Empire is here to stay.

The tale is simple enough. Hadiya, a Palestinian village, struggles to remain independent through the successive depredations visited upon it by the Ottomans, the British, and the Jewish settlers. At the same time, individual sagas unfold, stories of love, marriage, conflict and family, centred upon the figure of the revolutionary Khaled and his white mare Hamama, stories depicting the relationship of the Palestinians with their land, with their horses, and with each other.

Much like the writing of Ghassan Kanafani and Elias Khoury, Nasrallah weaves in the Palestinian story into the warp and woof of his work. His individual stories are pregnant with the vocabulary of parting, rife with the language of loss. The tone is set at the very beginning, when a beautiful – stolen – white mare arrives upon the borders of Hadiya. “There’s no protection,” says Khaled to the thief, “For someone who does nothing to protect a free spirit.” Horses, that play a crucial role in for two-thirds of the book, as poignantly real as human characters, intervening in the lives of people in the most intimate way imaginable – come to symbolise the sense of freedom and refusal to submit that marks the village of Hadiya in its long story of resistance. Yet closely bound up with that is an ever-present sense of fragility; just like a horse, utterly beautiful and yet so easy to lose, freedom too can be lost in the blink of an eye. “Hajj, do you know what it’s like to search for something you love for thirty years and never find it?” – Shaykh Sa’adat asks Hajj Mahmud, referring to another of his horses, and the question resounds with overtones and undertones. And, as the story wears on, as the years draw on inexorably towards 1948, the horses begin gradually to fade from the stage into irrelevance, ending with the shooting of the white mare Hamama – and with their passing, there is an inevitable sense of the passing of all things, of Palestine and of the homeland.

The language of loss is especially striking in the depiction of the passionate – yet doomed – love affair between Khaled and Yasmin, doomed because of Khaled’s determination to take on “the Empire… that is here to stay.” (Contrast this with the story of Yunis and Nahila in Gate of the Sun). Khaled becomes a revolutionary, their engagement is broken off, and Yasmin is married to someone else. When Khaled meets her next, he is bringing back the body of her husband, slain in battle.

She was like a beautiful edifice that had been abandoned, with nothing in it but the spiders that kept multiplying to fill the corners. 

This reminded me strongly of my own visit to the village of Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the last surviving Palestinian village whose inhabitants were forced to flee, and never returned – ruined structures now prey to creeping nature and to the animals, with an overwhelming sense of melancholy and loss. Abandoned buildings, once beautiful, once home remain one of the enduring images of the Palestinian experience of 1948 (recall Kanafani’s scene of the abandonment of Haifa in Returning to Haifa), so much so that the “key” – carrying with it the right of return – is now one of the most potent symbols of Palestinian resistance. But there is something more to it – by virtue of original abandonment, that which has been abandoned is lost permanently. So:

It was the final meeting, which had been necessary in order for her to realize that she had lost Khaled forever, just as he realized that he had lost her forever.”

And once again, I am reminded strongly of Returning to Haifa, where the Palestinian family comes back after ’67 to visit their old home, and realise that the Palestine that they knew and preserved in their dreams all through the long years of exile is lost irrevocable, was lost at the moment of departure.

He looked at the handkerchief again. He thought of casting it to the wind so that it would carry it wherever it wished, or maybe even return it to her. 

There is an ambivalence here, an ambivalence that runs through Kanafani and Khoury as well, the ambivalence of defining oneself in relation to the lost homeland, and by extension, defining the homeland as well: a fixed, unchanging image of what was once was and what now can never be, or – as Yunis shouts so memorably in Gate of the Sun, accepting that “the homeland is us!” The ambivalence is depicted, as well, in the attitude of Mahmud, who leaves Hadiya to become a journalist in Jaffa. Can you give me an ending without an ending?, he asks; An ending that’s a beginning? A beginning whose ending is a beginning?… the greatest kind of ending… an ending and a beginning at the same time.

If the language of loss has come to define the Palestinian experience in some of its best writings, then so has the language of violence. As with Kanafani, Nasrallah uses well-known metaphors, but draws them out, heightens them, intensifies them. On being told by his new wife that she will never be hers until he succeeds in mounting her murdered husband’s horse, Habbab feels as though:

“An eerie tremor went through him like a fine blade… he felt it reach the centre of his chest, then splinter into smaller blades that spread through his entire body.”

Similar metaphors are scattered throughout the book. But as the story progress towards nakba, the symbolism begins to reduce. It is almost as if the events that now grip Hadiya are too powerful, too serious, too overwhelming to be captures by abstractions. The imagery grows more direct now, more closely linked to the event itself. Standing in the woods after a disastrous battle, Khaled’s thoughts grow melancholy:

He gazed for a long time into the ravine, and as he did so, it seemed to him that the earth was nothing but a deep ravine in the universe, a ravine hard for human brings to climb out of. Some of us manage to get as far as a treetop. Some of us make it halfway up. Some of us get to the top of the mountain. Some of us try to get out by riding in an airplane, or on a fast horse, or by  car or train. But nothing comes of any of our attempts. We’re in the ravine, at the bottom of the universe, and we have to make the decisions that make us feel that we’ve risen higher than an airplane or become faster than a horse, a car or a train, that we’re about to reach the edge and ascend into the heavens. 

And of course, this is a metaphor too, but this metaphor is grounded in rifles, dust and blood. No more so than when the monastery betrays the trust of the people of Hadiya by launching an audacious land-grab, having hidden away the title deeds that were entrusted to their safe-keeping – the (still temporary) loss of Hadiya does indeed stand for the loss of Palestine, in every way the following paragraph describes, but it hits harder because there is actual loss that is serving as the metaphor:

The Court’s ruling told them that their memories were nothing but dreams, that their dreams were illusions, and that the afflictions they had suffered and the sacrifices they had made in order to keep this land had all been in vain. They realized that they were being stripped of the shovels with which they had dug, the scythes with which they had harvested, the horses they had lived with through the bitter and the sweet, the cows they had milked, and the flocks they had kept vigil over in open fields to protect them from death and the jaundice of the dry seasons.

And in the final attack upon Hadiya, a man stands “in front of a demolished building and a no-longer-existent door… waiting.” Kanafani said, memorably, that the plight of the Palestinian people was like standing upon a deserted shore, waiting for a boat that would never come. The parallels are stark, but here there is a real demolished building, and a real interminable wait because, as we have learnt, “the silence [has] explodednever to return.”

And it is at the very end, with the closing of the book, that the last of the metaphors lodges in the brain as powerfully as a memory. As the village of Hadiya burns behind them, as they walk into permanent exile, the villages hear Summaya, Khaled’s wife, singing:

Bring a lantern, friend,

And light the darkness for me.

I’m afraid there’s a long road ahead,

And that you’ll be burdened with me for a long time,

You’ll be burdened with me for a long time. 

This, of course, is prescient; it brings to mind the sixty years that are to come, all of the exiled wanderings, the wars and the massacres, in Jordan, in Syria and in Lebanon, the resistance movements and the intifadas, the battles in the refugee camps that Khoury writes of so brilliantly, a near-continuous story of sustained suffering. As the song ends, and the people turn back for one last glance at their village, the dovecote goes up in flames, and the last, desperate flight of the birds, their bodies aflame, seems to sum up everything:

The doves were flying away, covering distances she never thought a bird whose wings were on fire could cover. By the time they began falling in the surrounding orchards, vineyards, and plains, a new fire was ablaze. And when the trucks reached an elevated spot from which the people could see Hadiya for the last time, tongues of fire were consuming it from all directions.

More information about the book here.

A note on the translation: the person who recommended A Time of White Horses to me said that its language was perhaps the most beautiful thing about it. If that is so, the translation is disappointing – it fails to capture either the lyricism of Gate of the Sun, or the simple power of Returning to Haifa – and suffers, at times, from distinctly pedestrian writing. Of course, I do not know Arabic, and I could be wildly off the mark here – but when, for instance, the same adjective is used twice in two sentences to describe the same event, it makes for poor writing at the best of times.

 

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