Black Foam

📍 Eritrea 🇪🇷

This is a book like no other. The novel, written by Doha based Eritrean novelist Haji Jabir, was originally published in Arabic in 2018 and, is the first Eritrean novel to be longlisted for the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It has been translated into English by Sawad Hussain and Marcia Lynx Qualey. The story is about an Eritrean soldier’s relentless pursuit in finding stability, hope and freedom as he traverses from Eritrea to Ethiopia to Israel. Adal fights as a soldier in The Eritrean war of Independence against Ethiopia and sees his country achieve it. While Asmara celebrates the new freedom, Adal changes his name to Dawoud, because he doesn’t want to be associated with it. During his time at the Revolution school there, his infractions lead him being sent to the torture prison at the Blue Valley. He escapes the prison to land in Endabaguna refugee camp in North Ethiopia where he becomes David. From there, he manages to enter the Gondar camp in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, posing as a Falasha Mura (Ethiopian Jew) named Dawit. This helps him in getting to Israel, finally to Jerusalem. This arduous journey which converts him from a soldier to a refugee, whilst he assumes various identities and religions, shakes him to his core; challenges all his beliefs and notions about the world and humanity. Ultimately, he finds a glimmer of solace when he visits the Al-Aqsa mosque in the West Bank region of Jerusalem, Palestine; it appears to him, as if life has come a full circle and there he starts questioning his identity and whether he may now be a part of a community of African Palestinians.

Black Foam is a composite story that, at the outset, through the protagonist’s character highlights the struggles and atrocities faced by a refugee. However, as we delve deep into the narrative, it holds your attention towards a plethora of unspoken issues and peoples. A nation’s independence needn’t necessarily attribute independence to all its citizens. As a soldier, Adal was left stifled living that life, though now Eritrea was free. However, his mindset was such that, he could never accept freedom, which led him from one refugee camp to another. The book also talks about the plight of Ethiopian Jews, who remain at the mercy of the Israeli Jews and live like second class citizens in the country. The story also talks about Palestine and lives of Palestinians living under the apartheid regime of Israel. Whilst weaving a sombre and at times discordant narrative through these complex geographies, the author simultaneously constructs the romantic and sexual life of the protagonist. This juxtaposition in the storytelling is distracting, deliberately pervasive and at times tedious.

Haji Jabir has masterfully sketched this story of a man in search of a home, security, a sense of belonging only to be met by hostility and uncertainty every step of the way. This quest is sadly the tale of millions of refugees in various parts of the world. Kudos to the author for writing it, keeping the despair and depravity alive in every page; for breathing life into the forgotten lives of the refugees; for portraying doom as a running subtext to the entire narrative. The descriptions of Jerusalem, West Bank, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is so detailed, nuanced; it’s almost as if we are there with Dawoud/ David/ Dawit as he roams these streets searching and questioning his life’s meaning and purpose.

Black Foam is a bittersweet melancholy that will stay with you long after you have finished reading it.


The Bride of Amman

📍Jordan 🇯🇴

This debut novel by the Jordanian writer, Fadi Zaghmout, originally written in Arabic (Aroos Amman), later translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, caused quite a stir when it was released. Understandably so, considering the bold and controversial issues it explores, which are often deemed taboo and blasphemous in the traditional Jordanian society. The story is told through five characters of Leila, Salma, Rana, Hayat and Ali; all living in the capital city, Amman. Through these stories, the author tackles the persistent and pertinent issues of patriarchy, misogyny, chauvinism, incest, rape, sexual abuse, homophobia, widely prevalent in the conservative Arab community. An Arab woman’s worth is equated with her ability to get married at the right age, be a dazzling bride and bear children, especially sons. Her career and education are just an ornament. Zaghmout repeatedly asserts how women have no authority or agency over their own lives and bodies, and their choices are subject to male dominance and approval. Particularly disturbing story is that of Hayat, who is raped and sexually abused by her own father; later chooses promiscuity with multiple married men to escape this horrid truth.

Zaghmout’s narrative is a poignant reflection of contemporary Amman, however, I felt, that at many instances, he has tried to infantilise the grave problems. Hayat, as a rape survivor, is shown to forgive her father for his unpardonable crime. Her choice of being promiscuous seems to be very flippant and it seems as the only way a woman can get over her sexual abuse past. Ali, a closeted Iraqi gay man, gets married to Leila, has a child, and continues to have gay sexual encounters on the sly. Leila later discovers his homosexuality and upon confrontation, chooses to accept her life as his wife, devoid of sex, delves steadfast into her career and turns a blind eye to his indiscretions. In the book, the men are forever exonerated for their crimes and wrongdoings, by the women. There’s always some “logical” reasoning to the way the men have behaved. This almost invisible, subtextual chauvinism can’t be ignored. Also, other than Salma’s story, the others seem to have the proverbial happy ending. This smacks of immature writing.

Majority of Indian gay men remain closeted and continue to have heterosexual marriages and children under the pretext of parental pressure and culture. They also have multiple gay liaisons after marriage with gay abandon (no pun intended) and literally no remorse. Are the Indian women too, like Leila, choosing to not see the obvious because of the pressure to stay married and the stigma of divorce? Or are they truly oblivious?

Though the book is about Ammani women, one can’t miss the fact, how close this hits home. Indian women, are still governed by the cis men around them, and it remains an ongoing struggle for them to establish their equality and agency.