The first International Prize for Arabic Fiction, dubbed the Arabic Booker and launched this year, will be announced in Abu Dhabi on 10 March. Al-Ahram Weekly reviews three of the shortlisted novels and talks to two of their authors
Stories of the in-between
Ard al-Yambous (Land of Limbo), Elias Farkouh, Amman: Al Mouassassa and Al Arabiya and Azminah, 2007. pp233
Elias Farkouh's novel Ard al-Yambous (Land of Limbo), which is on the shortlist for the 2008 Arabic Booker Prize, is a work that "combines the structure of the autobiography of a specific man with the biography of exiled man in general," according to the citation by the jury for the award. It is a novel "that discusses the power of time and the vulnerability of the human being in a fresh and original language, using a number of different voices."
Born in 1948 in Amman, Jordan, in his novel Farkouh recounts fragments of his own autobiography, giving details of his movements between Amman and Jerusalem as a child, and his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Mariam, against a background of exile and war.
Farkouh was in Cairo last week to attend the Cairo Novel Conference, where he was a member of the six-person jury that would decide the recipient of the Conference's own prize. He took time out from his duties for the Cairo Novel Prize to talk to the Weekly about Land of Limbo, commenting on the autobiographical features of his novel.
Land of Limbo is "not an autobiographical novel, but rather a novel that uses autobiographical techniques to deal with a period, childhood, of anyone's life," Farkouh says. "Writing a 'fictionalised' autobiography requires a kind of a tacit agreement between the author and the reader that all the events and characters in the novel are nevertheless true, and my novel does not claim that."
The novel itself is divided into three sections, "The Ship," "The Names," and "Limbo," the last section being described as "a kind of in-between area, a sacred place that separates hell from heaven and scepticism from nihilism." The author also uses the term to refer to his own sceptical feelings about himself, as well as about the world around him, and even the validity of certain narrative techniques. Could the same story be written in two very different ways, for example, he asks. Which of these two ways would best withstand the test of time? And what of the possibility of a third version, constructed by the reader of the novel?
This sceptical attitude also extends to the narrator of the novel himself, who questions the story, as well as the relevance of the novel form and the adequacy of concepts such as heroism or fulfillment. "The value system, the social contract, that used to govern our Arab societies has now dissolved," Farkouh claims. "And the result is that every individual now seeks his own benefit, regardless of the interests of society as a whole. When values vanish, nothing is real or certain, and the world becomes a puzzle." Something of this "puzzle" he has presented in Land of Limbo.
Farkouh's use of the Jordanian colloquial in the novel, and not just for the dialogue, also comes as a shock to the reader, the juxtaposition of the classical language with Jordanian colloquial and Egyptian ammiya breaking the flow of the narration and forcing the reader to stop and ponder the source of the colloquial language, as if some other writer has interrupted the text.
"The use of the colloquial language was well considered. It is not there to shock," Farkouh says, "but rather to illustrate the difference between two ways of narrating the same story. There is the 'oral' way, and there is the 'literary' way, especially when it comes to the scenes related to Khudur Shaweesh, who tells his life story in his own words, inserting Palestinian, rather than Jordanian, language into his dialogue with the narrator." Shaweesh is an ordinary man who works as a guard in the British camps in Palestine, and he is, Farkouh explains, the novel's only "real character."
As for the novel's main protagonist, he tells a story that is similar to that of the author's own, though there is no reference in the novel to Amman as the scene in which it is set. Instead, there is a great deal of reference to the history of Eastern Christianity, which seems to suggest that religion can function as a substitute for history.
Farkouh explains that the religious references, like that to the Christian Limbo itself, are also questioned in the novel. "For the narrator, limbo is a satisfactory answer to questions about heaven and hell and about God's treatment of his creation. In fact, the novel as a whole is predicated on what you might call 'shifting ground' or 'quicksand.' Limbo is a sort of space between two warring camps, with the novel asking whether limbo can be seen as a place of redemption or as a final destination that offers the narrator a kind of 'middle place' between dark and light, or black and white, being a place where people can look at heaven and hell from afar."
While limbo in the novel has this kind of existential resonance, it also has a political one, since, Farkouh says, limbo is also a metaphor for contemporary Jerusalem. "The conflict continues because the Muslims, Jews and Christians each consider Jerusalem to be their 'sacred monopoly'. Yet, if we are able to understand that Jerusalem is also a place in which all religions can coexist, then the crisis will be partly solved."
One of the novel's most striking scenes is when the narrator as a boy creeps along the narrow corridors of a church with his girlfriend, climbing up stairs in order to watch a funeral service taking place below. The two children focus intently on the body in the decorated box, as if they are watching the end of their own lives. When the male narrator gets scared, hiding his head in Mariam's breast, she stays calm and watches the scene as if unconcerned by it.
In contrast to this intently remembered presentation of Christian ritual, other scenes in the novel describe the church as a cold, depressing place. Repeating a statement that his father used to make that "nothing is ever complete," the narrator even questions Christ himself. "The secret behind the power of Jesus is that he lived among us as a human being. But being a human being means not being perfect," he says.
Farkouh explains that in his view "the sacredness of the church stems from the fact that it is a symbol of God and not that it is a sacred place in itself. The church in the novel is a place that interacts with the characters. It is a place to which people with all their contradictions can, surprisingly enough, react very differently."
The boy's reactions upon seeing the body are different to those of Mariam, for example. Even when they are both grown up and meet again 30 years later, she is still more self-confident and self-possessed. "There is one stereotype I meant to challenge, and that is that courage is given to boys rather than girls," Farkouh says.
Place in general does not play a large role in the novel, places most often appearing in the form of tales told by different characters. There is a glimpse of Jaffa, for example, in Khudur's memories of the city. Jaffa, for him, meant freedom. It was where he proved himself to himself and proved his prowess to the other boys around him. Though skinny, Khudur had unexpected strength, and his ability to work gained him a reputation in what was then an Arab city, making him ideal material for later work with the occupying British army.
After the events of 1948, and with Khudur having to leave Jaffa for Amman in the face of the declaration of the state of Israel and Israeli aggression, his life takes a more difficult twist, and he is forced to live on the margins of Jordanian society as a refugee. He can only escape this harsh new reality by telling the narrator about his happier memories of Jaffa, now a sort of paradise lost. Unlike Khudur's memories of Jaffa, Jerusalem in the narrator's memories is synonymous with boredom. The city deprived him of his freedom as a child when his parents forced him to study there at a boarding school, and this took him away from his playmates and particularly from his childhood sweetheart Mariam.
Throughout the novel, Farkouh's language is highly wrought, and he uses a poetic language that raises questions about the genre of his writing: is this a novel, or is it a work of poetry?
"When I was younger, driving my car at dawn through the streets of Amman, I used to listen to the voice of Sheikh Abdel-Baset Abdel-Samad reciting Qur'anic verses," Farkouh remembers. "His magical tone, together with the powerful and condensed language of the Qur'an, made me fall in love with the language and liberated my imagination. Meanwhile, I also used to read modern poets, whose language is completely different from the Qur'anic language." Farkouh believes that modern Arabic novels have acquired poetic features that they did not have years ago, adding to their particularity.
In the novel's final scene, for example, the narrator is in hospital, waiting to be operated on. Uncertain and confused, he enters the operating theatre as if entering his own grave, and in his delirium he hallucinates in a language notable for its sudden shirts of tone and register: "Fingers like cotton wool, white, smelling like baby soap, touching your shoulder, your face, your hands, touching your whole body. And what did those fingers tell you? Do you remember? Or was it at that moment that you withdrew from the world? You'll never get rid of this bundle of questions, the same way I'll never get rid of them. One question, though, intrudes on both of us, to which we'll never find an answer. The answer will always elude us, because, as father said, 'nothing is ever complete'. We'll always hold something in one hand and nothing in the other, while it'll be our fate to remain in the middle, neither here, nor there, neither in Paradise, nor in Hell. Is this a no-man's-land, or is it Purgatory in which we must remain bewildered? Bewilderment is a maze, a maze which, as Borges warned, has to be confronted by memory. We have to remember in order not to perish under the weight of all that's happened."
At the very beginning of the novel, the narrator's son rushes into his father's bedroom, shakes him gently, and says, "Dad! Wake up! Wake up! The war's going to start in half an hour!" What kind of war is it, the narrator wonders, that starts at a set hour? Yet, the war did start on time, on January 15, 1991, exactly at the time set by the Coalition forces for the ground attack on Iraq. This 1991 war was only a prelude to further wars in the Arab region, Farkouh believes, saying that there are more to come.
"Another war is imminent," he says. "I don't know what the pretext will be or exactly when it will take place, but I am certain there will be another war. Israel won't be satisfied with what it has gained thus far. It will keep on looting our resources, with the Arab peoples, not the Arab regimes, being the losers. We cannot just stay in limbo forever."
Interview & review by Rania Khallaf