Jabra Ibrahim Jabra‘s The Ship (Al Safina 1970) is narrated by two characters taking a trip on a cruise ship from Beirut to Italy: Isam Salman, an architect from Baghdad who has studied in London and Wadi Assaf, a Palestinian buisnessman who lives in exile in Kuwait. There’s a cast of Arab and European characters and a web of relationships among them all tied to Isam’s decision to leave Iraq.
Isam decides this having told himself he needs to get away from Luma, a woman he is in love with but could not marry due to a family feud, his father having killed her uncle over a land dispute. For Issam, Europe is an alternative homeland, where he first met Luma, and where he hopes to find a future away from his traumatic memories. When Wadi first sees him he thinks of “an Englishman dressed up as an Arab, or vice versa. Distinguishing one of his personalities from the other is difficult (and unnecessary).”
While Isam’s father killed another man for the land which he the son has now abandoned, selling most of without regret, Wadi, in contrast, is yearning for his land in Palestine, and his narrative is interwoven with memories of the death of his friend Fayiz in the fighting in 1948 and his dream of building a house in Jerusalem.
As Luma finds out Issam is leaving Iraq, she arranges to go with her husband Falih, a Lebanese surgeon, on the same ship. Falih then invites his Italian friend Emilia to come, while Wadi is travelling alone since his friend Maha who has befriended Emilia decides at last moment not to join them.
As the ship sails from Beiut to Naples, the journey is marked by flashbacks, conversations and foreshadowing as when a Dutch traveller tries and fails to commit suicide. That night they listen to Um Kulthum and Luma dances – for a long time. When Falih finally drags her away, Isam and Wadih discusses Falih’s threats to commit suicide, and think about the crowd that had gathered to watch Luma.
They don’t know that Arabs don’t commit suicide, Isam says.
Exactly like Spaniards, Wadi replies.
But Falih, as is revealed in his diary at the end, had decided to kill himself that day.
Mahmud Rashad, a teacher of political science, has a breakdown at the sight of a man he believes to have been his torturer, an event which draws a crowd of onlookers who are dispersed by the onset of a storm which rocks the ship for an entire day, during which Wadi comes to realize that Falih and Emilia are involved in a relationship.
Mahmud Rashad’s story is the most obvious symbolic manifestation of the political oppression referred to throughout the novel as political themes emerge through the dialogues between the passengers, and it in turn had been foreshadowed by his story of a school friend who takes his punishment for him without revealing that Mahmud is the real culprit. Mahmud says that since then he has never implicated anybody, something he mentions in passing at the time, but which becomes symbolic after his breakdown and the revelation of his torture. Wadi is affected by Mahmud’s story but Isam doesn’t care so much for the people who “turn the world upside down with their screams about the injustice of the oppressors, and if they take control, are more oppressive and unjust from those that oppressed them.”
At Naples, a trip to Capri is planned, but Luma and Isam decide to take the opportunity to spend their time together in the city – and there they are spotted by Emilia and Falih who had the same idea. Falih withdraws in a morose mood which Emilia is unable to change. The couples hurry back, and Isam finds the group playing cards. He and Emilia meet, and decide to head back into the city. When he returns in the early hours of the morning, he finds an angry Luma waiting. While Falih is sleeping, she goes into Isam’s cabin – but when she goes back she finds out that Falih who she thought was sleeping had in fact commited suicide.
It is at this point that Maha comes into the narrative, and steps onto the ship, allowing the reader to see all of this drama from a point that steps out of the claustrophobic microcosmic world of the ship, which has brought all these people and their stories together.
As Richard van Leeuwen points out,
“there are several references to literary texts as if the ship is a meeting-point for various literary discourses, where texts come together, mix and are dispersed again.”
The references include Anatole France, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Camus and Kafka, as well as A Thousand and One Nights, especially the Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad – a story where all characters except the Porter have a double identity, which is unmasked, and in the end identities are reconstructed and brought into harmony.
“Likewise the ship is an enchanted space, it is filled with false identities, it is full of tales, it is a place where lives meet and are driven off course only to collide with destiny.”
Van Leeuwen links this to “the notion of Hijra in Islam: a self-chosen isolation of a group which separates itself from a society which seems to reject them, and the exile of those who have been displaced in their homelands, by war, occupation, defeats and traumatic experiences.”
Despite the fact that the characters repeat the idea that “today’s travels have nothing to do with Sindibad” (42), the Sindbad figure symbolizes the roaming and rootlessness of the characters which in the novel emerges as a mood of estrangement from the land and nostalgia for it, which permeates even Isam and Wadi discussion of orientalists:
Wadi: “…these adventurers, are they searching for oil? Perhaps. Precious metals? Perhaps. They sweep what even God neglected of the earth to draw latitude lines east and west on the map…to serve some secret cause? Perhaps…And in the end the traveler writes his book and publishes it and we read it in his foreign language to learn something knew about ourselves.”
Isam: “But they too are escapists..they are escaping…strangers in their lands and in lands not their own. They discover what is unknown in far flung places to forget their ghurbah (alienation), to end it, to return victorious to a world they want to embrace them. But they, like all adventurers, like all Sindbads, will not remain in the arms of their home long. Their feeling of ghurbah will return and the need to flee again.”
“But they have a place to return…Henry Layard returns to the British Museum with the winged bulls, and Sindbad returns to Baghdad with treasure.” (81).
As Roger Allen points out,
“While present time is set during a cruise on the Mediterranean, the real theme of this work has nothing to do with the sea but rather with land, land as responsibility, land as both the heritage of the past and aspiration for the future.”
In the same discussion, Wadi goes on:
“Real alienation is alienation from a place, from roots. This is the crux. Land, land, that is everything. We return to it bringing our discoveries, but as long as we hang onto the racing clouds, we remain in this fools’ paradise. We are continually escaping, but now we must go back to the land, even if we are forced later to start off again. we must have terra firma under our feet. (82)
And what I have always found to be one of the most melancholy parts of the novel:
Do you know the ancient Arab poets used to fall in love with place names and that they repeated them in their poems as frequently as they repeated the names of the women they loved…Stop, oh my friends, let us pause to weep over the remembrance of my beloved/Here was her abode on the edge of the sandy desert between Dakhool and Howmal….
And don’t you remember these lines by Ubaid Ibn al-Abras….
Malhoub is desolate, all its people gone
And Qutabiyah and Dhanub
And Rakis and Thuaylibat…
And Dhatu Firqayn and Qalib
And Arda and Qafa Hibirrin
And when he could not think of any more place-names to fill the second hemistich, he said; “No Arab soul is left of them there.”
It is enough for us for the word Baghdad to be said, for joy to dance in our bodies despite all the killing that has happened there (25).
This is all the more poignant to me given what happened to Jabra’s house in Baghdad in 2010, when it was destroyed by a car-bomb.
(The “stop oh my friends” line is of course from the opening of Imru al-Qais’ muallaqa which you can read here and listen to read here, both in Arabic. And you can listen to a poem by Ubaid ibn al-Abrass here).
Wadi’s narrative is infused with a sense of despair in the political, as he says:
“We told the truth until we lost our voice and we ended up in the refugee camps. We pretended to have truth in front of the nations of the world and became the victims of our stupidity. We learned that as a nation (ummah) and as individuals.”
The Palestinians are all poets, even if they don’t write poetry, because they know two things: the beauty of nature and tragedy…Did I say the Palestinians were poets? They are traders. they have closed their hearts to poetry and went into trade, all around the world.” (18)
But despite this he knows the necessity to return to the land, that the journey on board the ship is an escape from reality…but there is no escape without a return:
On board a ship, it should be written as follows in letters of sun and wind: abandon all memories, all ye who enter here! For voyagers, the sea is a tremendous eraser that can wipe out the most stubborn types of ink, even images etched into the soul like wounds. But unfortunately, the sea is not the river of oblivion, however much the travellers might wish it were.
He calls the seagulls “ghurban al-bahr” – the crows of the sea, and crows, ghurban, are intimately related to estrangement, ghurbah, in Arabic poetry.
One curse is the worst of all curses: the curse of estrangement (ghurbah) from your land. Ask the Palestinians…this blue sea doesn’t care because it thinks it gathers all the civilizations of the world on its shores…but it also carries some parts of our shores…the sea of Palestine, the sea of Yaffa and Haifa. (23)
Time…is a terrible thing, as it runs its injust course…at the end it leaves nothing worth saying. Time has stomped over everything I hold dear…if I was a painter I would paint it, you know how, with a large black smear..time is the great enemy….a black smear filling up the cloth of age.”(18)
And time in the novel is not linear as Allen notes:
Throughout the work, the events and surroundings trigger a whole series of flashbacks that allow the past to impinge on the present. The use of two narrators (and Emilia Farnesi, who recounts the episode with Falih in Naples) not onlu allows for the unfolding of the events of the cruise in chronological sequence and for the portrayal of the various characters from different points of view but also enables the past to interpret and affect the present almost till the end of the novel.
In one of the most intense flashbacks, Wadi remembers a summer when he was fourteen with his artist friend Faiz, memories interlaced by the repeition of the word “sakhr” everything described in therms of rocks and stones and hewn from the land. Later, Wadi narrates a dream sequence in which he is carrying a wounded Faiz who is actually a dead Faiz and when he puts him down becomes a stranger or his father – this incident in fact occured it is later revealed, after Faiz is shot dead and Wadi is unable to leave him, so carries him on his back. Allen notes that the description of Faiz’s house is almost identical to Jabra’s description of his own home in Jerusalem in his colelction of article The Eighth Journey (al rihla al-thaminah) and in Jerusalem: Embodied/corporeal Time (Al-Quds: al-zaman al-mujassad).
At one point, Wadi compares himself to Mutanabi (p. 45) who used to say that fate warned him, but remembers that Mutanabi died at 51, and perhaps fate warned him because he had not turned his back on fate. When Falih tells Isam that Wadi “like most Palestinians” is obsessed with himself, Isam replies “obsessed with his past. Most Palestinians are obssesed with a lost innocence they want to regain.” But Wadi is also pragmatic about his exile:
History has always been like this. History…is the story of the struggle of freedom with tyranny. The struggle of the soul and the material. I think that the amount of tryanny at any point of time, is equal to the amount of tyranny at any other time. And freedom too probably. (123)
Hope is mentioned briefly, “The ummah must hope to move towards the future again, In our life, it is individuals who struggle.” (124) But it will not come with a revolution as Isam and Luma agree with they discuss the Iraqi revolution:
All these years I’ve been dreaming of revolution and when the revolution happened while I was in London I felt I was the victim of a secret plot that distanced me from the one thing I used to dream would make miracles happen. (176)
Falih has his own part of the narrative, through his diaries and letters, where he repeatedly returns to a conversation he had with the others about this age being an age of “worms.” In his diaries he says the letters of suicides are usually truthful, but they might be too truthful, like seeing a miniscule thing under a microscope, seeing eveything magnified, moving…it’s real but maginified a million times.
One of the entries begins with a quote from Balzac The Wild Ass’ Skin “Are not fearful poisons set up in the soul by a swift concentration of all her energies…” (212).
He writes to Luma to explain:
“I spent my entire life searching for crises and revolutions such as these. Yet my humanity was always rejectionist because it was maimed…I reject the age of murder, the age of frustration. I reject despair and now at last I reject hope. I wanted to rise above human beings, their concerns, their wretchedness and their cruelty, but I have failed.”
After Falih’s body is found, Maha arrives and Luma and Isam and Maha and Wadi leave the ship, without really having resolved anything: Maha and Wadi’s turbulent relationship remains turbulent and Isam will accompany Luma and Falih’s body back to Iraq, but there they face the same problem that prevented their marriage in the beginning.
For those remaining, for the two main protagonists, Issam and Wadi, there is some hope that although neither will be able to fulfill their aspiration they can acheive reintegration that will produce harmoney between dream and reality. Isam will join Luma in returning to the land he fled but will have to face the same problems, and Wadi, who has felt the sea strengthens his awareness of his exile advises Isam to return anyway telling Isam his freedom will only be found in his country:
Your freedom will only be found in Baghdad. You will not find it in the foggy, illusory “there” in Europe or elsewhere. There’s the lapse into inanity: there’s the real defeat….You know Luma that Isam said he was running away from you? I say he was running away from his land, and his freedom can not be found anywhere else…Your freedom is that you refuse to run…your freedom is to be in your land – however much it closes in on you and ties out its arts of oppression on you (237).
But Maha cuts him off, elbowing him. “Enough preaching. Was he preaching to the people of the ship (ahl al safina) all these days, Luma?”
As Allen puts it, The Ship speaks of
Escape, exile, loneliness, suicide, alienation, Palestine, the angst of the modern intellectual and particularly the Arab intellectual…themes which Jabra explores with…artistry.