Baghdad, Beirut, and the literature of return
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 20 April 2009
In his acclaimed memoir “I Saw Ramallah”, narrating his return to the West Bank after an absence of nearly 30 years, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes, “But I do know that the stranger can never go back to what he was. Even if he returns. It is over. A person gets ‘displacement’ as he gets asthma, and there is no cure for either.”
Barghouti’s memoir - the English translation of which was published in 2003 - is an example of what might be termed the Arab literature of return. Wars and political turmoil in the Arab world have, over the decades, inspired many literary works along the themes of displacement and exile. This literature is now being complemented by a growing body of works by those who have been courageous enough to return.
Iraqi journalist Zuhair Al-Jezairy’s “The Devil You Don’t Know” and Lebanese artist Zena Al-Khalil’s “Beirut, I Love You: A Memoir” are two books published recently by Saqi, a London and Beirut based publisher. Both illustrate the theme of displacement on return to Baghdad and Beirut, respectably.
Like Barghouti, Al-Jezairy and Al-Khalil both experienced a sense of displacement when they returned to their home countries. Though the feeling of being out of place was a painful experience at certain times, it enabled both writers to provide particularly acute accounts of their societies.
Al-Jezairy was an oppositionist and journalist when he fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1979. He first went to Beirut, and eventually found refuge in London. In “The Devil You Don’t Know” - a work that is ably translated from the Arabic version by John West - he depicts what he found when he returned to Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion. His impressions are juxtaposed with the memories of people and places of Iraq that he retains from his youth.
Zena Al-Khalil was born in London in 1976 to parents who hailed from Lebanon. She grew up in Nigeria and England, but at the age of 18 she decided to attend college in Beirut. Her book is a tribute not only to a city but also to her best friend and soul mate Maya, who died of cancer. “This was the woman who would share her version of Beirut with me,” she writes.
Al-Jezairy is the author of nine books, including two novels. “The Devil You Don’t Know” is endlessly illuminating, written in precise, poetic prose. The author lays bare often contradictory feelings. During the invasion he joined other Iraqis gathering in London “like frightened birds”. They were divided ideologically into those who supported and those who opposed the war, but he found himself personally internally divided.
Al-Jezairy conveys the surreal texture of life following the overthrowing of Saddam. People who had been silenced for years had to relearn narrative skills while others emerged from cellars where they had hidden for long periods. The invasion’s darker side, however, soon revealed itself when a horrific chain of violence consequently unleashed itself.
Al-Jezairy has been keen to help establish journalistic standards in Iraq. This is no mean task, especially as he admits that the “assassination of journalists has taken the place of censorship.” For some time, he was the editor of the newly-established newspaper, Al Mada, and is now editor-in-chief of the independent news agency Aswat al-Iraq (Iraqi Voices).
Al-Jezairy writes, “Books have defined my whole personal evolution and history.” Many of his memories of Iraq revolve around his friendships with fellow intellectuals, and clandestine meetings with girls. Both Iraq and the author have changed. He has had to get used to young men in the street respectfully calling him “hajji” or “uncle”, while at work budding journalists call him “doctor” or “teacher”. He professes a certain fondness for this new identity, writing “being over sixty, it is true that I loved being the teacher of these young journalists.”
He notes the tension between those who had stayed in Iraq and the “returnees”, who were often rewarded by the occupation. In journalism, insiders felt a sense of injustice because “the cocky outsiders arrived with their dollars to scoop up all the important staff jobs, while they, who had lived through the wars and endured the privations of the sanctions, ended up working as freelancers for peanuts.”
Zena Al-Khalil is from a younger generation of Arabs, born and raised abroad. During the Israeli attacks during the war of summer 2006, she became known for her blog “Beirut Update”. It was quoted by the BBC and CNN, and was published in newspapers including Der Spiegel in Germany and the Guardian in the UK.
Al-Khalil has also experienced growing success as a painter and installation artist, and one of her collages was sold at London auction house Sotheby’s last October. Indeed “Beirut, I Love You”, which is written in a fragmentary form, itself often resembles a collage. Al-Khalil completed a Masters in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2002, and she writes of the predicament of Arabs in the city after the 9/11 attacks. In a whimsical start to her book she imagines herself to have been reincarnated, starting as a Lebanese boy who drowned in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and was then reborn as the Druze singer Asmahan.
Al-Khalil conveys the hedonism of Beirut and recounts her adventures in the company of the equally rebellious Maya. She had difficulties with the expectations of Lebanese society. “No one knew how to deal with my tomboyish personality. My aunt would sigh every time I walked in with dirty sandals. My grandmother would shrug her shoulders when she saw me in torn-up jeans. And my cousins believed I was a hopeless case and that no one would ever marry me. How could anyone marry someone who only wore white baggy T-shirts?” she narrates.
Lebanon and Iraq have both been the subject of numerous books written by Westerners, but there are far fewer books available in English written by insiders of those two countries. Both memoirs are therefore valuable as they portray these war-inflicted societies as seen through the sharp eyes of two ‘returnees’.