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Martyrs and witnesses: turning the bloody history of the Arabs into fiction

Two novels making their debuts in English address the violence and dislocation of recent Arab history – and both benefit from being based on the authors’ experiences.
Inside Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, where pictures of those killed during the conflict with Israel look over the streets. Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images
Inside Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, where pictures of those killed during the conflict with Israel look over the streets. Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

Two newly translated novels – the Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour’s The Woman from Tantoura [;] and the Lebanese author Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain [] – are affecting and carefully drawn portrayals of division and conflict in the Arab world, each writer responding to events that have played a significant part of their own lived experience.

Ashour’s novel tells the story of the Palestinian Nakba through the eyes of her character Ruqayya, a woman from the village of Tantoura – a Palestinian coastal village south of Haifa that ceased to exist with the expulsion of its people and the destruction of their homes in 1948 – and the journey her life takes from then up until the liberation of south Lebanon in 2000.

When the story begins, Ruqayya is a 13-year-old girl living with her parents and brothers. Her father and siblings are murdered by the occupying Israeli forces when Tantoura is attacked; forced to flee, she and her mother initially seek refuge with Ruqayya’s aunt and uncle in Sidon. So begins Ruqayya’s life of exile, and with it a slow shedding of family members and friends along the way.

In Sidon Ruqayya marries a young doctor with whom she moves to Beirut where he works in the refugee camps while Ruqayya brings up their four children (three biological sons and an adopted daughter). With her sons all grown up and scattered around the globe – one in Paris, one in Cairo, one in Abu Dhabi – Ruqayya and her daughter Maryam move to the Gulf to live with her son Sadiq and his family after her husband disappears, presumed dead, in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982.

From there the two women relocate to Alexandria in Egypt so Maryam can study medicine at the university there, after which, her duties as a mother seemingly exhausted, Ruqayya finally returns to Sidon, now alone, free to ponder how she has made it this far: “I wonder, what does a woman do who feels that she has remained alive by chance, by the purest chance? How does she act in the world if her existence, all these years and months and days and moments, bitter and sweet, that she has lived, is a by-product of some random movement of a strange fate? How does she act in the world?”

Ashour handles her character and her story with a graceful and moving care, a notably gentler approach than that of a male-centric narrative perhaps, for, as Ruqayya learns first-hand in the refugee camps, “the world of women is more compassionate than the world of men”. Though Douaihy is surprisingly astute when it comes to depicting the fate of his female characters caught up in the violent struggle enacted by their menfolk, “death is a woman’s pastime”, a female character observes. “The men kill each other and we do the crying.”

The geographical focus of Douaihy’s novel is significantly smaller in scope – one northern Lebanese town – but the devastation wreaked by two warring factions no less tumultuous. On a June day in 1957, a gun battle between two rival families in a small village church leaves 24 people dead and another 28 wounded. The massacre divides the town in two, with the Al-Ramis in the north and the Al-Semaanis in the south. An invisible but all-important line that separates the two quarters of the town is “drawn in the minds of the townspeople young and old alike”, a “deep abyss” that grows over time as in the aftermath of the bloodbath the town is “ridden with acts of revenge” and the killings continue: “The resentments they had been dragging around with them for decades ended in an all-out war, set ablaze as they dug trenches and amassed cannons and heavy artillery, and which left no innocent person safe from kidnapping and no passer-by safe from being shot.”

Like Ashour, Douaihy has imposed fictional characters and the lives he’s created for them onto a broader historical framework of real events: the Meziara church massacre of 1957 in Zghorta district, an event that Douaihy lived through himself as a young boy. So, too, at the centre of his novel is a boy, Eliyya, a child conceived the night before the massacre, his father one of those killed the next day in the gunfight – perhaps by an enemy’s bullet, perhaps by one fired by a friend or relative, no one is sure as the scene is utter confusion. This particular battle may be contained within the boundaries of a single town, but Lebanon’s subsequent history – both the civil war that began in 1975 (which Ruqayya lives through in A Woman from Tantoura) as well as the larger Arab struggle – haunts the text, the spectre of violence to come glinting in the barrels of the guns used in the massacre.

Born nine months and a week after the death of his father, Eliyya’s paternity is forever whispered about, one more betrayal in a town already mired in misunderstanding; where friends have turned on each other and clan loyalties have forced husbands and wives apart. Sent to America by his mother to keep him safe when he was a teenager, he returns at the age of 42 to the village of his birth in search of some kind of coherent narrative about his origins and his father’s death, but the more questions Eliyya asks, the more versions of that fateful day he hears; every person has their own tale to tell, and the town, it seems, will “never be finished with that story”.

The problem of the existence of multiple, and often conflicting, narratives about one event lies at the heart of both novels. The polyphony of voices in Douaihy’s text, although melodiously woven together in the service of a commanding and urgent narrative, is actually a cacophonous, discordant whole that suggests the insurmountability of such ingrained unharmonious stories, reminding us of the complexity of the broader historical struggle that lingers in the margins of the novel.

The Woman from Tantoura, by comparison, offers a more hopeful conclusion, but perhaps only because the events are filtered through such a strong single voice. Asked by one of her sons, a lawyer collecting the testimonies of those displaced in the Nakba, Ruqayya’s “sentences stumble and the words are confused” as she struggles to articulate her experiences.

Indeed, particularly traumatic periods of her life are marked by episodes of muteness. “I don’t know how it’s possible to summarise what we lived through in those years,” she muses. “I don’t know how to communicate the meaning, and I wonder about how useful it is to go into the details – the details that are not details. Every discrete detail is a story affecting hundreds of people, perhaps thousands.”

While focusing on a single narrative voice Ashour acknowledges those countless others whose experience is not adequately rendered, but all Ruqayya can do is keep herself afloat amid the turmoil all around her, or, more accurately, remain “on the train” – the metaphor she adopts to explain her experience of life, existence that keeps moving despite the fact she doesn’t know where she’s going or why she’s going there. And, while Ruqayya does stay on-board the train – raising her children amid the rubble of their history and despite perpetual displacement, physical and psychological – Eliyya remains a lost soul. Although he grows up anchored in the very heart of the town’s rivalry and tumult, he’s slightly off kilter with the events playing out around him, remaining still something of “an unfinished project” even after 20, supposedly safe and stabilising, years in New York.

While Ruqayya learns to live with her memories – “Memory does not kill. It inflicts unbearable pain, perhaps; but we bear it, and memory changes from a whirlpool that pulls us to the bottom, to a sea we can swim in. We cover distances, we control it, and we dictate to it” – Eliyya, on the other hand, cannot make peace with his past.

In America he spins story after story about his origins, so many contrasting versions tripping from his tongue that he cannot maintain friendships for fear of muddling the assorted accounts of his history that he’s told different people. Just as the people of the town cannot reconcile the multitudinous and conflicting versions of their violent history each of them tell, neither can Eliyya piece together a coherent and complete story of his own life.

Lucy Scholes is a regular contributor to The National.

Published: July 17, 2014 04:00 AM


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