How I came by What I Left Behind Me
I came across this book in Lebanon late last year, while I was at Antoine bookstore in Hamra, looking for contemporary women authors. I couldn’t bring it back with me to Sydney when I returned because I had too much luggage on me. My father brought it with him on his recent visit to Sydney – where he is currently stuck because of the COVID-19 lockdown.
I read the book in Arabic. It is an easy and pleasant read. The writing is uncomplicated. But despite the simplicity of the language, the author creates layers of meaning and colour.
The novel is written in the first person and we never find out her name. It seems to be a collection of diary entries. The narrator is a young Palestinian woman who explains that she used to like drinking milk – but since her parents got divorced, milk has nauseated her. She begins her tale with this and seeks to answer why she can no longer drink milk.
After her father left the Israeli prison he was locked up in, he was never quite the same man. He decided to remarry another woman and the narrator’s mother decided to leave him. When her parents split, she and her siblings often have to endure the tedious reality of crossing Israeli checkpoints, as her mother lives in Ramallah and her father lives in East Jerusalem. She later remembers that her father would always wait for them before the checkpoint, so that they would have to cross it on their own.
She goes to the American University of Beirut to study engineering. There she has a small group of friends that she later refers to as family. She discusses the semester she went to study in Sweden. During her stay there she goes to the Filippines falls in love with a Swedish man who was studying with her. The relationship doesn’t last as he chooses to remain in Sweden and she returns to Beirut and then Palestine.
Take Away Points
Unsurprisingly, What I Left Behind Me is a book the narrator’s quest for belonging. The milk she can no longer drink after her parents’ divorce symbolises the belonging that she once felt – and the belonging that she lost. The milk is belonging to family, belonging to a nation, belonging to another person.
The narrator thus proceeds to create layers of un-belonging. She ponders over the divorce and the resentment she has towards her father, especially since he refuses to endure the hassle of the checkpoints to see them. She reflects on all the sacrifices her mother made in order to care for them and her inability to understand these sacrifices as a child. She regrets the role she played in pushing her mother to divorce the man she married when the narrator was a teenager. She has a lot of regrets with respect to her family. She wonders if the fracture will ever heal, just as she wonders if she’ll ever be able to have milk again.
As a Palestinian woman, she expresses her anxiety at the possibility of losing her East Jerusalem ID – what she calls the ‘ID of humiliation’. She explains that the ID may be taken away from her if she stays out of Palestine for too long. If she loses it, she will have no tie to Palestine, or East Jerusalem and she might become stateless. She states bitterly,
‘Did they ever think, and they probably have, where I would go without that card of humiliation they call an ID? Where do I build my house? Where do I prepare my grave?’
In addition to feeling severed from her family, the constant threat of being severed from her homeland looms in the background.
The narrator hopes to find a home in her romantic interest, whom she meets in Sweden, but that also fails. Location, culture, timing all play a factor. But so does the narrator’s inability to be herself around him. She finds herself constantly moulding herself into what she thinks he wants in order to be accepted. When it ends, she is devastated, but also relieved.
Towards the end of the book, she refers to her university friends as her family. With them, she is herself. With them, she heals from heartbreak and loneliness and find other types of comfort.
She never does re-acquire her taste for milk, perhaps because she will never restore her family to what it was when she used to drink milk. But it’s clear that she will find a home in other places, and she will acquire different tastes.