A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi
Tareq’s life is hustle and bustle in Syria. He goes to school, comes home to care for his twin baby brothers, and listens to his grandmother’s stories. But in a single moment, a bomb strikes and his world comes crashing down around him. Tareq and his little sister survive and travel with their father to Turkey. Who knows what the future holds. Could they be stuck in Turkey with no home and no country forever? Should they reach Greece in a small dinghy or die trying? Will they ever return to Syria? And does the world even care?
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This is part book review, part journal entry.
This book, told in the tone of a war report and narrated by Destiny, was a tough one for me. We had initially planned to talk about this on an episode of the YA Café Podcast, but quickly discovered we couldn’t. How could we talk about characters, plot, and pacing when this book was simply truth. Tareq’s story is the story of so many Syrian and Afghan refugees woven together and we can’t judge it—we can only accept it and learn from it.
Alexia, the Greek-American volunteer in this novel, works on Lesbos and rescues people attempting the 8 kilometer trip by sea from Turkey. Lesbos and Chios, Greek islands tucked right up against the Turkish coastline in the Aegean Sea, have been the port of entry to Europe for these refugees. Human traffickers take advantage of these people, charging hundreds of dollars they don’t have, and letting them buy passage on a barely seaworthy boat with counterfeit lifejackets. 1300 people have died in this crossing since 2015. Alexia’s is a hard job with shifts day and night, and when she pulls Tareq from the water, it’s a hard-won victory on both sides.
In 2017, I spent three months in Greece, working in a refugee camp. I worked on the mainland and met refugees who’d already been resettled. For most, their basic needs had already been met, and they had food, water, and a cot or bunk to sleep on. Still, they told me stories of the bombings and the early days of their escape from Syria and Afghanistan, and this novel aligned so closely with those stories.
“They come here to give false purpose to their lives while stealing the oxygen out of ours.”
The Daesh (ISIS) and the Taliban rule through fear and justify that with extremism. This does not represent the religious views of most Syrians or Afghans. If you think you know what Muslims think or how a Muslim woman relates to her hijab, but you haven’t actually met one: you’re probably wrong. I’m not here to soapbox, but I do want to witness to this, having been a non-Muslim who interacted daily with this population.
“They are called the ‘lucky’ ones. But in these situations, no one is truly lucky. Luck has abandoned them, sometimes never to return.”
The people I met and the characters in this book had to fight to get the smallest things you and I take for granted. When I arrived at the camp, things looked okay to me. People had to share rooms in a building that had been part of the Population Exchange in 1923, but it didn’t seem so bad. At least families (or sometimes two or three) shared a small room instead of everyone living in a big open space, like a gym. They seemed lucky to me.
No. Full stop. No one in this situation is lucky. Perhaps it “could be worse”, but that doesn‘t negate how bad it is now. These people have lost family members and friends and had no time to mourn. Tareq’s father can’t even take a moment to mourn his wife—he has to get Tareq and Susan out right now. I saw this over and over in the camp once I opened my eyes: kids forced to grow up too fast, widows caring for an entire family alone… and all with the realization that there’s no going back, and there’s nothing left for them there. [I wrote about life in the camp here.]
“He was one of the many men who benefited financially from the crisis.”
This novel gives such an accurate portrayal of the human trafficking that takes place and the people who benefit. Tareq and his father have to save up $1200 to buy passage across the Aegean. Tareq watches families get separated, has an untested, untrained skipper in the dinghy, and encounters a Turkish Coast Guard that tries to capsize the boat so it doesn’t make it to Europe.
While I worked in the camp, I discovered how many people still wanted to move on at whatever cost to them. Germany was their Promised Land, and one mother told me she’d given all her money and sent her fourteen-year-old son alone, smuggled in the back of a truck. By the time she told me about it, she hadn’t heard from him in four days and was sick with worry. I never heard about him again.
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“There are obviously extremes to both. Not every hunter is a Charles Manson and not every helper is a saint. In fact, most humans have aspects of both inside their hearts and minds. It’s a battle within to see which is exposed at what moments.”
At the Portland BookFest, Atia Abawi said this is what she wanted people to take away from her book: that everyone has great good, great evil, and everything in between within them. One reason I’ve talked so little about my time in Greece is that I still feel so conflicted about having gone, and how much good I did there.
In one sense, I was a helper. So many people wanted to learn English and thought it would help them stay in Europe. I also got to teach a little German to people. So yes, that was helpful. I built good relationships while I was there, and people confided in me.
And yet. While I wouldn’t say I was a “hunter”, I feel terrible for having gone for such a short time. I went for three months. That felt like a huge sacrifice—I left my job, my family, and my country for a long time. I lived alone in an apartment without internet, phone, or heat. It was a hard time for me.
But even harder was leaving. Abawi calls Syria A Land of Permanent Goodbyes. Those relationships I’d built? They were people who had already left and lost so much, and now I was one more permanent goodbye. I’d worked with children who thought I’d be around for a lot longer. What five-year-old understands the concept of months? Saying goodbye was heart-wrenching. Had it ever been fair of me to come in for such a short time when these people had already suffered so much impermanence? I don’t think so. If I could do it all again, I would raise money for someone who could stay longer.
This book is a great choice for your classroom library and for literature circles. It’s a brutally honest refugee tale, but the writing style creates some emotional distance. This would be a great balance for other novels that view the experience close up: Refugee, The Jungle, etc.