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Halim Barakat: عودة الطائر الى البحر (Days of Dust)

For most people in the West their view of the 1967 Six Day War is essentially the Israeli one. This novel tells the story from the Arab perspective. Barakat tells the story, primarily of the actual six days, with both a preface and a coda about the few days afterwards, from the perspective of various Arabs who are directly or indirectly involved. Just so as we know what perspective he is to take, the preface, set just after the war, introduces us to two of the main characters. Ramzy, a Palestinian living in Beirut and studying medicine, has gone to a hospital to help the wounded. There he meets Taha Kannaan, who has major burns from napalm attacks (this was not, of course, mentioned in the Western Press).

Ramzy Safady is perhaps the main character. He is clearly well-to-do, living in a flat in Beirut. At the beginning of the story Pamela Anderson, an American woman, who has been travelling around the world with her husband, Walter, is at a loss as to where to spend the night. Her husband has suddenly returned to the United States, while the flat where she was staying with a friend is no longer available. Ramzy, who is just ending an affair with a married (Arab) woman, invites her to stay and during the course of the war, they start an affair and fall in love. Ramzy is, as are other Arabs, enthusiastic about the war, feeling that the Arabs will win and he can finally return to the Palestine of his youth. Yet he is also very apprehensive and a variety of images come into his mind, particularly the legend of the Flying Dutchman, travelling around the world and only able to land once every seven years, a situation Ramzy likens to the plight of the Palestinians. As the war proceeds, Ramzy becomes more and more despondent and very soon accepts the inevitable. He is caught up in mob violence in Beirut at the end, when students, whom Ramzy feels should have been fighting for the cause, demonstrate in favour of Nasser, who has just resigned.

Taha Kanaan helps fight against the Israelis in Jericho but eventually he takes his family – wife and children – and tries to flee the Israeli onslaught. While they are fleeing the civilians are attacked by Israeli planes and hit by napalm bombs. He watches as his wife and children are burnt alive (Barakat does not spare us the details) and he himself is badly injured, a state in which Ramzy finds him in the hospital. There are several others we meet, including those on the front line. Azmy Abdel Qadir in Jerusalem, for example, only wants to shoot an Israeli soldier but all he sees are waves and waves of planes. It is only right at the end that he manages to achieve his wish. Others are driven out of their homes and attacked by planes. The optimism soon changes rapidly to a realisation that the Arab armies are completely outclassed and that exile and turmoil will be their lot for many more years to come. The attitude of the West is also shown, with both the implied support of the United States and Britain (with resulting attacks on their respective embassies) and also TV images showing joy among the Jewish community in the United States. This attitude is something the narrator and characters cannot understand.

While the novel is certainly pro-Arab and anti-Israel – the dark side of the Israel attacks, such as the use of napalm and the cruelty any occupying army uses, is clearly shown – Barakat is just as interested in the failure of the Arab side, particularly the Arab leaders, and a lot of criticism is reserved for their lack of preparedness, excessive optimism and lack of coordination. But the strength of this novel is to see the ordinary Arab, the Arab in the street, and his reactions to the war.

Publishing history

First published in 1969 by Dar al-Nahar
First published in English 1974 by Medina University Press International
Translated by Trevor Le Gassick