Temptations of the Imagination: how Jana Elhassan and Samar Yazbek transmogrify the world

10 January, 2022
“Dis­fig­ure,” cour­tesy artist Reem Tar­raf (b. 1974, Homs, Syria).

 

All the Women Inside Me, a nov­el by Jana Elhassan
Trans­lat­ed by Michelle Hartman
Inter­link Books (2021)
ISBN 9781623718862

Plan­et of Clay, a nov­el by Samar Yazbek
Trans­lat­ed by Leri Price 
World Edi­tions (2021)
ISBN 9781642861013

 

Rana Asfour

Plan­et of Clay is avail­able from World Edi­tions.
All the Women Inside Me is avail­able from Inter­link.

Imag­i­na­tion, as Albert Ein­stein once said, will take you every­where, where­as log­ic can only take you from A to B. Many experts agree that this abil­i­ty to pro­duce and sim­u­late nov­el objects, sen­sa­tions, and ideas in the mind with­out any imme­di­ate input of the sens­es, cre­ates a place that allows us to make sense of the out­side world and to cre­ate a new real­i­ty with­in us. This “men­tal real­i­ty” is where most of us escape when at odds with the way things hap­pen to be on the ground.

In Lebanese nov­el­ist Jana Elhassan’s nov­el All The Women Inside Me, her pro­tag­o­nist, Sahar, relies on her imag­i­na­tion to act out all of the desires she has been denied through­out her life as she strug­gled to sur­vive a cold child­hood, over­shad­owed by her par­ents’ unhap­pi­ness and their dis­tant rela­tion­ship to her, an abu­sive mar­riage, and a series of dis­as­trous rela­tion­ships. “To be hon­est,” says Sahar in the novel’s first chap­ter, “I’ve always loved the things that exist­ed only inside my own mind. I felt safe weav­ing facts into my imag­i­na­tion, because then I could expe­ri­ence their speci­fici­ties and be done with them when­ev­er I wanted…I knew that it was Me who was in control.”

Imag­i­na­tion again presents itself as the only cop­ing strat­e­gy for the young pro­tag­o­nist in Samar Yazbek’s nov­el Plan­et of Clay. Rima is a woman-child trau­ma­tized by the hor­rors and atroc­i­ties of Syria’s rav­aging civ­il war. She finds refuge “in a fan­ta­sy world full of col­ored crayons, secret plan­ets, and The Lit­tle Prince, as every­thing and every­one around her is blown to bits.” In a quote pub­lished at the begin­ning of Yazbek’s book she reveals that her choice to remain in the realm of won­der is in fact “to out­strip the vio­lence of the story.”

J.R.R. Tolkien declares in his essay “On Fairy Sto­ries,” that the imag­i­na­tion is a “sub-cre­ative art which plays strange tricks with the real world and all that is in it,” allow­ing us to morph ordi­nary ele­ments from the envi­ron­ment, into extra­or­di­nary ones. We do this to attain joy, safe­ty, sanc­tu­ary, and con­trol, ren­der­ing us the uncon­test­ed archi­tects of our des­tinies, free to reclaim the nar­ra­tive and shape the world accord­ing to our desires.

All the Women Inside Me, new­ly trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish, is the author’s sec­ond nov­el and was short­list­ed for the 2013 Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion. It explores the rea­sons why women in abu­sive rela­tion­ships keep silent. It also spot­lights the social, reli­gious, and polit­i­cal con­text relat­ed to these women’s cir­cum­stances, as well as their upbringing.

The nov­el opens with Sahar, a woman of no agency, recount­ing a child­hood lived in a con­ser­v­a­tive milieu in Tripoli, in north­ern Lebanon. Sahar’s father is a lapsed left­ist who masks his bore­dom by busy­ing him­self with great caus­es. Her depressed mother’s nerves are as del­i­cate as the crys­tal she keeps immac­u­late­ly pol­ished in her home, and her only hope is for her hus­band to notice her. Sahar grows up iso­lat­ed and emo­tion­al­ly sti­fled, rely­ing on her vivid imag­i­na­tion to con­jure up an alter­nate world of men and women who live vibrant, col­or­ful and ful­fill­ing lives.

In col­lege, she meets Sami, who wants to know every­thing about her and seems to be the escape she is look­ing for. Briefly after mar­ry­ing she real­izes that not only is the union an enor­mous dis­ap­point­ment com­pared to her fan­tasies, but that she had “sur­ren­dered to her death” under Sami’s dom­i­na­tion. Her recourse is to bury her feel­ings of anger and dis­ap­point­ment along­side her child­hood sor­rows. Lit­tle by lit­tle, she is shocked to dis­cov­er that she has turned into her moth­er — the woman she had refused to be.

The nov­el takes a dark turn at this point as Sahar chron­i­cles the abuse and her feel­ings of humil­i­a­tion and degra­da­tion that come with the beat­ings as well the anni­hi­la­tion of the self as Sami trans­forms from the “Absolute” she had fall­en for, to some­one abhor­rent who reduces Sahar to “a body of ash­es,” “a black hole, a woman with no scent, a stick bro­ken off a tree branch, lying on the ground for peo­ple to tread on as they passed,” while in her imag­i­na­tion she con­jures up a mag­i­cal being with the gift of extra­or­di­nary strength.

And while it is evi­dent that the female char­ac­ters in the nov­el are a reflec­tion of how patri­ar­chal soci­eties would like their women to act and be — docile, grate­ful, silent, per­fect — the male char­ac­ters them­selves don’t fare much bet­ter in such a poi­soned envi­ron­ment; a char­la­tan sheikh trades in reli­gious mag­ic, mak­ing a prof­it off of people’s mis­ery, a boyfriend leaves his great love to mar­ry a “more appro­pri­ate” good girl, and a seem­ing­ly pious man metes hor­ren­dous phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al abuse on a defence­less woman.

Jana Elhas­san is an award-win­ning nov­el­ist and short sto­ry writer from Lebanon who has worked as a jour­nal­ist for lead­ing news­pa­pers and TV since 2008. In 2015, she was fea­tured in the BBC 100 Women Sea­son, an annu­al two-week sea­son that fea­tures inspir­ing women from around the world. Her first nov­el won Lebanon’s Simon Hayek Award and her sec­ond and third nov­els (Me, She, and the Oth­er Woman and The Nine­ty-Ninth Floor) were short­list­ed for the Inter­na­tion­al Prize of Ara­bic Fic­tion. This is her sec­ond nov­el to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. Her trans­la­tor, Michelle Hart­man, is a pro­fes­sor of Ara­bic and fran­coph­o­ne lit­er­a­ture at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty in Montreal.

Elhas­san also explores the dynam­ic rela­tion­ship and psy­cho­log­i­cal thread that binds peo­ple to place, a process that shapes who we become. As Sami guides Sahar around his child­hood haunts in Tripoli and tells her the sto­ries that come with them, Sahar is able to piece togeth­er how Sami’s mem­o­ries of his city, its res­i­dents and his fam­i­ly shaped his feel­ings, behav­iors, and iden­ti­ty. In an inter­view with Arablit, Elhas­san explained how she “wrote the city through the body of a woman to show how sim­i­lar they are and to reflect on how the social con­text and inter­nal psy­cho­log­i­cal aspects inter­twine to pro­duce dam­aged per­sonas and places.” This con­jures Amer­i­can essay­ist Rebec­ca Sol­nit, who wrote how the places in which one’s life are lived “become the tan­gi­ble land­scape of mem­o­ry, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can pos­sess and in the end what pos­sess­es you.”

The nov­el is a cap­ti­vat­ing and ambi­tious under­tak­ing by Elhas­san and her trans­la­tor Michelle Hart­man, who accord­ing to her note at the end of the book trans­lat­ed the nov­el in a series of long binge-like ses­sions dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, to pro­duce a work that demon­strates how although the life of the mind is capa­ble of offer­ing refuge from psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal abuse, it can also turn into an unhealthy obses­sion that could blur the line between what is real and what isn’t. Where this nov­el tru­ly excels is in how it unabashed­ly pos­es res­o­nant ques­tions about domes­tic abuse, reli­gion, moth­er­hood, and female sol­i­dar­i­ty and insists, despite crush­ing despair, on life.

 


 

Plan­et of Clay by Samar Yazbek is a final­ist for the 2021 Nation­al Book Award for Trans­lat­ed Lit­er­a­ture. It is a por­tal onto the war in Syr­ia as wit­nessed by Rima, a young girl from Dam­as­cus, who is cursed to wan­der wher­ev­er and when­ev­er, as if “wings sprout­ed between her toes.” Nat­u­ral­ly, in a soci­ety that places shack­les on everyone’s move­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly its women “who are for­bid­den from going around unless it’s for some­thing absolute­ly nec­es­sary and urgent,” Rima’s afflic­tion ensures that her per­son­al space is restrict­ed and con­trolled from her ear­ly begin­nings. As a child, she is bound by a rope to her mother’s wrist except for those times when she is teth­ered to the bed or when she is accom­pa­nied by her broth­er to the mosque. He would tie her to him with a rope long enough to allow him to wait out­side the girls’ room in the neigh­bor­hood mosque where she eager­ly learned to read and recite the Qur’an. “I used to sing the Qur’an,” she says at one point. “Once, I recit­ed the Qur’an to the young man I let touch my chest, he was stunned, and after that a long time passed and I for­got about singing and recit­ing the Qur’an.”

Samar Yazbek is a Syr­i­an writer, nov­el­ist, and jour­nal­ist. She was born in Jableh in 1970 and stud­ied lit­er­a­ture before begin­ning her career as a jour­nal­ist and a scriptwriter for Syr­i­an tele­vi­sion and film. Her nov­els include Child of Heav­en, Clay, Cin­na­mon, In Her Mir­rors, and Plan­et of Clay. Among her accounts of the Syr­i­an con­flict are A Woman in the Cross­fire: Diaries of the Syr­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion and The Cross­ing: My Jour­ney to the Shat­tered Heart of Syr­ia. Yazbek’s work has been trans­lat­ed into mul­ti­ple lan­guages and has been rec­og­nized with numer­ous awards. Her trans­la­tor Leri Price attends to con­tem­po­rary Ara­bic fic­tion — her trans­la­tion of Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work was a final­ist for the 2019 Nation­al Book Award for Trans­lat­ed Lit­er­a­ture (US) and win­ner of the 2020 Saif Ghobash Ban­i­pal Prize for Ara­bic Lit­er­ary Translation.

Although Rima’s “tongue was stopped’ after a har­row­ing inci­dent at a check­point at the ear­ly onset of the Syr­i­an war, and she doesn’t under­stand much of what sur­rounds her, she soon finds that she prefers to com­mu­ni­cate through her draw­ings, a more apt medi­um than words. How­ev­er, after being res­cued from a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal and tied up in a base­ment in Ghou­ta, a besieged sub­urb of Dam­as­cus to which her broth­er has brought her after res­cu­ing her, Rima, with access to only pen and paper, pro­ceeds to write down her sto­ry, pri­mar­i­ly about the “dis­ap­pear­ance” of her moth­er, the days “before the sum­mer sky rained those bub­bles with the hor­ri­ble smell,” and the women who sleep in their hijabs who might die at any moment (and they do), wor­ried about their mod­esty. Young Rima writes and writes, assur­ing her imag­i­nary read­ers from the out­set that her sto­ry is not only real but also the com­plete truth. She promis­es more of the same should she survive.

This is a bleak, haunt­ing nov­el, dif­fi­cult at times due its heavy sub­ject but nonethe­less a pow­er­ful nar­ra­tive from the Syr­i­an war’s most vul­ner­a­ble. It can be slight­ly dis­ori­ent­ing due to the unre­li­a­bil­i­ty of its young nar­ra­tor, whose voice fluc­tu­ates between that of an ado­les­cent and an adult. Yazbek refers to fairy tales and fan­ta­sy to hone her themes of women’s free­dom, the rela­tion­ship between writ­ing and vio­lence, and the new lan­guage we might con­struct in the midst of the ter­ri­ble events we are liv­ing through, with mul­ti­ple ref­er­ences to Alice in Won­der­land and The Lit­tle Prince, from which the title of the book is derived. “Rima is a woman-child who tells of the war through her ini­tial shock,” says Yazbek in a quo­ta­tion print­ed on the first page of the novel.

Leri Price’s trans­la­tion is exquis­ite and mas­ter­ful, a fur­ther demon­stra­tion of the heights to which lan­guage can soar, and a tes­ta­ment to the vivid­ness of imagery, both uplift­ing and hor­rif­ic. “I wouldn’t nor­mal­ly rec­om­mend trans­lat­ing a book about a girl trapped in a cel­lar while a glob­al lock­down kept us all trapped in dif­fer­ent ways,” Price con­fess­es, “but it must be said that Rima was con­sis­tent­ly an enjoy­able com­pan­ion through­out a dif­fi­cult time … and I hope read­ers respond as I did to her bound­less curios­i­ty, her sharp eye, and her soar­ing, striv­ing, lim­it­less imagination.”