“Does the extraordinary power of nostalgia exaggerate what was minor and erase the marginal, the peripheral, the accompanying symptoms, while preserving the stable essence, an elixir that might be of nostalgia’s own making, impervious to the ravages of time? Nostalgia, that disease or form of ignorance…”
Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain is a thinly disguised allegory that could be set in just about any Middle-Eastern country (it’s meant to be Jordan, although it reminded me most powerfully of Egypt). Twenty years after he fled into exile for an attempt on the life of his nation’s military leader, Younis is finally allowed to return home. He comes back to a changed country. The military government, which had been fighting the leftists (of which his organisation was a part) in collusion with the Islamists, is now engaged in a battle against the Islamists (with many former leftists in government – definite shades of Egypt). The books that were once banned – the narrator was branded for possessing a copy of State and Revolution – are no longer a threat. Active State repression has been replaced by a creeping corporate-consumerism: “In a world where everything has been standardized, and individuality is the sole preserve of museums and antique shops.” His parents have died, his family has changed, and his first love is almost unrecognisable. There is much that Younis must confront.
Not just a changed homeland, though: Younis must also confront the burdens of memory and regret, the slow tempering and decay of his own once-idealistic revolutionary fervour, and above all else, the old, unchanged self that he had left behind (something Nasser accomplishes through a fascinating use of split narrative, but more on that anon). Land of No Rain, like most of the best Arabic literature that I’ve read over this past year, seamlessly weaves the personal and the political together. One cannot understand Younis’ lost love without understanding the political upheavals of his homeland, just as surely as politics opens a window into the darkness of his troubled self.
One of the most notable features of Land of No Rain (or at least, this translation) is the extremely rich and layered intertextual references, which put the book into constant conversation with so many others. There are references to T.S. Eliot and to Shakespeare. There is a sustained reference to Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and much else that I sensed, but failed to catch, with my limited familiarity with Arabic literature. The references are, as well, extremely apposite. Consider this one, describing the impact of a book:
” … words that boast, deceptively, that they are the epitome of life, while life, according to a writer who does not care to have his name mentioned, is somewhere else.”
The writer in question is Milan Kundera, and the book is Life is Elsewhere. That book, of course, is another indictment of youth, lyricism and revolution. Like Kundera, Nasser recognises the sheer power of words:
” A book can be poison, or a flower, or a heart that throbs when it stumbles upon someone who believes in it… You thought you were the only person in the world created by the subdued language of the book, its limpid images, its muted rhythms, the evanescent quotidian worlds that it evoked.”
Yet unlike Kundera, and unlike Life is Elsewhere, Nasser’s denunciation of the idealistic, revolutionary youth, bred upon lyricism, is neither absolute nor unequivocal. Perhaps this is because of the fact that Nasser’s revolution never succeeded, and never had the chance to turn into the tyranny that Kundera’s Czechoslovakia had to endure. Throughout this book, there is a sense of lingering regret, tinged with just enough uncertainty to prevent it from blossoming into full-blown lamentation. It is almost as if Younis recognises that even if the revolution had succeeded, there is no guarantee that it would not – very swiftly – have gone sour. Consequently, he cannot even mourn for the past that is gone and the present that never was – all he can do is smile ruefully, and wonder about what might have been.
The past that is gone – themes of memory, remembrance and forgetting, and time and change, are ever present in Land of No Rain. Echoes of Proust sound throughout the darkling chambers of the book. “Nostalgia amplifies things…” writes Younis, after his own madeline moment. “The memory preserves tastes and smells and images that are of its own making, or that are not as they were in reality.” How memory exists in, and is created and awakened by the senses, is a recurring motif: “… words have no smells or textures unless they have a reference in one’s memory.” As is the distinction between historic time – linear and chronological – and the time that exists only as an instrument of memory: “But the affairs of the heart, and maybe of memory, are not measured in days.”
Perhaps the most striking way in which Nasser deals with the themes of past and future, and love and loss, is through the split narrative. There is not one narrative self, but two: Younis is the young poet-revolutionary, but the exile is a different person altogether: he is Adham Jaber, living in a foreign land for twenty years, working for a Pan-Arab newspaper. The point of return marks a conversation between Adham and Younis – Adham, the present narrative self, and Younis, who has remained, as though in suspended animation, changeless and unchangeable, for the last twenty years. The two selves question, interrogate and talk to each other, constructing between them a complex, intertwined history, both personal and political, both of the man and of his country. Not all is revealed, of course, because as must be the case:
“You preserved inside you areas shrouded in darkness that, with the passage of time, you surrounded with barbed wire.”
Perhaps partly because of this, and partly because of the political context, the book resists conclusions and judgments. It does not endorse the revolutionary idealism of Younis, but nor does it – or Adham – condemn it. Ultimately, all we are left with is an uncertain, undefinable sense of regret at all the loss that consumes its characters: loss of idealism, loss of love, loss of a country – but without any clear sense whether what was lost was worth having in the first place. And in the end, we are only left to say, along with Nasser:
“Time and words and emotions wrap around each other like the layout of that ancient city, or like some of your father’s calligraphic designs, which turns words into eternal riddles.”
(With this, I’m ending a fascinating year of reading Arab literature, which began with Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa. Writers such as Kanafani, Elias Khoury, Naguib Mahfouz, Tayib Salih, Hoda Barakat, Mourid Barghouti, Radwa Ashour – many introduced to me via the excellent Arabic Literature website – and all the rest have been wonderful, and at times, world-changing. I’ve been fortunate to have had access to two of the world’s greatest libraries, but that will soon no longer be the case. The next one year, perhaps, will be spent exploring Latin American literature beyond One Hundred Years of Solitude, rather more accessible in Indian bookshops.)