By Volker Kaminski
In her novel "Henna Night", the Syrian writer Nemat Khaled portrays an educated Palestinian woman in the thrall of unrequited love. The young woman's feelings are so strong that they even block out the suffering in the refugee camp where she lives. A review by Volker Kaminski
Anyone abandoning themselves to the pain of love to the same extent as Nadia, heroine and narrator of Nemat Khaled's novel "Henna Night", will inevitably become a prisoner of their own emotions. Nadia's cousin Djalal was once the man of her dreams. They were together for a brief and happy period, the wedding was about to take place, but Djalal could not be faithful. And while one day Djalal leaves his city and his country behind and cuts Nadia out of his life forever, Nadia cannot forget him. She thinks about him all the time, conducts imaginary conversations as though this might be a way of calling him back, and feverishly consults her dead great aunt Hassna, who had herself been similarly unhappy in love almost 60 years previously.
Instead of being able to celebrate the ubiquitous henna night, which traditionally takes place before a wedding, Nadia sinks into a desolate "henna night of desperation" from which she is no longer able to find a way out.
Poetically highly charged language
Nemat Khaled builds her novel upon this starting point, a novel that consists of long passages relating the inner monologue of the young heroine. The scene of her romantic fantasy is a Palestinian refugee camp in today's Syria, a place that provides the fitting backdrop for her internal abandonment and unfulfilled desires. People here live in hastily erected concrete blocks, and walk up and down empty streets so battered you hardly recognise them as such. Life here is dogged by youth unemployment, crime and drug abuse.
But the difficult situation in Jarmuk, where Nadia works as a journalist, remains in the background; her emotions, and the trauma she suffered in her relationship with Djalal, are too overwhelming. Nadia's voice carries the novel from the first page; in an alluring, poetically highly charged language she spells out the drama of her life in recurring images and scenes, until the world around her appears to sink in sweet nothings that entice her but at the same time, with the memory of her rejection, also humiliate her.
The ever-present voice of her great aunt Hassna serves as a kind of resonance chamber that enhances Nadia's backward-looking fantasies and dreams. Hassna also lived in a refugee camp after World War Two, in Quneitra in the Golan Heights, where the family had to flee at the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. In retrospect, Hassna's life story also appears to be reduced to a great unfulfilled love for her cousin Awwad.
When Nadia enters into a dialogue with the dead woman, Hassna tells her about Awwad, about his beauty and tenderness, while Nadia is in raptures over Djalal. The voices of the two women overlap; the only aspect that highlights the passage of time and the changes that have taken place is Nadia's striving for freedom, her education and profession – something her great aunt and her mother did not have.
Uninterrupted monologue of yearning
The novel's thrilling moment is the threatened loss of identity that Nadia is exposed to and which becomes legible in the collage-like overlapping of the different voices of Nadia and her great aunt. Nadia's fluctuating ego, her desperate search for the self finds a credible expression in her emotionally-charged monologue.
Nevertheless after a while, this uninterrupted monologue of yearning begins to feel rather helpless, her mother's evocation of magic and a belief in demons, as well as the mutterings of the great aunt bolster the impression of passivity to the extent that the novel unfortunately approaches the cliché of the weak, powerless woman and the philandering macho man. Nadia appears to be far too caught up in the shackles of her family, bonds from which she cannot free herself and which tied her down to the "love of her life" much too early.
Although the novel attempts to sketch the contemporary image of a young, ambitious woman working in the editorial offices of a newspaper, taking a stand on political issues and shrugging off the old tribal values that were still in place during her mother's lifetime, Nadia does not arrive in the present. This is primarily evident from her linguistic style, in her all too flowery, sometimes overblown mode of expression. Her sentences sometimes appear overcharged for modern tastes, and even for what is clearly a romantic novel, the sex scenes are verging on the kitsch.
Sustained minor key
The German translation of this novel has not addressed this problem, it has exacerbated it. Sentences such as: "A lustful bolt shot through my body" or "I smiled and he foamed at the lips" are not only unusual in common language understanding, they are almost unpalatable.
Despite this, the intensity of the book leaves its mark on the reader's memory and Nadia's inner strife between intellectualism and the pain of love yields a plausible image of a hopeless life in a contemporary refugee camp.
The Alawi publishing house has tasked itself with translating the work of female Arab writers into German. Its choice of Nemat Khaled presents an experienced, versatile author who has already published several novels in Arabic and worked in Syria as a journalist, critic and author. The fact that "Henna Night" has a sad and hopeless ending is regrettable, but within the given perspective, in which unconditional love appears like a disease (an analogy that crops up several times throughout the novel), the sustained minor key is remarkably consistent.