This short book is replete with questions that remained in my mind—past the last page.
Ibrahim Nasrallah lives in Jordan; however, his story is not simple. His parents were uprooted from their home in Al-Bruji “near Jerusalem in Palestine and took refuge at Al-Wehdat refugee camp in Jordan… He was raised in a refugee camp.” He “studied at the UN agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), then at the UNRWA Teacher Training College in Amman.. After graduation he spent two years as a teacher in the “Qunfunda region in Saudi Arabia.”This background is important in understanding the novel.
Two young teachers teaching in an isolated village on the Arabian Peninsula not only live together, but share the same name and look alike. One day five individuals show up and tell one Muhammad Hammad that he owes money for his burial. His explanation of not being dead and therefore not being responsible for paying for his burial is unacceptable.
Rather than deal with these men who are threatening, he disappears—but the other Muhammad Hammad remains. While he’s seeking his roommate he becomes the target, and suspect, of the police and the five men This is really a book about identity and how tenuous it becomes in an alien environment. If your name no longer belongs to you then who are you and what is your identity? It is unclear as to how many Muhammad Hammads exist.
Nasrallah’s character deals with the claustrophobic village, the relentless sand that refuses to turn into dirt, his loss of self, the demands of a society that treats him as if he is already dead.
The chronology in the novel at times moves about in a non-linear manner. Often dialogue balances between logic and hallucinatory phrases out of context or between conversation and illusion.
Toward the end of the book, in a second person voice, the narrator says, “In these days and seasons which undifferentiatedly intermesh one with the other, united by a thread of flame, and in the chaos induced by self-disintegration and dissociation, your search was for a reality that would let your feet tread the ground, or a dream that projected beyond the continuous nightmare.”
Muhammad Hammad desperately wants to know how the other , perhaps his dual self, disappeared. “Did he go clean through the wall or the door or … was he still here?”
This search for self in a strange environment permeates the book. Any one who has left their home —not out of choice—deals with the anguish of discovering an identity. It is an exile within an exile.