by Catriona Fida
Between Beirut and the Moon is the debut novel from Naji Bakhti about a post-civil-war Beirut and the escapades of a young boy named Adam who dreams of becoming the first Arab on the moon. The narrative focuses on Adam’s home life, particularly in his relationship with his father, his friendships and his relationship with a city that is recovering from years of political violence. It is a joyful coming-of-age story documenting the episodes of youth against the backdrop of a chaotic and animated Beirut.
Writing in English, his second language, Bakhti is aware that his audience probably lives in a much different world to that of his narrator. Because of this, he frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the reader and explain various cultural references. I’m glad that the author was not deterred from including Arabic phrases and teachings from this book, just because his intended audience speaks English. I particularly loved how Bakhti uses the Lebanese colloquialism ‘mother and father’ throughout this book to express the idea of something whole or complete. Though I am all for writers inserting words and phrases from their own language without explanation or justification, I can appreciate that Bakhti doesn’t want to isolate his reader and fully understand his reasons for doing so. By introducing his reader to popular idioms, he is able to set reader expectations from the outset and destroy any barriers between the world of his narrator and that of his English-speaking reader.
Religion is closely aligned with a person’s identity and this is clearly shown in the classroom conflicts and the rules of dating Adam encounters throughout his childhood. The product of an interfaith marriage, his father being of Muslim upbringing and his mother of the Christian faith, Adam quite literally embodies the culmination of Lebanon’s religious divide. Deemed an outsider by his classmates and by wider society more generally, Adam refuses to let others define him. His duality enables him to navigate through different spaces but, more than this, it allows him to understand the conflicts of his society on a personal level through the controversial marriage of his parents and through the ways others respond to him. Interestingly, Adam’s classmates have very little understanding of their faith outside of where it places you within Lebanese society. That these young children have been taught to see religion as divisive, rather than as a tool which can bring people together, speaks volumes about the conception of sectarian conflicts and the ways in which people have manipulated religion to establish an ‘us versus them’ mentality.
The use of humour in this novel is critical in investigating Lebanon’s social injustices from a child’s perspective. While humour might not seem the typical choice for a book written about war, it is becoming a very popular theme in contemporary fiction as a means of practicing catharsis and working through trauma. In this particular novel this is shown through how the regular bombing of Beirut is accepted as part of their otherwise extremely ordinary lives. The scene that sticks in my mind most is when Adam and his family huddle in the family bathroom to wait out the bombing and Adam’s main concern is that he needs to use the toilet. It demonstrates the ways in which the mundane and every day is able to interact with the tragic and horrific. Adam’s unfiltered perspective paints both the good and bad as part of his everyday realm of experience and I think it is this nonchalant quality to the narration which makes the events of this book all the more impactful.
Having a child narrator is another great device this book uses to enable its reader to connect with the story. Like the anglophone reader, Adam is also naive and ignorant to the world around him. He enters the story as an optimistic young boy with big dreams of becoming an astronaut. However, as he matures he begins to realise how unlikely a feat this is. While puberty is already a confusing time for most young adults, Adam’s maturation coincides with having to navigate the change and instability in the world around him. This includes his relationship with his father, who is a journalist and has lived through the civil war period in Lebanon. In an article he wrote, his father notes that Lebanon ‘presented our children with two alternatives: death or immigration and instructed them to pick between the two’. The conflict in Beirut, spanning 15 years, led to an estimated 120,000 deaths and the displacement of almost one million people. The legacy of which is still very much alive today. Of a different generation, Adam, unlike his father, is hopeful for the future of Lebanon and I do feel that it is this youthful optimism which the reader is encouraged to take away from reading this book.
Between Beirut and the Moon (Influx Press) is now available for purchase. Many thanks to Influx for the review copy.