Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes tells the story of one boy's journey to escape war in his beloved Syria. This deeply moving novel makes the Syrian refugee crisis painfully real to young readers. The story is narrated by "Destiny"

Tareq is Nour and Fayed eldest child. Eventually his family came to include his brother Salim who was two years younger, his younger sisters Farrah and Susan and the twins Ameer and Sameer. Tareq's paternal grandmother also lived with them. The family was not well off but their small apartment was filled with love. On a hot summer night in 2015, Tareq's family was shattered forever when his neighbourhood was bombed. While trapped beneath the slab of concrete that had been his family's kitchen wall, Tareq dreams of his family, his five month-old twin brothers, his sisters watching television, his mother making food and his tetya (grandmother) drinking  tea. He remembers his brother Salim who has great affection for their sisters and his love of soccer.

But Tareq's nightmare is all too real as he is pulled from the ruins by men in white helmets. The bodies of his mother, tetya and his younger sister Farrah are pulled from the crushed apartment building and Tareq is sent to the hospital. While he is being treated, Tareq shows the doctor pictures on his phone of his siblings and learns that Susan will be fine. But Ameer and Sameer are dead, Salim missing. Tareq weeps as his father holds him.

Tareq's father, Fayed drives to Raqqa to meet his older brother who has promised to help him leave the country by giving him money. Raqqa is now controlled by Daesh, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham-or or ISIS. These religious fundamentalists have set up their own brutal laws. All Fayed knows is that he has to get his two surviving children out of the country. As they travel to Raqqa, Tareq notices the effect the drought has had on the land, "the once-lush greenery that held beautiful loquat and citrus trees had disintegrated into dusty brown cracked earth." Each checkpoint is a harrowing nightmare;  at one they encounter a young government army soldier who extorts money from Fayed, they meet the shabiha who are the pro-Assad civilian militia who are equally terrifying, and at others Daesh soldiers angrily yell at Fayed, questioning his small beard, Susan lack of a proper head covering, telling Fayed that he is kafer.

Once in Raqqa, Fayed and Tareq see the full horror of life under Daesh. There are heads mounted on spikes on the main roundabout. Tareq is shocked to see that Raqqa has also changed. The streets with many bombed-out buildings are empty, patrolled by men with long beards carrying Kalashnikov rifles. A shopping trip with his cousin Musa quickly turns into a terrifying experience as the two boys are  forced to Naim Square where they witness the shooting and beheading of a young man. On the drive home, Musa realizes they have been followed. Within minutes of their arrival, men come to the house but Tareq's Uncle Waleed and his father manage to talk the men out of taking the two boys, who they want to recruit for Daesh.

As a result of this, Uncle Waleed tells Fayed and Tareq they must leave the city immediately and continue on to Turkey. Only a few weeks after they leave, Daesh close off the city. Tareq, along with his father and sister, his cousin Musa and Shams and Asil who are a neighbour's daughters, travel through the Aleppo countryside, arriving finally at the Turkish border. Having missed the bus crossing the border, the group walks the last exhausting mile into Turkey.

In Turkey, Musa and Tareq travel to Istanbul in an effort to make money for the trip to Europe while Fayed and Susan live in Gaziantep. However, making money proves to be more difficult than Tareq realizes. In Istanbul, Syrians are not well treated,and Tareq is almost cheated out of his payment for working at a new restaurant. Musa tries to encourage Tareq to stay, to work harder to make Turkey his home, but Tareq is determined to leave for Europe. He's had enough of Turkey, and is concerned for the well being of his little sister Susan.

To that end Tarek meets his father and sister in the coastal city of Izmir where they hope to find someone to help them cross over the Aegean Sea to Greece. In Izmir they find not only Syrians but people from Afghanistan who are also feeling war and the Taliban. Tareq's journey will continue in a leaky boat with fake life jackets, leaving behind his beloved father. It is a journey that will almost cost him and his sister their lives, but will teach Tarek the importance of finding the helpers, those people who care and who give of themselves.


A Land of Permanent Goodbyes tackles the Syrian refugee crisis in a haunting and memorable way that captures the reality and puts a human face to this tragedy. The refugee experience is told by "Destiny" which describes itself "...as the end of a sequence of events that you and your kind actively shape." and as "just the end result of your choices". This unbiased witness tells the story of a Syrian boy whose life is forever altered when his home is bombed by the Syrian military. Abawi used Destiny as the narrator because she felt this was the best way to tell the refugee story as Destiny sees events from all points of view, the refugees, the helpers, and a group of people Abawi calls "the hunters" those people who rape, murder or act with cruelty. Destiny has also seen the past.

Abawi also chose to use Destiny to tell the story because she felt this was the best way to help her readers fully understand the refugee experience:

"In life, for some people it is very difficult to put oneself in another’s shoes and see the world from their perspective. It’s also challenging to share your struggles with others who you feel would not understand it, or even judge you for them. Each and every one of us also has thoughts and secrets that we are afraid to express. In terms of this novel I think that Destiny could be that voice for each character so they don’t have the opportunity to hide behind the protective wall all humans construct."

Abawi sets the stage by having Tareq dream, as he lays half buried in the rubble of his home, about his family as they were before the bombing. He remembers the most intimate details of his mother, "hair in a bun and a mole on the side of the neck", "breathing in her scent of perfumed flowers and spiced cooking." He remembers his tetya, his sisters Susan Farrah who was the little tomboy, his twin brothers Ameer and Sameer, playing soccer with his brother Salim, before he regains consciousness in the horror of a completely destroyed home filled with the dead. This happy, loving life will be only a memory for Tareq and his father as they flee their homeland of Syria.

Abawi uses her characters to inform readers, providing background information about the Syrian conflict. For example through the character of Musa, readers learn about the radical Islamic terrorist group called Daesh. When Tareq is in Raqqa his cousin Musa explains Daesh to his cousin, telling him, "...this city has been taken over by the world. They come from France, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, America, Kuwait, Britain, Libya-everywhere. I swear I hear them speaking more French and English than Arabic, wallahi!" He tells Tareq that Daesh originated in Iraq and that they fear them the most. In a conversation with his cousin, Musa tells him, "These people don't know the first thing about Islam...I guarantee most of them have never even read a Quran in their lives. They are criminals in their home countries. ..Do you know that they even found out some of the guys who came here from England had purchased a Quran for Dummies book instead of the actual Quran?"  He also references the Salafism, stating, "The Salafi cancer has spread.", claiming "...But the Saudis have had the oil money to spread this deadly disease...Think about it. The world buys Saudi oil-they're so rich, they have golden toilet seats. They also have the money to print their own interpretation of the Holy Quran in every language you can think of and ship it out. They claim to have the purest form of Islam, when in reality they created it more than a thousand years after the Prophet Muhammad's death!...And then on the other side, you have President Assad, the Alawite, and his backing from Iran and the Shias."

Throughout Tafeq's journey readers learn about the many problems Syrian refugees usually encounter as they make their way through Turkey, across the Aegean Sea, through Greece, Macedonia and on towards eastern Europe to Germany. For example, Syrian refugees working to earn money for the crossing are frequently cheated out of wages in Turkey. Refugees are charged exorbitant fees for being smuggled across the Mediterranean, and are placed in leaking boats with fake life jackets. Women and girl refugees are particularly at risk, repeatedly raped by smugglers, while others are stolen and trafficked for the sex trade. Even crossing the Aegean, the Turkish coast guard attacks refugee boats with the intention of sinking them rather than helping. These are just a few of the problems Abawi highlights in her novel.

Abawi doesn't shy away from the horrors of the Syrian conflict nor the brutality of ISIS. Tareq and Musa witness the brutal execution and beheading of a young man, his parents in attendance. "A battery of bullets ripped through the young man, whose body convulsed. His mother collapsed, his father too shocked to try to lift her back up. The firing eventually came to a halt. But the horror didn't end....He grabbed the limp head by its mane, lifting it from the puddle of blood it had rested in, and ran a sharp blade back and forth across the neck, slashing the flesh. The boy's father finally fell next to his wife, thumping to the ground."

Abawi also portrays those who do care, the numerous helpers who come from many countries - characters such as Alexi an American from Connecticut who came to Greece to visit family. However Alexi's life is changed forever when she sees the refugees and is moved by their suffering to volunteer. There are others too from every country around the world: Michael who is from Singapore, Sivan and Mariam two medics from Israel, Hashem a British born Syrian, Famke from the Netherlands, Hilda from Germany and Tina from China.

Destiny focuses on Alexi who, in an attempt to bridge the gap between cultures, organizes a small dinner with the workers and Tareq and a few other refugees in the transit camp. Their sharing of food and stories brings hope and relief. "They talked about the beauty of their cities and the destruction of their lives and loved ones. Both volunteers and refugees shed tears, salty droplets of relief as they set free the stories that were trapped in their hearts and minds." Alexia encourages Tareq by telling him what she learned as a child from Mr. Rogers. "I'll never forget the advice he said he got from his mother. 'Always look for the helpers.' ...she explained. "Look, you've had a pretty horrible journey so far. And it's not even close to being over. But when you think that the world is against you, please just take a moment and look for them-the helpers.' She shrugged. 'I don't know, it may make things better.' "

There is also an interesting discussion between Tareq and the London-born Syrian, Hashem. Tareq expresses the view that "there are a lot of people who hate us." but Hashem states this is fear and not hate. Tareq doesn't accept this. "My point is, we are the ones afraid. We are the ones who have suffered. How can complete strangers be afraid of those of us who have seen what real suffering is? They can't be afraid of the weak. We should call it what it is: hate." Abawi presents a rather simplistic view to her readers of how the refugees are viewed in Europe when in fact the issue is much more complex. Tareq is partially correct in that some of the European reluctance to take in refugees might be based on "hate", but the issue is more complex than the character Tareq is shown to  understand. For European countries , many of whom are struggling economically (Greece for example has received billions in bailout money), other factors come into play. For example, the sheer volume of refugees, how to integrate refugees who have a culture that is very different from secular, post-Christian Europe and the lack of response by other Arab/Muslim countries such as Yemen, Saudi Arabi and Lebanon are important considerations.

Abawi ends her novel on a somewhat hopeful tone; Tareq receives some happy news and he and Susan do make it safely to Germany. There is also a hint of a future perhaps with Jamila, a young Afghani woman who lives with her sister Najiba and their aunt in Frankfurt.

 A Land of Permanent Goodbyes, is both revealing and deeply moving, and exquisitely crafted novel,offering young readers the opportunity to experience the refugees plight and  the challenge to be helpers, not hunters in this human tragedy.

Book Details:

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi
New York: Philomel Books      2018
272 pp.

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