Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 15, 2016

A Girl Made of Dust, by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi

A Girl Made of DustSome years ago at Tim’s Bookshop in Maling Road Canterbury (an excellent destination, BTW, for bookish Ladies Who Lunch), I picked this book up on a whim.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel from Lebanon before…

A Girl Made of Dust is a semi-autobiographical novel by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi who, like some of the characters in her story, moved to the safety of England in 1983 when Israel invaded Lebanon.  She has written the novel from the perspective of an eight-year-old, but overcame my resistance to child narrators with a vivid story.  This point-of-view enables the portrayal of the baffled dismay that many of us naïvely feel about religious hatreds, and, sadly, it also shows us how children adapt to living in war zones, and have no concept of living in peace.  The novel also raises issues which, since the destruction of cultural artefacts by religious extremists, have become more topical than when the book was published back in 2008.

For Ruba and her older brother Naji, living in the village of Ein Dowra outside Beirut, the civil war means the rumble of shelling in the city, and they do not connect it with her father’s strange behaviour, which readers will recognise as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  Papi (Nabeel) sits in his chair for most of the day, saying very little, leaving his shop closed and bringing grave financial and emotional stress to the family.  The long-suffering women, (his wife and his mother), have had to make adjustments: they can no longer afford a maid so Mami (Aida) has had to learn to cook and iron (and isn’t very good at either).  Mami also has to put up with being patronised by a former friend who takes pleasure in complaining about the servant problem and how difficult it is to pack her many possessions in preparation for her exodus to safety.  While all around them families are leaving, Ruba’s friends among them, their family has no money and must take what comes.

But one member of the family is thriving – Uncle Wadih.  He arrives from time to time from Beirut in his big Mercedes, splashing around money and gifts, but it is young Ruba who spots him in Jbeil (Byblos) when she’s on a school excursion to learn about Lebanon’s cultural history.  When the truth comes out, he has been trading cultural artefacts on the black market, and his sister-in-law Aida is horrified.

‘You’re digging up our history, our wealth, and sending it out of the country? Mami’s hand lay lifeless on the table.

‘What would you have me do?  Our people need to put bread in their mouths, not gold!’ (p.205)

But for Wadih, it’s about more than the money he gets to help the family:

‘And,’ Uncle continued, ‘the Lebanese are using bulldozers and cranes to dig up Bronze Age sites.  They throw the broken pieces of pottery and stone on rubbish heaps.  They destroy the ancient roads and cities beneath their feet.  Yes, the government should do something, but it has enough to do.  By law, these things shouldn’t happen.  By law anything that’s found should be examined by the Department of Antiquities and preserved.  But there is no law.’ (p. 205)

Wadih can’t bear to see beautiful things destroyed:

Phoenician gold and statues, Byzantine mosaics, daggers and glass bottles the Romans left behind.  Everyone who’s ever landed here has left something behind.  Little gold pendants with tiny animals inlaid in ivory, rings showing the heads of who knows which emperor.   You know how I love beautiful things.  So do you,  Why should I watch them being destroyed? (p.205-6)

He respects history, and he can’t see that there is any wrong in making money when the artefacts are going to be destroyed in the war anyway.   This is a complex moral issue that bedevils war zones in these endless Middle Eastern conflicts to this day.

The horrors of war make a coming-of-age novel possible with a character just eight years old because of what she experiences.  As the conflict leaches into their village, she witnesses atrocities, bomb damage, and her brother’s dangerous attraction to joining a boys’ militia.  She is too partisan to understand the estrangement of her parents, but she learns patience and forgiveness from her grandmother Teta.  She is too young to understand the complexities of the conflict (for a useful summation, try this at Wikipedia) but she understands human pain, and it is she who unravels her father’s guilt and sorrow.

Like the causes of the wider conflict, it turns out that it is old decisions, long-held grudges, inflexible cultural practices and unresolved misunderstandings have inflamed the situations that have beset Naji’s family.  It is interesting that in this novel, it is women who are the peacemakers, as best they can be while the war comes ever closer and the family huddles in a corridor for an illusory safety.

Some of the plotting is a bit simplistic and the female characters are a bit idealised, but as a glimpse into the realities of war for ordinary people, A Girl Made of Dust makes compelling reading.

Author: Nathalie Abi-Ezzi
Title: A Girl Made of Dust
Publisher: Fourth Estate (an imprint of Harper Collins), 2008
ISBN: 9780007259038
Personal copy, purchased from Tim’s Bookshop Canterbury, $27.99

Availability:

You might be lucky and find a second-hand copy at Fishpond: A Girl Made of Dust or at Brotherhood Books. (There were two inexpensive copies on the day I looked).  Or try your library.


Responses

  1. I have often thought of the refugee children in Australia who have only known war until they come here. I also think of too many children born here and growing up in homes wracked by domestic violence. We have so many children who have grown up seeing difference of opinions among adults being resolved by violence. It is good that there are books like this that help us to understand what it looks like through these children’s eyes.

    There is a new documentary on the issue of the deliberate destruction of cultural and historical places during wars. It is called The Destruction of Memory. I saw a preview screening of it earlier this year. It is an excellent depiction of this serious issue. Sadly, I had to raise awareness of this type of destruction in Iran when I was working in public relations which is why I was so glad Tim Slade made this documentary. It helps to explain just why the destruction of material items that are of significance to the world’s history is such a serious issue.

    A novel is another good way of exploring these issues – the arts are essential in any society.

    • Hi Yvonne, thanks for dropping by:)
      That trailer looks intriguing: I wonder where the film might be screened?
      It goes some way to explaining the practice of building reconstructions even when it has to be done from scratch. It all has to do with national identity and refusing to let it be annihilated.

      • Tim Slade said he would update the website with screenings. I know it is going to be screened at the British Museum on 26th June, but haven’t heard of any Australian screenings.

        Yes, the reconstruction of buildings of historic and cultural importance which have been deliberately destroyed in wars is a a bold statement to those who wish to expunge that culture from the world’s knowledge. It was wonderful to hear that a mosque destroyed in Bosnia during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s has been rebuilt. There needs to be a global chorus that makes it abundantly clear that destroying such building is morally repugnant.

        • The temptation is to think that the priority should be protecting people, but IMO it shouldn’t be an either/or situation. If the will is there, both can be done.

          • Yes, protecting people is the priority but the targetted destruction of places that are of cultural significance is now regarded as a reliable indicator of genocidal intent. Action needs to be taken to prevent even further destruction and to bring perpetrators to account before they kill people. Therefore I agree with you that it is not an either/or situation.

  2. I’ve struggled to find good fiction from the Lebanon. The themes of this book appeal but I’m rather put off by your comments about the simplistic nature of the plot and the characterisation. So it’s a maybe if I can’t find anything else….

    • Oh, don’t get me wrong, the plotting and characterisation is on a par with most first novels. I’m just being warning readers not to expect too much!

  3. Interesting! To what does the title refer, do you know?

    • Yes, but it would be a spoiler if I told you…

  4. […] Und A Girl made of Dust von Nathalie Abi-Ezzi klingt ebenfalls interessant, nachzulesen auf ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. […]


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