A Symphony of Parallel Tragedies: Iran Nuclear Saga—No Deal Yet
21 July 2015
By Amir Taheri
The subtitle of this new novel by Palestinian writer Rabee Al-Madhoun
describes it as "a concerto in four movements." However, the reader would
soon conclude that what Madhoun is offering is more of a symphony woven
around the themes of individual and collective destinies, love and hate, and
the utter randomness of events that affect our lives while we have little or
no control over them.
Composed like a prose version of the Russian Matryushka dolls, with the
smaller dolls nesting in the larger ones, the novel narrates the stories of
four characters that, at first glance, have as much in common as strange
ships passing at night and in fog.
First, there is Ivana Ardakian, an Armenian–Palestinian who comes of age
during the British mandate in Palestine. Breaking rigid local traditions she
elopes with a British medical doctor and has a daughter from him before they
flee to Britain at the end of the British presence. We don't know whether
Ivana's Armenian family name, which means "a fragile plant," contains a
symbolic message. But her life certainly symbolizes the fragility of the
In a sense, Ivana's story could be seen as a long monody of loss, longing
and, mercifully, also love.
In a point–counterpoint style Ivana's story is then related to Jenin Dahman's
narrative in what could be regarded as the second movement of the symphonic
Jenin Dahman, who may sound to some as an alter ego for the writer, is
writing a novel of her own with the provocative title of "Stupid Palestinian"
(Falastini Tais). This is designed to tell the story of one Mahmoud Dahman
who flees with his family from Ashkelon to Gaza during the 1948 convulsion
that led to the emergence of Israel as a nation, the event known to Arabs as
the Nakba (Catastrophe). For murky reasons, partly related to fear of being
arrested by the dreadful Egyptian secret police, Dahman abandons his family
in Gaza and moves back to Ashkelon (Al-Majdal in Arabic).
What Dahman had hoped would be a brief sojourn turns out to become a life
sentence when he finds out that a ceasefire-line between Israel and Gaza, now
under Egyptian rule, would not allow him to be reunited with his family.
Discovering reserves of stoicism in himself, Dahman marries another woman and
settles in Israel as if embarking on a strange ship heading for unknown
While telling Dahman's story, Jenin's narrator bifurcates into telling the
story of her own love affair with Bassem, a West bank Palestinian who has
emigrated to the United States. Here, we are dealing with triple exiles
creating chasms that only love might bridge.
The loving couple settles in Jaffa, now a suburb of Tel Aviv, and settle in
an old castle, maybe hoping to capture some of a past that they never knew
but still hope to see as their future.
In the third movement, the direction of exile changes. This time we see
Ivana's daughter Jolie returning to Israel with her husband Walid Dahman to
fulfil her mother's wish for her ashes to be taken to either her native city
Acre or Jerusalem. The two visitors, who now lack any personal attachment to
the disputed land, visit Haifa, Acre, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Ashkelon as
foreign tourists. Because they see the place with fresh eyes, not affected by
two generations of conflict and hatred, they are able to fall in love with
the country, regardless. They plan to move to Israel and start a new life
which they have no means of predefining.
In the fourth and final movement of the symphony we are again back to a
prolonged monody, woven around Walid's visit to Jerusalem where he spends
some time in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, which provides a glimpse of
the tragedy that struck the European Jews under the Nazi domination of
1932–1945. The couple meet Jenin, the struggling novelist in Jaffa, where she
reveals to them the sources of her novel and the fate of her characters,
providing an unexpected denouement.
Madhoun does not wish to equate the Holocaust with the Nakba; such an attempt
would have been rather kitsch. What he is trying to do is understand the
collective tragedies through their effect on reshaping, and sometime
destroying, individual lives. A proverb says that one may not see the forest
for the trees. The moral of it is that focusing on individual realities may
make us lose sight of the broader reality.
Madhoun believes that we cannot really see the forest, the real forest,
except by seeing the individual trees.
If not related to and understood through individual human narratives, both
the Holocaust and the Nakba are little more than abstractions. As collective
concepts, Israel and Palestine are shibboleths in political, nationalistic
and even pseudo-religious wars, the ultimate aim of which is power. But when
we see countless individual human beings with their memories, aspirations,
fears and hopes and capacity for both hatred and love, covered by those
concepts we realize that only going from the particular to the general may
help us understand the so-called "big picture."
This, of course, is the principal task of literature, especially of the novel
in its modern version as developed in Europe from the 19th century onwards.
Those who read Madhoun's previous novel The Lady from Tel Aviv had no
difficult seeing him as a promising novelist. In this second novel, Madhoun
delivers on part of that promise with more deft characterization, a
fast-paced, almost Hemingway-esque prose, and greater control of rebellious
It would now be worth waiting for his next novel.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.