A Sky So Close to Us: A novel
“Shahla Ujayli uses Joumane’s thoughts as a frame in which to tell stories that are rich in their historical perspective of the region and the people who populate it. And it is a reminder of the importance of homeland and family and how interconnected our stories really are.”
Dr. Joumane Badran is a cultural anthropology professor exiled from her home of Raqqa because of the war in Syria and working for a humanitarian agency. Dr. Nasser al-Amireh is an international expert in climate and drought who has never really had a homeland due to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. A chance meeting aboard a flight to Amman, Jordan, brings them together and they soon realize they lived in the same neighborhood in Aleppo for a period of time. Joumane, lonely and unable to return to her family finds with Nasser a feeling of home and familiarity and a key to those “wonderful, deserted places” she remembers.
As their conversations and friendship grow, vignettes of these memories flow throughout the narrative. Joumane recalls her father, who attended Boston University and saw Martin Luther King, Jr. “whose eyes radiated the suffering of the prophets,” speak in Washington. She also recalls stories of the cousin she saw on television fighting for ISIS, her uncles, and the maid, Rahima, whose was murdered by her family in an honor killing. All of these memories are brought to life in vivid, if stark, prose.
Joumane’s sisters, Salma and Jude, stuck in Raqqa live every day with the uncertainty of life in a place of war. They keep Joumane apprised of the family’s situation. But when an unexpected diagnosis of lymphoma shocks Joumane, in a very real way she experiences a war of her own.
Nasser, her closest friend in Jordan moves into her home and becomes her caretaker. As she endures her cancer treatments, we meet other people with their own interwoven histories. Dr. Yaccoub, the brilliant oncologist who Joumane had known as a child on family trips to Portfino, Italy and Haniyah, and his Vietnamese-Palestianian lover. It is with Haniyah’s encouragement, that Joumane is able to face her diagnosis.
As Joumane undergoes her treatment, her thoughts and the stories that accompany these thoughts make it clear that this book is about more than one protagonist’s fight against cancer. When Joumane muses, “Disease has no morals and no mercy. It doesn’t care about my youth, my body’s freshness,” it is clear that the “disease” in question is a cancer, not only of the body, but also of a political system in Syria that is mercilessly devastating a country. As she summarizes, “The final truth is that your body is your homeland and the greatest treason is for it to betray itself.”
A Sky So Close to Us is a story of resilience. From the refugees of war she visits in a camp to her own family living under daily siege, we are reminded that humans continue to live and love in the most stressful situations. Like a remission of cancer, there is never a guarantee that any peace is real or lasting. Instead, Joumane concludes, “I will resist thinking about recurrence. I will be happy for every moment in the present—for every breath I take . . .”
A Sky So Close to Us is not a traditional tale with a traditional plot and, therefore, is not for everyone. It is a nonlinear story that is more like walking through a portrait gallery than reading a novel. It is the history, not of one person, but of many persons.
From Joumane’s bittersweet remembrance of Aleppo as a place where, “the scent of jasmine, honeysuckle, and linden trees” permeated the air to Raqqa where people, “lived the good life staying up late, with music, food, wine, and poetry,” it is a stark reminder that these places are more than the rubble we see today on our televisions.
Author Shahla Ujayli uses Joumane’s thoughts as a frame in which to tell stories that are rich in their historical perspective of the region and the people who populate it. And it is a reminder of the importance of homeland and family and how interconnected our stories really are.