Saïd Khatibi’s polyphonic novel, Sarajevo Firewood, pays homage to the victims of civil war in Algeria and Bosnia in the 1990s, and gives the survivors a voice. Scarred by erratic memories and traumatic recall – indicative of the psychological wounds of war – writing is a way to come to terms with what happened.
“We might find a mass grave with a café or restaurant in front of it, which changed at night into a dance floor, on which the living took turns to move their bodies while the dead opposite them looked on silently.”
Khatibi interweaves the lives of Ivana from cultured, cosmopolitan Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Salim from bustling seaside Algerian capital, Algiers; and the lives of their friends and families left behind, all of whom cope in assorted ways with the pervasive uncertainty, unrest and violence of daily existence.
“I avoided going to places where people congregated. I didn’t go to markets, mosques or weddings. My fear of an explosion happening at any moment had given me a phobia of crowds. The café I was sitting in now, I usually went to in the morning before work, or when I had a passing appointment with a friend.”
Diversity exacerbates the suffering and conflicts that erupt between the various characters, reflecting what is going on all around them. Yet regardless of the differences in language and culture, any two people are a lot more alike than it might first appear.
Salim’s uncle, Si Ahmad, runs a café bar in the Slovene capital, Ljubljana. Si Ahmad’s beautiful wife and mother of his two sons resembles the singer Dalida, yet he is unfaithful to her. Traumatised by the murder of his sister by extremists back home, the entrepreneur has a hidden history.
“Writing is bitter, but its fruit is sweet”
Ivana dreams of becoming a playwright or an actress, and works by day as a waitress. She is regularly groped by her boss and coerced into giving him blow jobs. She writes by night and gives up her job when her errant lover, Goran, returns.
People hide their past when they see it as something that will be frowned upon if they tell the truth: Salim discovers this when he finds out that his father is not his father at all.
When Si Ahmad is found stabbed at home, Ivana is accused and imprisoned. But is she the murderer? And if so, what was her motive?
“Sarajevo became like a beautiful woman whose face is covered in bruises. The gardens of yellow and white margarita flowers had deserted her and the smell of death seeping up from under the ground made the place even more dejected.”
As the dark underbelly of both Ivana and Salim’s respective family lives are gradually revealed, mirroring the tangled darkness of a society at war with itself, Sarajevo Firewood becomes a harrowing masterclass in cruelty and scapegoating.
Sarajevo Firewood is not all doom and gloom. Each capital may be the crucible of hell for a while, with hatred spreading like cholera, but hope is not lost. People change as they are tested by the extremes of war, but not everyone becomes a lost soul. There are those who become teachers or leaders or writers such as Saïd Khatibi writing about civil war seen in differing ways, lest we forget . . . despite losing everything, they can still look for something new, and rebuild.
Translating from Arabic is notoriously tricky. Paul Starkey – emeritus professor of the Arabic department at the University of Durham, and the author of Modern Arabic Literature (2006) – is a leader in the field. His fluent, engrossing translation of Sarajevo Firewood does credit to the author’s imagination, carrying that vision from one language to the other. With the rise of dark tourism, novels such as Sarajevo Firewood are likely to find an avid readership.
Sarajevo Firewood by Saïd Khatibi; translator: Paul Starkey | Banipal Books £11.99 September 2021 ISBN 9781913043230 | shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2020
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