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Ghassan Zaqtan: وصف الماضيالمرآة (Describing the Past)

Ghassan Zaqtan was a refugee more than once. His family had moved to Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town, after the Nakba in 1948. His father, a teacher, wanted to set up a girls’ school but this aroused some opposition so the family moved again, this time to Karameh. Though not named, this novel takes place there. The city was razed in 1968 following the Battle of Karameh and the memories of the place or, rather memories of the loss, are also key to the novel.

The events surrounding the Nakba, the Battle and Israeli occupation are only incidental to this novel. The novel has three main characters, called only I, he and she. Despite the third person denomination of the three, each one tells his/her story in the first person. The two males are boys at the beginning of the story. One – I -is known as the Christian and the other – he – as the Iraqi. He is not Iraqi but his uncle is. His uncle had been with the Iraqi forces fighting for the Palestinians in 1948. Those forces had protected some of the villages under Israeli attack. However, they had been given orders to stop fighting and leave, which upset them. The uncle stayed behind but still kept very much in touch with Iraq, listening to Iraqi radio and music. He managed to have Iraqi food brought to him but he never married and never returned to Iraq. As a result the entire family were called the Iraqis. I has a Christian mother and a Muslim father but is called Christian, because his Muslim father wears a crucifix, a gift from his Christian wife.

She was a young woman, living with her mother. An elderly Hadj offered to married her and look after her and her mother, which is what happened, though it sometimes seems as though the Hadj is more comfortable with the mother than the daughter. The two boys are clearly fascinated by the woman and spy on her. Indeed, they watch her sleeping in her house and, one occasion, I sees her naked. I loved her and knew she was greater than us, he comments. But this fascination with her is by no means pornographic but, rather, sensual. Her hair was wet, an implausible black, freshly brushed, there was a comb of white bone on the floor.

But, first the mother dies, then the Hadj and then I leaves the camp. The Iraqi marries the woman and they have a son. He becomes friends with Omar, since I left and, to her annoyance the pair spend a lot of time at the river. Again, it is the poetic that comes to the fore Omar’s voice was kind and shy, but with a dark rashness somewhere in its layers. She was right to be concerned, for he eventually drowns in the river.

The story is not told in chronological order. Indeed, it starts with his return to the camp. It was not easy at all. I had to return. There were so many things left to be done that could no longer be delayed, places where one had to sit, surfaces and peaks of mountains to stare into with strength, narrow and wide roads to walk over, hands to be clasped, many words to be said. Of course, on his return, he meets her, with her young son, now twice a widow. He is still attracted to her.

Memories and sensuality are key to this book but so, inevitably, is death. Death can be casual. When He is telling us about Omar, he casually mentions, at the end, Later on, he killed his sister. When reporting on the death of the Iraqi he states Everything was on its way towards completion. I was going towards death. The Hadj was dead. And he had drowned in the river some time ago.. But, given the political situation, it can be brutal. The woman’s father tells of the Israeli tactic of taking seven young men, with each one having to dig his own grave. He is then shot and buried by the next one. The last one survives to tell the story. There were so many murdered, everywhere, in 1948. Men, women, children, whole villages with names and traits and memories—they ended and died.

He remembers them all when he comes back. He remembers the dead At the thresholds of houses, on the low walls, on irrigation works and pools, the dead sat quietly, smiling under the weight of their dust but he remembers his friend and he remembers the woman. It is the coming back, of course, that triggers the memories, both his own and those of others. He remembers the story of his father visiting the abandoned village his wife came from, after the Nakba. He and his friends are fired on by both sides but they get there and find the village gone, with only the road remaining. The father finds a pomegranate tree and takes some back, staining his clothes. They sit in the table at home, uneaten, a reminder of what was.

Zaqtan is a poet and this is a poet’s novel. There is a story, of the three protagonists, the Hadj, and their families, but what makes this such a wonderful novel are the images that Zaqtan gives us, the sensual images of the woman, the image of the dead Hadj but also of the young men brutally murdered by the Haganah and, above all, the memories that the I character has of a place he has long since left, where many of those he knew have died but the woman, the woman that first attracted him, is still there.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Azminah, Amman
First published in English by Seagull Books in 2016
Translated by Samuel Wilder