Nada Awar Jarrar can pinpoint the exact moment she found the inspiration for her new novel. Just a three-minute walk from the award-winning Lebanese writer’s house in Beirut is a big road junction, full of tiny Syrian refugee children jumping on cars, begging for food and money. In An Unsafe Haven, one is thrown off as the car moves away from the traffic lights, smashing his head on the ground.
“I’ve always felt terrified that one of these children was going to be run over, so it was the scenario that instigated the whole story,” she explains. “You write a book for all sorts of reasons but I wanted to tell the human impact of the war in Syria on individuals – as well as on Lebanon.”
Jarrar’s novel is the most high-profile in English to explore the fall-out of the war in Syria. But it doesn’t feel opportunistic or overtly political – quite the reverse.
Telling the story of Hannah and her American husband Peter, who come across the injured boy in the street and try to reunite his mother Fatima with her family, there’s also an emotional subplot surrounding their artist friend Anas, who disappears on his way home to Damascus.
And although there is a lot of narrative exposition as Jarrar tries to unpick the thorny sociopolitical issues, An Unsafe Haven also reveals the lightness of touch and pathos which shot through her three previous novels in exploring lives lived inside and away from Beirut during periods of extreme upheaval.
“I don’t write for a particular audience but I hope I write in a way that people both in the Arab world and in the West can relate to,” she says. “I sometimes feel I’m writing Arabic in English, if you see what I mean.”
Which makes a lot of sense. Because of her background – born in Lebanon to an Australian mother but displaced more than once due to civil war in her homeland – Jarrar is perfectly placed to explore issues of identity and how people from different backgrounds manage a relationship. As a sometime-journalist, she has a definite eye for a good story. But she thinks a novel can hit the heart.
“You cannot avoid the refugees and their destitution and despair on the streets of Beirut, and for me that is best portrayed through fiction,” she says.
“I respect the journalist’s work, but as a novelist I don’t have to be objective or balanced. I can just express what I feel, which is more emotive and sensitive, but also more powerful.
“And what I feel is that the war in Syria and the crisis of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is changing the place, and affecting day-to-day relationships.”
Jarrar thinks Hannah is “tough and soft at the same time”, while Peter represents a willingness to make sacrifices for love. But these believable characters are also ciphers for the deep issues Jarrar says Lebanese people grapple with every day.
Hannah, a journalist herself, thinks at one point that “Arab people are tied to the foundations of their fears”, and there is a great sense of sadness throughout the book that the vitality and potential of Beirut and Lebanon is dulled by constant conflict, prejudice, war, civil unrest and corruption.
“I was a teenager when the war broke out in Lebanon, and we were on holiday at the time in England. We ended up staying there. For me and my generation, Lebanon had been such a secure place and suddenly this happened. Since then, we have a few years of security and then something major will happen. And so that’s what Hannah means about fear – it’s an underlying sense of insecurity.
“It can have some positive aspects because it makes you much more likely to live in the moment. But it’s a very unnatural way to live if basic security is not assured.”
Thankfully, one of the joys of An Unsafe Haven is that it doesn’t proselytize – Jarrar is horrified at the thought that it would be read as a political treatise with a message. But she does concede that it asks people to think about the small kindnesses its characters undertake.
Peter and Hannah take the injured child in, just as Jarrar saw a small Syrian boy sobbing in an East Beirut street one day and did something about it: turning around, talking to him, and ending up helping his family with food, clothes and education.
“I have hope in people and their compassion, no question,” she says. “But in terms of politics and politicians, not so much. The ultimate solution to this tragedy for Syrian refugees would be an end to the war in Syria.”
And can a novel really change that situation?
“Well, if you can relate to one person, you start understanding the bigger picture,” she says. “The ‘other’ becomes a human being, not just a stranger. When people know the real story I’m convinced most would react with compassion.”
Ben East is a regular contributor to The National.
Source: art & life