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