Friday, 12 March 2010

Brazilian-Lebanese fiction: Salim Miguel

Between three worlds: the Old World, the New World and memory. Salim Miguel’s Nur na Escuridão

The most well known representative of the Middle East in Brazilian literature is probably Nacib, the bar owner lover (and briefly husband) of Gabriela in Jorge Amado’s most famous and most filmed novel. Yet the migration of Lebanese into Brazil ever since the beginning of the twentieth century, Lebanese who were often referred to as ‘turcos’ or occasionally ‘sírios’, has produced a greater number of writers than any comparable migrant group. This may have something to do with the fact that many of the migrant generation were involved in retail trade, which to some extent facilitated their integration into the new country. Jospeh Lesser even suggests that Lebanese immigration was actively encouraged by some early twentieth-century commentators in Brazil on the grounds that they were phenotypically similar to the average native Brazilian of Portuguese or mixed origin (olive skinned and dark hair), added to which most of them were, contrary to what might be assumed, Christians of the Eastern Catholic or Orthodox persuasion. If one remembers too that they were dispersed in their migratory patterns, more so at least than the Italians, Germans and Japanese, and far more reminiscent of the Portuguese who could be found all over Brazil, then we can see that there is no one region associated with Lebanese colonization. The literature of Lebanese migration into Brazil inevitably reflects this dispersal. That is not to say, of course, that the corpus of literature does not have some common characteristics, but it is also defined by region. The first two of Milton Hatoum’s novels are about the Lebanese migrant experience in Manaus, but they are also about Amazonia and the interface between the urban island, with its mixture of alien cultures, and the surrounding ocean of the jungle and the residual aboriginal cultures contained within it. Most of this migrant literature is set in urban milieu, with the exception perhaps of the novels and short stories of Raduan Nasser. Occasionally, the focus is on generational struggles and attempts to express self identity on the part of a first, Brazilianised, generation: this is the case of Hatoum’s Dois Irmãos and Nasser’s Lavoura Arcaica, while Betty Milan’s O Papagaio e o Doutor focuses on a woman’s attempts to come to terms with her upbringing in a Lebanese family environment and her status as an educated Brazilian. There are, perhaps inevitably, given the specific environment in which these novels are set and the ethnic identity of the authors, strong biographical undertones. However, the novel that is most closely autobiographical is Salim Miguel’s Nur na Escuridão, first published in 2000 to considerable critical acclaim. Indeed, it is both fiction and autobiography, recalling the words of Tobias Döring, for whom, ‘Autobiography is a threshold genre. It traces and crosses boundaries between fact and fiction, memory and history, selves and others, images and texts – sometimes drawing these distinctions, but more often blurring them.’

Salim Miguel was born in the Lebanon in 1924, but was taken to Brazil by his parents at the age of three along with his two younger sisters. After a short stay near Rio, their port of disembarkation, the family eventually settled in Santa Catarina, first in the small town of Biguaçu, and then in Florianópolis. In the 1940s, Miguel was a prime mover in the Grupo Sul, a literary movement rooted in Santa Catarina, which was a somewhat tardy response to Modernism and Northeastern regionalism of the previous decades. He was also active in journalism and eventually , along with his wife, Eglê Malheiros, wrote and produced films, an experience that may have proved influential in his writing of Nur na Escuridão. He was politically active during the 1960s, and was heavily critical of the military coup of 1964, which saw him briefly imprisoned, the subject of one of his books, Primeiro de Abril – Narrativas da Cadeia.

Written as a homage to his parents, Salim Miguel’s Nur na Escuridão, is firstly an illuminating insight into migration, the reasons that seem to motivate people to abandon their native land outside the obvious contexts of war, natural disasters, famine and so on. Secondly, it casts light on the apparently fortuitous reasons why people sometimes end up in the destinations they do, along with the fortuitous ways in which new, hyphenated identities, including name changes, are given or assumed. Thirdly, it also offers an insight into the function and characteristics of memory among a diasporic community, especially when those memories are fundamentally recorded by word of mouth, and prone to have stories bolted onto them as the links between the individual and his/her recollection are loosened over time. In this way, Miguel demonstrates the close ties, indeed interdependence, between memory and forgetfulness, recollection and invention, history and story telling.

By the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire had finally collapsed, and the Middle East had fallen under the influence of European colonial powers. Lebanon became a protectorate of France, which meant too that the Christian population, from whom Miguel’s family sprang, although a minority, were informally favoured. There were therefore no threats of violence against Christians that might have provoked an exodus of persecuted refugees. The marriage between Miguel’s father, Yussef, and Tamina, his mother, was not approved by her family, largely because Yussef, from a neighbouring village, had the reputation of someone who resolved problems with his fists. The novel refers to problems of unemployment in the area, and Yussef seems to have had an array of jobs as a shepherd, but also as someone who, unusually, could read, he also aspired to be a teacher. Tamina, too, knew how to read and write, and had two brothers who had migrated to the United States, and whom she had visited at some undisclosed time in the past. Destitution is therefore not a reason for their leaving Lebanon, but possibly some social aspiration that neither feels can be satisfied in their native land, and it is this underlying feeling behind the ultimately unstoppable dynamic leading up to their departure for the New World. But what is this New World? Upon departure from Lebanon, bound for Marseille, where they hope to pick up the necessary visas for the Atlantic crossing, it is assumed that they will be making for the United States via Mexico1. However, upon arrival in the French port of transit, Yussef’s brother, Hanna, who is accompanying them, develops an eye infection, which means that he will not be allowed to enter Mexico. In order not to split the family group up, the decision is made to go to Brazil, which has fewer restrictions, and where Yussef has a sister and, supposedly, a brother whom no one has heard from in recent years. Their eventual destination is consequently a second choice, and one that Tamina initially hopes will only be another transit point on their way to the coveted United States. Miguel’s depiction of the reasons and motivations behind this presumably typical migrant family’s journey to Brazil is one in which chance and mistake play a part, and it runs counter to the traditional narrative of Brazilian immigration as resulting from a conscious and willing choice – Brazil as the land of opportunity, the Brazilian dream. Their dreams are adapted to a country about which they know very little, and which, in spatial terms, they can hardly imagine.

Certainly, when Yussef, Tamina and their children arrive in Brazil, it soon becomes apparent that the only occupation open to ‘turcos’ is peddling, selling cheap goods from door to door, ‘mascateando’, a skill that Yussef has to pick up himself. The story then chronicles the family’s survival, based as it is, on the urban retail trade, and the struggle to bring up a growing family. It is here that the other fallacy about the Brazilian dream (and no doubt many other migrant dreams) becomes evident – for throughout the long years of effort, Yussef does not own his own home until the end of his life, but even then, he is still paying off the mortgage. So this family, which has, in one sense, ended up in the wrong place, a country whose dimensions they have only the vaguest notion of, forsake family in order to lead a life that is no better materially, than the one they would have led, had they remained in Lebanon. Moreover, in crossing the ocean between old and new worlds, divided by language and culture, the family’s name changes in accordance with local bureaucratic misunderstandings: Miguel is the Brazilianization (perhaps) of Michel (the family name on their French travel documents), while Yussef gradually metamorphosizes into José. Salim Miguel is acutely conscious of the loss that occurs in the process of transculturation, as their ancestral culture goes through the inevitable process of fragmentation, while the first generation of Lebanese-Brazilians (or Brazilian-Lebanese), people such as the author himself, have an imperfect or Brazilianised view of their ancestral culture and language2.

So what were the reasons for migrating, and how was this loss compensated for through memory? To answer this, we need to say something about the polyphonic narrative technique employed by Salim Miguel. The novel is developed in fragments, the narrative voice fluctuating between the author and his characters, in particular his father, while also shifting between periods of time and geographical area. There is the Lebanon depicted through the author, prior to 1927, in which the reasons for leaving are evoked. There is the narrative of their Brazilian experience, first in Rio, then in Biguaçu, and finally in Florianópolis. Interspersed in all this, are excerpts from the father’s ‘autobiography’, written in Arabic, but translated into Portuguese, and which purports to be a factual account of his life. In contrast to the prosaic nature of this account, are the father’s recollections, filtered through the author, of the Lebanon left behind. These recollections incorporate oral tales and ultimately are the re-creation of a native land no longer recollected, but imagined through a process of hybridization between fact and fiction. And just as hybridization is an area of blending but also conflict, the fictional side gains the upper hand with the passing of time, and the father’s actual and irreversible integration into Brazil. There are, in addition, further fragments of memory corresponding to the author’s own recollections of growing up in Brazil, as well as evocations of local characters who had some sort of an effect upon him in his childhood and youth, but I shall return to these later.

In her book, The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym refers to changing notions of time during the early modern period of industrialisation, when representations of time changed from allegorical human figures to the impersonal language of numbers, as traditional values based on the church and community gave way to spatial dislocation and individualism. The new temporality was internalised, according to Koselleck, in the form of the twin notions of the space of experience and the horizon of expectation, one of which allows for the incorporation of the past into the present through memory, while the other is directed towards the future, the not yet experienced. But this presupposes that the horizon of expectation is the portal to something better. When it is not, the shrinking space of experience (shrinking because it belongs to the receding past), becomes more and more subject to the historical emotion of nostalgia. Nostalgia is, and always has been, part of the human condition, even if we explain it in terms of the diaspora of old age looking back at lost youth, but with the beginnings of what has been termed the global narrative (coinciding with the age of European imperial expansion), nostalgia became a side effect of the ‘teleology of progress’, that is, progress was not only a narrative of temporal progression but also of spatial expansion. Perhaps this is why Yussef’s narrowing horizon of expectation (as mentioned before, Brazil did not really deliver the dream they dared to have on departure from Lebanon), gives way to an enlarged ‘space of experience’, necessarily enlarged through invention and fantasy: memory becomes a story, and the story, based on fluid orality takes precedence over the written autobiography, leading the narrator to comment as follows:

‘… embora a versão do pai, em sua autobiografia Minha Vida, seja a real, durante décadas outra versão foi inculcada na mente dos filhos. É a que acaba por prevalecer, mantém-se presente, ganha foros, de verdade. Recusa ceder o lugar que lhe cabe na história e no seio da família.’(61)

By the end of his life, Yussef’s space of experience has expanded to encapsulate the whole of the Arab world, it has broken out of the restrictive limits of Lebanon. Fiction, myth has taken him and his memory over:

‘De repente não era apenas o seu Líbano dos tempos de criança e adolescente que lhe surgia íntegro, era todo o mundo árabe que lhe tomava o peito de orgulho, mescla de vários mundos árabes, era o Líbano de muito antes dele, um Líbano que nem existira como tal, era uma fabuloso país retirado de livros, histórias, de narrativas orais, era um Líbano de antes do Líbano.’ (163)

Exalting a civilisation that spread to the Iberian Peninsula is compensation for ending up in Brazil running a dry goods store, the owner of a house that has still not been paid off. We can well understand how, in other circumstances, drudgery, a sense of alienation and absence of agency, can lead to fundamentalism. But by this time, Yussef has become so dependent on the vision of his own private Lebanon that he declines the chance to re-visit it as an old man, for even he knows that, without a horizon of expectation, if his space of experience were destroyed by the reality of his native land, he would have no more reason to live. He prfers the relative intimacy of the diaspora (to use Boym’s term), to the shock of a country he would no longer recognise and, perhaps more to the point, that would no longer recognise him.

In other ways too, memory is a product of a creative urge. It is as much about forgetting, about the need to fill lacunae as it is about recording and preserving the past. To their school friends, Yussef’s children invent grandparents they have never known: ‘Iam, aos poucos, inventando avós, dando-lhes personalidade, uma fisionomia própria, só que, por vezes, mutável, adaptada às circunstâncias’ (119). Similarly, when Yussef’s mother dies, news of their grandfather who had disappeared into Argentina, also dries up, possibly because he no longer sees a reason to maintain contact, or because he and his letters had been a product of her invention anyway: ‘Morta a mãe, nem mais notícias do misterioso avô da Argentina, que com certeza não via motivos para dar notícias – ou sera que a mãe, tanto por ela mesma como pelas crianças, inventara aquele avô e as cartas?’(120-1)

Memory, as the author says himself, does not follow the logical lines of our conscious state. It defies chronology and even our will to evoke it. Memories come to us unprovoked and are never a faithful reproduction of a place, time or event. Moreover, sometimes what we receive is someone’s else’s memory that has somehow been incorporated into our own. Memory becomes part of the narrative or journey of life. In Nur na Escuridão, it is symbolised by the journey of their dog, Taira who, abandoned by the family as they move from Biguaçu to Florianópolis, follows them from one house to another, guided only by a ‘sense of smell’ (memory), ‘por um sexto sentido, ao encontro dos seus’(105). And yet, was it Taira, or another dog that somehow looked like Taira, which descended upon them in their new home? The important thing is that the dog becomes Taira, is incorporated into their life’s narrative, through a father whose need for a story goes hand in hand with his need for nostalgia.

The father, however, is not the only one to have memories. The novel also focusus on the author’s own recollections of characters he encountered as he was growing up. In the chapter ‘Perfis’, Miguel underlines the proximity of memory and fiction in his profiles of the small-town characters who had an effect on him during the years spent in Biguaçu. Chief among these is the old black man, Ti Adão, whose memories of slavery (which bear scarcely any sense of chronology and therefore historical credibility), and whose linguistic creativity bear a strong resemblance to the tales of Yussef, who himself, acknowledges the role Ti Adão had in integrating him into Brazilian life and culture. There is the story of João Mendes, the local poet, who also wrote his autobiography in the form of a children’s story to somehow compensate for the suffering experienced in his past (he had gone blind as a result of a swimming accident when he was a boy) and the impoverishment of his present situation. Geraldino Azevedo was another small-town poet, who, as a young man, had been forced into commerce, like Yussef, and who dreamt of something else: a life of the mind and of inventiveness and imagination, necessary, as the author comments, ‘para preencher vidas que não têm o que fazer, como matar o tempo – antes que o tempo as mate’ (223).

Memory, the telling of a story, is therefore an act of liberation from the mundane reality of their surroundings. Autobiography has a performative side to it that invites the magic of invention. In the case of Yussef and Tamina, they left Lebanon to make a new life for themselves, but ultimately, life made them, molded them in accordance with the limitations and social conventions of their adopted country, where ‘turcos’ could only peddle cheap goods and maybe run a shop. Yussef seems uncertain as to whether migration has brought happiness or not, as he wonders whether personal fulfilment is not more important than material gain: ‘… alguém ser aquilo que sempre desejou’(82).

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