Black Foam by Haji Jabir
Seattle. Amazon Crossing. 2023. 224 pages.
Black Foam, longlisted for the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is a painful cry for survival in a world where truth can be a death sentence. Informed by his own experiences, Haji Jabir, an Eritrean novelist now living in Israel, presents a cry special to refugees but more specifically bound to individuals and their immediate contexts. As his character moves from Eritrea to Israel, Jabir presents a variation on the theme: survival depends on the story one tells, a story created for different contexts and audiences, whether they be lovers, strangers, a graduate student conducting research on refugees, or a store owner who helps him navigate the international Neve Sha’anan quarter in Tel Aviv. Each encounter offers its own dramatic undertones. The novel’s deepest drama comes from self as the audience for one’s story, and the need to lie to oneself about oneself to survive.
The novel opens in Eritrea under a repressive regime. Conscripted against his will, Dawit finds himself on the other side of the political line from his true love. So begin his lies. His response is to leave. He survives the border crossing into Ethiopia and the first prize, acceptance into the reception center in Endabaguna for placement into one of the refugee camps. The threats change with the move, with the Ethiopian government at war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and its ongoing raids on the camps, and the government targeting Eritreans fleeing north to Sudan. Hunger, random threats of violence, and betrayals are everywhere present as Dawit runs.
The bigger prize is becoming one of a small percentage of those who escape north and out of Ethiopia. For Dawit, this means through Sudan and Egypt to a camp in Tel Aviv. Each transition requires his telling different versions of his story. Among the complications for Dawit is that Israel has, in the recent past, closed its borders to sub-Saharan Africans. The complications faced by Eritreans in particular are fraught with a further set of difficulties and the official status of “refugee.” The goal for refugees in Tel Aviv is to be processed and moved on to countries such as Holland or Australia or Canada. Israel doesn’t want to identify Eritreans as “refugees.”
With Dawit in Endabaguna, Jabir makes the case for survival being the result of telling an interesting story. A European interviews refugees and assigns them their futures. The consensus among refugees is that certain types of stories “work,” thereby reducing them to a successful stereotype, no matter how different their circumstances. Part of Dawit’s conflict is existential. As Dawit comes to the European’s question, “And how did your mother die?”, he decides to tell something closer to the truth. He declares himself a “Free Gadli,” which is roughly translated to the European as a child “born of a relationship between soldiers on the battlefield that goes against religious law.” The European is suddenly interested and asks for more, underscoring a central tenet of storytelling. For Dawit it works, but it comes at a cost. His answer to the European includes “the story of Aisha,” his Eritrean girlfriend, whom he left after digging himself deeper and deeper into maintaining his lies to her. “That Story, he realized, was hidden in the deepest part of him. He could peel away layer after layer, but he would only reach those depths by destroying himself.”
The novel is set in the great sociopolitical crises of contemporary Africa and the Middle East, but its focus is on their cost to individuals.
Canton, New York