Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Rhetoric’s mirror

Jordanian novelist Elias Farkouh told Rania Khallaf all about his most recent novel

Drowned in Mirrors, published in 2012 by Azmenah Publishing House in Amman and the Arab Scientific Publishers in Beirutis is the most recent novel by the well-known Jordanian novelist Elias Farkouh, who was born in Amman in 1948 and educated there as well as in East Jerusalem and Beirut. The owner of Azmenah, which he founded in 1992, Farkouh is one of the most prolific fiction writers in the Arab world, perhaps best known for the Columns of Foam trilogy (1987) and The Land of Purgatory (2007), which dealt with Amman  —  Farkouh’s setting and theme  —  through the eyes of a 50-year-old man who, born to Palestinian parents, has been to war six times. Farkouh has been called “the Ammani” in reference to his attachment to the city.

In 2011, he received the Jordanian Ministry of Culture’s fellowship to write Drowned in Mirrors. A panoramic meditation on the dual Jordanian-Palestinian identity set in Amman. The 237-page, 11-chapter book tells the story of a nameless Christ-like orphan in the period leading up to the 1948 War, it brings together a rich and varied cast of characters and weaves true events into the fictional narrative. The narrative is appended with a list of references indicating the precise dates of real events and testify to his historical research.

Starting from the first chapter, “The Drowned”, there is a tension between heritage and modernity, past and present, corresponding to Hajj Khaireddin Al Bukhari and the orphan who inherits his treasure, including his library. “The opening scene features a hazy image engraved in my memory,” Farkouh says. “The origin of this image dates back to a very early period of my life, when I was just a little boy. It was a rainy winter night and the rain flooded the streets and it made such a growling noise we were frightened. We were confronted with what seemed like a deluge,” Farkouh recalls.

“For some reason, I started writing this novel with an image of Hajj Al Bukhari as one witness to the deluge. The orphan, who is just a little boy at the beginning of the novel, is the other witness to that horrible night. The event thus gains the power to travel between two points in time, two ages. And because it was necessity to bind the two characters, I had to examine the event from two different perspectives, generations and personalities, which might explain this tension.”

Drowned in Mirrors

One unique aspect of the novel is that each chapter starts with a reproduction of an artwork: a painting, sculpture or photograph. Chapter 7, “Nofa’s Dreams”, opens with a tasteful nude photograph of a girl covered by thin fabric. “Because of my great passion for visual arts,” Farkouh says, “it was only natural that the text should intersect with and even react to images which I already had in my personal archive. It was as if the text only achieved maturity while I browsed those images.

“Therefore, I believe, the novel has acquired a unique language, which translates the images and allows the visual to intrude on the textual. The pictures are like mini texts that wrangle with the main text. One of them is a poster of Um Kolthoum’s concerts in Jerusalem and Haifa that dates back to 1928, another  —  a  collage  —  is about a killing in Beirut. It’s as if each picture is my witness for a definite event, a partner in the narration process.”

In the second chapter, “Mirrors and Caves”, the reader is introduced to one of richest and most significant characters, Nofa, the orphan’s mother. A beautiful, illiterate, middle-aged woman who works as a hospital cleaner, she is one of the most beautifully composed characters in contemporary Arabic literature. With her own mystical birth, which took place in a cave and was witnessed by a wolf, the character serves as a link between the realistic and the mythical.

Every aspect of Nofa’s life represents a mystery: her furtive husband, who disappeared a few days after their wedding, her Greek lover Nicholas, who happened to be an icon painter, and her son, who questions his own identity, but in vain. And so her own disappearance at the end of the novel is in character. Does Nofa represent the Virgin Mary?

“This is the first time I’ve encountered this interpretation,” Farkouh says. “However, in one of the scenes, Nofa, who is Muslim, lights a candle to a beautiful icon of Mary, painted by Nicholas. But I actually appreciate your analysis. Nofa’s complicated character developed over time, and she inspires many levels of interpretation. It was actually written according to her own logic.”

In a chapter entitled “The Commandments”, the author discusses the concept of sin, having Nicholas state define it as a human action that should be understood and forgiven by the sinner himself. Despite his devoutness Nicholas argues that love is beyond religion to justify his socially unacceptable relationship to Nofa, in whom he sees “a peculiar beauty” and a version of the Virgin. It is due to their relationship that Nofa flees. The uniqueness and richness of Nofa makes it possible to see the novel as a museum of characters in which events are but faint threads connecting them.

“I totally agree. This might be one of the few times, as  when I’ve let the characters’ logic dictate the events. And because I initially wanted to write Amman in transformation, I had to recreate characters from real life. But while events change the destiny of some characters (such as in Shakeeb Effendi, Khalil and Nofa), characters too change each other’s destinies: Nofa’s marriage to a mysterious man, or the orphan’s unceasing travels responding to Hajj Al Bukhari’s disappearance. It’s an interactive network.”

But what could drowning in mirrors signify? Children are the mirrors of their parents, perhaps. In a chapter called “High Stairs”, mirrors tell the story of the death of the Jordanian Prime Minister in an assassination attempt on King Hussein in Amman, in 1960. Are mirrors a symbol of identity?

“The novel raises the identity question through its characters. This question also runs deep in the roots of Amman itself and so nothing is known for sure. Jordanian society is still in its virgin state. Attempting to run out of this fluid state, Jordanian identity developed gradually and in an intimate way. But the identity question remains unresolved.” Through the 1948 Nakba, the 1967 defeat and Black September in 1970, it has continued to rupture Jordanian society. “Such questions prevent the possibility of a stable sense of a collective self.”

This is dramatised in the novel. Nofa, who doesn’t have a legal father herself, gives birth to the orphan protagonist following a few days with her mysterious husband, who is never seen again. And the orphan spends his life trying to find out who he is. Even his alternative parent Hajj Al Bukhari disappears, and so eventually does Nofa.

Amman itself looms large: Al-Taliani Street, Al-Husseini Mosque, Cinema Yafa, Al-Bukhariya Souk... “My main object was to read the city by describing specific places and making them vital to the action, creating and recreating characters. I believe that people are the main force that keeps the identity of cities alive. I wanted to examine Amman and recreate it according to my own view and my own personal history. Amman has always been my favourite subject, and my existence has always been a mere response to its transformation, something that has affected my own small revolutions as a result.”

In the chapter “The Question of Directions”, Farkouh poses the question of the author’s own belonging to Jerusalem and Amman, which brings up yet another vital location: the Dead Sea, mentioned in the context of the reasons behind the 1967 defeat. “The Jordanian and Palestinian lands and the Dead Sea are not just places where I lived. The Dead Sea region is the lowest elevation on earth, as if it’s the core of the world. With such unique geography, we can understand history and interpret its directions. To the east, there is the river where John the Baptist baptised Christ, and to the west there is Jerusalem, the city of God.”

In among these signposts, can salvation be sought?

Growing into manhood, the orphan explores women’s clothes and perfumes in the souk. “This vibrant centre of the old city was an essential part of my adolescence, when I was eager to explore the unknown world of women, staring at their clothes and accessories, watching their behaviour as customers or traders and then recreating the stories according to my inner desires.”

Farkouh surprises the reader with his use of mythology despite a modern narrative and realistic characters. There is Khalil, the owner of a cafe who fell in love with Nofa, a Palestinian immigrant. He acts as a mirror that casts more light on Nofa and the boy. He also represents a bridge between two eras: a queit transitional period, and a period of armed conflict in which he loses his son Akram in the 1982 Beirut Siege. Shakib Effendi, who provides comic relief, is described using a less formal, less classical language.

“He was created out of two real characters I came to know during my adolescence. I created this character inspired by the wisdom of the old, their unusual experiences and adventures. He personified the character of an old bachelor, a lonely soul with no partner or children who lives on the memories of the good old days. On the level of language, Shakib constitutes the opposite of Al Bukhari, whose part is written in classic Arabic that employs some old texts and manuscripts.”

Farkouh is fascinated with Arabic and its many levels, he is equally in command of classical and street registers of the language and he evokes both the canon and the spoken dialect with power and humour. The complexity of the language can impede the flow, however.

“I confess I am besotted with the Arabic language, and the vitality and depth of its orientations. My memory has kept this peculiar lexicon throughout my personal history, and it’s not easy to get away from it. It’s a challenge to balance literary language with the spoken dialect. But I am a writer who believes that language is the basis of the writing process. Language, rather than subject matter or ideology, is the only remaining witness to the author’s ‘distinctive identity’.”

A rereading of the place through the eyes of the orphan, the sailor and the writer, takes place towards the end of the novel. He returns from his travels to his homeland, to Amman, although by now he realises he belongs nowhere. This is also a new instance of mirrors as a symbol: “The writing process itself is like a group of mirrors, reflecting and recreating different images that approach the edges of reality, with no certainty,” the orphan argues.

Farkouh says, “The question that chases me every time I start writing is, what are you going to write? A novel, your own narrative or the story of a world you assume is out there when in fact you are expressing your own confused and worried self?”

At the end of the novel, the orphan  —  now a sailor  —  decides to leave Amman once again, this time with an unknown foreign woman, as if to repeat the story of his mother’s marriage to someone she barely knew and with whom she exchanged only a few words.

“It is as if life itself is a journey that requires more actions than words,” Farkouh says. “However, we cannot ignore the powerful capacity of words to interpret our world, even if it is a deceptive interpretation like the image in a misty mirrors.”

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