Sunday, September 25, 2016

An Unsafe Haven, by Nada Awar Jarrar

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Nada Awar Jarrar’s An Unsafe Haven tackles the humanitarian crisis in Syria and beyond with grace and sensitivity. 

Hannah is a journalist living in Beirut with her American husband. She writes about the refugee and humanitarian crisis that is happening across the Middle East. It's emotionally draining work and she often finds it difficult to disengage from the heart-breaking stories she reports on. There are also tensions in Hannah's relationship with her husband, Peter. They've made an agreement that they will stay in Lebanon as Hannah could never leave her native country. She has too many strong ties there – work, family and a humanitarian commitment to the region. Peter is generally accepting of this, but sometimes he becomes frustrated with all the problems that go along with living in the Middle East – the fraught political situation, the different culture and the demands of the people. Peter is trained as a doctor, but can't work in his profession due to laws precluding foreigners from working as doctors.

Anas is an artist from Syria. He has come to Beirut to launch an exhibition there and is staying with Hannah and Peter. He has serious problems of his own. His German wife, Brigitte, whom he had left in Syria while he travelled into neighbouring Lebanon, has suddenly up and left, taking their two children back to her native Germany. There is much angst over Brigitte's decision to do this, but sympathy as well: who wouldn't want to take their children out of Syria when it's so dangerous?

One day while Hannah and Peter are out, they witness an incident where a Syrian refugee, a young boy, is almost run over by a car on a busy street. They help the boy and soon meet his mother, Fatima. She has had to leave Syria in a hurry and is now looking for the rest of her family. Hannah and Peter take Fatima and her son back to their apartment so they can look after the boy (taking him to a hospital is too risky, due to their illegal refugee status). When Anas meets Fatima, a fellow Syrian, they have much in common. He soon becomes involved trying to help Fatima, with tragic results.

Nada Awar Jarrar is a Lebanese novelist. An Unsafe Haven is her fourth book. Written in a gentle, quiet tone, her novel explores the lives of people living on a terrible political faultline and the difficult choices they are often forced to make. It about living with violence and the possibility of sudden death, but trying to lead a normal life nonetheless. Nada Awar Jarrar's writing humanises a complex subject and puts the reader in touch with people we normally see on the news as the 'collateral damage' of war. She shows us their struggles, loves and hopes and how similar we all are when race and nationality are stripped away.

An Unsafe Haven, by Nada Awar Jarrar. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780008165024 RRP: $29.99 

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