A jour­ney in the face of death

Through­out the book, the main char­ac­ter searches for ful­fill­ment in the face of a ter­mi­nal ill­ness


O Road to Par­adise” is a novel about one man’s search for ful­fill­ment when he be­lieves he is go­ing to die. His pur­suit pro­pels him on a quiet and slow jour­ney to learn about him­self and to un­der­stand the peo­ple around him. The book was writ­ten by cel­e­brated au­thor Has­san Daoud. He taught cre­ative writ­ing at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut and worked as a re­porter dur­ing Le­banon’s civil war. Many of his works have been trans­lated into English, in­clud­ing “No Road to Par­adise.” The book was trans­lated by Mar­i­lyn Booth who also trans­lated his novel, “The Pen­guin’s Song.” Orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2013 by Dar Al-Saqi, “No Road to Par­adise” was awarded the Naguib Mah­fouz Medal for Lit­er­a­ture in 2015.

You first meet Daoud’s main char­ac­ter in his doc­tor’s of­fice. He is pre­par­ing him­self for bad news. He knows he is sick and has known it for some time, but has been un­able to say the words out loud to him­self as he has been bound by fear. His fear stems from his stature and po­si­tion as the imam of a small vil­lage called Sh­fqi­fiyeh in Le­banon. Vaguely, the doc­tor tells him that he is to come back in a few days and that he will un­dergo an op­er­a­tion.

The char­ac­ter knows he has cancer and knows it will be the end of him.

Daoud’s book is slow and care­ful, de­tailed and brim­ming with dis­con­tent. We meet his char­ac­ter at a mo­ment in his life when his many dif­fer­ent paths — the path he is on, the path he de­sires and the path he fears — are com­ing to­gether. He must make a choice and choose one path. He is a man who has al­ways done what he was sup­posed to do, no mat­ter how un­happy it has made him. He has had to ful­fill his le­gacy as an imam, the pro­fes­sion of his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther and their fore­fa­thers. How­ever, from the mo­ment the reader first meets him, he is un­sure of him­self, his ca­reer and whether or not he wants to con­tinue to be an imam.

“Although I had been putting on the abaya and tur­ban of my… pro­fes­sion since I was a very young man, I still find my­self re­act­ing as though I al­ways had to put them on in spite of my­self,” the char­ac­ter says in the book.

His life has been dic­tated to him since he was young, his fa­ther’s com­mit­ment to him and to the pro­fes­sion was the driv­ing force he thought he needed to love his life. How­ever, when he is sent to school to be­come an imam and re­turns to a wife he does not know and a house his fa­ther has cho­sen for him, his hes­i­ta­tion grows. “When I started wear­ing the cloak and tur­ban of the re­li­gious, I felt like I was liv­ing in some­one else’s clothes,” the char­ac­ter says.

His dis­il­lu­sion­ment with his job is only height­ened by his re­la­tion­ship with his wife. Cho­sen for him be­cause she was the daugh­ter of a rel­a­tive, their union has been un­com­fort­able since the be­gin­ning. He be­lieves that she hates him, as if she “was a per­son who was wait­ing for an­other life, even ex­pect­ing a dif­fer­ent life to be granted to her.”

Never able to ful­fill their du­ties to­ward each other, they har­bor re­sent­ment that is vis­i­ble in their at­ti­tudes, words and ac­tions. They are two peo­ple liv­ing to­gether with noth­ing else to hold them but duty and chil­dren.

Daoud writes each char­ac­ter metic­u­lously, re­veal­ing them through the mostly sym­pa­thetic, at times ap­a­thetic and crit­i­cal, eyes of his nar­ra­tor, the imam.

As the imam comes face to face with his ill­ness, his life be­gins to crum­ble around him. He won­ders why he has con­tin­ued to al­low him­self to move for­ward with his un­happy life. He ques­tions ev­ery­thing and dis­tances him­self from the great­ness of his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther. His ill­ness pro­pels him into a state that changes him, both phys­i­cally and men­tally, and puts his faith into ques­tion. As an imam, Daoud’s main char­ac­ter is fa­mil­iar with death and has re­cited Qur’anic verses for the dead and been present at many funer­als. He is aware that the only known fact about death is its in­evitabil­ity and that it sig­nals the end of life on earth, but not eter­nal life. How­ever, his fear takes hold of him when he faces his own death. The imam’s im­pres­sion of death is pow­er­ful as he thinks of those peo­ple in the past who “still knew that a space of time sep­a­rated them from death. For death was hid­den. It lay in their bodies, but they didn’t know ex­actly where it was.” The imam does not have this lux­ury.

Daoud is a pro­found writer, his char­ac­ters multi-faceted, their flaws and fears stronger than their strengths and courage, mak­ing them be­liev­able and re­lat­able. The life he has cre­ated for his imam is any­thing but quaint. The imam has been un­able to fill the shoes of his an­ces­tors, un­able to find the peace he has been look­ing for and un­able to find a com­pat­i­ble com­pan­ion or friend since leav­ing school in Na­jaf. He has no one in his vil­lage who he can talk to as “the most they ex­pected from me was a re­sponse when they re­quested some­thing,” he says in the book.

Through­out the book, the reader jour­neys with the imam as he searches for where he be­longs in life. It is a story that is not of­ten told, but is im­mensely re­lat­able.

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