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.

Crosseing the Satanic Sea in a Palestinian Boat

 Times of Death and Roses reviewed by Hussam ul-deen Mohamed*

The Goddess Ishtar Crosses the Satanic Sea in a Palestinian Boat
{Editor’s note: Since the publication of the Novel Times of Death and Roses and the publication of this article Elie Hobeika was blown up in Beirut in January 2002}
Is it possible for a literary work to possess a human being and become something like a soul mate day and night?

This happened to me recently. The literary work responsible for this strange feeling is a novel written by Palestinian novelist Adel S. Bishtawi entitled Times of Death and Roses.

I read this novel time and time again for over a year. Every time I finished it and attempted a review I found myself gripped by a conflict almost similar to that facing one of the novel’s characters in their quest to free themselves from the devil’s grip. It is the kind of conflict which keeps one in bed for days unable to decide what to do next.

Such a feeling is hardly an invitation to read the novel by the usual fans of easy and undemanding reading. Or could it serve to set the right mood for a study of the psychological impact of literature? In any case, what it means, in my opinion, is that Times of Death and Roses is unique and special. What is more, the act of possessing itself is one of the pivotal points of this novel posing a mind-boggling question: How does evil possess human beings and how could they escape evil’s grip?

From an artistic point of view, these questions are articulated in the story of a beautiful sophisticated young woman directly in conflict with a person portrayed as the human embodiment of a modern Satan. Through this story, the novelist takes us the readers on a journey where our destiny is to be possessed by the Prince of Darkness, to touch it and to repeatedly feel an urge to free ourselves from its grip. At times we cannot but sense the devil lurking under our very skin; feel his breath released from deep down within us. This is the novel’s way of making us fathom the terrible influence of evil.

I guess this is exactly what happened to me.

Times of Death and Roses, however, is also about the ability of the human soul to free itself from the devil. In this novel, salvation lies in a love relationship 1 between Ali (a Palestinian Muslim youth) and Rana (the product of a marriage between a Palestinian Muslim man and a Lebanese Christian Maronite woman). Failure in love does not only equal death; it simply leads to it. This is made clear in the opening chapter in what happened to Maher, a friend of Ali, who recalled his failed love story while he heard the call of death and prepared himself for it to happen.

Demonising the Demonic

In Times of Death and Roses, contrasts are repeatedly made between Rana and the biblical character of “Legion” whom the New Testament describes as possessed with demons. But for Rana to describe herself as Legion does only constitute an act of symbolism. This invokes a religious dimension but also an important element – a mythological one – which combines with a corresponding historical dimension so that the novel is endowed with the seal of an epic, although it appears to the reader to be mainly concerned with the individual and its choices.

For Ali, however, Rana remains an angel until a touch of doubt weakens his insistence. This comes late in the novel, when Ali, with his own eyes, sees his heroine trying to protect (the antagonist) Elie. Rana actually enlisted Ali’s help to free herself from Elie who had possessed her like a devil does to its victim in a horror movie.

The reference we have made to the movies here does not, however, eclipse a greater reference – the Bible. Bishtawi’s book adopts a similar logic to that of the New Testament in its insistence on the viability of the possession of human beings by the devil and the ability of Jesus (in the New Testament) and Ali (in Times of Death and Roses) to chase the devil out of the “patient’s” body. And this is just one instance where the spirit of the biblical text infiltrates Bishtawi’s book. There are many more which we will underline in the course of this article.

The recurrent invocation of Satan in the novel gives the impression that everybody is possessed one way or another with different demons. Salvation lies not only in love but also in the ability to put up a ferocious struggle against evil – one, which may lead, even to death. 2

Rana, for her part, falls prey to the devil’s power of possession through an exploitation of the most basic of human instincts – survival.
How does this come about?
The scene of the novel is partly in the midst of Lebanon’s deadly civil war. Elie, the antagonist, affects one of those infamous flying-barricades. A car is stopped. Rana is ordered to step out. She is led to an unknown fate when, suddenly, Elie emerges. Fear is a basic element of seduction. When, much later, Katya, who reveals herself a mistress of Elie and a member of his secret organisation, fails to convince her friend, Rana, of meeting with Elie, she promptly wins her consent by reminding her the barricade incident could happen again.

Then camisoles turn to use the element of life instead of death in his seduction scheme so as to assume total control over Rana. Gradually, Rana is attracted to a handsome and influential man. But Elie is not an ordinary man; he is a “devil” whose vocation is death. He does not seek to win Rana’s love like any man seeks the love of a female (his first concern is to enlist her into the gang of death that he leads). He simply wants to control her as quickly as possible, employing dishonest means. He arranges a party for his followers of boys and girls.

He tells Rana to smoke hashish and, once she undresses, under the effect of the drugs, he snaps shots that he would later use as a means of control and blackmail. Feminine jealousy intervenes. Katya explains to Rana that what is required of her to do once she becomes a member of Elie’s gang is to engage in murders and assassinations (like blowing up bobby-trapped cars in the midst of pedestrians). The problem with Rana, however, is that she becomes possessed with Elie’s love. She even becomes, albeit briefly, a willing partner, does her share of seduction and accepts even Elie’s desire to control her, though still under the influence of drugs. Indeed, once aware how horrible the acts required of her are, she backs off. Her refusal takes the form of an act of self-destruction, but even two failed attempts at her life later, she still believed in the viability of reaching a compromise with Elie 3 despite having known the evil side in his character. How does this come about and what does it mean?

The novel lays part of the blame on Ali. He had a chance to engage Rana in a relationship before she met Elie. But he was busy with his political cause. The male’s good side ignored the woman and, by doing so, pushed her to the evil one. It is as if the educated, by lending itself to its political cause is kept away from the prime meaning of human existence: love and life-making.4 The more mysterious side in Rana, the reason for falling in love with Elie even after having unmasked his death-making face, is one that can by no means be touched easily. That is why the novelist dealt with it with extreme care and equally great bewilderment which is further inflamed by the question: how could a morally pure, innocent girl (with a practicing Muslim father and a practicing Christian mother), even if swayed by the forceful passion of love rather than the reasoning of the mind, accept a marriage proposal from a criminal and how has the devil been able to infiltrate into her soul, in the first place?

The bewilderment in Rana’s case does arise from this girl being the exception to the rule but because many a girl like her have sold their tender souls to the devil.

Moving down from the mythological to the earthly and societal grounds, however, will show the novel treading into the bumpy areas of the human soul when it feeds on a hatred dressed with religious justifications. When Rana tries to equate Palestinian violence with that of the Lebanese (Christian) Phalanges, Ali says to her that the Palestinians did not kill children with empty bottles and hatchets. As a political reader, maybe, equating victims to murderers seems to me rash because we find in this equating a gap through which the devil has infiltrated and in which demonic ideas camouflaged by politics and religion have found their way to the necks of children and bodies of women.

“Times of Death and Roses does not allow for classification.
This, in my opinion, is the most important characteristic of great literature.”

But there remains for me as a reader and a human being, as well as for the novelist himself, an open door for feeling bewildered. The reason is that Rana says to Ali, threatening:” You don’t know what is lodged in me.” She also says:” Some of my souls belong to me, some to the devil.” (Page 289) The novelist is admitting here that something evil already existed in Rana. It is like an “original” evil or sin lurking inside waiting to be awakened, suddenly, to kill and murder. The novelist ventures even into suggesting some king of a relationship between this original evil and man being the product of a minority. (Page 303)

Rana’s contrary decision to fight the devil within her and get married to Ali seems extremely realistic and far away from riddles. She says by way of justifying her new decision:” I want to be part of this small world I know. I want to be close to mom and dad and my friend in a secure place doing the only thing I want – live my life.” (Page 175)

The Yin-Yang Analogy

Having treated Rana in her swivelling between the position of a victim in the grip of its oppressor and the contrasting position of the victim in its struggle to defend itself and end the deadly darkness’, Bishtawi has proved able to see the strange dialectic between good and evil where, such as in the Chinese philosophy, the yin and yang are entwined and where the beginning is part of the ending and the one is part of the other.

We may see that entwining in the names of the protagonist and the antagonist who are competing for Rana’s love. They carry a single name pronounced differently (Ali, Elie). The variation in pronouncing the names of the two characters, although insignificant and marginal, hides a huge amount of differences and signals that are so opposed to each other as to make the survival of one dependent on the destruction of the other.

The novelist sets up an arena for a mythological conflict between good and evil as personified by people that are real and carry political and historical significance. Concurrently, he presents all the possibilities of doubt as to the usefulness of such a struggle. There is, on the one hand, a clear Manichean distinction between two opposite natures, while, on the hand, the novel continuously makes references to a boat carrying both (Muslim and Christian) characters so that if one were to drown, the other would certainly meet death. What is even more significant is that the heroine, through her dual cultural identity (as both Palestinian and Lebanese, Christian and Muslim) carries inside her both of these ferociously opposed persons and suffers thereof. It may be concluded, however, that the aim sought by the novel is to eliminate the division and weld the two parties together.

The novel presents love blossoming within evil (and hatred) but turning, gradually, to strive against it. It is a scrupulous depiction of the ups and downs in the growth of this love inside the complicated character of the heroine. Rana does not only carry inside her the seed of destruction (her two failed attempts at her life) but also the seed of fertility (her unquenched desire for love and motherhood). She encompasses both evil and good (in an utterance that reflects this while leaving the door open to bewilderment, she says: “I want to hate them both because they are the reason for everything.” (meaning her suffering). (Page 357)

Having started by recording Ali’s departure from the way he dealt with his political cause (joining the Palestinian resistance movement), the novel moves to depict Rana as she enters the spider-web, falls in love with Elie (the antagonist who may be described as the anti-Christ, using ecclesiastical terminology) and finally discovers the truth about the latter’s designs. At this stage, she has realised that in return for Elie’s promises of love and marriage she is to engage in assassinations and dealt acts. The subsequent encounter between Ali (who is frustrated and at the brink of meeting his death on the open sea) and Rana (who is equally frustrated and attempts suicide) becomes a savior for both and constitutes a welcome development in a realistic novel that embraces the idea of beginning of the universe with the creation of Adam and Eve.

The Sea of darknessp the sea of love

Still, Adam and eve of the novel do not descend from paradise to earth but from a genuine hell to the sea. Here, the novelist invokes a wealth of what the sea has meant through the ages. Ali’s excursion refers the reader to an entire heritage of literary production that is organically and intimately linked to the sea: (Homer’s) Odyssey, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway. It refers the reader as well to layers of memory that do not only interact with the recently stored literary texts but also with all that has been written about the sea and water and its foundations both in human soul and in the myths and legends.

The second chapter ends with a horrific scene in which futility and death are interwoven. Having disappeared without a trace following an Israeli air raid, the mutilated body of Maher, Ali’s friend, emerges to the surface of a lagoon inside the military camp, forced out by the explosion of a hand grenade that another guerrilla (Bu’bu’) had tossed to the water.

A change of scene. We see Ali in a boat on the open sea, pondering his return from what Fadel Errabii had once described as “the closed society of the Freudian fighters” to civil life. Ali is immersed in fishing. Maher had died in the lagoon like a fish. The narrator’s description of the fish’s struggle to escape the fisherman (and Maher’s attempt to evade the Israeli bomber) appears symbolic of Ali’s desire for survival. The fish’s attempt to free itself appears to be suicidal. Ali had tried to exit the camp not through the main gate but through “the gate-to-hell” that the commander had planted with mines. His exit is, consequently, suicidal, too, but also ritualistic. It is similar to the crossing of “straight way” to paradise for a Muslim or the act of baptism for a Christian. The mines do not explode, however. It is Ali who explodes in a lengthy monologue accompanied by an enormous outburst of rage against the main topic of the novel, evil.5

Likewise, the act of fishing plays a role close to the Christian experience as demonstrated in Jesus inviting his followers to eat his flesh or his invitation to the fishermen: Samaan and Andrew to follow him so that he will make them save men, morally speaking. 6 Maher who metaphorically becomes a fish in the camp’s lagoon is now himself, or rather his tormented soul that had been cornered and made helpless, to be fished by Ali. The naiveté of the fish is nothing but that of Ali, Maher and Bu’bu’ who all made the mistake of biting on the bait. 7

But while Ali draws comparisons between Maher and the fish, he, likewise, draws comparisons between himself and the other two in a tripartite exchange of symbols. In order to escape the memory of having been a victim, Ali feels a need to be a fisherman, not a fish. Fishing is getting rid of violence in addition to being symbolic and ritualistic.

Immersed in an acute existentialist mood, Ali becomes aware of how lonely he was on the open sea and in the entire universe.8 He is unable even to sense the existence of God. This notion is so powerful in that it holds the individual solely responsible for fate but, strange enough, it also puts Ali in the middle of crossed mythological and ritualistic experiences that are religious by excellence. This serves to draw the reader’s attention to the mythological and symbolic core that is embedded in the realistic fabric of the novel.

“Times of Death and Roses does not allow for categorisation. This, in my opinion, is the most important characteristic of great literature.”

PART II

Chapters: 4, 5,and 6, are the most important in terms building the dramatic action in the novel. They provide the reader with details for a scene for each of Ali and Rana. Ali, in his part is in his boat (having spent a terrible night, came to the brink of death and suffered deadly loneliness). Rana is on board a ship (likewise in a state of acute despair that pushes her to take the decision of committing suicide). They appear having been on a journey in the sub conscience, far away from the mainland and its relationship with reality. They are heading, each in his own way, towards death, passengers in a mythological boat taking them to the underworld of the dead. The chance for Ali’s survival is slim: the sea sets its huge jaws wide open to swallow the two. But when Rana jumps into the water, their destinies meet again and they rush to each other, having been saved from a close encounter with death.

As we have noted earlier, water has many faces in the novel. One of these is death. Maher had died in the water of the camp’s lagoon and Ali and Rana approached the end also in the water. Another face is life and fertility as demonstrated in Ali’s attempt to save Rana from drowning. Combined, the sea becomes an enormous womb for existence and its opposite, the two contradictory concepts that constitute the main focus of the novel as illustrated in the struggle between life and death.

The novel proceeds to present an extraordinary love story faced -under the powerful force of an old history represented by the cultural identity of the heroine and a new history represented by her relationship with Elie – with obstacles that similar expected in an ordinary love story. The antagonist, who is more of an “anti-hero” than a villain, does not put sticks in the heroine’s wheel. It is she who goes out to him. The obstacles are actually of a psychological nature. Hence the fluctuations in the behaviour of the hero and his heroine as well as the suffering they endure in their attempt to come together.

The novel can be seen equally possessed with two deadly elements: one human, the other religious (although the latter is also human). But while the human element is quite clear and need not be justified or questioned, it is the religious element that makes the novel remarkably unique. While rejecting political action that conceals its murderous behaviour under the banner of Christianity, the novel, equally vehemently endorses the more profound meaning of the Christian experience. Ali, the Palestinian Muslim, is closer to the Christian teachings that understands the woman (a side that is quite clear in the New Testament), and closer as well to the Christian teachings that rejects religious tradition when it is not compatible with and merciful towards humans, in addition to many other elements that too readily render themselves to the reader. By adopting the essential core of Christian teaching as clearly demonstrated in the New Testament, the novel invokes the profound in Christianity thereby to reject the exploitation of Christianity under the pretext of protecting it but actually using it for political purposes that permit murder.9

Focusing on Ali tends to conceal Rana’s pivotal role. Hers is not the role of a possessed patient awaiting a miracle. Rana is full of intelligence, passion and a special psychological aptitude. She plays the active and fertile role in the love story. Her relationship with Ali is the result of her decision. Ali’s role is active and interactive in tandem and equal standing with that of Rana’s. If Ali happens to embody mythological as well as human characteristics, Rana has the seed of eve with all its richness and mystery. Her story is, at the mythological level, closer to that of Ishtar who descends to the realm of the dead to save Tamouz from his enemy and to save herself as well.

Fictional Possession

Having read Times of Death and Roses several times and investigated it from different perspectives, I may safely venture into talking about a strange relationship existing between narrator and novelist. I would not exclude the possibility of a conflict between the two. The novel encompasses two parallel compositions: one is wanted by the novelist for his novel, the other imposed by the novel itself. On the one hand, there is a tendency in the novel to depict the fictional conflict as being between two devils, though a reader may understand it as being between God and Satan: the equating that Rana makes between “two devils” in her life does appear as such. After all, Ali does not make death: he is in a military camp targeted by bombing and aggression: his relationship with Rana is one of extreme tenderness. By contrast, we see Elie sowing programmed death in all its actual and symbolic forms. He is also aggressive and mean in his relationship with Rana.

I would guess that Times of Death and Roses is a model example of a conflict switching from one between the characters to one between the novelist and the tale he has created. The novelist, the impartial and the “democratic,” has Ali say: “I wasn’t capable of dealing with life: I only deal with death.” By so doing, the novelist established a kind of similarity between Ali unduly. The novel does not, indeed, conceal the novelist’s keenness on being democratic with his characters, even at the expense of a certain degree of self-demonising. But in the end, the novel attests to two important points, firstly, that the novelist cannot but be partial in historical and human situations of universal interest, and, secondly, that the principal conflict in fiction, in general, and more so in epic novels, tends to be one between starkly opposed view points or two contradictory major lines of narrative where one has to negate the other. Still, Times of Death and Roses scores a distinguishing point by its democratic desire to embrace both lines of narrative into a single story, although it had, in the end, to side with one against other, as should be expected from an artistic drama.

The novel tends to depict a conflict between good and evil but the novelist, perhaps out of concern for impartiality, appears to want to equate Ali to Elie. The purpose might be of twofold: first, the equating is meant to be strictly for Rana who thus becomes like the possessed Legion. Secondly, it could be directed to a reader who does not sympathise with Ali, or, let’s say, does not view Palestinians in favourable eyes.

But this would bring in the question of contrasts in the sociology of reading. The novel’s antagonist who could be considered the human incarnation of Satan is a person who has political ambitions and belongs to a specific religious group and Arab nationality. Furthermore, the historical background of the fictional conflict is still fresh in the reader’s mind. So what if a person of other than me -one of different political and social background- was to read the novel? Would this reader come to experience the same feeling as I, or rather see things from a different perspective and, maybe, sympathise with “Satan?” 10 And would this mean that the novelist ventured into demonising the other while beatifying and sanctifying the self? And if we were able to easily see the mythological and tragic, could we as easily have smelled the ideologue- in the negative sense of the word? There is no doubt that ideology is present and incorporated in all the creative writings because it is present in all of us, social humans, though I, personally, do not see ideology a smaller story within large ones, and I can never equate the story of the uprooting of the Palestinians from their homeland to the story of the independence of Israel, and not to the phalanges idea of seeing the civil war as the result of the Palestinian “alien” presence in Lebanon.

Craftsmanship

To those who have read Bishtawi`s previous novel, Traces of a Tattoo, Times of Death and Roses reveals itself as a big adventure. In the former, we read a love story evolving from a simple theme with a beginning, a climax and a denouement in the classical tradition. The reader lives through events that are narrated in a very exciting way. The fictional form, basically composed of relatively short chapters, interacts with the theme homogeneously leaving the reader with the impression of watching a television serial that continuously uncovers for the spectator layers that are skilfully hidden in the text so as not to interfere with the free flow of the narrative.

The story in Times of Death and Roses is quite different. Here the reader is faced with several restraints that are imposed by the complexity theme and characters heavily burdened with the weighs of history, the sufferings of the present, the twisting of idea and body under the heavy price of the Lebanese civil war which opened the Pandora box and unleashed all the bloody instincts and motivations. By way of form, Bishtawi uses for this novel a division similar to the one he used for his previous one: a large number of relatively short chapters. The number of pages is also the same. The action, however, does not appear to develop in the same way. In Traces of a Tattoo, the heroine travels to America and back to Syria but the progression of the action is not affected at all.

One of the elements on which the novel is built is the ability of the young characters to maintain their contact and bring their love story to success by using modern technology. In Times of Death and Roses, instead of encounter we sense a deadly loneliness pushing each to suicide. And even when an encounter does materialise, we do not gain the same reward that a reader gets from Traces of a Tattoo after having followed the funny and extremely enjoyable details of a special love story. For Ali and Rana, their encounter is based, in the first place, on a previous, failed attempt at establishing a relationship which, itself, suffers from a competing one between Rana and Elie who is the personified antithesis of Ali. In the process, the novel becomes a continuous struggle against separation which, strange enough, can only be won by vanquished a corresponding separation- the one between Rana and Elie.

While we may consider encounter as being the mover in the relationship between the hero and heroine in Traces of a Tattoo, it is separation which constitutes the corresponding mover for their counterparts in Times of Death and Roses. Consequently, constructing the plot for the latter, selecting a suitable framework for an extraordinary love story, required a super effort.

It would follow that the construction of plot, and, by extension, the entire novel, constituted the basic artistic element of Times of Death and Roses. The effort made by Bishtawi in this regard approaches, in its intensity, the suffering of the characters. A closer scrutiny reveals the great care and effort made by the author in composing his literary work. It is like working on a huge piece of diamond where every tiny detail has an extremely important role.

As an example of high craftsmanship, the division of chapters plays a fundamental role in furthering the principal ideas of the novel. Chapter 17 is a cinematic scene of love while chapter 18 is one of separation. Progressing from one chapter to another is not determined by a chronological order, as the division is one organic, artistic nature. The ultimate effect is manifested in a similarity that is detected to exist between chapters and ideas. It is as easy for the novel to speak of wine turning into vinegar when it wants to denote love failure as it is to speak of vinegar turning into wine to denote success.

Times of Death and Roses does, indeed, appear to have been influenced by the cinema to a large degree. This especially apparent in the way chapters wind and unwind. The silver screen is, perhaps, better equipped to convey the great creative charge carried by the novel. The first chapter opens with Maher hearing, or internally sensing, a tune which we are later to recognise as the macabre melody of death: it concludes with Maher dancing to a revolutionary song. The second chapter begins with what appears to us an illness attacking Ali but later turns out to be a nightmare which Ali suffers upon the disappearance of Maher. We also encounter in this chapter the flashback employed to record those tense moments that preceded a blast. The same technique is to be used more often in the course of the novel.

More evidence of cinematic influence can be seen in the novel’s reluctance to resort too much to the descriptive, keeping it always to a minimum such as enough to depict psychological mood. Chapters are often began and concluded abruptly. This effect is sharpened still by the use of active verbalisation. An example: “Ali looked at Bu’bu’, petrified. He signalled to him to move away but the latter ignored his signal: “Abu Al-Abbas forbade entry to ‘ the gate-to-hell,’ he said hitting Ali in the chest.” (Chapter 3).

Every time the novelist opened a new chapter he asked the reader to think with him not only about the time and venue but also about the action itself and how it is shaped. The chapters most often do not open with description but directly jumb into action by means of tense, expressive dialogue. The clearest example is the riddle we encounter right from the start as to the exact timing of events.

The flashback technique plays a large role in the making of this riddle. For example, Chapter Two expects the reader to solve several puzzles including the disappearance of Maher (an exercise which consumes 9 pages), the identity of Sana (page 54) and her death, disengaging an otherwise intertwined dream and reality. In sum, it would appear that the entire novel (which is already huge) is just a concise scenario prepared for another novel that hides behind it and presents all the details in a traditional manner!

Cinematic elements and techniques aimed at heightening suspense or hybridising a literary genre, would normally constitute a pillar in a structured novel but may, in certain instances, contravene with a complex composition the novelist chooses to weave into his work, as is the case in Times of Death and Roses. In this novel, the reader finds it necessary to read certain phrases more than once in order to fully understand its meaning. The reader also needs to be ever attentive in order to understand the numerous references and symbolic utterances in the novel. (As an example, the narrator says of Rana in page 127:” The self in the first part of the verse said to the self in the second part.” This is a reference to the dual cultural identity of the heroine.

Other symbolic utterances are of a religious type (such as the reference to Legion which is difficult to understand for someone who is not familiar with the Bible), or political nature (such as in the utterance: “He said his name was George but she overheard Michel whisper the name as Ahmed” (page 99), the connotation being that some Muslims aided the phalanges militias). Unless the novel is read more than once, it is difficult for the reader to pick up all the references that it contains.

But complexity is not limited to the question of references. Knotty are almost all the elements of the novel: image, metaphor, time, venue and character. Hence the difficulty of subjecting the novel to classification. It cannot be considered a romantic story although it intimately deals with love; it does hold the reader in suspense all the time but it is not a “horror story” whose only concern is suspense; it is not even a historical novel because it is concerned with the individual’s inner life and understanding of history; nor is it purely psychological because it tackles the social side of the individual; it is not a political story because it tries to study the political in the human context then the mythological and the epic; it is not also an epic because it is not populated by human groups in conflict but by individuals who are representatives of groups albeit unique and special. In sum, Times of Death and Roses does not allow for classification and this is, in my opinion, the most important characteristic of great literature.

For all of the above, Adel Bishtawi has once again proved himself to be one of the most important Arab novelists, and one of the most professional and representative of the our era. His current novel searches deep into the enormous human literary heritage, particularly the extremely rich mythological and religious legacy, in order to tackle issues of utmost sensitivity both at the level of every day Arab reality and the level of the human soul.

Footnotes
(1) For types of possession other than that wielded by evil refer to Chapter 14 where Rana describes what she thinks to be her impact on Ali’s soul.

(2) In Islamic heritage, the scholar Ibn Al-Jawzy consecrated an entire book for a study of the possession of human beings by Iblis (published by Darel Kitab Al-Arabi in 1985). What is meant by possession in Islamic tradition is that Iblis charms humans and seduces them to commit sinful acts. Every human has a Satan on his back and:” possession is effecting bad to appear as good. Vanity is ignorance: it leads to viewing the corrupt as wholesome and the bad as good.” The scholar describes the relationship between man and Satan as one of continuous conflict between angels and Satan: “The war is on between the (camp of) castle’s dwellers and guards and the (camp of) Satan.” In the tradition of the prophet of Islam, every man is accompanied by a Satan, although God helped the prophet in converting the Satan that accompanied him to Islam.

(3) She intended to ask Elie if he was prepared to accept a compromise- middle grounds between him and her- but was not able to reach him. (Page 169).

(4) Under a liberal interpretation, the attitude adopted by Ali and his fellow intellectuals who opted for joining the resistance movement at the expense of their relations with the people, rendering the latter easy prey to the devil, may mean that a true marriage between the intellectual and the people can only be attained by focusing on the self. Rana embodies a symbolic meaning in what she says of Ali: “There is the person who is primarily responsible for all that has befallen me.”(Page 171).

(5) Refer to pages 76 and 79 in the Arabic edition.

(6) Matthew’s 5:18,19

(7) Loneliness is a prime cause of despair and death.

(8) By contrast to Ali’s idea about the total isolation of man in the Universe, Rana’s father says about Ali after having saved his daughter: “Who else could have sent him but God?” (Page 159)

(9) Mark 5:

(10) A recent television interview with the former head of security of the (Christian) Lebanese Forces, Elie Hobeika, revealed that many are still capable of sympathising with a person suspected of a major role in the massacres of Sabra and Chatilla. According to Lebanese satellite TV station, Al-Mustakbal which aired the interview which, once again, held the Palestinians totally responsible for the civil war in Lebanon, 50% of the participating spectators viewed Hobeika in something other than the objective perspective of history. This may prove that history is the outcome of a host of interwoven factors– self-interest, for one- especially in arenas of factional politics such as the one which prevailed during the Lebanese civil war.

* This review was published in two-part by Al Quds Al Arabi Newspaper (London) on the 10 and 11 of March 2000 and were translated by Mohammad Khaled

 

{Editor’s note: Since the publication of the Novel Times of Death and Roses and the publication of this article Elie Hobeika was blown up in Beirut in January 2002}

Elie Hobeika: lady-killer and blood-soaked war criminal

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

Independent Newspaper, 24 January 2002

I once received a message from Elie Hobeika, who was killed yesterday in a Beirut car bombing. Elie, I was told, was very unhappy with my book about the Lebanon war, Pity The Nation.

In it, I had described how he led the Phalangist murderers into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila in 1982 ­ under the eyes of the Israelis, who did nothing ­ and slaughtered up to 1,700 Palestinian refugees. Who did I think I was? Elie was very unhappy. Elie was the Al Pacino of Lebanon.

I sent back a message. Elie had problems, I said. The Israelis themselves had named him as the principal murderer and war criminal in the Kahan commission report ­ the same inquiry which said that Ariel Sharon, then Defence Minister and now Israeli Prime Minister, was “personally responsible'” for the slaughter. If Elie wanted to shut me up, I said, I would ask about Sabra and Chatila at every press conference he gave in Beirut. The next thing I received from Elie was a bottle of champagne.

During the Lebanese civil war, Elie had changed sides. After being trained in an Israeli camp ­ no American bombing for “terrorists” trained in Israel, of course ­ he led the pro-Israeli Christian Maronite Phalange into the Beirut camp for the massacre. But Sister Syria later smiled upon him. He led an attack against his former militia associates and, in post-war Beirut became minister for electricity in the pro-Syrian Lebanese government, a period marked by massive power cuts and little electricity.

So outraged was the Lebanese government at the corruption of his ministry that, so it was said, four Lebanese Army trucks were sent to his east Beirut home to retrieve carpets, furniture and personal effects worth up to £7.2m looted from public coffers. The Palestinians longed for his death. The Syrians withdrew their security cover, the Israelis remained indifferent ­ until he threatened to grass on Mr Sharon.

Despite his mistresses he was a lonely man. Morose, unable to travel for fear of arrest for war crimes and defiant in the face of continued accusations of massacre. His young fiancée had been raped and murdered by Palestinian gunmen in the town of Damour in 1975. He hated Palestinians ­ although he later employed a Palestinian from Haifa to run his public relations outfit.

As a government minister, he sought respectability. When the father of Mai Kahale, the Lebanese President’s spokes-woman, died, he was there in an armchair, in the family home, grieving with the relatives. When the Pope went to Lebanon, Mr Hobeika was standing obsequiously in line to bow before the Holy Father. When Time magazine editors were due to be hosted by the Leban-ese Prime Minister, Mr Hobeika was invited to the state dinner ­ but seated on a table without journalists, a pariah minister. He was suave, intelligent, ruthless and, like many war criminals, a lady-killer. His former bodyguard, codenamed “Cobra”, listed his mistresses in a book later banned in Lebanon, creating a scandale in Beirut even more animated than the condemnation of the camp massacres.

The 1,700 civilians were murdered by Hobeika Phalangist thugs under the eyes of the Israelis. The Israelis were later to recall his response to a Phalangist officer who asked what he should do with Palestinian civilian prisoners: “Don’t ask me such a stupid question again,” Mr Hobeika laughingly replied. Later, he claimed he was in Sweden at the time of the massacre.

Five years ago Elie thought he might have a chance of becoming President of Lebanon. I received a call from Elie’s old friend, Rudy Baludi. How about dinner at the Vieux Quartierrestaurant in east Beirut?

In the seedy bar, Rudy explained Elie’s problem. He might want to be President. He was, after all, a Maronite Christian ­ the main condition for the presidency ­ and had the people of Lebanon at heart.

What was my advice? How did he deal with those unfortunate stories about Sabra and Chatila? I said he should tell the truth. In fact, I suggested he told the whole story to The Independent ­ the killings, the rape, the slaughter. Once he’d got this of his chest, he could see how the world responded to a confessed war criminal. Murderers had become presidents before, I said. Killers had become leaders in Africa, China, the Soviet Union, the Arab Nations, Israel; why ­ dare I say it? ­ a Wehrmacht intelligence officer had become President of Austria.

Alas, Elie decided he had no chance of becoming President. The interview never took place although, a few weeks later, I received another message. Elie would like a signed copy of Pity The Nation. I sent it, even though it contained evidence of his complicity in the 1982 massacres.

Last July, he started to walk on thin ice. Anxious to reconstitute his identity ­ or fearful of being set up for war crimes’ charges by Mr Sharon ­ Mr Hobeika called a press conference. “I am in possession of evidence of my innocence concerning Sabra and Chatila,” he told us. “And I have evidence of what actually happened at Sabra and Chatila which will throw a completely new light on the Kahan commission report.”

My last message from Elie was that bottle of champagne: a magnum of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Rosé 1988. I never drank it. I felt it was contaminated. It lay in my fridge here in Beirut last night. I know many in Lebanon would like to drink it in celebration. But I suspect that, if I uncorked it, blood would spurt out.

The damned and the damning

The patient reader will come out of the novel both damned and damning in a way similar to that felt by the characters of the novel themselves. In them we find parts off our bodies and memory scattered over the past and the future. Patience, however, is not an ingredient that Bishtawi wants as he leaves behind the purgatory of Beirut in one of its most heated and violent stages.

Times of Death and Roses Reviewed by Iraqi Writer and Critic Ismael Zayer

Times of Death and Roses by Palestinian novelist A. S. Bishtawi appears an extremely neutral title for a novel. It is a title that refers to things that have already been accomplished by time. But the neutrality was imperative to overcome the hardships of remembrance or the reconstruction of events discussed by the novel. The fire of these events is not dead yet. There is a layer of ash covering the body off time but it does not conceal any part of it.

The work spreading over 550 pages removes that layer and beats the bodies of the dead and vanquished to rise with their testimonies, their hardships and the loss they suffered over generations. It was not easy for Bishtawi to send back to the caves of death the souls he has awaken without giving them the chance to speak out, and to rearrange the facts that led to the death and defeat of an entire generation that lost both dream and life as a result of the incessant savageness of the 1970s and 1980s.

The patient reader will come out of the novel both damned and damning in a way similar to that felt by the characters of the novel themselves. In them we find parts off our bodies and memory scattered over the past and the future. Patience, however, is not an ingredient that Bishtawi wants as he leaves behind the purgatory of Beirut in one of its most heated and violent stages.

Both the victim and the murder were given a chance to say what they wanted to say about those times. Bishtawi leads us through his novel to the portal of forgetfulness but from a back entrance. “Nothing speeds up forgetfulness like remembrance”, he says. (P 25). From the portal of forgetfulness there enters Ali, the vanquished hero of his novel, to the garden of forgetfulness. It is up to us to forget, but not everything than can be remembered can be forgotten.

Bishtawi’s work belongs to his experience in life rather than to a specific style or a fictional trend or even to narrative mould. The novel’s time-frame is constructed in sucha way that sheds light on its characters, and unfolds the cataractal chain of thought to become, in its own space and atmosphere, an earthly substance that translates and edges on the entities that stand in its way.

Times of Death and Roses is about the experience of revolutionaries who dedicated their life to the Palestinian revolution in an absolute soul-cleansing value but soon enough the normal human dimension of such sacrifice surfaces in all its details, protrusions and diversions that extend over a wide horizon encompassing outstanding courage and baseless cowardice, treachery and degradation. Events circle around in times that storm out through the characters moulding the general human scene, and pushes to the violent surface of lake the remains left behind by massacres, violations and the spiritual and psychological ruin dumped by the regional circumstances on our generations.

Ali, the central character of the novel, crosses the red lines separating commitment (to his Palestinian cause) and rebellion, and deep belief and heresy. The only responsibility remaining is the responsibility of the individual to himself. The novel specifically is shadowed by the Massacre of the mainly two Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. The Palestinians were attacked by Lebanese militiamen with the help of the Israeli army who had invaded Lebanon in 1982. The novel also is about the events that led to the massacre and the deep wounds it inflicted on the Palestinians.

Ali’s dilemma, like all other educated young men, is manifested in his increased awareness of his marginality, and the marginality of a whole generation. It is also manifested in his shock and anger at the realisation that he had got accustomed to his marginality and accepted the new fact that the margin has become “the biggest country of the world”. This marginlisation is more painful than his frustration and disappointment due to the failure of his personal political experience. It means that he was defeated twice: The first against death, and the second against evil. In these circumstances the loss of the battle against death came as a matter of course without any justification, or ethical value.

The frustration was the nature of Ali’s times, but it was doubly bitter for this “retired” Palestinian commander as he crawls to encircle the human life that lost its initial innocence during the revolution and because of it. This crawling is both inward and outward and it continues because the poisoning of the future of those who tried to escape the poisoning doesn’t stop. There is no escape for such future. Like a satanic spirit, it haunts its victims and chases them wherever they go. The movement from the times of death to the times of roses is nothing but a deceptive space that separates hope from illusion, and certainty from doubt.

We may not be wrong to say that Bishtawi’s novel is one of the rare attempts in modern Arab literature that dares to embody an experience shrouded in various taboos and apprehensions. An entire generation of Palestinian revolutionaries and Lebanese people have gone through such an experience beginning from the Lebanese civil war and ending at the evacuation of the POL (Palestine Liberation Organisation) from Beirut following the Israeli invasion in 1982. This experience is summoned in the novel in a high standard literary narrative and with all its cons and pros. Bishtawi portrays the atmosphere of explosions, booby-trapped cars that explode at random amongst civilians, arbitrary shelling and death that seems to be even more arbitrary.

The writer does not only move us through one level of that experience but also to the depth of the “revolutionary abyss” where bitterness and corruption govern the relation between the fighter and his leadership. The language, though, is the language of that particular time. It carries its expressions and vulgarities as much as it carries its ideas and lofty values.

The stumbling of the human expression in that context is a mirror of the stumbling of the political action and the revolution itself. The overwhelming dominance of catastrophe is evident. It is where “sleep becomes an exhausting experience, walking up even more so and the mere continuation of life a miracle”.

The Other Side of the Spectrum

On the other side of the spectrum there is Rana- the Lebanese Christian Ali knew and kept in his memory as she grows into a sensual beautiful young woman. Ali squanders the chance of falling in love with Rana in the distant time but another chance makes itself available to him. Rana, like Ali, finds herself leaving the first round of time psychologically scarred. The disaster hits her as hard as it hits Ali although both go through it in two different, separate and confronting camps. Rana’s choices, whether as a human being or a woman, may seem infinite, but such choices disappear when she reaches for the future to find nothing but void.

Ali and Rana meet again in another place where guns and shells have fell silent. It is far away from the scene of battle in Beirut where the only times available are the times of death, so a warm social horizon opens itself for them only to discover that although they were far away from the wars of Lebanon, their internal satans have not concluded their wars yet. Both discover that the only way left for human beings to follow is the road leading to hell through the devil.

The price paid by Rana to free herself from the grip of the devil was high enough to almost cause her the destruction of her renewed budding love for Ali. Ali, on the other hand, is no longer capable of losing Rana again, but he fails nevertheless in unifying them together in the other times-the times of love.

As for the objectivity of the text of the novel, we may conclude that the language used is solidly constructed and heavy with poetic colour particularly when it comes to expressing symbols and contemplation. The language is like a bridge that takes us across the freed emotions that had escaped their long imprisonment. It leads us to the next scene as waves move water only to extinguish its desire in the second wave. Following a violent uprising, the language moves into narration, both deep and pensive, without losing the heat of the content.

Despite that fact that political and historical evens are cohesively intertwined with the general fabric of the novel, they do still take up a large volume of the novel. Such treatment brings into memory the experiences of several novelists who used this technique in the past as a type of literary expression to justify the unfolding of ideas and contemplations not easily contained in other techniques, or go contrary to the conditions of the publishers and the local reading scene. Still, Bishtawi succeeded in giving the reader the chance to enjoy the circumstances of an impossible love between two human beings separated by a war almost of destiny nature.

Along with the sweetness come the subjects discussed by Bishtawi and place us face to face with the difficult conditions of human existence. Moreover, he shocks us more than once into leaving the niche of our content illusions about the revolution and the false glories to return to earth. The novel also is about the human brotherhood despite its difficult prerequisites and high price.

This review was published by Al Sharq Al Awsat Newspaper on 03.04.2000

The glowing pulse of life

A review of Times and Death and Roses by Moroccan celebrated literary critic Mohamed Allout

 

When over a year and half ago we presented novelist Adel Bishtawi as a distinguished writer our judgment stemmed from a solid conviction, especially following the publication of his fourth literary accomplishment, “Traces of a Tattoo” (1988). The novel has since been celebrated by the Arab critics in magazine and newspaper articles and has become, in record time, a subject of literary criticism studies at the English University.

The publication (1999) of his second recent novel, “Times of Death and Roses,” is no surprise to us. Nor is it a surprise that the second should surpass the first in its length (553 pages), the beauty of writing as a craft and a creation, or the choice of subject which is human by excellence as it investigates the possibility or otherwise of the existence of love in times of war, horror and death.

It is a novel that, like its precedent, searches for the glowing pulse of life in a macabre atmosphere of despair and senseless killing; the dramatization of suffering at a time when the betting on the future seeks fulfilment and a way out of the circle of dreams; the dramatization of human beings whose memories are heavily-cracked and whose souls are inhabited by fear and the ghosts of death.

We have to presume that it is an entertaining novel. But the entertainment therein does not render itself completely to the reader until the latter has exercised patience over a narrative whose basic foundation is not a simple, superficial device of straightforwardly narrating events but two distinctive literary techniques. These are: the interior monologue and the dialogue. The former, whose single exercise may stretch over an entire chapter, invokes the style of Marcel Brust in “In Search of the Lost Time,” or the unique literary device of “stream of consciousness” whose proponents include Virginia Wolf, William Faulkner and Thomas Mann.

Furthermore, the reader finds himself drawn into realms of stylistic and eloquent exercises where the metaphor is a basic element. The reader has no choice, at times, except to venture into interpreting such metaphors by relying on the general meaning of the text. Some examples that need metaphorical interpretation are the “Sea,” the “Goblin,” the “Demon.”

“Times of Death and Roses” is a complex literary work entertaining a simple plot that may be well served by a short story of several pages. But the writer is more interested in the inner lives of his characters than in the intricacies of the plot (we are coming to that shortly). There is no need to sum up the modern plot. It would suffice to note that the novel as a whole is built on two events, namely, war and love. In the course of action, the original duality of war and love begets a series of antitheses: existence vs. non-existence; life vs. death; the possible vs. the impossible; affirmation vs. negation; past vs. present; presence vs. absence.

A passionate, extremely romatic love story evolving on the backdrop of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the novel poses problematic questions: can love and life exist in times of destruction and death? Could a rose blossom in a soil infected by mines? Could the angels spread their white wings in an age of air bombing, demons, and senseless killing?

Rana, Ali and Elie

The chief characters of Times of Death and Roses are: “Rana,” “Ali,” and “Elie” – a trio joined together by a single love story. Rana is infatuated with love for her angle, Ali. But she is also attached to Elie who victimizes her and, consequently, becomes a demon. At a personal level, Rana suffers the dilemma of being forced to choose between an angel and a demon. Her personal conflict, which has many overtones – psychological, spiritual, religious, social and political – reduces the novel into a dramatization of the ever-lasting, mythical struggle between good and evil.

But although Rana’s internal conflict is a focal point, the novel’s actual boundaries extend limitlessly as it reads into the current Arab reality. Firstly, the novel depicts the horrible, disgusting acts of aggression and cases of rape committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians. It moves on to depict life in the Palestinian military bases and the refugee camps. Thirdly, it comments on the Palestinian resistance movement as it becomes an institution and loses its human connotation.

The full weight of the events with their bloody ugliness is reflected in the personal fate of Ali’s close friend, Maher, before it turns into fits of despair which attack Ali whenever he remembered his days at the military base, the death of his friend, Maher, the death of his brother and baby-sister in one of the many massacres committed by the Israeli soldiers and, finally, the heavy loss of his beloved, Fatina- his childhood friend and future dream- in the madness of hostilities.

The overall tragedy is also personalized in Rana herself. She comes to Beirut to pursue her university studies but the hostilities steal the dreams and roses she has spent a life watering in the secret gardens of her heart. The cost she has to pay is her first love, Ali. She also finds herself entangled by the demonic web of Elie, the head of a private gang of outlaws which reduces human values into a criminal wave of killings and torture, individual and collective. As the writer carries the repercussions of the events on the inner lives of his characters, thus Rana is shown torn between a desire to turn Elie into an angel so that life could become possible for everybody and a conflicting desire to win the heart of the angel Ali so that they could join forces in the fight against crime.

Apart from the three principal characters, the novel’s fabric does not become complete except with the necessary presence of the secondary characters. These act as assistants or, (according to Mr. Probe in his study of folk tales) obstructive factors, for or against the universal desire in seeing good win over evil, or vice versa. Of the secondary characters we may mention Maher, Katia, Rama, Fatina, Rana’s parents, Fatina’s husband (Ahmed,) Rasha the child and Omar. However, the question of the secondary characters is important in as much as the affirmation of their presence bring us closer to the principal characters, not farther.

The Individual and the Cause

The writer is profoundly keen to underline the difference between the Palestinian as an individual and as a Cause. He wants to show how political commitment may turn into a heavy and destructive human burden. Ali says of his niece Fatinah,” It is true that Fatinah is a Palestinian but she is in the end a woman and needs to marry the man not the Cause. She wants to have children, her own, not the orphans of the Cause.” (P 21) But drawing the line between the individual and the Cause does not amount to a declaration of “escape” from the inevitable confrontation. Hence the angry, defiant and painful note the writer uses in speaking of the Palestinian people: “How many massacres are we to endure, ‘ Ali shouted at the top of his mouth as he ran by the fence, ‘How many massacres are we to endure before this nation raises hands trembling with anger, despair and the desire for revenge and shouts: Now, I want blood, now. How many times are we to hear: This is the last massacre but always turns out to the one before the last? How many massacres the homeland of massacres is going to endure? How many female babies are you going to rape? How many kids are you going to butcher? How many pregnant bellies are you going to open? How many boys are you going to force in line before you point your guns at their foreheads one after the other? How many bombs are going to explode and how many bullets to be fired before the nation raises her hands and shouts: Damn you all, you bastards! From now on I no longer need any of you.” (P 49)

In times of Palestinian despair, when the executed becomes the executioner, we find the novelist asserting that victory lies in survival, in betting on the future, on continuing the struggle. One of the secondary characters, “Boubou”, says to Ali,” You’re a friend so I’ll tell you. But I’ll whisper it into your ear lest somebody hears us. My gun of last resort is not here (the military base). My final gun is at home. It is my wife. In circumstances such as these it is not possible to fight death with death. We wont succeed. Instead, I’ll fight death with life. I’ve four children. I want six more, half for me and half for them and we shall see who survives in the end. (P 63)

In times of death and internal conflict in Lebanon, non-existence becomes existence; life becomes impossible and man dies standing; dies from despair and loneliness. Lost at sea, having fled the hell of the military base, Ali cries out,” Why are we here? Why are we alone in a lonely planet, in a lonely space, why?” (P85). But the novel’s characters remain alive. In an interior monologue, Ali says,” The time of death has gone but it still hangs there in the horizon. This I know because I sometimes hear it calling out in the darkness. I do not want it. I want someone to pull me away from it…The time of roses has not started yet. I know that its breeze floats nearby. I raise my nose in its direction and empty my lungs. I search for it at night, at dawn and at sea and in the faces of all those I see, but I still can’t find it. I want someone to keep reminding me of it, to drag me, push me towards it. If this someone does not succeed in the beginning, I will not complain because I know I’m being pulled away from the time of death. And this is good enough.” (P 272)

Rana and Ali are a common fate; two faces of a coin, a love story which bets on life and the future. In the end, each comes out having achieved victory over a broken, horribly damaged self. They both emerge from the darkness of despair and death, each carrying a rose for those to come. They have together achieved victory. The novel concludes with their passionate love tying them together for eternity. It is a happy ending which seeks to demonstrate that there is something in life worth struggling for. But victory comes when the characters bet on what is eternal and ultimate: love, humanity and goodness. Likewise, defeat and humiliation come when we engage in futile battles whose sole objective is to win selfish gains, negate the other, or collaborate with the demon for a trivial benefit.

Although “Times of Death and Roses” focuses on the tragedy of the current Palestinian reality in particular, yet the writer has succeeded in making us feel that what he meant by his novel is humanity at large. He is helped in that by his acute observation and preference for the universal. Everything in the book is singular in the plural tense. We may say that it is a book on Palestine. So what? It is a novel about man everywhere and at all times. The writer targets us all.

The last page is an ending and a beginning at the same time because the novel bets on renewed birth only to tell us that love is the beginning and end of any human relationship. It is love that gives life and negates death. It is love that makes us utter the cry of joy the baby utters as he emerges from the darkness of the womb. It is love which makes us hold the roses but not feel the pain of the thorns cutting into our hand and veins that pulsate with a deep love of life, a hand of good luck extending into eternity.

Published by Sahra Newspaper (Casablanca, Moroccan) on 01 June 1999, and translated by Mohamed Khaled

Random is not chaos

I was absolutely shocked when I discovered in an early translation of Traces of a Tattoo that the translator has decided to spice up the plot a bit by changing the outcome of a crucial scene. “With these changes,” he wrote in an e-mail, “you can call it a a great novel. You may want to consider adding my name as co-author rather than pushing it down almost on the verge of the cropping marks.”

For a strange reason, I can write books in English but I have never been satisfied when translating my own works. It just does it read good enough, so I entrusted my brother, whose English is much better than mine, with the difficult task. Still, some scenes didn’t feel right. Arabic is a very rich language. Many of its mono syllabic morphemes and bilateral roots were borrowed directly from the primeval nature either in Africa, the original homeland, or in southern Arabia. Words tend to spark rather than express. To compensate the English reader, some flavour had to be added.

Several passages in the English translation are not in the Arabic version. Here is one:

 

“Aroub sighed deeply as if trying to expel her fears.

Random is not chaos. It is just another system far more complex than any other. If it wasn’t a system, why is she with a young man she never met in her life? Could it all be coincidences? What made the mugger pick her mum and not one of thousands of women with handbags who swarm Knightsbridge every day? Hisham was there at the very moment fate struck hard. Was it also a coincidence? No room was available at all hotels. Was that a coincidence too?

Random is not chaos, nor is coincidence. They are natural systems, like any other. Was she guided to Wissam? Why? What is she to do now? What is he to do now?

Could it be fate? What is fate? Would Wissam have begun to like her had she not forced him to like her? He too, indeed, he too.

Aroub shook her head. Fate is made, not given. It is a door opened by time for a while and closed again. Fate doesn’t go in with the fated to give a grand tour of the place inside. It doesn’t provide maps for the roads ahead; it doesn’t give tips on how to approach certain things and avoid others. It just opens the door for the chosen ones; that’s all. It is up to them to decide what to do next. If she wants Wissam, she has to go through that door. If she doesn’t, she can sit on her bed and wait for it to close.

But what is she to do? She had driven away his girlfriend in the holiday season, a season when most people open their hearts wide and their doors even wider and invite those they love to come in and look around. This is what Hisham did. It is true that he tried hard but failed to find a room for them the first night. But he could have found for them a room in another hotel the next day.

He didn’t. He wanted them to stay. The first night was a coincidence. The second was not. It was a door opened for her and her mum, but Hisham wouldn’t let the door close again; not before he tried to recreate his fate.

Wissam, too. He had Arlene, but the moment he breathed the same warm air with her on the stairs, the warm air deposited in his chest by Arlene was expelled instantly and she was completely forgotten.

What a change?”

 

Here is another vastly changed:

“The telephone rang. Wissam returned to his room and closed the door. He sat on the chair and auditioned the second question. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted and picked up the handset. “Aroub, my love, how are you?”

“I’m fine now, how are you?”

“Aroub, I’m going to ask you something very important. You don’t have to answer me right away. Take as much time as you want; I’ll wait for your answer as long as you want.”

“I do. What other questions do you want to ask me?”

Aroub heard a skidding noise followed by a bang and a suppressed cry of pain. She screamed: “Wissam! What happened?”

“Aroub, darling,” Wissam said after a while. “You would not believe this. I’ve just fallen off my chair.”

“How?”

“I’m not exactly sure. I thought I heard you say something.”

“What did you hear me say?”

Wissam hesitated. “I thought I heard you say, ‘I do.’ Did you say that?”

Aroub laughed. “I said, ‘I too,’ meaning I too have a question for you.”

“Damn it!” Wissam said, utterly disappointed. “I could have sworn you said something else. I must have wanted to hear those words from you, but it wasn’t to be. Never mind, I’ll ask now, but first give me two seconds to steel myself.”

When he felt ready, he didn’t have the chance to ask. All he could hear on the phone was Aroub’s laughter, getting louder and louder by the second. “You silly boy,” she said in between laughs. “Of course I said, ‘I do’. I love you; what else can a girl in love say?”

Aroub heard a skidding noise followed by a bang and a suppressed cry of pain, a bit louder than before.

“My love,” she screamed with deep concern. “What happened again?”

 

Here is a third and definitely last passage:

“How am I going to shake hands with the guests? Over one hundred guests have been invited and ten percent more are expected to come without invitation.”

“You should have been a little more careful,” she said, glancing towards the kitchen where the ironing board still stood. “Grabbing the iron like that!”

“The ironing board was blocking the way. If I had known you used the iron, I wouldn’t have carried it.”

“I ironed your shirts. You could have been more careful.”

“How much careful can I possibly be? There’re too many things on my mind. Had I not booked the hall, I would have postponed the wedding a second time.”

“If you do, Maggie will definitely leave you this time. Why should she have to suffer as well?”

“It’s my fault then, is it not? We have known each other for four years now. The only spots I have seen were on her left buttock. Now look at me! I’m covered with them. Maybe I have become allergic to her.”

Alia gasped. “Could that be?”

Samir reflected for a moment and shook his head. “That can’t be. We have slept together four hundred and eighty six times, and nothing happened. It can’t be. I must be allergic to marriage.”

Alia pushed herself back for a better look at the number. “You count these things in America?”

“She does. She’s an accountant, as you know.”

“What for?”

“For tax relief, I suppose. Ask her.”

“Solved then,” she said with a quick laugh. “You can spend the first night of your honeymoon counting the spots and blisters.”

As it nears the end…

A Review of Traces of a Tattoo  by writer, critic and journalist Salah Huzayyen

Traces of a Tattoo starts with the principal character strolling London’s main streets and alleys, browsing through shops and stores he knew by heart. In his downtown excursion, Hisham is flooded with fresh memories, days recently gone by when he used to walk down those same streets, passing the time until his now deceased wife emerged from the underground station and accompanied her back home.

Suddenly, an incident evolves to carry Hisham to another time and place. As he follows the movement of the crowd, he spots a pickpocket in the act of snatching the handbag off the arm of a lady and disappearing. Hisham approaches the scene and, to his surprise, finds out that the victim, who happens to be with her daughter, is no other than his old beloved, Alia. The lady is the very same girl he had loved back in Damascus a quarter of a century earlier. Their love was supposed to end in marriage but it did not. Instead, the girl was snatched by their common friend, Khalil, who won her hand in marriage in shady circumstances which we, as reader, are made to uncover through a series of scenes, flash-backs and dialogues that at times glow in dramatic intensity and, at others, flow placidly and deliciously but remain sombre all the time.

Soon enough, the old love story begets a new one with a change in players. The roles played formally by Hisham and Alia are now played by their children- Wissam and Aroub. But both stories share a common denominator in the spirit of prime youth with all its recklessness, rashness and foolishness. They are tied together by the presence of the youthful spirit of the old lovers who watch over and tend to the seed of love that has grown in their offsprings, all the while determined not to see the new love story end in failure in a lamentable recurrence of history. The two love stories are also tied together by the presence of Alia’s husband, Khalil, whose suspicion of his wife’s old relationship with Hisham has not been healed by the passage time. He is also a father to Aroub and is, as such, capable of destroying the new love story of Wissam and Aroub, just as he had done in the past in the case of Hisham and Alia.

Khalil does in fact discover that his wife had stayed at Hisham’s house in London. Blind suspicion and jealousy turn the man into a vicious animal gripped by rage and a desire for vengeance. He starts a campaign of humiliation and subjugation against his wife. He even accuses his daughter of indecency when his mind fails to recognize her right to fall in love with a stranger. He insists on having a doctor examine his daughter’s virginity thus violating her privacy and character after having shredded her dignity. But things do not stop there, he follows the psychological torture with a senseless beating which goes on until the poor daughter collapses and almost loses her eyesight.

As the novel nears the end, it takes a conciliatory path unwarranted by a strong technical justification taking into consideration the physical and psychological cruelty that gripped Khalil and pushed him on the verge of divorce from his wife Alia. This conciliatory path leads to a previously undetected change in Khalil’s character. He gets his wife back, and he blesses the marriage of his daughter Aroub to Wissam, the son of his old enemy. Hisham, who had lost Alia a quarter of a century earlier, is left with the chronic sadness of losing Alia yet again and only a few months after the death of his wife. The new love story between Wissam and Aroob is crowned with success leaving the old love story between Hisham and Alia like traces of a tattoo.

Translated by Muhammad Khaled from he original text published by the Jordanian Newspaper Al Rai Al Am on 7 August 1998.

Very much like a love song

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Traces of a Tattoo: A review by Iraqi writer and critic Fatima Al-Mhusin

It happens that old lovers do meet by coincidence on a lost pavement. And it happens that the meeting of old lovers may come as a daydream, something hard to materialize in reality. And it happens that old lovers may be forced by circumstances to stay in one place so as to face the past of their love story. But when all such these coincidences take place in a single book, the result may sound like a romantic novel and very much like a love song.

But Palestinian writer, Adel Bishtawi, had it all in mind when he wrote his first novel following the publication of six anthologies of novelettes and short stories. He engages his readers in conceiving a literary introduction with a touch of fantasy dressed in reality- an Arab widower approaching his fifties with no flowers in his vase and no logs in his fireplace, living in a lonely city like London; on the day before the new year, the widower walks down the streets of London, deeply engaged in memories of his deceased English wife; suddenly, a girl he had loved and lost in Damascus 20 years earlier, re-emerges in his life. He finds her lost, powerless and in need of a hero to pull her out of her troubles. He invites her to stay at his house where her daughter, who is like her, is to fall in love with his son, who is like him.

But what is important in “Traces of a Tattoo” is not the plot, nor the signals it gives in the form of an opinion or advice. Rather, it is the novel’s horizontal level, or what the literary critics specifically call the verbal level where the dialogue plays an active role in creating atmospheres that are rich in transparent pictures offering something beyond the entertainment normally expected from the scenes of love. The novel presents itself to the reader gently and softly, offering an ambiance of cosiness and a captivating following of the characters’ fates and emotions. It further explores the verbal medium and the capability of its dramatization power in detecting the self’s tendencies and societal dimensions. The emotions, in their ebbing and flowing movements, softness and stiffness, are dominated by conflicts of the soul, and appear confined by four walls, several days and a romantic love story. But they are enriched by a variety of verbal techniques as they unfold; through dialogue in particular, the light but nonetheless effective differences between the moods of the generations and a modern world that has interlined its borders.

In conclusion, the novel appears a literary work which reveals the plight of the Arab woman- her limited choices in life, her will that gets broken in the circle of humiliation of every day life no matter how much education and intelligence she possessed, and no matter how frequently she proved herself more than a match to her male counterparts. Even her heart’s right of choice seems governed by conditions and responsibilities that have been purposely created to suppress her joys. The writer did not need to remember the status of the woman in the Third World and in the Arab region to give credibility to the sufferings of his heroines. The proof is not what the father is looking for in his daughter’s room (for proof what she had met a man in London), it is not in diagnosing the concept of guilt and sin, but in what he presented in terms of a proof for the sterility of the idea of love in the Arab region, as happiness cannot be replaced by theatrical acts where the sons take the role of the fathers in matters that are extremely private in nature.

Translated by Mohammad Khaled from the original text published by Al Khaleej Newspaper, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Arab women status in society

The Arab woman and her status in society is the most important concern of Traces of a Tattoo. The diversified levels of narration employed in the writing of this novel make the feminine a reference point, a universal target and an ultimate goal of everything. They also turn the novel into a new ground where the woman is allowed a presence that is very much different from the one she is normally permitted to have in the Arabic novel. Here, she is, in some respect, a repressed woman who finds herself in a situation where she has no choice but to assert herself and, consequently, change.

 

A review by the distinguished Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah of the novel Traces of a Tattoo by Syrian poet and writer Nouri Jarrah

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Traces of a Tattoo seeks to convey several messages. Some relate to the woman and constitute a basic concern for the novel. The woman is, matter of fact, at the centre of the writer’s attention. To him, the woman is a reservoir of power and ability: she always finds her way in the end to express herself clearly, regardless of any attempt to rein her.

This view of the woman manifests itself in course of action and is reflected in the behaviour of the female characters as the writer puts them in diversified situations and circumstances requiring courageous initiatives the weak-hearted are not capable of taking. It is true that the writer does present to us instances of hesitation, but the reason for the apparent contradiction lies in two things: the craft of artistic tension and the craft of fictional seduction which introduces human cases as close as possible to what they are in reality, a reality which always carries a degree of contradiction. After all, is not the human being strong and weak at the same time, courageous and coward, noble and pauper?

At the risk of digressing, the woman and her status in society is the most important concern of Traces of a Tattoo. The diversified levels of narration employed in the writing of this novel make the feminine a reference point, a universal target and an ultimate goal of everything. They also turn the novel into a new ground where the woman is allowed a presence that is very much different from the one she is normally permitted to have in the Arabic novel. Here, she is, in some respect, a repressed woman who finds herself in a situation where she has no choice but to assert herself and, consequently, change.

In the following excerpt, we find some of what the writer has said through Alia in support of our observation,” ”I sometimes hear about the Third World’s problems and recall what happened to me and Aroub and I say to myself: You know, Aroub, the Third World’s largest debt is not owed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Paris Club, the London Club, or all the banks of the world combined. The largest debt is owed to the woman in these unjust societies that increase their injustice by persecuting their women… When I hear about buses allocating only their back benches for women, when I see husbands dragging their wives out of taxis in the public street and beating them in front of everybody, I despair from the world and feel an urge to resist in any way.” The writer dedicated his novel to his heroine, Aroub, and, as he himself once observed, through her to the Arab Woman.

Of the other issues raised by “Traces of a Tattoo” some relate to scientific progress and the development of societal relationships. Also discussed is the development of human awareness through man’s relationship with the basic pillars of human existence such as life, death, happiness, misery, fate, and choice. In this context, the writer advances a point of view which sees man as the maker of his own destiny, or at least, not surrendering to it.

Conflict of the Novel

The conflict in the novel manifests itself in two opposing parties as represented by two sets of characters, the first being positive, the second, passive. The first set is composed of Aroub and Wissam while the second involves Alia and Hisham. The writer drew the distinctive features of the characters so as to illustrate his point of view regarding contradiction and conflict but without committing gender bias. He believes that, contrary to what some writers used to suggest, passivity is not intrinsically feminine but a feature common to both sexes and depends on human condition rather than being an intrinsic human flaw.

In some respect, “Traces of a Tattoo” intersects with other novels written by Arab writers in Arabic and English such as “A Bird from the East” by Tawfiq Al-Hakim, “The Season for Migration to the North” by Al-Taib Saleh, and “In the Eye of the Sun” by Ahdaf Sweif (in English). As such, the writer exposes his literary work to an aesthetical and intellectual challenge that is, unfortunately, the domain of literary critics not a non-professional reader like me.

Perhaps some of the Adel Bishtawi`s best personal experiences and, for that purpose, most productive in terms of igniting thoughts and drawing conclusions, have found their way to his novel. This should not mean that the writer is relying on his personal life. Rather, he is skilfully exploiting the knowledge he has accumulated through travelling and living in East and West. As the writer himself once pointed out, success and failure are not always important. What’s important, according to him, is that man must jump like a tiger and grab the chances that destiny puts his way.

But the writer appears, nonetheless, able to diversify his narrative techniques to suit the various stages of action while stressing their unique atmospheres and dressings which establish a hidden link between the characters’ thoughts, behaviour and motives and his own thoughts and motives. He presents a literary work which ignores a whole history of artistic pedantry so as to restore for the impressionistic novel which is endowed with a realistic fabric and, in some respect, aesthetic, romantic orientation, the ability to tackle contemporary concerns and immediate preoccupations.
Thus the novel encompasses individual concerns like love, travel, search, discovery, pain; technologies like the computer, the internet and the satellite dishes with their huge produce of the live and the abstract; national politics and international conflicts that govern the contemporary human existence. Consequently, the most important issue underscored by the novel is the literary concept, the literary form’s position within the literary theory as well as the capabilities of the literary form – be it the short story, the novel or the play – in establishing aesthetical values that are new but not strange to the Arab reader.

The literary form which Adel Bishtawi chose for his literary work is the products of, firstly, the idea of the novel itself and, secondly, the adventure of writing it. I admit to not having the ability to stop at certain junctions of the novel as is expected of a literary critic, but I would like to underline the docility of the style which the writer employs in depicting the behaviour of Arab characters while travelling to the West on an existential adventure that takes them deep into themselves and confronts them with big questions they had never faced before. It is as if the outside world (here, the West) is a mirror where the self is confronted with the image of the other.

It is also a test of the self and its affairs. What attracts the attention most is that, for the novel’s characters, the West does not constitute a complex but a potential challenge at its social, scientific, and moral levels, as well as a suitable stage for making comparisons based on personal aptitudes rather than ideological differences. But this should not mean that the writer is overlooking the past, complex relationship between the East and West. It is possible, however, that the writer would prefer to overlook the past as being an impediment to establishing human relationships, at the individual level, at least.

The novel’s new: a new spirit

What is new in Traces of a Tattoo is the old itself, albeit viewed in different, fictional perspectives. All in all, we have in front of us an artistic work that is alive, charged with a fast tempo and diversified levels of narration, while the transitions from narration to dialogue seem quite abrupt in certain instances but help avoid boredom in a work relatively massive in volume. The novel reveals the writer’s education and preferences and, alternatively, an Arabic oral legacy encouraging the use of poetry among the social groups of the middle class. Additionally, the writer amassed a wealth of artistic devices from the literary Arabic heritage such as thoughts, sayings, fictional characters and situations that help build a background for his novel’s characters and their civilization.

The basic theme of this novel is a love story renewing a failed one but empowered to overcome the first failure. As such, the theme serves a purpose that is very much similar to Shehrazade’s original pretext of telling tales to gain time and push away the hour of her execution. That is just what Mr. Bishtawi has done. Following in the footsteps of his grandmother, Shehrazade, he used a love story as a dramatic thread from which he spun a literary work encompassing a large number of levels of realities which enable his novel to tackle profound, intellectual, and issues of civilization to contribute towards a discussion of complex human problems.

One of the good virtues of “Traces of a Tattoo” is that it catches the new generation’s spirit and hidden pulses and introduces them in the form of conceptions and longing for a better future. Despite the severity of the current times and the profound doubts about its noble nature, the new generation is depicted as more positive than passive.

True to argument, the writer presents the civilizational and psychological differences existing between Aroub and Arlene as surmountable and do not prevent the two from meeting each other. They are, in some respect, differences of purely human condition. This view sums up some of the messages the writer wanted to convey by juxtaposing the two characters. The same mechanism of juxtaposing can be made a universal tool, as the writer himself told me when he said: “I put death vs. life, love vs. hate, the daughter vs. the mother, the son vs. the father, the East to the West, the dream vs. reality, and tried to answer the question as to who am I and who is the other, and what happens when we exchange seats.”

In conclusion, we may say that Traces of a Tattoo is a good introduction for diagnosing new relationships and a new awareness as represented in what distinguishes the behaviour of a new generation building its unique experience on the frustrated aspirations of its precursor. The writer depicts the new generation as more outgoing but not in everything, naturally, only in what its own experiences reveal. In more precise terms, the new generation is less burdened by the issues that lay heavy on the shoulders of the precursors. Or, at least, it has a different perspective, one that is somewhat comfortable. But the writer, nevertheless, does not seem ready to engage in preferential comparisons between times and generations.

Translated by Mohammad Khaled from the original text published by the Kuwaiti Newspaper Al Watan.

Landmark in modern Literature

A review of the Arabic edition of Traces of a Tattoo by one of the most influential Arab literary critic: Hussam  ul-deen Mohamed

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Traces of a Tattoo is one of the most beautiful Arab novels I have read in recent years. It acquainted me with this surprising solitary writer, jeweller and skilled craftsman who proved both creative and entertaining. But this novel is not simply about achieving the challenging balance between creativity and entertainment. It carries several layers that need to be studied carefully if the reader is to avoid being carried away by its deceptive simplicity and easy reading as well as by its “exquisite” text.

The theme of Traces of a Tattoo is knitted over the open, double-wound of two lovers who were separated each believing to have been let down by the other. They are: Hisham, the Palestinian young man who, still suffering from the separation, immigrated to Britain, and Alia, the beautiful Damascne young girl who had to accept a marriage proposal from a man she did not love. Reunited in London twenty four years later by coincidence, their old love story is reopened but with a new dimension of a tender and fresh version of their love story developing between Wissam, Hisham’s son, and Aroub, Alia’s daughter. With this simple theme serving as background, the novelist tackles extremely complicated topics: past versus present, East versus West, sex versus marriage etc.

Identity In Relation To The Beloved

In the reunion scene, the dramatic opening of the novel is unveiled when Hisham discovers that a certain woman whose handbag has been snatched by a dangerous pickpocket is none other than his old beloved, Alia. Henceforth, the novel’s dialogue starts to take multiple meanings and go into deeper levels. When the policeman asks: “Sir! Who are you?” Hisham is caught off-guard. “Who am I?”, he wonders more to himself than to the policeman. Then, still unable to find an answer quickly enough, he mutters: “A friend; an old friend.” A little later on, when Alia introduces her daughter to Hisham, the latter is once again addressed by the policeman: “Did you see anything?”. When Hisham replies that he had seen everything, Alia is struck hard. She explodes in Arabic: “You have seen everything and left me on my own?”

In just two lines all the suffering that is still alive inside Hisham and Alia is summed up. Alia thinks Hisham abandoned her when they were young lovers. Hisham, on the other hand, thinks the opposite and he is therefore confused and bewildered. He had been thinking of his deceased wife, sadly remembering their days together when suddenly the past re-emerged an unfinished business as if to say that no one is spared the dues of time. His answers, while not rough and blaming as Alia’s, reflected, right from the beginning, both his confusion and the burdens time have left on his shoulder. He has seen it all– life and death, and the fall and departure of those dear to his heart. Because Alia’s wound remains open and hurting, she acts like a wounded and provoked lioness. Hisham is preoccupied in his bewilderment to such a degree as explained by the 10th century Arab poet Al-Mutanabbi who says in a very famous verse: “When arrows strike me they fall one on top of the other …” ,

Hisham appears to misunderstand things, thus putting himself in trouble with those around him. Hisham and Alia try their best to avoid talking about their old story but a third party always manages to drag them into the arena. At the opening of the novel, it is the policeman investigating the theft incident who, unknowingly, plays that part brushing off the dust. Having explained to Alia and her daughter what they should do, the policeman goes on to suggest, “Maybe the gentleman over here could help you!” Hisham agrees, “Of course!”

Aroub plays the same part later on. While listening to Hisham and her mother talking about their university colleagues, she suddenly asks: “What about the love stories?” The novelist describes the reaction of Hisham and Alia in the following passage: “Hisham pretended to be searching for the exit. Alia, with her smile suddenly fading away, having suspected her daughter had meant her in her innocent remark, says: “What love stories!” This is just how Bishtawi had opened the scene and the dramatic potential of his wonderful novel becomes suddenly obvious.

Traces of a Tattoo is built on a debate which takes different forms and meanings. In the course of the novel various elements are debated, most importantly the relationship between the male and the female, one of the main mover of events. There is also the debate of concepts such as: science versus creativity, order versus chaos, mind versus passion, progress versus backwardness, past versus present etc. All these are dealt with in the framework of the relationship between Aroub and Wissam. Aroub is rather rash and passionate but full of creative ideas that interact with the technical abilities of Hisham. In chapter 8, for example, a digression is made from Aroub’s (illusionary) pregnancy to gain her first experience of dealing with e-mail and the Internet. The symbolic conception signifies Aroub’s ability to carry the latest version of science when she is given a proper chance.

But the larger picture of the male-female relationship signifies the positive interaction between the two versions of Arabic heritage, the homegrown as represented by Aroub, and the expatriate as represented by Wissam. It also provides a solution to the problem of interaction between the self and the other. This very problem used to be depicted in the Arabic novel as a form of sexual contest with the male being an Arab and the female a European, and often exploding into an open or hidden conflict. In Traces of a Tattoo the arrow shoots into the right circle, meaning that a congestion of hostile attitudes (between East and West) may lead to a get-together and pacification rather than conflict.

The Change Of Ideas

At one of its levels, Traces of a Tattoo is a study of various types of change. The first is the change of ideas. How do people change? Are they changed by circumstances? Are they changed by the people themselves when they decide they want to change their lives and circumstances? Thus the novel tackles the topics of fate and destiny, and the ways by which they are written and sealed. This appears in a conversation between Alia and Hisham.
“This is our fate, is it not?”Alia asks. “It must be,” Hisham answers. “Wrapped in sadness more than anything else, it seems. But, mind you,’ he adds, ‘we seem to make it even worse. If sadness does come with fate, we make sure it does.”
“Do we make our sadness?”
“Not always, but we do, all the same.”
“How does one bring sadness to oneself?”
The dialogue goes on and on, along the same lines. The hero and heroine have reached a point where they can only question their fate and their responsibility thereof. Then the dialogue ascends to a level higher than the fate of two individuals. The novelist does not want his characters to become wailing trumpets on the ruins of the past. After all, responsibility is an individual conception. Even victories and defeats are individual. Sometimes it is sufficient for an individual to win against a personal defeat in order to win victory over all other defeats.

Hisham seems aware of this complicated debate between the individual and the collective conscience. At one point he emphasises the world’s individual character when he says, “All the experiences of the world do not equal to a single moment of true love.” But, when Alia, in this beautiful and extremely serious and demonstrative dialogue, returns things to their individual basis by saying: “We could do nothing, neither I nor you,” Hisham pushes things back to their collective level by saying: “Neither you nor I or anyone else in this world.”

To investigate change, the novel draws a number of intersecting lines. In the process it demonstrates the overwhelming power of events in effecting change. In the opening chapters, Aroub appears rather wild, careless in what she says, and too preoccupied with her own inconvenience. Simply put, she does not care much about the feelings of her mother, Hisham’s, Wissam’s or all others. Too preoccupied to reach the US to attend her uncle’s wedding, she does not have the faintest desire to think about her present conditions or how logically they could be resolved. But, this very Aroub who appears at the beginning a creature given to bemoaning and complaining, aloof and a bit insolent, reveals, with the intensifying dramatic momentum, a soul empowered by determination and perseverance. She is capable of attaining what she wants without blemishing her acutely sensitive and passionate nature. Even her father who arranges for her a marriage with suicidal consequences is not excluded from her burning feelings. At the outset, Aroub is provoked by the mere mention of her father in the presence of Hisham whom she considers a stranger. She is gripped by a fit of jealousy for her mother and a desire to protect her from this stranger. When Alia begs for advice from Hisham, Aroub is extremely protective. “Why him?” she exclaims, “He is not my father.” But, once in love with Wissam, Aroub gradually overcomes her traditional reservations towards her mother, her father, her uncle, Hisham and Wissam.

Wissam who is British by birth, Arab by ancestry, also undergoes a change. He is suddenly burned by the flames of love and within a few days the course of his life changes, narrowing down to one objective: convincing Aroub to marry him. The achievement of this goal becomes a victory over himself and, within the general purpose of the novel, a victory over the defeat suffered by the two characters who failed to unite in matrimony, his father Hisham and Alia, the mother of his beloved.

PART II

If characters do often change at the end of a story, the change in Traces of a Tattoo is not a part of the conclusion- not in terms of drawing a lesson or effecting an entertaining and happy ending based on coincidences. Neither is it, we suspect, the narrator’s revenge for a personal story, or a mechanism to satisfy the reader’s whim and desire of helping the characters achieve the aspirations of writer and reader alike. Indeed, there is something genuine in Bishtawi’s dramatisation and story. The reader himself should change in order for Aroub, the symbol of The Arab girl, to achieve victory over circumstances that conspire to prevent her from achieving an all too solid and basic right of life- marrying the man she loves. This explains, perhaps, why many Arab girls still cannot help Aroub in the sense of being convinced of her ability to achieve what she has achieved in the novel and, consequently, cannot identify much with her although she is — the reader can swear to that– a real person, flesh and blood, as much as a fictional character and the creation of the writer’s imagination that is built into a symbol of various meanings. Aroub could overcome her conditions and all the forces that seek to ruin her life– a life which was, in a single moment, tied to the idea of love and personal choice once and for all. How many Arab girls have the capability of being Aroub, not a copy, negative or otherwise, of Alia?

But Aroub is not, of course, alone. There is, first, Wissam, and second the combined presence of Hisham and Alia, not as father and mother, but as a lesson. The failure of Hisham and Alia in getting married and their consequent regret constitute a motive, one of many, for Wissam and Aroub. The latter are not there only as young lovers but also as the symbol of a force strong enough to turn a failed past into a fruitful present and future shielded against frustration.

As for regret, the novel is, in its internal structure, one of regret but a regret which seeks to forgive. The narrator says in the beginning of the novel through Hisham: “Fast will come the moment of departure. You will leave the house to the airport and the joy will leave as well. It will linger for a moment before being stored in the memory along with many things like itself. She could have been his daughter and her mother could have been his wife. But it has not happened that way. It would have been a great loss had he not found someone like his wife to give him Wissam. Aroub is also a compensation.”

In Traces of a Tattoo we find out that fear could evaporate once one starts to change or simply disregard it. Alia, for example, is fearful that her brother in America would find out that she had stayed at Hisham’s house. But once she arrives in America the wall of fear suddenly crumbles, completely, and we find the uncle assisting in finding a solution to the young lovers’ problem. In another instance, Aroub is hit by the arrows of Wissam’s love. She talks about it to her mother so innocently and boldly and when the latter scolds her, saying, “Aroub! I do not know you to be so light headed. What happened to you?” Aroub retorts: “Fallen in love- that’s what happened. Fallen in love with this person who is sitting there like a bucket- not seeing, not hearing.” And when her mother tells her not to insult their host, Aroub replies:” Since when falling in love is an insult?”

East Versus West

One of the novel’s dramatic lines is a series of questions about the Western and Eastern mentalities. Hisham, while an Arab in origin, no longer thinks as one. When he offers to host Alia and her daughter in his house, Alia is shocked,” You don’t know the meaning of what you’ve just said. You don’t think like us.” Hisham replies,” If we were to think without logic, what is the use of thinking in the first place?” Again Alia says to Aroub who does not like to lie:” Then do lie once, sweetie, and do not think like the expatriates. They are different from us and so are their habits.”

Aroub observes a strange habit in the behaviour of Hisham and his son, the habit of erecting a barrier to hide their private thoughts. This is practiced by the father, then by the son. That is how the novel depicts the practice:” She could not penetrate into his eyes. She did not like the mask she had found on his father before him.” (P 136). British Arlene also observes: “Wissam is not an Arab, not a hundred percent.” (p156). The reader may find Hisham’s British cold and noncommittal attitude to events as surprising. But this initial attitude appears to be an act of defence on the part of a memory that is fractured and and painful. It also seems justified as Hisham does not want to impose on the two women. He does not hesitate to offer help but would rather wait for Alia to ask for it just in case she does not want it.

Incidentally, it would be hard to explain the fluency with which Aroub converses with Wissam in English. But the encounter between the English speaking Wissam (he also understands a little Arabic) and Aroub who has learned the language in her home country, resolves the query-concept expressed as a concern by people like Hisham, “Are we, the Arabs living in strange lands, to lose the future we have incorporated in our sons? Is our past going to grow then discontinue with our sons becoming genetic creatures whom we helped produce but became different from us in face, hand and tongue.” The encounter also offers a solution to the relationship between the Arab youth living in its home country and civilisation as embodied in learning a language like English. The narrator gives British Arlene the role of Shehrazade of the Arabian Nights and, through her, judges the traditional Eastern concept of the relationship between the sexes. She is put face to face with her equally imaginary husband, Shehrayar who says to her,” How dare you talk to us like that? I’m your master and husband.” By way of reaction, she screams out a reply in kind,” You can’t be serious. You are my husband, yes, but you are the master of my shoes and will remain so until I choose to make you my master.”

But the comparison between East and the West is not a one-way road with the West always on the positive side and the East on the negative. After all, it is Aroub who wins Wissam’s heart, scoring a victory over Western Arlene. She does that without having to give, in Aroub’s own words, what Wissam is used to have as a young man living in the West. Even when she is ready for intimacy, there is always a point where she draws the line. “No, No, No!” she warns herself, “This is the limit. This and no further even if he were the last man on earth. By God! I’m not Arlene.” This scene presents Aroub not as a girl lacking courage, but as an Arab in a modern character that deals with sex in a different way. This becomes the subject of discussion between Aroub and Wissam over several pages (219-225) and later on in the following chapter.

I guess I know how determined the writer is in entrenching the symbol of The Arab girl in the name of Aroub. As far as I know, the name is extremely rich in connotation and could carry more than the idea of a representative Arab girl. In old times, the name had a relationship with fertility. Several tribes in Yemen still use it in that meaning. The reason could, perhaps, be the presence of a goddess of fertility in that name. Likewise, I would also venture to suggest that the name served as origin for Europa, the princess whom Zeus kidnapped from the lands of Canaan in Palestine and gave her name to the continent. The meaning of Aroub would then include: Europe and sunset.

Reincarnation and the Conflict of Generations

But history, in Traces of a Tattoo, is not cuts from the past and pastes into the present. Nor is it a separation between East and West. This would lead us to what could be described as reincarnation but only in the sense of the recurrence of circumstances in more than one generation within the same family. Aroub and Wissam are the reincarnations of Alia and Hisham. This is scrupulously studied even at the linguistic level. In Arabic, the names of both Aroub and Alia begin with the same vowel with Aroub’s name ending in a consonant which alphabetically comes immediately after the last letter in Alia’s name. The names of Hisham and Wissam both end in the same two letters, but in the first two letters of both names, Wissam’s share is the letter that comes immediately after his father’s letter. This converted similarity between the names of Hisham-Wissam and Alia-Aroub is interesting as it signifies that names (i.e. persons) also play a role so as to reflect the universal status of meanings such as male and female.

The element of reincarnation is used many times. Likewise, comparisons are made between Alia-Hisham and Wissam-Aroub in many different ways. In one instance, Alia says of her daughter,” She won’t agree, I know. She is stubborn like no other.” Hisham says,” Not even her mother.” Then again when Alia, referring to her daughter, says, “She is hot in temper like an aspirin,” Hisham says, “Like her mother, you mean,” Alia agrees,” Almost.” Later, when Hisham beholds Aroub emerging from a hot bath with blushful cheeks, glowing eyes and shiny forehead, the narrator explains,” For a moment he imagined seeing, at the top of the stairs of his house, a girl he last saw 24 years earlier. Time has clouded the face in his memory with fog which dissipated suddenly as he looked at her daughter standing in front of him. He looked at her in surprise.” In the same chapter, we find the following passage, “He said to two images that have suddenly merged into one. It would have been regrettable had I not succeeded in convincing your mother to stay.”

From among a variety of perspectives used in the novel, the most surprising is one that enables the young lovers to look at themselves in the images of their parents. Aroub, for one: “She looked at him but was actually looking at his son through him.” This father-son, mother-daughter parallelism plays the role of the dynamo in the novel, especially as the son and daughter enthuse their parents to rearrange their lives. When Alia reprimands her daughter for having stayed up late in Wissam’s room and accepted expensive presents, “and for other matters that crossed her mind but dared not speak of,” Aroub gives a fiery reply, putting her mother on the edge. “Could she ignore what her daughter has just said? She could not. She gets courage and says: “Enjoy what you like and live the life you want. I will not interfere again.”

Keys to hidden secrets

The novel provides the reader with tips thereby to crack open secrets that the narrator is so frugal in illuminating. On page 53, when Alia and Aroub meet Hisham’s son, the incident is narrated as such: “Wissam turned to the mother and the restaurant’s lights suddenly dropped on his face. Having seen it, the mother whooped in utter surprise and looked at her daughter. But Aroub had already looked and seen. Both opened their eyes wide.” The reason is that both had seen the astonishing similarity between Wissam and Aroub’s brother. This dramatic line is kept a hidden secret, although a reference is made at the end of the novel as Alia’s husband speaks his mind to his wife as to the true father of his son.

The restaurant scene is reminiscent of a famous shot in “Once Upon A Time in America” in which the heroine unsuccessfully tries to hide her son from her old lover Robert De Niro for fear he would see in him the image of his old friend who had doubled-crossed him, killed his friends and took his girl. In the movie, looking at the son would have uncovered the betrayal of a friend and a beloved.

Nonetheless, the narrator sheds a glint of light here and another there for the reader to combine into a clear picture. In one instance, Hisham discovers new details about his separation from Alia. The latter reveals to him that Tayseer, an acquaintance who played the go-between while Hisham was in prison, told her that Hisham would be released after one year — not two weeks as Hisham had actually told him. But still she says:” Even if he had said two weeks I wouldn’t have believed him. It would have been just a possibility and I there was not place for possibilities at the time.” For one reason or another, this tiny reference does not catch Hisham’s attention.

Ready for the screen

The first similarity between Traces of a Tattoo and the seventh art is its emphasis on dialogue- the basic element of a motion picture. The novel’s dialogue is graceful and intelligent and, at times, complements the narrative’s role and purpose. The narrative part, meanwhile, focuses, like the scenario, on elements required in filmmaking. Consequently, the novel is ready for the large and small screens without the need for major adaptation by the scriptwriter.

During the first discussion between Alia and Hisham about their two different versions of the events that led up to the separation, Alia says:”Strange! I heard a different story.” When Hisham replies there was no other story, Alia says: “There was. Have you seen Fanny, the movie?” What is presented here is the idea of interchangeability between fact and fiction through an element which is not without meaning, the story of a film. It is done elsewhere where there is interchangeability among the elements of the motion picture, literature and reality (i.e. the fictional reality of the novel) as in the following dialogue between Hisham and Alia:
“On a recent visit to Dubai, I watched an old Egyptian film that seemed to say first love is a big illusion.”
“The director wanted to contradict Al Dhubyani (the famous Arab love poet). It is not that easy.”
“Many have contradicted Al Dhubyani. Deek el-Gin, for one.”
“He comes from Homs,” she says, giggling. “What else would you expect?”
“So it is not an illusion?”
“Not if a true love.’
“So it wasn’t an illusion?”
“No! it was not.”

Treachery and theft

What is the story of this blade which does not exactly touch Hisham but is a recurrent image tied to his separation from Alia? (pages 24, 34, 110). The pickpocket incident which takes place in the opening chapter cannot be without implications. For two persons who separated from each other believing to have been betrayed by the other, why should they be reunited in London by a theft? It is true that the pickpocket was a Brazilian, but could the encounter itself, in this particular venue (London) carry a degree of symbolism? Is it possible to dig into the “novel’s inner soul” (provided such a term existed) for that “big theft” which drove Hisham, the Palestinian, out of his homeland leaving him with no choice but to join the resistance ranks, get imprisoned and, consequently, separated from his beloved? Could we give Alia symbolic possibilities, as we can easily do with Aroub? We may make use of the signs left for us by a writer keen on detail, as Alia’s name does actually signify “highness.” But if Aroub’s name refers to the Arab girl, what does Alia’s name refer to? At the symbolic level, Alia’s name stands for a lost dream whose fulfilment would have meant using life for achieving a real goal, not squandering it in strange lands.

The theft incident and the feeling of having been betrayed (as symbolised by the threatening blade of the pickpocket’s jack-knife, or better still, by a hidden accessory, remind us, in a way or another, of what Britain had committed when it assisted the Israeli thief and used weapons, when the need arose, to prevent the victim (the Palestinian) from apprehending the thief. There is another detail of significance: the loss of the passports of Alia and Aroub. The thief has stolen the symbol of identity that is later retrieved by Wissam’s computer skills.

The separation between Hisham and Alia was not the first act of treachery that targeted the Palestinian in Hisham. Consequently, he sees the blade always ready and threatening. This makes him cautious, on the one hand, and, on the other, not cautious at all. The reason is that having been wounded psychologically he has become more likely to become an easy target for romantic damage as symbolised in the act of falling in love one time after the other, or searching for the lost rights, ideal and justice.

Language and imagery

Adel Bishtawi’s linguistic formula adds something new to the Arabic novel. The novel’s language is a very beautiful adaptation of classic Arabic. It offers the reader an element of entertainment. It sometimes uses “exotic” vocabulary but the writer helps the reader understand and enjoy those virgin and fresh words in a beautiful way. The novel emphasises dialogue but the narrative element is not superfluous. It is extremely vital and intrinsic. As to the novel’s artistic imagery, it is very successful. Examples: “Alia left the smile on her lips but coloured it in yellow and said…” (P 51) “Aroub opened over Wissam an umbrella of scorn full of bright colours.” (P 56) “His hands reached into his brains where he lodged over time a repository of masks to use in formal meetings. He pulled out one and put it on so that she would not see what was inside his mind.” (P 86).

Let’s see how Aroub is depicted with her invented idea of pregnancy and how beautifully she plays the part: “She pressed softly on her belly and the billow gave in under her hand. It surprised her that she did not feel pain, that the pressing did not scare the fetus swimming in its strange mixture, including a light touch of its urine, that the foetus did not try to escape and did not kick the wall of his strange world to draw his mother’s attention to the approaching danger.” (P 169).

Actually, language is one of the main concerns of the novel. In many instances, Wissam and Aroub argue about a vocabulary or the dictionary is mentioned. In order for the two to understand each other they always needed this dictionary which became, at times, an element of connection between them. (P 202).

Adel Bishtawi’s Traces of a Tattoo is a perfect example of the Arabic novel’s ability to explore new depths in the human soul. It also, and this is something which this reading unfortunately did not attempt to study, presents the first contribution in a long series of Arabic novels that investigated the “self” and the “other,” without the self or the other being subject to the conditions of dispossession or sexual contest which is marked by intolerance and hysteria. In conclusion, Traces of a Tattoo will be a major landmark in modern Arabic literature and will consecrate its writer one of the most important contemporary Arab novelists.

Translated by Muhammad Khaled from the original text published by Al Quds Al Arabi Newspaper (London) on 5 and 6 April 1999

No ordinary novel

Traces of a Tattoo reviewed by Morocco’s celebrated literary critic Mohammed Allott
 

Traces of a Tattoo is no ordinary novel. Evoking the example of giant literary Arabic works such as Cities of Salt by Abdulrahman Munif, The Boys of our Neighbourhood by Najib Mahfouz, Midday Spectra by Bahoush Yassin (Morocco), it is an odyssey in time and memory unravelling the story of two generations (fathers and sons) over the full length of 554 pages.

At a deeper level, it is a frantic and introspective exposition of two souls torn between the past and the present. Both are gripped by the machinations of a destiny which had long swept away their love but finally came back to bestow a fresh version on the offspring they have had from different partners. Traces of a Tattoo, in other words, is a complex novel that shows how man is capable of surrendering to his own destiny at times and holding firm at others.

The main theme of Traces of a Tattoo is a love story told along traditional, romantic lines. As such, the novel can hardly to be said to offer something new. But- and here the excitement begins – the author, Adel Bishtawi, had enough command of his craft that he was able to use a light story as a support and a facade for a fictional backdrop that is characterised by marked intensity, profound human dimension, a wealth of philosophical knowledge, tightened sensitivity and a language of extreme beauty. Most importantly, this fictional backdrop employs a technique of duality which opens vast domains for interpretations that encompass a multitude of subjects- the conflict between generations, the failures of the fathers, the ambitions of the sons, the agonies of memory, a head-on collusion with destiny and love in the computer age.

The novel focuses on four main characters from two different generations. The central characters are Hisham and his one-time sweetheart, Alia. They are old stock embodying ultimate failure (loss of their love) suffered under time and social circumstances marked by obstacles, deterrents and disappointments. Along their side is a younger generation: Wissam, a son born to Hisham from an English wife who has since passed away, and Aroub, Alia’s daughter from a husband she married after the collapse of her love for Hisham.
Nonetheless, the ex-lovers are served a reunion in London and the spontaneous rendezvous takes place in the presence of their offspring, giving the old story a chance to resurface. And resurface it does albeit dual, inversive and reflective-the destiny of man once again assuming its role in the ever spinning cycle of life.

It is this multi-layered plot with all its excitement and suspense that gives Traces of a Tattoo its fictional depth. What we are presented with is a literary work that tackles anew the most forceful concept a novel could aspire to handle- the double. The concept which has been treated by, among others, such novels as Searching for Waleed Masoud by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Architectural Spirits by Saleem Barakat, and The Escaping Light by Mohammed Bradeh.

The Double

What do I mean by the double? It is simply the image of the self-juxtaposition against another entity, or simply, the other. But this other is not necessarily the West as has been depicted by Arabic novels dealing with the conflict of East versus West such as Mohammed Zafzaf’s The Woman and the Rose, Yihya Haqi’s The lantern of Umm Hashem, and Taib Saleh’s The Season of Migrating to the North. Rather, the other here is both intricate and varied. Adel Bishtawi`s Traces of a Tattoo actually engages in a dual treatment of the concept of the double and the image of the other. The latter, in particular, is approached from two axes, the first being an East-East axis as dramatised by the older generation vis-à-vis the younger generation, taken as twos- father and son, mother and daughter. The second is an East-West axis where the Arab characters are placed in juxtaposition against Western counterparts such as Arlene and Jacky.

Meanwhile, the concept of the double allows for a more expanded application. It encompasses numerous contrasting elements like the one where the double takes a temporal dimension, namely, the past versus the present with each having its unique values, symbols and contextual interpretations. Another duality where the double is again active, this time within the confines of the memory, takes the form of a clash between past experiences that carry romantic values, a heavy weight of emotions and a fully-laden conscience, on the one hand, and contrasting experiences of the present, on the other. There is yet a third and last example, a duality at the cultural, social and political level. It is a contrast of two societies: a conciliatory Arab society torn between traditional conservatism and an outlook that is modern but damaged, vis-à-vis a Western society whose values appear harmonic, at least within their own context.

It is my opinion that through the concept of the double or the interactions and dynamism of the other’s image, it becomes possible to interpret the fictional wealth of Traces of a Tattoo by a powerful formula of knowledge and philosophy that allows placing this literary work within a sphere of learning which interacts with the present Arab social reality with all its questions, concerns and life’s pendular jitters.

To give an example of the novel’s dramatisation of the double concept, I would refer the reader to chapters 8 and 9. The first reflects a duality in the form of a mirror-type meeting between Eastern Aroub and Western Arlene, while the second reflects the Arab woman’s inner struggle through a realistic image embodied by none other than Aroub herself and an imaginary entity taken out of the common Eastern cultural heritage of One Thousand Nights and One Night (The Arabian Nights). This example alone is ample and concrete evidence of the author’s ability to address man’s duality and its consequences. His aim is to help us imagine the intensity of both the struggle raging deep within the characters’ psychological and cultural entity and their no less intense conflict between what is real and what is desired and between values that are conflicting, opposed and changing.

The author employed several tools to build up a narrative plot that is psychologically and emotionally dense and effective, namely imagination, dream and introspection. It is these foundations that gave Traces of a Tattoo its expanded fictional realm where the characters, more specifically their psychological entities, roam dreamily, imaginatively and introspectively. This roaming takes up a large part of the novel and becomes a basic material that allows for discovering the characters from within.

Tools of Writing

Meanwhile, the author resorts to other tools to give us a complete and dynamic knowledge of the characters externally as well as their inter- relations. One such tool is making his characters revisit their memories and engage in retrospective talking. Another is relaying heavily on the expressive aspects of dialogue. Combined, this multitude of elements and tools- the memory, the dialogue, the dream, retrospection that are tuned by the plot, endow the novel with a rich variety which save the reader from being dragged into the trap of boredom by the large number of pages.

The novel concludes with the younger generation bypassing failure. It ends optimistic and confident in man’s ability to overcome the shortcomings of life. For the oppressed souls, the failures of the past have turned into present-day victories achieved against the very helplessness lingering within their own actions. These victories, like everything else in the novel, are twice as large.

But yet again, the novel does not leads us to believe that victories are easy to attain- far from it. The dreamy, romantic adventures of the characters are never immune from reality’s violent, roaring shocks and painful jolts. We are all along made to realise that the victories attained by man in reality start by overcoming the helplessness and defeat within, and that this is the only way victories are made to lead to true salvation shielded against setbacks and disappointments.

But the most entertaining aspect of Traces of a Tattoo lies in its treatment of love in the computer age. While the novel invokes the Arab cultural legacy in its main stream and folklore versions as well as such remarkable masterpieces of imaginative heritage as The Arabian Nights, it also invokes a different culture, one that is purely logical and programmed like the computer. Here the novel’s love story, while not totally void of entertainment and sarcastic overtures, takes proportions unfamiliar in Arabic literary works. It poses an amusing question: is love programmable, after all? The answer given, with all its supporting wealth of knowledge, serves to refocus on the heart-mind conflict. It does so in an introspective dramatisation that attempts to pinpoint the location of the age-old argument’s elements of strength: do they lie in human warmth and intimacy; or do they lie in lifeless machines? The interaction between love and the computer is indeed the most enjoyable part of Adel Bishtawi`s novel.

What the novel says here is that man is unique in his nature. Man may draw the symbols of his love from the romantic world of The Arabian Nights or from cartoons created by the computer, but man would remain true to his nature. The essential and intrinsic will linger and the momentary and temporary will dissipate in the labyrinth of life.

Translated by Muhammad Khaled from original text published by the Moroccan newspaper Al Sahraa on the 10 July 1998.