Discovering a wonderful but obscure writer adds to my happiness these days. Although obscure only in my part of the world, at least… for after all, there is a public library in Paris named after Andrée Chedid!
Having shelves largely organized by geography, I had trouble categorizing an author of Lebanese descent, born in Cairo but resided in Paris and wrote in French, and has won French literary awards including the Albert Camus Prize and the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie in 2002.
Matters of roots often spring up in the novel. “𝘏𝘰𝘸 𝘵𝘰 𝘱𝘶𝘭𝘭 𝘶𝘱 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘦 𝘳𝘰𝘰𝘵𝘴 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘴𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘥𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘦𝘯𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘰𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘧 𝘮𝘢𝘯, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘦𝘹𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘭, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵? 𝘉𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩 𝘴𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘴, 𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴, 𝘭𝘢𝘺𝘦𝘳𝘴, 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘥𝘰𝘦𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘦 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩𝘦?”
But for the time being, I will keep her in my Lebanon section, because although she writes with the elegance of the French (there is even one sentence that is Proustian in length and spans an entire page), this book has the structure of a Lebanese novel — unconventional and unpredictable, and it is very much a reflection of Lebanon.
It ends as the civil war begins. Centered on the lives of a grandmother and granddaughter, we see their mirrored lives unfold while an unusual and refined suspense that drones throughout the delightful passages suddenly grips your whole being towards the end.
Andrée Chedid is a literary gem! I am wondering at the scarcity of her works in our bookshops!
This is not merely a family chronicle but a highly engaging memoir that reads like a novel. It is essential reading for those who wish to look into Levantine life and history more intimately, and learn life lessons from them regardless of nationality.
I will abridge my words to highlight the following passages:
On War — Barely a hundred years ago, Lebanese Christians readily proclaimed themselves Syrian, Syrians looked to Mecca for a king, Jews in the Holy Land called themselves Palestinian… none of the present-day Middle Eastern states existed, and even the term “Middle East” hadn’t been invented. The commonly used term was “Asian Turkey.” Since then, scores of people have died for allegedly eternal homelands, and many more will die tomorrow.
— War is aggression and pillage; it is destruction and carnage. But it is a crime for which we forgive kings, whereas we make children pay for it.
On Origins — …there is no need for us to know about our origins. Nor is there any need for our grand children to know anything about our lives. We each live through the years assigned to us and then go to our eternal sleep in the grave. Why bother to think about those who came before us, for they mean nothing to us? Why bother to think about those who will come after us, for we shall mean nothing to them?
But if everything is destined to sink into oblivion, why do we build anything, and why did our ancestors build anything? Why do we write anything, and why did they write anything? Why even bother to plant trees or have children? Why do we bother to fight for a cause, or speak of progress, change, humanity, and the future? By living exclusively for the present, we let ourselves be hemmed in by an ocean of death. Conversely, by reviving the past, we enlarge our living space.
Gate of the Sun is a steady stream of sorrow flowing for five hundred and thirty one pages.
I can stop there.
But I feel that I have to warn you about those indelible and heartrending parts where a crying baby is suffocated to death to keep him silent so that he would not endanger an entire group; about the pregnant wife of a fedayeen who had to claim she was an immoral woman to protect her husband and keep his whereabouts secret; or of that woman who did not weep with her eyes but with everything inside her… and what if I told you that this novel was inspired by real dialogues between Palestinian exiles and Khoury? I am not sure how my heart was able to bear it.
At this point, you would probably begin to think that this book undoubtedly demonizes Israel. But therein lies the beauty of this magnum opus — despite all the pain it recounts — it does not.
In an interview conducted by an Israeli publication, Khoury articulated, “When I was working on this book, I discovered that the ‘other’ is the mirror of the I. And given that I am writing about half a century of Palestinian experience, it is impossible to read this experience otherwise than in the mirror of the Israeli ‘other.’ Therefore, when I was writing this novel, I put a lot of effort into trying to take apart not only the Palestinian stereotype but also the Israeli stereotype as it appears in Arab literature and especially in the Palestinian literature… The Israeli is not only the policeman or the occupier, he is the ‘other,’ who also has a human experience, and we need to read this experience. Our reading of their experience is a mirror to our reading of the Palestinian experience.”
I think this is important because if this attitude can be applied to one of the most divisive issues in the world, then we can certainly attempt this in our own personal or national conflicts.
We also see this thought being explored in the novel through Khalil, the narrator: “This secret is the mirror. I know no one will agree with me, and they’ll say I talk like this because I’m afraid, but it’s not true. If you’re afraid, you don’t say your enemy is your mirror, you run away from him.”
“But let’s look in the mirror… I confess I’m scared. I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death. We mustn’t see ourselves only in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them.”
That last sentence hints at the Holocaust, the forceful catalyst — forgive this terrible oversimplification — that led to the Palestinian exodus. Not blind to the faults of the Palestinians, it also asks this difficult question, “Are we imitating our enemies, or are they imitating their executioners?”
With the anticipated announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 7, several people have asked about my projected winner. Aside from thinking myself unqualified to make such a projection, I answered by saying that I’m probably the wrong person to ask because my picks are unlikely to be chosen, because they are not safe choices — Elias Khoury or Nawal El-Saadawi, but she passed away earlier this year, so that leaves Khoury.
But I hope people will not have to wait for Khoury to be awarded the Nobel before they start reading him. After each novel, the Lebanese always leave me asking incredulously, “How was it possible to write a novel that way?!” And yet, Gate of the Sun seems to be the pinnacle of all the Lebanese works I’ve encountered.
Khoury draws the drapes from an incredible window to a way of seeing and storytelling unknown to most of us.
As Though She Were Sleeping
August 14, 2021
Nobody enters a dreamlike state and makes sense of it immediately. So, too, with a book like this. It reads like a long dream where visions of the present blend into the past and future. The first chapter is 176 pages long. Can one allow the flow of dreams to be interrupted by brief chapters?
It is 1947, Lebanese Milia marries Palestinian Mansour, and though it is not explicitly stated in the book, nor can the term “Partition Plan” be found in its pages, we know that this was the turbulent year in the Middle East when a particular land would be divided between Jews and Arabs. It is through this time that Milia responds to life, her marriage, the religious and political climate, her family history… as though she were sleeping.
Elias Khoury, a pillar of modern Lebanese literature, writes this novel with a magic realism so convincing and so natural that it never feels contrived. He creates a sublime balance of literary elements with a distinct sensuality. Nobody enters a dreamlike state and makes sense of it immediately. So, too, with a novel like this, but if you read through, it will be worth it.
On the surface this is a magnificent ode to the Arabic language and Arabic poetry, and that is what people keep saying about this book. And it is! I indulged in those sumptuous passages about poetry and words!
But this is what I have not heard being said about this book but which I felt deeply: Milia is Lebanon. Mansour is Palestine. This is a seldom told story of how the relationship affected Lebanon. To know how it ends, one must either read the book, or know history.
This is one of those art forms that make you feel that you have absorbed so much and understood so little at the same time. It has been identified as the finest novel on the Lebanese Civil War, but I am more convinced that it is postmodern poetry.
The point was over there. A woman, glowing… I was holding her by the hair and drowning in the place where the pain flowed from her shoulders… I was not saying anything but was not quiet either. The apogee of sadness. She cried, sitting at the edge of the room, holding her breasts. I went toward her, frightened. No, I wasn’t frightened. I was looking for something or other, for a word. But she remained on the edge of the room. Then stood up, came toward me. I held her, she dropped to the floor and broke, and the room filled with pieces of shrapnel. I bent down to pick them up, blood began to flow and the walls were covered in mud and trees… She was the point. To hold her was to hold nothing. She would run off, leaving me baffled. I would run after her. That’s how she imprisoned me inside a dream that was hard to abandon… This is the revolution, I said. Just like this, living in the constant discovery of everything, in the nothingness of everything. That is revolution.
Elias Khoury comes from the generation of Lebanese novelists who reflect in their writings the constant threat of their national identity’s dissolution. Read this forewarned that they do not adhere to the Western form of the novel, because to them “form is an adventure”, as the Edward W. Said writes in the foreword of this edition. “…when the chapters conclude, they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”
Read this to feel — not to know, but to feel — a nation’s tragic plight. Read this for the strangely beautiful language. Read this like you would a prolonged and lingering poem…
“Libraries save the world, a lot, but outside the narrative mode of heroism: through contemplative action, anonymously and collectively. For me, the public library is the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space, a community of consent — an anarcho-syndicalist collective where each person is pursuing their own aim with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge: the book.”
“I believe that within every library is a door that opens to every other library in time and space: that door is the book… It is a site of possibility and connection (and possibility in connection).”
“I believe libraries are essential for informed and participatory democracy, and that there is therefore an ideological war on them via cuts and closures, depriving individuals and communities of their right to knowledge and becoming on their own terms.”
“That’s what public library means: something communal. The important thing about the notion of a public library now is that it’s the one place you can just turn up to, a free space, a democratic space where anyone can go.”
“The brand new building brought with it the idea that our local history was important — that books were important, but also that we were too, and that where we lived was, that it had a heritage and a future that mattered.”
“A library card in your hand is your democracy.”
“Because libraries have always been a part of any civilization they are not negotiable. They are part of our inheritance.”
“…it is the poorest, most isolated and the least able in our society who suffer most if they are gone. So if our society does not care for libraries, then it is not caring for its most vulnerable.”
— Excerpts from Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith
Thank you for being my Public Library today, Ex Libris!
It is also here that great writing intersects with my fascination for Iran.
But first, the trivia: — This novel became an inspiration for Assassin’s Creed, although it was published long before the era of video games. — It was written in 1938, after Slovenian Vladimir Bartol spent ten years of extensive research on the Assassins, as a response to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. — Bartol intended to dedicate the first edition to Benito Mussolini, but it goes without saying that no publisher would have allowed that. — The nature of the book is frightening that it led a recent reviewer from L’Express in France to write, “If Osama bin Laden did not exist, Vladimir Bartol would have invented him.”
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While there are many myths surrounding the Order of the Assassins who inspired terror from 1090 to 1275, it is agreed among historians that no enemy of theirs ever managed to evade their daggers. The fanaticism of their followers readily willing to die for their cause became legendary. They felled viziers, emirs, and caliphs, shaped the entire political landscape in the region according to their conceits, and held the reins of power for almost two hundred years. Their most mighty fortress stood in Iran, the “Eagle’s Nest,” the impregnable Alamut.
_ _ _
Engrossing, tragic, and rife with philosophy, Bartol also plays on the myths, but this novel is essentially a chilling warning against charismatic leaders who test the limits of human blindness, against ideologies that have the ability to manipulate minds and emotions and subsequently annihilate logical thought.
My Name is Red was unlike anything I had ever read that it drove a scimitar across my consciousness sixteen years ago. Its literary mischief, its bursts of color, and its contemplations on art and style ushered me into a whole new world of literature.
Since then I have been looking for the Pamuk I encountered there in each of his books. I admit that I even looked for the actual Pamuk and visited his Museum of Innocence, on the European side of that wondrous city straddling two continents, with the hope of bumping into him.
I never seemed to encounter that Pamuk again but I would instead go on to discover other aspects of him, other aspects of the city so inextricably entwined with his soul, and other aspects of myself.
As serendipity would have it, his books have been present in life’s significant moments to vivify specific memories. On the way back home from Turkey in 2016 and while inside a cafe waiting for someone, I attempted to finish reading Istanbul in Manila. I soon found out that the book would not exactly become a favorite — the consolation is that the person I waited for would be.
While I cannot say that every single work by Pamuk wholly appeals to me, he bottles the sounds, the smells, the sights, the tastes, the textures, the realities, and the melancholies of Turkey; and allows me to be, as he would say, “In possession of another world”.
Pamuk has, in some measure, shaped my mindscape, and I would have remained a much poorer reader and traveler had I not stumbled across that mass market paperback copy of My Name is Red one fateful day at the Fully Booked branch at Greenhills Promenade. I have since upgraded my editions to two different trade paperbacks and then to hardcover, re-reading it each time a new edition fell into my hands.
“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion… open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.” — Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
Nights of Plague
Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.
Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?
Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about present-day Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901.
This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, and revolutions, nationalism, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.
It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.
Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.
“Nothing can penetrate into the cracks, holes, and invisible gaps of life as fast or as thoroughly as words can. It is in these cracks that the essence of things — the things that make us curious about life, about the world — can be first ascertained, and it is good literature that first reveals them.”
The White Castle (a re-reading)
Fifteen years ago The White Castle meant nothing more to me than a tale set in the 17th century about an Italian intellectual who sets sail from Venice to Naples only to be captured by Turks and brought to Constantinople where his master would turn out to be his doppelgänger. I knew it was a novel about identity, but it did not leave a lasting impression back then.
I had even forgotten that this was set during a pandemic wherein people lived in fear of the plague! “Janissaries guarded the entrances to the market-places, the avenues, the boat landings, halting passers-by, interrogating them: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?’”
The same questions that each doppelgänger would often ask the other and himself — the same questions that confront the reader.
Through my re-reading, I discovered nuances that were lost to my younger mind; and passages that I previously failed to mark with a pencil leapt up from the pages with intensity.
Over the course of time, the two characters’ lives would become inextricably entwined, they would embark on engineering projects, study astronomy, work on other branches of science, write books and and share a life together. As soon as Pamuk tricks us into thinking that one is inferior to the other, and into making us think we have a good grasp of who is truly master or slave, their roles would be reversed until it becomes difficult to tell them apart. And yet, their likeness is something that they do not acknowledge openly.
By and by, the question of who is superior? fades into oblivion and metamorphoses into who is who?
On one occasion, the Sultan asks them, “Have you two never looked at yourselves in the mirror together?”
And there it was, the very point that I missed hiding in plain sight — East and West personified!
And who else more qualified to write about their tumultuous but inevitable relationship? But of course! A man from that city perched on both East and West!
A Strangeness in My Mind
The first page of this book quotes a passage from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: “I had melancholy thoughts… A strangeness in my mind, A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place.”
For someone who has felt like an anachronism all her life, I felt like I owned these lines. It was as if I was meant to read the book just for this, and having come across it right at the start, the rest of the book was an additional literary present.
There are things Pamuk writes that make me uncomfortable, but these simultaneously compel me to admire a straightforwardness about life that only the most courageous writers can execute. It is only through this book that I have seen for myself what all his works have in common — aside from providing details that escape the average consciousness, perhaps a result of having gone to architecture school — every book is a love story, no matter the plot or the characters: A love story between a writer and a place; between a writer and Istanbul, or Kars; between a writer and Turkey; a love story about the effects of the bittersweet passing of time on a place; about someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions, from its spectacular buildings to its impoverished slums, from its most magnificent cities to its humble villages, from its splendid past to what it is now; a love story with a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen its glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.
A friend who has been to Turkey and Iran, and who is enamored with these places as much as I am, left this book inserted between the finials of our gate last Monday. “It’s hard to put that book down,” he followed up with a message.
Turkey has always been at the crossroads of history, but this book is a perceptive look into the inner lives of the Turkish people and their nation’s place in the world particularly amid the Second World War.
It calls to mind how, during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, Turkey provided a refuge for the 250,000 Jews banished by Spain in the 1490s and how a whole district in Istanbul was allocated to them.
The characters echo this magnanimous era by plotting the escape of a handful of Jews via the “Last Train to Istanbul” from Paris. This musician’s heart fell for its musical passages. It is thrilling and touching in many ways, and I was impressed to learn, by the end of the book, that it is based on the experiences related by Turkish diplomats who were posted in Europe during WWII.
“You don’t fall in love in the midst of a civil war, when you are hemmed in by carnage and by hatred on all sides… You don’t lose your heart at a time when hearts are supposed to remain sealed, especially for those who are not of your religion, not of your language, not of your blood. You don’t fall in love in Cyprus in the summer of 1974… and yet there they were…”
Yes, this novel is about a love that blossomed in Cyprus. A forbidden love between a Greek boy and a Turkish girl in that island country that cradles Nicosia, the only divided capital in the world — split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
But if you have been reading the author for some time, you know that she transcends her pretty book covers, and usually gives voice to those who do not have any, and calls attention to an abundance of topics and pressing issues; and you get the inkling that it cannot be entirely about love.
Aside from being delighted that a favorite poem of mine, Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy, features significantly in the story, this novel moved me so much more than I thought it would. I feel that this is where Elif Shafak has achieved a balance of the elements: culture, tradition, superstition, history, loss, grief, relationships, home, migrations, nationalism, violence, fear, mental health, feminism, eco-consciousness, intergenerational memory and trauma, inherited pain, the histories and stories in families that affect the next generation…
Matters seemingly impenetrable to language, and yet they are carried out — narrated by a fig tree!
Naturally, a fig tree. Can it possibly be Elif Shafak without the whimsy? And yet this is a wise fig tree who might, at length, aid the reader in understanding… what these Ithakas mean.
“Things We Fear” — As soon as I learned about the Ex Libris (book club) theme for this month, I immediately took Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad from my shelf. Not a fan of the horror genre, it is one of the few I own that seems closely related to the theme.
Set in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad, the novel is a winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and a finalist of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. However, it took me a while to process how I felt about it.
A couple of passages eventually led me to conclude that this walking corpse, stitched up from different body parts of victims of violence, is the author’s grim portrait of what it means to be an Iraqi today: “Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds — ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes — I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen, he thinks.”
“The definitive image of him was whatever lurked in people’s heads, fed by fear and despair. It was an image that had as many forms as there were people to conjure it.”
I think the novel is powerful in its own way, and it did give me goosebumps on the last page — but it did not really scare me.
So… If we did not have the power outage today that made me miss the book session, I would have presented The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak instead.
Because, come on! Love is already scary enough! How much more if you add Forty Rules to it? Haha!
Finished only on the third attempt as a humorous attempt to present something “scary” in a bookclub session, I feel conflicted because it features a lot of what I am currently interested in — a time and place where the Crusades and Mongol conquests intersected, a time of Assassins and Mamluks, and basically the time when Rumi lived! I enjoyed the historical details but not so much the parts where the prose got syrupy and saccharine. It has its own beauty, but I think another reader might fare better.
“It is mostly through stories that we learn to think, perceive, feel and remember the world in a more nuanced and reflective way. As we gain a better understanding of the struggles of people from different backgrounds, and start to imagine lives beyond the one we are living, we recognize the complexity and richness of identities and the damage we do to ourselves and to others when we seek to reduce them to a single defining characteristic.”
“If wanting to be heard is one side of the coin, the other side is being willing to listen.”
“…we have become bad listeners and even worse learners. Whether in public or digital spaces nuanced debates are not welcome anymore. Instead there are clashing certainties… They are not there to listen and they are not there to learn.”
“If and when I am a reluctant listener, I will also become a poor learner. I will interact less and less with theories and opinions that do not agree with mine. And there will come a point when I will simply stop talking to people who are different from me.”
“When coexistence is undermined in this way societies become extremely polarized and bitterly politicized, ever wary of the ‘other side and their intentions’. Democracy, which is essentially about compromise and negotiation, conflict resolution and pluralism, a system of checks and balances, suffers from this constant tension and escalating antagonism… It is not a coincidence that all across the world authoritarian demagogues go to great lengths to incite and inflame polarization. They know they will benefit from it.”
Written by Elif Shafak during the pandemic and reading this amidst the cacophony of the Philippine political menagerie, this little book cannot be more relevant.
What if we can transform this age of division into an age of reading, connecting, engaging, listening, learning, examining our assumptions and stereotypes, expanding our minds, and softening our hearts? Who is willing?