Thursday, July 12, 2018

review of Rana Haddad's novel 'The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor'

English version of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat newspaper on 12 July 2018.

Rana Haddad tells a Syrian love story in English

The Syrian-British writer and journalist Rana Haddad has worked widely in print media and TV as a researcher, editor, producer, and translator. At the same time, she writes poetry, and fiction. An illustrated book of her poems, The Boy Moon: Lost Love Poems Found in an Envelope, appeared in 2008.

Now her debut novel, The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, has been published by Hoopoe – an imprint of the American University in Cairo Press As in her poetry book, the moon is a recurring symbol in Haddad’s novel.

Haddad has a degree in English literature from Cambridge University in the UK. She told Al-Hayat:“ I tried to write fiction in my twenties but it was impossible for me then, it always turned out too poetic. I needed to learn to become more practical. Journalism, and especially working in television I think helped me with that, especially the structure aspect of fiction over such a long canvas.” (See the interview with Rana Haddad on this blog).

Dunya Noor, the heroine of Haddad’s novel, grows up in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia in the 1980s. She is the daughter of Syria’s most famous heart surgeon Dr Joseph Noor and his glamorous blonde English wife Patricia.

Haddad herself grew up in Latakia, daughter of a Syrian father, and a Dutch-Armenian mother. She left Syria at the age of fifteen and has lived since then mainly in London, but also in Paris, Madrid and, for a short time, Beirut. She says the plot of her novel is “very much a fiction, but the settings and impressions are all mine. This is the Syria I lived in as a child and teenager and later visited over the years.”

She dedicates her novel to Syria and its children and also to her father Marwan, “whose love for his country was deep and unbreakable.”

The novel brings 1980s and 1990s Syria vividly to life. Haddad writes with candour and humour and, through satire shows the pressures and restrictions facing people living under a repressive regime.

Though the novel is set in a system that curbs freedom, Haddad’s writing is full of light and is rich in poetry, songs, music, and engaging depictions of characters and places. Haddad wrote almost all the poetry in the book. An exception is a song made famous by Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez, “The Coffee Cup Reader”, the words of which Haddad translates. In the novel, a female fortune teller who reads coffee grounds plays a crucial part in the plot.

Dunya is a unique creation. Her father is well connected in the upper echelons of Syrian society, and the family lives in luxury. But Dunya does not comply with what is expected of a girl of her age and class. She has inherited her father’s mop of curly black hair rather than her mother’s blonde locks. She shows much independence of spirit and is endlessly curious about the mysteries she perceives around her.

When Dunya first falls in love, at the age of eight, the object of her love is an old-fashioned camera which she buys from a shop. The old shopkeeper tells her it “a box of light, a machine that can see. If you buy it I promise to teach you its secrets.” As an adult, Dunya becomes an art photographer whose work is shown at exhibitions. References to light and photography occur throughout Haddad’s novel.

Dunya is very interested in love, a subject she researches. Her parents are shocked when they learn from gossip that she has been seen hand in hand with a fisherman’s son who refers to her as his fiancée. Dunya discovered that real love was love at first sight, which “was produced when twin souls happened to look into each other’s eyes”, but in her relationship with the fisherman’s son she had done nothing but cause a scandal.

The concept of twins is entwined with the novel’s intricate plot. There are echoes of Shakespeare plays featuring twins and mistaken identities, such as The Comedy of Errors – which has two pairs of male twins - or Twelfth Night with its male and female twins Sebastian and Viola. Viola disguises herself as her brother by wearing men’s clothes.

At the age of thirteen, Dunya gets into serious political trouble after a woman school instructor in Youth Military Education orders the pupils to take part in a political demonstration. Dunya refuses to take part, and then refuses to apologise for her absence. Nor does she accept the punishment of crawling like a caterpillar along the cement playground.

Dunya’s defiance enrages the instructor Miss Huda, “a twenty-two-year-old despot with scary contacts in the Baath Party and extra-black kohl that she used to enhance her terror-inducing eyes”. When the instructor asks “is this because you are against the Baath Party?” Dunya nods her head. Miss Huda says “Yes? Did you say yes? Say it, say it to my face, say the word! Are you against our great Baath Party?” Dunya replies “Yes”.

Miss Huda rushes to the local headquarters of the Baath Party to inform them of Dunya’s grave offence. Patricia, realising the danger her daughter is in, rushes her to the airport and flies with her to the safety of her grandparents in England. Dunya’s parents decide it is safer for Dunya to stay in England, “for how could anyone be sure she would not open her mouth and tell the truth again?”

But despite being “50 percent English” Dunya finds it hard to adapt to life in England and is critical of English society. English teenagers appear to be fixated on sex, but never mention love. She had left her heart in Syria, but it would be ten years before she would see the country again.

One day Dunya sees and photographs a handsome young man sitting on a bench in London reading a book with the Arabic title “Biography of the Moon”. The pair are instantly attracted to each other: “Love came to them like lightning, the way they’d both heard it sometimes did.”

Hilal is a brilliant student, winner of the Aleppo University Physics Prize physics, which included a full postgraduate grant to study in London. He is studying the moon. His parents are tailors, his father Said a Sunni and his mother Suad an Alawite. Originally from southern Syria, they had fled to Aleppo from their families when they got married. But they remain unhappy. “The source of his parents’ unhappiness became more and more of a mystery to Hilal as the years went by.”

 Dunya secretly starts living with Hilal, without the knowledge of his or her parents. When Hilal does not hear from his parents for six months, and then receives a letter from his mother saying his father had died, he returns to Syria with Dunya.

Dunya’s father Dr Noor, a Christian, is furious that his daughter is in love with a Muslim from a humble family of tailors in Aleppo. He orders him to leave Latakia for Aleppo and to never have anything to do with Dunya again. Dunya tells her mother she will never give Hilal up. But the next day she finds he has vanished from the hotel where he was staying in in Latakia. The hotel [male] receptionist say he was taken away by two men in a Mercedes with darkened windows. To Dunya it is clear he has been abducted by Baath Party members or the mukhabarat.

Dunya travels to Aleppo in search of Hilal and sees in the street a young man who looks just like him. She follows him to an all-men’s café and finds he is a hakawati named Najim. He plays the oud, performs songs and engages in repartee with the customers. When he invites Dunya to his home, and he tears off his moustache and men’s clothes and reveals himself as a stunningly beautiful girl, Suha, a baker’s daughter.

Dunya is dazzled by Suha, and her rapturous infatuation with her overshadows even the memory of her beloved Hilal. Suha tries to helps her Dunya find Hilal, and gradually the mysteries within The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor are revealed.
Susannah Tarbush, London