Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1184, (13 - 19 February 2014)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1184, (13 - 19 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Ice odalisque

Lana Abdel-Rahman, Thalj al Qahira (Cairo Snow), Cairo: Afaq, 2012. pp196

The Cairo-based Lebanese writer Lana Abdel-Rahman's fourth novel is a manifold journey, not just across cities, but also inside the human psyche. Born in 1975, Abdel-Rahman earned her PhD from Pebble Hills University on the significance of the human body in autobiographies, focusing on female Lebanese writers, in 2010. She published three novels prior to Cairo Snow: "Mirage Gardens" in 2006, "Contact" in 2008 and "A Song for Margret" in 2011. She also published two collections of short stories: "Oriental Illusions" in 2004 and "The Dead Never Lie" in 2006.

The present novel can be read as a voyage of exploration of the life of the Syrian heroine, Boshra, who seems to be traversing a long road full of obstacles, but the journey encompasses other settings and lives. The book follows Boshra's obsession with the life a woman who lived 100 years previously, Nour Jehan — hence the notion of reincarnation taking root. Yet the theme of reincarnation itself seems to be a stand in for deeper questions about memory. One of the key sentences in the book goes like this: “What is the use of remembering when we are unable to act?”

Nour Jehan is a princess, and from the descriptions of her palatial life the reader feels they are in a world of fantasy. Before too long, however, the tragic story of Boshra — her move to Cairo, then back to Syria in search of her roots — begins to take hold. The sense of dislocation is captured well in the scene of Boshra waking up from a nightmare in which Cairo is covered in white snow and she is running, picking up flakes to eat until she too is frozen into a statue. This prospect of paralysis scares her: “Is this how the dead feel at the moment when their souls leave their bodies, aware of what takes place around them and yet unable to take action?”

The novel has at least three convincing characters aside from Boshra. There is Nabila, Boshra’s mother, an Egyptian who as a young actress fell in love with a Syrian intellectual and left Egypt to lead a strange and lonely life with him in Damascus. Sufi is the smart and cultured gentleman Boshra meets on her return to Damascus, while Uncle Naguib, her mother’s friend and former lover — he is apparently still in love with Nabila — appears to be the keeper of secrets. Other characters like Boshra's boyfriend Nagui and her flatmate Asmaa are rather flimsy. Nour Jehan remains superficial, and even Boshra — who is an illustrator of children's books — only comes through in the complexity of her journeys.

On the death of Boshra's father Nabila secretly sells the Damascus house and moves back to Cairo — the defining moment in Boshra's life. In Cairo, everything is different: the people, the streets, the language. Only a few months after they settle down together in a small flat in Manial — the place where Nour Jehan too lived, and was killed by one of her maids — Nabila dies. Despite the grief with which the first chapter brims, the reader begins to make peace with the idea of death.

Reincarnation raises more questions than it provides answers, and there are far more questions, absurd and funny as well as moving, in the second half of the book than the first. In the three parts of the book — each divided into titled chapters — there are two voices: Boshra tells her own story in an informal language with no trace of Syrian dialect, while Nour Jehan provides a kind of philosophical monologue in a more classical Arabic.

“The original idea of the novel is that other life of Nour Jehan's, the higher consciousness of Boshra's soul, with which Boshra is constantly obsessed. Is it true that she lived another life, in another age? Is reincarnation a reality or just an illusion?” Abdel-Rahman says. At the end of the novel, the reader finds out that Nour Jehan in turn believed that she too was the reincarnation of a gypsy dancer called Solay. “It is a kind of metaphysical game, an intersection of imagination and reality. Both exist in life; imagination should take up space in our life so we can contemplate and make discoveries..." The idea for the novel first came to her in 2007, Abdel-Rahman says, but it took her five years to realise it.

"It took me two years of researching the origin of reincarnation as a phenomena, and whether it might have any scientific validity  to embark on this novel. Actually, what inspired me was my own obsession with the idea. I have always felt that I've lived another life, in other places. I am haunted with images of places and people I never visited or met before,” she says anxiously.  “I already felt this when I came to Cairo for the very first time, and more specifically when I roamed the streets of Zamalek and Manial—that I'd lived there before. Now, after publishing the novel, I came to realize that there are experiences of our ancestors that are transmitted to us through genes.

"I am also convinced that things get into us through the air or the food we eat. I know it's hard to imagine, but it's true." Abdel-Rahman sounds childlike as she says this, recalling the second half of the book — in which Boshra wonders about life's most basic questions, notably during her Nile cruise with Nagui. "Otherwise, where do our thoughts and dreams go after we die?”

Just as she evokes mainly Egyptian dialect despite Boshra's travels in Turkey and Damascus, Abdel-Rahman writes mainly about Cairo. A sense of Syria is beautifully captured in the middle part, in a chapter called "The Damascus House", in which Boshra meets with Sufi — an Syrian-American scholar studying tombs—at the restaurant into which her father's house has been turned. It is all the more memorable for standing alone...

It is the verbal definitions scattered throughout the text that haunt the reader in this tale of two people, two lives and two places, this invitation to reconcile: "The road is the destination"; or "The self is just a low voice in the eternal void".

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