Fi Modon Al-Ghobar (In the Dust Cities), Amal Radwan (Cairo: Dar Al-Ain)
Refugee camps are places where human misery lives. From a normal life with its joys and problems, a change can occur where all of a sudden people end up with just the clothes on their backs and not necessarily all of their limbs. Amal Radwan, in her first novel, “In the Dust Cities,” gives a snapshot of life for Syrian refugees in Al-Zaatari camp in Jordan.
Between the horror stories of rape, torture, collecting torn limbs after a bombing, to mutilations by heartless killers, the novelist gives the reader firsthand accounts from survivors. She avoids mentioning the assailants and does not analyse the political reasons for the war. Instead, she shows the results, and masterfully.
A grandmother wants her granddaughter to have an operation to get her virginity back after being raped by dozens of assailants. A man who lost an arm and leg in a bombing hopes to get a wheelchair or artificial limbs. Others need psychological support to overcome their demons and nightmares, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of grief.
The author does not drift into the details of the numerous refugees she met, but showed enough to give the reader a tangible feeling for the despair and the sadness that exist in the refugee camp. The surviving victims are mainly women; men were targeted and killed.
The ability to cope with dire living conditions, creating a community out of the sorrow, is described comprehensively. Between the shops manual artisans formed to sell, the coffee shops where business deals are closed, the marriages taking place, to bring some measure of joy in the sad hearts of camp inhabitants, beauty shops that are surprisingly busy, the author finds at least some hope that the victims might just make it.
The novel’s main character is a female UN aid worker, a lady that we slowly discover. Her marriage to a cruel husband; the death of her two elder sisters and her son for different reasons; a mother that she was not particularly close to, and a terminal illness that was among the reasons for her accepting the horrific mission of being in a refugee camp in the first place. Inserting the main character's history is done smoothly with relevant queues, such as meeting a young child in the camp and recalling her son who passed away, not recognising herself in her old pictures in a clear implication that she does not know her current self as well.
The novel is classified in the feminine literature section. The main character has contacts with numerous people in the camp, but the author cleverly guides the story line towards the females in particular. First, there is her colleague in the mission, Elma, a Palestinian-Syrian-American who had an identity crisis growing up.
She refused to be Palestinian due to her Syrian mother's high social status; she did not want to belong to those who took aid from international agencies, which led to a dispute with her father sustained until his death. The details are many in this girl’s life, but her free spirit, complex background and sexual insatiability make her an unusual and attractive character.
Female characters of that type exist in Egyptian literature, but being described by a female writer gives more sensitivity to the issue, a non-apologetic approach to an individualist who was not happy with a background she did not chose, and rebelliousness against her own self. What if she had been born somewhere else, to different parents, and different circumstances?
These questions are implied intelligently. Just the presence of Elma and her story shed light on the Palestinian people and their problems. “A refugee helping refugees,” as Elma ironically puts it. Questioning the reason of the continued suffering of the Palestinian people is in the background during the whole novel, even though this time the victims are Syrians. The introduction of a new nationality to the misery of refugee life puts a heavy weight on the reader's conscience and adds more questions about the political differences that led to destroying the lives of thousands of people for no understandable reason. It is the innocent who pay the price in the end.
Our heroine, who remains nameless throughout the novel, gets in contact with four women in Amman, Jordan. A distinguished group of ladies who bring joy to the coffee shop they meet at every Wednesday. She easily becomes friends with them, giving them characters instead of names. We have the camel, the mare, the goat and the veiled (or the Circassia). Each of them eventually becomes the narrator of her own story.
From a long love story that took 17 years to realise, including immigration to the US, for the “goat”, to the promiscuous “mare" who gives herself liberties with her body even after marrying the man she loves, to the “camel” with her content, conservative attitude in handling problems, including taking care of her elderly mother and accepting the “marriage by capture” wedding that her daughter chose to revive an old tradition of the Circassia tribes, to the “veiled,” a Christian Iraqi married a Muslim Palestinian, enduring all the problems that would come with such a union. The four women together form a beautiful an interesting character: the perfect woman, if such a thing exists.
The author is able to keep the reader engaged and curious about the various characters, through to an ending that is abrupt and open. On display is the writer’s skill in handling such a sore subject in a way that keeps the reader interested in the characters as well. I, for one, did not want the novel to end. There was still more to tell.