The Stray Cats of Homs, Eva Nour (Doubleday)

Partly fiction, but mostly not,  the story charts Sami’s life a young man growing up – or trying to – in modern day Syria.

The protagonist Sami is a child when the story starts, a loved child of a good family.

‘On the surface, nothing was wrong or lacking. There were hospitals, schools, holiday resorts, churches , mosques.   The problem was the arbitrariness, that you could never know when the fabric would rip in two and reveal the other side.’

The fabric starts to tear shortly after Sami leaves University and is a little slow to sign up for his compulsory military service.  He is rounded up and carted off in handcuffs by the militia to endure two years of brutal military training which, though agonising, he survives.   When he is finally and belatedly discharged more than two years later he feels freedom beckons.

On the bus home, a sense of freedom filled Sami’s chest.  His body was no longer owned by anyone he was free to come and go as he pleased.  Outside the landscape rushed by, the air had a new edge of cold and the evening sun dipped the trees in gold.

This sense of freedom is shortlived.  In fact his problems are truly just starting.   By the time Sami receives his longed for discharge from military service,  his country has plunged into Civil War.

The regime would never dare, they said.  As soon as the first missile is fired, the US, France and the international community will react.  They said.

Assad’s regime forces and anti-government protestors battle it out over a red line which goes plum through the middle of Sami’s home town of Homs.  The international community sits on its sofa with a glass of wine and watches  as the bombs start falling.

Sami’s family leave but he chooses to stay.   More and more checkpoints are erected until fourteen city blocks are surrounded and those who have elected to stay are trapped.

The streets where he lived and attended school are reduced to white dust and rubble.   Food becomes difficult to find, then impossible.   Gradually his friends leave if they are able or some are killed either in the fighting or just because.  Sami starts to photograph the war, still believing that someone will care about these blatant abuses of human rights, this devastation by Assad’s forces of his own people.

This is not a political book.  It is a book about a humanitarian disaster.  If the author  makes judgement at all,  is of one of the tragedy of any civil war – when boys who were at school together, who ate in each other houses and played football round the streets, grow up and kill each other.    These days children play football among the ruins and a little girl wears a necklace made of spent cartridges.

Nour’s book is a book which celebrates small moments of freedom; it bears witness to our attempt to cling to some kind of normal domestic routines in the face of desperate odds.  It bears witness to our inability to rationalise such waste, such senselessness. 

He didn’t think about revenge or justice, only this one simple thing: that there’s a limit to what you can get away with.  That life couldn’t be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

May usually smelled of jasmine flowers, now it smelled of dust and fires.   Among all the other concerns, there is the worry about what to do with family pets when there is no-one left to look after them.

The book is levied with moments of humour as when Sami receives a letter from a German lady enquiring after Homs’ population of cats:

 I will try to shoot some more, he tells her.

No! The woman replied.  We must save the cats not shoot them.

I meant photograph them, Sami replied.

Sami is a beautifully realised character and I hope he is real and exists somewhere out there because that means there is hope for the rest of us.

Eva Nour is a pseudonym. A name taken to protect people in the book.   Whoever she may be, this author has penned a book that will do for the suffering of the Syrian people what Khaled Hosseini (an acknowledged influence) did for Afghanistan and Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak for Turkey.  Placing the Syrian people firmly in the centre of Western consciousness Nour’s quiet voice says:  look,  this happened. This is still happening.   What did you do when you knew?

***

 

 

#TheStrayCatsOfHoms #NetGalley  

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House (Doubleday) for this review copy.

 

 

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.

Stone. Bread. Salt: Poems by Norbert Hirschhorn (Holland Park Press)

 

I have owned so many identities – or had them given to me since day 1 on this planet: child, girl, girlchild, schoolgirl,  daughter, Jew,  niece,  adolescent, woman, female,  administrator, wife, mother, writer, poet, storyteller,  sister, oldie, second generation survivor.     What did I survive – I who have never been nearer to a concentration camp than peering at piles of hair and spectacles at Yad Vashem?

To be Jewish was something to be feared, the cause of the perpetration of nameless horrors upon my father and his family members most of whom were not around to explain and the ones that were, didn’t.   I was subscribed automatically upon birth to this club of suffering which could never be left, for to leave it would mean profoundly disrespecting the lives (and more importantly the deaths) of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents.  A disease of belonging for which there is no cure even beyond the grave.

The poet Norbert Hirschhorn writes in the preface to his latest collection Stone. Bread. Salt. (Holland Park Press, 2018):

“In Judaism, the Hebrew word tshuva is a vital concept.  It means return but also repentance.  It is said that God first created repentance, then the universe.  Over the past decade I have made my own return, a journey to rediscover my Jewishness.”

Thus when I first picked up this volume of poems, when I shared a reading with Hirschorn at the Poetry Café in London, I thought I would have no vocabulary with which to offer a review; reviewing after all requires context. In the end that was only partially true.  The book has made me think about my own  relationship with an impossible status.

Some stages from my list of life’s identities were here:  ‘layette, baby clothes, bike, treadmill, bloodpressure cuff, wheelchair, shroud …’ . (Life Course Department Store)

My parents prayed I’d learn what it meant to be Jewish

The Rabbi discerned I lacked the mien to be Jewish

I hated shul, longed for pork

(Self-Portrait)

This I understood.   No Rabbi ever discerned that I lacked the mien to be Jewish because I was a female and so that was the be all and end all of my mien.  I wasn’t required to do much during any service except sit on a balcony and stare down at my patriarchal elders and betters.  I think I was about 8 years old when the Jewish faith and I parted company and the rest is, if not history, a history of guilt.   Whether or not I subscribe to the tenets of the Jewish faith – and I don’t – the essence of Jewishness was scorched into my psyche, so much so, that newly married I recall bursting into floods of tears at the sight of a printed row of numbers on the cork of a winebottle my poor bewildered husband had opened.  Although I realise now that I confused being Jewish with being tormented for being Jewish.  In my own mind, and probably in the minds of many others, the two have become inseparable.

I was in my 50s when a Rabbi refused to shake my hand at my mother’s funeral.  I should have known of course, should never have proffered the offending hand.  But I had forgotten so much during the intervening years, had forgotten my place.

A Rebbe and his young disciple were on pilgrimage … when they came across a stream in spate.  Near them was a young woman in long dress and head scarf afraid to cross. The Rebbe lifted her gently onto his back, strode into the stream and crossed …. The men walked silently for a while on the other side.  Thenthe disciple said Master pardon me but you shouldn’t have touched that woman. The Rebbe thought a moment and replied, I put her down some time ago.  Why are you still carrying her?

Stone, Bread, Salt, p.76

If I am Jewish, have always been Jewish,  what need is there to go looking for the substance of that Jewishness?  And if I am not Jewish,   what would be the point?  The very fact of my existence – I who was never intended to live – and the existence of my children who were never intended to be born –  this is the victory.

In Hirschhorn’s poem ‘Self-Portrait’ the narrator goes to a wise woman to ask what does it mean to be Jewish.  We’re a people with history. We’re your passport to the past.

Where to unlock a people’s history, other than through its cultural soul and where else to find that soul except in language, stories,  poetry, songs, music.  In Hirschorn’s last collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days he returned to Yiddish folksongs, the language of his grandparents and great grandparents.   Ah, the passport to the past.   And yet …

The past is not necessarily any kind of a passport.   Even if we could arrive there- at that other country where they do things differently – what would it avail us?   Being Jewish raises questions that our very history, condition, status, ideology – call it what you will –  renders unanswerable;   being Jewish is a condition impossible to describe without reference to shattered glass and yellow stars,  ergo it is impossible to describe.    I once wrote a poem (or tried to) about the Golem of Old Prague which had holocaust references in it.  I was gently reproved by a learned academic friend who read my piece – the holocaust was neither born nor thought of in 16th century Prague.  Maybe.   The golem was a creation metaphor, another insoluble problem.

Although I believe completely in holocaust education in the interests of it never happening again, I also believe too many of us are still wearing our yellow stars.  It is time to lay them down.  As Hirschorn says:

‘I trace my own ancestors to the earliest time of life on earth, and before that to the stars.  For this I stand in awe.’

That sense of shared humanity is a good starting point.  A good point of return.  So although this has not strictly been a book review, it is a statement of gratitude for making me think.  Perhaps that is the best review of all.

 

 

 

Human rights and ear-tagging

It was reported in this morning’s press that Theresa May’s Government has abandoned, for the moment, the idea of replacing the operation of the European Convention on Human Rights within the UK with a British Bill of Rights. This is good news. The ECHR grew out of the searing experience of two world wars when the UN declared as its objective the building of a world free of war, oppression and discrimination. To redraft the law is a monumental undertaking for which the current administration appears sadly lacking in resources.

In his 2016 Peace Proposal to the United Nations, Daisaku Ikeda offers three ideas that require prompt and coordinated action by governments and civil society These are:

  • Humanitarian aid and human rights protection
  • Ecological integrity and disaster risk reduction
  • disarmament and the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

(Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace (SGI, 2016 p.33)

Leaving aside for the moment the third bullet point, the UK Government’s record in regard to the first and second of these is dire. During the last year there have been increases in intolerances and racial disharmony while the official attitude towards refugees has been shameful.  ‘Security’ is now a buzzword around not having to bother to consider anyone as an individual.   The fact that the Investigatory Powers Act (2016) – the ‘snoopers charter’ – passed through Parliament without a peep is evidence of this.  As Margaret Atwood once commented – our Governments treat as like ear-tagged cattle.

Meanwhile poisonous infrastructure projects such as fracking and a third runway at Heathrow having been – effectively – given the go ahead.  Despite newspaper headlines carrying pleas by headmasters of schools for the government to protect the air that our children breathe, and terrifying statistics of air quality in London being worse than Beijing, the Government staggers ahead blindly with its plan to put another quarter of a million planes in British skies with all the accompanying NOx emissions and dust particulates.

A disdain for the lives and wellbeing of refugee children is reflected in a disdain for the lives and wellbeing of children of this country. It reflects a Society that has lost sight of the idea of a child being a citizen of the future, or indeed of the meaning of the word citizen. There is little point in our teachers arguing over the future of education in this country if no-one can breathe.

No government can solve every problem on its own. But its role is to show leadership and to inspire others to take action for change and improvement. Political solutions alone will not work. In or out of Europe, nothing will change in terms of individual wellbeing of people in the UK until attitudes change – away from the consumer as fodder for the ambitions of giant corporates – towards a respect for the individual and the dignity of life. At the moment sadly there is little sign of that happening at official level.