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.


Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands

This wonderment of a book, written by Palestinian author, Sonia Nimr; and remarkably translated by Marcia Lynx Qualey; is winner of the prestigious Etisalat Award and also the recipient of the Translation award at the Palestine Book Awards 2021. It’s a historical fantasy and literary folklore that follows the journey of the protagonist Qamar. Qamar, who is born in a village in Palestine, decides to travel the world after the death of her parents, to honour their dreams. This decision takes her on a roller coaster ride, crossing deserts and seas, to Jerusalem and Gaza, Egypt, Morocco, Tangier, Andalusia , Genoa, Abyssinia, India, Ceylon, Maldives and Eden in Yemen. From being sold off as a slave to disguising herself as a man to become one of pirates in a pirate ship, to ultimately finding the love of her life and marrying him, Qamar, has an adventure like no other. Through this, she assumes the role of a healer, utilising her knowledge of herbal medicine to heal and cure diseases. Her empathetic persona wins her friends and confidantes; while her gift of storytelling gets her out of the strangest situations. During this wondrous journey, as Qamar, battles grief, hopelessness and heartache, she remains determined and never lets her gender act as a barrier to learning, to travel and to pursue. This feminist fable is not just an exploration of the cultures and stories of the Arab world, but also an effective combination of legend and history.