Archive for the ‘Arabic Literature’ Category

I discovered ‘Black Foam‘ by Haji Jabir recently. It looked quite fascinating and so I decided to read it. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘.

The main character in ‘Black Foam‘ is a man who seems to be homeless, rootless. As we read the story, we discover that he is a young Eritrean soldier on the eve of Eritrea’s independence. Circumstances change for him after a while and he has to flee his country and he is on the run. He ends up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He changes his identity – his name and his religion – and from Dawoud, he becomes David. When things don’t go well for him at the refugee camp, he changes his name again to Dawit, somehow gets into a Jewish community, and migrates to Israel. What happens to this man, who belongs nowhere, or rather who belongs everywhere, is told in the rest of the story.

This is my first book by an Eritrean author and I found it very fascinating. The author is Eritrean, the book is written in Arabic, and the story happens in three places, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Israel – all these together made it a very unusual and fascinating book. At some point we read this passage in the book –

“He wasn’t asking for much: he just wanted to survive, live a normal life, wake up, sleep, love and have children, and then die in his bed. He wasn’t asking for more.”

It is such a simple life to wish for. The main character just wants this. But this is hard. For him, this is almost impossible. He has to change his identity, his name, his religion, his language, his country, and still this simple life is out of his reach. There is a famous place in Jerusalem where there is a ladder against a building. The ladder is short and is not able to reach the window. This ladder and window have been there like this for 300 years. It is described in the book. The main character’s life is like that. Inspite of reinventing himself multiple times, he ends up being like the ladder, which never reaches the window, which is the simple life he yearns for. It is heartbreaking.

This book asks big profound questions on who we are as individuals and humans – whether we really have an identity or whether it is all just a fleeting thing which can be changed at will, whether we belong anywhere, or we belong nowhere, or maybe we belong everywhere. It made me think a lot.

I enjoyed reading ‘Black Foam‘. It is an important book for our times. It is the first book I’ve read which is written by a black writer in Arabic. Black writer, writing in Arabic, translated into English – this is as diverse as it can get.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“An idea he had often entertained popped back into his mind—that Eritreans didn’t know anger, that they only grieved and were broken and withdrew, while never losing their temper. For the oppressed, anger was a luxury, and between them and anger there stood a fence of humiliation and oppression. Anger was an act of will, and the oppressed had no will and no ability to make decisions. He wanted to explain all of that to her…”

“Each time, he got deeper into the construction of his story, making many unnecessary embellishments. He usually didn’t like this method since this way he wasn’t the owner and master of the story. Instead, it became the property of his listeners. Storytelling was a dangerous game, and the tale could slip from your hands at just the moment you thought it was fully yours. Still, he felt this was a good test of his ability to narrate, or rather to fabricate. After all, narration was fabrication. Anything else was just a poor imitation, merely passing on a story made up by someone else.”

“Then suddenly she lifted her head and asked : “By the way, which of your names would you like me to call you?” The question threw him into confusion. Should he say Dawoud, with all the defeats and losses that old name carried? Or should he choose David, a newer name, yet with as many bitter experiences? Or should he stick with the infant Dawit, without knowing for sure whether it was any different from its predecessors? He couldn’t get rid of these names and everything they carried. Each one was a weight that dragged behind him, like a cupboard full of memories, and he couldn’t seem to pass by any bit of anguish without storing it inside them. He didn’t know if he gave each name its wretched shape and features or whether it was the other way around. What he did know was that his many names were a lot like him, a good fit for him and his amputated life. These names, which he had wanted to save him, had instead become a burden. It occurred to him that, even if he continued to switch between all the names, it wouldn’t change his fate. Thus, he felt a little more charitable toward the names since the jinx was part of his destiny. Names were just rags, after all; they couldn’t hide his fate. He surfaced from his confusion and told her to call him whatever she wanted.”

Have you read ‘Black Foam‘? What do you think about it?


Read Full Post »