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Jayita Bhattacharjee
Cry of The Barren Plains

The abusive Kafala system on the soil of Lebanon, trapped the innocent Chehab family, exposing their family to the risks of enslavement. As Anas says, ‘I am not born to do this slavery that they have compelled me to. The family that reduced us to dust, must remember that someday, that dust will get in their eyes.’ How can they remain so unaffected by the poverty that causes someone else to starve? Years come and leave, and the Chehab family wonders if they will ever be able to strike out against the generation of oppression. If ever a day comes when rightfulness prevails, it will be when justice conquers the abuse of the kafala system and that will be the end of modern-day slavery. When that day comes, Lebanon will sing the song of Cedars.

Many that grovel on the dust deserve to walk with dignity and pride and many that walk with pride deserve to grovel in guilt and shame. That pang of regret within the escaped should build such a fire, that they are burned alive inside. One such family was the Ahmed family which was the ‘kafeel’ sponsoring migrant workers from the grounds of Anatolia, Turkey with the gleam of false hopes and promises. The power-hungry Ahmed too easily escaped, and not once were they bitten by guilt and regret. The appetite they had for gripping the neediest of needy, had sent the innocent Chehab family reeling over the shock, one after another. Something treacherous and menacing was simmering in the heads of the Ahmed family for traitorous were they in their characters.
Oppression is an ugly thing but the ugliest of all is the sick desire to be an oppressor behind the false façade of protector. As it was never an honest purpose, but rather a desire to be triumphant in the realization of selfish needs. The Chehab family thus became human instruments for generations and generations to help in the ascendancy of the elite family in Lebanon. Justice was compromised and humans became commodities. But who paid the ultimate offering to pull the family from slavery to salvation? Was it worth paying that price? Did fairness and justice have the final say?
Somewhere along the way, comes an interfaith love story that has its roots in Lebanon. It sheds light on the ways an earthly loss can be finally brought to a union with God. Thus it turns to a heavenly union, for a lover is no longer plunged in bitter tears but rather in a mystical union with God. It then becomes a love story that seeks refuge in countless verses and lyrics for though those times have lost their youthful spring as desiccated leaves, fallen on the grounds, still they sprinkle the finest fragrance around, in which the earth is filled. The sea may swell with the madness of melancholy flowing from unfulfilled dreams, but the love that transcends all the divides and weeps no more on the grounds of Lebanon. Rather it dances like a drunken soul, dancing on the streets as wild is ecstasy.

“In the cedar-scented breeze of Lebanon, there came the smell of gunpowder,” writes Bhattacharjee in this impassioned debut, a romantic tragedy deeply invested in faith, class, art, love, exploitation, and the Lebanese civil war. The story centers on the unjust relationship between two families in Lebanon near the end of the 20th century. Two generations ago, the Chehabs fled Turkey as refugees with dreams of a better life, but establishing themselves in Lebanon meant securing the sponsorship of a “kafeel”—in this case the wealthy Ahmed family—and taking on extraordinary debt that, in the narrative present, still shackles the Chehab descendants to the Ahmeds. As sectarian war throws the nation and its economy into turmoil, Anas Chahab, a woodworker and furniture maker with a deep love of art, finds his debts mounting, especially as his money-and-power-hungry boss,Ibrahim Ahmed, uses his business to “grind” others down.

Then Ibrahim offers Anas a wrenching deal: the Ahmeds will clear the generational debt if Anas’s daughter Sareena marries Ibrahaim’s son Asif. But Sareena, a Sunni dreamer with bold ideas about women’s roles in society, is already in love with Calvin, a Lebanese Maronite Christian—and also the novel’s narrator. Bhattacharjee invests this classic setup with a ripe sense of poetry, as Sareena and Calvin express their love in rich metaphorical dialogue: “I must sip the honey of your deeps, so you’ll bloom in my fondling.” That’s matched by incisive considerations of the religious and class conflicts shaping these lives, as Bhattacharjee addresses, with clear eyes, economic concerns, the rights of women, cross-faith romance, and more—even “Beirut’s biggest art heist.”

The prose alternates between the strikingly evocative and the uncertain and hard-to-parse: “Hurling barbarous reminders at her would be his final throw if savagery ever laid its claim on him!” There’s many lines like that, diminishing clarity and narrative momentum, meaning there’s unfortunate barriers between readers and the heart of this humane, ambitious novel.

Takeaway: Romantic tragedy of class, exploitation, and love in war-torn Lebanon.

Comparable Titles: J.D. Neill’s Disintegration, Hanan al-Shaykh's Beirut Blues.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: B+
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: C
Marketing copy: B