Love in Exile By Bahaa Taher (The American University in Cairo Press, 2001)
Summer 2002 | Al Jadid | By Jordan Elgrably
This novel by Bahaa Taher contains a great deal of heart and much truth about the Middle East. The protagonist, Umtaz, is an exiled journalist and Egyptian nationalist still enamored with Nasser, living out his days as an under-used correspondent in an unnamed city in Europe— perhaps Geneva, Brussels, or some place in France with a nascent Arab population.
Middle-aged, divorced, and alone, this fragile near-remnant of a man acquires a new lease on life when a lovely Austrian woman half his age finds herself in love with him. For a time, that magical time in which we lose ourselves, they love each other passionately. This is all set in 1982 against the backdrop of the Summer War in Lebanon, a war launched by Israel, ostensibly to create a buffer zone at its northern border. The gruesome massacres at Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut pervade the atmosphere.
Taher lulls us from the first, carrying us along like a small rowboat drifting down a quiet river, as he sets up the story with descriptions of Umtaz’s family back in Cairo, conversations with old friends, a subplot featuring a young, aspiring Arab journalist, and various and sundry musings about poetry, literature, history, and love. The novelist sets the tone by creating expectation. “She was young and beautiful. I was old, a father, and divorced,” Umtaz confesses. “Love never occurred to me and I didn’t do anything to express my desire.”
The novel also includes atmospheric encounters between human rights activists, torture victims, and the press. In another subplot, an old nemesis slowly befriends Umtaz again after decades of estrangement. Ibrahim becomes all too real to us when he muses on the aging process: “Why’ve we grown old? Why does time pass without leaving a mark on the soul?… I don’t find these marks within myself. I am still that child tormented by his mother’s suffering. I am still living the same joy when [my ex-wife] said she loved me… I hear now the stinging of the whip on my body in prison and the first bomb in Beirut is still resounding in my ears. All of that is happening now, here on the bank of this river. So what does it mean when you talk to me about time?"
Love in Exile was first published in Arabic as Al-Hubb fi-l-Manfa in 1995. This steady, understated English translation by Farouk Abdel Wahab appeared in English last year from The American University in Cairo Press. The Author’s Note at the end of the book carefully explains that while it is based “on imaginary characters and events,” there are several exceptions, including a Norwegian nurse’s testimony about what she saw in a Palestinian refugee camp after an Israeli attack, and the public remarks of an American Jewish journalist who was “the first person to enter Sabra after the massacre.”
Taher’s Egyptian in Europe has two teenage children back in Cairo and an ex-wife. Much to his consternation, his son Hamadi is becoming a born-again Muslim and devout fundamentalist, while his daughter is struggling to develop her own thoughts. He never speaks to his ex-wife but calls his children frequently.
The novel presents the voice of the lone wolf, or perhaps more accurately, the black sheep. Umtaz doesn’t always seek our sympathy, however. In fact he thwarts it by admitting his weaknesses rather too often. Nonetheless, somehow we feel his strengths all the more. Umtaz earns our trust, even as the facts of the day teach us (as if we could ever forget!) that mankind cannot be trusted.
The novel opens with a Doctors-Without-Borders style physician introducing a torture victim from Chile. The haunted man has an interpreter, a tall blonde woman named Brigitte. She will soon swoon for Umtaz, revealing in the process her own deep, dark mysteries. We come to admire Brigitte for her independence, her brash honesty, and her natural poetry. Yet while Brigitte has horror stories to tell, she never wallows in them.
The novel is old-fashioned in the sense that it doesn’t attempt any narrative tricks, but remains satisfied to move inexorably forward, much like the better novels of Graham Greene. This stalwart quality is a welcome one because we feel entirely comfortable in the hands of the writer. As a result, when the facts of Chilean torture or Israeli violence are presented to us, we believe Bahaa Taher almost without question. It would seem that the information available to European and Middle Eastern journalists is more extensive than what Americans learned about either the tortured and disappeared in Chile or the massacre of Palestinians in the Beirut camps. The role of Israeli forces was far more extensive than what the U.S. media reported.
Taher’s descriptions of what went on in Sabra and Shatilla, as well as an earlier massacre in Ain al-Helwah, are full of Dantesque horror. And they seem eerily similar to the recent incursion into the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank: bulldozers flatten entire neighborhoods, sometimes with people still inside their homes; tanks fire heavy artillery shells into the camps to maximum destructive effect.
What will be less familiar to American readers are the fuel air bombs Israel dropped on Beirut, and the tonnage figures of these and other conventional bombs. Make no mistake about it: Israel’s “Summer War” was no picnic for the Lebanese or the Palestinians in Beirut. I was living in Paris at the time and had traveled to northern Israel shortly before the Israeli invasion began. I followed the events that summer carefully, and remember reading French newspapers full of grim details that spared nothing. Twenty years later, when once again the Palestinians have suffered extreme retaliation for their suicide bombers, I am appalled to think of the continued U.S. support for Israel’s military forces. The U.S. uses Israel as a proxy to test out our helicopter gunships, our “smart” bombs and other weaponry—turning a blind eye to how they use these weapons even though U.S. law clearly mandates that arms we sell are to be used “for defensive purposes only.”
But Sabra and Shatilla are not the center of Love in Exile— love is, and not only is it wonderful to experience through Umtaz and Brigitte (I think, for once, an affair between an older man and younger woman did not trouble me), but it is rejuvenating for as long as it lasts. When the affair ends, as it must, Brigitte beautifully explains to Umtaz precisely how she loves him, in words that are wrenching and utterly convincing.
This is a novel I would read again in the autumn of my life.