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Liana Badr :بوصلة من أجل عباد الشمس (Compass of the Sunflower)

Liana Badr’s first novel does not have a formal plot but, rather, we follow the story of Jinan, a young Palestinian woman, against the background of the various horrors that Palestinians suffered during this period. Though the Nakba is mentioned, for Jinan the key events seem to be he 1967 war, Black September, the 1970 war and the Lebanese Civil War. The story is not told chronologically, as we jump backwards and forwards in time, seeing episodes of the life of Jinan and those closest to her as well, of course, what is happening to the Palestinians.

Badr does not hold back on her bitterness about what has happened to the Palestinians. The only dates we remember are the Balfour declaration, the Rogers visit and the carnage of black September. (Rogers was Nixon’s Secretary of State about whom Henry Kissinger said Few secretaries of state can have been selected because of their president’s confidence in their ignorance of foreign policy).

We follow her various family members. Her father is imprisoned more than once. After the 1967 war, when they had been living in Jericho, she and her brother Sima are separated from their parents as their mother is focussed on looking after her newly born son and they have to live with their aunt Salima for a while. (The issue of crossing borders, which occurs in other Palestinian novels is key as the Israelis often restrict who can and cannot cross various borders. Many Palestinian families were separated, often for a long time after the Nakba and the subsequent wars, particularly the 1967 one.)

Salima has a son Amer. When they were young Amer and Jinan played boys’ games together, of which her mother strongly disapproved. A girl is expected to behave like a lady and help her mother in the house. This brings up another key theme, which we also find in other Palestinian novels, namely the changing role of women. Previously, girls were kept at home, did not mix with boys except for their close relatives and did what their parents told them to do, including marrying a man selected for them by their parents. All this changes here. Jinan and her female friends are rebellious. They challenge the authorities and their parents (and get into trouble), post pro-Palestinian posters and slogans, and eventually get involved in the struggle and choose their own boyfriends (Jinan’s is Shaher who says to her I love you but I might not be right for you, You won’t always be able to find me ). We will find Jinan both carrying a gun and being fired at as well as acting as a nurse for those injured in the struggle. She will also cut her hair short and wear trousers as she is, she says, ashamed of her woman’s body during the struggle. Indeed, she is committed to the struggle.

The men, however, are not supportive of the changing role of women. Her cousin Amer says when he came back I’ll marry a girl who knows how to make sage tea and cook chicken in the oven with olive oil and onions while another says he would not marry a girl whose hymen was not still intact.However it is not just the younger women who are changing. One older woman who is illiterate is offered the chance to learn to read and write. She retorts that she would rather learn how to use a Kalashnikov and fight the enemy. As Jinan says When will we be involved in the real revolution and not just be on the sidelines?

Amer seemed to be a serious young man, very much involved in the struggle. Jinan is therefore very surprised to see his photo standing on the steps of a plane he and his comrades have hijacked. We will follow this story for much of the book as the hijackers try to get a prisoner swap, try to get fuel and food and try to find a safe place to land.

There is one dominant image and one dominant sound. Early in the book Jinan will see blood on the ground. It turns out to be from an animal that has just been slaughtered by a butcher. However that image sets the tone as Jinan and we will see human blood throughout the book as people are killed and injured. There is one other interesting image, fusing sight and smell: The citrus groves of Jericho were ablaze with fragrant lemons and the choking smell of gunpowder .

The dominant noise is the noise of planes bombing the civilian population and shells falling on them. Jinan dodges them more than once.

Her life like the life of many Palestinians has been fleeing. Since our childhood, they told us to flee and reflect. We fled day and night, from Beersheba to Hebron, Hebron to the Balata camp in Nablus, Balata to the bridge. Amman. Paris. Cairo. Baghdad. Damascus. Kuwait. Other places whose names were sometimes familiar, and sometimes not. This has been the story of the Palestinians since 1948 and continues to be. Badr, in this book, shows us what it is like for them.

First published 1979 by Ibn Rusgd
First published in English by The Women’s Press in 1989
Translated by Catherine Cobham