Adel Dajani refers to the seismic crises his family has lived through as “black swans”. Call them unforeseen events with extreme consequences. And when this investment banker, writer and traveller began writing his memoir and family history during lockdown, he realised there were plenty of black swans floating about.
From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea begins with his grandmother fleeing Palestine in 1948, a place where her surgeon husband had founded the first private hospital. Exiled in Cairo, they eventually end up in Libya, only to feel first-hand the effects of Gaddafi's coup d’etat in 1969, where Dajani’s father was imprisoned.
More than 40 years later, another black swan appeared, with Dajani himself witnessing the popular movements in Tunisia and Libya.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that through his family’s story it’s possible to witness – and understand – generations of modern Arab history.
“That was the key to the book,” Dajani says from Tunisia. “I wanted to try and humanise the political events that have affected so many Arab people, particularly because there are plenty of reductive characterisations elsewhere. Covid-19 made me really buckle down, do some soul-searching and try and explain for an audience who perhaps don’t understand the context.”
And to that end, his explanation of the 1948 Nakba in Palestine is certainly one of the most clear-eyed descriptions of the personal cost of that time. Dajani was born seven years later in Tripoli, and some of the stories in the book, of his childhood growing up in the orbit of the king and queen of Libya are wonderful. But the giggling fits in front of royalty came to an end when Dajani had to knuckle down to pass the entrance exam to Eton College.
He is self-effacing about the notion he was among the first Arabs to be accepted to Eton – “I mean, big deal,” he laughs – but it was certainly a culture shock.
“No one really had the foggiest [idea] who I was or knew anything about where I was from. I got called a wog [Wily Oriental Gentleman] and when I first went there, whether it was Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Islam, there was just total ignorance of Arab culture.
“It’s a much more humane place now, of course; I was happy to send my own children there. And I used my outsider status to my advantage. I used to spin all sorts of stories, mainly from One Thousand and One Nights, about my pet camels and so on. And the thing is, people believed them.”
But those stereotypes stuck with Dajani, and in the years that followed the family established a travel grant for school leavers to go to the Arab world as part of a research assignment.
“I just think that if you expose people to the Middle East or North Africa, it undoubtedly changes their perception,” he says of the scheme. In addition, he has also helped set up an annual Eton lecture series featuring the likes of novelists Ahdaf Soueif and Elif Shafak, which offers a non-traditional perspective of events in the Middle East.
One senses if Dajani was lecturing at it himself. As an investment banker, he would talk about the importance of stable economies to many Arab countries.
“Many places are in transition from dictatorships, but you cannot operate on two fronts,” he says. “I see it all the time. You have to concentrate on the economy first; people want to be sure their pockets can be filled, their health is okay and their children can go to school. But they are instead totally despondent about the state of their political systems.
“So yes, this will take a while to fix. We’re still suffering.”
From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea succeeds because it conveys the circularity of the Arab experience over the past 70 years. It ends where it began – in Palestine – with Dajani accompanying his son Rakan, visiting as part of his geography dissertation at Oxford. It’s a confusing, perplexing trip which he describes as a combination of deep-rooted belonging yet also a crushing helplessness in the struggle to preserve their historical links.
In the book, there’s a line from Dajani’s grandmother. “You have lost your country, but you cannot lose your values,” she says.
“My father would talk about concentrating on what money couldn’t buy,” Dajani says. “It took me a while to understand him, but this is someone who lost everything in Palestine and then Libya. Common values and humanity are part of a bedrock which anyone who has been displaced holds dear. In writing this memoir, I’ve come to appreciate that humility, and the fragility of life.”
From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea (Zuleika) is out now
Five more thought-provoking memoirs from 2021
'Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted' by Suleika Jaouad
Jaouad, born in the US to a Tunisian father and Swiss mother, was diagnosed with leukaemia in her early twenties, just as her journalism career was taking off. This fight for her life was an award-winning The New York Times column and is now a book, as she sets out on a 24,000-kilometre road trip across the US to learn how to live again. Inspiring.
'Strangers on a Pier: Portrait of a Family' by Tash Aw
A brief but perfectly pitched memoir, Malaysian novelist Aw explores migration, assimilation and identity through decades of his family history. The whole sweep and energy of modern Asia is here, but there’s also a more considered understanding of the generational angst of displacement. As Aw writes: “we need to know that messiness in order to know who we are.”
'Minarets In The Mountains: A Journey Into Muslim Europe' by Tharik Hussain
More a travelogue than a straight memoir, Hussain’s journey around the beautiful Western Balkans, home to the largest indigenous Muslim population in Europe, is nonetheless a fascinating exploration of his family’s identity as British Muslims. Hussain finds Islamic mountain lodges, mosques older than the Sistine Chapel … but also a sense of himself.
'Finding the Raga' by Amit Chaudhuri
Indian novelist Chaudhuri starts each day by singing a classical raga for an hour. In this fascinating blend of memoir, diary and musical history, he interrogates the social, cultural, philosophical and emotional meaning of the form through his own discovery and passion for North Indian music across his lifetime.
'Unfinished: A Memoir' by Priyanka Chopra Jonas
If you want a big, starry, celebrity autobiography this year, then Chopra Jonas’ new book is unmissable. A journey into her youth growing up in India and the US, there are also interesting accounts of how she grew her acting career back in India, as well as, of course, her marriage to Nick Jonas and life in Los Angeles.