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Songs for the Dead and Living
Sara M. Saleh
Affirm Press, $34.99
When we first moved into our home, my husband and I loved our new Muslim neighbours. We exchanged pleasantries of a morning, gifts of a holiday (ours, or theirs) and lamentations over the challenges of parenting.
The real estate agent had introduced them to us as a lovely Jordanian couple, and it was only months later, when I mentioned their Jordanian-ness in passing, that they gently revealed that they were actually Palestinian, though they refrained from advertising their heritage unless it felt completely safe to do so.
Sara M. Saleh’s first novel deftly explores the ongoing effects of the Nakba across generations.
Their sentiments finally made sense while immersed in Sara Saleh’s debut novel, Songs for the Dead and the Living, a sobering story of dispossession, intergenerational trauma and individuation that traverses the streets of Beirut, Cairo and Sydney.
The coming-of-age of Jamilah Husseini, a young Palestinian woman who is uprooted from her home in Beirut’s Beit Samra at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, Songs for the Dead and the Living evokes the heartache of an adolescence marred by the precariousness of refugee status, and the isolation experienced by Palestinian communities whose sufferings are forgotten – often as inconvenient impediments, Saleh suggests, to the interests of the states where they seek refuge.
Saleh deftly explores the ongoing effects of the Nakba across generations and in far-flung corners of the world, posing a complicated question: is it really home if you’ve never been? Jamilah’s story – the forced abandonment of budding love in Beirut; the solace found in shesh besh boards and a gifted camera; a marriage of convenience agreed to for one type of freedom at the expense of another – is at once tender and tragic. Saleh writes matter-of-factly on matters considered complex on the world stage: never preaching, but also never shying away from the horrors of displacement, loss and gender-based violence.
And yet, she also imbues her characters’ lives with the warmth of culture, faith and family. Like other young women from traditionally patriarchal cultures, Jamilah and her loveable sisters are constantly contending with their intersections: negotiating the weight of cultural and familial expectations, the making and breaking of relationships, the realities of war and oppression.
The Husseini family bear their indignities with the kind of strength that saw their matriarch, Teta Aishah, flee her lush and fragrant village in Palestine – pregnant and alone – for the safety of neighbouring Lebanon. Resultantly, her granddaughters are at once vulnerable and formidable, thanks to a mother whose strategy is to “hide them in their Lebanese-ness precisely so they can stay Palestinian”. It’s an act of preservation steeped in knowing one’s place.
As one of two first recipients of the Sweatshop Literacy Movement’s mentorship with Affirm Press (the other recipient, Shirley Le, released her brilliant, Readings Prize-shortlisted debut, Funny Ethnics, earlier this year), Saleh’s writing demonstrates what one character articulates in the text, that “art sustains life … showing people things they otherwise might not see”.
A multi-award-winning poet, Saleh has intervened in dominant discourses around identity, storytelling and power, and this work is no exception. She challenges literary conventions by peppering Arabic words and phrases into English sentences, never italicising them: hidden details for readers within her community who will find meaning in what might be untranslatable.
And yet it’s clear that she wields her words with both power and care, with prose that is delicate and poetic. There’s room for a more substantial, expansive plot as far as intergenerational stories go, but that’s a selfish observation born out of a delight in its vividly evoked settings and its engaging turns of phrase.
Songs for the Dead and the Living is a moving and lyrical debut: a celebration of resilience and a lament for what could have been. Written with a strong command of language and story, it’s also a reminder that there’s no freedom in hiding who we are because even the saddest songs are worth dancing to.
Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, author and academic specialising in migrant narratives.
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