Eight-year-old Samir listens spellbound to the bedtime stories his father Brahim recounts about the Lebanese adventurer Abu Youssef. This oddball character’s best friend is a talking camel called Amir with exquisite table manners, who likes to be addressed as ‘Your Highness’. On one occasion, Abu Youssef has to rescue Amir from Ishaq, a villainous lizard consorting with an obese rhinoceros who always wins at cards. But Abu Youssef is a man with a closely guarded secret – as is Brahim, the storyteller. It will take Samir a further two decades to unravel that mystery after his father’s inexplicable disappearance.
Samir’s story begins in the early 1980s in an unnamed southern German town. His Christian parents, Brahim and Rana, have fled from Lebanon’s civil war. Both show great resourcefulness and resilience in adapting successfully to life in a new country. Yet Brahim’s heart remains in Lebanon; he reminisces constantly about the country’s landscape, history and culture, giving his German-born son a strong sense of his Lebanese heritage. When Brahim vanishes without trace, leaving his wife and two children to fend for themselves, it is devastating. But perhaps Hakim, a family friend and a neighbour, knows more about the disappearance than he is at liberty to reveal?
The story switches back and forth between Samir’s childhood, adolescence and young adulthood in Germany, and present-day Lebanon, where he searches for clues about his father. Both levels of the narrative are absorbing. The story of three young people growing up between cultures – Samir, his sister Alina, and his childhood friend Yasmin – is moving and thought-provoking. At the same time, the author unobtrusively plants clues about Samir’s parents and their past, which lend additional suspense to the passages set in present-day Lebanon. Why did Brahim always ring his mother from a telephone kiosk, rather than the family phone? Why was he photographed in the uniform of the Forces libanaises militia, standing next to future president Bashir Gemayel, son of the Phalange leader Pierre Gemayel – and why did the sudden appearance of the photo so alarm his wife?
This compelling story is brought to a satisfying conclusion that ties in the clues provided earlier in the narrative. It has all the pace and suspense of a detective novel, combined with a strong sense of place, especially in
the passages set in Lebanon.
Beirut is brought vividly to life through Jarawan’s poetic prose, sensitively rendered in Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl’s translation. There are aspects of the female characters – Samir’s mother and sister, and his friend Yasmin – that I find less than entirely convincing. However, the central relationship between Samir and his father Brahim, both storytellers, is beautifully portrayed.
‘If you think you understand Lebanon, it’s because someone has not explained it to you properly,’ as the saying goes. Perhaps the same can be said of the bond between parent and child, so often analysed, yet ultimately so mysterious.
Reviewed by Fiona Graham
Written by Pierre Jarawan
Translated by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl
Published by World Editions (2019)
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Fiona Graham, reviews editor at the Swedish Book Review, is the translator of Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (Scribe UK), longlisted for the 2018 Warwick Women in Translation award and the 2019 JQ Wingate Prize. She is a graduate of New Books in German’s programme for emerging literary translators.
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