Reviewed: Cities Without Palms, Tarek Eltayeb trans. Kareem James Palmer-Zed. New York: American University in Cairo, 2009. 90 pages. $18.95.
Sudan, Lebanon, Korea: the stories of these nations appear to the United States in strife on the evening news. While indisputably important, these political macro-narratives tell only part of the tale, favoring concision and a sweeping perspective over the individuated voices of particular residents. By contrast, books by creative writers native to areas of conflict function dually as art and political ambassadors. They bear the nuanced individual stories of their creators to readers in the Western world. Through a careful translation — one which brings both a linguistic and cultural sensitivity to the original text — fiction by lesser-known writers in these regions broadcasts life from the front lines. Thus, poverty, sexism, and war enter American classrooms and homes in a more insightful manner than mass media can provide, and three new books of fiction in translation provide no exception to this deft, necessary insight. Cities Without Palms, Tarek Eltayeb's novel, details a young man's voyage from Sudan to Europe; Iman Humaydan Younes's novel Wild Mulberries focuses on a girl's coming-of-age in pre-World War Two Lebanon; and Diary of a Vagabond, Song Yong's short story collection, depicts life from the Korean underbelly. All invite Western readers to immerse ourselves in lives much different from our own, though, thanks to translation's handy passport, in a language utterly familiar.
Under this umbrella of translated fiction, these three works vary in their approach to storytelling. Diary of a Vagabond, perhaps the most disparate book of the three, features a host of first-and third-person narrators from all walks of life. In contrast, Wild Mulberries and Cities Without Palms both make use of a late-adolescent, first-person confessional narrator, with Younes crafting an epistolary novel. Despite this variety of storytelling mode and perspective, a unified desire becomes clear. All three books highlight characters on the cusp, none at peace with their current situations, all striving for economic or social justice for themselves or those they love. Writing at different moments in the late twentieth century, Younes, Yong, and Eltayeb all set their works in years of political difficulty for their countries — post-Vietnam War, a time of great Korean military loss, for Yong; pre-Lebanese national independence from France for Younes; and late-1980s Sudan for Eltayeb, five years into the Second Sudanese Civil War.
First published in Arabic as Mudun bila nakhil in 1992, Cities Without Palms — Eltayeb's first novel — follows protagonist Hamza, who takes leave of his family in the poverty-stricken Wad al-Nar village to help financially support his mother and two young sisters. Abandoned by his father at a young age, Hamza feels compelled to carry the weight of responsibility for his family, though barely an adult himself: "I do not know," he states at the novel's outset, "how old I am now — there are no birth records in our village. I think that I am about nineteen or twenty" (7). Issues of documentation resurface throughout the novel, as Hamza travels through Sudan to Egypt and later to Europe as an at-times legal, at-times illegal immigrant looking for income through various jobs and menial tasks.
Wad al-Nar, once prosperous, has fallen into despair at the novel's outset, and Hamza feels acutely the entropy of its inhabitants. "The desert keeps growing," he notes, "and sorrow, not rain, is all that comes to us. Drought and disease, agony and death: we are the dying, the living dead" (2). Hunger has afflicted even the town's small children: "Bones protrude from their emaciated bodies; mangy, dust-colored skin covers their ribs and knees" (3). Hamza's two sisters Halima and Karima, four and six, suffer also from hunger and malnutrition; it is their physical state, and that of his weak, ailing mother, which drive Hamza to leave his village seeking money.
As he prepares to leave Wad al-Nar, Hamza reckons his own utility in a poignant passage: "I look at these cracks that crisscross over the earth like a cobweb, and, using my feet, try to cover them up with dirt. But what can two small feet do for an entire village?" (2) Despite his worries of failure, Hamza departs Wad al-Nar first on foot, then by van for the large Sudanese city of Omdurman. In Eltayeb's rendering of Wad-al-Nar, he evidences issues of malnutrition, desertification, and deterioration that have plagued rural African areas despite the efforts of many aid agencies like the UN, the Red Cross, and other governmental groups and NGOs.
The novel — which, at ninety pages, reads more like a novella — moves quickly through his voyage from Sudan to Egypt through Europe, then back towards Sudan. Ready for a reunion with his family, Hamza longs, as he has throughout the novel, for Wad al-Nar: "I feel," he says, "as if I am the one flying, and not the plane; I feel like a bird that has finally escaped its cage" (84) What and whom he finds at the other end, I leave to a curious reader.
The prose in Cities Without Palms moves with simple, lyrical clarity. Translator Kareem James Palmer-Zed leaves scant words — foods, towns, religious terminology — in transliterated Arabic, allowing English readers to participate occasionally in the sounds of the original language. Though at times unrelentingly tragic, moments of joy pace the text, mostly when Hamza's mind returns to memories of home. His constant longing for Wad al-Nar lends Hamza's voyage marked velocity, building momentum as his passage between countries shortens. Italy, France, and Holland pass through the text in mere pages. Perhaps Eltayeb will consider taking his reader on a longer, more expansive journey in future novels. In this story, Eltayeb's brief but laden tale of Hamza's round-trip voyage provides a singular glimpse into life in rural Sudan — hungry and desperate, sorrowful and profound.
* * *
Rachel Mennies is the reviews editor at AGNI and an alumna of Boston University. She has published criticism in Pleiades, the Mid-American Review, and ForeWord Magazine, among other publications.
This review originally appeared in Pusteblume #3, Winter 2009-10.