Jadd Hilal's debut novelWomen searching and yearning for home
Jadd Hilal loves to deploy a laconic, cool narrative tone. Naima, the eldest of the women and later the grandmother of the family in his novel, describes her first flight from her home quite matter-of-factly: "Tuesday evening. Nine o'clock. The alarm went off." Her husband, a bus driver, takes his young wife and other refugees on an odyssey from Palestine to Beirut. The journey takes several days. The year is 1947, the beginning of a period of civil wars and exodus that will last for decades and see wave after wave of refugees searching for safe harbour and a place to call home.
But even after many years, no sense of calm ever sets in, and the novel's protagonists are forced to ask themselves time and again whether the place they've chosen to live – whether it be Beirut or places such as the mountain village of Arsun in Lebanon – is safe and offers their family protection. The women, who are affected by the war at different stages of their lives, are repeatedly forced to decamp and take their children to foreign lands, such as Switzerland or France.
The situation is compounded by the fact that none of the women are happy in their marriages; their husbands tend to be violent, throwing hot pans or table lamps at their wives. A recurring pattern emerges, and these incidents continue from one generation to the next. The children also find themselves caught up in the marital conflicts, which sometimes see their aggrieved, unhappy fathers threatening to kill them. "Twice, he has wanted to kill his children. That thug, that tyrant, that criminal," says Ema, Naima's daughter, of her father. Right from the outset, she is confident and more defiant than the other girls and manages to go to Beirut to study despite her father's stiff opposition.
Moments of joy in a sea of catastophe, pain and death
One of the novel's draws is its incredible mix of catastrophes, deaths and joyous moments – such as births – which offer some brief respite. One of the fathers commits suicide after killing his boss. A militiaman, one of the daughters' fiancés, dies in the most grotesque manner: during his own engagement party, he shoots his pistol "at the ceiling in celebration. The bullet ricochets off the wall and hits him right in the heart."
Yet the novel's undertone remains thoughtful and melancholy. The family lives through numerous testing circumstances, the children are often obliged to change schools as their parents embark on long journeys to take on new professional challenges, such as when Ema and Sahi move to Geneva to work for the UN. Hilal knows a lot about such diplomatic circles.
The novel spans more than seventy years, yet comes in at a mere 200 pages, over which the text provides a whole choir of different voices offering varying perspectives. Precocious Dara, the eldest daughter of politically-active parents, has been familiar with alcohol since the age of 4, slurping the dregs of beer from the adults' glasses. She stuns those around her with her clever answers and clings emotionally to her grandmother.
Over time, she develops such a strong feeling of responsibility that she marries at 17 and moves to Beirut. Yet she too is forced to flee once more, settling in France with her children after her divorce. But even after the UN calls a ceasefire in the Lebanon war in 2006, she still only feels safe in France. No matter how much she might crave it, returning to Lebanon seems uncertain and too risky: "Lebanon is unstable. It always has been. That's why I am stubbornly refusing to go back with the children."
Eventually, she comes to a realisation that applies to all the women in her family: she accepts that her life has been "a tug-of-war between Lebanese lightness on the one hand and the French-Swiss sense of responsibility on the other."
One of the novel's main motifs is the repeated appearance of birds and flocks of birds in the sky. They hint at the constant change of location, the leaving of one's homeland and the uncertainty of what awaits you on arrival. They also embody the longing for a lost childhood, for peace and security.
This is a novel told with a lightness of touch. It nevertheless repeatedly dips beneath the surface and uses precise observations to create haunting portraits. This is great art, packed into a small space. A must-read.
Translated from the German by Ayça Turkoglu