Incredible, but totally real
An Iraqi in Paris, Samuel Shimon, translated from Arabic by Samira Kawar, Paul Starkey, Issa J Boullata, Christina Phillips, Shakir Mustafa & Fiona Collins, London: Banipal Books, 2005. pp252
The many faces of Samuel Shimon
We all suffer from illusions, and Samuel Shimon, the author of this autobiographical novel, believes that "without illusions life would be hell". One of the most common illusions is that our lives are unique, and the more extreme one's life has been, the deeper this illusion. Half- Palestinian and half-Lebanese, and in religious terms part Greek Orthodox and part Maronite, though baptised Roman Catholic, I was first kidnapped at the age of 14, became a leftist activist at 17 and received political asylum in Copenhagen at 20 and now live in Cairo. I have long been under the illusion that my extreme life-course is unique, like my multiple identities. When I began reading Shimon's novel An Iraqi in Paris, I was also suffering from another misconception, this time resulting from reading reviews of the book that stressed the author's bizarre life style and personality and his tendency to invent.
Yet, it took only 20 pages of Shimon's novel to shatter both my lifelong illusions regarding my uniqueness, as well as my short-lived misconceptions about this author's alleged invention.
In these 20 pages, covering the months following his leaving Iraq while still a young man, Shimon -- a destitute Christian Assyrian, the son of a deaf-and-dumb baker with a Jewish name, an Arab heart and a wild dream of becoming a filmmaker in Hollywood -- was repeatedly arrested, kidnapped, tortured and almost killed by the agents of two Arab states, as well as by members of right- wing Christian and leftist- Palestinian militias in Lebanon. Later, he survived a massive bombing raid on Beirut by Israeli planes.
The circumstances relating to these extraordinary events are laconically described, albeit with a few mistakes (the famous Alexandre Hotel in Beirut becomes the Alexandra Hotel, for example). My disbelief, which the golden rule of reading fiction tells us has to be suspended, began to nag me: impossible, this guy is making it up; no one could be so unlucky. I hung on to my disbelief because it sustained my illusions: if the narrative was exaggerated, then the narrator and his exceptional identity were also fake.
However, this disbelief was shattered when in one of the laconic anecdotes contained in this book Shimon writes about a young French volunteer, a medical student called François, who had joined the "revolution" and died in the infamous Israeli air-raid on the densely populated Kanafani district of Beirut in 1981. My disbelief was shattered because I knew this same François, and I remember asking after him in the shattered Hilton Hotel by Normandy beach after the Israeli air raid as if it were only yesterday, only to be told " istashhad ": he is now a martyr. The Hilton was later one of the few hotels to be destroyed during the reconstruction of the downtown area of the city.
The odds of a reviewer in Cairo reading the long-buried story of a young idealist who lived among the ruins of old Beirut, died with its Palestinian refugees and was buried near Proust and Callas in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in a book written in London by an Iraqi writer are as great as any. Yet, in his book Shimon comes up with many other events of the same sort: a discussion of French nouvelle vague cinema while a member of the Phalangist militia holds a gun to his head, or bursting half naked into a council of war held by Yasser Arafat in Tripoli.
The style in which Shimon's book is written is as down to earth as his adventures are out of this world. These are the words of a talkative friend narrating his adventures to a confidant after many drinks. The settings are sketchy, but the characters are mercilessly and directly delivered through honest and revealing remarks. The narrative is multiple and fragmented, and it draws on some familiar themes: the constant struggle to make ends meet, to find a lovely girl, to "keep away from Arabs" who can neither live with or without one another, even while our hero tries to reduce the distance between his starting point, Baghdad, and Hollywood, his destination. Shimon's bare style, denuded of artifice, makes reading An Iraqi in Paris a true adventure, the style giving the book an immediacy that compensates for the strangeness of the main character and the unlikelihood of the events that he lives through, events that are, nevertheless, real.
This combination of a realist style with content more akin to the adventures of Sindbad helps to make An Iraqi in Paris a modern Arab fable, sustaining the moral such a fable requires: follow your dreams and you will succeed. This is so even if the price is exile, homelessness, and, indeed, self-mutilation: Shimon gets himself circumcised at the age of 28 without an anaesthetic, for example, "in order, not to become a Muslim, but to get rid of a suspicious and imperialist feature" of his body. All the while he is nearly killing himself to reach that embodiment of both Arab dreams and nightmares -- America.
The fact that Shimon's account is real does not make his modern fable any less exceptional, however, for very few people have had fortune so systematically set against them or the guts to meet its woes head on. Yet, what make reading Shimon's account of being a PLO activist in the Lebanon and Tunisia, an asylum-seeker in France, a clochard in Paris, or a writer in London and screenplay writer in Hollywood, is that the individual and the exceptional expresses a deeper and more common Arab condition, contradicting the illusion of being the isolated or unique victims of the state of exception that rules in the Arab world. We are all subject either to random persecution or disenfranchisement in the Arab world and to exile, marginalisation and alienation in the West.
We all have a strong desire to realise ourselves against all the odds, some dreaming only of a house to call our own, others of a homeland. In Shimon's case, his life consisted of an incredible odyssey to realise his dream of becoming a film director in Hollywood and to make a film about his deaf-and-dumb father dedicated to the American director John Ford. One day I am sure we will watch this film in a nearby cinema, and maybe, for those of us who knew him, the suffering face of François will recall a time when West and East were joined in a common dream, perhaps an ephemeral and naïve one, of a just world. This was a dream of a world very unlike the world we now live in, a nightmare of exclusion and mutual distrust.
Reviewed by Hanna Ziadeh