Iklas Francis, Raghabat Muhashama (Shattered Desires), Beirut: Dar Ghuwayat, 2019. pp771
This 32-chapter novel revolves around a beautiful woman in her fifties, Rita, who like the author escapes the civil war with her small family to Canada. Born in southern Lebanon in 1964, Iklas Francis immigrated to the United States, where she works in education, in 2004, after many years of nonstop war that affects every aspect of life.
The unfamiliar, cold environment seeps into Rita’s private life and, following an infidelity on the part of her husband, she separates from him, though she doesn’t have the confidence to demand a divorce yet.
For now they go on living in the same house. But Rita’s husband is unrepentant and her children — who are barely mentioned in the book – are busy with their own lives.
This situation leaves Rita emotionally open and vulnerable, and she ends up having an online relationship which lasts three years before she feels ready to meet the significantly younger man she has fallen in love with. Known first as the Stranger and later as Shams (a name that means “sun”, indicating that he provides warmth and vitality and is the source of life) — Shams is not his real name — this man has become the centre of her life.
They meet in Lebanon, where she instantly recognises him and they spend a lovely evening together. Yet, when she refuses to spend the night with him even though she longs to do so, he disappears — appearing to leave her.
She is at a loss until she hears from him. It turns out that, the day after they met, he had an accident and was unable to contact her. It is she who is giving him the strength to deal with his injuries, he says.
A year later when he has fully recovered it is she who bows out of the relationship, having discovered that she has cancer and decided she wants him to remember her as he first saw her when she was healthy and in control of her faculties.
She chooses to check into a far-away hospital, a three-hour drive away from her house, leaving her mobile phone behind and requesting that she should receive no visits or phone calls except from her children. She takes along a shirt of Shams’s that she took out of his suitcase after he disappeared and a picture of him he gave her.
The thought of losing her hair to chemotherapy bothers he as she imagines his fingers playing with it, but she holds onto his thought, calling his name while in pain, convincing herself that — being a resident of her heart — he would die if her heart stopped and so managed to beat her illness. In the end she joined the staff of the hospital as a wellness promoter.
In the meantime — it has been two years — Shams, once a carefree wanderer, had managed to join the staff of a major company and rise in the ranks, driven by the hope of one day travelling and reuniting with Rita, who abandoned the internet too.
His dream comes true when he is posted to Canada for a training programme, where he just happens to run into one of Rita’s daughters and manages to locate and meet with his beloved. And they live happily together.
The book is beautifully written, each chapter opening with a few lines of poetry to set the tone, and rich in lyricism. There are as many descriptions of nature as accounts of Rita’s inner life and conflicts, notably her spiritual life and belief in God.
Even a traditionally minded Arab reader who starts out taking issue with Rita for adultery will eventually sympathise with her predicament and share in her desire to find happiness with the man she loves.
According to the author speaking to this reader, the novel was conceived following her connecting with Rita’s real-life inspiration on Facebook.
This woman, however, had never met her beloved due to her circumstances. The author also connected with the lover, and began to write on the two of them.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Unlikely happy ending