A powerful sense of poetic justice fringes the narrator Sarah’s tale, in piquant moments of a an awakened womanhood, much to the reader’s delight as Iman Humaydan Younes offers a deft composition to her 130-page novella, Wild Mulberries (£7.99), layered with tranquil reckonings.
An elegant work of Lebanese fiction, the title would be translated from the Arabic by Michelle Hartman and published by Arabia Books London in 2010. Younes’s first novel was called B as in Beirut. There are different renditions to the present title’s cover, but photographed here is the intriguing one in my collection.
Now, this story owes its settings to the lull of a 1930s Lebanon when English expatriates and missionaries appeared to hold their respective influences, in a detached polite manner in their dealings with the Lebanese population. In Wild Mulberries, they excel in an uneasy truce; playing characters bearing clipped secondary roles as that of a priest, teacher and elderly expatriate couple, but in a somewhat tragic classical sense, rather than anything remotely resembling obvious political connotations.
Far from a narration that spells the harsh reminder of a painful history that I have often encountered with translated Arabic literature, Younes strives painstakingly to summon the indefatigable human spirit on behalf of each of her characters, to resurrect them perhaps, to some form of personal redemption, bearing a wounded poet’s heart.
In Wild Mulberries, the author’s quest is to set off a series of oppressed emotions, seeping off a dysfunctional family’s straitlaced rituals and rigid philosophies. This, onto a carousel of added complexities. All the while, rash decisions and puzzling consequences are swung up, with which to snake out the tale’s eventual hopeful outcome. Thus, the order of a forgotten time, yet an era ready to herald change, is reflected as the novel’s dour melancholy mood throughout.
Sarah, a young woman of a temperate spirit, lives in an isolated village, Ayn Tahoon, that hinges on various surreal landscapes. Not too far away is the mysterious sea, holding skeletons to her family’s closet. She lives with her grim austere father, a fading sheikh, who prides himself on little else but the art of raising silkworms and raking up a happy businessman’s profit, with which he has promised his devoted helper, Ibrahim, that in light of a fortune, Ibrahim would find himself betrothed to Sarah’s aunt, a rather cantankeous heavy-bodied woman. The aunt is worried about the family’s status and that Sarah may well ruin their reputation by following in the impetuous footsteps of a careless mother’s abandonment of wifely and maternal duties.
Meanwhile, for two months every year before the merchants arrive, the sheikh’s household is transformed into a sprawling nesting ground for cocoons. The world stops as the worms thrive. He is utterly obsessed and fastidous about his occupation turning up as an infuriating bully for his family and reluctant labourers. Thus, the origin of the title Wild Mulberries.
Sarah is a young woman with a good head on her shoulders. She doesn’t provoke mischief and as the narration is itself, drummed up in the first person; dutifully finds her silent place in the household. In various scenes, she wears thoughtful observations and masquerades the fly on the wall. We are drawn to her thoughts and constantly caressed and moulded by searching questions, as a journey to the novel’s end.
The protagonist is most concerned with her missing mother who abandoned the family 12 years before, with nary a sign or word to anyone in Sarah’s geographical world. Sarah’s mother with her Argentian roots, is the sheikh’s second wife. She hears rumours that perhaps her father had cheated her mother out of a rightful inheritance. Perhaps, her mother had found a lover, returned to Argentina and there was even suspicion that her real clandestine father may well have been an Englishman. There were rumours that a gentleman who drowned in the sea had had an affair with her mother. The answers mill around her head and throughout the novel, Sarah wills herself to find the mother she never knew but desires badly.
Meanwhile, Sarah has to cope with the spinster aunt who is her father’s brother. Her aunt is scornful at her mother for having run away and calls Sarah, a ‘cursed child’. The aunt nurtures her moments of celebration and subdued joys but as the seasons flee with no sign of a marriage to Ibrahim on the horizon – the sheikh has tricked them both – becomes increasingly intolerant. The aunt’s hair turns silver and by now, Sarah is convinced that her longsuffering relative, secretly hates her father.
Sarah is also adoring of her elder half-brother who pronounces zero patience with his aunt, hates his father and longs to go abroad. Meanwhile he seeks his escapism in ways that do not involve religion. He becomes known as the wayward playboy. There is almost hope as an English schoolteacher falls in love with him. However, his carelessness at guarding a romance ensures through a hasty dramatic episode, that the fragile relationship is forever at an end. He will scream that his father framed him and destroyed his life. Of course, it is old news that the sheikh had no intention of allowing his son to go abroad, in the first place.
There is also a neighbour, a wilful seductive woman Muti’a who adds colour and spunk to the storyline with her candour and sensual mischief. And then there is Karim, Sarah’s brother’s best friend who eventually marries her and removes his bride from the village. But of course, the novel has a way to go yet with its fair share of unavoidable tragedy, resignation, acceptance and because this is clearly Younes’ call… serenity.
The literary premise to Wild Mulberries is refreshing and enlightening. Younes draws up a meticulous architecural plan of the family’s haraa (old style Arab house with large long rooms and high ceilings). She then uses her protagonist Sarah to take the reader on a leisurely hospitable tour of the rooms and gardens, in what may possibly be an endearing game of blindman’s buff. Each space and corner holds a separate astonishing personal history, drama and an individual’s nemesis.
In fact, Younes offers this invitation at a fictitious family’s strange legacy, as an interesting approach and inventive structure, with which to begin a novel.
At first, there doesn’t seem to be a plot. Each member of the family plays their ordinary roles, what with plodding about their daily tasks. There may be a bit of a giggle here or a touch of consternation there. Everything moves steadily and quietly with hardly a hint of a leaf wafting about the place. Suddenly without warning, conflicts arise. In this aspect, the theme of a personal philosophical yearning for identity and freedom, overrides the plot.
It is almost as if the novel is a gentle meandering brook. The water rushes on and the riveted reader – as I was – is soothed and lulled by its soft sounds. In an abrupt fashion, there appears to be a strong current. Perhaps there was a storm or a flood. The water becomes violent. There is hint at a nasty disaster. Still, before long, every ruffled ripple is lullabied to a hushed restoration once again.
I felt that the novella held a spiritual voice without its sermon. It coaxed perceptions, hanging on to a philosopher’s gentle counselling gait without arrogance. The words to the tale formed a baby, that Younes herself cradled in her arms. The character Sarah and her accompanying brood were amiable pilgrims, heading into the unknown.
Indeed, they were annoyed at each other at the best of times and also had to cope with tensed undercurrents featuring racial and religious unrest, from a judgemental society. Yet, through flaws and hurried decisions, each character yearned a tender absolution to the self.
Wild Mulberries would be excellent for bookclubs with various ponderings on personal quests that seek freedom and identity in the face of cultural oppression, universal fears and risks. It would also serve as an enchanting introduction into translated Arabic literature, for the enthusiastic reader, craving a plot’s romantic spirit. – susan abraham
Caption: In albumen print, a young Lebanese woman in festive dress and photographed by The Bonfils Family in Beirut. More details are available from the splendid Frank H. McClung Museum
a) An interview by Qantara.de with Iman Huymaydan Younes
b) Samir Kassir’s The History of Beirut – Fayard Paris, 2005
c) a magnificent photo gallery depicting Lebanon’s history, that exhibits its scenic landscapes, heritage sites, political and social values, may be viewed at Habeeb.com