The Crane by Halim Barakat is a short autobiographical prose work, its tone fluctuating between realism, interior monologue, poetic passages and political rhetoric. It begins as the narrator looks back on his childhood in the village of Kafrun in Syria and moves on to describe his travels and experiences as a student in the US in the 1960s and his later life in Washington.
The book tells the story of an Arab intellectual in exile, unable to call any place home yet unable to find affirmation in a state of hybrid in-betweeness: “I tried in vain to convince myself that ‘I am constantly changing’ as opposed to Arabs who say ‘I am what I was’ and Americans who claim ‘I am what I am.’” (21)
The book opens with a flashback to the central scene in the book where the narrator sees migrating cranes being shot at by hunters and falling into a river. In this early passage, the crane becomes a symbol of the innocence of childhood, but as the narrative develops the wounded crane becomes symbolic of the exile caught up in perpetual conflicts and unable to return home:
The cranes soared freely through the vast expanse…now everything changes. In a flash flight patterns are transformed into a scene of chaos; the circles disintegrate as though blown outward by an explosion. Like heartbeats, wings flap in panic. The sky itself is transformed as the clear, calm, blue expanse is stained by puffs of gray smoke where shots have been fired…I can still vividly recall it all even today; I always will…I can clearly remember the anguished cries…those cries blend with an image of black and white feathers floating through the air, dropping slowly to the ground as though intent on playing some innocent game in spite of the imminent catastrophe (4)
Like Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati, the narrative unwinds as a relative is slowly dying, in this case the narrator’s mother who is in an “endless state of nothingness between life and death” linked to “our country’s death.”
We always come back to pick up our old routine and follow news about our country’s death, a process as slow as my mother’s….(11)
I turn to the doctor: medicine has made many advances, so now you can delay her death for a long time without ever curing her. It won’t cure her or let her die in peace. Why are you prescribing a treatment that won’t cure her? Why are you keeping her in this endless state of nothingness between life and death? (14)
Later in the novel, the narrator returns to this sense of suspension which is complicated by the scattering of people into the diaspora:
Like others I relived my own culture by eating kibbeh, tabouleh, hummus and ful and by dancing the dabka….during crises we made fruitless attempts to explain the Palestinian cause to other people…we were dispersed through the world’s labyrinths. Khalid and Shafiqa, stable times in Beirut are long ago. Instead our lives are suspended in a nebula of fog, fire and ice (49-50).
I can understand what took them to Beirut but it’s a mystery to me what took them to Australia. Latif now lives in Germany and Salwa in El Paso, Texas. Why are families so scattered? (65).
Between these musings, the narrator becomes embittered, confrontational, laying blame for the current situation with the tyrannical leadership of Arab rulers:
Now I confront the Arabs…Palestine falls prey. Beirut is in ruins. Basra is threatened with ruin. Southern Lebanon is occupied. Why is it only the mother who fights back? You Arab leaders, you’re just a herd of bulls. You too raise your horns and look bewildered, you cringe in fear as you watch, you tilt at one another…lolling like lazy idiots beyond the reach of history (15)
This description reminded me of Ibrahim al Muwaylihi, who lived for several years in Istanbul, and his description of the Ottoman empire in 1896: ”lolling around like a lion ruminating peacefully in the reeds on the banks of the Bosphorus.” (From Roger Allen’s Spies, scandals, and sultans: Istanbul in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, the translation of al-Muwaylihi’s Ma hanalik).
In The Crane, this desciption of Ottoman decadence transforms, targetted not only at the rulers but a capitalist world order and American hegemony and foreign policy.
Just look how Congress sits cross-legged atop the mall like an old Turkish sultan bloated with time… beneath the dome – that lofty turban – nest swarms of wild hornets, buzzing incessantly and confusing their buzzing – the debate – is really a lottery for resources of the third world…From another window we look down on 16th street which beginning from the White House seperates the whites from the blacks. I see these two worlds as permanently separate coming together only in political speeches (37).
The idealistic narrator’s own political speeches expand beyond Arab issues to the war in Vietnam, Hiroshima, racial discrimination in his adopted country, the stereotyping of Native Americans, and the issue of Palestine.
American movies always show Native Americans ambushing and attacking innocent families usually including an old man, a beautiful woman and a child. Israel calls its army the defense force. It has occupied the West Bank, the Golan heights, and the Gaza strip and yet its still a defense force. Its reached as far as Beirut but its still a defense force. Its demolished homes on top of families and yet has remained defensive (119).
Suave and humble, he appealed to God and Jesus and called on people to pray for peace on Christmas Eve. Then he sent airplanes to bomb hospitals and schools in Vietnam…this is killing of a new order: you just press a button and never have to face your victims (119).
The worst justification I’ve ever heard came from an American official who explained that dropping a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was actually a humane act because it ended the war (120).
At the end of the novel, however, the narrator returns to the image of the wounded crane and to restless wandering, which moves beyond the nostalgic exilic perspective to one which celebrates the fullness of this experience, ultimately affirming a positive outlook on life:
Like you, oh crane, I’ve crossed continents, flown over mountaintops and followed rivers and seas …I’ve ranged in all four directions and taken root in the earth…We plunge into the world as though it were a real battle. We swim against the current and hover over rivers. We traverse the faces – flattened, wrinkled, black, white, intelligent, stupid, defeated, arrogant, full, empty, happy, sad. We free ourselves of melancholy and sing the ode to joy (145 -150).