An American-Palestinian Love Story
The Woman I Left Behind, Kim Jensen, Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 2006. pp201
Packed with politics and sensuality, as warm as bread baked in a Palestinian village bakery, and as passionate as a California purple jacaranda, The Woman I Left Behind, is a marvelously told tale, a timely offering for both American and Arab readers to view themselves in the other's intimate and unsparing mirror.
The novel narrates a love story, tumultuous, "like riding a bucking bronco," between a Palestinian man, Khalid (a.k.a Sayeed) and an American woman, Irene. Khalid hails from a village near Jerusalem and Irene from New Jersey. They meet in California as college students doing political work. Khalid loses both his parents to Israeli bullets during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and is left to the loving care of his aunt Salwa. Subsequently, because of his activism against the Israeli occupation, he is deported to Jordan. From Jordan, he treks to Lebanon to stay with relatives, where he witnesses the siege and ransacking of the refugee camp of Tal Al-Zaatar. His dislocation finally finds him in the United States via a green-card marriage, an arrangement he abandons soon after he falls in love with Irene. In America he takes on a new identity by changing his original name, Sayeed, "happy," to Khalid, "eternal," because he cannot be happy outside Palestine but nevertheless intends to remain strong.
Khalid's story to an extent resembles that of the Palestinians as a whole, "a simple people," in the words of Salwa's grandfather, who, to their detriment, got enmeshed in the high-stakes game of world politics. Whereas the international media have perhaps bequeathed them the highest per-capita coverage of any people (save for their nemesis, the Israelis), international literature has not sufficiently engaged the Palestinian question. This novel by Kim Jensen, a teacher of writing and literature in Baltimore, Maryland, and winner of the Raymond Carver Prize, must therefore be welcomed as an overdue intervention.
The novel is not just about Khalid and Palestine: it is equally about Irene and America. Irene is raised by remote parents, "country club members to the core" and political conservatives who can barely mask their racial prejudice. Irene is alienated from her milieu, and she embarks on a transformative journey. First, drugs and aimlessness -- a liminal period from which she wiggles out in the nick of time -- into literature and international and gender politics. Her new interest is pursued under the mentorship of Kathy, a philosophy graduate and feminist, who struck Irene as "a truly free person." It is from the complex lives and interactions of these four protagonists -- Khald, Irene, Salwa and Kathy -- that Jensen spins her yarn.
American novelist Walter Mosley, in an essay in The Washington Post Book World in November 2005 that could serve as an excellent preface to this novel, disapprovingly writes that he had to be mindful, if he were to become a commercially successful fiction writer, to limit references to politics and shun poetry. Politics could offend a liberal or a conservative and stop her from purchasing the book. On the other hand, to include poetry as a novelist would mean committing "the poet's mistake of being so smart and insightful that no one outside of a small group can comprehend your work." Fortunately, Jensen, like Mosley, sides with politics and poetry -- with "the poetry of politics and politics of poetry," as Irene puts it. The political and the lyrical here are not a sideshow or an imposition; rather, they are organic to the experience of the characters themselves.
For most Palestinians, even thousands of miles away from that tormented place, not only the personal is political, as feminists advise, but the reverse is also true. In the United States Khalid views himself as being trapped in that vast continent of a country. Had the novel suppressed politics, it would have conveyed a false impression of Khalid's consciousness: "Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Ted Koppel have become an integral part of Khalid's private life. He sustains intimate, one-sided conversations with them every night in his living room." It is clearly a one-way conversation, for "the system doesn't hear," as Irene scribbles in her journal. So, he must get accustomed to affirming his existence everyday, thus replicating the Palestinian tragedy.
What Khalid -- and other characters in the story -- are up against is power. On a bridge a soldier evicts Khalid with the condescending words, "there are things you don't understand." These are the same words that Khalid had heard when he refused to flee the day they came after him by the well, singling him out as stone-thrower and troublemaker. Indeed, how can one comprehend why a young man should be expelled from his homeland by an occupation army, except through the prism of power, which, in its self-confidence and egotism, transgresses the red lines drawn by international conventions? Moreover, Irene twice escapes attempts at sexual coercion, once by a man who appeals to such New Age notions as the here and now, and once by her initially much-admired English professor, the husband of the woman activist who had arranged for her meeting with Khalid.
The novel is replete with instances of and meditations on the use and abuse of power, whether by the state or by people in their daily interactions with their fellow human beings from a lower social class or different sex or ethnicity.
Apart from their political protest and personal defiance, the protagonists overcome the sordidness of power by a life-giving sensuality, by awakening their senses to the magic of the elements: the fragrance of the eucalyptus, red poppies in springtime, tears drying on the cheeks, the sound of a word breaking. Against California's arid consumer culture and the surrealism of the pneumatic tube that answers students' questions at a drive-thru window, Irene "saw herself as part of these rivers, ever able to keep giving and flowing. There was a sound that went with these images. It was the sound of tiny pebbles splashing into sheltered water. As in a cave or a tunnel, the echo was soft and reassuring as a heartbeat."
Against the guns of Israeli soldiers, "Aunt Salwa with her tough, dawn-to-dusk hands, her never-been-married hands, would peel sabr -- bright red cactus--and offer the skinned fruit to Sayeed, saying, 'Eat this habibi, and be strong'....In fig season she fed him soft purple figs. In almond season --sour green almonds." Years later the figs still provide succor for Khalid, "recalling the pleasures of Irene's body makes him think of figs, ripe and purple, splitting at the seams." For Khalid, the quotation conjoins two joyful moments, years and thousands of miles apart: the ripe, split figs and Irene's body. It is a triumph of the integrative and healing potential of the poetic imagination.
However, power also possesses the mean tendency to poison love itself, especially between a man from the colonised world and a "white" woman. Any serious novelist must be cognizant of the two "models" of such love. The first model is found in Franz Fanon's book Black Skin, White Masks and in Tayeb Saleh's novel, Season of Migration to the North. In both of these works, the colonised man perceives his affair with the woman of the coloniser as being a kind of counter-conquest, or act of revenge against the humiliation perpetrated by the coloniser. The second is the Orientalist model, in which the Western woman seeks to satiate her sexual fantasies in the exotic, mysterious East. Yet, Jensen offers a third alternative, one that acts towards the emancipation of all involved and is testimony to the radicalism of her political vision and to her narrative skills. She is able to portray a balanced encounter of capabilities, needs, satisfactions and frustrations.
Khalid and Irene have much more in common than just sexual attraction: youth, literature, art, and leftist politics. Both cherish facets of the other's culture. Khalid admires many American poets, writers, singers and musicians. He himself becomes "a melting pot," while remaining an unassimilated exile in the manner suggested by the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire. Irene, likewise, learns Arabic, translates Arabic poetry and songs and is impressed by Arab hospitality and warmth "as a matter of habit, she [Salwa] always cooked enough for at least six people, in case of guests. As a matter of principle, her door was always open for their possible arrival." Both Khalid and Irene are fiercely independent and each holds his/ her own ground. It is possible, the novel seems to assert, for individuals to surmount the colonial burden and establish bonds free from the superior/ inferior duality or mindless exotica.
That said, Jensen does not gloss over cultural dissonance. This contrast is succinctly -- and almost comically -- captured in a chapter entitled, "Story of the Banana." Briefly, Irene, Khalid and their friend Mounir spend a rowdy evening arguing about the impending Gulf war and improvising jokes about politicians. After they have drawn "whole quarts of blood from this political vein," Mounir asks if he could eat one of the three bananas in a bowl laden with fruit. Without hesitation Khalid offers his guest the banana. Irene objects and recommends an orange instead, because she was planning to make banana bread. Couldn't she go the next day to the store and buy more bananas? No, she couldn't, the bananas must be very ripe. Then the genie breaks out of the bottle. Khalid rages against her, against America's coming invasion, against liberals for whom everything has the same value and hence no value. Irene is stunned and responds with a barrage of below-the-belt insults, including some in Arabic. For days afterward, "the earth between them has become a minefield where nothing can grow." Arab corporatism locks horns with American individualism.
The episode is relayed with such near perfect neutrality that it is difficult for the reader to take sides. The narrator takes a neutral stance, I think, because she wants to interrogate some key assumptions of the two cultures, if not to bring them closer to one another. We thus hear Kathy remark to Irene, "the whole 'individual' thing is a fiction...goes back to Rimbaud...to the mystics." And an exchange between the "post- identity" Kathy and Khalid reminds the reader that the two cultures are "constructed according to the phallus." So, what we are witnessing may not be a simple clash of cultures, after all!
A less abstract way in which the novel blends the two cultures is through the frequent use of Arabic words, with English translation and transliteration. Although T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" long ago legitimised the practice of using foreign words in modern literature, language puritans may still have reservations. Personally, I would find it a bonus if I read a book and picked up, say, a few Chinese phrases. Jensen's inclusion of Arabic is not decorative. It is an affirmation that in order for Irene to love Khalid properly, to fathom his culture, even to get back at him in a fight, she must learn his language. This is more salutary than the reason offered these days by Washington for learning foreign languages, to protect "us" from "them." To spend one's life studying a culture only to berate it as, for instance, V.S. Naipaul has done, is bad for the soul. Irene's learning Arabic has the added virtue of shading Khalid's apparent black-and-white politics that wants to place the oppressor on one side and the oppressed on the other: "Here was Irene, beautiful Irene, a part of his enemy's world, yet different. She had even learned to speak his language."
There you go: a lover from America and a beloved from Palestine, two finely-hewn characters who cannot shield themselves from the shrapnel of politics. They counter the will-to-power with a desire for growth and transcendence, and they argue about which of the two forces is the prime mover of history.
The Woman I Left Behind will be available on April 1, 2006. It is distributed through Consortium Book Sales and Distribution (Tel: 1-800-283-3572), and it will be widely available in U.S. stores, as well as through internet book stores.
By Sharif Elmusa