By Hoda Marmar
I’m Not Leaving My House (لن أغادر منزلي: سليم بطّي) is Selim Batti’s first published novel, brought out by Hachette Antoine Naufal in Beirut, Lebanon. It was published on November 16, 2017 in Arabic and is not yet available in English translation; you can read more about the book on the publisher’s site.
The novel is a semi-autobiographical realistic story with social and political dimensions. Its symbolism, imagery, and stylistic devices serve the thematic pillars of the novel: homeland, war, migration, identity, and refugees. The novel unfolds in the first person, narrated by a witness to the horrors of war and migration. Given that the author sets his novel primarily in Beirut, it is self-evident that book has many references to Fairuz, the widely celebrated Lebanese icon, who sings Lebanon in a nostalgic and raw manner. You will find many Fairuz songs in the playlist below, which details the progression of the complex ideas and emotions evoked in the novel.
The Playlist (as you read, listen):
These songs are fit to the mood of the novel’s themes, its characters’ dynamics, and its poetic structure, which consists of an intro, a quatrain, and two tercets.
I. Intro: Our World Is Not Evil… We Are The Evil Ones… (عالمنا ليس بشرّير … نحن الأشرار…)
The narrator tries to bury memories from an incandescent past trapped in the ashes of foreignness and stillness. Dusty photographs are the sole witnesses to the painful disappointment and defeat brought by abandonment. But they reach beyond their frames, enslaving his present and shackling any specks of joy. And yet he holds tightly to the faces of the unfaithful departed silhouettes. Did they become his current hideaway? Why can’t he escape their glances? Is he his own prison guard? Who is the evildoer in this tragedy? Is it the cruelty of abandonment? Or the tightness of the earth’s womb? We might find answers in the novel’s quatrain and two tercets, and we trip over further questions and lose ourselves in between the lines.
II. Quatrain of the Masked Fetus (رباعيّة الجنين الملثّم)
What tortures the fetus shackles its birth into this world?
1. First Stanza: Behind the Scenes of a Vaudeville Show (كواليس مسرحيّة ڤودڤيليّة)
Just as the popular vaudeville theater entertained the masses through a series of unrelated separated acts woven together by a single thread, the war creeps into the lands armored by different actors driven by a common thirst for death and destruction. What happens behind this show’s scenes? Displacement, bloodshed, hunger, sitting outside the “all-too-human” humanitarian organizations and embassies, refugees, pornography, stolen childhood, xenophobia, racism… An absurd act supervised by a cruel sun and acted by white-collar workers, civilians, and the homeless…
2. Second Stanza: The Grasps of Disappointment (مستمسكات الخيبة)
“Don’t leave the earth”… The pains of disappointment, abandonment, and nostalgia for the land and the loving lap filled with cherished and bitter memories. These sentiments and scenes violate the narrator’s present once he returns to Beirut after being forcefully uprooted from his hometown.
3. Third Stanza: A Maternal Slap (صفعة أمومة)
Motherhood is not solely an epithet of humankind that is skilled in the rituals of giving birth and killing. Earth, too, nests and forsakes those who live on it. The sky is a mother that rains bombs and reaps death. These mothers are alike in their ability to disappoint their offspring.
4. Fourth Stanza: The Carved Ruins (نقشٌعلى الخربة)
It is the war again. Ruins and displacement. Refugee camps are edged in by misery as they attempt to turn away from the wretched battlefields. “Is there a strange attraction in the Arab land that pulls souls far away so relentlessly?”
III. First Tercet: The Judge’s Gavel (مطرقة القاضي)
A trial to judge the war and explore the bloody post-traumatic era.
1. First Stanza: As Tears Chant, The Crows Dance (عندما تغنّي الدموع، ترقص الغربان)
The Lebanese civil war casts its shadow of despair over the displaced Lebanese who migrated towards other lands and skies. Some remain midway between earthly hell and ethereal heavenly: a suspended death sentence.
2. Second Stanza: The Terror’s Pattering (دردبة الذعر)
Terrorized by dear of illness, despair, expatriation, dreary old school chairs, and farewells.
3. Third Stanza: A Clash with Beirut (إشتباك مع بيروت)
The narrator clashes with Beirut’s busy streets, which are strangled by traffic, and with Beirut’s issues concerning refugees, family dynamics, racism, fanaticism, crazed nights, Lebanese aristocracy, and the icons Sabah and Fairuz.
IV Second Tercet: Steel Shrubs (شجيرات من حديد)
Steel shrubs with budding leaflets of death, farewell, and foreignness.
1. First Stanza: Oh Death, Have Mercy! (حنانيك يا أيّها الموت)
On the bus going up to Jounieh, we meet another face of the war and eavesdrop on the conversations of the commuters: despair drawn by human hands and victims who look up to the sky – notably to The Lady of Harissa – yearning to be safely uprooted from their burning homeland and be temporarily planted in a cold soil that does not burn up God’s houses of worship as a blood-drenched oblation.
2. Second Stanza: The Chalk Bird (عصفور الطباشير)
Return of the prodigal son after so many goodbyes, abandonments, and golden silences. Disappointments and wars with the woman, the self, love, the society, and Beirut. An attempt to domesticate this civilized jungle. When the house becomes a set of walls we hold onto tightly, and it crumbles at the mere thought of an upcoming war, we wonder what is home, really? What is the home that shields our displacement from ourselves, our land, and our dreams?
3. Third Stanza: A Stranger to My City (مدينة لا تعرفني… وأفعل)
A semi-voluntary migration now from the city that was the narrator’s temporary home. So, where is home, then?
Happy reading and listening!
Hoda Marmar is the administrator of the popular bilingual “Bookoholics” group in Beirut.