Category Archives: Middle-Eastern Writing

Connections: Victor Shklovsky and Mourid Barghouti on sadness and satisfaction

In the footnotes to the annotated edition of The Victor Shklovsky Reader, there is a footnote that comes at the end of this paragraph from Resurrecting the Word:

The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. For instance, moon: the original meaning of this word is “measurer”; weeping is cognate with the Latin for “to be flogged”; infant (just like the old Russian synonym, otrok) literally means “not speaking.”” 

In the footnote, the editor adds:

Sadness derives from the Proto-Germanic *sadaz (satisfied), with sated progressing to weary.

This fascinating etymological connection between sadness and satisfaction finds its poetic home, I think, in Mourid Barghouti’s The Pillow, one of my favourite poems:

The pillow said:
at the end of the long day
only I know
the confident man’s confusion,
the nun’s desire,
the slight quiver in the tyrant’s eyelash,
the preacher’s obscenity,
the soul’s longing
for a warm body where flying sparks
become a glowing coal.
Only I know
the grandeur of unnoticed little things;
only I know the loser’s dignity,
the winner’s loneliness
and the stupid coldness one feels
when a wish has been granted.
The last two lines, especially.

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Filed under Mourid Barghouti, Victor Shklovsky

Connections: Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk and Yuri Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones

Both Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (set in Cairo in the 1940s) and Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones (set in Russia in the 1870s) are about revolutions and doomed youth. At some point, they both have their protagonists think this:

“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.” (Palace Walk)

“He thought to himself, and this nice young woman is hurrying us to kill, to blow things up, to give history a push. What is the reason for it – fashion? A deep inner need? Or just the immense, universal impossibility of going on in the old way?” (The Impatient Ones)


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Filed under Egypt, Middle-Eastern Writing, Naguib Mahfouz, Russia, Trifonov

The Sultan’s Seal on Sargon Boulous

The Sultan’s Seal blog has an interesting essay discussing the life and work of the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulos, whose poems I have loved (whenever I can get my hands on a translation). It also includes a beautiful (and, I suppose, topical) translation of the poem “The Refugee Tells“. I find this essay particularly interesting, because it extols the Boulos for being “an uncommitted wanderer”, “free[ing] text of its historical onus… [to push] it back into the broadest possible human context.” As always, I wonder whether this is strictly possible – whether one can liberate oneself from the essential situatedness of human beings (including political situatedness), and find refuge in an abstract “human context.”

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Filed under Iraq, Sargon Boulos

“… … the question remained unanswered, suspended between them in the emptiness.”: Latifa al-Zayyat’s ‘The Open Door’

“Everyone was in tune with everyone else, just as if we were members of a society and knew and agreed on its tiniest regulations, or the gears of a clock moving at exactly the same pace and in the same direction, all the time, one direction that everyone knows, clear, logical, in sequence.”

There is a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (reviewed here), that perhaps best illustrates his unique approach towards social realism through the novel. Encouraged by her children, the progatonist, Amina, has overcome a lifetime of conditioning in patriarchal households (first of her father, and then of her husband) to leave her home by herself, and venture out into the world – all the way to a sufi shrine at the other end of the street. Mahfouz describes the moment when she is poised at the threshold of a new world with its newly broken boundaries:

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.”

 The two daughters behind one, closed panel, only visible as shadows. The two sons behind the other, raised and open to the world, smiling. In this way, without saying anything, Mahfouz paints a powerful picture of the repressed and patriarchal society – more powerful than words.

But if Mahfouz’s approach is the scalpel, leaving its impact by subtle suggestion and lingering allusions, Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, set in Cairo during more or less the same period as Palace Walk (1946 – 1956, before and leading up to Nasser’s revolution and the nationalisation of the Canal), is a blunt hammer, driving home its point with repeated, unambiguous force.

Like Palace WalkThe Open Door is a book about a family, navigating their way through the tumultuous political backdrop in 1950s Egypt. It tells the story of Layla, a girl growing up in a middle-class Cairo household, along with a galaxy of sometimes recognisable characters: a conservative father, a softer (repressed) mother, a brother (Mahmud) who is a fiery political activist, a more circumspect cousin (Isam) who falls in love with her, and cousin (Gamila) with an ever-calculating mother determined to marry her upwards, and a pose of friends and relatives. As with Mahfouz’s novel, the family is faced with rapidly changing times, a world in which traditions are being questioned as never before, where iconoclasm is met with an even fiercer backlash, and where the clarion call – “Obey the fundamentals, and life will have no suffering” – can no longer hold the imagination as it once did.

But there the similarities end. Palace Walk is polyvocal, often detached account, relying upon detail in description, and sharp allusions for its impact. The Open Door, on the other hand, is like an autobiography in third person – an autobiography of the protagonist Layla, as she goes through school and university, falls in love and has her heart broken, rebels and capitulates, all the way up to the brink of a disastrous, imposed marriage – all the while in the backdrop of Egypt’s political turmoil – the anti-imperialist struggles against the British, the protest marches, Nasser’s revolution, and the three-pronged attack after the nationalisation of the Canal. I say “third-person autobiography” because of a substantial amount of interior dialogue: we see the world through Layla’s eyes – through the eyes of a women at the threshold of adulthood, whose view of the world is shaped before our eyes by events, whose understanding of injustice is felt rather than reasoned, whose anger is unconstrained by dissimulation, and above all, who is free with her thoughts.

The risk with such an approach to the novel is, of course, the risk of descending into political polemic, and/or caricaturing your characters. Indeed, there are moments when Layla’s judgements seem too pat, and the book’s political message too divorced from the story that it is telling. When, for instance, her brother, Mahmud, fails to replicate his political liberalism from the protest march in his conduct towards his own sister within the home, her thoughts flow:

“He knew what was wrong, what was right, she understood that – but he knew it on paper. Yes, on paper.”

One might think that this is unnecessary, and too intense a belabouring of a point already made. A couple of reviews that I read criticised The Open Door for being too blatantly allegorical, for writing Layla as if she is the embodiment and symbolisation of Egypt on the cusp of Revolution.

I think, though, that the criticisms are unfounded. There are two reasons why The Open Door is saved from the mediocrity of the kitsch “political art” that Milan Kundera ridicules in his novels. The first is al-Zayyat’s extraordinary sensitivity towards the uncertain glories and perilous uncertainties of youth. Layla’s longing for stability after a fiery relationship crashes and burns is described in the following, wonderful way:

“For that was a space where one lived in perpetual fever. You never knew exactly where you stood; you saw things not as they really were; you felt a strength you did not really possess, a beauty you could not really claim, and a happiness bigger than one person could acquire. For the threat that connected one to the sky was fragile; it might break suddenly, and you would tumble to earth and shatter.”

Layla’s falling in love, being broken, and healing, are portrayed with an empathy and an understanding that would resonate with every reader, and make it difficult not to be passionately rooting for her by the end of the story. Her revolt and her suffocation are perhaps dated, but never alien. Her dreams are the dreams we have all dreamt, and her disillusionment is painfully familiar. Along with all the other characters, but more than them, she feels alive.

The second is an equal sensitivity towards image and metaphor. Whenever the interior monologue runs the risk of becoming too overtly political or dreary, al-Zayyat punctuates it with delicate, almost gossamer imagery. She describes the first, hesitant sliver of feeling between Layla and Isam in this manner:

“The glimmer ran from her lips, from her face and body to Isam; it settled in the space between then, a gaze that remained incomplete, a touch that was not quite there, sentences that had no periods. The light cocooned them, a single image, apart form all around them.”

And the domineering nature of al-Ramzi, the University teacher who insidiously attempts to bend Layla to his will, paving the ground for a future engagement and a suffocating marriage:

“He was a sculptor playing his chisel, now delicately, now almost violently, and always with studied care. Here a light touch, here a deep furrow, here a chunk that must be dislodged entirely, and here a segment that required only refining and polishing. The lineaments of the statue emerged gradually, notch after notch, dent by dent, cut away by the artist’s will.” 

The Open Door has been called the first feminist Arab novel. It is an easy – and true – characterisation. The protagonist is a woman, the dominant theme is (as was said about Llosa) the “cartography of power, and the individual’s resistance” against patriarchy. But I think it is much more than that: it is a delightful exploration of the tragedy of being young in a society that is like a chrysalis: where an alternative future can be imagined, where it is on the cusp of coming into being, and yet is farther away than eternity.

The Open Door is available from the website of the publishers here.

And from Amazon, here.

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Filed under Egypt, Latifa al-Zayyat, Middle-Eastern Writing

“What matters besides happy endings?”: Naguib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley

“Time satirises even the sublimest things.”

In synthesising the creation myths of the three great religions of the Book, with an added dash of modernity, into one allegorical tale about the history of a single Egyptian alley, Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley must surely rank as one of the most artistically ambitious – and perhaps, impudent – novels ever attempted. From the expulsion of Adam to the invention of dynamite, Mahfouz’s canvas covers every syllable of recorded time, but his minute brush-strokes, tell the grand, sweeping story by painting in minute details about the lives of individuals and families. Allegory nestles within allegory – circles within spirals – so as to reduce an infinitely complex story into its component parts. The effect is a madly bewildering – but ultimately, very gratifying – read.

The story starts with the mansion at the head of the alley, and its gardens of Eden. Adham – the youngest of the four sons of the patriarch Gabalawi – is responsible for the administration of the estate. Gabalawi’s decision to overlook his three elder sons infuriates his first-born, Idris, who – after refusing to abide by his orders – is exiled from the mansion. Years later, Idris has his revenge when he comes in supplication to Adham, and begs him to take a peek into Gabalawi’s book of “Ten Conditions”, to ascertain whether he has cut Idris out of his share of the inheritance. Upon the goading of his wife, Adham sneaks into Gabalawi’s chamber, is discovered by the patriarch, and exiled from the mansion. Out in the desert, strife and bloodshed dog the footsteps of Adham, Idris and their children.

With a few twists, the story is unmistakably that of the Exile and the Fall (with Idris doubling up as Cain and the serpent). Instead of the apple as being a representation of “knowledge”, here is the real thing – a Book, which deals directly with the futures of the inhabitants of the mansion – that is at stake, a knowledge that the patriarch guards with jealous fury. After the exile of Adham, the “Ten Conditions” – the commands of Gabalawi regarding the sharing of the estate – are never known, and it is left to the leaders of each generation to impose their will upon their fellow-inhabitants of the alley.

The casting of Gabalawi – a classic feudal overlord – as God strips away the obfuscating divinity from the story of Genesis, and reveals the arbitrariness and cruelty that is at the heart of the creation myth. Much like God, Gabalawi plays an ambiguous role throughout the story. The gates of his mansion – with the gardens within – are perpetually shut to the denizens of his “alley”, even as its denizens – the “children of Gabalawi” live a life of squalid want and poverty, and oppress and kill each other without compunction. Every succeeding generation, when things are strained to breaking point, Gabalawi makes a cursory “appearance” to a Chosen One – Gabal, Rifaa and Quassem (whose lives, deeds personalities reflect Moses, Jesus and Mohammad), who attempt reform in their own different ways, and leave behind divided legacies and neighbourhoods at war with each other, each under the thrall of its local gangster. “He acknowledged our relationship with him in the desert“, tell the newly-emancipated followers of Al-Gabal to other alley sufferers, who have come to them for aid. “Not yours!” is, of course, the underlying, unsaid subscript, a sharp jab at the exclusionary nature of the religions of the Book. And at all times, shorn of the God Exception, God (as Gabalawi), who could stop all the suffering with a deed and a gesture, but refuses to do so, and continues to shut out the alley’s inhabitants from his mansion, appears despotic and indefensible.

(Spoilers Alert)

The great twist comes in the last section, when Arafa, a “magician” (who vaguely represents the promise and the horror of science), determines to find out the content of the “Ten Conditions” by sneaking into the mansion by night. In his attempt to do so, he stumbles upon an old servant guarding the Book, in Gabalawi’s inner sanctum, and kills him. The death of the servant, it is reported next morning – shocks the aged Gabalawi into the grave. In true Nitzschean fasion, it is announced the next morning: “Gabalawi is dead.” But Arafa’s attempts to rid the alley of mob rule by selectively deploying the superior weapons given to him by his study of science end in tragedy, and the book finishes on a depressingly nihilistic note.

(Spoilers End)

In its “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, its inherent pessimism about human nature, and its thin – almost unsubtle – references to the lives of the Prophets, Children of the Alley – on a few occasions – totters on the cusp of mediocrity. A good example is the line delivered by one of his characters, in the generation after Rifaa-Jesus:

“This building is in Rifaa. Everyone who lives in it is of the Al Rifaa. They belong to Rifaa, and every night the poets remind us that he lived and died for love and happiness. And we have breakfast every morning listening to their screaming and fights.”

Indeed, more than once, I had a distinct sense that Mahfouz’s vaulting ambition had overreached itself, and was about to fall on the other side. But I think what definitively lifts this book above the realms of the pedestrian is Mahfouz’s inimitable prose style, and his knack for imagining and expressing things in a way that is both novel, and yet so right. “Beauty” is “insolent”, the heart is “scorched” with mysterious love, “heavy footfalls stir[red] misty memories”, and “tomorrow [was] wrapped in yesterday’s shroud.” As I found in Palace Walk and Miramar, Mahfouz’s touch is incredibly deft and light, but his words are haunting, and remains with you long after the last page has been turned. Like Darwish’s butterfly, his footprints leave no trace, and yet are not to be erased.

Apart from the beautiful writing, the novel is enriched by Mahfouz’s subtle political reflections, delivered incidentally, almost off the cuff, but brilliant in their forensic precision. “… for the women in the mansion,” he writes in the narrator’s voice, in a line that would also be right at home in the ultra-realistic Palace Walk, “were like the internal organs which a man knows of, and thanks to which he lives, but which he never sees.” Every tragedy, however great,” he tells us later, “eventually becomes a fact of life.” Musing upon how, after each generation of the reformers, the situation in the alley returns to its oppressive, unequal default position, one of his characters reflects: “people worship power – even its victims do!” And perhaps the best of all, eloquent in all that it says in the space of a sentence, and all that is left unsaid, worthy of being a Nietzschean aphorism: “Time satirises even the sublimest things.

As far as Mahfouz’s works go, I think that Miramar is the greater novel, with more sustained genius. But despite the occasional flaws in its execution, Children of the Alley is brilliantly conceived, and has enough moments of exaltation, to be – in the last analysis – a deeply enjoyable book.

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Filed under Egypt, Middle-Eastern Writing, Naguib Mahfouz

“Does the smell of coffee still promise mornings that haven’t come?”: Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain

“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.)


Filed under Amjad Nasser, Jordan, Middle-Eastern Writing

“And the room filled with pieces of shrapnel”: Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain

Memories come back in a burst of images“, wrote Jean Genet about his time with the Palestinian fedayeen. Elias Khoury’s impressionistic, first-person, thinly-fictionalized account of the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War is written in and through just such a burst of images. Little Mountain is a short novel, the first four chapters of which present the lived experience of the war – street-battles, battles in the church, wounds and death – and the last, a series of broken, scattered reminiscences in a Paris metro. What binds all of this together – what conveys meaning – is neither chronological narrative (time plays little to nor role in Little Mountain), nor character (at the end, we know almost as little about the narrator as we do in the beginning), but images.

For example: We ran cautiouslyclutching rifles and dreams, writes the narrator in the beginning, – evocatively conveying, without conversation or action, through that simple image, the early idealism of the revolution, and the romance of violence. “Nothing remains in his hands save a wetness that recalls the rain.” “She laughed. It rang like a bow.” “They looked like the shadow of the old oil lantern one of them carried.” Each of these images, incredibly powerful in its context, does the work that events normally do: convey meanings (as I understood them), of loss, of love and of futility, all bound up with each other and with the war.

It is not, however, that Khoury has any wish to preserve or worship ideals. There are many striking passages about war in the book, especially the (thinly ironic) descriptions of battle in a church. And in these passages – that are at times strongly reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet in the Western Front, in their dispassion, detachment and seemingly unaffected attention to detail, Khoury mixes romance with dirt in a manner that the former cannot possibly survive. Consider, for instance:

The commander came running. It looks like they’re trying to overrun the street. Get ready. I followed him. I stood at the end of a street leading to the main road where we used to listen for the movement of military vehicles. He took Talal to another street, Talal alone. You’ve got to get down on the ground, the position commander was saying. He lay down on the water, shivering, as it seeped into his body. The shelling was intensifying. We’ve got to hold our ground. Water mixed with blood. This is the glory of the revolution. You are the pride of the revolution. And the pride of the revolution will stand fast. I was holding my rifle tight and firing. The shots rang in my ears, I couldn’t see them. I gripped the hand grenade and threw it. Water splashed up and the shrapnel went flying. The water gasped loudly; this is the glory of the revolution. I was down on the ground. But they weren’t advancing. Nothing but an overpowering smell. The smell of rain and brackish water and burning gunpowder. The sound of shells. I couldn’t see anything ahead. But Talal stayed down on the ground, shooting, advancing to the main road.  Nothing but shelling. The rain was stopping and masonry was beginning to crumble.”


In its choice of form (or formlessness), Khoury’s Little Mountain is similar to Latin American magic realism – in particular, it reminds one of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, that great Mexican novel. A reviewer writes of Pedro Paramo:

“The tenses switch back and forth, past to present and back again, sometime in the space of a single paragraph, until time itself becomes senseless. The stories begin to refract, shatter, and rebuild; pronouns multiply—I, he, she, you, stumbling over each other. Dialogue and thoughts are left unattributed. The perspectives shift from internal to external and back again.”

As a description of Little Mountain, this is accurate. In Pedro Paramo, the story is of the Mexican revolution and all its accompanying brutality, but that story is never told. We can dimly glimpse it, through a glass darkly, and we must reconstruct it in some incomplete way by trying to piece together the thousand little shards of events, metaphors, characters and images that lie scattered throughout the book. Similarly, Little Mountain is ostensibly about the Lebanese Civil War, but again, the Civil War, with its larger consequences, lurks in the background, just out of reach of our comprehension. “Do you see those clouds go by?” says the character Nazeeh. “You can reach up and touch them, but you can’t hold on to them.” This could be a description of Little Mountain. 

And what is interesting is that just as Rulfo was writing back – or writing against – a literary milieu of social realism, recognising that he needed a new form to adequately convey meaning, so is Khoury. This point is made by Edward Said in the foreward to the book, where he compares Little Mountain, as well as the Rabelaisian qualities of Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist, to the writings of that grand old man of the Arab novel, Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz, Said argues, being Egyptian, was able to “able to depend on the vital integrity and even, cultural compactness of Egypt.”  For a Palestinian writer like Habibi, on the other hand, and a Lebanese writer like Khoury writing in societies where:

“… national identity is threatened with extinction (the latter) or with daily dissolution (the former). In such societies the novel is both a risky and a highly problematic form. Typically its subjects are urgently political and its concerns radically existential. Literature in stable societies is replicable by Palestine and Lebanese writers by means of parody and exaggeration, since on a minute-by-minute basis social life for Lebanese and Palestinian writers is an enterprise with highly unpredictable results. Above all, form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic…  Khoury’s idea about literature and society are of a piece with the often bewilderingly fragmented realities of Lebanon in which, he says in one of his essays, the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.”

Thus, the cry that the narrator occurs: “It is temporary!“, is perhaps most fitting of all. Temporariness is a theme that runs through Palestinian writing. Not just temporariness in the sense of present instability (think of, for instance, Mourid Barghouti comparing life to a hotel room in I Saw Ramallah), but also for a hope – and a belief – that this situation, in which everything is temporary, is itself temporary, and will pass. “We can’t just live like that with no reference point whatsoever. I can’t live like this, scattered to the winds”, he has his narrator say at another point, before immediately realising the futility of that wish. And if that is the dominant theme of Little Mountain, then it ends fittingly as well. “When the chapters conclude,” Said writes, “they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”

In Little Mountain, Elias Khoury tells an impossible story not by trying to fit events into a chronology, or by trying to impose the coherence of narrative form over reality and the order of sequence over life, but through scattered formlessness itself. And given the meaninglessness of the Civl War, this might be the most adequate – and maybe the only – way to tell this particular story.



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Filed under Elias Khoury, Lebanon, Middle-Eastern Writing

“We can claim to have made a garden of the world”: Loss and Remembrance in Mourid Barghouti’s ‘I Saw Ramallah’

“We lived the experience of our displacement in the lands of others, and we lived with other displaced people who looked like us. Did we write our displacement? Why should our story, our particular story deserve to be listened to by the world? And who listens to the stories of those men, women, and children who are taken by their displacement to that other shore from which no one ever returns? Our dead are scattered in every land. Sometimes we did not know where to go with their corpses; the capitals of the world refuse to receive us as corpses as they refuse to receive us alive. And if the dead by displacement and the dead by weapons and the dead by longing and the dead by simple death are martyrs, and if poems are true and each martyr is a rose, we can claim to have made a garden of the world.”

Part-memoir, part-reminiscence, part-history, part-elegy, part-jeremiad – but most of all, a paean to a lost nation, Mourid Barghouti’I Saw Ramallah is the story of a man who comes back to his occupied homeland after thirty years of exile. Much like the work of Primo Levi, this is a reflection, written after the fact, that tries to use the medium of language to understand the incomprehensible, to attempt a reconciliation with the irreconcilable. And, much like Levi, from the moment Barghouti sets foot upon Allenby Bridge that leads from Jordan to Occupied Palestine, his writing is shot through with agony and ambiguity in near-equal measure.

At last! Here I am, walking, with my small bag, across the bridge. A bridge no longer than a few meters of wood and thirty years of exile.

    How was this piece of dark wood able to distance a whole nation from its dreams? To prevent entire generations from taking their coffee in homes that were theirs? How did it deliver us to all this patience and all that death? How was it able to scatter us among exiles, and tents, and political parties, and frightened whispers?

    I do not thank you, you short, unimportant bridge. You are not a sea or an ocean that we might find our excuses in your terrors. You are not a mountain range inhabited by wild beasts and fantastical monsters that we might summon our instincts to protect us from you. I would have thanked you, bridge, if you had been on another planet, at a spot the old Mercedes could not reach in thirty minutes. I would have thanked you had you been made by volcanoes and their thick, orange terror. But you were made by miserable carpenters, who held their nails in the corners of their mouths, and their cigarettes behind their ears. I do not say thank you, little bridge. Should I be ashamed in front of you? Or should you be ashamed in front of me? You are near like the stars of the naïve poet, far like the step of one paralyzes. What embarrassment is this? I do not forgive you and you do not forgive me. The sound of wood under my feet.

    Fayruz calls it the Bridge of Return. The Jordanians call it the King Hussein Bridge. The Palestinian Authority calls it al-Karama crossing. The common people and the bus and taxi drivers call it the Allenby Bridge. My mother, and before her my grandmother and my father and my uncle’s wife, Umm Talal, call it simply: the Bridge.”

Allenby Bridge is a symbol – the most poignant symbol of Palestinian exile. And it is symbols – symbols and metaphors that fill Barghouti’s work. They are his primary means of communication, and of understanding. The many aspects of exile, displacement and loss are approached through metaphor. A hotel room, for instance, comes to embody rootlessness and transience – it absolves one from “immortalize the moment”, but also “provides a theater for short acts and surprises and a widening of the monotonous horizons of life…” That hotel room, then, is the shifting life in the refugee camps of Lebanon, portrayed so movingly by Elias Khoury in Gate of the Sun, and the temporary return to Kanafani’s Haifa – because transience and temporariness is what it means to be an exile. The Israeli soldier’s gun is – similarly – the symbol of loss and deprivation, loss of the homeland that itself has now become nothing more than a symbol under years of occupation. It is in this way that it is appropriate for Barghouti’s principal stylistic technique to be approaching truth through metaphor because, as he understands it, the occupation has transformed Palestine itself into insubstantiality, an image and a song: “His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land. In his hand he holds earth, and in our hands we hold a mirage.” But it is not just Palestine and the homeland that is a mirage – it is the occupation itself that is built upon a series of symbols, although grounded in the harsh actuality of the settlements:

“If you hear a speaker on some platform use the phrase ‘dismantling the settlements’, then laugh to your heart’s content. These are not children’s fortresses of Lego or Meccano. These are Israel itself; Israel the idea and the ideology and the geography and the trick and the excuse. It is the place that is ours and that they have made theirs. The settlements are their book, their first form. They are our absence. The settlements are the Palestinian Diaspora itself.”

And it is precisely this abstraction, this world of ideas, images, symbols and metaphors that Barghouti is anxious to resist.

The Occupation has created generations without a place whose colours, smells, and sounds they can remember; a first place that belongs to them, that they can return to in their memories in their cobbled-together exiles. There is no childhood bed for them to remember, a bed on which they forgot a soft cloth doll, or whose white pillows – once the adults had gone out of an evening – were their weapons in a battle that had them shrieking with delight. This is it. The Occupation has created generations of us that have to adore an unknown beloved: distant, difficult, surrounded by guards, by walls, by nuclear missiles, by sheer terror.

    The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine. I only started to believe in myself as a poet when I discovered how faded all abstracts and absolutes were. When I discovered the accuracy of the concrete detail and the truthfulness of the five senses, and the great gift, in particular, of sight. When I discovered the justice and genius of the language of the camera, which presents its view in an amazing whisper, however noisy this view was in fact or in history. Then I made the effort necessary to get rid of the poem that was an easy accompaniment to the anthem, to get rid of the badness of beginnings.

Resist because living through ideas can not only create a supine antipathy, and hold one in thrall to dangerous illusions, but it is precisely a mode of control:

    I have always believed that it is in the interests of an occupation, any occupation, that the homeland should be transformed in the memory of its people into a bouquet of ‘symbols’. Merely symbols. They will not allow us to develop our village so that it shares features with the city, or to move with our city into a contemporary space. Let us be frank: when we lived in the village did we not long for the city? Did we not long to leave small, limited, simple Deir Ghassanah for Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Nablus? Did we not wish that those cities would become like Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut? The longing always for the new age.

    The Occupation has forced us to remain with the old. That is its crime. It did not deprive us of the clay ovens of yesterday, but of the mystery of what we would invent tomorrow. I did not come here to reclaim Al-Abrash’s camel. I used to long for the past in Deir Ghassanah as a child longs for precious, lost things. But when I saw that the past was still there, squatting in the sunshine in the village square, like a dog forgotten by its owners – or like a toy dog – I wanted to take hold of it, to kick it forward, to its coming days, to a better future, to tell it: “Run!”

These passage are almost Kundera-esque in their fierce denunciation of mythologizing and romanticizing, and their commitment to a brutal – if prosaic – realism. But where Kundera draws his motivation from seeing oppression justified in the name of abstraction, Barghouti is struggling with that perennial problem that we find in virtually all of Palestinian writing: the longing for a certain, remembered – yet unattainable – pre-colonial past, in tension with a desire for an uncertain, unknown – yet possibly achievable – post-colonial future. Like Kanafani, Khoury and all the rest, Barghouti is concerned with how to bring about the second; and it in that context that he feels the pressing, urgent need to inveigh against the symbolization of the Palestinian tragedy that also ensures its fossilization within a timeless, unchanging present.

Exile is understood by developing associations not with places – because “I am always without a place“, but with time – time, “a mist that never stops moving“. What one remembers, as an exile, are stretches of time: in Cairo, “wisps of fog that formed themselves into a shape that pleased me one morning“, and in ‘Ein al-Dir, the thorns of brambles scrambled through in days of childhood. And again, what one wants to retrieve is not a place, but a time: “Do I want to scramble through brambles now? No, what I want is the time of scrambling.” But of course, the tragedy of exile is precisely the impossibility of that – and indeed, the impossibility of any complete experience. “For all displacement is a semi-sentence, a semi-everything”, Barghouti writes, “they snatch you from your place suddenly, in a second. But you return very slowly. You watch yourself returning in silence. Always in silence. Your times in faraway places watch too; they are curious: what will the stranger do with the reclaimed place and what will the place do with the reclaimed stranger?” And we are back again to the ambiguity, the lack of closure, the absence of any fulfillment that characterizes this entire experience.

Lyrical and mellifluous, Barghouti’s writing is, I think, an exemplar of poetry in prose: appealing directly, as it does, to the primary imagination, its rhythm and its cadences alternatively beguiling and compelling, and all the while without losing the sharp edge of the substance – the indescribable nature of loss, displacement and exile – in the telling of it. That is why I have, in this review, given primary place to excerpts – this is a book that is best experienced, rather than described. And the closing is perhaps the best example of Barghouti’s art, and the point I’m trying to make:

I crossed the forbidden bridge and suddenly I bent to collect my scattered fragments as I would collect the flaps of my coat together on an icy day, or as a pupil would collect his papers scattered by the wind of the fields as he comes back from far away. On the pillow I collected the days and nights of laughter, of anger, or tears, of foolishness, and of marble monuments for which a single lifetime cannot suffice to visit them all with an offering of silence and respect. 

Tonight, with everyone in the house asleep and morning about to break, I ask a question that the days have never answered:

What deprives the spirit of its colours?

    What is it other than the bullets of the invaders that have hit the body?



Filed under Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

“The moon is closer to us now than are the fig trees of our departed village”: Laughter and tragedy in Emile Habiby’s “Saeed the Pessoptimist”

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

     “But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

    “Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed. 

Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist brings Rabelais and Swift to Israel and Palestine. You cannot forbear to laugh, but the moment you pause to reflect, the laughter dissolves into the underlying darkness.  Innocence hangs like a thin film of translucent dew upon the surface, barely masking a savage indictment of the human condition just beneath (think of Voltaire’s Candide). The story follows the adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist, a Palestinian who stays behind after the creation of the state of Israel, becomes an Israeli informer, and finds himself getting into one scrape after another with the authorities, while becoming more and more estranged from his sometime-countrymen. Filled with supernatural happenings, twisted chronologies and unbelievable denouements, the narrative tries to paint reality even while unmooring itself from reality; almost as though the only way to capture the bizarre actuality that is Israel/Palestine (labels are political) is by breaking with traditional narrative realism.

Saeed has been called an anti-hero by critics, but what truly strikes one about him is his passivity. Whether it is failing to kiss his lover goodbye as she is dragged away by the police for deportation, failing to stop his son from becoming a fedayeen, or failing to carve out any kind of independent existence for himself (a la Candide, before the end), Saeed never does anything. Things are done to him. In this way, he becomes a synecdoche for the larger Palestinian condition, as reflected in the works of so many other Palestinian writers. In Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Palestinian inaction is symbolized by the passivity of three men as they roast to death in a truck; in Saeed, it is symbolized by Saeed’s overriding inability to act in any circumstance, especially when contrasted with the people in his life, lovers, sons and friends. Habiby makes a witty observation about this right at the beginning, before providing us an extended demonstration through Saeed’s character:

“The Arabs, that miserable teacher of ours concluded, always did thing quicker then – they thought faster than the earth moved around the sun – whereas they have now surrendered their power of thought to others … for the Arabs, so said this accursed teacher, would first act and then dream, not as they do now – first dream and then continue to dream.” 

Ghassan Kanafani once compared the Palestinian condition to people waiting on the shore for a boat that would never come. Saeed is a story – albeit hilariously told – of missed chances, delays, incompleteness, unfulfillment and disappointment. Saeed as a person is, of course, the greatest disappointment of the story, but it is also individual events that perennially fail to come to resolution. Consider, for instance, how the theme of the return to the homeland – something crucial to Palestinian writing – is dealt with by Kanafani, and by Habiby. In Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, the return is accompanies by a confrontation, a tragedy (of sorts), and definite closure. In Habiby’s account, however, what happens is that… nothing happens.

“What about our house?” I asked at last.

“They are occupying it.”

“Do you know who they are?”

You can see, my child, how dim my eyes are. And Europeans all look the same anyway. No one goes fishing anymore.”

    “Would they let me in if I visited our house?” I asked.

    “How should I know, my son?”

    She crossed herself. I said goodbye, feeling very uneasy that she had made that sign of the cross.

    When I reached the front of our house and saw laundry hanging out, my courage deserted me and I pretended to be taking a stroll along the seashore. I kept passing back and forth in front of our house. Each time I almost knocked on the door my courage left me.

    Eventually evening arrived. A woman emerged and began collecting the laundry. She stared at me and shouted something. I hurried away but saw a man of about her age come out of the house and help her collect the wash. I thought to myself: This must be a trick. Why else would a man bring in the family laundry? This was never done by my father, God have mercy on him, although my mother was always sickly and overworked.

Contra Kanafani, there will be no moment of epiphany, no discovery of meaning or truth, even though it is a tragic truth. And contra Khoury, even meaningful love is impossible for Saeed, because even that is defined by its interruptions and its incompleteness, at all times.

    Yuaad shook hands with me and bade me farewell. Then she brought her face close to mine and asked, “Did you kiss my mother before she left?”

    “No. They were standing between us.”

   “In that case you have missed the second kiss too.”

    Then she was gone. 

But if Saeed, even in his delay, is not Prince Hamlet and is never meant to be, ironically enough, the people he is closest to – lover, wife, son, friends – are his mirror images. Where Saeed turns informer, they join the revolution; where Saeed vacillates, they are constant; where he delays, they are decisive. And the contrast between characters is reflected in the contrast of styles. Saeed’s own experiences are portrayed with a savage, almost mocking (Swiftian?) humor, as he finds that being an informer is no guarantee of safety, ending up seeing the inside of a jail cell thrice, each time for absurd reasons. But it is when his supporting cast comes on stage, that the tone changes into something deadly serious. So, in one of the funniest scenes in the book, Saeed is arrested (for the first time) for following orders a bit too scrupulously, and putting up a white flag of surrender outside his Haifa home in the immediate aftermath of ’67. This is taken as a declaration that Haifa is an occupied city, and consequently, an act of rebellion. In prison, Saeed makes the mistake of quoting Shakespeare, and is soundly beaten for his pains. All grotesquely funny so far; and then, in his cell, he meets a Palestinian revolutionary, who considers him – wrongly, but by default – to be a comrade.

He healed my wounds by talking about his own. He kept widening that single tiny window in the wall until it became a broad horizon that I had never seen before. Its netted bars became bridges to the moon, and between his bed and mine were hanging gardens. I told him of myself, what I had always aspired to for myself. I did not want to lie, but I did not want to soil the majesty of the moment by speaking of personal details: these the jailers had stripped from me when they stripped off my clothes. Here we were, one naked man facing another. Would Adam ever have left Paradise of his own free will?”

The mask has dropped, and for all the time that it was on, the revelation hits home harder than it ever cold otherwise. The stylistic shifts – from Voltaire to Darwish, in an instant – are found again when his son Walaa is holed up inside an underground shelter, and speaks of speaking freely, longing, for once, “to be careless about what I say, because all my life you’ve told me to be careful“, insisting that he cannot wait any longer, that it is his generation that must resolve the issue, because “it is my generation.” The clarity and urgency of Walaa’s words and thoughts – again – put Saeed’s own dithering into sharper perspective than could otherwise be possible. Or again, consider this deliberate shift:

These settles, then, laughed good-naturedly when the following story about them spread. The elders of Zikhron Yaqub disagreed about the following problem: is it lawful for a man to sleep with his wife on the Sabbath or is the act a kind of work and therefore not lawful on that day? They went to the rabbi for a decision as to whether it was work or it was pleasure. The rabbi thought long and hard and then he ruled that it was pleasure. They asked him for his reasoning. He replied: “If I had ruled it to be work you would have give it to the Arabs of Fraydis to perform.”

    My, how we laughed at this story – Jacob because he hates the Ashkenazi Jews and I because he laughed.

    And who would be so unfair as to blame the people of Fraydis for owing their preservation to vintage wine? Who, after all, erected the tall buildings of this country, cut and paved its broad streets, dug the trenches and fortified the shelters? Who planted, plucked, and ginned the cotton, then wove it into clothes for the lords of Raghdan and Basman, palaces in the Amman, to wear so proudly. 

Like most other Palestinian writing, Saeed is a story of exile and about a lost homeland. Yet unlike the stories of Kanafani or Khoury, or the poetry of Darwish or Barghouti or Tawfiq Zayyad, there is one crucial difference: Saeed is an exile in his own home, and not on the outside looking in. The ambiguity, the doubt – the agony, even – is thus complex and often undefinable. As the book progresses, we see – we feel – Saeed’s growing estrangement both with his Israeli employers (and masters) and with the nascent Palestinian revolutionary movement. He is of both worlds, and of neither; understanding and understood by neither, liminal and homeless. Once again, then, he is simply caught up in the events, responding to them as they happen with the simple aim of survival. We cannot pity him because he has little moral fibre; and yet, we cannot condemn because we see ourselves in him, or what we would be like we we to face a situation of the sort – because who would be bold enough to predict their own heroism in the face of adversity? Habiby has painted a complex, ambiguous character, neither hero nor really anti-hero, someone who resists judgment and classification, but seeks – actively – our empathy. And more than that, perhaps, we are in no position to give.

I’ll end with an excerpt that once again reflects – fascinatingly – how very different Palestinian works are nonetheless – at bottom – concerned with very similar basic themes. The nakba, as we know, when it happened, was considered only  temporary situation by those who fled their homes in Mandatory Palestine. Of course, that temporary situation became permanent. That, however, did not stop many of the refugees from dreaming of a -now impossible – return to status quo ante. This conflict – between a generation that wants to restore a destroyed past, and one that wants to build a new future on its ruins – is explored repeatedly in Palestinian literature. It is the (implicit) debate between Said and Khaldun in Returning to Haifa. It is Younes, in Gate of the Sun, throwing away the oranges brought from old Palestine and exclaiming furiously, “The homeland is not oranges – the homeland is us!” And it is explored here as well, in one of the most moving passages of the book, with which I’ll close:

    “How can your brother believe that things will return to where they began?”

   “He got that idea from his elders; of his beginning an old man remembers only the prime of youth and so thinks fondly of it. Do you really know how the beginning was, uncle? The beginning was not merely sweet memories of pines over Mount Carmel, or orange groves, or the songs of Jaffa’s sailors. And did they really sing anyway? Do you really want to return to the beginning, to mourn your brother torn to pieces by the crane as he carved his living from the rocks. You want to do it all again, from the beginning?”

    “But your brother, Saeed, said they had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors and commit would not them again.”

    “If they had really learned, they wouldn’t have spoken at all of returning to the beginning.” 

    “You’re so young for so much wisdom, Yaad; wherever did you acquire it?”

    “From my long life that is still before me.”

    “Will you be leaving me?”

    “Water cannot truly ever leave the sea, uncle. It evaporates, then returns in winter in the springs and rivers. It will always return.”

This is widely regarded to be a classic of Arab literature, and deservedly so. Highly recommended.


Filed under Emile Habiby, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

“Memories come back in bursts of images”: Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love

In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded and sang Strange Fruit. The song was about the lynching of Black Americans in the South, and with lyrics such as “Pastoral scene of the gallant south,/ The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh…”, it was meant to conjure up familiar scenes of trees, with all their associations of peace, tranquility, shelter, cool breeze, and so on – and then brutally displace that vision by demonstrating how, for Black Americans, those very same trees symbolised the lynchings of blacks that were so prevalent in the South at the time.

Forty-seven years later, in Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet would write:

“The Panthers and I were to give a couple of lectures there [Stony-Brook University]… Just as I was getting into the car to leave [Black Panther] party headquarters in the Bronx, I asked David Hilliard if he was coming with us.

He smiled faintly and said he wasn’t, adding what seemed to me an enigmatic comment.

‘There are still too many trees.’

I left, together with Zaid and Nappier, but all through the journey I kept thinking of what he had said. “There are still too many trees.” So, for a Black only thirty years old, a tree still didn’t mean what it did to a White – a riot of green, with birds and nests and carvings of hearts and names intertwined. Instead it meant a gibbet. The sight of a tree revived a terror that was not quite a thing of the past, which left the mouth dry and the vocal cords impotent. A White sitting astride the beam holding the noose at the ready – that was the first thing that struck a negro about to be lynched? And what separates us from the Blacks today is not so much the colour of our skin or the type of our hair as the phantom-ridden psyche we never see except when a Black lets fall some joking and to us cryptic phrase.” 

That a French modernist writer in the 80s would arrive at precisely the same insight as a song written by a white man and performed by a black jazz singer in the heart of the deep South in the 30s – in almost so many words – is perhaps emblematic of what is so unique about Prisoner of Love. The book is primarily – although by no means exclusively – about Jean Genet’s two years (1970 – 71) spent in the Palestinian refugee camps during the interminably long Palestinian revolution, around the time of Black September; and perhaps it is because Genet himself was a perennial outcast, with neither roots nor a home, forever in rebellion against society, and never bound to a land, a territory or a culture – that empathy, understanding and awareness come so naturally to him, qualities that make Prisoner of Love above all else a searingly honest work. 

Prisoner of Love is neither a story, nor a work of history; it is not a travel memoir, and still less is it a piece of political reportage. If you approach it looking for the narrative coherence of a novel, or the dispassionate analysis of wartime journalism, you will be disappointed. It is, simply – as Genet stresses repeatedly – a series of images. Images of events, of battles, of massacres, of tragedies, of courage and cowardice – but above all else, images of human beings – the fedayeen, with whom Genet spent those two years (and to whom he would return in 1984), and with whom he fell entirely in love. Genet has no respect for the traditional categories of time and space: reminiscent of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the SunPrisoner of Love moves – seemingly arbitrarily – between the ’67 war, the First Intifada, the 1970-71 Jordanian conflict, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the infamous War of the Camps, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the situation in 1984 – with occasional detours into prior history. It also moves between Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria – and the United States, where Genet was heavily involved with the Black Panthers movement. Yet there are two themes that unite this seeming epitome of disorder: Genet’s obsession with the power of words and images to construct reality, and his constant, ironising self-awareness. These lend the book its distinctive tone and character, and it is upon these that I shall primarily focus.

The role of images and words in building reality and in creating history is a theme Genet almost commences the book with, stating, in its early pages:

“The fame of heroes owes little to the extent of their conquests and all to the success of the tributes paid to them. The Iliad counts for more than Agamemnon’s war; the steeles of the Chaldes for more than the armies of Nineveh. Trajan’s Column, La Chanson de Roland, the murals depicting the Armada, the Vendome column – all the images of war have been created after the battles themselves thanks to looting or the energy of artists, and left standing on the part of oversight on the part of rain or rebellion. But what survives is the evidence, rarely accurate but always stirring, vouchsafed to the future by the victors.”    

In the rest of the book, he applies this framework to analyse the Palestinian revolution. He quotes – repeatedly – Arafat’s statement to him that they – the Palestinians – exist thanks to the fact that in the West, they “take photographs of us, they film us, they write about us.” With great perspicuity – and one could almost say, with great prescience – he examines how vocabulary and the use of words have become weapons in the ongoing war:

“If you’re against Israel you’re not an enemy or an opponent – you’re a terrorist. Terrorism is suppose to deal death indiscriminately, and must be destroyed wherever it appears… very smart of Israel to carry the war right into the heart of vocabulary, and annex the words holocaust and genocide… the invasion of Lebanon didn’t make Israel an intruder or predator… the destruction and massacres in Beirut weren’t the work of terrorists armed by America and dropping tons of bombs day and night for three months on a capital with two million inhabitants… words are terrible and Israel is a terrifying manipulator of signs… sentence doesn’t necessarily precede an execution… if an execution has already been carried out, a sentence will gradually justify it.” 

Yet most of all, Genet understands how words and images fulfill a desperate – and essential – human need for a narrative, a narrative to believe in, to hold on to, and to fight for, a narrative that, because it is both beyond and larger than a single individual, can become the rallying point for a movement or a struggle. Here, he bears striking similarities, in his writing, to the remarkable Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, who also focuses on the power of myth in the building of nations, societies and communities. In Kadare’s The Siege, a story about the Ottoman Turks’ besieging of an Albanian Castle as a precursor to a wholesale invasion of Albania, the semi-mythical leader of the resistance, one Skanderberg, keeps up a seemingly futile opposition, doomed from the start, and destined to destruction. Yet, as the protagonists of The Siege realise, through this concerted act of resistance, Skanderberg is creating a myth of the Albanian nation that will outlast the Turkish conquest, and allow a return to the past once the time of the Turks is over. Skanderberg is building an Albania in the heavens, one that – unlike the Albania that is contained in castles, farms and homesteads – is indestructible.

What is remarkable is how the songs of the fedayeen, that Genet records, express an almost identical thought, through almost identical imagery:

” ‘And if Palestine never came down from the Empire of Heaven to dwell upon earth, would we be any less real?’ So sang one of the fedayeen, in Arabic.”

So the Palestinian Revolution, for Genet, is not simply about regaining lost land, but simultaneously rediscovering – or reconstructing, or constructing, or creating – whichever word you prefer – a Palestinian identity, a sense of peoplehood and nationhood. So:

“The Palestinians wanted to be an entity – wanted to leave an image of themselves as a single whole, historically, geographically, politically. Even when they were scattered to the four winds they wanted to form an indivisible and unchanging block in the midst of the Muslim universe and of the universe itself. ” 

Yet, Genet accepts none of this uncritically. His sense of self-awareness brings an ironic perspective both to the Revolution that he has committed himself to, and his own description of it. He worries repeatedly that words only end up “blotting out” reality; the quasi-Nietzschean view according to which language is a distorting mirror (words as “rainbow-bridges”, that is, carriers of illusion) – and so, his own account of the Revolution is nothing more than an exercise in obfuscation and omission:

“But what if it were true that writing is a lie? What if it merely enabled us to conceal what was, and any account is, only eyewash? Without actually saying the opposite of what was, writing presents only its visible, acceptable and, so to speak, silent face, because it is incapable of really showing the other one.”

As for the Revolution itself, Genet is dubious about the “fantasy” it seeks to protect; the internal fissures within the movement itself, and the doubtful motives of many for endorsing a movement that, from distance, “looked like Delacroiz’s Liberty on the Barricades”, because “distance, as often happens, lent a touch of divinity.” And he understands too, that “Palestine”, like any essentialising entity, hides beneath its still facade of uniformity, a boiling cauldron of difference and dissent:

“Like the word France, the word Palestine means different things to different people – peasants, aristocrats, financiers, the fedayeen, the leading families and the new bourgeoisie. None of these groups or individuals seems to suspect that these differences exist, and that they may eventually lead to conflicts. The word Palestine will one day no longer mean what it seems to do now, namely a common accord. Instead it could stand for a fierce class struggle.”

It is like speaking about the mountains. Every person who tells us what the mountains mean to him, “speaks for himself.”

It is this combination – of image-obsession and a keen, ironic awareness – that is at play, again, in Genet’s writing of the Palestine itself – the lost homeland. This, of course, is a theme that no book on Palestine can ever avoid – and we have discussed before, on this blog, the works of Ghassan Kanafani, Elias Khoury and Ibrahim Nasrallah that treat this theme in their own way. At the beginning of the book, Genet comes upon two fedayeen circumventing the ban on card-playing in the camp by playing a card game – with a set of imaginary, non-existent cards. In a beautiful paragraph, Genet describes how this scene comes to symbolise, for him, the Palestinian movement:

The game of cards, which only existed because of the shockingly realistic gestures of the fedayeen – they’d played at playing without any cards, without aces or knaves, clubs or spades, kings or queens – reminded me that all the Palestinians’ activities were like the Obon feast, where the only thing that was absent, that could not appear, was what the ceremony, however lacking in solemnity, was in aid of.

This idea of the lost homeland that exists as a crystallised, unchanging – yet absent – vision is something we see in the works of Kanafani and Khoury, where in fact this becomes a point of contention: the generation of the nakba, for whom the Palestine of 1948 remains an unchangeable, eternal absent reality comes into conflict with the generation of the First Intifada and the PLO, for whom Palestine is the future that must be built from scratch (remember the passionate declamation of the revolutionary leader in Khoury’s Gate of the Sun: the homeland isn’t oranges (from the destroyed Palestinian village); the homeland is us!” Genet’s description here speaks volumes:

“Every district in a camp tried to reproduce a village left behind in Palestine and probably destroyed to make way for a power station. But the old people of the village, who still talked together, had brought their own accent with them when they fled, and sometimes local disputes or even lawsuits too. Nazareth was in one district, and a few narrow streets away Nablus and Haifa. Then the brass tap, and to the right Hebron, to the left a quarter of old El Kods (Jerusalem). Especially around the tap, waiting for their buckets to fill, the women exchanged their greetings in their own dialects and accents, like so many banners proclaiming where each patois came from.”

For a book that is, self-proclaimedly, nothing more than a succession of images, Genet’s sense of imagery is sharp and beautiful. I conclude with two of my favourite:

“There are the trees again – I haven’t really conveyed how fragile they were. The yellow leaves were attached to the branches by a fine yet real stalk, but the forest itself looked as frail to me as a scaffolding that vanishes when a building’s finished. It was insubstantial, more like a sketch of a forest, a makeshift forest with any old leaves, but sheltering soldiers so beautiful to look at they filled it with peace.”


“It was the Palestinian phenomenon that made me write this book, but why did I stick so closely to the obviously crazy logic of that war? I can only explain it by remembering what I value: one or another of my prisons, a patch of moss, a few bits of hay, perhaps some wild flowers pushing up a slab of concrete or granite paving stone. Or, the only luxury I’ll allow myself, two or three dog roses growing on a gaunt and thorny bush.

Moss, lichen, grass, a few dog roses capable of pushing up through red granite were an image of the Palestinian people breaking out everywhere through the cracks.”

By turns tranquil and savage, calm and brooding, detached and passionate, filled with biting political commentary, vivid descriptions of historical events, and above all, the most deeply personal of memories and individual interactions, poignant and never failing to move deeply, I add Prisoner of Love to that list of books, such as Returning to HaifaGate of the Sun and A Time of White Horses, that have taught me more about Palestine than any work of history or journalism. Because, as Genet says himself:

“Historians’ discovery of new sources and new interpretations make no difference. They try to replace so called archetypal images with others. But are they truer? Neither truer nor less true, since they’re all images from the past. Historians may demolish a legendary hero whose image, accurate or not, fascinates us still. But they’ll only be able to replace it if they provide facts and explanations that we can sympathise with and assimilate, if they create new images that give us something we can talk about.”


Filed under Jean Genet, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine