A Narrative of Loss and Resilience: Review of Susan Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Water

The Blue Between Sky and Water, by Susan Abulhawa, published by Bloomsbury, 2015


Susan Abulhawa’s second novel The Blue Between Sky and Water (2015) traces the multi-generational journey of the Baraka family of Beit Daras from Palestine to America and back to Palestine over a period of more than sixty years. This is as much a journey of loss, relocation and separation, as it is of renewal, return and hope. The Blue Between Sky and Water, in being a follow-up of Abulhawa’s debut novel Mornings in Jenin (2010), tries to use family history to locate and preserve a sense of Palestinian cultural history that has been facing a constant threat of erasure since the beginning of Israeli colonisation.

The narrative begins in 1947 with the Baraka family residing in Beit Daras, a rural Palestinian village with their quaint lives and dreams. Eldest daughter Nazmiyeh looks after her widowed mother who can summon Sulayman, the djinn, while her elder brother Mamdouh tends to the village bees. Their younger sister, Mariam with her striking mismatched eyes, spends her days talking to her imaginary friend Khaled (who she informs Nazmiyeh is the latter’s grandson in a faraway bleak future) and learning to write from him. Their peaceful life is shattered when the Israeli forces descend on the village and set the family off on the long road to Gaza that will not only label them as refugees for life but will also ensure that the walk takes them from one displacement to another. Abulhawa’s description of the “Naqba” or the catastrophe that inaugurated the erasure of Palestine and the establishment of the new state of Israel is not only hard-hitting, but also chillingly bold in its baring of the extent of animalistic atrocity. Failing to make Nazmiyeh scream out in agony despite raping her ruthlessly, the Israeli soldiers fire a bullet through the head of six year old Mariam. The painful episode is a graphic description of the brutal reality of the Israeli occupation.

The Naqba familiarizes the Palestinians with the concept of statelessness, with what it means to be refugees. The Naqba brings forth the death of Nazmiyeh’s mother, the crippling of her brother and her desperate attempts to hold on to life with the help of the spirit of Mariam. However, the narrative does not merely chart loss or misfortunes; it shows the power of hope. The Blue Between Sky and Water is a story of resilience, of strong women and lost men. It takes us to the refugee camp of Gaza where the beekeeper’s widow dares to normalise life amidst the shrieking cries of pain and mourning of deaths. Her carefully cultivated vegetable garden, the aromas of her cooked food eventually inspire other women to rise above immobility and an eternal wait for ration or governmental help. Communal kitchens and underground ovens are made to prepare bread; laundry lines are put up to do the camp’s washings together; babies are born and weddings are planned – “In time, mud bricks and corrugated metal replaced the cloth tents and the refugee camps gave rise to a subculture marked by adamant pride, defiance, and an unwavering insistence on the dignity of home” (48). It is here that Nazmiyeh gives birth to twelve sons and one daughter Alwan; the camp is where Alwan gets married and Khaled is born to her thereby fulfilling Mariam’s prophecy.

“Hope is not a topic

It’s not a theory.

It’s a talent.” (171)

It is the hope that tomorrow will be better than today that gives the Palestinians the strength of resistance. The late 1970s and ’80s witnessed the rise of “Hamas”, an Islamist movement in Palestine that became “the principal institution of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s military occupation and ongoing repression of the native people’s aspirations for autonomy” (Abulhawa, The Blue Between ix), and gradually gained control of Gaza. Unable to dislodge Hamas, Israel sealed off the tiny strip of Gaza turning it into the largest open-air prison of the world which would make the Palestinians in Gaza go hungry, but not starve. Khaled bears witness to the time when Israel planned to defeat Gaza by isolating them from the world, symbolised by the disappearance of Kinder Eggs which became a luxury for the eight year old boy. He is also a silent witness to the resistance that defeats the plan. Palestinians dug underground tunnels to smuggle goods from Egypt. And every time the tunnels are bombarded, more are dug that are bigger, deeper and longer. December 27, 2008 saw Israel’s bombarding of Gaza, an assault that permanently transposes Khaled to a state of comatose existence from which he will never emerge. But Gaza turns around yet again, rising like phoenix from its ashes, simultaneously cleaning the dead for burial and making dinner for those alive.

 In Mamdouh’s migration to America, Abulhawa tries to chart the loneliness that emerges from exile. Losing his wife to death and his son first to a foreign culture and then to death, Mamdouh gives up everything to hold on to his granddaughter Nur Valdez and dreams of returning to Gaza. His dreams remain unfulfilled in death and Nur lives her life in a state of perpetual displacement. As she moves from one foster home to another, Nur’s hopes for a family are continually formed and dismantled. Sexually abused by her step-father, ridiculed by her friends for being a Muslim and hence an “other”, Nur’s search for family ends when she reunites with Nazmiyeh at Gaza. As she tries to treat Khaled as a psychotherapist, her mismatched eyes make her take the place of Mariam in Nazmiyeh’s eyes and the narrative comes full circle. As she conceives the child of a man who deserts her, Nazmiyeh’s arrangement ensures that in a culture where unwed motherhood is a sin, Nur and her child will be spoken of in reverence. This is where Palestine remains undefeated, in the everyday heroism of the women of Gaza amid relentless loss. Placed against the men – beloved husbands, exiled fathers, jailed sons – the sisters, mothers, wives and daughters provide a sustaining power that symbolically holds Palestine together. Nur triumphantly returns to Gaza defying her western past and leaving behind both the family’s trauma of exile and a deceptive lover. Moving away from western influence, she carries forward her native history and culture that had survived multiple attempts of erasure. Nazmiyeh having spent her life amidst death and loss refuses to bow down in front of any misfortune. Embodied in her is the undying spirit of a resilient race and culture which loves life and would rise every time it is crushed to formulate and adapt to newer ways of living.

-Deblina Hazra


Hotel Chevalier

Hotel Chevalier, directed by Wes Anderson, 2007

poster-9845In 1969, Peter Sarstedt’s “Where do you go to, my lovely?” hit the UK Singles Chart and reigned for four weeks, winning the Ivor Novello Award for best song later on. In 2005, Anderson used it for his chic and poignantly soothing short film Hotel Chevalier, often understood to be a prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, providing a back-story to the melancholic, pensive character played by Jason Schwartzman. However, being an absolute Wes Anderson junky, I can say with conviction that a lot of his characters seem to suffer and (fail to)express themselves in similar ways. Hotel Chevalier, thus can be watched (and re-watched, many times), not as a prelude leading to the “real” story of the feature film, The Darjeeling Limited, but as a short, crisp performance of its own- a visual treat not masquerading, but celebrating its deeply poignant core.

Hotel Chevalier opens with a characteristic wide shot of a posh hotel reception, where the receptionist picks up a call. The story of the film takes up from the second shot, which after the perfect visual symmetry of the first, seems jarring and uncharacteristic Anderson. It is a cluttered hotel room, lighted by a mellow glow with different shades of yellow. On the left however, is a television, screening a black and white (which looks blue) picture of a trail of corpses covered from head, to reveal their ankles and toes. As if to match them in effortless (a)symmetry, one finds a pair of well groomed feet jutting out from under a lush yellow housecoat on the bed. These belong to the protagonist, played by Jason Schwartzman who, we see giving orders for a scrumptious meal for room service, in French. When the phone rings next, a woman says hello, in a teasing, yet familiar tone. He freezes for a moment but cannot resist the prospect of meeting her. He spends the next half hour, tiding up the room, planning on what music to play(the Sarstedt track), arranging some figurines on the table, taking a bath and getting dressed in a black and grey suit.

The way he gets finicky at arranging the material setting of their meeting, is a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of Anderson’s cinema itself- how important the positioning and arrangement of each object and décor of a place, a screen or a stage are, for human interactions and expressions. Ultimately, a lot of his cinema is about the pathos evoked through objects, especially through shots when people converse with and through objects, leaving their traces on them. Therefore, when Natalie Portman’s character struts in, in the following scene, chewing a toothpick confidently, not only is this site a disturbance to the well arranged room, but becomes an important characteristic for her. It is at once an agent of defiance and individuality.

In that sense, much of Anderson’s scenes are about the effective deployment of pastiche. Sarstedt’s song is of course a superior pastiche in itself- replete with references to Marlene Dietrich, Sacha Distel , the Rolling Stones, the fancy apartment at Boulevard Saint-Michel, the qualifications from Sorbonne, this song is a montage of everything that was fashionable in the 60-s European popular culture- an “A-Z of European zeitgeist”, that everyone was well read in, at the time. However, at the end of the day, the lover-singer wishes to meet his beloved in her lonely nakedness, having known her intimately through the days when she was nothing and had not hidden herself behind Fashion’s ornamentations. Hotel Chevalier is also a song of intimacy, of cherishing someone closely, beneath their garb of societal Fashions. That is how aesthetically and cleverly, the pastiche is maneuvered. The allusions are known by most of his audience, but our association with each is purely subjective and personal. Therefore, Natalie Portman’s character, as she touches the objects across the room and interrupts the music, sometimes with her questions and once with a wind up musical instrument, actually writes herself in his life, through the objects that do not belong to him, but the hotel, hence shared and meant to be universal.

Through their conversation, one understands that he had been aimlessly occupying this room for more than a month, though she will stay just one night. They ask each other if they had slept with anyone else, implying after leaving each other. It is clear from their expressions that the woman has, but the man has not. There is fleeting moment of contestation before they decide mutually that it “doesn’t matter”. As they start engaging in a passionate lovemaking, he finds quite a few bruises on her body, which remain unanswered. The poignancy in their relationship reaches its climax when to her “I can’t lose you as a friend”, he replies aggressively “I will never be your friend”.

They lie ensconced in each other’s arms for a moment, before he suggests they could stand at the balcony to get a view of Paris. The camera slows down, and Sarstedt’s song plays louder, as he hands her his yellow housecoat and they proceed towards the balcony. The search for the personal and intimate is complete, when in the last scene he hands her the toothpick to chew- a detail only he knows, probably since the time they were begging in “the back street of Naples”.

Of course, being shot in a hotel, I cannot help wondering whether this is an anticipation of The Grand Budapest Hotel. What is interesting is that, once I started reading up on this film, I discovered that this is in fact not a film set; but an actual hotel- the Hôtel Raphael in Paris, which had also been the setting for films like Love in Paris and the Place Vendôme.

The film in its entirety is a witty play on pastiche. One can imagine, how this same room and the same corridors have been seen in a 2-dimensional screen through different angles, got enhanced by different lights, reeked of so many memories. One can imagine how they left their traces and their footsteps in the form and content of this film and on Anderson’s portrayal of Parisian rooftops, just as old lovers leave their mark of familiarity on each other, that is never quite erased or forgotten.

-Titas Bose

A Little Life

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, published by Doubleday Books, 2015

alittlelife-usVery little about A Little Life is little. At 720 pages, it is a gigantic book that dares readers to pick it up. It is a book that is impossible to read at one go—the harrowing descriptions of pain and despair demand immense degrees of resilience and tenacity—but compelling to the finish. It will lure you with innocuous beginnings and strand you half-way through, leading you around all relief and beat you black and blue. In the end, A Little Life becomes one of those rare books which you curse for the profundity that changes you indelibly.

The book begins on a relatable note, with the story of four friends who meet at an unnamed northeastern college: Malcolm Irvine, the bi-racial son of a wealthy family residing in the Upper East Side, Jean Baptiste Marion (simply called JB), the child of well-off immigrants from Haiti, Willem Ragnarrson, the son of ranch-hands in Wyoming and Jude St. Francis, an orphan. Their friendship, progresses through the entirety of their adult lives, even as they keep drifting out of and into each other’s lives. Each of them, the narrative tells us, acquires spectacular worldly success. Malcolm becomes a starchitect with a flourishing architecture firm of his own; JB achieves acclaim as an artist; Willem slowly ascends the ladder of stardom and Jude evolves into a lawyer of formidable repute. So far, the novel is a convenient bildungsroman, telling the tale of four men, presenting intersections for them to meet to smooth creases out of their lives.

A few revelations later, the familiar comfort zone is dislodged and you find yourself nosediving into a nightmare of paedophilia, sadism and self-destruction. The brooding, enigmatic Jude—the archetypal golden child progressing towards an euphoric, romantic resolution—destabilizes the surfeit of materialism and destroys all semblance of normalcy. Yanagihara’s narrative relentlessly chases Jude’s violence into a merciless world of betrayal and torture, beginning with the scene when Jude wakes Willem up at the middle of the night, telling him, ‘There’s been an accident, Willem; I’m sorry’. There is Jude’s towel-wrapped, profusely bleeding arm and his physician Andy’s frightening disclosure, ‘He cuts himself regularly. You know that, don’t you?’

The graphic descriptions of recurrent self-mutilation, inculcated as a ritual of self-cleansing, is disturbing to say the least:

‘He has long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and he now recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.’

It is difficult to come to terms with the directness of such violence, even if you have the scene of Ramsay torturing Theon in the Game of Thrones series in mind. Most works of fiction leave the violence undescribed, allowing the reprieve of ignorance. Yanagihara allows no such room. She incisively presents episodes and flashbacks to reveal how Jude was systematically pimped by a priest, Brother Luke, who helped him escape from the rehabilitation center where he was repeatedly assaulted, then raped by truck drivers and a sadistic doctor, who deliberately ran him over with his car to prevent his escape.

As Daniel Mendelsohn of The New Yorker notes in his review, Yanagihara seems to revel in inflicting damage on Jude, to create a providential Job out of him. This seems especially true in the parts when the flashbacks are coupled with a series of humiliations in the present: Jude becomes a wheel-chair bound cripple, then strikes up a relationship with an abusive gay partner who abhors his physical deformity and beats him up before throwing him down the stairs, ends up with an amputation and continuously dodges the company of his adopted parents who try to help him out of his trauma. In a shocking development later on, JB mocks Jude’s infirmity prompting Jude (and Willem) to sever all contact with JB.

Yanagihara’s book however had not begun this way. There were descriptions of camaraderie, drunk confessions and lewd jokes, promises of lasting friendship, simmering tensions and minute jealousies. There was laughter at Malcolm’s guilt for his parents’ wealth and JB’s attempt to conceal his family’s financial solvency and his own complete emotional and economic dependence on his mother and aunt. It is easy to empathise with the group’s envy of Willem’s unprepossessing charm and internalize Willem’s own humility and sensitive empathy given his experience of poverty at his parents’ ranch and the death of his brother.  That Jude would emerge as the problem child of the group is hinted at, but there are warm friendly jokes even about his unknown racial identity, given that he was abandoned at birth.

The narrative becomes wholly invested in Jude’s life so soon that the lives of the other three seem like ciphers in comparison. Yanagihara refers to, but does not waste words on Malcolm’s negotiation of professional and personal identities and JB’s alcohol and substance abuse. If Willem’s gradual success is explored at some length, it comes across as one resulting from his proximity to Jude. Even so, Willem’s experiences of stardom seem more realistic than Jude’s status as a semi-prodigy, partially because Jude’s accomplishments as an expert lawyer, gifted pianist, excellent mathematician and a talented chef do not seem to have as much grounding as Willem’s perception of his transition from failure to success. There is something oddly reassuring about Yanagihara’s insistence that  ‘[t]here had been a day, about a month after he turned thirty-eight, when Willem realized he was famous’ despite his awareness that New York mostly comprised an extension of the circles of ambitious people they had all known since college.

Yet Jude’s numerous gifts provide odd solace for the slew of catastrophes that befall him. For the most part, despite his renown as a ferocious litigator and his insistence upon independence, Jude remains a victim all his life. Scarred, quite literally, he is unable to rise beyond his damned self-worth and his acceptance of love is always tinged by a fear of losing it. He never blames his tormentors, nor blasts them to eternal hell-fire and suffering; merely accepts the humiliation and remains stuck at that point of irresolution for the rest of time. Howard and Julia, Andy, Willem, Malcolm and even JB are unable to convince him of their love as he maintains a kind of starry-eyed fascination of their concern for him as undeserved, outstanding kindness. Even in his relationship with Willem, he finds himself unequal, blaming himself for his sexual failings, assailed by self-doubts, till Willem convinces him otherwise. He provides a counterpoint to degrading experiences of love and sexuality, ‘inventing their own kind of relationship … which felt truer and less constraining’. United at last, they visit parties, take trips abroad in a semblance of lasting domestic bliss.

Yanagihara’s meandering prose would definitely have benefitted from seasoned editing. Her intention to test the reader’s resilience to the limit however is a spectacular success.  When Howard or Asian Henry Young or Andy seem to be too fairy-talesque for such a tale of despair, Yanagihara first kills Malcolm and then Willem in arbitrary car-crashes. Predictably, Jude finally commits suicide.

A Little Life is an odyssey of suffering; it is also a parable of life. It is completely ahistoric, allowing you the luxury of distancing Jude’s timeline from your own. Yanagihara’s persistent pessimism is right in Hardy’s neighbourhood, but there remains the sunshine of brief moments to contend with. She is undeniably the mistress of the little things she fondly remembers to describe- the friendships and loves, souvenirs and stains, the quarrels and jealousies, the jobs and accidents – assorted blocks that make up life.

The book transgresses every fundamental explanation of fictive happiness and thrusts everyone into a chasm of unresolved anguish and hopelessness. Yanagihara will disgust you, make you howl in pain. In the end however, she will have moved you enough to forgive her again.

– Pritha Mukherjee

Breaking Shackles: Kiarostami’s Treatment of Freedom, Autonomy, and Selfhood of the Child Protagonist in Where is the Friend’s Home?

3cyx3rxtnn3fqrirry7yuvciok8Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was a well known name in his native land by the 1970s, but it was his seventh film, Where is the Friend’s Home? (Khane-ye Doust Kodjast?), produced in 1987 that established his fame outside Iran. Kiarostami would focus on the ordinary lives of commonplace people in his films and many of his protagonists were children, revealing the social and political restrictions in Iranian society. Where is the Friend’s Home? relates the apparently simple story of Ahmed (Ahmed Poor): an eight year old child who has unintentionally taken his friend’s school notebook home and has to return it to him so that his friend can do his homework. The entire film revolves round Ahmed’s attempts to locate his friend’s home in Poshteh and his determination to find his friend’s house on his own as he receives no help from the adults around him.

 Kiarostami sets his story in the small village of Koker, a place that would become a setting for some of his later films as well. Kiarostami’s cinematic world is the mundane world of ordinary Iranian village dwellers; his cinematography uses everyday shots of mud caked boots, half open door frames, latched windows to convey his thematic concerns of authoritarian imposition on a child’s will and autonomous desires. Throughout the film’s narrative one gets a sense of the disconnection between the child’s world and the adult’s world (the stern disciplining of the schoolteacher, the indifference and negligence of Ahmed’s mother and the lack of help of any adult towards Ahmed’s goal of returning the book), as well as a confusing adult code of rules and duties that clashes with the honest impulse of Ahmed that impels him towards always “doing the right thing”.

All Ahmed knows about the location of his friend’s home is that it is in the neighboring village of Poshtesh, and when his mother asks him to fetch bread he rushes out of his home with his friend’s school notebook on his quest to return it to him. Ahmed’s journey to Poshteh is a direct violation of his mother’s order and in this sense his journey to Poshteh becomes a quest to achieve autonomy by doing his duty towards his friend. None of the adults in the film can comprehend Ahmed’s urgent need to return his friend’s note book; Ahmed’s strong loyalty towards his friend is interpreted as unnecessary stubbornness by the adults. Once in Poshteh Ahmed finds out that his friend’s cousin has just left for Koker, to whom he can hand over the note book. So he runs all the way back to Koker.

The shots of Ahmed running through the Iranian countryside generate panoramic images of pastoral beauty. Interestingly one can also see a parallel between the emerging free self of Ahmed with the vast, open, untamed valleys and fields of the natural world around him. The wide open fields instill within the viewer a recognition of Ahmed’s growing sense of elation and his freedom from adult imposition. Once back in Koker, as he passes by a store, Ahmed meets his grandfather who sternly reprimands him for going outside the village. The short cameo of the grandfather is significant: from his conversation with the other adults near the stores we learn of the harsh Iranian views of child rearing. What is remarkable is the grandfather’s hypocrisy: while he wants Ahmed to be dutiful and honest, he is totally indifferent to Ahmed’s sincere and loyal desire to return his friend’s note book. Near the stores, Ahmed overhears a tradesman mentioning the name of his friend and follows him all the way back to Poshteh, believing that the tradesman is related to his friend.

 Back in Poshteh Ahmed meets a boy in the tradesman’s house but he is not his friend. By this time dusk has settled in and darkness descends all around Ahmed. Yet he is not willing to give up his quest of returning the note book. He chances upon a man who promises to show him his friend’s house. But eventually Ahmed realizes that the man is full of tall tales and may not know where his friend lives. Amidst the barking of the dogs and the darkness all around him, Ahmed feels threatened and scared. Recognizing the pointlessness of roaming any more in Poshteh, Ahmed runs back to Koker. However, his quest to help his friend is not over. Back in his house Ahmed sits with his and his friend’s books in front of him, trying to solve the problem of getting his friend’s homework done. The next shot of the film takes the viewer to the next day at Ahmed’s school where the stern schoolteacher is checking all the boys’ note books for their homework.

In a heartrendingly beautiful ending, Kiarostami shows Ahmed entering the school room, sitting beside his friend, and calmly telling him not to worry as he has done both their homework. The film ends with the open notebooks of Ahmed and his friend, with a distinctive yellow flower pressed between the pages of Ahmed’s friend’s book. Ahmed succeeds in fulfilling his duty towards his friend, and in the process of doing so, achieves his own autonomous selfhood, free from the restrictions of hypocritical adult rules. Childhood friendship in the film becomes a means of subverting adult impositions and indifference. Ahmed manages to break free from the shackles of mundane rules of the adult world by achieving his selfless goal of helping his friend. At the end of the film the viewer is filled with happiness, not just at the fulfillment of Ahmed’s quest, but also because of Ahmed’s triumph over the adults around him. Kiarostami, through the character of Ahmed, celebrates the intelligence, autonomy, and innocent compassion of a child who refuses to be thwarted by the authoritarian cruelty of the adult world.

– Somrita Misra