Tag Archives: history

A Classic Arabic Novella

Most novellas are either lighthearted or extremely potent, like a shot of vodka swallowed in a gulp. I’ve just finished one of the hundred-proof variety and I’m knocked flat out.

My research tells me that Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani is a classic of Arab literature and that its author is right up there in the Arabic literary canon, something like the Hemmingway of the Middle East. Kanafani was born in British-mandated Palestine in 1936. His novels, stories and plays were published in sixteen languages. He was active in the movement for a Palestinian homeland, but he lost his life during the civil war in Lebanon in 1972. For all his political engagement, it’s to Kanafani’s credit that it’s his art, rather than his political convictions that drives this story to its devastating conclusion.

Published in 1962, it’s told from four different points of view, all of them Palestinian men fleeing the Arab refugee camps to which they were consigned after the Israeli-Arab war of 1948. Although they’d lost their homes, they weren’t allowed to settle in Arab countries. Yet these men are determined to make it across the Iraqi desert and into Kuwait where there was work and a chance to start over. One of the men, Abu Khaizuran, is a smuggler, the victim of a war wound that’s ruined his life; for a fee, he’ll take the men through sweltering heat to their destination. Each of these men has a story to tell — Abu Quais, an older man, who’s sat around the camps for ten years, hoping to get his land back; Assad, whose uncle has given him the tidy sum of fifty dinars so that he could get a start in life and marry a daughter who doesn’t interest the young man at all; Marwan, a teenager who wants to support his abandoned mother. Off they go on their desert journey, but there’s a hitch: Whenever they pass border guards, the driver Abu Khaizuran has to conceal his three passengers for several minutes in an empty water tank at the back of his truck, its lid slammed shut as they roll along under the broiling sun. This happens twice on a heart-thumping journey, a story told with a sure command of plot and pacing, and punctuated by numerous flashbacks, and time-shifts that disorient the reader — much as the unfortunate men in the back of the truck would have felt in the scorching heat. Worse is a mean twist of the knife as a customs official’s smart-alec remarks to the driver dig right into  the suffering that the man embodies — and that so many Arab men felt at this moment in history. The novella’s only  fifty-three pages long, and if I say any more, I’ll spoil the impact of its dead-on insight and honesty. (Several short stories are included in this volume, most of them early work that lack the technical sophistication of this novella). Men in the Sun is a remarkable work, and an open door to a missing part of our world.

Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories by Ghassan Kanafani is translated from the Arabic by Hilary Kilpatrick. It was published in 1999 by Lynne Rienner Publishers in Boulder, Colorado and London, England.

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Bear With Me — A Soldier’s Tale

As far as reading goes, we all have our guilty pleasures. Now I’ll admit mine — I’m nuts about animals. If it’s cute and furry, just pass the book this way. Only this time I think I’ve met my match with a true tale about a bear that’s not only incredibly endearing, brave, and kind-hearted but also historically significant. Meet Wojtek The Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr which recounts the true story of Private Wojtek (pronounced Voy-chek) who was enrolled in the twenty-second Company of the Polish Army Corps during World War Two, where he served not only as a mascot but as an active participant in battle.

His saga began in 1942 when Polish soldiers, recently freed from the Soviet gulag and serving with the British in Iran, bought the bear from a local child. Raised from a cub, Wojtek — which means happy warrior — modeled himself on the soldiers and thought himself one of them. He became tame, wandering around the camp, scarfing cookies and other treats, putting away a beer or two with his mates, and enjoying cigarettes, which he didn’t smoke, but ate lit (Just in case you’re skeptical about his antics, there are lots of photos in the book, and you can check Wojtek’s website at wojtekthebear.com). His transport unit made its way through Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Egypt before shipping off to Italy to the horrific battle of Monte Cassino. There Wojtek distinguished himself by hauling artillery shells to the front lines under enemy fire with no prompting from anyone. Polish forces won the battle, but at war’s end, unable to return to their occupied country, they were allowed by the British to decamp in Scotland.

Eventually Wojtek “retired” to the Edinburgh Zoo, where the author of this book met him when she was eight years old. Orr had never forgotten the bear’s happy wave when she said “hello” to him in Polish. Yet what makes this book more than a funny ursine version of MASH is the skillful way in which the author allows the dreadful situation of the Polish soldiers to shadow Wojtek’s often hilarious antics. The bear caper was, from the start, the act of men who’d lost everything to the Soviets — wives, children, families, possessions, homeland. Wojtek answered a need to give and receive both love and comfort, and it was a testament to these soldiers that despite their suffering in forced-labour camps, they were still capable of showing affection and kindness to an orphaned bear. One of the men, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys, acted as his chief caretaker, and as the story unfolds, Aileen Orr describes Peter’s relationship with Wojtek and gives us a sense of how the bear was solace for much of what he’d lost. Turning him over to the zoo was heartbreaking, as were the losses of war that were never redeemed, including the “big power” machinations that silenced Poland for generations.

The political cruelty of the war’s aftermath gives a thoughtful tone to this charming and nicely-written book. Its author spearheaded a successful campaign to erect a memorial in Edinburgh depicting Wojtek and his keeper, Peter Prendys. And oh yes, Wojtek has a Facebook page called Wojtek the Soldier Bear. Count me in as a fan.

That’s Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr, published in 2010 by Birlinn Limited in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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New Brooms

Here is a metaphor to delight a storyteller’s heart: a new broom sweeps clean. Egypt, as we all know, has been full of new brooms as its youth rose up to sweep away a thirty year-old dictatorship. Revolution is a modern story, one to which we can supply a few anxious beginnings and tragic endings. Egypt offers something more hopeful, a refreshing plot twist. Its new brooms became literal as the revolutionaries who’d occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square for over two weeks returned with brooms, dustpans and washbuckets to clean up after themselves.

This is a new story line for humankind. There is no record of French revolutionaries, Russian Bolsheviks or the Iranian Islamists heading back to the sites of their triumphs with brooms and buckets. Guillotines, maybe, or AK-47s. But in Egypt, young men and women swept streets, painted fences, washed away graffitti and even planted bushes. One woman skipped work so that she could paint the square’s railing green. Another in a hijab kept sweeping alongside a sign which read: “Sorry for Disturbance. We Build Egypt.”

Are we dull-witted humans finally learning something? Cleaning up after ourselves? Not blowing anything up? We don’t know how this brave Egyptian story will end. Yet nothing can take away from what these triumphant young people have given humankind. Because of them, millions of us have witnessed the world’s first nonviolent revolution. It’s possible; it can be done; it has been done. Kudos to Facebook and to all that connects us. History is tilting in a new direction.

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David Grossman’s To The End Of The Land

Usually I avoid using this space to feature authors who don’t need the publicity. Yet David Grossman’s latest novel is so haunting and deeply felt, so rich in insight about a troubled part of the world that it’s a must-read. It’s a long work, and at close to six hundred pages, it builds up powerful resonance between the lives of ordinary people, sporadic violence and the strength and fragility of the natural world. Its intricate weave of storytelling is well worth your attention.

The novel’s central character, Ora, is a complex creation — passionate, conflicted, and driven to protect the life of her son, Ofer. About to be released from his army service in Israel, Ofer re-enlists for a major offensive. Distraught, Ora decides to set out on a long hike through the Galilee region, leaving no word behind of her whereabouts, so that no one can bring her dire news about the fate of her son. It’s magical thinking, but she’s convinced that by leaving home for a long-distance hike, she will somehow protect Ofer.

Ora’s just separated from her husband, Ilan, and so she cajoles her former lover Avram to come on the hike with her. Ora, Avram and Ilan were old friends from their army days, but Avram, once a brilliant and creative artist, was shattered by his wartime experience, having been captured and tortured as a prisoner of war in Egypt.  Yet as they continue on their hike, Ora keeps her son Ofer alive by telling his story to Avram. The powerful rhythm of her family tale takes on its own life and Avram — at first reluctant to listen — begins to rally and to claim the story for his own. Yet the engine that drives this novel’s intricate machinery is the walk itself — step by step, its wonderful physicality pushing words forward, connecting Ora’s tales to the strength of her body and  the land. The entire novel seems to grow up out of the earth. Ora’s passion for her country and her ambivalence about politics are sometimes spoken, sometimes not. Yet her sensuality, her alertness to nature and her commitment to the life of her son pierce through the texture of this novel and bring it to life.

Grossman is deft in his use of time-shifts and changes in point of view; his technical skills never get in the way of the story, never break the steady rhythm of the tale. For anyone who’s been to Israel, he evokes the surreal and disorienting aspects of the place; the novel’s juxtaposition of ordinary life with an undercurrent of anxiety is a feverish, unsettling reminder of what the country’s like. In fact the title To The End Of The Land is a play on Ora’s recurrent fear that Israel may cease to exist. Yet Ora is like Scheherazade, the Persian queen who saved her own life by enchanting her king with stories. Her passionate storytelling speaks to the power of life in ways she’d never imagined, and in so doing, it speaks to all of us.

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman is translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. It’s published in the U.S. by Random House and in Canada by McClelland & Stewart.

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Paul Almond’s The Deserter

I love reading all sorts of books, but I usually draw the line on  stories that feature any of the stereotypes of North American history: naval combat, redcoats, settlers fighting Indians, roughneck sailors and lumberjacks — you get the picture. So you might imagine my consternation when I had a look at Paul Almond’s debut novel, The Deserter, which is an historical work — the first of a series — and full of sailors, redcoats, naval misadventure, French and English settlers and Indians — all the stuff of stereotype and boring history classes. And then I started to read it. Can you talk about thrill-a-minute Canadian history? You can now. Paul Almond has worked for many years as a TV and film director, and his skill shows in the drama and pacing of this first-rate read. The Deserter is based on a true story, and its main character, Thomas Manning is a young Englishman who joins His Majesty’s Navy in the early 1800s with the aim of jumping ship and making a life for himself in the new world. Desertion carried a savage form of death penalty for anyone unlucky enough to get caught, so Thomas’s escape at the story’s dramatic opening is a nerve-wracking, edge-of-the-seat experience. The book is full of telling incident laced with danger because that was the nature of life in a land that was treacherous for Europeans who had no idea how to live in it.

Yet there’s a real heart and soul to this story that moves along at such a brisk pace. At its centre is Thomas — and while he wants freedom from the constraints of life in England, he’s not today’s caricature of the rugged individualist, out to go it alone. Thomas is brave, but he has enough humility and common sense to acknowledge his own foolish mistakes that put his life in danger. Best of all are the many ways in which he grows and changes through his interactions with the band of Micma’q Indians he encounters in the Gaspe region of Quebec. They, too, are fully-realised characters — an interpreter who speaks four languages, a thoughtful chief whose life he saves at risk to his own, and most of all, the young and gifted Native woman with whom he wants to share his life. Almond’s done impressive research of Aboriginal traditions and rituals, and while Thomas gradually comes to realise the wisdom and intelligence of the Micma’q people, the author doesn’t romanticise their primitive living conditions, their nomadic way of life and their bouts with near-starvation. The novel ends with a devastating crisis for Thomas and a poignant resolution. We have to wait for the next volume to find out how this good man fares as a settler in Quebec’s New World.

The Deserter is the kind of book you need to give to anyone in your life who can’t stand reading. In fact, every school should have a stack of these in the library. This is history with a beating heart — not to mention a man o’war, redcoats, native people, lumberjacks and more than a few bears. You’re bound to enjoy The Deserter by Paul Almond, published in Toronto by McArthur and Company.

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