Susannah Tarbush reviews

Inside the Night

by Ibrahim Nasrallah

translated by Bakr R Abbas

The American University in Cairo Press,
Cairo and New York, 2007
ISBN 978-977-416-097-4, 182 pp

A Palestinian Saga

In this powerful, moving and darkly humorous novel, Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrallah takes us deep inside the Palestinian individual and collective experience in a narrative that crosses time and space, defies logic, and embraces both horror and absurdity. Inside the Night is part of Nasrallah’s body of interrelated works in poetry, fiction, painting and photography. His poetic gift lends his prose a density and economy of expression. The novel is relatively short, but covers decades and ranges across national boundaries.

Nasrallah is the author of 12 novels published between 1984 and 2007, six of which form The Palestinian Comedy. Although Inside the Night is not at present part of The Palestinian Comedy, Nasrallah is considering incorporating it into the sequence.

Nasrallah’s fiction is intimately informed by his personal history. He was born in the Wehdat Palestinian Refugee Camp near the Jordanian capital Amman in 1954, and worked as a young boy to help provide for the family. At the same time he pursued his academic studies; he obtained a diploma from an UNRWA teachers training college and taught in the Saudi desert for two years. He worked for 18 years as a journalist, and was cultural director of the Amman-based art and cultural institution Darat Al Funun.

The complex narrative of Inside the Night is broken into short episodes, separated by jumps in time and place. A tone of mystery is set from the start when the unnamed first-person narrator arrives in an airport having been invited to a Festival, accompanied by a one-armed constant companion referred to only as “the other”. But no one is there to meet them, and no one seems to know anything about the Festival. The narrator and “the other” find they are trapped in a nightmare; they have one-way tickets and cannot get back to where they came from. Everything is arbitrary and out of their hands and they are at the mercy of bureaucrats and unknown forces.

At the same time there are crowds of fleeing women and children at the airport, their passports “dusty from the desert trail and black from the oil fires.” Who are they, where have they come from, where are they going? They are a recurring and haunting presence in a novel which was first published in Arabic in 1992 in the aftermath of the first Gulf war, and in which the suffering of women and children is prevalent.

One main strand in the novel is the siege and bombardment of a refugee camp and the massacre of its civilian population. The narrator’s family take refuge in a shelter and basement, in which the narrator witnesses horrific events. There are echoes of the siege of Tel al-Zaatar in Beirut in 1976, and of the many other sieges, battles and mass killings to which Palestinian civilians have been subjected over the years. An abandoned boy known as “our little neighbour” highlights the impact of the violence on children through his innocent questions. Another character in the camp is a Jewish widow with beautiful eyes whose Palestinian husband was killed by Jews in 1948 for marrying her.

A further strand in the narrative is the narrator’s memories of going to teach in the Gulf. Irony is an essential escape mechanism for the narrator, and his numerous adventures with women during different phases of his life frequently have a comic aspect.

Inside the Night was published in Arabic as Mujarrad ithnan faqat [Just the Two of Us], and is the second of Nasrallah’s novels to be published in English translation. The translator, the late Bakr R Abbas, was for more than 30 years supervisor of the translation department of Aramco, and translated several books.

A translation of Nasrallah’s first novel, Prairies of Fever, was published in the USA in 1993 by Interlink Books. The translation, by May Jayyusi and Jeremy Reed, was carried out within the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA). Prairies of Fever is based on Nasrallah’s experiences of teaching in Saudi Arabia. Its publication in English translation established him on the international literary scene as a leading Arab modernist novelist.

Two further novels, Birds of Caution and The Hallucination Balcony, have been translated into English and a publisher is currently being sought. A collection of 80 poems in English translation from various collections is expected to be published this year.

Nasrallah is the author of some 15 poetry collections for which he has won several awards including the Al-Owais Prize for Poetry in 1997, the Arrar Prize in Jordan (1991) and the Jordanian Writers Association Award for the best volume of poetry (1980, 1982 and 1984).

From Banipal 31 - Spring 2008

back to top