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Liana Badr: رج عين المرآة (Eye of the Mirror)

This novel is set in the Tal el-Zaatar refugee camp, where in the 1970s some 50,000-60,000 Palestinian refugees were located. The camp was in Lebanon, in northeast Beirut. In 1975, Lebanese Christian Phalangists attacked a bus killing twenty-seven people and wounding nineteen, in revenge for an earlier attack that day. This increased enmity between the Palestinians and Phalangists, leading ultimately to the Siege of Tel al-Zaatar. This novel starts with the bus massacre but leads on to the Siege.

The story centres on a specific Palestinian family in the Tel al-Zaatar camp and focusses, in particular, on the eldest daughter, Aisha. Aisha had managed to get an education at a convent school. In return for cleaning duties, she got a free education. This meant she had to rise before the other girls and clean the convent and then while the girls were having breakfast, she would clean their rooms. The nuns forbade her from talking to the richest girls. The novel starts, just after the Bus Massacre, when Aisha’s mother, Khadijeh, arrives at the convent to take Aisha away from the convent. Aisha is not happy about this, as she likes getting an education and even accepts the Catholic faith, abandoning her Muslim roots.

Back at their house, where the family lives, Aisha once more has to face her abusive, alcoholic father, Assayed. Assayed does not work. Instead, he sends his wife out to work (cleaning) and then forces her to hand over the money, which he spends at the local café on arak. The café is run by Khawajah Yacoub, a Lebanese Christian. Initially, the pair get on but, after the Bus Massacre, Assayed and other Palestinians go less and less to the café. Many of the men (but not Assayed) have joined local patrols to protect their people. Relations between the two communities had been good. The Lebanese did exploit the Palestinians, giving them underpaid, poor quality jobs. However, the Palestinians could not obtain work permits and the Lebanese were prepared to give them jobs, albeit at a lower rate and working in poor conditions.

Aisha has little prospects as she has not qualified from the convent school, so she stays at home, while her siblings are at school, her father drinking and her mother cleaning. However, things change when, one day, Assayed brings home a young man, George (his nom de guerre), whom, he claims, is a friend of Jalal, Assasyed’s oldest son who is with the PLO. Aisha soon falls in love with George but George is destined to marry Hana, a tough young woman who works as a radio operator for the PLO. Aisha continues to deepen her desire for George but it is apparent that he is destined for Hana.

Eventually, after thinking too deeply about it, Aisha asks her mother to take her to meet Hana. Khadijeh is acting as matchmaker for George and mother and daughter go to Hana’s house to meet her parents. Traditional negotiations take place while Aisha studies Hana, finding her quite ordinary and wondering what George sees in her. Aisha’s despair is deepened when she learns that one of George’s comrades-in-arms, Hassan, saw her and has fallen for her. Aisha’s parent are very keen on the marriage and Aisha’s stern refusal is forcibly rejected, Indeed, her father is eager for the wedding to take place quickly, not least because there has been a hitch with the marriage of Hana and George and Assayed wants to avoid any trouble with his daughter’s wedding. Aisha puts up all sorts of resistance but cannot fight her role as a Palestinian woman.

Meanwhile, the siege is intensifying. There is now regular shelling and people are being killed. Basic supplies – medical supplies, food and even drinking water – are becoming harder to obtain. The Phalangists are closing off entrance and exit routes, even blowing up the sewers which the fedayeen have been using. Badr gives us a detailed description of what is happening in the camp and even interjects herself into it, by showing herself as a visiting reporter, describing the scenario. Badr does not hide her criticism of those she considers responsible – the Phalangists, the US, particularly Henry Kissinger, and the Syrians.

We know how it turns out – badly – with virtually every male we have met in the book ending up dead and the women and girls barely surviving. Badr tells a harrowing story of suffering and grief. She writes both from the perspective of a Palestinian, telling of the suffering of her people (one of the world’s greatest wonders is that I am unable to enter my country or pass through the regions around it), as well as from the perspective of a woman. The Palestinian women in this book suffer, losing their sons and husbands, but they are also subject to traditional mores, including having their husbands chosen for them by their parents, having to do all the work, both domestic and money-earning, while the husbands drink and talk or fight, obeying the men in most things and being subject to physical violence by their men.

There is nothing positive to take out of this book, except for Aisha, now pregnant and possibly a widow taking responsibility for her fate and that of her child. The situation of the Palestinians has not improved and does not seem likely to. Many of the men in this book seem convinced that there were will soon be a Palestinian state but the likelihood of that happening now seems more remote than ever. Reading this novel can only show us their suffering which we know is not about to end.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Dār Tūbqāl lin-Našr
First published in English by Garnet in 1994
Translated by Samira Kawar