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‘A nation drowning in sadness’

By Sally Bland - Sep 25,2016 - Last updated at Sep 25,2016

You as of Today My Homeland: Stories of War, Self, and Love
Tayseer Al Sboul
Translated by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari
East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2016
Pp. 89

Tayseer Al Sboul’s novella, “You as of Today My Homeland”, first published in Arabic in 1968, is both a very concrete historical novel and a parable. It is the story of a son of the village who goes to the city and gets an education but can’t make sense of the world around him. It is the story of the Arab citizen who wants to be part of building a great nation, but finds no inspiration, only defeat, hypocrisy, corruption and oppression.

The plot traces a defining period in contemporary Arab history, from the 1948 Palestine war to the 1967 Arab defeat, from a Jordanian perspective. It is heavily autobiographical, registering the milestones in Sboul’s life and their effect on his feelings and thinking. Sboul’s genius lies in having penned a very personal account that gives voice to the experience of his entire generation.

It is significant that the protagonist is named Arabi, whose name means “an Arab”, thus making him a symbol of the common man. Partly, Arabi narrates his own story; at other times, an omniscient narrator reveals his impressions and emotions. For Arabi, oppression begins at home. His father is a violence-prone tyrant who beats his wives and Arabi without mercy or reason. His brother, a hero of the Bab Al Wad battle, a Jordanian victory in the Palestine War, proves to be no better as he tries to dispossess his mother of her inheritance, her house, after the father dies. 

The story opens with the father cruelly killing a small white cat for snitching a piece of meat, leaving Arabi fearful and without appetite as the family gathers for the Ramadan meal. Instinctively, he sides with the victim but is powerless to act, instead exiting the house. This scenario recurs in different forms throughout the novella, as Arabi reels from one frustrating experience to another. Meanwhile, visions of violence, death and impotence cloud his nightmares.

At first, studying at the university seems to provide an outlet for Arabi’s intellect and dreams. He makes friends with whom he can discuss common ideas of freedom and justice, but when he joins a political party which claims to work for these aims, he is again disappointed. The party’s pamphlets bore him, and the leaders are non-inspirational and hypocritical. He is confused by the campus fights between nationalists and communists, and finds no answers about how to end colonialism or create democracy. What he does find is a great similarity between the security services and the party: “regardless of the animosity between them, they both interfered in my personal affairs”. (p. 31)

His experiences with women also leave him disillusioned. Alienation mounts. 

Only two things excite Arabi: hearing of people rebelling against unjust rulers, and the “sizzling reports of victories and great statistics” broadcast by Arab radio stations at the start of the 1967 war. (p. 35)

But then, when “things were over, Citizen Arabi walked through the streets aimlessly, meandering around like a dizzy fly”. (p. 37)

He went to the bridge over the Jordan River to see for himself what was happening, “looking for the last inch of what remained from my homeland… It was not just defeat; it was something else, much more… a nation drowning in sadness”. (pp. 42-44)

Yet, though overwhelmed by what had happened, Arabi in the end regains the moral high ground, realising that: “The problem was that this nation was forced to fight” by Israel and its aggression. (p. 46)

The narrative switches from voice to voice, from time to time, and place to place, without much explanation, echoing Arabi’s disorientation. Short, direct sentences convey an experience that is immediate, sensory, personal and political. There is also evocative imagery to remind that Sboul was a poet, but the overall effect is a bleak picture of fragmentation and alienation.

This style has led critics to identify “You as of Today” as one of the first modern Jordanian novels that had a wider impact on Arab writing in terms of style and content. In more recent times, Dr Ahmed Majdoubeh analysed the novella as post-modernist. One can only imagination the larger contribution Sboul might have made to literature, had he not been overwhelmed by the Arab defeat which led him to take his own life in 1973, at the age of 34.

This volume also includes two of Sboul’s short stories, which complement the novella by addressing human and Arab identity in other contexts. There is a prologue by the author’s son, Otba Al Sboul, and a very interesting and helpful introduction by the translator, Nesreen Akhtarkhavari, correlating the story events with Sboul’s actual life and explaining his references to ancient Arab history.

Akhtarkhavari highlights the current relevance of “You as of Today My Homeland”, since the young generation in the Arab world still faces many of the same frustrations to which Sboul so eloquently gave voice.

 

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