Tag Archives: Neem Tree Press

Review: Ahlam Bsharat, Trees for the Absentees

Translated from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Trees for the Absentees is the second of Ahlam Bsharat’s works published in translation by Neem Tree Press: Bsharat is an award-winning Palestinian author and activist, and Ashjaar lil-Naas al-Ghaa’ibeen (the original version of Trees for the Absentees) was a runner-up for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2013. I hadn’t noticed this “children’s literature” categorisation before my first reading of Trees for the Absentees; when I realised, the simplicity of the prose and of the approach to significant socio-cultural issues suddenly made a lot of sense.

Guiding us through this turbulent world of segregation, incarceration and historical violence is Philistia, a young woman of university age, who works in a hammam. Philistia spends her days scrubbing and buffing the naked bodies of women who come to her seeking something: whether they are escaping their grief or hiding their fears, women come to Philistia to start a new chapter in their lives. This parallels the jobs Philistia’s grandmother held in her lifetime: Grandma Zahia was both a midwife and a corpse washer, accompanying people on their journeys into and out of the world. Grandma Zahia is a guiding presence throughout Philistia’s story, and her role influences much of Philistia’s thought. Her first wisdom sets up and frames the narrative, and leads us towards an understanding of Philistia:

“Our heads are cupboards full of secrets, and our senses are the key. Everything that your eyes see becomes yours to keep safe … When someone entrusts their body to you, they open the door to reveal their secrets. That’s the time to close the door to your own cupboard of secrets.”

So I had learned to close the doors and drawers of the cupboard in my head. I could open my senses and yet keep them slightly ajar.

It was Grandma Zahia who first introduced Philistia to the imaginary world, when she taught her how to wash the bodies of the dead. The affinity that Philistia feels with her grandmother is key to the narrative: Zahia is both the greatest influence on her thinking and personality, and her means of communicating with other worlds. For Philistia’s imaginary world is as real to her as the physical world she inhabits (“reality was my imagination and my imagination was reality”), and when the boundaries between those worlds begin to collapse, life as she knows it is forever changed. The fault lines between the real and imaginary worlds start to open up, and allow us to see two periods of history at the same time. But Philistia is in danger of being swallowed up in the cracks between the worlds, and it is this almost mystical aura that lends the text its melancholy suspense.

Along with the deceased Grandma Zahia, Philistia’s father is another “absentee”, incarcerated in an Israeli prison. This is first revealed in passing (“And Mum? It seemed to me she was motivated by the desire to resist my auntie’s meddling in her life, especially since Dad was sent to prison”), but later becomes more important to the narrative as Philistia dreams of his release, talks about their relationship, and writes him letters. The relationships – especially this epistolary one – engage with universal themes of separation and loss, as well as being instructive about the specific cultural context. Light and dark are recurrent metaphors throughout Trees for the Absentees, with the dark representing uncertainty and death, and light representing the fight for life. This is a simple enough notion to fit in with the children and young adult audience, but one which is expressed in a way that I found deeply moving: we are all visitors on this earth, carrying our light through life. Sometimes we need help to carry our light. Sometimes things can happen to make the light go out. Each body’s soul has a message, and in each heart a tree grows. As you can imagine from the title, trees are an important metaphor in this novella: trees are being uprooted all around Philistia, and so she seeks a place where she can plant trees for her loved ones, creating this space inside herself.

Trees for the Absentees is very much focused on women’s experience: the female genealogy is crucial to our understanding of Philistia, though we also learn how she craves independence from her family. Similarly, Philistia wishes to be free from the expectation that she ought to be like all female university students, and wants the opportunity to forge her own path in life. What sets her apart is not only that her path is entwined with the history of one of the most volatile regions on earth, but also that her path winds through both the real world and an imaginary one, in which she meets and falls in love with the ghostly presence of Bayrakdar: “Did our souls meet first? Was it because we worked in the same place, at different times in history? Was it the similarity of our lives that brought us together: my dad, imprisoned by the Israeli occupation, and his father, who was imprisoned during the British Mandate?” Philistia’s other-worldly relationship with a shadow from the past allows two stories and two historical periods to overlap. Her imaginary world falls somewhere between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and is “mine and mine alone” – something she can call her own in a life where so much is determined for her by politics, culture and tradition, and where girls are forced to grow up too soon “because we started to make sense of things early. I mean we learned about a lot of things that don’t make any sense.”

The collaborative translation between Ahmedzai Kemp and Copeland is admirable: in particular, the dialogue reads very well – there were times when I could visualise the characters’ interchange so clearly, it read almost like a playscript. There are some evident challenges, most notably with play on words in the original Arabic. I am not a fan of cultural adaptation, and was pleased that for the most part Ahmedzai Kemp and Copeland allowed the cultural specificity of the text to remain. For example, there is reference to “the idiomatic reply, ‘from my eye’”; several proverbs feature, most of which have been left as they are rather than attempting to find an “equivalent”; the similarity of Philistia and Bayrakdar’s names to the words for bean and plum is not altered to use English words that are close to the proper nouns. I appreciate this, because I don’t want to imagine Philistia in an English-speaking world. I want to imagine her in her own world, and I believe that readers of translations should be invited to make a little effort to bridge that gap. Trees for the Absentees is a small and simple book, but its story has greater complexities if we wish to find them, and is a thought-provoking read for adults and children alike.

Review copy of Trees for the Absentees provided by Neem Tree Press

Intimate encounters in historical turbulence: Anne Richter, Distant Signs

Translated from the German by Douglas Irving (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Neem Tree Press is a new UK-based independent publisher, and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of their latest release, Distant Signs. In this intimate depiction of three generations of a German family in the twentieth century, different family members live through the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall; each generation longs for a happy life, but this common goal is compromised by historical restrictions and family misunderstandings. A family tree is provided by way of a preface to the book, and the first two people we meet are the middle generation, Margret and Hans. Margret is the daughter of a university professor, Hans a future biology student from a provincial town, and they meet and fall in love during an agricultural placement in the 1960s. Yet, instead of a fresh start free from the shackles of their complex relationships with their own parents, they soon fall into patterns of behaviour that perpetuate the very coldness (in Margret’s case) and anxieties (in Hans’s) that they suffered from as they were growing up.

Though the major historical events are notably absent (for example, the narrative vignettes skip from 1988 to 1992), this does not mean to say that history does not feature – it dominates the characters’ lives, whether through Margret’s father Friedrich’s attitude that “in our times, private matters must come second to societal”, Hans being told at a party leadership meeting that he must break off relations with his best friend, or Hans and Margret’s daughter Sonja attending an illicit Christian youth group that results in her school grades being lowered as punishment for her transgression. At all times, the personal portraits are underscored by a history that is never intrusive but is ever present: to describe Distant Signs as understated would itself be an understatement, but this adds to the appeal of the book. The most harrowing events are imparted in single sentences, such as when Tante Anna has been trying to dig a grave for her thirteen-year-old daughter, fatally wounded at the airfield that they were all made to build:

“Around lunchtime Tante Anna came up to us. She looked very pale and told us she was going to look for a bigger shovel, that the grave was still too narrow. The following day the neighbour rang our door and begged me to untie the rope from her attic ceiling.”

It was at this section that the story truly became alive for me, when I could get past a few awkward renderings in the translation and engage with the lives of the protagonists and their families. I found the most moving part about the inter-generational narrative approach to be the way in which each member of the family keeps silent, guarding the pain of their own memories. This is, perhaps, the legacy of living under a system where expressing thoughts that diverged from official state policy or that put personal needs before the good of the state could have dire consequences. But the silence transmitted between the generations is devastating, condemning them to repeat their parents’ mistakes and never to understand one another; take, for example, this section involving Margret’s daughter (Sonja) and her mother (Johanna):

“While a gentle clatter emanated from the kitchen, Sonja drew nearer to Johanna. ‘Mummy’s sick. Yesterday morning she lay in bed, cried and said she didn’t want to see anyone. She asked me to call school. Daddy was shouting at her again.’
Annoyed, Johanna waved dismissively. ‘Think of all we’ve come through.’
Sonja stared at her, as though trying to fathom the hidden meaning of her grandmother’s words. This look of Sonja did Johanna good, and she wondered whether she should tell the girl about herself. Then Lene pushed open the living room door with her foot.”

I’ll get the gripe out of the way first: “this look of Sonja”. Leaving the ambiguous preposition aside, there is so much beauty and pain in this passage: we learn of Margret’s inability to cope with life in the child’s view that “Mummy’s sick”, of her increasingly strained relationship with Hans (“Daddy was shouting at her again”), but more than anything, we see how Johanna, who lived through the war and kept three children alive only for them to complain that their relationships were imperfect, dismisses these concerns with a terse “think of all we’ve come through”. We have weathered far worse, she implies, and this is self-indulgent. That a mother cannot feel empathy for her daughter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, because there are worse things exemplifies everything I admired about this book – its strength is in the subtle way it exposes each character’s inability to truly understand the others. The moment when Johanna teeters on the brink of her own silence, impelled to open up and create an intimacy with her granddaughter, is also symbolic: Lene (Hans’s mother) enters the room, and the silence of the older generation closes up again.

The translation did, in some places, let down the story. There were some odd expressions, ranging from the overly literary/ archaic (a jacket being “redolent” of pipe tobacco, the inversion of “I cared not”) or unnatural syntax (“the basin where lay greenish coins”) to a repeated use of “thought to” rather than “thought + subject” (e.g. “Hans thought to detect a musty smell as he contemplated them”). Nonetheless, Irving has clearly tried to give each character a distinctive voice, which I very much welcomed as, alongside the family tree provided at the front and the running header reminding us of the year, this made sure that I always knew who was talking and what the implication was for a person of that age in that particular decade.

Though each generation seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of the previous one, the hope for the future lies with a teenage Sonja. Margret realises that though times may change, basic desires might provide common ground:

“It was the first time that Margret had studied Sonja’s wall, and suddenly she understood that her daughter dreamed of nothing other than what Margret had longed for once: an unconditional love and a fairer world; and yet, for Sonja, these wishes had other colours and forms to those they had had for Margret.”

Taking herself out of a historical time, Margret tries to connect with her daughter through a shared sense of idealism and new beginnings. The narrative ends with Sonja’s new life – I shan’t give any spoilers, but it is an appropriate opening towards modernity while avoiding potentially trite reconciliations that would be at odds with the overarching theme of failed communication. Distant Signs is a different take on a much-written-about period of history: it was unexpected, delicate, and extremely memorable.

Review copy of Distant Signs provided by Neem Tree Press