Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Absent: A Novel speaks to our American present

Since the election, I've stopped reading the print newspaper in the morning. I can't take it in the early morning quiet. I inch into the news by degrees, via Twitter, at intervals throughout the day. I also miss a lot. 

I haven't read much fiction in recent years, so, in the void left by the paper, I resolved to take a tour of the world through fiction.  I thought I'd start with Najuib Mahfouz. But somehow along the way Amazon caught me with Absent by Betool Khedairi, a novel set in Baghdad during the sanctions period in the wake of the first Gulf War.  It's exactly what I wanted -- a day-by-day of life elsewhere. It's grown on me by degrees. It's magnificent.

It's one of those quiet and apparently plotless novels, built encounter by encounter, vignette by vignette, though it's plainly trending somewhere. The "quiet" is quiet desperation. People are slowly starving, or decaying for want of medicine or sanitation or employment (though everyone finds some way to scrape some kind of living). The backdrop is adults' memories of the Days of Plenty, the period before the blockade, and the first Gulf War, and the Iraq-Iran war -- when children going to school had pencils and uniforms, and crosswalks were repainted at intervals, and refrigerators had food in them and stayed on all day.

The novel chronicles the daily encounters mostly of people living in one apartment building in Baghdad. The center of gravity is a fortune teller who gives her clients (women only) quack cures, and intense listening, and apparent care wrapped in piety. The narrator's closest friend is a hospital nurse driven half mad by seeing children die of starvation every day. The narrator, a young woman, is an orphan raised from infancy by her aunt and uncle (who, as a condition for taking her in, refused the honorific and is referred to throughout as "my aunt's husband). In the novel's present the uncle, an art connoisseur and laid off tourism official, is turning beekeeper out of a mixture of entrepreneurial passion and fascination with the social and physical lives of bees.  The aunt is a former arts and crafts teacher turned seamstress and button hoarder (buttons are a source of mental wealth to her, as bees are to the uncle).

It's methodically detailed how the allied bombing in the Gulf War knocked out sewage plants and fertilizer factories and generators, not to say apartment blocks, and how the blockade chokes off medicine, and spare parts for everything, and, say...toothpaste. Here is the fortune teller's diagnosis for a woman whose husband has stopped sleeping with her:
She continues, “Your problem is very simple; you don’t need to go knocking on the charlatans’ doors. Your coffee cup has revealed a bowl of stale tea and a few drops of soured milk. This is the smell of your breath. When was the last time you brushed your teeth?”

The woman bows her head in shame, “Toothpaste has become so expensive, Umm Mazin. Imported brands are impossible to get hold of, and local brands taste like car-repairing putty.”

“I have a solution for you.” Umm Mazin offers the woman a tube of imported toothpaste in exchange for a bag of disposable Bic razorblades. Probably she uses them to shave her little beard (Kindle location 607-613).
People endure, and find ways of coping, as they go slowly (or in some cases swiftly) mad and decay physically for lack of food, medical care, sanitation and decent livelihood. Meanwhile, they talk, and offer each other compassion and aid and muted rage and humor.

I spoiled my morning read to write this, at a moment when I crossed over from "this is worth reading" to "this is becoming part of my permanent mental furniture." I'm going to sign off by indulging in a longish scene.  The narrator and her friend the nurse (who is dying of a malignant breast tumor) are visiting with a hairdresser who lives and works in their building:
“My compliments on the way you made this cup.”

He says in a Lebanese accent, “In good health, multiplied by two.”
Ilham asks him, “Why does he call you Susu?”

“It’s my nickname.”

“Would you like us to call you that?” “Some people call me Saaoudy. You can call me whatever you like. All names are blessed and honorable.” The coffee has moistened his voice. He says to her, “Did you know, I was the one who named that child Hamada?”

Ilham starts on her second cup as he begins to tell the tale. “His father, I mean the teacher and not his
deceased father, wanted to call him Hamid, but because I had helped his wife, well, his lover in this case, when she was having the baby, he asked me to name the boy.”

“You attended the birth? He allowed you to do that?”

“He had no choice. My previous salon was right next to her house. The phone lines were down, and he came running to me saying the woman was about to give birth at home. I grabbed the rubber gloves that I use when I’m dyeing customers’ hair and ran out after him. When we got there, we had to make do ourselves and pray for help from God.”

“And how did things go?”

“I caught the child’s head first, as they do in the movies, then cut the umbilical cord using a sterile shaving razor. I had no idea what to do after that. In the films, they never show you anything about delivering the placenta.” A moment later he adds, “I love children. I hope that I might be able to have a child someday.”

I look at Ilham, who starts to react. “Whatever for? To add another individual to this tragedy?”

“I’m not responsible for this tragedy. We must try to live in as normal a fashion as possible. We have to dream of the things that we’re entitled to hope for.”

She puts out her cigarette to light up another one. “That only applies if you’re able to live in a dream.”

“It seems to me that I’ve annoyed you. Was it something I said?”

Ilham starts to grind her teeth. “Look at what’s happening outside your shop Saad—or Saaoudy. Those children aren’t going to school. Only one percent of the oil revenue now is allocated to education.” “I have no say in laying down those resolutions, Ilham.” Ilham is no longer enjoying her coffee. “What’s worse is that out of those who are lucky enough to be offered an education, seven children at least pass out every day because of hunger or lack of medication. If they have a stomach upset, they have to go home because school toilets don’t work.”
He shrugs his shoulders. “I refuse to give up my dreams just because the toilets don’t work.
” She becomes more animated. “And the less fortunate ones end up in my department.” I don’t know why, but he lowered his gaze. It may be because he is aware of how upset she is, or it may be simply that he wants to place the coffee cup on the tray.

“I said what I said because I feel lonely. I was an only child.” I give him back the magazine, hoping to interrupt this flow between them, but Ilham persists,

“Loneliness is spending your last days in a hospital where there’s no heating or cooling. Loneliness is biting your lip when you see the nurse forcing a used urine bag into you because there are no new ones; or staring at a dialysis machine that doesn’t work.”

He has stopped arguing with her as her tone becomes more high-pitched. “Loneliness is putting up with the pain while you wait for your turn on the operating list. In the past we used to perform thirty operations a week. Nowadays, the most that we can manage is six.”

She strikes the table with her fist. “That’s loneliness.” She stands up, full of emotion, but ends up throwing herself onto the couch and then bursts into tears. Saad runs toward her, unsure of what to do. He decides to go and get her a glass of water.

When he returns she has left, leaving me behind to offer her apologies (locations 1930-39).
That is actually sort of a bust-out moment for the book. The emotions, and the complaints, are more muted to this point.

The constant look-backs to the Days of Plenty are particularly haunting to me, in that ever since the election I've wondered if the rest of our lives -- in the U.S. and perhaps the world at large -- will feel like that.  From the moment Trump's victory was apparent, life before November 8 felt like a lost age of innocence -- though as this book's chronicling of the the misery we inflicted on Iraq, even before the invasion of 2003, illustrates, those days were far from innocent.  The U.S. has wrought and fostered so much destruction and tyranny in my lifetime -- though it's also kept a relative global world peace and created conditions for unprecedented prosperity in much of the world. We've been perhaps history's least brutal hegemon, but still plenty brutal.

In any case, the potential disasters looming over us feel in some ways like karma. Maybe it's our turn to witness destruction we (Americans) wreak on our own prosperity. Not that I really believe in deserving, collective or individual -- or regard massive destruction by Trump as a foregone conclusion.

But that's what the old internal Yahweh whispers.

1 comment:

  1. It was comforting to read this because it helps me feel more grounded when I hear anyone express feelings like we are having. It is very hard to process something that is as nightmarish President Trump. I read a book that you recommended -Some Tame Gazelle a few years ago, and I enjoyed it a lot. But I am afraid Absent might just do me in. It sounds so grim. I have to escape to make believe-- mysteries mostly.