Life in a Country Album is a collection of poetic essays that are philosophical, spiritual, and above all, inspirational. Nathalie Handal’s musings are divided into four regional parts: Album Français, Album Arabe Paris, Album Mediterraneen, and American Album; they cover such diverse topics as books, Bosnian multi-ethnic culture, jasmines of Damascus, Turkish entari (traditional women’s wedding costume) and Palestinian embroidery – tatreez - from Bethlehem.
Though Handal spent most of her life in the US, this book reflects her being very strict Palestinian side and her universal experiences. Therefore, when one reads Life in a Country Album, one realises the extent to which her poetry was affected by Palestine’s pre-eminent national poet Mahmoud Darwish.
During Handal’s interview with Darwish in 2002, halfway through the brutality and bloodshed of intifada, Darwish told her that he found being the iconic "voice of Palestine" to be "a burden."
I believe, like Darwish, Handal is a voice of Palestine and other disenfranchised people by articulating the notion that only poetry can bring harmony to a world devastated by war. In her poem “Europa Nostra”, she tells the story of desperate refugees and that of the beautiful Zainab, who had to run away from her home due the war.
“Zainab operated a boat to be close to the hundred
And three members of her family who drowned."
When she writes of Aleppo, she depicts for us the destroyed hope of an innocent bride:
but the arrow
about to be aimed
at the bride
in the dark”
On the other hand, the topics in this book include multi-cultural forms of literature as an example – Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the silk clouds of Baku, creeping autumnal twilights in Granada, disquieting night winds in the Dead Sea, Byzantium icons and Muslim prayers, and much more besides.
Additionally, in her poems, one experiences historical flashbacks. For example, with the poem named as Orphic, she evoked my Bosnian memories as I witnessed many traumatic episodes in this lovely country wrecked by the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
“Close your eyes
home will not disappear
close everything close
all will remain
like Mostar and Jerusalem
like our Roman chants
Byzantium icons, Muslim prayers.”
These lines remind me of Damir, a young boy from Mostar – a city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, which straddles the Neretva River. He was the national diver of Mostar city. Since 2000 he has been diving from the Mostar Bridge into the river after soliciting 100 dollars from tourists. He said to me: “Neretva is my home. Home is Neretva. During the war the Croats in Mostar bombed the Mostar Bridge in 1993. For two days, Croatian units bombed the bridge until it collapsed into the river. But, they can not destroy Neretva.” Likewise, they could not destroy young Damir’s dream because for him the Neretva River remains “ab-ı hayat” (the water of life) for all the people of Mostar.
Significantly, the idea of “home” and the notion of belonging lie at the heart of this seventh collection by Handal. She reflects upon the experience of being displaced, describing her situation as that of “a passenger in someone else’s landscape” who is prevented from returning to her home in Palestine. Her poems are clearly an attempt to describe what it means to be a Palestinian in exile.
In conclusion, while reading Handal’s book, it is as if you are standing on the doorsteps of a coffee house in Gaza and then entering to drink Arabic coffee with your Turkish, Arab, Bosnian and French friends. This emanates from her extensive references to the cultural symbols of the four peoples.
This multicultural character of Handal’s Life in a Country Album is featured in the following lines:
“I wear the shadows of Arabian horses
and the turquoise of Mashhad.”
“I wear the tatreez of Jerusalem
and the star of Bethlehem”
“I wear the silk clouds of Baku
and the Turkish entari...”