Rating 5 stars
Between Beirut and the Moon is Naji Bakhti’s debut novel. Set in Beirut roughly a decade after the civil war, it follows Adam Najjar and his dream of becoming the first Arab astronaut and the first Arab to walk on the moon. Bakhti is a wry observer of the universal oddness of family and the extra complexity that comes with a Lebanese adolescence.
The Najjar family is a microcosm of Lebanon, with a notionally Muslim father and an equally notionally Christian mother. Adam’s father is a journalist and hoarder of books, once a political writer and now a eulogiser of the dead. He has ambitions for his son to become a Professor of English Literature. He is an occasional fool of a man who dreams big, makes poor decisions, and looms large over Adam’s life. His mother is an at times impatient presence, exasperated by her husband, and trying to maintain a modicum of stability in her children’s lives. She quietly steals scenes with her sanguine refutation of her husband’s hyperbole. Adam’s younger sister is satisfyingly feisty and wise, the product of unconventional parenting and the influence of an older sibling.
Bakhti is a brilliant comic writer, capturing both family dynamics and fractured society perfectly. His turns of phrase made me laugh out loud. For example, we have 11-year old Adam using his father’s infinity of books to facilitate his dreams of becoming an astronaut.
Occasionally, I would stack the books on the floor over one another in such a way as to emulate a spaceship and pretend I was on my way to the moon. My sister would join in by spreading her little body across the floor and pretending to be a star, with ponytails.
‘Grow up,’ my father would say every time he passed by my spaceship, which is why I never got to the moon before bed.
I enjoyed Adam’s relationship with his little sister, because they are separated by a similar age gap to me and my brother, and I recognised his affection for this girl who is part amusement, part irrelevance, part lifelong responsibility to him. Throughout the book, he is mystified by her refusal to remain six years old but also respectful of her individual will and journey towards adulthood.
I enjoyed, too, his observations of his wider family. His maternal grandmother, raised in a Catholic orphanage in Palestine because her mother couldn’t afford to support her children, escaping Palestine for England and Beirut. His paternal grandfather, who won the lottery in the 1970s and frittered it away on travel, women, cars and booze, but claims he lost it during an encounter with a pair of Christian militias on the day he collected his winnings. His older cousins, in their 20s, banished, along with all the other children, to his father’s childhood bedroom on the weekly visit to see their grandparents so the adults could talk:
They lingered by the door. Looking back, I sometimes think it was a consciously symbolic gesture, an affirmation of their status as those to whom adulthood was just beyond the threshold of my father’s old bedroom door.
After the end of the civil war in 1990, there was still conflict. The country was occupied by both Syrian and Israeli forces during and after the civil war. The Israelis withdrew in 2000 and the Syrians in 2005, but bombings continued during shorter wars and conflicts and the spillover of the Syrian civil war. These bombings punctuate Bakhti’s narrative, much as they must have done normal life, as sober and frightening moments. Adam’s narration puts a dark humour over the events he describes, a very human attempt to cope with the anxiety of the situation.
His mixed religious heritage causes unsubtle othering, mainly by those in the Muslim community, but also by himself because he doesn’t know where he fits. A classmate slaps him twice in the face, declaring he can’t slap him back because he’s a Christian. Adam chooses his Muslim identity to give the classmate a beating for being a bully. When Adam recites the Lord’s Prayer at an Iftar, the mother hosting the party advises Adam’s mother to send him to a religious teacher to help Adam’s praying. His mother’s response is perfect. She tears up the slip of paper containing the teacher’s details, slipped into Adam’s coat pocket by the other mother, with the words, “The next time that woman makes you pray in her house, you do the steps to the fucking Macarena.”
Other adults pepper Adam’s days, from the Frenchman M. Mermier who encourages Adam’s father’s bibliophilia to Don Amin the PE teacher whose aphorisms are keys to understanding the world, if only Adam can find the locks they fit, via the other teachers who feel concern for Adam’s wellbeing as outsiders observing the chaos of the Najjar family, the old woman who owns the apartment block they live in, who throws away a cedar tree Adam’s sister brings home from school, and the apartment block’s wife-beating porter, who seemingly worships Adam’s dad, or at least what he represents. These adults come and go in vignettes that illustrate the challenges of growing up in post-civil war Beirut.
Adam’s closest friend at school is the insouciant Basil, a Druze boy who introduces a gentle air of simmering rebellion. Basil very much ploughs his own furrow. Together he and Adam navigate adolescence as outsiders. Under Basil’s influence, Adam is often in the school principal’s office, following some classroom insubordination or playground brawl. Basil has a hard exterior that briefly cracks when he reveals to Adam that his father is having an affair. It’s a reminder that adolescence is a turning point, where adults cease to be a source of security for the young and reveal themselves to be flawed, mere people just like everyone else.
Bakhti employs poignancy skilfully, particularly in the way Adam’s parents use a term of endearment that hints at nostalgia for a person long gone as their marriage turns into a series of challenges and disappointments, but also in the form of Adam’s burgeoning love life. His first crush is unrequited with Estelle, who prefers Basil. The precocious Nadine, the spoiled daughter of a drink-driving doctor, unexpectedly claims him as her boyfriend, before dumping him when he’d rather talk to her dad. There is mutual interest with Serene, but she is Druze and Adam doesn’t know what he is, their religious differences a brake for Serene. Serene’s subsequent hidden bruises from a beating by her family because she and Adam pretend to have sex in a pub toilet create a pause in the maelstrom of adolescence, reminding us that for some the consequences of teenage fooling around are harder than for others.
Most of all, there is the poignancy of the situation Adam and his friends grow up in, and the influence it exerts over their futures. For Basil, that future is to be one of violence, first in a militia that supports Syrian nationalism, later as a fighter on Assad’s side in Syria’s civil war. That this is a choice he makes, albeit influenced by a teacher who wants to foment revolution, is the saddest aspect of the book for me, because it doesn’t seem like a real choice. Basil is effectively choosing to die because he sees no better future for himself. For Adam, because of his father’s refusal to comply with the ambitions of the school teacher and the militia he belongs to, the future lies outside Lebanon, away from Beirut, away from his family.
What starts as a rambunctious tale of adolescence grows into a novel of substance, sharing Lebanon’s modern existence without lecturing, bringing to life a world that for many outside the country is little more than an occasional story in the media. It’s a beautiful book. I was delighted to see it this week on a list of favourite books of the year chosen by readers. I agree with Houssam Jouni’s mini-review here. I hope it wins many more accolades and reaches a wide audience.
Between Beirut and the Moon is published by Influx Press. You can buy it direct from them or via your favourite independent bookshop.