The Lebanese tell a mournful joke. When God created their country, it is said, an angel protested that they had been given “everything” – snowy mountains, beautiful lakes, lush forests, and an abundance of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. “Everything?” God laughed. “Just wait and see the neighbors I’m going to give them!”
In A Girl Made of Dust, the powerful, poetic debut novel of Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, it’s the brother of 8-year-old narrator Ruba who tells the joke. But there are no Lebanese too young to grasp the bitter humor involved.
Ruba and her brother, Naji, are children, but they live outside Beirut in 1981 and there is no way for them to avoid the ugly struggle that engulfs their country. Even the games they play in the rich green forest that rings their home are punctuated by the not-so-distant sound of bombardments. Beirut, they know, is being torn apart by fighting. So normal does this seem to them that one of Naji’s hobbies is collecting empty shell casings.
Their father, Nabeel, blames the Palestinian refugees who have flooded their country. “They’re taking over our country like rats,” he insists. But as the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians and their supporters escalates, their upstairs neighbor casts a wider net of blame. “They’re animals, all of them – both sides, all sides! Ours, theirs, all of them!”
But Ruba, struggling to make sense of the churning adult world around her, blames a witch. Someone must have cast a spell on her father, she reckons. Why else would he have become so withdrawn, so hopeless, so unable to hold the family together? There is a mystery behind Nabeel’s retreat – which blends military with familial conflict – and it takes Ruba most of the slender novel to work it out.
Ruba’s family are Christians, and her devout grandmother, Teta, puts her trust in the Virgin Mary. Ruba is regularly dragged to church but feels skeptical about the whole affair. Why would God be interested in church, she wonders, “if He’d heard the same thing every Sunday for a hundred years”? And as for the Virgin Mary, Ruba wishes that, if she has to hear stories about her, that she could do “something exciting like swim out to sea, or play hide-and-seek with God, or dig a tunnel all the way to Beirut and live in it.”
Unfortunately for Ruba, the Bible story nearest to her life is that of Cain and Abel.
Ruba is a delightful and precocious narrator. Her nearest counterpart in American literature would be Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She and Naji – much like Scout and Jeb – are promising children whose childhood just happens to lie dangerously close to the roiling currents of adult life. Naji reacts with anger over the fact that their father is not doing more to protect them, but Ruba hopes for answers.
On a school trip to Beirut, she sees natural beauty mixed with devastation. “The waves caught the light and flicked it back in my eyes,” she notes. But most of what she sees are “just tall grey buildings speckled with bullet-holes, long metal poles sticking out of their walls like broken bones.” The other children laugh and chatter. “No one seemed to care that this wasn’t the beautiful city beside the sea from our schoolbooks,” she thinks. “Perhaps all beautiful things crumbled this way in the end.”
But Ruba does not crumble. Instead, she loves and trusts and – even as the situation around them deteriorates – manages to shine some light on the lives around her.
“A Girl Made of Dust” is built on firsthand experience. Abi–Ezzi was born in Lebanon in 1972. She left the country with her family at the age of 11, driven out by the Israeli invasion.
Her first novel is both graceful and wise, a simple narrative that lets the pure vision of childhood speak for itself.
When the adults in the novel inveigh against war, they tend toward clichés. “Do you think we’ll ever be free of the past?” frets Teta. “Beautiful things get broken too,” laments Ruba’s mother. But when Ruba and Naji make a papier-mâché pig and do puzzles in the dark as their town is shelled, we feel the horror of it all in fresh terms.
It makes a reader wonder: If more Rubas found their voices, might there not be less war?
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.