by Hanna Mina
special-ordered from Auntie’s Bookstore
I bought this book because I wanted to understand, at least a little, the current Syrian refugee crisis (a modern-day Saferberlik.) I thought this autobiographical novel of a boy growing up in rural Syria in the 1930s would be a start.
NOTE: When I finished this book, I closed it, sighed, opened it again, and started reading from the beginning, just as my mother said she did with Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone.
Fragments of Memory was captivating–I never wanted the story to end, even though the poor characters were certainly suffering. I read to understand, but I also read because the writing, the powerful voice, the storytelling was exceptional.
The Childhood That Really Wasn’t
The boy’s family raises silkworms in a mud hut in a field under some mulberry trees. They have to battle grinding poverty and starvation due to:
1) too many children (mercifully, the five siblings born after the boy don’t make it)
2) the fecklessness of the alcoholic father
3) the deaths of many of the relatives who could have helped them and
4) the feudal village system, where they are at the mercy of a cruel and capricious mukhtar, or village headman. The landowners and the nobles are, of course, worse.
The End of the Silkworms
With the same lack of foresight shown by the illiterate and impulsive father, nobody in the village realizes–not the workers nor the mukthar nor even the landowners–that the silkworm trade in Syria is about to come to an abrupt end. That’s how the boy remembers it, anyway. One year, after they’ve raised the worms all winter and choked them with smoke, and taken the raw silk and spun it just like always…no buyers come. The ones who do, finally, will only pay rock bottom prices. People’s children begin to starve. Synthetic silk from India or maybe China has ruined the silkworm trade. Bang.
The boy’s family wants to abandon the village and start over somewhere, but they still owe the mukthar (i.e. the company store). Suspecting that the family might flee, the mukhtar takes the 10-year-old daughter hostage, to be a servant in his house. The mother and father have few resources, but the mother does have an elderly uncle who is reputed to be a brigand–a highway robber. He threatens the mukhtar and the family gets their daughter and leaves for a seaside town. The mother hopes to send all her children to school, buy them clothes, and shoes. Instead, a series of bad decision by the father leave them homeless and living by the side of the road near a village square in the middle of nowhere. Can it get worse? Making it worse seems to be the father’s only talent, yet due to the patriarchal culture, the mother can’t just up and leave him, or even talk back to him. She becomes very ill, and the children beg and starve.
My maternal grandmother was born in 1920, just three years before the boy in the story. She lived through the Great Depression and she was an orphan, like the mother in the book. I know she went through some tough times, but she did not starve. She didn’t have to glean wheat from fields nor beg under a fig tree. She didn’t get malaria and dysentery from being homeless near stagnant ditches. She was in some ways cheated of her childhood by having to work as a de facto servant in her relatives’ homes and being treated as an unwanted burden–like the boy’s older sisters in the story–but at least she wasn’t considered expendable or inferior because she was female.
At one point the boy says he didn’t realize as a child that he was the hungry mouth; that his sisters were sacrificed so he could eat and grow strong; that his sisters’ education was sacrificed so he could learn to read and write while they remained illiterate. You can feel the grown man’s regret and sorrow as he looks back on his sadly deprived childhood and his love for his family.
There are rumblings of history in the background, only partially understood by the boy as his elders aren’t educated, don’t receive news of the world, and are only really interested in their tiny pieces of familiar land. He knows his uncle was conscripted into the Turkish army and died of pneumonia while making his escape. He knows that his family, like so many poor Syrians, suffered greatly in the Saferberlik, the mass migration from the coast into the interior, in 1916. (This famine was caused by the British and French blockade of Syria’s few ports on the Mediterranean during World War I and by the Ottomans’ forced conscription of Syrian men and boys into their armies.)
The family is nominally Christian–they own a Bible and the mother entreats God all the time, but there don’t seem to be any churches in the area. She mentions going to the mosque and slapping her baby boy on the mouth with his father’s slipper as a kind of magic to keep him from sickening and dying, but doesn’t wear a veil. She is, however, subservient to her violent husband, who beats her.
The Writing–My Lord, the Writing
This is one of the best novels I’ve read for this blog. I would rank it right up there with Dear Uncle Napoleon (Iran). Hanna Mina is a writer of considerable power, imagery and dry wit. It’s not easy to write about something so personally painful with such grace, such beauty, such yes even charm. Because I’m used to straightforward, point A to point B autobiography, I tried to resist his lyrical descriptions of the family’s situation as a ship at sea, or the fragmentation of his memories as looking through the eye of a fish underwater, and his digressions into poetry or the double meaning of Arabic words, but I couldn’t. This book cast a spell on me. I loved it.