Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of I SHALL NOT HATE
Shortlisted for the Australian Unpublished Manuscript Award 2011
From the judges’ reports:
‘An ambitious, politically charged and terrifically restrained novel.’ (Patrick Allington, author of FIGUREHEAD)
‘We live in the most beautiful world and instead of gracing it with peace and harmony we massacre each other…A grim funeral march, a prayer for a better world.’ (Peter Bishop, formerly of Varuna, The Writers’ House)
three generations ofwar and genocide, love and renewal
Could it be possible so much killing took place here? No stench of corpses, no evidence of spilled blood. Mass graves shouldn’t be this beautiful. On this serene, cloud-curdled day, the atrocities seem a fabrication, tales told to frighten children.
ANOUSH PAKRADOUNIAN steps onto the tarmac and feels Levantine heat on her cheeks like a caress. She hasn’t been back to Beirut since she was sixteen. Now, at twenty-nine, she thinks she knows where she’s going. She thinks she knows who is right and who is wrong. Yet nothing about her family’s past, the history of her ancestors or her childhood in this city is black and white. There’s her father, killer and killed. He shot children, babies. He terrorised women in Palestinian camps. When he died chained to a wall, he still thought himself a hero. Her Armenian grandmother. Survivor of genocide. Raped, robbed, left for dead. Sold to a Turk in the desert when she was fifteen. Her grandfather, a militiaman famous for his hatred of Muslims. And in dreams, in the space between words – bone, ash, sky – stories of a lake witness to atrocity, to a loss she can’t yet explain.
In 1915, one million Armenians were marched into Syria by Turks and killed in the first genocide of the twentieth century. In 1982, Beirut came under Israeli siege for three months yet 18,000 civilians died, another 30,000 wounded. Today, these historic crimes fail to shock us, accustomed as we are to endless repeats on news channels, played out on television and film. Anoush’s quest personalises the crime. It is driven by the memory of ruined cities and vanished empires: Lake Van before the genocide, Beirut in civil war, Ottoman villas and abandoned churches, Palestinian camps, torture chambers turned into nightclubs, shimmering mountains, the lament of muezzins and monastic Orthodox chants. Her longing to find out about her father, grandparents and her own place in the story implicates her in the history of the Middle East, spans three generations and mirrors their versions of truth and lies.
From her exile in America, Anoush goes back to unravel the experience of those who survived and those who perished. The scene shifts and the year is now 1915, where on the eve of the deportations, her grandmother LILIT is a young woman. Summer arrives with Turkish soldiers sent from Constantinople to massacre civilians, while Lilit and her brother MINAS are marched with a million others across the Syrian desert. Minas escapes the death camp at Der ez Zor and makes his way to Beirut, where so many have found refuge. Thirty years after their parting, Lilit finds her brother among streets bearing the names of vanished Armenian cities. Minas has married an Armenian who gives birth to a boy called SELIM. Lilit too has a daughter, ANAHIT, offspring of her union with the Turk, a man she grew to love. These teenagers are forced to marry, outcome of a pregnancy that produces Anouk, a child nobody wants.
In the midst of Lebanon’s civil war, SANAYA stays in PLO-controlled west Beirut despite the Israeli invasion and siege. She becomes enamoured of ISSA, a Palestinian and member of Islamic Jihad, at the same time continuing her secret liaison with Selim, an Armenian militiaman. As her intimacy with both men intensifies, the city is bombarded with cluster bombs and phosphorus shells, all vital supplies, electricity and water cut off and the inhabitants trapped. The myth of an equal Christian and Muslim Lebanon unravels in tandem with the demise of Sanaya’s relationships and she is left alone, pregnant with Issa’s child, agonising over who killed Selim, listening to sounds of gunfire from her apartment overlooking the sea.
More than a decade on, Anoush decides to stay in Lebanon. Now she realises there are no easy answers, no formulae of victim and villain, crime and retribution. She falls in love with Israeli CHAIM, finds the family of the man who killed her father, eventually adopts one of their own children; choices underpinning all she attempts to understand in her notions of right and wrong, them and us, truth and lies. She reconciles her rage and guilt, creating the possibility of a shared experience for Turks and Armenians, Israelis and Palestinians, and the Lebanese in their glittering, fractured country.