Vol. 2, No. 5, March 1996|
Experience as Essence: A Review of Al Wallaah by Syrian Novelist Hanna Minah
by Fatme Sharafeddine Hassan*
Hanna Minah wrote Al-Wallaah in 1989 and published it a year later (Beirut: Dar Al Adab). The major focus of the novel is the lesson that experience is the essence of life. The main character, Farah Al-Makhzumi, a naive and shy seventeen-year-old, learns this truth after a long struggle with himself and the people surrounding him. Farah is tormented, forced to decide between two conflicting points of view. The first is represented by his mother, who is a follower of Lawandius the tailor; and is very conservative and religious. She teaches her son that experience implies sin. The second point of view is represented by Farah's stepfather and by Subhi, a school teacher; they believe that one should understand reality and work on improving the conditions in one's life.
Farah, who saw life through the eyes of his mother, falls into confusion when he begins to think critically about matters rather than accepting them as facts reported to him by his mother and her "spiritual guide" Lawandius. The two main factors that trigger Farah's critical thinking are the political involvement of his stepfather, who fascinates Farah with his courage and dedication, and his relationship with his cousin Frusia, the woman who seduces him and leads him into "experience," as Farah puts it.
Farah, whose father died when he was a young child, lives with his mother and her husband Risq Allah Al-Makhzumi in a very poor area called Hayy Al-Tanak in the coastal city Skenderon. While growing up, his mother was over-protective and raised him in a very conservative atmosphere. She also reveres Lawandius the tailor, a local conservative, and believes everything he tells her. She even calls him "Lawandius Al-Saleh" (the virtuous Lawandius). On the other hand, Risq Allah hates this tailor because he believes that the tailor only pretends to be what he is in order to gain the faith of his neighbors and friends. Risq Allah adores the teacher Subhi and works with him secretly to found a labor union to protect the rights of workers and organize the struggle against the French occupier in Syria.
Farah's cousin, Frusia, arrives at their house, claiming she wants to spend a few days because the Greek man she works for as a housekeeper is away for some time. The appearance of Frusia, a beautiful, sexy, and courageous young woman, causes confusion for Farah, an adolescent who never had a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman. He gradually starts to doubt the beliefs of Lawandius and his mother, and begins to follow his emotions and physical desires. Once he starts to question his mother's teachings and begins to listen to both his stepfather and Subhi, Farah progressively changes from an ignorant, superficial, and inexperienced boy to a man who knows and understands the events surrounding him.
The situation culminates when the stepfather, who tried to keep his political activities a secret, is suspected by the occupiers and is put in jail for a couple of days because of his involvement in distributing political leaflets amongst harbor workers. The novelist leaves it to the reader to decide whether it is Frusia or Lawandius who works as an agent for the authorities to spy on Risq Allah.
The important event following the release of Risq Allah is the new relationship that develops between him and Farah. He treats his stepson now as a man rather than just an ignorant boy; Risq Allah shares his feelings with Farah and asks him about his opinion on important matters.
The novel represents two lines of thinking: a conservative, religious theme which seeks to suppress critical thinking, symbolized by the character of Lawandius, and a progressive, critical theme which encourages independent thinking and seeks to heighten social and political awareness, symbolized by Subhi. The conflict that arises between Lawandius and Subhi embodies the gap that exists between these two trends of thinking and shows their impact on people. The protagonist in the novel suffers internal conflict resulting from the environment to which he is exposed as he begins to questions his mother's beliefs. The following is a sample of a discussion that goes on between Farah and his mother:
Farah: What is experience, mother?
Minah succeeds in creating life-like characters who have several common aspects with the audience. The characters and the events in Al-Wallaah represent a picture of real life that could ring true for any reader. The character of Farah, for instance, is a pattern that represents the adolescent boy in the Arab world, who faces many choices in life and develops his own independent thinking by trying to understand his choices.
The fact that this novel is written in first person of Farah adds to its realistic effect. Readers are able to deeply understand the feelings and actions of the main character as well as identify with him. In addition, the dialogue and conversations make the reader feel close to all the characters. Moreover, Minah does not hesitate to use colloquial terms and expressions in his work in order to maintain a high level of realism.
Al-Wallaah is an interesting novel that deals with social and political issues on various levels. Minah succeeds in developing the character of Farah, as well as in presenting these issues through him. The political, social, and sexual experiences that Farah goes through help to create a new person who learns how to think critically and who sees life more clearly. Hence the title of the book, Al-Wallaah: the flame that lights the way.
*Fatme Sharafeddine Hassan, an Assistant Editor of Al Jadid, is a Lebanese-American writer living in Ohio