Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Night Counter by Alia Yunis

The story starts with the central protagonist Fatima Abudullah, on her way back from a friend's funeral. Bordering on 86 years, just divorced from her husband of sixty five years, with ten grown up children and now with children of their own, she feels that her life is at its end. This pessimistic prediction is further confirmed by the appearance of Scheherazade who has started to visit with Fatima at her Los Angeles home that she shares with her gay grandson Amir.

Scheherazade, the beauty known for her spinning of tales, finds herself in the reversed role of listener rather than story-teller as Fatima relates to her the events of her own life from the days she left Deir Zeitoon in Lebanon in 1936 to emigrate to America to the story's present year of 2011. She feels that once the tales are done in the 1001 days she will spend recounting them to Scheherazade she will die. With utter belief of her end Fatima starts to sort out the major dilemma of who to leave the house in Deir Zeitoon to when she dies, the house from which she bid her mother farewell on that last day she set out with her first husband Marwan to America, not knowing that the two would never meet again or how dramatically her life would be shaped from events to come.

The novel reads like a brief history in the life on an immigrant, here Fatima Abdullah. She is an Arab, illiterate woman who finds herself in a foreign country, with a people whose language she cannot speak and a husband she barely knows. It is a tough start by all means made even more so when Marwan dies early on leaving her alone and pregnant. Cue Ibrahim (Marwan's best friend) who she thinks marries her out of duty and obligation. Believing that his wife left him for another, Fatima agrees to the wedding but is forever convinced that this was and remained a marriage of convenience devoid of the notion that Ibrahim could ever have loved her. Once the realization sinks in though, it is too late and the last scenes of the book when we all realize what he has done as proof of his love brings a tear to the eye and is one of the most emotional parts of the book.

Fatima's ten children are first generation Americans of immigrant parents. They are children born to parents who although want their children to thinks of themselves as Americans, yet would have liked them to retain some of their Arabness as well. Fatima's daughters by her own admission are girls who do not date, but marry and her biggest regret is that all showed no interest in learning Arabic except for Nadia who decided to learn it at college further frustrating her mother who thought it ridiculous that they had to pay for her to learn a language that she could have learnt for free at home.

Fatima's children, all eight of them, lead very different lives and are totally alienated from each other. The glue binding them together throughout the novel is Fatima even if most of the time they are unaware of it. She is their anchor in so many ways that everyone including Fatima herself take for granted. She is the true personification of an Arab saying "il om bitlom" which literally means mother is the binder. The other thing that binds them is the weather.

Many readers who are themselves children of immigrant parents will relate so much with this story. The parents struggling to cope with their new foreign environment clutching at straws (in this story keys) to stay attached to a past they fear that if they lose their identity will be lost with it and the children not knowing any other country except the one they were born to. This struggle is very evident in the stories of all the children who Scheherazade takes the time out to show us when she takes a break from being Fatima's listener.

The  book has a mystery that is revealed at the end and is one of the many reasons that the Abudullah family come to realize is part of the reason why they have become what and how they are as adults. Each in his own turn has not had a very easy life and has had to fight their own demons to come out battered but not totally broken the other side. There have always been prices to pay but there has also been moments of happiness as well. The characters are believable, funny, witty and highly intelligent yet confused and lacking in self esteem. But the story is not doom and gloom and I am sorry if I have made it out to seem like that, in fact it is highly comical, and there are laugh aloud moments in the book particularly where Fatima is concerned and Amir's antics which I found quite endearing.

This is a very interesting read, and a book that I have so enjoyed that I will be reading again in the near future. I haven't been as sad to have a book end in so long. This is movie material for sure!

To learn more about the author click HERE.

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