“The homeland that killed us in its name”
Fiction Book Review
by Eman M.A. Elshaikh
Iman Humaydan’s latest novel The Weight of Paradise is a poignant evocation of the fight to defend and restore memory through the cyclical violence, exile, and suffering which seeks to annihilate it. Set mostly in Beirut in 1978 and 1994, the story lives “in the heart of the apocalypse” during the Lebanese Civil War and also emerges from its debris, struggling to piece itself together into an authentic whole. In this Beirut, even small distances are difficult to traverse, as the paths are encircled with violence or buried beneath its aftermath.
“Reconstructing, reconstruction,” laments Sabah, a central character who ties together and ruptures the narrative at different points. “Every day on radio and television they talk like this, too. Maybe they want to build and construct so that people will forget.”
Indeed, the novel feels like a rejection of forgetting, as the characters in their own ways are obsessed with retrieval. The novel interrogates memory and its antagonists masterfully. It probes the process of destruction and reconstruction and the ways in which they are irretrievably bound up in death, violence, and historical revisionism. In doing so, it is an unflinching portrayal of the violence that lives alongside the characters, who “had become skilled at managing their lives in its shadow.”
Humaydan intertwines the story of Maya, a recently widowed writer and mother who returns to Beirut from Paris in 1994 following her husband’s passing, with the stories Maya finds forgotten in a suitcase in an abandoned building. In the suitcase, Maya finds Noura, Kemal, and Sabah, and she instantly becomes obsessed with unpacking their history through their photographs, letters, and diaries.
She seeks out the eccentric but heart-breaking Sabah, an older woman living alone in the old Beirut neighbourhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, waiting for her disappeared husband to return and tending to her small garden, even through bombs and gunfire. Living virtually as a recluse, she initially meets Maya with hesitation, but ultimately tells Maya about Noura and Kemal’s lives as well as her own.
Sabah’s stories and recollections provide Maya with the connective tissue that brings Noura and Kemal’s story together. She learns about Noura’s self-imposed exile from Damascus after a tragedy in her family and how this exile becomes permanent once Noura starts writing the truth about what happened. She learns about the violence that follows such truths and will stop at nothing to silence them. She learns about Kemal, Noura’s lover in Istanbul, and the fragile life they try to build together. But these stories and their tellers are often treacherous, and Maya, like Noura, fights to save truth from oblivion.
Humaydan’s main achievement with this novel, which is full of despair and yet buoyed with a promise of love and hope, is in allowing the reader to “enter history through countless endless gates,” and in doing so, reread history. It imbues the narrative with a subtle promiscuity that disrupts even the reader’s own recollection. In doing so, it forces us to confront the silences and lacunas in our stories and how they can both ruin us and save us. It is also a meditation on the dangers of invented memory and the need to bear witness always. This force is present even in the sweet love story between Noura and Kemal. In her diary, Noura writes, “with him, my doubts about history books started to gain power and take on new meaning.”
Humaydan writes in a poignant and confessional voice, which shines most brightly in the pages of Noura’s diary and the letters from Kemal, where they write about loss, violence, and lost homelands. They trace their wounds together and look for origins and resting places. In their histories, one finds Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Turks and the lands that shift and subsume them under violent nations, lamenting “the homeland that killed us in its name” and yet finding fragments of homeland scattered everywhere.
Though these deliberations on homeland and its erasure are thoughtful, there is also a questionable sense that the violence and oppression of the Middle East are somehow primordial or inevitable. The various scenes, in Damascus, Beirut, and Istanbul, are seemingly always engulfed by death and violence. In these places, both the repressive state and its resistors, both communists and capitalists alike are irrationally cruel. A looming tyrannical government occludes all individuals, who are anonymous, interchangeable, and sublimated within classes or sects. It threatens to destroy indiscriminately and without reason. Government actors, like the ubiquitous and senseless “mukhabarat” are equally anonymous and robotic, incapable of poetry and truth. Though the novel is committed to history, these places seem to exist outside of it.
Perhaps this indictment of these societies as irretrievably violent is in fact an indictment of men, who in the novel are either absent or violent. Even the boys in the novel attain masculinity through violencing women, who in turn “retaliate against oppression by oppressing themselves.” In this novel, men push women out of their homelands, punishing them for their desires and their consciousness. “Oppression pushes women to emigrate, to flee,” Noura writes, “it’s the kind of oppression that often comes in the form of a man.” Indeed, Kemal, who was dressed as a girl in early childhood in order to avoid a curse against the family’s men, seems to be the only exception.
There is no denying the beauty of the intricate lives woven together by Humaydan in this touching novel. However, in The Weight of Paradise, some of these threads are too thin. The reader is riveted by the textured inner worlds of Noura and Kemal but is left craving more of characters like Sabah and Maya. Sabah’s fascinating story still craves excavation, as her inner life remains opaque. The reader gets glimpses of her effervescence and her desire to fly and senses the decay of that spirit over time. Through the moving stories of her two lives, her desire for freedom, and her will to be a witness, the reader does not truly get a sense of her pain, but merely its imminence. Maya’s voice is poetic yet truncated, and though the backdrop of her life is sketched, the reader gets only a hazy sense of its detail. Through the suitcase, Maya inherits a reservoir of memory and seems to exist primarily to dip into it. Because of this, the novel ends before its force can be fully explored and resolved. In other words, the problem with The Weight of Paradise is that it was too brief.
The Weight of Paradise is a powerful call to question our histories, and in doing so, it is a call to question the violence that lives at the heart of it and possibly at the heart of our natures. “But this is us: we feed the poor, we laugh at a passing joke, we love, we mourn, we dance, but we also kill our neighbours in civil wars. Since we are like that, how can we describe ourselves?