By Yawen Xue
Over the thousands of years of human history, we’ve left permanent marks on the bones of the Earth. We’ve managed to form civilization, to some extent, out of disorder. Yet one thing remains, ancient as humanity itself: war, and people’s reactions to it. In her 2018 novel, “A Land of Permanent Goodbyes,” journalist-turned-author Atia Abawi comments on the devastating wounds of the war in Syria and the millions of people uprooted from their homes in the process.
Narrated by the concept of destiny personified, the story follows Tareq and his journey of escape from war-torn Syria. Everywhere, he is met with hostility and tragedy. Images of devastation are engraved in the reader’s mind minutes after images of hope. Many characters in the novel choose to look away rather than offer help to the refugees. Yet always, there are signs of kindness and hope. Abawi uses Mister Rogers’ quote, “always look for the helpers,” to convey that there are always those ready to help in the deepest crises.
Destiny’s narration, however, is lackluster at times. The book is sprinkled with quotes like “not every helper is a Charles Manson and not every helper is a saint. In fact, most humans have aspects of both inside their hearts and minds. It’s a battle within to see which one is exposed at what moments.” Quotes like these seem to belong more in critical essays than in novels, which detracts from the progression of the plot and makes the book somewhat of a chore to finish. The book definitely gets the message across, but in the process its storytelling is hollow.
The novel provides a lasting image of the devastation of war, yet it glosses over issues completely intertwined with the war in Syria, and in the end it’s incomplete. Religion and culture are significant components of violence in the Middle East. However, Tareq’s Syrian culture is downplayed and seems to have been washed down in favor of creating a character relatable to teenagers in the United States.
Moreover, the author stumbles in an attempt to portray the Daesh as extremists to whom Islam is just an excuse to commit crimes. In the book, the sympathetic characters are shown as barely religious, while the Daesh are described as following the Quran to the letter. This is problematic — it points a finger at Islam itself as a main factor of terrorism.
In spite of some superficiality, the novel does have its moments. Some passages could bring a reader to tears. The second half of the novel picks up a little in terms of pace. And the epilogue, although heavy-handed in narration, illustrates clearly that Syrian refugees are human just like us, that they deserve our help and that they have been forced out of their homes by circumstances beyond their control.
Ultimately, “A Land of Permanent Goodbyes” doesn’t necessarily reveal any new insights about war. It’s a shallow take on the Syrian refugee crisis, but it manages to get a message of hope and compassion across. It does raise awareness about the crisis, and it does incite people to help in any ways they can.
Contact Yawen Xue at yawenxue2004 ‘at’ gmail.com.