Cinematic Adventures in a Syrian No-Man's Land
Many stories tell of people from the provinces, who – either out of necessity or of their own volition – at some point decide to head for the city, to the heart of the nation. Such a move always involves the loss of a familiar environment traded against the uncertain gains of a new one.
Abeer Esber's novel "Lulu" describes the reverse situation. The city, encapsulating all that is new and exotic, comes in the form of a lively Egyptian film crew to a small Syrian border town to shoot a movie.
For the young Khaled, who has thus far amounted to nothing more than a dropout and occasional farm worker, the arrival of the crew marks a turning point in his dreary existence. The 17-year-old now finds himself exposed to a number of exciting challenges, including love, intense new feelings, politics and dizzying levels of education.
His life is upended by Riem, the attractive director's assistant. Khaled falls in love with her immediately but Riem, who is 35 years old, just pinches his "cuddly" cheeks and calls him – just like the rest of the film crew – Lulu.
A taste of the big wide world
It's a stroke of luck for Khaled that he is indispensable, to not only Riem but also the director Kamal and indeed the entire film crew. Khaled arranges for them to lease a large plot of pastureland to recreate the scene of a Palestinian village for the movie. He also becomes the crew's guide, accompanying the moody, eccentric but irresistible Riem on drives around the region in the search for suitable film locations.
As they sit in the car, Khaled bombards her with questions, and even confesses his love for her. Riem revels in this attention and toys with the boy's feelings. She makes Khaled her student, twists him around her little finger and sets him tasks to stimulate his creativity. Coquettishly and without a hint of inhibition, she instructs him to go home and try to describe things that fascinate him – herself, for example.
Riem also casts herself as a tutor in the development of Khaled's personality: The most important thing, she explains to him, is to be clear about who he is – Khaled must question himself and his surroundings with much more thoroughness, really get to the bottom of things.
Well-honed, artfully precise prose
Khaled seizes his opportunity to spend as much time as possible with the filmmakers, even though their intellectual level clearly overtaxes him. Just as he was during his years at school, he is attentive and eager to learn.
Esber illustrates this small-time existence in an astonishingly shrewd manner, in well-honed, artfully precise prose, and with a sharp, literary style, without making any final judgement of Khaled. In short chapters, she conjures up a kaleidoscope of village life, always from the viewpoint of Khaled, who is hungry for new life experiences and baffled at his new-found feelings.
Khaled is desperate at times, but on the other hand it also becomes clear to him that the life that his parents have mapped out for him is now out of the question. So he calls off his engagement to Warda the village girl, who appears less and less attractive to him and who, for her part, does not hesitate to marry another man.
This suddenly leaves Khaled without any clear perspectives. He is forced to confront his father, who doesn't want to let him go, and his plans to move away to Damascus cause his mother, with whom he has a loving relationship, great fear and horror.
Debates with the "crazy people"
The filmmakers are politically-minded people, and during their two-month stay discuss issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the US invasion of Iraq and the lamentable political conditions in other Arab nations.
During these discussions with the "crazy people", as the villagers call them, Khaled is always forced to ascertain his own position and he wonders, for example, if he might also have been suited to the life of a smuggler, like his shady friend Muhannad, who drives a silver Mercedes.
In just 100 pages, Esber succeeds in setting out an array of unanswered existential questions and illustrating an individual's search for his own pathway through life in a contemporary manner, in the form of a novel of initiation. The result is a skilful short novel that has great appeal, despite its sometimes unwieldy narrative form.
Sobering post-modern twist
The novel of course remains inconclusive, and this is the writer's aim to unveil the material as fiction at the end. This post-modern twist is perhaps this small narrative gem's only blemish – the young man's character is so authentically drawn, and his story of an exciting movie adventure in the Syrian provinces so credible, it would have been nice to be allowed to believe in it.
© Qantara.de 2011
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de