#33 December readings: Faber, Saadawi, Antoon, Khoury, Werfel

A Georgian (and thus unrelated) icon of St. George, but a very gentle one, one to talk to, like the one in Saadawi’s novel (c) MvdB

Last week I was mentioning some novels to my students, and promised them to list a few good reads – mostly related in one way or another to Middle-Eastern Christianity, and one rather different one which I will introduce first. This is Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things  – his completely believable (and at time hilariously funny) story about evangelizing the inhabitants of a distant planet. I read it in 2014, when it came out, and still find it a superb description of what happens in missionizing – the good and the bad, conviction, misunderstandings, love, disappointments, entanglements and whatever happens in real life encounters between real (human) beings – and by making one party obviously non-human (i.e., these inhabitants of the distant planet) the sincere efforts to communication across boundaries – whether between human and non-human, or between humans of rather different origins – comes even sharper in focus. A real good read in every sense, for the religious and non-religious alike, but certainly for those reflecting on Christianity and missions.

And then there’s a list of books I’ve mentioned before in blogs or tweets and which I just want to flag once more, because they are every bit as worth your time as they were when they came out. The first of these I merely flagged in a few tweets, but which was one of the best books I read in this year. It was originally published in Arabic in 2014, and Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in the same year. I’m talking about Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (English translation by Jonathan Wright, 2018). It is every bit as gripping as the title suggests, drawing us into Baghdad’s most horrific periods when bombs were exploding regularly – or in fact, irregularly in the sense that people had to make up the strangest stories to make sense of what is happening. Saadawi adds another layer to that ongoing storytelling, by focusing on the coping mechanisms of an elderly Christian lady waiting for her son lost in a previous war by talking to her cherished icon St. George, in a house that used to belong to a Jewish family, with a Frankenstein creature filling in for her son, told by a journalist from the Shiite south. Pieced together and falling apart, this story honors Baghdad’s history, laments its present, brings its inhabitants alive in the midst of death and destruction.

Baghdad’s war is also the background of Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist (2017, Arabic, 2012: Ya Maryam) that I discussed last year. Antoon (in the beautiful translation by Maia Tabet) zooms in on the discussions in the Syriac Christian world, making them stand for all of Iraq’s and Baghdad’s inhabitants: torn apart by hopes kept and lost, by fear, by their longing for lost family members – dead or gone abroad –, and by their deep roots in Iraqi soil. A similar foregrounding of a Syriac community as a symbol of the country’s woes is found in Eliyas Khoury’s Jalo which I discussed a long time ago when the Dutch translation came out; for English see Yalo, first edition 2007). Khoury, another of those celebrated Arabic authors that deserve a wider readership (see also his Gate of the Sun!) creates the story of a Christian in Lebanon who in prison is being tortured into confessing stories about his life and involvement in the war – thereby not only narrating different and conflicting interpretations of Lebanon’s Civil War, but also underlining the utter senselessness of torture – at least when seen as a way to get true information out of the prisoner. The novelist Khoury, however, makes this abundance of winding narratives, of fiction upon fiction –  reminding one of Saadawi at times –  the better way to get to the heart of the matter, the truths of Lebanon’s conflicted past and conflicted presence.

And although of an entirely different time and entirely different place of origin, I must end this piece with reminding the readers of Franz Werfel, whose Musa Dagh (1933)  who also took a narrative road that seems to lead away from the issues of the day, and thereby succeeded in using one inconvenient truth to address another, at that particular time, even more inconvenient truth – using the organized massacre of the Armenians to address the grave dangers threatening Germany’s Jewish community in the 1930s.


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