Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Girl Made of Dust

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Girl Made of Dust

Article excerpt

The Lebanese tell a mournful joke. When God created their country, it is said, an angel protested that they had been given "everything" - snowy mountains, beautiful lakes, lush forests, and an abundance of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. "Everything?" God laughed. "Just wait and see the neighbors I'm going to give them!"

In A Girl Made of Dust, the powerful, poetic debut novel of Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, it's the brother of 8-year-old narrator Ruba who tells the joke. But there are no Lebanese too young to grasp the bitter humor involved.

Ruba and her brother, Naji, are children, but they live outside Beirut in 1981 and there is no way for them to avoid the ugly struggle that engulfs their country. Even the games they play in the rich green forest that rings their home are punctuated by the not- so-distant sound of bombardments. Beirut, they know, is being torn apart by fighting. So normal does this seem to them that one of Naji's hobbies is collecting empty shell casings.

Their father, Nabeel, blames the Palestinian refugees who have flooded their country. "They're taking over our country like rats," he insists. But as the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians and their supporters escalates, their upstairs neighbor casts a wider net of blame. "They're animals, all of them - both sides, all sides! Ours, theirs, all of them!"

But Ruba, struggling to make sense of the churning adult world around her, blames a witch. Someone must have cast a spell on her father, she reckons. Why else would he have become so withdrawn, so hopeless, so unable to hold the family together? There is a mystery behind Nabeel's retreat - which blends military with familial conflict - and it takes Ruba most of the slender novel to work it out.

Ruba's family are Christians, and her devout grandmother, Teta, puts her trust in the Virgin Mary. Ruba is regularly dragged to church but feels skeptical about the whole affair. Why would God be interested in church, she wonders, "if He'd heard the same thing every Sunday for a hundred years"?And as for the Virgin Mary, Ruba wishes that, if she has to hear stories about her, that she could do "something exciting like swim out to sea, or play hide-and-seek with God, or dig a tunnel all the way to Beirut and live in it. …

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