BEIRUT: All good fairy tales contain a germ of truth and most good novels are infused with a touch of magic. Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour’s “The Woman from Tantoura” begins with a fairy tale prince, a handsome young man named Yahya who arises glistening from the Mediterranean Sea’s waves, winning the heart of the protagonist, 13-year-old Ruqayya, in an instant.
Yahya, the boy from Ain Ghazal, is not destined to marry his girl from Tantoura, however. Both families agree to an engagement, but the year is 1948. That spring, Zionist paramilitaries sweep southward along the coast from Haifa, seizing control of Tantoura and the surrounding villages, driving the Palestinian inhabitants into exile, imprisoning some and executing others.
It’s the beginning of a journey that will lead Ruqayya from her tiny village with its ruins, its beaches and its blossoming almond tree, to Sidon, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Alexandria and back.
Recently released in English translation by Kay Heikkinen, published by the American University in Cairo Press, “The Woman from Tantoura” was first published in Arabic in 2010.
Although Ashour herself is not Palestinian, she is married to Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti. The country has played a role in several of her previous novels, but “The Woman from Tantoura” marks the first time she’s addressed the history of the country and that of its people directly.
A work of fiction, the book is grounded in documented events.
Ashour delights in blending the imaginary with the real, fabricating interactions between members of Ruqayya’s family and prominent historical figures – such as assassinated Lebanese politician and activist Maarouf Saad, Lebanese historian Bayan Nubhad, Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani and Palestine Research Center founder Anise Sayegh.
Ashour’s characters come to witnesses a complex and bloody history, recounting fictionalized but plausible accounts of massacres, flight, the pain of exile and the burden of history, anchoring the grand narratives of history books in the detail of everyday life.
Structured in a series of 58 short chapters, the book frequently skips among time periods and voices.
Ruqayya moves between the present and past, and occasionally foreshadows events to come. While she mostly writes in the first person – documenting the thoughts and memories of a woman in her 60s with children and grandchildren – in several passages she describes herself in the third person, as though analyzing the views and actions of her younger self through a stranger’s eyes.
The novel charts a lifetime of exile, detailing the triumphs and trials of three generations of the same family: Ruqayya’s parents and their siblings, the protagonist and her brothers and cousins, and her three sons and adoptive daughter Maryam.
There are moments of joy in the novel – the grand happiness of births, marriages, graduations and the smaller day-to-day pleasures of good food and good company – but for the most part the book is a dense and often painful read.
Ashour writes beautifully, balancing her own talent for evocative language and imagery with a simplicity and directness appropriate for the voice of Ruqayya – whose education is minimal but who is naturally perceptive.
Even scenes describing horrific violence are imbued with a haunting lyricism. Ashour’s depictions of truly brutal events are punctuated by matter-of-fact sentences, whose brevity reinforces their power.
In the opening section, Ashour recounts Ruqayya’s experience of the Tantoura massacre, in which her father and two brothers are murdered. Their bodies are thrown onto a heap of dismembered corpses, where Ruqayya catches sight of them from the truck in which she and her mother are forcibly evacuated from the village by Israeli forces.
Faced with the denial of her mother, who chooses to believe her husband and sons have fled to safety in Egypt, Ruqayya’s trauma manifests itself in a refusal to speak. She remains mute for several months, until they arrive in Sidon, where she can finally confide in her paternal uncle.
In Lebanon, Ruqayya’s personal story – her marriage to her cousin Amin, the birth of her three sons, her interactions with friends and loved ones – continues to be set against a backdrop of cyclical violence. Tensions gradually increase until the Civil War erupts in all its fury, pitting Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis against one another in attack and counterattack.
Ruqayya’s two oldest sons, fedayeen loyal to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, leave Lebanon in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion, while the youngest remains behind, where he bears witness to the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. Ruqayya gradually reveals the ramifications of the slaughter, exploring both its direct impact on her family, and its wider effects on Lebanon’s Palestinian population.
“The Woman from Tantoura” is a grueling, often harrowing read, but it’s worth persevering through it. There are treasures to be uncovered amid the carnage.
Radwa Ashour’s “The Woman from Tantoura,” translated by Kay Heikkinen, is published by the American University in Cairo Press and is available from select local bookstores.