She is my loss and she knows this. She is my absence and knows this too.
From the earliest passages, there is an abiding transience to the narrative flow of Ghassan Zaqtan’s novella, Describing the Past. The language is delicate, the imagery fragile and dream-like. The world his characters inhabit has an eerie timelessness. The past—immediate or distant—is tangible. Ghosts wander the streets, and memories are brought into being as ethereal images or objects that hold a vital presence in the room, breathe, come alive at night. We are among people who have been uprooted once and will be uprooted again; their dreams and recollections sustain them, give them something to hold on to.
Zaqtan, a Palestinian poet, was born a refugee. In 1961, at the age of seven, his family was relocated (for the second time since 1948) from Beit Jala, in the West Bank, to the Karameh refugee camp across from Jericho, in the Jordan River Valley. But, as Fady Joudah indicates in his Foreword, the camp would be burned with the Israeli invasion in 1968. Zaqtan’s tale is set in this community, yet re-imagined and filtered through the chimerical memory of a place, like childhood itself, that no longer exists.
The narrative is carried by three separate voices—designated I, He, and She—each speaking in first person. The central narrator is nicknamed Christian (his mother was Christian, his father Muslim), and his friend, the other young man, is known as the Iraqi’s son after an uncle who identified himself as Iraqi due to his brief role helping the Iraqi Army at the end of the 1948 war, an experience he built into a sustaining myth that coloured his entire family’s identity. The young woman who holds their attention is, at the outset, married to an elderly man who takes her and her mother into his home. When he dies, she will marry the Iraqi’s son and bear him a child before he drowns, leaving her alone. As such, the outline of the plot is simple, much of it alluded to in the first chapter. However, the story is unwrapped slowly, moving back and forth in time, and relying on poetic imagery and the vagaries of memory to sketch out the spaces that exist between these three individuals.
And that is where the magic lies. In the opening section Christian inadvertently chances to see “her”, the young wife of the old man, naked in her room. He had come seeking some tea leaves for his mother and had not realized she was home. Transfixed by the sight of her body he watches her in hiding until she begins to sob and he runs away, terrified and exhilarated by what he has seen. Of course he must tell his friend, who beautifully describes the vividness of the account:
At first I didn’t believe it, it was not his voice. There was a strand of fantasy that glimmered in his words, some current of rash hunger and desire, of fear and fraud. Little by little, like dust growing slowly and insistently into heaps, she started to gather there in the voice toward the point of completion. She became clear and close. I saw her in his voice reclining nude and whole. Her knee flashed at a distance. At the centre of her figure a dark spot of light amassed, turning and breathing. I was there. I saw her in his voice with a clarity that did not exist for him; she was clearer and more complete in his voice than anything he had looked at and beheld.
The narrative glances forward and retreats in time. The voice of the Iraqi’s son who meets an early demise, disappears from the discourse about halfway through. But the dead are never gone. They are greeted in the street. They emerge from photographs. One has the sense of a world crowded with memories, individuals weighed down by what they have lost. The level, steadily-paced poetry of the language enhances this sensation. This novella, only 84 pages long, is best if savoured slowly, allowing the words to be absorbed.
As each of the narrators picks up the pieces of their own stories, the temporal distortion, shifting from chapter to chapter, can be disorienting. “Here” and “now” are terms without a fixed frame of reference. This is intensified because Christian, as the central narrator, rather than providing structure, is the most abstract and philosophical in his manner of being in the world. He is most sensitive to a past that extends beyond his experience. To ghosts. At one point his father had crept into forbidden territory in search of his village, only to find it in ruins, home now to a curtain of cacti and one remaining pomegranate tree. Stuffing his pockets with pomegranates he arrived home covered in juice, clutching one whole fruit:
He placed it on our only table, and the fruit stayed there. We were unable to wound it. We were afraid to cause it, or him, pain. It was in front of us—breathing and remembering—on that squat table, next the knife that my youngest sister had brought and about which we quickly forgot. It was impossible for us to go beyond that. The fruit was completely alive and necessary for him, his only means to make us believe him, to make us believe all those stories he had brought to us—of his house, his village and his land.
Our house, our village, our land.
There is a sense that the three young characters at the centre of Describing the Past are trapped, suspended in lives they cannot control. It is not clear how much time passes. Hopes and ambitions are fleeting when you face an uncertain future in a refugee camp—when the land you live on is shared with ghosts, haunted by memories, and liable to turn to dust without warning. Yet, circular, the dream-like narrative returns, in the end, to complete the fragmentary images that the set up by central narrator in the opening passages. The mood is gently haunting, beautiful and sad.
And it leaves you with chills.
Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan is translated by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books.
6 thoughts on “Ever returning: Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan”
Lovely review, I’ll make a note for this book. Thank you!
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I almost went to see Zaqtan when he was in Edinburgh last summer, and almost bought this book at the time. Kind of wish I had now!
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I would love to hear him read from this work. It has such a haunting, poetic quality. I am hoping to read more Arabic and N. African lit this year and it bringing interesting work into my sights.
Thank you so much. I had read the 1st 1/3 earlier today, felt slightly at sea. The book has wonderful language, approach and imagery. So clearly a master writer. The orientation you provide makes sense to me, and now I can perhaps read w/o flipping back and forth and wondering, ‘now wait a minute….who is that again?” I’ve also looked over the range of books you’ve reviewed so far this year. Do you ever highlight forthcoming titles you will be reading, reviewing in the next while? I think your opinions and taste might help guide me a bit. I am aware however that I live in the USA (OK…unrelated to books, but damn, so sorry–so troubling, embarrassing, trying to figure out how to champion compassion, justice, reasonableness in a landscape growing more alarming by the day it seems–and it was vomitus 6 months ago). I’m also aware that this title, your review, other comments are several months old, but the books just became available in the last few weeks here. Seagull is a fantastic press, amazing array of authors, countries, books a delight just to have and hold….but sometimes when the books will actually be available is an odd sort of waiting game.
Thank you for your comment. (I don’t know if this message got lost for a while). I have since read and reviewed the follow up to this book, the most wonderful Where the Bird Disappeared. I visited Seagull Books in Calcutta in February and just missed meeting this author by one day. But I had an amazing time. The delay with the books relative to projected release dates has more to do with edits and other things that slow the process. Seagull Books are printed in the US and distributed by the University of Chicago so they should be available once the book is printed.
I rarely review forthcoming books, in part because I don’t get many advance copies here in Canada where the post is delivered by dinosaurs, if at all, and also because I think reviews have more impact close to release date. When I read in advance it is typically for reviews that will be published on other sites. I also like the freedom to read and write about whatever I want on my blog. Small independent publishers like Seagull count on keeping their backlists alive. I’m glad that you find my reviews helpful, it’s all just part of the joy of reading and talking about books!