The American Quarter
By Jabbour Douaihy, translated by Paula Haydar
Interlink Books, 2018
In a world of second generations, Intisar has inherited her housekeeping job from her mother, who took care of the house for Abdelkarim’s family. To insure his safety during the war, Abdelkarim’s family sent the young man to France. When his father dies, Abdelkarim returns to lay his claim as the proprietor of house, arriving from Paris, trying to recover from a broken love affair with a disappearing Serbian ballet dancer. Wryly noting that diesel fumes have replaced the nostalgic smell of orange trees, the young man sets up a shrine for his lost dancer, and spends most of his time drinking and listening to European music. While he harms no one, his life of privilege fails to offer him self-fulfillment or lead him to civic engagement.
Bound by a promise to her dead mother, Intisar never allows her handsome husband, Bilal, near Abdelkarim’s home. Bilal also has lost himself after participating in the struggle. The only survivor after an attack on PLO headquarters, the jobless Bilal now drinks too much, fails to support his family, and physically abuses his wife in between bouts of procreation.
Unable to co-exist with his father, Insitar’s son, Ismail, finds refuge with his grandmother. The young, driftless hoodlum finds Islam, but when his grandmother dies, he returns home and his father shows his own past of gun battles in open spaces where no trees offer protection or cover. Passing on his legacy, the father can now disappear, leaving Ismail to blindly obey orders from a fundamentalist group that orders him to stake out a Sri Lankan Hindu temple to bomb in retaliation for Buddhist aggression against Muslims. With the police on her son’s trail, Intisar brings Ismail to meet Abdelkarim. Still the world of Fundamentalism calls to Ismail and the action charges into the city’s seamy underworld.
The novel’s casual tone, and occasional bits of humor, belie the intricate construction of Douaihy’s realistic, yet original narrative. He fully contextualizes the background for the emergence of Ismail, and his foray into the realm of jihad terrorism. Without disclosing the end of this brief yet powerful novel, I would like to point out that Douaihy’s narrative transcends the now banal terrorist tale of the economically oppressed individual who finds a sense of belonging in Islamic fanaticism. Instead, Douaihy’s novel celebrates the power of human love that still manages to nourish and offer support, despite the grave mistakes of previous generations. Here, Haydar’s discriminating taste in translation serves English readers well, while Douaihy faithfully keeps his narrative eye on both the larger historical and the individual story highlighting empathy in unlikely places.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 74, 2018.
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