by Sandra Hahn, Content Editor Lead
This concept is a political hot-button issue around the world. Media coverage overflows with images of war and its ruins, with hundreds of thousands of people in various stages of flight. Yet one voice is decidedly missing: the literary voice of the refugee.
June is Immigrant Heritage Month (1) and World Refugee Day is June 20 (2). It’s the perfect opportunity to look at a few of the recent novels to emerge from the Middle Eastern diaspora, with a focus on authors who have migrated from their homelands. All of these books are available on ProQuest Ebook Central.
Iraqi author Hadiya Hussein’s Beyond Love (Syracuse University Press, 2012) (3) is set in Jordan, just after the First Gulf War in 1991, when many Iraqis fled the country. The characters are mostly women, “men having died or disappeared” (4). As is often the case in “migration” fiction, the novel contains many semi-autobiographical elements. Hussein, who currently resides in Canada, lived in exile in Amman for more than a decade after leaving Baghdad in 1999.
The two protagonists of Beyond Love, Nadia and Huda, also seek refuge in Jordan. Huda flees the consequences of voting “no” in an Iraqi “election.” Nadia flees multiple horrors and losses. Both are nearly drowned in their memories. And yet, like many refugees, they still reach toward another life.
In No Knives in the Kitchens of this City (Hoopoe Fiction, 2016) (5), acclaimed Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa presents a “sad, beautiful portrait of a family psychologically scarred by war and tyranny” (6). Set between the 1960s and 2000s, this novel speaks with eloquence and startling honesty, to the persecution of a whole society (7). The city of Aleppo becomes a central character of the novel. “Cities die just like people,” writes Khalifa (8).
The book is deeply personal for the author, who was born in 1964, a year after the Ba’athist coup, and who witnessed firsthand the destruction of his beloved native city. Like many other Syrian artists, Khalifa was assaulted by Syrian security forces in May 2012. Nevertheless, he has chosen to stay in Damascus, his new home city. “Staying inside Syria gives me […] courage,” he says (9).
No Knives in the Kitchens of This City won the 2013 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and was shortlisted for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (10). Literary Hub calls it “required reading for anyone who wants to better understand the roots of the uprising and current conflict in Syria” (11).
Born in Cairo to Sudanese parents, author Tarek Eltayeb migrated to Vienna in 1984 and began writing the following year to ease the loneliness of life in a foreign country (12). His novel The Palm House (The American University of Cairo Press, 2014) (13) tells the story of Hamza, who flees the violence and starvation of his Sudanese homeland, eventually landing in Vienna.
Once there, he struggles to escape from the margins of society. His life changes when he meets Sandra, a young Austrian woman who introduces him to the Palm House – a former imperial greenhouse located in the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna (14)(15):
A familiar smell welcomes us and brings me joy: the smell of humid tropical warmth. We sit down on a white bench in front of a solitary palm tree. […] A single palm in all of Vienna is enough. (16)
For more Arabic literature in translation, check out the following series of books available on ProQuest Ebook Central:
And for additional insight into the perspective of the refugee, take a look at this documentary film from Alexander Street:
About the Author
Sandra Hahn, Content Editor Lead specializing in foreign languages, is the daughter of German immigrants. She is a lifelong nature enthusiast with a passion for intercultural communication (which inspired this blog). Her degree is in German, French, and Spanish. She has worked at ProQuest since 1993.
3. Originally published in Arabic as Ma Ba’d Al-Hub (Beirut: Arab Institution for Studies and Publication, 2004).
5. Originally published in Arabic as La sakakin fi matabikh hadhihi al-madina (Cairo: Dar al-Ain, 2013).
6. Yassin-Kassab, R. (2016, Sep 24). No knives in the kitchens of this city by khaled khalifa review -- rage and shame in syria. The Guardian. pp. 11.
7. Khalifa, Khaled. No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Hoopoe Fiction, 2016, “Description.” ProQuest Ebook Central.
8. Khalifa, Khaled, p. 38.
10. Tales of diffusion, war and mystery contend for arab fiction prize. (2014, Feb 12). The National.
12. Arab author eltayeb on sudan voyage of discovery. (2012, Sep 09). Times of Oman.
13. Originally published in Arabic as Bayt al-nakhil (Cairo: Al-Hadara Publishing, 2006).
15. Hofmann, P. (1996, Mar 10). New life at a hapsburg playground. New York Times (1923-Current File).
16. Eltayeb, Tarek. The Palm House, The American University in Cairo Press, 2014, p. 29. ProQuest Ebook Central.
17. Requiem for Syrian Refugees, directed by Richard Wolf, fl. 2001; produced by Lobo Docs (Lobo Films, 2014), 1 hour 11 mins. Alexander Street.
Photo credit: Eltayeb, Tarek. The Palm House, The American University in Cairo Press, 2014, Cover artwork by the author, Zwischen den Spuren, 8, detail, Vienna, Volkshochschule Meidling, 18 March-6 May 2004, ProQuest Ebook Central.