Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Iraq: "Absent" by Betool Khedairi

I read books in no particular order determined by what I find when. In my last trip to the library, this title, Absent, came home in the same batch as Dancing Arabs because the authors' names--Khedairi and Kashua--are near one another on the shelves. As a search strategy, looking in specific ranges of the alphabet has been very helpful. For diversification of themes, perhaps less so.

Absent is set largely after the Gulf War of 1991, when Hussein invaded Kuwait and the U.S. responded, and before the U.S.-led invasion that began in 2002. However, a portion of reminiscences occur during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. The author writes at the end that she wants to highlight the Iraqi culture, as it is part of the cradle of civilization and so much has been destroyed in the past three-plus decades.

The tale is narrated by Dalal, a young woman raised by her mother's sister after being orphaned at four months of age. The title means many things. Dalal opens by telling us her aunt's husband defies tradition and instead of being renamed for the first child in his family (her), he insists on being called Abu Ghayeb, "father of the absent one" for the child he and his wife cannot have together. Absent also refers to the many aspects of life that dissolved with Saddam Hussein's rise to power, especially noticeable when compared with the "time of plenty" that Dalal remembers from early childhood. It also refers to people who suddenly disappear from the neighborhood. And to feelings, beliefs and loyalties that disappear, too, under the rigors of a struggle for daily life.

The characters are nearly all residents of the same apartment building. At the top lives a fortune teller. Dalal's family is downstairs and further down is a blind widower. Dalal's close friend, a nurse, lives on the 2nd floor. Mid-way through the book, a new ground-floor tenant appears,  a hairdresser who insists on being called a coiffeur. The fortune teller's waiting room is a hotbed for gossip but she keeps people's secrets. The coiffeur hears much gossip and how he uses what he learns is a primary driver for the action.

Dalal's aunt, called Umm Ghayeb (mother of the absent one) is a seamstress, now that her husband's job as a state tourism promoter is gone with the end of the "time of plenty."  Abu Ghayeb sets up an apiary and does well, with Dalal's willing assistance, in this new agricultural work.

The novel is mostly dialogue with occasional observations from the first-person narrator. She writes of post-Hussein expectations:

"In our teenage years, we had to join the National Union of Students. There we were told that our aims were 'Unity, Freedom, and Socialism,' and that we had to strive for 'One unified Arab nation...with an eternal message. . . . We had to attend the meetings unfailingly, maintain secrecy, and learn the president's quotes by heart." (p. 51)

Mixed with reporting like this are Dalal's skeptical commentary about Umm Mazin's fortune telling business, which includes a line of herbal remedies and spells, made more solemn by quotations from the Qu'ran. Dalal also learns about photography from the blind man, who was once a photographer, but who says he see more clearly now. Abu Ghayeb is a former art student who now collects contemporary works by friends, and his lessons about seeing and looking also inform the text, along with his instructions about keeping bees, the exemplary social insect whose lessons would benefit mankind if only we could learn.

These many stories, as disparate as the threads of stories in our own lives, come together in the late 1990s. Dalal has a part-time job with Saad, the coiffeur, and through him, she meets Adel. She is later seduced by Adel. The neighborhood receives missile strikes that kill some and injure many. The bees "turn" and become aggressive, attacking their own. Before the end, we learn the true reasons for Saad's shop and its location in that particular building. Dalal is the only one "left standing" and is now the only source of income for herself and her aunt. She seems to accept this and the novel closes with her beginning to teach a young man to read -- nurturing a slim reed for the reestablishment of civilization, despite the great losses she and her country have experienced.

The mordant humor shows a different perspective about what many Americans see as justifiable actions. This is Abu Ghayeb about bombings in the 1991 Gulf War:

"...Yes, 'intelligent missiles.' They stop at a red light on their way to the explosion. . . Truly smart weapons. They destroyed communication centers, sewage plants, and electricity generators. And they remembered to wipe out the water purification units as well. With their intelligence, they deprived a whole nation of clean drinking water." (p. 65-66)

Here is Dalal, describing a portion of a walk she takes with her aunt:

"We walk past the house that burned down because its owners had been hoarding petrol. They were afraid it would get stolen, so they stored it under the ground; but it had leaked, and their garden exploded."  (p. 95) 

Here is a lesson from the bees, via Abu Ghayeb:

"Dalal, if only we could learn from the bees! . . . Greed is the main problem. Look at the way the bee behaves when it goes out to collect the nectar. The first thing the bees do is check the amount of sugar in the flower. They suck from it what they need and won't exceed their limit."  (p. 175)

If one of Ms. Khedairi's purposes was education about the culture of Iraq, I must confess I didn't learn much about historical aspects. Maybe I already read too many works about the Tigris and Euphrates; the Caliph of Baghdad, when that city was the center of Islam; and the modern-era destruction of antiquities, and related subjects.

For daily life under Hussein, this is an evocative work that seems accurate. It is consistent with the books I've read about life under Khomeini in Iran (Children of the Jacaranda Tree) and in Palestine (Dancing Arabs) with regard to Islam and consistent with other tales of surviving dictatorships by Anchee MinJulia Alvarez, and Edwige Danticat.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Palestine: "Dancing Arabs" by Sayed Kashua

This project began with 193 countries recognized by the United Nations. To that group, I've added regions that would like to be separate countries. Palestine fits into that group. Other commentators describes Sayed Kashua's first novel, Dancing Arabs, as a coming-of-age story. It is that, but it takes the genre and inverts the premise. In this book, the narrator begins aware of the world and wise. As he matures, he becomes confused and uncaring. Forces driving that "maturation" process include the narrator's character, familial expectations, and cultural messages. He just cannot hold up under the strain as he grows up in the intifada and beyond.

Our anti-hero begins life in the Arab-Israeli town of Tira, living in a family household with grandmother, parents, and brothers. He hears stories of his grandfather's role in 1948, defending Palestine from the forces creating Israel, including England. His father took up the Free Palestine cause in his own student days and spent time in prison. The narrator, however, is an emotionally sensitive fellow, not a freedom fighter. His first choice, when confronted with hostility, is to leave quickly with tears falling.

He excels in school and places into an elite Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem. This, his family thinks, will be his future: A scholar who will bring renown on the family and his people. However he stays true to his nature, his preference for no confrontation, and learns to "pass" as Jew. By doing so he avoids anxieties such as those caused when Arabs are taken off an inter-city bus as it goes through the grounds of an airport. They are allowed to board again as the bus leaves this zone central to Israeli security. After the first experience with this practice he is "Jewish" enough to be allowed to remain on board.

He also remains in the boarding school in spite of his desire to quit. The narrator says,

"In twelfth grade I understood for the first time what '48 was. That it's called the War of Independence. In twelfth grade I understood that  a Zionist was what we called a Sahyuni, and it wasn't a swear word. I knew the word. That's how we used to curse one another...Suddenly I understood that Zionism is an ideology. In civics lessons and Jewish history classes, I started to understand that my aunt from Tulkarm is called a refugee, that the Arabs in Israel are called a minority. In twelfth grade I understood that the problem was serious. I understood what a national homeland was..." (p. 117)

The irony drips here. Most Arabs in Israel refer to '48 as "the catastrophe." The aunt, whose family lived on the land where she grew up for perhaps 2,000 years, is a refugee. Arabs in Israel are a minority -- now -- after 700,000 or so fled in '48 (and ultimately saw their lands confiscated by the new state).

The tension between Arabic ethnicity and Arabic as a maternal language and Israeli identity and education in Hebrew inform the narrator's story from here on. He marries an Arabic Muslim young woman, more or less in a shotgun wedding. He looks for a lover, with his wife's encouragement, as she has come to hate his weaknesses, and finds a modern, ethnically Jewish partner. He tends bar for a job and drinks as a form of recreation, too. During a power outage after shelling occurs in his neighborhood on the West Bank side of Jerusalem, he thinks,

"I'll sue my father too, for planting hope in my mind, for lying to me. For teaching me to sing: 'We'll march through the streets, for united we stand. Let us sing to our glorious nation, our land." ... I can never forgive him for giving us the idea that we'd defeat the enemy with tires and stones."  (p. 151)

As the war progresses,

"I go back to Tira more often, in search of an answer, trying to find out what others like me, people with a blue identity card, have decided to do, trying to see if there is any hope left." (p. 223)

[Note blue ID cards are for Israel citizens. Non-citizen residents of the West Bank and Gaza have orange or red cards issued to them.]

If complete resignation can be hopeful, then a little expectation of better times ahead pops in with the resolution of a family dispute about the name for the narrator's nephew, the first-born boy in the next generation.

"Eventually they opted for the name my younger brother Mahmoud suggested and called the baby Danny. Mahmoud said the name would save the kid a lot of problems. Maybe he'd be laughed at in Tira, but he'd have a much easier time of it in university and at work and on the bus and in Tel Aviv. Danny was better." (p. 226).

In the next breath, the narrator is discussing the secret he shares with his grandmother, the location of the shroud for her eventual funeral. The death of a separate Arabic culture in Israel appears to be accepted as inevitable.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Australia: "The Secret River" by Kate Grenville

Grenville's novel is a founding story for a continent with primarily one set of invaders from Europe, rather than eight (at least) in the U.S.*  In Australia as she tells it, English settlement had pretty much the same consequences that it did in the U.S.: The English took whatever they wanted and told the people who were there first, "be off!"

The story focuses on William Thornhill, former Thames boatman, and his family. It opens in London and we learn of his youth, apprenticeship, marriage, and eventual conviction for stealing wood from a shipment. He is sent, with his wife, to the penal colony in the antipodes. Grenville does a good job explaining how someone's sentence "for the rest of his natural life" could mean, in reality, four years of servitude, then liberty.

William is an unusual fellow. He is exceptionally strong and able to single-handedly manage a boat even through fierce tidal pull. Once in Australia, he is convinced he can grow food though he has no direct knowledge of how to do that. Later in the story, he won't ask his son, whom he realizes knows some Aboriginal language, to help communicate with people with whom they come into nearly daily contact. It is as if Grenville wrote anything needed to move the story along, regardless of whether it suited the character she created.

Thornhill does have moments of introspection and empathy. He is  apparently sensitive enough about other people that he can imagine what it might be like to live off the land, finding food all around. But for all that, he is still unable to imagine anything but his right to take land he likes. Never mind that plants that grow there are used as food by the first people. His friend Blackwood has told him that, but Thornhill persistently puts his corn crop just there. When the Aborigines come to their traditional area to gather food, instead of the tubers that are no longer there, they start to harvest "his" crop--an act that has consequences for them, him and others like him.

Image: Penleigh Boyd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Hawkesbury River

When this intelligent, insightful man moved his wife and children to HIS selected spot, there is no indication he has prepared the place, despite plying an active boatman's trade all around it for several years. Here is how Grenville describes their landing, after an arduous passage hugging the shore eastward from Sydney then through the tide-swept mouth of the Hawkesbury, and finally upstream within the estuary. First, he has timed things so that the tide has just started going out as they near his goal. My uncle is a professional ocean-going fisherman, and no one working around the tide would do that. Then:

"When Thornhill jumped out over the bow, the mud gripped his feet. He tried to take a step and it sucked them in deeper.With a huge effort he dragged one foot and looked for a place to set it down between the spiky mangrove roots. Lurched forward into even deeper mud, pulled his other leg up with a squelch, feeling the foot stretch against the ankle, and floundered towards the bank. He put his head down and butted blindly through a screen of bushes, bursting out at last onto dry land." (p. 132).

That description is a summary of the rest of the book: Thornhill persists, feels stresses, gets pulled deeper into muck, flounders, and eventually reaches "dry land." But it costs him dearly in terms of his relationship with his wife Sal, whom he loves; with his son, who leaves them; with Blackwood, who is wounded body and soul; and with the Aborigines whom he approached with a live-and-let -live attitude, at least until the corn fire.

William Thornhill's blind butting forward also costs his soul. At the last, only one of the first people is still around, a former leader whom Thornhill's family named Jack. Observing Jack,

"Thornhill felt a pang. No man had worked harder than he had done, and he had been rewarded for his labor. He had about him near a thousand pounds in cash, he had three hundred acres and a piece of paper to prove it was all his...But there was an emptiness as he watch Jack's hand caressing the dirt. This was something he did hot have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. There was not part of the world that he would keep coming back to, the way Jack did, just to feel it under him."

We cannot undo the past. We can only move forward. My hope is that as we in this country move forward, and as those in others do, we all keep in mind that human rights matter, including culture, language, and more. It seems to be a lesson that people need to continue to hear. Too often I read of people who have impoverished, punished or even killed others deliberately to enrich themselves. Even today, I read that officials in Malawi are standing trial for defrauding their already desperately poor nation of up to $100 million. Why?  Why do people do things like that?

*  The eight I know about are Holland in New Amsterdam; Sweden along the Delaware River; Russia in the Pacific Northwest; Spain in the Southwest and California; Spain in Florida; France in the Midwest North; and the ones most often discussed--English Puritans in Massachusetts and English planters in Virginia and further south.