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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Amjad Nasser chronicles the displaced and divided survivors of exile

Nasser, born in Jordan but living in for 27 years, is the ideal witness to the dislocating effect of being unable to go home for most of your life.
An Iraqi man walks through old and recent graves at a cemetery in Sahl, 350 kilometres north-west of Baghdad. Ramzi Haidar / AFP
An Iraqi man walks through old and recent graves at a cemetery in Sahl, 350 kilometres north-west of Baghdad. Ramzi Haidar / AFP

“Twenty years is not a number. In fact in cases such as yours, it might be a life that has run its course.” So says the narrator of Amjad Nasser’s novel Land of No Rain on his return to Hamiya, the country of his birth from which he has been exiled for two decades.

A journalist, poet and travel writer, Nasser was born in Jordan in 1955 but has been based in London since 1987. Land of No Rain is his first novel, which was originally published in Arabic in 2011 and is now available in English translation by Jonathan Wright, a recipient of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize.

Nasser’s Hamiya is a fictional country, not just meant to be evocative of the author’s birthplace, Jordan, but also reminiscent of several countries and the political uprisings that have become part of the narrative in various parts of the Arab world. What Nasser has tried to recreate in his fictional setting is the sense of transformation that has dominated Arab consciousness and led to individual as well as fundamental political changes. The novel has the initial flavour of a fictional autobiography as the narrative is in the first person but this slowly dissipates as the protagonist, who is a poet and writer, is cleverly introduced under two names: Younis, the name he had while he lived in Hamiya and ­Adham, the name he takes on after he is exiled. It is under the name Adham that he writes.

This skilful division of the novel is at once astute and enduring. Past and present are tied together, the memories of a land he left and his struggle coming to terms with the people and the places: some remain unchanged but several have been erased from the landscape or, like his parents, have died. “How is it that things that should have disappeared have survived, while many faces have lost their details?”

Nasser’s dual narrator talks about the past as “a lost paradise” and at times he confesses that “the past is no less mysterious than the future”. It is this confusion of the exile that is key to the unfolding of the narrative. While he desperately seeks to reconstruct the past from the fragments of his memory pieced together with the reality of the country that he sees before him after 20 years, it is his own image, his own splintered ego that he is actually trying to piece together and understand. “Nostalgia amplifies things. The memory preserves tastes and smells and images that are of its own making, or that are not as they were in reality.”

He retraces his steps to the time he was exiled after a failed assassination attempt on the military dictator known as “The Grandson”. He looks back upon his relationship with Roula the woman he loved, his friends who now no longer even recognise him, the family who surround him but fail to understand him. What he faces is an ambiguity that reflects the passage of time, he contemplates. “Time has dissolved, and the events and the faces have merged together.”

While Land of No Rain shines in its acute portrayal of the despair and confusion of the exile, it has at the same time a clear, often unsentimental voice that makes it incredibly real and all the more agonising. At the core of the narrative is Nasser’s poetic fluidity, articulated in the crispness and clarity of his emotions as opposed to long poetic meditations, which might otherwise be expected of a poet of his calibre to include in his prose.

The book ends when the narrator visits the graves of his parents, who died while he was away. As he observes the graves he thinks only of his own duality, torn between the Younis of the past and Adham of the present. “I had a strong sense that the man who had come home was thinking about himself, about his name, or rather his two names. Which of them would be carved on his tombstone?” Land of No Rain stands out as a poignant and subtly disquieting study of exile and duality and the consequent hollowness of a fractured existence away from the land of one’s birth.

Erika Banerji has written and reviewed for The Statesman, The Times of India, The Observer and Wasafiri. She lives in London.

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