Stella Maris – Children of the ghetto 2

Nijmat al bahr: Awlad al ghetto 2
KHOURY Elias
Dar al adab, Lebanon, Beirut, 2019, 474 pages
StellaMaris-Cover-AR copy

Summary

Summary

As in the first part of this trilogy, Stella Maris, unfolds on the thin thread of the end of the love story between AdamDannoun, an Israeli citizen from Palestine, and Dalia Ben Tsavi, an Israeli of Polish and Iraqi descent.

Adam has decided to write his story, that of the “New Adam”, which, he would like to believe, starts when he runs away from home at 15, to go as far as possible from his childhood in the ghetto of Lydd, with his mother Manal. The New Adam is in a painful quest of a restful identity, one that keeps eluding him. “I want to become a Jew”, he tells Gabriel, the Israeli garage owner who offers him his first job. “This is impossible” he is told. This “present – absentee” (as all Palestinians who were expelled from their homes and still live in Israel are called), thought he could become an “absent Arab – present Israeli” for his plan to succeed. He soon realized this could never be. Paradoxically, even if he wanted to, Adam could not voice his Arab identity. “All Arabs are liars”, Gabriel’s wife explains”, while they are in fact reduced to silence.

A tall blond man, Adam is easily mistaken for an Ashkenazi Jew at University where he seeks to study Hebrew literature, a tale reinforced by his “being from the ghetto”. A brilliant student, he soon becomes friends with his professor of Hebrew literature Yakov, who selects him with three other students to go on a field trip to the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz. Trapped, Adam goes along, and discovers the horror of the Holocaust, another tragedy that cannot be told. Yet, one fellow student knows he is an Arab, Isabella. While willing to keep his secret at first, she finds his presence in Warsaw shocking and indecent. She ultimately exposes him, and Adam is expelled from Yakov’s class.

These years at University will mostly teach Adam how to conceal himself. The present – absentee soon learns how to become invisible. But his contradictions cannot be resolved, and as hard as Adam tries to run away from the ghetto into which he was born and from his past, eventually ending up in New York where he writes his story, he can never escape.

In revealing the contradictory identity of the “Arabs of Israel”, Elias Khoury also weaves together in an unprecedented way, the Holocaust and the Nakba, both phenomena being determining factors of the Israeli and the Palestinian identities. Khoury grasps with great sensitivity, the heart of the Palestinian tragedy: After they lost their land and their homes, life as they knew it, the Palestinians fell silent, and were furthermore reduced to silence. It is this silence that Khoury explores: The true tragedy is that this silence can never be broken. There are no words to describe horror: “Language betrays us”, Adam will reflect.

Conceptually powerful and stimulating, Stella Maris is also a poignant, captivating and powerful narrative, with convincing characters made of flesh and blood, unfolding in a complex, throughly researched world, into which the reader is unavoidably drawn.

[More details available upon request]

Translation sample

Translation sample

After the tours of the ghetto were over, Adam told Nadia that her translation hadn’t been needed, because the rhythm of the guide’s voice had been enough for them to understand everything—a voice that would come close to choking, then die away as it recounted the history of a place that had been erased. He told her he’d felt he was choking when they arrived at the remains of the wall that had hidden the ghetto from the city, at 55 Sienna Street and 62 Złota Street. The ghetto had been enclosed by a wall, three metres high, topped with barbed wire. He said that the children had been the ghetto’s first heroes, because they’d taken on the smuggling of food stuffs from the Aryan zone to the ghetto.

He said that children were the bearers of life and therefore the first to die.

He said that life bestowed by a killer appears meaningless in the midst of debasement, hunger, and disease. It takes its meaning from itself and no longer needs words of any kind. Its meaning exists within it and requires no added meaning.

Did Adam say these things to Nadia, or is he imagining today that he said them? Or is he saying them only now, when death has reached maturity within him?

It is incumbent on the writer of this text, as he recounts the story of his life, to ask himself why he is revisiting this trip to Warsaw, and why he stammers, loses his way with words, and finds himself incapable of writing. Wouldn’t it be better for him to ignore it? Isn’t it simply a recapitulation of events that occurred during the days of the Warsaw Ghetto? And isn’t his account of the trip to Auschwitz just an attempt to say what can’t be said? And what can he say, after all that has been said?

The writer of this text knows that his testimony adds nothing new to “the banality of evil” when it transforms itself into a crime. Even God, who “forgives whomever He pleases,” has lost his capacity for forgiveness and wrapped himself in the cloak of absence.

The voice of the guide began to fade away, and Adam felt that he’d lost the capacity to listen, and the silence wrapped his ears in a soundless ringing.

[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]

Translated by: Humphrey Davies

Rights

Rights

RAYA has world rights to this title.

Check Elias Khoury‘s page for an update on the rights situation.

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