Running as a refrain through these three books – all by Arab women writers and all published in India by Women Unlimited – is a haunting sense of nostalgia and longing. An ode to a world that once was but is no more, each looks back with wistfulness and regret for all that has been lost; but what is more, none seem comforted by a future that holds either relief or succour. The only flashes of colour in an otherwise grim and forbidding landscape belong to the past, the only relief lies in escaping a present that is ominous and forbidding. What, then, is one to make of such a bleak world?
Enormously depressing in one way, the three books are also, oddly enough, hugely uplifting. Displaced, deprived, discriminated, dispossessed these voices might be – weary from trading home-grown despots for foreign ones and vice versa -- each one of them is determined to be heard. The note of defiance, of speaking out, of bearing witness rings out sharp and clear. Possibly, that is their only victory in a world that appears arraigned against them. In reading their words, in listening to their voices, we – regardless of caste, creed, gender and nationality – find common cause with them, establish a bond of solidarity across the black and white lines of a printed page that sets apart their lives from ours. I would like to believe that is all they wanted when they set out to pen their stories: simply to strike a chord somewhere with someone and, as one narrator puts it, in ‘trying to remember as correctly and completely as possible’ record all the suffering and ignominy they had experienced and known.
That no lofty literary ambition propels the writers of these stories is evident from even a cursory reading. The over-riding impulse appears to be to dig into a vast oral archive, to tap into a racial memory that is as old as time, to shake the tree of anima mundi and to record, store and conserve for posterity all that remains on its withered stalk. Memory, for these writers, therefore is a literary tool and the past a mise en scene just as the use of the first person becomes a necessity in most cases.
Dreaming of Baghdad by Haifa Zangama is a searing memoir of imprisonment, torture, humiliation and eventual exile during Saddam Hussain repressive regime. Dipping between past and present, then and now, her home in Iraq and her exile in London, Zangama takes us into the torture chambers of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and describes the Iraqi people’s struggles against the Baath Party and the terrible scars that remain. Written over a period of eight years, during the Iran-Iraq war, it is the first-of-its-kind account by a radical woman activist from Iraq. As Zangama says, in writing this book she has ‘tried to write about the lives and deaths of a group of young people who were able to foresee the horrible damage that the Iraqi regime was inflicting on its people long before the First and Second Gulf Wars. We were able to see beyond the present and predict the imminent deterioration of Iraq, despite its resources and huge oil wealth. Or maybe because of that. Everything around us indicated our own inevitable demise, but we tried…In writing this book, I felt I was paying a debt long overdue to my friends.’
The Tiller of Waters by Hoda Barakat is a tribute to that which should have been saved and protected but was not. Ravaged Beirut, the site of many a pitched battle for possession since time immemorial, is the setting for one man’s near obsessive-compulsive recollections of not merely the city as it once was but a whole way of life that appears to be forever gone. Niqula Mitri, son of an Egyptian mother and an Orthodox Christian father, inherits both his father’s love for textiles as well as his shop in the city’s old quarters. As his parents die, his neighbourhood is shelled and looted, his shop is burnt to cinders, he appears to be the only man alive in a city that once throbbed with life. As he wanders in a hallucinatory daze through souqs, down boulevards, past mosques, cemeteries and churches, even through a maze of sub-terranean passages, foraging for herbs and berries to keep body and soul together, he brings to life not merely the city he loves so well but reveals – layer by layer – many stories connected with the city that was once the hub of civilisations. Because he loves textiles, he sees the world through the cloth he had once stocked in his shop: ‘a stitch of air’ that is Venetian lace, the shimmer of brocade, the allure of satin, the smoothness of Damascene silk. The analogy of the weaver and weaving is everywhere for, as Mitri tells us, ‘spinning, weaving and sewing are not simply metaphors that help us to see how creation is reflected, to understand its past and how it came to be; they are not helpful only, as Plato said, in understanding that the world pivots on a sort of spindle of diamonds…No, it is more, for the politician is the artisan who crafts the social fabric…The techniques that go into cloth making are in essence like the planning and construction of a city..’ He goes on to conclude: ‘Ignorant are those who do not know the magic of the thread and the curses that the fabric may bring.’
Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile & Home, edited by Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh, explores the idea of Palestine, of what it means to be Palestinian -- whether at home or in exile -- and the past, present and future of being Palestinian. An eclectic set of contributors – poets, novelists, artists, critics, activists – probe, contest, debate, reflect, introspect on the many meanings of these two words: home and exile. For Karma Nabulsi, a child of the revolution, exile is a ‘lost time’, a time when Palestinians were separated from their own revolutionary history. For Rana Barakat, denial of entry into her homeland, spells a state of suspension: belonging neither here nor there. Escape or voluntary flight means ‘portable absence’ to some, whereas for others there is a Palestine that never truly was! Wry, candid, poignant, Seeking Palestine is a tribute to a people who no matter how displaced and dispossessed remain nevertheless determined.
This review appeared in The Hindu, Sunday, 1 July 2012