Deserts stormed, people adrift
By Devalina Mookerjee
13th July 2012 10:29 AM
The three new books in the Arabesque series are intertwined with notions of home, memory and imagination, focusing on the contemporary turmoil in parts of the Arab world. Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home chronicles the voices of those who were forced to leave, and now live in other countries around the world. Dreaming of Baghdad is the account of a woman who served in the resistance when Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq. She was captured, tortured, and imprisoned at Abu Ghraib, and now lives in exile. The Tiller of Waters is the only work of fiction in what may be loosely described as a trilogy. Translated from Arabic, it chronicles the haunting story of a man, native to Beirut, and knowing no other place but the bombed-out remains of his city, within which he tries to nurture, or negotiate, what life can be found in the ruins.
There are several compelling narratives in the first volume. ‘Home and Exile in East Jerusalem’ is a telling of soft tactics in settler takeover, involving the placement of handicapped parking signs on streets with negligible pavements and garbage removal, and no working lights. ‘The Driver Mahmoud’ taxies the author of the story and other passengers through the very fraught geographical and political terrain from Ramallah to Jericho, while his passengers alternately joke about the state of the world, and fret, in the manner of travellers on a delayed suburban train.
Haifa Zangana, the author of Dreaming of Baghdad, speaks with a different voice. In the 1970s, she was part of a group of activists who, in their dream of a better Iraq, opposed the Baath Party and its then popular leader Saddam Hussein. This powerful and disturbing memoir records her capture, torture and long imprisonment under that regime.
The Tiller of Waters, by Hoda Barakat, is about the love of fabric transposed against the love of city that has been destroyed by violence. Its protagonist is from a family that are cloth merchants for generations and has inherited an appreciation of handmade fabrics that predate mass production. Putting a bombed-out Beirut as the milieu, he tells the stories of linen (with its curative qualities) and velvet, lace (thread mixed with air) and cotton, and the rare costly fabric for which a passageway was carved across much of Asia — silk. The narrative follows his effort to survive in a situation that would be unimaginable to most people, using this love to protect himself from the seriously disturbing reality of his actual circumstances.
The experiences of the Arabic world are often lost to us in India because of constraints of access, part of which is language. Much of the information we get is subject to various kinds of filters of statehood and identity. The Arabesque series helps in filling that gap.
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