Imagine trying to live a normal life in a world which changes daily and where nothing is certain…
Set in contemporary Beirut, An Unsafe Haven is a rich, illuminating and deeply moving novel about a group of friends whose lives are shaped and affected daily by the war in Syria. Hannah has deep roots in Beirut, the city of her birth and of her family. Her American husband, Peter, has certainty only in her. They thought that they were used to the upheavals in Lebanon, but as the war in neighbouring Syria enters its fifth year, the region’s increasingly fragile state begins to impact on their lives in wholly different ways. An incident in a busy street brings them into direct contact with a Syrian refugee and her son. As they work to reunite Fatima with her family, her story forces Hannah to face the crisis of the expanding refugee camps, and to question the very future of her homeland. And when their close friend Anas, an artist, arrives to open his exhibition, shocking news from his home in Damascus raises uncomfortable questions about his loyalty to his family and his country.
Heartrending and beautifully written, An Unsafe Haven is a universal story of people whose lives are tested and transformed, as they wrestle with the anguish of war, displacement and loss, but also with the vital need for hope.
Hardback | 9780008165017 | RRP £12.99
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Hannah walks with Anas to the gallery in Beirut’s downtown where his exhibition will be held. On their way, they stop and sit on a bench on the Corniche, admiring the beauty of the Mediterranean, which, on this cool, sunny day, is smooth and deeply blue.
—I could never live anywhere but by the sea, Hannah says.
—This particular one, you mean?
—Probably, yes. You see how quiet and silky the water is now? Don’t be deceived by it, though.
—I mean, Hannah continues, during thunderstorms, the waves are massive. It’s impossible to walk here then because you’d be swept out to sea.
—Have you ever imagined living anywhere else besides Beirut? Anas asks after a pause.
—Well, we lived in Cyprus for a while during the war . . .
—Yes, I know. I meant now, when you can make the choice.
—I know many people who have the means and the opportunity are choosing to leave right now, but where would we go? Work is good here and I don’t know that we would want to start all over again anywhere else.
—You get satisfaction from your work, Hannah, but the same can’t be said for Peter.
—What do you mean?
—We were talking about it only the other day, Anas continues. He’s stuck in an administrative job he doesn’t enjoy and I think he misses being a doctor.
Hannah turns to him.
—He hasn’t said anything like that to me. Surely he would tell me if he really feels like that.
—Maybe he’s not sure how to approach it. After all, if he weren’t living here, he would be able to practise medicine.
—I didn’t ask him to come, Anas, she says impatiently. He wanted to be here.
—He wanted to be with you and you insisted on staying in Beirut.
She shakes her head and looks out over the water again.
—But that’s not what I meant to talk about, Anas says. I was asking you if things got worse and some kind of civil war breaks out again, would you be willing to leave Lebanon? It’s a possibility, you know, that our conflict will spill over into this country.
—A possibility? A war of attrition is already going on in Tripoli in the north and in the Bekaa, in the towns bordering Syria. It could all spiral out of control, I agree.
But Anas persists.
—You haven’t really answered my question, Hannah. What if you had children. Would that make you think differently?
—I suppose we’d have to think about it seriously then, she replies. I suppose we would be concerned about their safety . . . Then something lights up in her head. Oh, you’re asking me if I approve of what Brigitte has done, aren’t you?
—Do you think she did the right thing?
Hannah realizes that she’s treading on dangerous ground here.
—I don’t think she should have made the decision on her own and then left without telling you. But I can perfectly understand her wanting to take the children somewhere safe.
She puts a hand on his arm to reassure him.
He gets up and she follows.
—What if she never gets in touch? he asks her. What will I do then?
—Why would you say that, Anas? What makes you think that? Brigitte wouldn’t do anything to deliberately hurt you. I know she wouldn’t.
He moves ahead of her and Hannah, trying to catch up, trips and almost falls over.
—Anas, please wait. What’s really going on here?
He stops and turns to her.
—The truth is, Hannah, the truth is things haven’t been going well between us for some time now. I think she’s left me for good.
They fall silent and Hannah wonders, not for the first time, how much longer they will have to endure the repercussions of years of war on their relationships, their family ties.
In 1982, as invading Israeli troops were closing in on Beirut, our family was evacuated on a ship taking Westerners out of Lebanon. My father used his connections with one of the embassies to get my mother, my brother and myself on board the ship. Throughout the journey to the island of Cyprus, the sea surging beneath us, Mother had clung to me and Sammy and cried. I was ten years old and felt a finality in that grief, a suggestion of relief that scared me. How can we possibly leave home? I wondered. Will we ever be able to return, and without Father, are we still a family? These questions, that initial dread, have never left me.
We spent, along with thousands of Lebanese like ourselves, a number of years on the island, during which we lived in a small apartment near the school that my brother and I attended. I remember that time as an interlude between real life in Lebanon before the war and life there once the conflict ended, mimicking my parents’ attitude towards this displacement as a period of anticipation regardless how long or how damaging the waiting to return might be. Whenever there was a temporary lull in the civil war and speculation mounted that the conflict was over, Father would decide we should return home and we would prepare to uproot ourselves, only to be told, days or weeks later, that it may be a little longer before we could pick up where we had left off it seemed a lifetime ago. Even the friendships that I managed to make during this hiatus had hesitation in them; they predicted their ending even as they began, sacrificing the promise I might have derived from them had they endured. It was not until fifteen years after the conflict in Lebanon began that the warring factions finally signed an agreement that ended the fighting and we were able to return and be a family again.
But coming back had not been as easy as we thought it would be. Beirut had changed almost beyond recognition, not just in terms of the physical destruction everywhere but in the attitude of the people too, those who had stayed behind and harboured resentment against others who were lucky enough to escape the worst of the fighting. The friends I had hoped to meet again had either left for good or were reluctant to renew their relationships with returnees like myself.
When I began attending classes at the American University of Beirut, I felt like an outsider; the bonds I thought I had with my country, its culture and history were tenuous at best, non-existent for the most part. What I remembered of home had been irreparably destroyed by present reality, seemed only to have survived as sentiment in the minds of exiles. Eventually, my brother Sammy decided he could not live with all these changes and left for America where he studied and eventually settled down with a family of his own.
My career in journalism began soon after I graduated when I went to work for an international news agency, first as a fixer for the foreign journalists who came to Beirut to cover stories on the region, and then as a reporter. It was not long after Mother fell ill and died that I met and married Peter and, in growing older, began to believe I had gained some wisdom.
Since the war in Syria began nearly five years ago, it seems there is no end to the misery it can cause. Those who flee it and seek refuge in Lebanon bring their heartache with them, and for nearly four years now, Beirut’s street corners have been manned by insistent beggars by day, and at night, in shop doorways, under bridges, in abandoned buildings and anywhere a nook can be found, there are sleeping figures, whole families, wrapped in whatever they can find to shield their eyes from the light. Many others have fled to Turkey and Jordan, countries that also have borders with Syria. Most recently, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been making the perilous journey to Greece and France, to Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, and on to Austria and Germany and still further north, in search of safety and welcome.
Things are not as they should be. There is pain where there should be strength, hesitation instead of resolve, and in the places where imagination once had free rein, the Arab people are tied to the foundations of their fears.
By the time they arrive at the gallery, Anas has told Hannah about the problems he and Brigitte have been having and she has voiced the necessary commiserations: I didn’t know; I’m so sorry; maybe it’s not as bad as you think; and, finally, what can I do to help? She eventually realizes that it is not solutions he is asking for but the simple relief that telling her affords him.
The gallery is smaller than she imagined it would be but there is plenty of light and the carpets and other surfaces are immaculately clean. Some paintings have already been hung while others remain on the floor, propped up against the walls; and sculptures, mostly small to medium-sized pieces, many of which are still swathed in bubble wrap, have been put on stands that are placed at intervals in the centre of the room.
—Do you like it? Anas asks.
—Yes, it’s lovely and welcoming.
—That’s exactly the feel I wanted for this exhibition. I wanted it to feel intimate.
—Is it OK if I take a look around? she asks.
—Yes, of course. I’ll have to get to work on the lighting, anyway.
Hannah watches him walk into the office at one corner of the gallery and turns to explore on her own.
She has always loved Anas’s work, the suggestion that it offers more than the eye can see about the circumstances in which it was conceived and executed. The pieces are mostly sombre, the colours he uses muted and unassuming, yet there is something about the square-headed figures he depicts, their limbs out of proportion to their torsos, their features fragmented and eyes usually closed, that moves her. They do not inspire joy, she thinks, but rather compel her to think about the politics of a country that has lived under dictatorship for decades and, in trying to break free, has now lost its way.
She takes a closer look at the pieces within reach and realizes that what fascinates her most in contemplating artistic works is the process itself, the ideas and people that inspire creativity, the phase during which a piece is brought into being by its creator and that moment when the artist instinctively knows that a piece has achieved completeness.
Among these objects of poignant beauty, she also experiences a sense of release, an interval of peace that dispels her misgivings and allows her, momentarily, to dream.