There are books in life that we read slowly for the pure pleasure of feeling the words in our mouths. Meaning becomes secondary as we are lost in the pleasure, a feeling that brings many us back to reading again and again. Not many authors have this gift. There are great writers with incredible books who cannot write like this. And there are writers, the French novelist and Nobel prize winner J. M. G. Le Clezio comes to mind, who in the midst of a story create passages and chapters so enticing that their context does not matter.
Ghassan Zaqtan is such a writer. There are many adjectives for Zaqtan we could put in front of “writer,” such as Palestinian, lyrical, narrative, political, personal, activist, Middle Eastern, and more. But, first, he is a writer. He breaks down the boundaries between poetry and fiction, creating prose that reads like poetry and poetry which tells a story. But the words themselves are a joy. A writer seeks to bring us into their world through words. They create portals into which we step without knowing where we are going, hoping to return different, and better, than when we left. Zaqtan is a writer who can take us deeper into our own lives but taking us along with him. And while his writing is transcendent enough to escape context, it is firmly rooted in experience and place.
While writers do not like always being linked to a place, Zaqtan’s background and current life are a central part of his writing. Although well known and highly respected in the world of Arabic literature, he is not as well known in the English-speaking world since only two of his works have been translated. The first was a collection of poetry, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, and just recently, the novella, Describing the Past. In Arabic we can find 10 volumes of poetry, more fiction, and plays and essays as well.
Zaqtan was born near Bethlehem and now lives in Ramallah. He has lived in Jordan, Syria,
Lebanon, and Tunisia, and is active in the struggle for Palestinian freedom. He has edited the Palestine Liberation Organization’s literary magazine and is a leader in promoting literature in the West Bank. His political involvement has made international travel difficult and a trip to Canada occurred only after prominent writers spoke out for him after his visa to visit was initially denied.
He has lived much of his life as an exile and memory of this life is essential to understanding his work. His novel, “Describing the Past,” (written in 1994 and just published in English in 2016) emerges from his time as a child in the Karameh refugee camp near the River Jordon. The beautiful translation is by Samuel Wilder, and there is an excellent introduction by Fady Joudah.
The story is told in the voices of three narrators: the author, his best friend, and a girl they love. But the story is not told in a traditional narrative sense, but instead, draws us in and slowly comes over us. Memories do not work like people often think they do. Our lives are not remembered as history but as moments and experiences. Zaqtan writes in this way so that we are brought into the experience of being young and awakening to the power and attraction of another. We are brought back into the sense of wonder and awe that we experience but do not remember.
“It was not easy at all. I had to return. There were so many things left to be done that could no longer delayed, places where one had to sit, surfaces and peaks of mountains to stare into with strength, narrow and wide roads to walk over, hands to be clasped, many words to be said. There were greetings to be exchanged and a hand with five kind fingers to be laid on your knee so you believe the speech in the air….
These opening lines set the stage for someone hoping to remember an experience, even though a phrase such as “five kind fingers to be laid on your knee” reminds us of what we do not forget. In his introduction, Joudah describes it better. “Zaqtan transports memory as dream narrative or, more precisely, as a state of being with altered consciousness. As if in a seance, voices appear and speak from a truncated time, resected and persevered in a jar.”
The book emerges into different modes as it continues. It is a coming-of-age story, an elegy for a dead friend, a celebration of childhood, and a glimpse into the humanity of those called refugees. In a particularly moving passage, the writer sees the young woman they love walking toward him. She has a young boy with her:
“On her other side, he was walking in death. Behind him, on the road of dust, a strand of river water poured from his hair and body. He was silent. Behind us the Hadj walked. I slowed down so that she and he followed my lead, slowed down so that the Hadj could catch up to us. He was silent too. Three men surrounded her. All four of us kept climbing.
I was going off to die. That’s what I was told. She didn’t know this, but the two men did. We three dead men surrounded her as we climbed the narrow, straight road of dust.”
The past, present, and future become one and are impossible to separate. We are made up of all of these times and our past experiences do not leave us but shape us. Still, in a world always forward looking, Zaqtan understands the importance of remembering where we come from. The refugee camp he was in was destroyed and the physical memories are lost. But for an individual and a community to understand themselves, they must describe the past.
“I am compelled to speak now. You know the necessity of it here. Things evaporate and die if they don’t find someone to remember them.”
This is what Zaqtan accomplishes. He remembers, he reminds, and he lifts up the past which can shape our future.
Zaqtan is a gift and worth spending time with. Although best known for his poetry, Describing the Past
shows his writing skills go beyond any one genre. If like me, you depend on the
translations, we can only hope more of his writing is translated.
In the meantime, in addition to this book, You should read Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and other Poems.
The book won the prestigious 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize International Prize.
The Poetry Foundation
provides a biography and an audio podcast of Zaqtan and Joudah discussing Palestinian poetry with Ilya Kaminsky.
There is also a great review of Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and Other Poems
is on poet’s Ron Slate’s blog