A Bridge Between Death and Life

A review of Times of Death and Roses by Salman Zain-ul-Deen*

In his latest novel, Times of Death and Roses, Palestinian novelist, Adel Bishtawi, has his hero, Ali, say to his heroine, Rana: “The time of death has departed but it still hangs somewhere yonder. This I know: I sometimes hear it calling out in the darkness. I don’t want it to come back. This is why I need someone to pull me away. The time of roses has not started. I know that its scent is carried by the breeze nearby. I hold up my nose and empty my lungs to make room for it and I search at night, at dawn and in the faces of all those I meet but I haven’t found it yet. I need someone to remind me of it; pull me in its direction. Push me, even. But if this someone does not succeed right away I will not complain. Knowing that I’m being pulled away from the time of death is enough.”

Times of Death and Roses is a novel about transition from the time of death to the time of roses as dramatized in 553 pages that are full of internal and external conflicts. This transition is effected in terms of time and place as well as internally- the latter being the most difficult requiring internal cleansing and profound psychological tests.

But at another level, the transition takes the form of the movement of two persons who are far apart and different in nationality, psychological makeup and religion, but come together in the end by factors of personal will and destiny as if to say that what the time of death separates the time of roses reunite.

The time of death in the novel is the closing chapters of the civil war that raged inside and against Lebanon in the second half of the 1970s and all through the 1980s. The hostilities started between some armed factions of the Lebanese militias, mainly Christian, and the Palestinian resistance and ended with a massive Israeli invasion that entailed the occupation and destruction of the Lebanese capital and the subsequent departure of the Palestinian fighters. It was a vicious war marked by large-scale killing, indiscriminate bombardment, kidnapping, massacres and booby-traps of deadly cars.

The venue of the time of death is some regions in Lebanon. By contrast, the time of roses is the time of love, stability, marriage, work and planning for a happy family life. The venue is the far away Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Between the two combinations of time-venue is a bridge of conflict, hardship and danger. Hence the presence of someone who is shown to extends help to the hero and heroine in crossing a challenging bridge. This transition is the main theme of the novel.

Heavy Souls

At the opening of the novel, Ali is a Palestinian deputy commander posted at a military base. His soul is heavy and burdened by a heap of private and national frustrations, despair and a sense of bitterness and futility. He has lost faith in the Palestinian leadership, and began to realise his loyalty to the Palestinian cause has made him lose himself but win not the Cause. When Ali is blamed by a friend a fellow fighter, Maher, for having wasted the chance of marrying his beloved Fatina, he is full of bitterness especially when pondering her fate in case he got killed in battle: “Is there anything that the Cause can give her more than it has given the others: widows, orphans, destitution, poverty and massacres?” (Page 21) He is also furious when he wonders: “What would I leave behind for her when I get killed? Some filthy guy like Abu Abbas who would not open his hand to her with the martyr’s salary at the end of the month unless she opens her legs?” (Pages 21,22).

Ali is hurled into the abyss of despair when his close friend Maher in killed in an Israeli air raid on the base He decides to commit suicide by attempting to march through the “Last Run,” a minefield, thinking that one of the mines would explode and put an end to his bitterness. But this does not happen and he, consequently, decides to join his mother in Damascus. From there he travels to Abu Dhabi to join an uncle working there in the hope of finding a new start in life.

*But what Ali wants to get away from is actually carried inside him. His heart is full of wounds, his memory heavy with defeats and bitterness. And in these the private and the public concerns intersect and infract. Ali, for example, cannot forget his young sister who had been slain in the infamous Sabra and Shatilla massacre which targeted hundreds of Palestinian refugees during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.

The novel deals with its subject at three levels. The first is external and tackles events as well as the actions of the hero and other characters. The second is internal and handles what is stored in the memory and is now released in a chain of past events and actions that invoke and provoke each other. Interestingly, at this level the narrative shuttles between the external and internal. The third level, which is used sparingly, is confined to the imagination and deals with what amounts to daydreams that are mostly concerned with the future.

Time and Space

The novel breaks through time and space. Ali is alone on the waters a long way off the coast of Abu Dhabi. In the midst of a world of water, his boat’s engine fails to start. He loses his sense of direction. The unrelenting waves and loneliness conspire against him. Here again the narrative moves between two spheres. One is external where the narrator, using the third person, records Ali’s actions and reactions vis a vis the new situation. The second is internal where Ali is a first-person narrator reviewing his memories and comparing between life on land and life at sea. Both have something in common: in both the big devours the small and everybody fights for survival.

The peculiar situation raises a question: does Ali, the resistance fighter who deserted his military base after having lost faith in the Cause and the leadership, the lonely mariner who lost direction and initiative after his boat’s engine had failed to start and was now threatened by the immense oil carriers and unable to reach the shore symbolize the Palestinian who lost course after having abandoned the Cause and the struggle? The novel does not pose this question directly. Nor am I certain that it does it indirectly.

What is certain is that this mariner will resume the journey. In his loneliness, bewilderment and inability to act, a heavenly coincidence occurs to draw a new course for him. Thus, while Ali is searching for a solution to his dilemma, he catches a glimpse of two girls jumping into the water in suspicious circumstances. At exactly the same time the engine restarts and Ali races to the scene. He manages to rescue the younger girl while the senior one is left with no option but to take care of herself. Ali finds out later that the two girls were not only the daughters of a doctor who happened to be a friend and business associate of his uncle but that one of them, Rana, was a girl he had known while he was a resistance fighter in Beirut.

The incident serves to reignite a difficult relationship between Ali and Rana. Rana, the senior girl who lived through the time of death in Beirut before coming to Abu Dhabi, did not simply jump into the water. She tried to commit suicide and by doing so she wanted to get rid of the time of death by throwing herself into the arms of death. Her attempt, which was not the first of its kind, failed but led to the re-emergence of Ali in her life, offering her a chance to cross the bridge to the time of roses. And here it is noteworthy to underline a common denominator between the two characters: each has emerged from the time of death with deep scars, and each has tried to get rid of the time of death by attempting suicide, and each gains a chance to cross over to another time.

While in Beirut, Rana, a university student born to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother, is kidnapped at a “flying” (sudden) barricade while Lebanon was still engulfed in war and hostilities. But the kidnapping turns out to be a make-belief and Elie, a person who commands some authority, enacts a faked rescue. Later on, Rana is drawn by a friend into a gang run by Elie and engages in unlawful acts, including kidnapping, assassination, prostitution and drug trafficking. Driven by need to show gratitude for her alleged rescuers and under the pressure of fear, Rana finds herself obliging the gang. One night she is made to drink and while intoxicated she dances topless, unaware that she was being photographed for the purpose of extortion. Indeed, Elie, whom Rana calls the devil, uses the stick and the carrot to get what he wanted from the girl. The cumulative result is a series of painful memories that turn into nightmares.

Time to Die

Twice Rana attempts suicide and twice she is rescued by her younger sister. In the second time, however, the rescuer was to be rescued by the sudden but timely appearance of Ali on the waters off Abu Dhabi. Ali and Rana meet halfway but only after each has built inside barriers that prevent him/her from reaching the other. Soon a common friend emerges and starts to undo the barriers and remove the spikes off the bridge that would carry both lovers to the other side- to the time of roses.

This common friend is none other than Fatina, Ali’s old time flame. To be sure, she has not forgiven him for having squandered a chance to marry her while engulfed by the Cause. Likewise, Rana whom Fatina considers a close friend and soul mate, also has not forgiven Ali for having lost a chance to wed to her while in Beirut, adding yet another barrier between the two.

But the barriers are many. The first are external ones that take the form of differences in religious orientation and nationality (i.e. Rana is half-Lebanese) and these are shown not to be difficult to surmount, reflecting a high level of social awareness and the disavowal of sectarian and national complexes. The second are internal barriers that needed a great deal of effort, both internally and externally, to remove. It is here that Fatina plays an essential role. Following a series of meetings between Ali and Rana, there emerges the prospect of a joint venture materialising between the two. Still, the venture is delayed as Rana is hesitant and torn between Elie whom she had promised to marry and is now awaiting her in Beirut, and Ali who had occupied her thoughts during the war years but missed the chance to marry her.

During one of their meetings, Ali is made to understand that Rana was worried and wanted him to rescue her from the devil, Elie. When she takes a step further and attempts to reveal her past he refuses to listen, inviting her, instead, to the time of roses and telling her that what concerns him is the future not the past. He tells her further that what is important to him is for her to return to his arms clean as he has decided to be clean. The act of cleansing takes Rana back to Beirut. She is to complete her studies and end her relationship with the devil by meeting him face to face. Ali sends someone to look after her while she accomplished her task.

Fatina plays a role in strengthening the relationship between the separated lovers every time it waned. She sends roses and chocolate to Rana in Ali’s name when the latter stops to do so. Nonetheless, when Rana returns to Abu Dhabi cleansed of the remnant of the time of death she finds new barriers erected inside Ali who became jealous had misunderstood her action. But a tale about the fate of a loving nightingale Ali hears in his uncle’s house in the presence of Rana’s family awakens the child in him. He breaks down all the remaining barriers and sheds away his doubts. He proposes to Rana and when the latter accepts his gesture both put their feet at the doorstep of the time of roses.

Multiple Narrators

In telling this story, A. S. Bishtawi assigns the narrative task to multiple narrators. He uses various modes of exposition that alternate between the internal, the external and the daydreaming. He employs the past, present and future tenses and jumps through time and space while according myth and popular tale an active role in bringing the characters together and deciding their choices.

Times of Death and Roses is a long novel in terms of pages but Bishtawi knew how to knit its parts together and tie its events though not at the expense of dramatic tension. And although the narrative played a dominant role, the novelist gave dialogue ample space, allowing it in certain instances to cover whole chapters.

Like the narrative, dialogue runs at multiple levels that match the moods of the characters. In terms of language, Bishtawi attempted to bring slang up to the level of classic Arabic, inserting in the process some hybrid vocabulary. In general, however, the novel’s language is smooth and docile. It is mostly narrative in nature but watered by literature and borrows from various linguistic sources and dictionaries in order to emphasize the reality of events, environments and experiences. Consequently, the language used by the resistance fighters is rough, reflecting the roughness of military life. Likewise, military jargon is used to express the psychological disposition of the hero– the ex-fighter, who, in another instance, relies on the vocabulary of the fisherman to talk about his friendship with Rana when they are together on the shore of the Gulf. In sum, the novelist addresses every situation suitably while ensuring that the vocabulary of various sources remains within the main stream of the novel’s language.

With such a story, mode of address and language, Bishtawi has produced a great novel wherein he traced the movements of his hero and heroine, measured their passions and inner thoughts, dug deep into their souls, analysed their characters and attitudes, emerged from the private to the public, and succeeded in recording an entire epoch of history. For all that, he has assumed a distinguished status among Arab novelists and made the Times of Death and Roses a time of enjoyable reading.

*Published by Hayat Newspaper (London) on 5 April 1999 and translated by Mohamed Khaled.

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