Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Describing the Past”

Layout 1There 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,


Ghassan Zaqtan

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.

Like a Straw BirdIn 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.

You can find some of his poetry at Poem Hunter.

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.

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

charming billy coverAlice McDermott can spin a tale. With each page you await a new turn, a new revelation, but she does this without the “aha” tricks of a lesser writer. Instead, as a storyteller, you await her unraveling of a tale that you know tells us more than it appears on the surface.

In Charming Billy, McDermott sets before us the death of Billy Lynch, an alcoholic with a broken heart and life. Still, he finds a patient woman to marry and lives out a life filled with late night drunken calls, failed attempts at reformation, and ongoing quick notes he sends to everyone. He thinks of others, yet cannot face himself.

McDermott gives us real characters. There are no villains or heroes, but people who make mistakes at times and help others the next day. Billy loves his wife, even as he misses the Irish girl from his youth. His cousin, and the father of the narrator, Dennis, is the stable one if the family. But he too has his faults to balance out his ongoing receipts of Billy’s late night calls, or calls to help get him in the house in another drunken stupor. As the family gathers for Billy’s death, the stories pour out about Billy and others. We see people who have been dealt the blows of life, recovered, and moved on. Lives intertwine, allegiances are called upon, and some secrets are left secret.

Even Billy’s drinking, while devastating, is put in context by another cousin after his death.

“What’s nonsense is all this disease business” he said. “Maybe for some people it’s a disease. But maybe for some there are things that happen in their lives that they just can’t live with. Thins that take the sweetness out of everything. Maybe for some it’s a sadness they can’t get rid of or a disappointment that won’t go away. And you know what I say to those people? I say good luck to those people.” He raised his glass, raised his chin. “I say maybe they’re not as smart and sensible and accepting as every one of us…but they’re loyal. They’re loyal to their own feelings.”

Loyal to his feelings is true Billy, but only to himself. Still, in a drunken ramble, as he talks about the death that has overshadowed his life, we find he is loyal to his faith as well. These are Catholic folks, and Billy is committed to his beliefs. It is not simply a matter of fulfilling the obligations of mid-20th century Catholicism, but of believing in his faith. He addresses the issue of death head on, not with a Sunday school faith, but of one willing to let his faith delve in the darkness as well as the light. Death is an injustice, and horrible interruption of life — not just a mere part of life.

“Our Lord knew it,” Billy went on. “Our Lord knew it [death] was terrible. Why would He shed His own blood if death wasn’t terrible?” There was another pause, another sip of whiskey. “You know what makes a mockery of the Crucifixion?” Billy said. “You know what makes it pointless? Anyone saying that death is just an ordinary thing, and ordinary part of life. It happens, you reconcile yourself, you go on. Anyone saying that is saying Our Lord’s coming was to no avail.” … “What do we need the Redemption for?” Billy asked him. “If death isn’t terrible. If we’re reconciled? Why do we need heaven or hell? It makes no difference. If death doesn’t trouble us, the injustice of it, then we don’t need heaven or hell, do we? If might as well be a lie.”

Lies are a part of Billy’s life, but he does not know it for many years. When he discovers that he has long been mislead, he simply returns to his life. Of course, inside, he still struggles. And that is where we are left guessing. Everyone is busy trying to understand Billy, because Billy lived his life without involving others in his thoughts and feelings. And everyone seems to know they were missing out as a result.

Alice McDermott, Bethesda writer.©Patrice Gilbert   May 2008301-270-4986McDermott is a great writer who incorporates faith into her stories. I also highly recommend her novel, Someone, which I read last year. She is someone I’ll be continuing to seek out. Just for the record, here is her publisher’s official author bio:

Alice McDermott is the author of several previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; and At Weddings and Wakes, all published by FSG. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. McDermott lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.






The Fault in Our Stars

the fault in our starsWhile not usually one for young adult books, I read John Green’s The Fault in our Stars along with my 14-year-old for a summer read. The book has been getting a lot of press (and it is now a movie), and having lost my 6-year-old to cancer 14 months ago, I’m a bit attuned to cancer-related books. However, there are so many bad books out there, I was worried this would trivialize a clearly non-trivial topic.

While everyone’s experience with cancer is different, Green gets it. Sure, I could argue details and teens with cancer will surely find issues to challenge, but this is believable. What struck me was how much he gets how cancer impacts a community, and especially a family. While the two teenagers, Hazel Grace and Augustus, are the ones dealing with life and death issues of cancer, we also see how their parents and friends handle it. Or don’t. Toward the end of the book we hear about all these people showing support on Facebook, but it is clear they have been absent from the daily lives of these teenagers and their families.

As a result, and because of newly shared interests, the cancer community creates its own world. For nearly three years our family was part of that community at a Children’s Hospital, and when we lost our son, we lost that community. The rest of the world, frankly, just does not get it. Green sees this alienation, sees how families respond, and respects that new world.

The title is great, as it a play on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  where Cassius says to Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Green is saying is that the lives of Hazel Grace and Augustus have been created by outside forces. However, they take that “fault” and refuse to let the cancer rule their life. Their trip to Amsterdam is a slap in the face of the victim mentality they could assume.

Most telling is when Augustus identifies himself with his cancer. “What am I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It is a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner.” This reminded me of the time my oldest son was asking my youngest son with cancer, Oliver, about what kind of robot he would be if he could be a robot. As they talked about the traits, my oldest said, of course, that Oliver’s robot would not have cancer. “Yes it would,” said Oliver. “The cancer is part of who I am.” In other words, cancer patients begin to live with, and not against, this horrible disease.

The book also captures the experience of grief, and I don’t think of giving away too much to say that in a book about cancer, there is grief. Hazel Grace describes it as when you are in pain and they ask you to rate it from one to ten. She never said ten. “I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring a the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff leaving me floating faceup on the water, undrowned.”

That is harsh. That is true. And that is why this book is worth reading, whether or not cancer has entered your life. You get a real sense of what it is to live with cancer as a patient and a family. And the cancer community loses people all the time, so they get grief.

If any part of the book could be changed, it is a sexual encounter between two teens that could have been avoided. It adds nothing to a connection that is already there, and does not send the best message to teenagers (call me a prude, but there are other options in life).

As a parent who has lost a child, the book had me early on, when Hazel Grace (who narrates the book) says: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”

Not my words, but my feelings.

Blood Meridian

Blood MeridianRarely, okay, never have I read a book which is so simultaneously abhorrent and appealing. Blood Meridian is a book that treats violence as a commonplace occurrence, and offers little respite in its continual assault on all (or anything, please anything) that is good in the world. The prose is stark, direct, and often undefinable (perhaps somewhere, but I often found words for which no definition can be found). The novel immerses you in a world of evil and violence far more terrifying than any post-apocalyptic book can create. And this, indeed, is how I came to this “masterwork” by Cormac McCarthy (bio). I’ve read a few of his novels, and consider “The Road” (blogged about here) one of my all time favorite novels.

This novel centers around “the kid” in the 1850s as he travels from his home state of Tennessee and joins up with the Glanton Gang, a real-life group of killers (there are probably more appropriate terms, but I’m calling them what they are) led by John Joel Glanton. Hired by the Mexican government to fight off attacking Native Americans, they killed any Native American they could since they were paid by the scalp. Women, children, unarmed men — it makes no difference. Even non-Native Americans were not exempt for their depravity as all of humanity appears to be at their disposal. What makes McCarthy’s descriptions so unnerving is the calmness and detachment used in describing the killings. You can almost read through some of them before the horror of what is happening dawns on you. I’m reminded of Tim O’Brien’s writing about the My Lai massacre during the American war in Vietnam. In the Lake of the Woods is a novel about a politician later found to have been involved in the massacre. But the most disturbing part of the book is not the fiction, but a chapter of excerpts from the actual court-martial records. What you see is this same dispassionate account of brutal abuse and killing. As if the event itself is not horrific enough, the presenting of it as a normal occurrence makes it even worse.

McCarthy’s prose is powerful. It can edge on the dramatic, and at times tips into the over-

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy

dramatic category, but its power is clear.

Under a gibbous moon horse and rider spanceled to their shadows on the snowblue ground and in each flare of lightning as the storm advanced those selfsame forms rearing with a terrible redundancy behind them like some third aspect of their presence hammered out black and wild upon the naked grounds. They rode on.

The phrase, “they rode on,” is the perfect balance to that long, intricate preceding sentence. Language like his can be hard to follow in our quick read society, but a slow and thoughtful read pays off. Plus, he reminds you of the beauty of words (and perhaps I just tipped into the over-dramatic category).

While “the kid” is the anti-hero of this anti-western, it is the Judge who stands out as the most memorable character. A large, hairless, white man, he is often naked and always calm. He appears to be waiting for others as they come to him, and his intellect puts him ahead of both enemies and his fellow travelers. He makes observations in his notebook in order to understand and thus control the world, and is given to long, fascinating discourses on a variety of topics. He is both God-like and devil-like, omniscient and monstrous, and terrifying in his outreach.

Toward the end of the book “the kid” faces off with judge, the culmination of a relationship in which they dance around one another throughout the book.

The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgments of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledge a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

It is as if “the kid” recognizes his role in evil, and by the recognition (for there is no repentance) he has broken the fabric of their community. He recognizes the judge as the one behind the evil, but he cannot separate himself. As the judge says, “What joins men together is not the sharing of bread but sharing of enemies.”

Clearly, this is a disturbing novel. The fact that McCarthy bases this on historical occurrences does not allow us to write this off as some post-apocalyptic fantasy. Instead, we have to face the judge and his comments about our own culpability in human affairs.

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.

My Name is Asher Lev


quarantineJim Crace’s novel, “Quarantine,” centers around a 40-day fast in the desert. But this is not just any fast — it is the time when Jesus heads off for his 40 days of fasting, culminating in his resisting of the temptations. But Crace is not writing a religious novel in the Christian sense. Instead, we see Jesus as one of group of both intentional and unintentional pilgrims.

We have Musa, a bullying trader who is on the verge of death when Jesus appears and places a drop of water on his lips. Instead, of dying, he comes fully back to life, much to the dismay of his pregnant wife, Miri, who is off digging Musa’s grave when Jesus shows up. Musa and Miri had been left behind by their caravan, but now stay so Musa can make money off of three other pilgrims: Shim, a young, ascetic want-to-be; Marta, who wants to become pregnant before her husband throws her out; Aphas, and elderly Jew seeking a cure for his cancer, and an agile peasant who is unable to speak.
Jesus is not the center of the novel or the group. He traveled apart from the group, and chooses a cave separate from the others. His only direct interaction with them comes toward the end of the novel. As we watch the others as they progress through their 40-day fast, which is broken an sundown, we also see Jesus, refusing any subsistence. His prayers become part of his body and breathing, while at times he struggles with madness. He strips off all his clothes, sees the offers of food from the others as a temptation, and dreams of glory even when he knows he should not.

This is not a Jesus of miracles, but a young man wrestling with God’s intentions for his life. Crace sounds like the novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, in his earthly portrayal of Jesus. But Kazantzakis clearly sees the divinity of Jesus, while Crace does not take that step. Instead, it is up to the reader to impart their own beliefs on the struggles of Christ. Crace leaves the reader options to do so, even right to the end. But Crace will not be seen as supporting the divinity of his creation.

There has been some “controversy” about this book, which is certainly guaranteed when Jesus is a character and looks less than divine. But Christ is large enough to envelope such descriptions, and works, such as this novel by Crace, remind Christians of the humanity of Christ. We focus on the fully divine at the loss of the paradox, which includes being fully human. And the understanding of what Jesus faced from the human perspective makes our faith even clea

Jim Crace

Jim Crace

rer. While some can see Jesus’ loss of rational thought in the book as a sign of disrespect, the fact is that the Christian faith calls for a fierce irrationality which can look foolish to others.  

In addition to the controversy, “Quarantine” has also won both praise (NY Times Notable Book)and prizes (Whitbread Novel of the Year and Booker Prize finalist). I question if it would have done so without the insertion of Jesus as a character, although most of the novel does not involve him. At times the story seems as lost as its characters, although it always finds its way back to the center. The 1997 novel has also been adapted for stage. You can learn more about Jim Crace and his work at his website.

The Land of Spices

ImageKate O’Brien’s novel, “The Land of Spices,” does not offer much in way of a summary. Published in 1941, the novel is set in an Irish convent of a French order and run by an English nun. But outside of the upsurge of Irish nationalism and some politics in the order, nations play a small role. Instead, the convent is its own world, which deals with the outside world through the students who go home for vacations. Mere Marie-Helene is the nun, and throughout the book we also see the growth of young Anna Murphy, from six to sixteen, as she moves through life. There is a bond between the two, but the relationship is intentionally kept at a distance. In fact, as readers we are kept at a distance, watching a story unfold slowly. Although there are two events which occurs to each of them near the end of the novel, and these are life-changing events, we still see at the end what looks to be a natural parting of ways. Natural, because, indeed,  it is natural. Roles changes. Life experiences change us. We all make different decisions.

Hardly a description to sell a lot of novels, but it is still a novel not to miss. What goes on in these pages show a great deal of the human character, the thoughts and events which shape us, the faith which challenges many of us, the relationships with present and past people, the choices we must make, and the pressures we face. And it does so without the unnecessary drama of self-obsessed people. 
There are many themes which could be explored here. We have the challenge of personal obedience and personal freedom, without either side being shown as a preference.  Mere Marie-Helene understands her obedience to God and her order come from a personal choice, her personal freedom. She also understands that not everyone will make the same choice, which is expected. 
From there rises the theme of humility and judgment. If she teaches her young charge nothing else, it is to be humble about oneself, which leads to less judging of others. “You will make what you must of the life for which we have tried to prepare you. And you have gifts for life. Spend your gifts, and try to be good. And be the judge of your own soul; but never for a second, I implore you, set up as a judge of another. Commentator, annotator, if you life, but never judge.” 
Other themes grow even stronger, including the impact of death, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot. But O’Brien’s desire to face life is tied up in the comment, that “You cannot accept the mystery of life and refuse that of death.” 
Finally, as a fan of 17th century poetry, it was wonderful to see the importance of literature in this novel. The connection between the two characters comes because the six year old can recite a poem the nun learned as a child from her own father. The title itself comes from a George Herbert poem, which I provide simply for an excuse to sneak such a poem into my writing.

Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.
The novel itself has a challenging history. The book was banned for lewdness because of the line “in the embrace of love.” Of course, it is not the line itself, but the context which caused the commotion. O’Brien herself fell out of popularity, and this novel (and I believe others) went out of print. It would have been a loss for this novel to remain unavailable, so the return is welcomed.