A cross-section of life in one Tripoli neighborhood, from a wealthy resident to a housecleaner to a terrorist.
This brisk and affecting novel by veteran Lebanese writer Douaihy (June Rain, 2015, etc.) is set during the early stages of the Iraq War and follows three archetypal characters. Intisar is a housecleaner with four children and a listless, abusive husband who clings to memories of old rebellions. She meticulously cares for the home of Abdelkarim, the scion of a wealthy family who has recently returned home from France in a melancholy funk, initially for unclear reasons. But Intisar is more concerned about her son Ismail, who has recently disappeared and who she fears has joined with insurgent terrorists. It’s no spoiler to say that Intisar’s suspicions are correct: Douaihy tracks how Ismail “seeped out” of mainstream society, slowly transforming from petty criminal to member of a hyperconservative mosque to would-be suicide bomber. In the meantime, Abdelkarim reveals an early adulthood of struggles to toe the family line, ending an arranged marriage before heading for France, where he fell for a ballerina; and Intisar’s own complex relationship with Abdelkarim’s family (not to mention her husband and busybody neighbors) comes into sharper relief. As American intelligence operatives more aggressively monitor the neighborhood following Saddam Hussein’s capture, Douaihy suggests that outsiders might understand the area in broad strokes but miss plenty of important nuances, which has agonizingly divisive consequences. The novel is rooted in war and terrorism, but its overall tone is composed, at times even romantic and comic, more concerned with themes of disconnection than violence. Abdelkarim, he writes, “develop[ed] the feeling that the world was somewhere he was not.” It’s a common affliction for nearly everybody in this story.
A brief but rich story of lives intersecting because and in spite of post–9/11 violence.