Hunters in a Narrow Street

huntersHunters in a Narrow Street by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra was originally written in English, published in 1960. Unlike The Ship which has two narrators, and The Search for Walid Masoud, which has about a dozen, this novel is narrated by one person, Jameel, a Christian Palestinian who flees Jerusalem in 1948, following the death of his fiance Laila, an event which haunts him through the rest of the narrative. Once Jameel arrives in Baghdad to become an English teacher at the university, he is approached by Salma, a wealthy socialite married to a man much older than her, and asked to teach Salma’s niece, Sulafa,  whose father wants her to learn English in order to travel with him abroad when he goes to treat his illness. Jameel becomes involved with both Salma and Sulafa, and meets a cast of characters, from the would-be poet and revolutionary Adnan and his friend Husain, to Brian Finch, an Englishman working in a British bank and a student of Arabic, as well as the  Bedoun Towfik al-Khallaf.  Here’s a good summary of the themes that are thrown into the mix:

This is a story of multiple conflicts—between Arab and Jew, desert and city, dictatorship and futile liberal effort, Eastern tradition and Western innovation. Jabra’s Baghdad is a city filled with strife, squalor, and frustration; his picture of the brothels, the streets, the drawing rooms, and the lecture halls is a rich and powerful one, realistic and profoundly disturbing.

From early on in the novel, there is an intense focus on the importance of land, a theme which is ever-present in The Ship, although in this novel it is tied more obviously to Jerusalem and the loss of Palestine:

Christ for the West has become an idea – an abstract idea with a setting but the setting has lost all geographical signficance. For them the Holy Land is a fairy land…but for us the geography is real and inescapable. When they sing of Jerusalem in their hymns they do not mean our city. (17)

This focus on place continues in Baghdad, although this Baghdad is a symbol of the decline of the Arab world, a decayed and decrepit place which is now begining to change all-too-rapidly due to oil, but remains a city cut off from its past:

 Baghdad had decayed…the soft brick of the great structures of the Golden Age had fallen to dust centuries ago, and the desert had reclaimed the vast areas once irrigated and taken for the Paradise of Eden. What monuments would the holocaust of Hulago have left behind after his marauding armies had ravaged the city, blackened the Tigris waters with the ink of libraries pitched into them, then turned them red with the blood of the myriads slain? All that the succeeding rulers could do was to hold the pieces of Baghdad together against the ruthlessness of oblivion. Internal strife, sectarian massacres, foreign oppression, flood and plague, all had failed to obliterate the city completely. Babylon had not lasted a thousand years before it became a great mound of ruins. But Baghdad, long after its thousandth year suddenly heaved into life and energy: the roots searched deep down and – struck oil. (35-36)

Adnan describes Baghdad to Brian Finch as:

Not your imaginary city of sheikhs and harems but the earthy poverty-stricken city of men…you know what we’ve gone through for centuries. Centuries – that’s our conception of the primary unit of time! For seven hundred years we have struggled with an ungenerous soil. Yes we’ve got two mighty rivers but the irrigation systems were destroyed by wave after wave of marauders until our earth was exhausted and our people learnt to accept their interminable servitude. Rulers from abroad came with their hordes and swept over the country; they brought little prosperity and less resilience. At last even the vestiges of historical pride were nearly obliterated, and the great city of the Abbasid empite was reduced to an ugly little place choked all about with shrubberies which only sheltered snakes and thieves. (58)

When Brian Finch begins to speak hopefully about oil and the city “not doing so badly”, to which Adnan retorts, “oil, my foot!”

This city which had prided itself on its great university when Europe was in darkness, had fifty years ago only a few primitve schools. But the last fifty years have been years of breathed into the Arabs everywhere a first breath of regeneration shortly before the First World War. Nor was it easily done. The Ottoman Turks hanged one nationalist after another, but every corpse that dangled from the gibbets in the squares of Beirut and Damascus infused us with further pride and determination.

And now?

Now? Well you can see for yourself. We’re caught in the web of power politics, oil politics, East and West politics.

He then adds:

…don’t pretend to be ignorant when like every other Englishman you know more about our politics than we do ourselves. (59)

Throughout the novel, Adnan, Husain, Jameel and Towfik meet in cafes and cabarets and discuss politics and the state of the world, in particular the hypocrisy of society, and the sense of pervasive defeat:

I love everybody except humanity…you can forgive its weakness, its misery. But what can you do with its hypocrisy? Even in the humblest slum you have enough hypocrisy for a dozen diplomants…  (49)

…to me freedom means release. We woke up with a bang and discovered the material progress of the West, its ideologies and political theories, and were horrified at our own stagnation. So we wanted release, flow, movement…(59)

…look at our society. It’s so mature that it’s rotting. People around here are born grey (66)

Chapter thirteen is an interesting chapter, which is highlighted by the fact that Jabra himself translated into Arabic. The chapter begings with a discussion about politics and the place of art in the contemporary reality around them, the relevance of art. It includes one of the longest speeches given to Bedouin Toufik who castigates civilization as diseased, while the amateur poets and revolutionaries argue with him: ,

You must remember the age of roses and dawns of pearly dew is gone. We want a caustic, harsh, provocative kind of poetry (76)

The poets rail against authors who “have that passionate delusion that they way to elevate the populace is to revive ancient learning. They simply wallow in antiquarianism. They’re not satisfied with the scholats whose job it is to bore into the layers of buried thought, they want us all to do the same. Can there by a greater confusion of historical amateurishness with creative thought? (80)

Towfik al-Khalaf, in order to illustrate his point about the uselessness of art, tells the story of a Bedouin who made a statue of his beloved in dates, then woke up the next morning hungry, so he ate the statue.

“You know civilization means deterioration?…what is civilization? It is as you can tell from the derivation of the word, the life of cities…have you ever prayed the dawn’s prayer in the middle of a biundless circular horizon? (80-82)

what…would bring vigour back to the Arabs? The answer could not be more obvious: a return to the desert. A return to the desert’s authority and moral  code…we are our own works of art. (83)

Adnan jumps in with a heavy dose of sarcasm:

the ugly emaciated creatures of al asima’s slums are their own works of beauty too….and the peasants of the southern swamps who live immersed in the rice bogs until their flesh peels off their feet and ankles – they are works of beauty too (84)

Towfiq shakes his head at this and at all this who fill the world with “with talk, talk, talk” but acheive nothing substantional. Another friend, Kareem objects: “we’ve had no proper political organization…but we don’t advocate a return to the arid wastes to bury our heads in the sand.”

Jameel’s own view of this is suggested by his comment that Towfik’s gigantic self-confidence was reassuring or amusing to the others, filled with their doubts, and they probably pulled his leg a little to make him talk, because it turns out that he

…could out-talk all those whom he condemned for excessive talk , and despite his hated of civilization he must had spent a number of years in the midst of it when he went to college which he obviously had done (85).

In addition to the focus on the importance of land, social criticism, and the role of art, there is almost an obsession with the past and with the individual relationship to it, usually a conflicted one, apart from characters such as Professor Braithwaite the assyriologist who “spoke about Tiglath Pileser II and Ashur Banipal as if they had been his pals: a gap of some three thousand years was certainly nothing to him.” In the same chapter as the discussion with Towfik, Jameel attends a dinner party hosted by Salma with many diplomants and historians, who comment knowingly

There are fires in Kirkuk…which have been burning for 60 thousand years. What is time? (86)

They also discuss Jerusalem, which they agree is a beautiful city, and  Jameel feels this deeply: “all the horror I had known was reduced to a witty remark here and there.” (88)

The chapter ends with this disgust spilling out in the literal form of vomit, as Jameel goes to collect his friends, who emerge drunk and railing at the world:

“I want …heaven to topple down upon the earth…while you and I and the others perch on the street ruins yawping like crows…we shall by immortalized by the secret files of…” (91)

The past is burdensome, a reminder of a stagnant present, as Imad, Sulafa’s father, lays out as part of his pretence of traditional values:

I often think we’ve never progressed, in spite of all this change in our way of life. Tell me what poet today can equal Hafiz? We have cinemas…refrigerators. But of the matters of the spirit, what do we have? (101)

Jameel responds:

We are stagnant…we flatter ourselves about cinemas and refrigerators: we have made none of them ourselves. We merely import them. (101)

Imad continues, oblivious to the horror of the others:

I was telling the Minister of Interior the other day: “More mosques and more police stations, that’s what you should build. Mosques and police stations. The fear of God and the fear of authority, that’s what we need…102

Sulafa, in a low voice, notes “But…you hardly ever go to mosque yourself,” to which Imad blithely remarks, “Didn’t I build a very fine one last year?” When Jameel also objects, “…but aren’t you likely…to inspire hatred rather than a fear of authority in the hearts of the people?” Imad shrugs, “What does it matter what the beast feels as long as it is muzzled?” Jameel, who by this point feels like throttling Imad, comments “You don’t want a whole race of sheep…do you?…poets like Hafiz if we hope ever to have them are not bred by sheep are they?” (102). But to his surprise, Imad only throws back his head and laughs.

There is political trouble brewing among the college students (103) and Jameel begins to discuss politics with Adnan more seriously, with Adnan asking him where the English word for politics comes from: “I suppose it is derived from the Greek word polis” Jameel says, and Adnan nods, “Politics would thus mean the science of managing cities and citizens. I wonder what the derivation is of the equivalent word in Arabic – siyasah…” Jameel responds, “the only think I can think of…is the “care of horses,” which is also siyasah.”  Adnan then bitterly expands on this pount: “The care and tending of horses – that’s our politics. That’s what our lords and masters have always thought of us!…Let us hope the horses won’t go mad and hurl down their riders” (112).

There are more throwaway comments of this kind, such as when Brian wishes he could learn Arabic as fast as Husain is learning English, Husain says in English “patience, patience,” and then in Arabic, “nothing has killed us but patience” (113).

Listening to Brian who “though working in a British owned bank, was a student of Arab history,” Husain says “We’re so obsessed with our present we don’t know a thing about our past,” but Adnan corrects him “We’re so obsessed with out past…that we don’t know a thing about our present” (114).

As Brian continues telling the story of Iraq’s history, Jameel muses on “The activer polarity…between him (Brian) and Towfiq: one with a well developed consciousness of chronology and temporality, the other with a faith in timelessness that rejected all chronology as the symptoms of a diseased civilization” (114).

When Brian comments on the ruins of Nineveh and Nimrud and villagers “quite unconscious of the forces that lie petrified in those grass covered mounds,” Adnan has clearly had enough:

You may be a good historian or a wonderful archaeologist, you may be able to tell us about all the kings of Sumer and Assyria, the battles they fought, the palaces they built, the cities they razed. But to you, in the final analyss, it is no more than an aesthetic adventure. It is outside you. You can enjoy it with equanimity and organize it into historical patterns…But to us…we may or may not know the details of the past. But we know its there. We’re aware of its presence in our midst like a spirit that cannot be exorcised…With your critical eye…you may observe the irony of such juxtapositions as peasants with gummy eyes sitting in the midst of their asses dun within sight of the great monuments of an empire they cannot understand. But to us the irony is savage. (116)

The iraq narrative is interrupted suddenly by a letter from Jameel’s brother sends a letter telling him that the town has suddenly developed a rash of missionaries “who talk about the love of Jesus Christ to Christians and Moslems alike” (121). In the next chapter, Jameel describes a long day of riots, in the course of which Adnan is arrested (130). It now becomes clear that Adnan has been involved in political activity, although Jameel defends his friend: “Whatever frustration there is in him and whatever idealism..they are typical of fifty million Arab” (146).

There is a comment by Towfik that stood out to me, given that this is set in the late forties, written in 1960. Towfik’s remark to Jameel is an ominous warning of what was to come in the 70s with the rise of groups of degree-holders who fail to overthrow corrupt regimes and end up graduating from their prisons with a more violent extremism as their new calling:

You’re a degree holdrer, too, aren’t you? You’re all plotting for power, I know, and when you have failed to get it, you will go underground and grow beards and subsist on hatred. (162)

Jameel ignores this, and acuses Towfik of a puritanism which is unrelated to Islam: “Your creed is the undoing of all man’s creative work…based on one of those questionable religious principles that are not in harmony even with Islam” (166). But even among all the intrigue and politics, Jameel realises that what is happening to Baghdad is not the disaster of Palestine, that they were worrying about the state of their mind and the context would make this absurd if they were to go to Palestine: “Back home, while you worry about your soul falling down the abyss, which is a luxury, a million people around you in dirty refugee camps will  be worrying about a crust of bread to eat” (174).

Towfik tries to convert Jameel to his view once more, “Time did you say? Another western misconception…” but this time Jameel interrupts, “Oh for God’s sake Towfik, don’t overdo this Bedouin stuff. It’s all so false. And if you’re going to tell me about prayer in the middle of a boundless horizon, I’ll scream..nor will you tell me about horse-back riding, when all the once cavalier sheikhs have taken to Cadillac driving (180).

Time the way you think of it doesn’t exist for us…does anyone here born more than thirty years ago, know exactly when he was born…you carry the germ of a western disease: the fear of the clock. The west is afraid of time because it is enslaved to it: so it has to devise a method of conquering it. And what do you get? Time is money (180-181)

Towards the end of the novel, when it is revealed that Towfik has been engaged to Sulafa and that she doesn’t wish to marry him, Jameel and Towfik seem set against each other, but this is resolved surprisingly easily. Towfik emerges as a figure that is himself on a hair-trigger, almost on the verge of a breakdown, reeling between being angry to confessing his admiration of the spirit of a woman like Sulafa for being prepared to kill rather than marry him – the irony being that Jameel had asked Towfik to procure a gun Sulafa had asked him for, only for it to be revealed that she planned to kill Towfik with it. But that proves to be unnecessary. Towfik “relinquishes” his claim to Sulafa, and it is now Imad’s turn to threaten Jameel with being fired from his job and made to flee Baghdad – something which pains him as Jameel was forced to flee Jerusalem before.Imad succumbs to his illness and dies towards the end, but there is no resolution – they have to wait, and if they were to marry, Jameel would have to convert. The book ends with an enigmatic passage:

In the long months that followed, while we waited, while the Adnans and the Husains and the Towfiqs impaled themselves on rows of political and social swords, the crows and the kites in squawking formations flew over the palm groves of a slowly refurbished land. (232)

Throughout the novel, Jameel remembers Laila and dwells on Majnoun and Leila (183) and the way his life has turned out. One of the the threads running through this vicious, vivid narratative is a line about halfway through which translates the Arabic saying, Shar al baliati ma yudhik:

Things sometimes happen in a funny way. So funny that you want to cry. It is as bad as the affliction that makes you want to laugh, which the Arabs say is the worst of all afflictions. (184)

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