By Elisabeth Jaquette
“You’re not sure what’s left of the flame that burned deep inside you in the days of youth and hope. Your feet have worn out so many pairs of shoes, roaming the streets, walking along dirt paths and paved roads. How many more steps must they take? How much more emotion can your heart muscle handle? What’s left that will still excite you? Does the smell of coffee still promise mornings that haven’t come?”
Land of No Rain is Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser’s first novel, published in Arabic in 2010 and in English translation by Jonathan Wright in April 2014 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.
The book traces the return of narrator Adham Jaber to his homeland of Hamiya. Hamiya is a fictional country, perhaps a stand-in for Nasser’s home country of Jordan, yet one that also offers itself as a metaphor for other nations where dissent simmers under the grip of autocracy. The reader accompanies the narrator on a hazy, meandering journey through his past, as he returns from exile after a failed assassination attempt on the country’s ruler. He reacquaints himself with family members, former comrades, his first love–and most importantly–Younis al-Khattat, a communist poet, the younger self he left behind.
The novel is heavy with metaphor: it opens in ‘the City of Red and Grey’, or London, and the narrator later references time spent in ‘the City of Siege and War’, ‘the City Overlooking the Sea’, and ‘the Island of the Sun.’ The confrontation between the narrator’s two selves is a clear symbol of the difficulty of return: the self who lived in exile for twenty years meets the self left behind in Hamiya in a psychological conflict personified. As the narrator wends his way toward his past self, side characters emerge and disappear, almost as fleeting reflections of the narrator in a fractured mirror.
The novel shifts between styles, leaving the reader floating from one genre to the next, between characters and scenes, departing before resolution comes or direct chronologies are made clear. “Everything is endless but nothing remains as it is”, the narrator himself says. It is not the plot that drives Land of No Rain but Nasser’s poetic style. Land of No Rain has been attentively and evocatively translated by Jonathan Wright, who has called it “as close to being the book [he] would have liked to write as any Arabic book could be”.
In a 2008 interview with the Guardian, Nasser said “If you were to ask any Arab writer today about the main problem facing Arab culture, he or she would say without a second thought: ‘Censorship’”. Yet this is not a problem Nasser has faced in the Arab world alone. On September 27th, Nasser was denied entry to the United States without explanation. He was interrogated by US Homeland Security for two hours at Heathrow airport and prevented from boarding a plane to New York City, where he had been invited to inaugurate the Gallatin Global Writers series at New York University. Nasser wrote about the experience in a piece called When Your Name is on the Blacklist, translated by Sinan Antoon. PEN America has also sent a letter to Homeland Security protesting his exclusion from the United States.
It is unjust of the United States to deny a celebrated author and poet entry to the US for a cultural event, and to refuse to offer him any reason or recourse in doing so. US Homeland Security’s censorship and silencing of Nasser is all the more reason to join him in his first appearance in the UK as part of the Nour Festival.
Amjad Nasser will be reading from and discussing his novel Land of No Rain with its translator Jonathan Wright on Thursday November 13, from 7-8:30pm at the Notting Hill Gate Library. More details about the event can be found on the Nour Festival’s website, and in the meantime, you can read samples of the novel in translation in Banipal and in Jadaliyya.
Elisabeth Jaquette is a writer, researcher and translator. Her translations from the Arabic have been published in The Book of Gaza (Comma Press 2014), Banipal Magazine and Words Without Borders. She is currently translating The Queue, a novel by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz, which received a 2014 PEN Translates Award and will be published by Melville House. Follow her on twitter at @lissiejaquette.