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“In the past five years, the Arab world has swelled and raged as dictators have fallen and people in their hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions of others displaced. In Syria and in Iraq, in Egypt and Libya, and in the farther reaches of the Arab Gulf, we have looked on in horror while humanity appears to stumble over itself; and Lebanon, in the wake of all this turmoil, tethers on the brink….There is something else to be learned from the experience of this situation, something to do with the conflict’s essential incongruity, even to those of us who are closest to it. Nothing about brutal battles is acceptable, nor are they a normal function of human interaction. This is how people diverge in their perceptions. For the suicide bombers who have been striking in the heart of Beirut or Baghdad, in Benghazi or Sanaa, in heavily populated areas and at times of day when ordinary people are getting on with their lives and the highest number of casualties is likely to occur, for the extremists, there is no such thing as everyday life, nothing in their psyche that points to normality and recognition of the other as legitimate and worthy….”
Just as the Syrians breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated Eid on 12th September 2016, I finished reading Nada Awar Jarrar’s An Unsafe Haven. The blurb, “Imagine trying to live a normal life in a world which changes daily and where nothing is certain…”, does not prepare you for what lies between the pages. As each page turns slowly(I wondered whether the writing style had anything to do with the slow pace), despair and helplessness shade the narrative. Written in third person, present tense, the narrative set in Beirut, connects aid workers, journalists, refugees and ordinary people. They are all trying to live and work amidst chaos and uncertainty. While the war tears Syria apart, it’s repercussions can be felt all around. And the threat of terrorist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham adds to the woes.
Lebanese journalist Hannah lives in Beirut with her American husband. As they both work towards helping the refugees, their own loyalties and complexes question their commitment- to their countries and to each other. The sight of Syrian refugees struggling, makes them aware of the dysfunctional world they live in. Their Syrian friend Anas and the Iraqi Maysoun are also fighting their own battles. While Anas’s German wife has fled Damascus with her children, Maysoun’s past in terror-ridden Baghdad, keeps her from reaching out to a happier future.
Newspapers and news channels have highlighted the conflict enough, giving us an overview of what is happening in the region, but not enough is known about how ordinary people cope with the issues. The different viewpoints expressed in this book, help the reader understand the human side of the conflict. While each character’s story is convincing and manages to tug at the reader’s heart, the tedious narration, written in present tense, makes it difficult to truly connect with the protagonists.
Though not a literary masterpiece, Nada Awar Jarrar’s An Unsafe Haven, is a recommended read for all those interested in the human story of the Syrian conflict.