May 19 2014

Land of No Rain by Amjad Nasser

Ursula Lindsey

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In Land of No Rain, the first novel by the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, an exiled middle-aged Arab writer and editor (not unlike Nasser, who lives in London and works as an editor at a pan-Arab newspaper) finally returns to his homeland. Twenty years ago, Adham Jaber was a poet and revolutionary who participated in an assassination attempt on one of the line of "ginger-haired" generals ruling his country (the fictional Hamiya) and was forced, with other members of his leftist organization, to flee. When the book opens he is still living in London, "a grey-skied Babel crowned with the gold of the colonial era," writing under a pseudonym. The city has been struck by a mysterious plague, and the protagonist has lost his wife. This, and simply the passage of time, spur him to return to his birthplace. But he has also lost the youthful convictions that pushed him into militancy and exile in the first place. Or rather, those convictions have been tempered by failure and age.

When Adham bumps into an old comrade and friend who betrayed the "Organisation," the friend is all warmth and persuasion, arguing that they and the regime they once opposed are on the same side now, fighting Islamist extremists. The narrator disagrees. "I don't have to choose between the lesser of two evils for the sake of a glass of beer," he argues. The country "will not change just because there are a few former leftists in government. Anyone who understands the nature of the regime knows it won't change, because if it changed it wouldn't be what it is. It would be something else. In fact the ones who'll change are the ones who think they can change it." His old comrade counters: "It's people who make rulers corrupt, not the other way round." This conversation between old friends who do not trust each other but don't have the energy anymore to be angry—the one disillusioned, the other compromised—reads like an elegy to the ideals of an earlier generation of Arab revolutionaries.

Adham's irrelevance is further proven by how innocuous he now seems to the regime he once tried to overthrow. Upon his return to Hamiya, his interrogation by the National Security Agency (its star-shaped headquarters "like a spaceship just landed from another planet," where once "even birds dared not fly overhead") is pro-forma, just a matter, as the polite and diligent officers tell him, of completing his dossier. But where in his file, wonders the narrator, "are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, the dancing lights of return?"

Do the mixed emotions of homecoming ever live up to its tense anticipation? Adham finds his homeland almost unrecognizable. It is still un-free, but in new and different ways. His parents have died in his absence. His old flame married and had children. He can only confront his own ghostly younger self, who never left, changed, or aged. This Jolly Corner-like conceit works well, although the proliferation of doubles (multiple characters bear the same name), and the use of the second person singular, in which the narrator addresses himself, can be a bit precious. But then there are disorienting scenes such as this, in which the narrator dematerializes into his former self:

"The man who looked like your teacher at the Upright Generation Secondary School disappeared and was replaced by a solidly built man with an enormous mustache of the kind worn by truck drivers. Your son Badr disappeared. The gold ring disappeared from the ring finger of your left hand. You heard a voice repeating, insistently and annoyingly, a name that had an unsettling resonance: Younis, Younis. You turned to where the voice came from."

Nasser is an acclaimed poet (one collection of his work, Shepherd of Solitude, is available in English from Banipal Publishing), and he writes perceptively on the writer's craft and on the life-changing effects, political and aesthetic, of books. About his youthful poetry, Adham muses: "It is emotional and intellectual discipline that generally gives words a way out, saves them from the nonsense of their firm promises and makes it possible to read them again with as little disgust as possible."

That discipline is on display here, in a work that could have been sentimental but isn't. This is partly because the many vivid scenes of the poet/revolutionary's youth are filtered through the rueful consciousness of an older man. Adham observes himself with sympathy and curiosity, without self-regard or self-pity. The precise, arresting descriptions, limpidly translated by Jonathan Wright—a ceiling fan stirs "the viscous air with an audible groan"—are connected by a tracery of reflection. The work feels like the fruit of a particular life, its modest revelations honed and earned.

Ursula Lindsey is a journalist and writer who has lived in Cairo since 2002. She blogs at The Arabist.

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