x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Twenty-four hours in Palestine

Zeina B Ghandour's debut novel is a small book with big ideas.

The Honey Zeina B Ghandour Interlink Books Dh49 Zeina B Ghandour's debut novel The Honey begins with a fable about an abandoned village in Palestine. Long ago, the men of Al Ahmar painted their yellow mosque blue but it turned out green. They peeled and painted again - resulting first in navy, then in midnight, then in indigo, but never the benevolent sky blue they desired. "The women in the village did not speak," writes Ghandour, "feigning not to notice the vacant ritual." The men grew despondent and their families started to leave, having failed to atone for mysterious sins. Eventually, Al Ahmar lost all of its inhabitants except one, and it was said that on moonless nights a woman named Ruhiya climbed the mosque's minaret to deliver the dawn call to prayer herself.

This story may come at the start of Ghandour's book, where it is labelled a prelude, but in the imagined time of the novel it is more accurately the end. The fable of Al Ahmar is the only trace left behind to signify the real story that unfolded there. It is a distillation, a myth that smoothes over a complex tangle of tragedies, traumas and secrets that went more or less untold. Ghandour was born in Beirut in 1966. She is now based in London and ranks human rights, international law and comparative Jewish and Islamic jurisprudence among her professional pursuits. But for fans of experimental literary fiction from or about the Levant, she is probably best known as the author of two dazzlingly sassy and rambunctious short stories, War Milk and Omega: Definitions, that were published in the recent anthologies Transit Beirut: New Writing and Images and Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women, respectively.

The 2008 publication of The Honey, for Interlink's world fiction series, is in fact a reprint. Quartet Books first released the novel in 1999, after which point it was translated into Arabic and fell out of circulation completely. Now, for readers who responded to the explosive attitude of her short stories - which are more like fast-paced prose poems, with lust portrayed as a "cannibalistic intestinal craving," Iraq as a place where "elite gangsters are filling up their piggy-bank with straight cold theft" and the roots of Islam as "deliciously, rock-worshippingly pagan" - there is opportunity to indulge Ghandour's style in a longer form, and relief in finding that she modulates her energy to sustain a novel.

The Honey covers a 24-hour period in which a young man sets off with a colleague on a suicide-bombing mission. At dawn, his lover (later revealed to be his father's daughter) breaks a serious taboo by delivering the call to prayer herself. The luminosity of her voice rattles the young man's will. He abandons his duties just as his partner blows himself to pieces. A thrill-seeking foreign journalist shows up and follows the story to the village of Al Ahmar, where it shatters into a rumour about the young woman acting as muezzin. The journalist elicits many metaphors but no facts from the village elders, until a young girl tells her to find two lovers in the desert. From there, The Honey tunnels through crime and sorrow to the tale of how these two lovers came to be.

After the prelude and before an equally enigmatic epilogue, The Honey proceeds in five sections, each of which carries four names or themes. Each section is named for one of the five daily prayers in Islam - dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk and nightfall. On another level, each section follows a page describing an act - bid'a, meaning deviance or a breach of sacred tradition; nushuz, meaning that which tries to elevate itself above ground; ta'arrud, a verb with sexual connotations meaning to barricade; kashf, to unveil and reveal; and kheshya, to fear god.

Each of the sections is centred on a single character - Ruhiya, Yehya, Maya, Asrar and Farhan. And on another level still, each character is meant to embody a larger idea - Ruhiya means soulful or spiritual, Yehya means the will to live, Maya (in Hindu and Buddhist traditions at least) means the veils of illusion, Asrar means secrets and Farhan means happy or joyful (other characters in the novel include the white-haired healer Al Ashkar, meaning the fair one; Radwan, the compassionate, who forgives huge transgressions; and Hurra, meaning freedom, Radwan's wife and Ruhiya's mother, who achieves hers by tying a rope around her neck and tumbling).

At 107 pages, The Honey is slim. But the story is so tightly packed that every word resonates and multiple readings are required. The pay-off is a glinting little novel that emanates big ideas about politics, pleasure, language, religion and fulfilment, be it earthy or otherwise. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.