Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise, a story of memory, violence, and the elusiveness of homeland

“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?

Interview with Zeina Hashem Beck

Lost to the News
Lost to the News By Nouf Semari, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

By Rewa Zeinati

Cities of longing, memory, love and war

RZ: Your first poetry collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize and will be published in August 2014 by the Backwaters Press, in Omaha, Nebraska. It was selected as a winning manuscript by notable poet Lola Haskins. You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and your individual poems have been published widely and frequently in many distinguished journals across the US. You are on the editorial board of All Roads Will Lead You Home, a new online literary journal by VAC poetry. A mother of two, founder of PUNCH, a monthly open-mic poetry evening, and runner of poetry workshops for adults and children (in Dubai, UAE.) What drives you on?

ZHB: With both poetry and motherhood, one doesn’t know what the driving force is exactly. You just go with it, almost instinctively. The love, the passion, the intuition, and the obsession are there. But one doesn’t know why/how they are there to start with.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all is intuitive (and immediate) in poetry and motherhood. You also learn these things, because they are things you do, not just feel. So, you get up every day, you feed, bathe, and dress your children, and you talk to them, and you play with them, and you love them and hug them, and they drive you crazy, and you are exhausted, and you need a break, and you hope you don’t lose it by the end of the day. In poetry too, it’s about the day-to-day work on something you love: I try to read every day, and think about writing every day, and I revise, and sometimes I obsess, and the poems can drive me crazy as well.

I have to point out though, since I’ve started this simile, that motherhood and poetry aren’t similar in all aspects, and that they don’t always co-exist. Motherhood is something you do with your kids, whereas poetry is something you do alone. Sometimes I abandon my kids for my poems, and sometimes I abandon my poems for my kids. But now I’m digressing. Have I somehow answered the question? I guess I love them (my kids and poetry), and try to be there for them every day.

RZ: Your book To Live in Autumn is set in, and is about, Beirut. You being a Tripoli-native and childhood resident of Tripoli (Lebanon), why Beirut?

ZHB: When I left Beirut in 2006 after having lived there for six years, the poems just kept coming, out of nostalgia, I think. It was like I was summoning the city back to me in writing. After some time, I realized Beirut was a recurrent theme in my poetry, and I took the decision to write the book with the working title Re-membering Beirut. The process took years, during which I also wrote about other things/places (Tripoli among them), but those poems didn’t go into the book. I want to note that some poems in To Live in Autumn are a mixture of Beirut and Tripoli. “Nocturne,” for example, is one of them. “The Old Building” is heavily based on the building I lived in as a child in Tripoli, and the last poem of the book, “Spring,” brings Tripoli into the picture as well.

But why did Beirut keep coming to me in the first place? Probably because I spent my university years there, and those were formative and exciting years for me. Beirut is an inspiring city, and it was new and unfamiliar to me, the eighteen-year-old from Tripoli. It gave me poetry readings, theater, literature (that’s what I was studying), dance, streets, new friends, chaos, and of course, political unrest. So naturally, when I left the city that I had grown to love so much, I felt that longing for it, which I think triggered the writing. The poems in the book eventually moved beyond mere longing and nostalgia of course.

RZ: What do you think makes a good poem?

ZHB: I don’t think there’s an objective list of criteria for a good poem. I’ll tell you what would make me love a poem though: its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar (and vice-versa), its ability to move me (immediately!), and this urge I get of wanting to read it over and over again.

RZ: Do you think poetry and fiction are at all related?

ZHB: Aren’t all art forms somehow related? Good fiction and good poetry should both have the ability to amaze the reader. I don’t read much fiction, but when I do, I’ve noticed that the books I like are the ones with good details, surprising images, and condensed language, all of which are also necessary in poetry. On the other hand, poetry too, is fictional, in its reinvention of the world around us.

RZ: Can good writing be taught?

ZHB: I think you are either born a writer (among other things), or you aren’t. If you do have that innate ability (and better yet, an irresistible urge) to write, then you can definitely learn to write better. The best way to do that is by reading, reading, and reading good writing. And if you’re lucky enough to get feedback from fellow writers you trust, then that helps as well.
6- You’ve recently begun exploring writing in your native tongue, Arabic. How is that different from writing in English, apart from the obvious, of course.

I’ve only just started to flirt with Arabic. I haven’t been writing in Arabic long enough for me to be able to formulate similarities and differences. For now, the creative process feels the same to me in both languages.

RZ: What is your writing process? Are you a morning writer? An after-midnight poet?

ZHB: When I became a mother, I also became a write-whenever-you-can poet. So, when my kids are at school, I do most of my reading and writing in the morning. When they’re on vacation, I do that when they’re not killing each other. But nothing is that systematic of course, and a lot of poems come at unexpected times, as long as I’ve warmed up for them. The writing process you mention is, for me, about this warming up. It involves reading, getting some quiet time, and observing. If I do this every day, the poems will eventually come.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

ZHB: Toward my second collection, I hope.

RZ: The concept of literary journals for Arab writers writing in English is a foreign one. How did you first learn about it, considering that you have resided in the Arab region all your life.

ZHB: When I was a graduate assistant at AUB, a professor of mine gave me the CLMP directory to help him look for potential journals for his poetry. He showed me what to look for in a journal, and explained things like what simultaneous submissions and SASE mean. I ended up ordering my own copy of the directory, going online, and checking out the journals in there that appealed to me, the kind of poetry they publish, and their guidelines. Back then, many didn’t have online submission managers yet (I’m happy that one can now submit to almost any journal online). That same professor also directed me to pw.org, which was also a helpful resource.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

ZHB: Literary journals are vital. They give contemporary writers the chance to showcase their work, and they are where all the good new writing is! I learn a lot about fellow poets from literary magazines, and when I like a poet’s work, I usually end up ordering his/her book.

RZ: What advice would you give promising writers?

ZHB: Read Bukowski’s poem, “so you wanna be a writer,” which starts this way:

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.”

Read that poem, then: read (read, read), write, revise, submit, learn to accept rejection, and repeat all previous steps, as long as it’s “bursting out of you.”

Fear: a sequence

By Olivia Ayes

  1. huru    حر free

Wet blossoms litter the sidewalk. Birds are pecking

at humus for a meal. The wind determined to move.

This city has not broken my heart. It never will.

This morning, I awoke from a dream about walking,

after I’d lost my shoes. There was the bluest ocean,

a window from which I could see but not touch.

Last night you cried on the train, about loss,

about potential for more loss, about how you spent

the day crying and sleeping. Even painful stories

are beautiful—a purple Harlem sunset.

 

  1. Ijumaa    الجمعة Friday

We take the dusty side streets to Giza Necropolis—

during Ramadan, the guard we bribed turned his head

as we rode our horses through—the money, tossed down.

Prayers reverberated along the angled slopes, the stone blocks.

There is only faith and waiting. Perhaps the calls are heard—

dusk at Tahrir Square, calmness six months after, vendor, flags—

Spongebob and The Scream masks, a KFC. We do not revolt

against this—the risen bread and dough dipped in honey

insufficient to feed our hunger. It is liberation we want—

empires taken and re-taken.

 

iii. tafadhali    تفضل    please

She cried for hours when she heard—forehead on the shoulder

of a friend. I do not want to leave—I’m happy. I want to keep learning.

The following week, three matrons in black abāyah and niqāb

floated through the school’s gravel driveway—she must

but she can stay until June. We will have the wedding in August.

Do not be afraid, child. He will take care of you. He will love you.

You will be ready.

 

  1. hatari    خطر danger

In 1962, John Wayne starred in a movie filmed in Tanganyika.

A rhino rams against the vehicle. A giraffe fails to escape.

The enemy we hunt for sport, not unlike the police officer

with his black baton, adding invisible bruises to a man’s ribs—

a drunk, perhaps, a thief—mwizi. The smell, a nauseating

mix of dirt, sweat, and blood. His face is open—a red flower

in bloom—reprehensible, the only purpose to withstand.

 

  1. mahali    محل place

“There are no slums in America like here,” he says.

Filipino movies opened his world—“How can this place

on the other side of the world have the same problems?”

Favelas, al sakan, gecekondu, ghetto, villas miseria, shanty—

all the forgotten, the mothers unbroken, unwilling to give

to death—no needles of heroin in their arms, no children

whose lives are now unguarded. On nights when you can hear

music and laughter out of her mouth—revising the melancholy

into song, you can almost believe forgiveness.

 

  1. asubuhi    صبح morning

Rage, dear. We understand. We lay our bodies against

the cold cement floor. We believe, as you do—the winds

punching the trees, the rain pummeling horizontally across

our faces, the shores rising to the height of hills. We cannot

prevent disaster—only wait. Tomorrow, the sun and sky

will return to touch us gently, apologizing with a poem.

We’ll thank the wet earth between our toes, the bodies

you’ve given back to us, absolved. We will remember

that we do not belong to ourselves—

 

vii. furahi    فرح    happy

Freedom is not the same as escape—I already knew

that night—her mouth on mine—you, somewhere

in another dream, the quiet of fir trees, her arms,

a mountain whose mist still welcomed sunshine. Far—

and soon an ocean, a desert between us. Remember

that you belong only to your wants—how else will you

build your walls? Is it safe there?

 

For more poems by Oliva Ayes check Sukoon‘s summer 2014 issue