Sur­vival amid the vi­cis­si­tudes of war

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Re­becca Star­ford

NATHALIE Abi- Ezzi lo­cates her de­but novel, A Girl Made of Dust, dur­ing the 1982 Le­banon war. Ten- year- old Ruba lives with her Chris­tian fam­ily in Ein Dowra, a small town south of the cap­i­tal, Beirut. The Is­raeli army has in­vaded south­ern Le­banon, and F- 16 planes are bomb­ing nearby refugee camps and other tar­gets thought to har­bour forces of the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

De­spite the es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence, the in­va­sion is a pe­riph­eral event ini­tially, and Abi- Ezzi deftly weaves it through the nar­ra­tive. For this small com­mu­nity, the war has more prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions: food ra­tioning, elec­tric­ity and wa­ter short­ages, the sly recog­ni­tion of in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, the mukhabarat, liv­ing clan­des­tinely in the com­mu­nity.

Yet no one is com­pletely sti­fled by th­ese vi­cis­si­tudes: Ruba at­tends school, plays in the street with friends, and with her older brother Naji vis­its the gen­er­ous Mus­lim sweet- shop owner, Ali. As the novel pro­gresses, how­ever, a more in­sid­i­ous se­cret is re­vealed, one that plagues Ruba’s fa­ther, Papi, keep­ing him con­fined to the house: the mys­tery of the epony­mous girl made of dust and her mur­der in a Beirut al­ley­way.

Abi- Ezzi’s char­ac­ters are stoic and re­source­ful; they are not without flaws. With the fam­ily busi­ness stalled, Ruba’s mother must man­age the house­hold, and her culi­nary ex­per­tise is amus­ingly rudi­men­tary: ‘‘ In the kitchen, Mami was cook­ing as though she were in a race.’’ Un­cle Wahid, a suave busi­ness­man from Beirut, ap­pears in­ter­mit­tently; he has se­crets of his own.

Ruba’s bond with her grand­mother, Teta, is es­pe­cially mov­ing. There is such poignancy when ‘‘ the wrin­kled skin of her chest showed as she ( Teta) un­but­toned the top of her shirt to let in the cool air, and I saw the lit­tle wad of tis­sues she al­ways kept tucked in her shoul­der strap for when she cried’’. Most nu­anced is Ruba’s re­la­tion­ship with Naji. On the cusp of ado­les­cence, Naji is beginning to rebel against fam­ily con­straints; he is re­sent­ful, es­pe­cially of his emas­cu­lated fa­ther.

A Girl Made of Dust is a sim­ple, hon­est story; it is cer­tainly no great lit­er­ary feat. The lan­guage is di­rect, though with a ten­dency to ser­monise (‘‘ Pa­tience will ex­tract su­gar from a lemon’’), and phrases such as ‘‘ the si­lence around us thick­ened like rice pud­ding, and words could no longer cut through it’’ make for turgid read­ing on oc­ca­sion.

Chris­tian sym­bol­ism also weighs heav­ily in the nar­ra­tive: ‘‘ a huge em­broi­dered pic­ture of Christ’s head bled and shone out great beams of light’’ and, du­bi­ously, ‘‘ the Au­gust sun rose like Je­sus’’. This is suitably tem­pered, how­ever, by Ruba’s re­li­gious scep­ti­cism.

There is some fine de­scrip­tion of the nat­u­ral land­scape: ‘‘ the for­est would be chang­ing, its old skin peel­ing off like a scab to un­cover a shiny new soft­ness’’, while ‘‘ the sound of the ci­cadas in the val­ley throbbed on and on like blood pump­ing around an aching head’’ evokes the po­tent sym­bol­ism of mar­tyr­dom.

Ruba is an en­gag­ing, per­cep­tive nar­ra­tor, al­beit cyn­i­cal be­yond her years. Chary of her place in this ten­u­ous world, sub­jec­tiv­ity is her fas­ci­na­tion, the ar­tic­u­la­tion of voice and its sig­nif­i­cance. She pon­ders, for ex­am­ple, ‘‘ what Je­sus’ voice sounded like’’. When she be­friends the lonely Huda, who has not spo­ken since the death of her mother, Ruba won­ders if ‘‘ some­one’s voice gets am­pu­tated? A voice, cut off. It would be float­ing out there in the air, in space where no one would hear it.’’

This is a painful re­minder of the many un­told sto­ries from a con­flict that claimed the lives of more than 20,000 Le­banese and Pales­tinian civil­ians and mili­tia mem­bers. Loosely based on her child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences, Abi- Ezzi’s novel is a tes­ti­mony to sur­vival. Re­becca Star­ford is deputy ed­i­tor of the Aus­tralian Book Re­view.

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