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A returning ex-pat, an espionage mission, a mysterious Islamist counter-intelligence figure locked away in Djibouti’s Devil’s Islands, a palimpsest of letters written to Walter Benjamin appearing through the notes a scribe is taking from “The Master,” a rageful twin brother who plans the death of his twin, devotion to the great African pianist and singer Abdulla Ibrahim.  All these are woven up in a small, intriguing novel, Passage of Tears, by Abdourahman A. Waberi, in an excellent translation by David and Nicole Ball.  First published in French in 2009, the English version comes to us in a nice Seagull Books edition, in 2011.

In alternating chapters by the narrator, Djibril, and the scribe, Djamal, the setting and story unfold, at once two biographies — which may be one–, a situation report of the Horn of Africa, and an appreciation of Walter Benjamin who died decades before, an immigrant in flight, but who created a new kind of history, much admired by the narrators:

…a conception of history, which was not theoretical or arid in the least.  It appealed to me [Djibril] because it seemed as sensitive to human beings as the stories my Grandpa Assod used to tell.”

Djibril, having lived in Canada for many years, has returned as an employee of one of the new private security firms to which nations are outsourcing their intelligence work.

“I returned to Djibouti for professional reasons, not to feast at the table of nostalgia or open old wounds.

…My mission consists in feeling out the temperature on the ground, making sure the country is secure, the situation is stable and the terrorists under control.”

The problem is, he is in fact, caught up in his nostalgia; an old wound is opened, wide.

The chapters from Djamal, are titled with letters of the Arabic alphabet.  Alif, Ba, Ta  to Ya, and so, far less indicative than those from Djibril:  The Scent of the Father; Revolt in the Desert.  Though apparently deep inside the prison, Djamal and the Master are intimately aware of Djibril’s presence.  Many of his notes, intended to be transcriptions of the Master’s sermons and homilies, are directed to him — as though he were the auditor, or reader.

So what do you know…you trickster from McGill, you wanted to get close to us !  And to do what?  To look through your binoculars  and take snapshots of our jail from every angle?

…We are closely monitoring your every move.  We know all about you, the cover of your bedside book and the brand of your toothpaste.  Every word you say is reported back to us, all the way to this watertight cell.

Interestingly, all the language from Djamal, the Islamist, is filled with vituperation, rage and revenge fantasies, both personal — we learn that Djamal is Djibril’s “little brother” by 28 minutes– and religious/ideological. That of Djibril, the apostate, is mild, curious, and reflective about the Koran, his childhood, and his Canadian wife.

Marvelous images burst from the pages of both:

…we are living through uncertain times, but the Devil is here, that professional prowler. Locking up his captives more numerous than the stars in a moonless sky.  [Djamal]

“The indigo meadows of childhood return to me in memory, and so do the burning colors of adolescence… The saffron afternoons cannot be forgotten either…”   Times when the moon is a golden fingernail in a shimmering sky.” [Djibril]

“The potholes in the road grow bigger and suddenly come together, swallowing up the asphalt in an animal hug.” [Djibril]

As the novel proceeds, Djamal  is increasingly confounded by, and attracted to, a palimpsest text adressed to Walter Benjamin — ‘The Book of Ben’–which appears on the parchment beneath the notes he is both taking from his Master, and writing for himself.  The author of this text is unknown, or mostly unknown, having apparently been in the cell which Djamal now occupies.   We have already been told by Djibril that Benjamin is his favorite writer, introduced to him by his Canadian companion, Denise;  yet it is his twin who is reading the palimpsest text about him, and reading with increasing interest.  The story of the exile and death of this quintessential Jewish-German intellectual,  far from the religious foundations of his best friend, Gershom Scholem,  manages to pull Djamal away from his militant Islamic beliefs and unquestioning obedience to his Master, and  into the world of man, with its temptations of the flesh, the power of thought, and above all, freedom.

The plot itself, the investigations by Djibril of the terrorist threat, which includes his brother, and by Djamal of the western onslaught, which includes his brother, proceeds, via a converted French woman and her Islamist mentor, via a young, believing, assassin,  to the death, of Benjamin, Djibril, and possibly Djamal, “who tomorrow, will become a new man.”

Passage of Tears is fascinating, but in part because you aren’t sure you’ve got it all. The devoted reader will be intrigued, re-reading passages, trying to figure it out.  The casual reader will give up early, carried along by the possibility of a secret-agent story, but tired of stumbling over the seemingly unrelated passages in the prison notebooks, addressed to Walter Benjamin.  Who is he, and why is he here, this German-Jewish intellectual who died by his own hand at the Spanish-French border, exhausted in the flight from the Nazis?  What has he to do with the brothers, the writer of ‘Book of Ben,’ or David, a Yemini Jew who was Djibril’s best friend — since his twin was not.

In fact, some of the reviews I’ve read, seem to have given up the discovery, hiding it by merely mentioning the obvious beauty of language, the bare plot outlines, and a bow to the confrontation between modern and retrograde belief: one in Money, the other in Allah the Avenger.  Not one has tried to put together the Benjamin-like  puzzle of impressions, which is the novel itself,  with a more analytical thread than Waberi wanted to provide.

Here’s how I untangle it.  I ask myself what Waberi, the author,  is interested in, under the assumption that an author can’t write much of a book without interest in its various parts. What does he want to talk to us about?

About Walter Benjamin, an immigrant, and a mold breaking intelligence.  About his own (and many immigrant’s) split between who they have become and who they might have become.  About contemporary Islamic-Africa, with the continental plates of cultures grinding against each other.

Waberi is an immigrant, for many years to France, some to Germany, and now in the U.S.  His lead narrator is a Canadian-Djiboutian, going back on a dangerous mission to his homeland, as we can imagine many an immigrant imagining.  ‘ I have been absent and now I want to know’  or  ‘I have been safe and now I want to risk myself.’   Had Waberi not immigrated, what might he have become?  Like other educated African-Arab-Middle Easterners he might have been caught in some strand of rebellion against Westernism,  successor to the older cruel, colonialism of Europe; he might have joined an Islamist group; he might have been put in prison.  These might-have-beens, these alternate selves,  are worth exploring. Or perhaps, having explored them, are worth writing down.  And not at all as a personal confession but as a reflection of a  large segment of similarly situated ‘exiles,’ whose various ‘selves’ wrestle with each other with every daily headline.

The novel becomes a way for Waberi to explore these two Waberis, or perhaps three, and share them with us: both are investigators.  They are brothers – nay twins.  They are referred to as “false” brothers.  David, Dibril’s best friend in boyhood, was he “true” brother.  The brother Djamal is reading documents addressed to Walter Benjamin who is the favorite writer of the brother Djibril.  The author of the Benjamin text — which Djamal refers to once as a mirror of his won existence, is lightly sketches; we do not know him, except that he existed in prison, in the same cell, as his reader.

Does the Benjamin text have more to do with the two brothers than simply being an author/thinker one likes and the other is reading about?  Does Benjamin’s flight from Germany, via Paris, to his own death at the French-Spanish border track, in some manner, the paths of the brothers?  Is Djamal’s increasing distance from the teachings of his Master –though he carries through with the plot to kill his brother–  abetted by the story he is reading about Benjamin, the quintessential secular Jew?

Near the end of ‘The Book of Ben,’ the narrator of that text, the “I,”  tells us that he, himself is a prisoner, and like Benjamin, has eschewed organization and classification in favor of leaving traces in people’s memories.   So, it would seem that the three writers, Djibril, Djamal and he of the Book of Ben have become one….

In a new edition of some Benjamin essays — One Way Street and other Essays, Amit Chaudhuri in his preface gives some ideas as to Waberi’s attraction to Benjamin,  discussing a famous photo of Benjamin and a typical image of a Bengali bourgeoise:

What is it that converges in the face of a certain kind of Bengali and Jewish bourgeois… It is a current of history that shaped the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries everywhere, and brought a particular kind of individual — putatively, the ‘modern’– into existence… It is a face that inhabits a world in which various cultures are suddenly in contact with one another, and it is a product of that contact..

He speaks of a certain ‘nomadic’ family of intelligentsia, including himself, Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and to which Waberi certainly belongs…

“…shaped by a world culture in such a way as to permanently complicate, for her [Sontag,] simple affiliations of race and sexuality, and to force her to constantly reinterpret minority; in the end, for the modern, ambivalence becomes identity, and modernity a very specific kind of problem.”

Waberi’s “twins” and the imprisoned, never seen, author of the Book to Ben, are the epitome of ambivalence and stock-taking along the leading edges where tradition/religion and modernity/corporations butt against each other.

It is interesting to find in another, better known writer than Waberi, expressing similar conflicts of personhoods splitting and merging, and in the conflict between secular and Islamic traditions.  Orhan Pahmuk’s Snow is a tale of three days, snow bound in the remote Turkish city of Kars, in which Ka, the main character, has come from exile in Frankfurt, Germany, to meet a woman he had known years before at University in Istanbul.  He is swept into a theatrically led “left wing” revolution against the increasing Islamization of the culture.  The sister of his intended is a leader of the “head-scarf” girls who are doing civil disobedience and even committing suicide in protest against rules against going covered in public.  The lover of the head-scarf sister, a  secular leftist in their student days, is now “training” suicide girls; he had also been the lover of Ka’s intended.  The themes of secular-religious conflict of Waberi’s “brothers” are played out here between lovers and former colleagues.

In Pahmuk’s earlier novel The White Castle, a Venetian scholar comes to Constantinople where over the course of imprisonment and mutual teaching with a Turkish “master” the two identities merge, in the end, swapping — the Venetian becoming the court astrologer the master had intended on being.

It would be too much to claim a post-colonial commonality among writers from the Arabic-Islamic world  of personhood fracturing along fault lines of tradition and modernity, secularism and Islam, from only two examples, and so I won’t.  However another novel I’ve recently read, A Season of Migration to the North, by Sudanese Taleb Salih show similar tropes: a Sudanese man, having long lived in England, returns home to meet another returned exile, a double of himself:

Was it likely that what had happened to Mustafa Sa’eed could have happened to me? He had said that he was a lie, so was I also a lie?  I too had lived with them [the English] But I had lived with them superficially, neither loving nor hating them.

 On the other hand in fiction from Libyan-English Hisham Matar [and here]  and Egyptian-English Ahdaf Soueif [and here] while there is cross cultural recognition and interplay, we don’t get the splitting and conflict of the former.  My guess is, that were I an academic with in interest in literary-cultural patterns, I’d find the dissolving, palimpsest personhood themes among writers of certain shared ages, conditions of exile, status of homeland and social sensitivity, and that it would be a significantly large group.  But back to Waberi and the novel at hand.

There is are answers in here somewhere as to the singularity or multiplicity of the characters, and what they are reflecting about Djibouti, post-colonial Islam, exile – forced or voluntary, internal or external, but that fact that the parts haven’t settled in against each other to form a coherent picture keep the novel from being a complete success for me.  Though Passage of Tears will remain, marked, on my bookshelf for another future, more informed reading, it may never be pulled down, unless Djibouti explodes in the headlines, or my own renewed readings of Benjamin — thank you M. Waberi– light a light that remains dim for me now.

And thank you too, Waberi, for your appreciation of Abdulla Ibrahim.  He has another admirer  now, in me.

The Balls also translated an earlier novel by Waberi, titled in English In The United States of Africa [precis]  At a time not so far into the future, it is imagined that the first world and third world have traded places, that hundreds of thousands of Euramericans are fleeing their squalid slums for the wealth and well-being of Africa.  I haven’t read it.  The conceit sounds intriguing.  Down the road for reading….

[First posted 1/6/12;  Edited 1/9/12]