Joumana Haddad’s “The Book of Queens”: a Review

18 April, 2022
“Beau­ty and the Feast,” Anahi­ta Amouze­gar,  acrylic on can­vas, 122 W x 91 H x 4 D cm (cour­tesy Anahi­ta Amouze­gar).

 

The Book of Queens, a nov­el by Joumana Haddad
Inter­link (2022)
ISBN 9781623718473

 

…turn those white tents inside out like pock­ets, shake them, and the black­ness will fall out.  You see the mud in the trails and in the arter­ies.  The threads where peo­ple’s exhaust­ed laun­dry hangs like life residues.

 

 Laila Halaby

 

“Free­dom is a ridicu­lous impos­si­bil­i­ty,” rumi­nates Qayah in Part One of Joumana Haddad’s nov­el, The Book of Queens. “Just like choice. We are born in a cage we haven’t picked, at a time we had no say in decid­ing, in a place we pre­vi­ous­ly knew noth­ing about, hav­ing fea­tures we did not shape, and eth­nic­i­ties and reli­gions and char­ac­ter traits we did not choose.” 

The Book of Queens is avail­able from Inter­link.

This out­look sets the tone for the unfold­ing of the lives of four gen­er­a­tions of curi­ous-girls-turned-suf­fer­ing-queen in a fam­i­ly saga that cov­ers a lot of ter­ri­to­ry, “a per­fect cir­cle of fire, with a cir­cum­fer­ence of one hun­dred years.” 

The Book of Queens is divid­ed into four sec­tions and alter­nates between recount­ing and nar­rat­ing the indi­vid­ual sto­ries of Qayah, Qadar, Qamar, and Qana, each inex­tri­ca­bly part of a larg­er fam­i­ly sto­ry that is inex­tri­ca­bly part of so many Mid­dle East­ern sto­ries, includ­ing the Armen­ian Geno­cide, the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine, wars in Lebanon and Syr­ia, and the inevitable refugee camps, all with reli­gious dis­so­nance sprin­kled on top. Queens reads like a micro­his­to­ry, indi­vid­ual voic­es mak­ing up a glob­al tale of wom­an­hood: that which is endured under the thumb of the patri­archy and that which is passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, despite fer­vent attempts at avoid­ing doing that very thing. 

Does change come in break­ing with reli­gious, cul­tur­al, or lin­guis­tic expec­ta­tions?  If Queens is any indi­ca­tion, then it does… and it doesn’t.  Sor­row — “no bond is stronger” — runs through all the sto­ries like blood and red hair and “[W]ars, inside and out­side, [that] would keep on tying them togeth­er end­less­ly, grow­ing and snaking around them, between them, under their feet, above their heads, and around their necks like wild plants in the Ama­zon Forest.” 

To get more of the fla­vor of Had­dad’s prose, here is a pas­sage from The Book of Queens:

If one looks at a Syr­i­an refugee camp from above, they dis­cov­er a sea of white tents exud­ing opti­mism and safe­ty. Every­thing seems orga­nized and neat. A haven where peo­ple flock to be saved, to be pro­vid­ed for and tak­en care of. Not exact­ly a dream­land, but close enough in such dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. One must assess a giv­en con­text rel­a­tive­ly: Gaziantep ver­sus Alep­po, not Gaziantep ver­sus Stockholm.

But turn those white tents inside out like pock­ets, shake them, and the black­ness will fall out. You see the mud in the trails and in the arter­ies. The threads where people’s exhaust­ed laun­dry hangs like life residues. The tear stains on the used pil­lows. The impro­vised schools where a one-eyed orphan is sup­posed to learn how to count to ten. The time­worn cook­tops where women take turns brew­ing some­thing they need to believe tastes like cof­fee, or hope. The cold. The unbear­able cold in win­ter. And then the heat. The intol­er­a­ble sum­mer heat.

Turn the refugees’ faces inside out, too. Those faces, espe­cial­ly. You see the shame, the des­per­a­tion. The dis­gust. You can’t pos­si­bly miss the “I wish I had died instead” or “I wish I’d nev­er been born at all” expres­sions. A for­sak­en lim­bo where the only tool of sur­vival is in think­ing, “It could have been much worse,” com­par­ing their sit­u­a­tion to that of those who’ve been less for­tu­nate. Luck­i­ly, in a refugee camp, one always man­ages to find the less for­tu­nate. Even if you’ve lost two kids and an arm, there will be some­one around who’s lost all of their fam­i­ly and both legs. You just need to look close enough, to be a good dis­as­ter hunter. For the tragedy of oth­ers is your sole consolation.

joumana haddad photo by Bertrand Gaudillere/Item - the markaz review
“Writ­ing,” says Joumana Had­dad, “has light­ened the weight of my iden­ti­ty” (pho­to Bertrand Gaudillere/Item). The writer is some­thing of a lin­guis­tic won­der. For 20 years she was a jour­nal­ist and edi­tor at An-Nahar, the Ara­bic dai­ly of Beirut, yet she wrote The Book of Queens in Eng­lish, and has pub­lished a col­lec­tion of sto­ries in Eng­lish, as well as the non­fic­tion titles I Killed Scheherazade and Super­man is an Arab. Had­dad has also pub­lished orig­i­nal works in French, Ital­ian and Span­ish. Togeth­er with her Ara­bic titles, she has some twen­ty books of poet­ry, prose and non­fic­tion to her credit.

Despite the heav­i­ness and tragedy that works its way into almost all the char­ac­ters’ lives, there is a light­ness in the telling — even the most unjust or bru­tal of deaths is report­ed as a mat­ter-of-fact event, the lat­est casu­al­ty to whom we must bid adieu — in a tone that harkens to Elif Shafak, a bemused voice not­ing that life is fick­le and unfair, and what of it? We must go on. Besides, life is also hilar­i­ous and gorgeous. 

Amid the glob­al cat­a­stro­phes are delight­ful inti­mate moments.  One of my favorite sce­nar­ios involves the impor­tance of a shoe cup­board, a father see­ing all the sto­ries lived in those “filthy items,” the “…roads tak­en, and oth­ers untak­en, so many nice and bad encoun­ters.” And his child, wish­ing she were a shoe, to not be bur­dened with the emo­tion­al­i­ty of humans, “peace­ful, dis­creet, and low-profile.” 

Queens is, after all, a book about fam­i­lies, an explo­ration of rela­tion­ships, as well as a trea­tise on the per­son­al becom­ing pub­lic (both in the action of the nov­el and in the occa­sion of the nov­el being writ­ten) espe­cial­ly as it per­tains to women and the weight of expec­ta­tion placed on them. On us. And grief. So much grief. 

Joumana Had­dad is a mul­ti­lin­gual jour­nal­ist, poet, trans­la­tor, and human rights activist — none of which will sur­prise you as you read about these four women and feel her in the mix, root­ing for all of them as well as mourn­ing their loss­es. What a plea­sure to spend time in Haddad’s com­pa­ny, to be encased in her ease with lan­guage, her delight at word play, and her empa­thy for her rich and unique characters.

 

AleppoArab feminismArmenianBeirutidentityLebaneserefugees

Laila Halaby was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Jordanian father and an American mother.  She is the author of two novels, West of the Jordan (winner of a PEN Beyond Margins Award) and Once in a Promised Land. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her second collection of poetry, due out April 2022 from 2Leaf Press, why an author writes to a guy holding a fish [sic], is a story in verse chronicling the misadventures of a recently divorced woman dating in America.