“God had always been my refuge from refuge. I fled from Him to Him. Both my pretensions to faith and my attempts to reject, it didn’t help me. I could be neither a believer nor an atheist. I couldn’t give God up because I never found a substitute. So I preferred God’s eternal silence to the terrible dark clouds of skepticism.”
These words carry the essence of Hamed Abdel-Samad’s new confessional novel “Wada’an Aytoha Al-Sama’a” (Farewell Heavens). First published in German and then re-published by the author in Arabic, this ranks among the most outstanding autobiographical texts published in recent years. The title of the book is somewhat incongruous as the text is more of a return to than a renouncing of faith.
The narrative is realized in an unusual chronological order. Abdel-Samad starts off with the first time he applied for a student visa to Germany, jumps back in time to chart his childhood woes, his oppressed life in his rural village and turbulent relationship with his parents and his college experience in Cairo, and then returns where he left off at the start of his adventures as a foreigner in Germany and later in Japan.
The novel is narrated in the first person in relaxed, straightforward formal Arabic. Readers looking for sophisticated language or clever wordplay will be disappointed. The novel is rich with humanist philosophy as well as penetrating observations of cultural differences between Egypt, Germany and Japan.
In one chapter, Abdel-Samad expounds on the notion of a wailer — women who wail at funerals — noting the gravity of death to Egyptians and how widespread the culture of sadness is in Egypt. In Germany, by contrast, their main preoccupation is studying while their celebrations are extravagant and joyful. He concludes that sadness is not inherent in Egypt just as joy is not inherent in Germany. “We need a wailer, and they need a joker.”
The author’s time in Germany was troubled with violence, depression, and periods of extended sojourns in insane asylums. When he feels his life in Germany is taking a fatal downturn, his Danish-Japanese wife forces him to face the truth and in effect to write this novel.
“You are trying to canonize your parents, to worship them because you’ve failed to face them. You pretend to forgive those who oppressed you only to punish yourself in the end,” his wife tells him.
While it takes true courage and bravery to recount such upsetting childhood tragedies (of sexual nature), it takes even more strength for anyone to face and confront oneself with such scars.
He wholeheartedly rejects the custom of sweeping these horrors under the rug. Instead, he rightfully claims his early sufferings as his own and tries to understand the effect they have had on his actions.
Self-knowledge is one of his overt motives in writing this novel. The reader is not offered any glimpse of redemption in the prose; reconciliation perhaps but not redemption.
Halfway through the book, one cannot help but wonder why Abdel-Samad embarked on writing this book in the first place. Although near the end the author does provide something akin to an answer, the answer this reviewer arrived at was different and I’m confident that other readers will come up with different conclusions as well. So if not in hope of redemption or as a mean of psychological relief, why was this book written?
Serious philosophical questions about the nature of God are offered in abundance. The author genuinely struggles with the problematic conception of evil: If God is all good, why does all this evil befall us?
“Why did God not create better men, men who are more in control of their desires?” the narrator asks at one point. He makes it clear that this question looms large over the text as he opens the book with the Quranic verse: “And that we know not whether evil is meant for those who are in Earth or whether their lord means to bring them good”(Surat El-Jinn 72:10).
While he continually refers to his love of Sufi teachings, passed down to him through his preacher-father, emphasizing that the greater battle (jihad) is one’s battle with oneself, he admits that religion, for him, is not a mere system of doctrines: It’s the link connecting him with his past.
In some parts, the issue transpires as a philosophical dilemma. In his attempt to escape materialism, he asks: “Isn’t the desire to find God evidence that He exists? Doesn’t thirst prove that water exists?”
Writing of his relationship with religion, Abdel-Samad comes very close to plainly telling his readers that he writes because he needed to rid himself of his dissent from religion and of his fear of losing his faith.
The haunting air of absurdity that pervades the novel unsympathetically steers the author’s life from misfortune to misfortune. Without fully realizing it, Abdel-Samad has given in to the ridiculousness of the human condition. His anxious relationship with God is encapsulated in Voltaire’s words: “Doubt is an unpleasant condition but certainty is absurd.”
The sincerity of Abdel-Samad’s writing and the witty prose with which he chronicles his rich life experience renders “Farewell Heavens” a remarkable, unforgettable novel. If Abdel-Samad’s newest book "The Downfall of the Islamic World," also published by Merit publishing house, is nearly as revolutionary or genuine as "Farewell Heavens," it should definitely attract the attention of Muslim readers.