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Margaret Obank reviews
Land of No Rain
by Amjad Nasser
Translated by Jonathan Wright.
ISBN: 978992194584. pbk, 204pp, £12.99/$15.61.
The Nowhere Place that is home
This is Amjad Nasser’s first novel, and it richly complements the Jordanian poet’s many collections of poetry and travel memoirs. Land of No Rain is an original and unusual narrative, superbly translated by Jonathan Wright, who this year won two prizes for translation from Arabic, the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
The novel mirrors in many ways the author’s own life as an activist, a poet and journalist who has lived and worked in the UK for many years after leaving Jordan, via periods spent in a number of other countries, as other reviewers have already documented, but it would be facile to consider that as mirroring its essence. The principal character, Adham Jaber, morphs into two selfs when he returns to Hamiya, the country he fled 20 years before, where it turns out that his younger self, Younis al-Khattat, has been “waiting for ages for the opportunity that arose that night when we got talking, on the balcony of our house” to tell Adham “that it was not enough to say that things were quits”. Through this dialogue Adham reflects on different periods in his life in a rare, contemplative way, his other self talking to him, worrying things out, pondering on how so much has changed irreversibly, unrecognizably. “It’s all about the inner and out truth”, he says.
This form of narrative cleverly examines the role of time and place in forming an individual’s character, personality and relationships, how a mansuch as Adham changes through age, time and space. The novel is mainly narrated by Younis, Adham’s younger half, telling him, reminding him, cajoling him, facing him up to what he has been doing these 20 years away, from when he was young and very active politically to being middle-aged, conscious that everything has changed – physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally, with no control over it. “Of course you’ve changed. Everyone changes, what else do you expect?” he tells himself, or rather Younis tells Adham. But that’s the crux – the fact that there’s realisation of change, that you’re not the person you used to be and that you don’t recognise the other man you were, and that other man you were doesn’t recognise what you have become. In that sense the novel is a deeply philosophical questioning of one’s ageing, one’s memories, one’s attitudes, actions and beliefs, and one’s recognition of the brutality of time.
Adham Jaber was forced to flee into exile from Hamiya to the City of Red and Grey (aka London), and to take on his new name. However, an important feature of Land of No Rain is that, apart from the fictional Hamiya, countries and cities are not named as such, except by a description, though readers will still like to try and “identify” them. As Amjad Nasser’s main concern is with investigating ageing, memory and time and their effects on character, personality and actions, getting into the detail of particular cities and countries is not part of his story. And Adham explains this by saying that he has decided to write his last book of all books, and will set his “writing free from the dates, parenthetical clauses, digressions and proper names that usually weigh it down”.
Sometimes Adham doesn’t quite believe he has returned, but Younis recounts to him more and more memories of how it was, the problem of his father, being punished by the disciplinary court, being caught with a banned book. Adham is trying to make sense of it all, what is true, what is not true. He had always been at loggerheads with his calligrapher father, even about the inscription over the door of their house, “Nakuja Abad”, which means “nowhere place” according to the Sufi philosopher Suhrawardi, and which reminds Adham of The City of Where, a poetry collection by a poet from the Land of Sindbad, who can only be Sargon Boulus, the late Iraqi poet, who penned a renowned collection Arrival in Where City. After Younis “escaped abroad” and became Adham, he never saw his father again. He particularly quarrelled with him about the question of inner truth reflecting a higher truth, “the source of all truths”. Adham is an atheist, believing that “it was people who invented the absolute, supreme and total truth, so that their final resting-place from which they could never escape, would not be in the dust. It was the need for solace, or a longing to come back again. Human narcissism. But there was no return from dust and decay. No Day of Assembly. No resurrection. No heaven and no hell.” Now, back in Hamiya, Adham is seeking “peace of mind”, which his young nephew helps him find through reading a complex calligraphic design of his father. He decides to take a “fresh look” at his father’s works and his interest in Sahrawadi. He realizes that he became near his father when he was far, and making his own research into Sufi philosophy.
In his last discussion with Younis on the balcony Adham can finally explain things: that it is a “question of existing or not existing. In other words, of you being yourself and someone else at the same time.” He can become Mr Younis and is in a position to consider mortality. He takes his young nephew Younis, named after him, and goes to visit the graves of his father and mother, but when he passes on, which of his two names will be carved there? Perhaps both?
Amjad Nasser has created an enthralling stream of consciousness novel by the unusual step of stripping back the narrative, in the main, to a philosophical dialogue in which Adham confronts his past and present through memories and ideas, something many of the author’s generation are having to do in the 21st century.
Published in Banipal 51 - Celebrating Saadi Youssef