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Loosely translated as Away on Wings, this is a story of four generations of Palestinian-Lebanese women for whom migration becomes a way of life. For the moment, it is available only in French, but there is a good chance that it will be translated into English.

The book is a fictionalized account of the lives of four women in Jadd Hilal’s family: his grandmother, Naïma, his mother, Ema, his sister, Dara, and his niece, Lila. (Disclosure: Jadd Hilal’s sister is my colleague, Zeina Hilal.) The book moves between the women, who narrate their lives. Their journeys weave back and forth over Western Asia and Europe. Through the voices of these four strong women, Hilal builds up a picture of how wars and insecurity reverberate on the lives of ordinary people.

The story begins in Haifa, the then capital of Palestine, with Naïma as a young girl. In 1937, she narrowly escapes being killed when the Haganah bomb a marketplace, and her family leave for Shefa Amr in the north. When she is 10, a young man, Jahid, comes to their house and asks for her hand, and by the time Naïma is 12, she is married.

During the civil war in Palestine in 1947, Naïma and Jahid were forced to leave Palestine, so they move to Baalbek in Lebanon—not to the historic city she had imagined, but a refugee camp on its outskirts. Jahid gets a job at UNESCO, Naima is pregnant and the growing family stays on in the city. Until they move again, this time to Damascus. Their daughter, Ema, does not want to leave (like her daughter Dara many years later). For her, airports are “places from where people leave when they stop caring… where the others, with chains of their feet, watch them”. [1]

The family move back to Lebanon. Ema goes to the University of Beirut and marries Zahi, a fellow student, to escape her father’s domination. In June 1982, the war comes to Lebanon. Ema is by now working with the ILO and Zahi with ESCWA (the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), and they have two children, Dara and Majid. When ESCWA moves its offices from Beirut to Baghdad, the family moves too. But as soon as she can, Ema returns with her children. It is not for long. In 1983, civil war breaks out in the country, and Ema and the children have to leave again, this time for Geneva, the ILO’s headquarters. Dara does not want to leave—she sees leaving as abandonment, much like her mother did.

Dara’s years in Europe only make her more determined to return to Lebanon. At 18, she returns and marries Lotfi, a mason. For some years, she lives a simple and contented life in a village with her husband and children, Lila and Riad. Then in 2006, the Hezbollah capture Israeli soldiers and Israel retaliates with bombs. It is no longer safe, and Dara manages to escape with her children, heading back to Geneva.

Hilal’s writing is lyrical, and brings the women to life: Ema, caught between home and university, without a space to be herself. “I lead two lives,” she says, “but not one in which I feel I can breathe freely.” Dara, with a strong maternal instinct to compensate for her own mother; Lila, annoyed that she won’t be listened to until she is an adult when she has so much to say. And Naïma, dealing with the grief in her life: “I am used to pain. … Suffering becomes a shadow. It lengthens. … But it is always there, waiting for an image, a smell or a taste to show itself.”

The book ends with a sense of calm, of journeys winding down. But the new generation is getting ready to take off. Lila was a child when the bomb that killed the Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri went off. But that is not what she remembers from that day. It is seeing three birds flying out into the distance and thinking that if she closed her eyes tight she would find, on opening them:

“I will find myself flying.
“I will have the one thing that no one else has.
“I will have wings.”

[1] The translations are mine.