Home is a funny thing. My first home was a bungalow in Laindon, Essex which had been part of the plotlands developments of the mid-C20th. There was no central heating, no bathroom, only an outside loo (with some huge spiders) and I swear you could see big gaps in the skirting boards that showed the outside world. But I was happy there, I had my family, I had enough to eat: it was home. I’ve only ever really moved home three times (once with my family, once to my first property up in Durham and, finally, once to the house I now live in with my husband) and I’ve been lucky enough to feel that each of these places has been a true home. Some of this is to do with having familiar things around me (I’ve still got a few books, pictures, soft toys and crockery which I had as a child in Laindon) and a huge amount is to do with the fact that I have lived in all these places with people I love. So, home is a place but it is also the people you share that place with.
Nada Awar Jarrar’s latest novel, an Unsafe Haven, seems to me to be about what home means to those who are living in some of the most unstable areas in the world – war-torn Syria and a Lebanon which still bears the scars of its own conflicts. It is the story of a group of friends – Lebanese Hannah and her American husband Peter, their Syrian artist friend Anas and Maysoun an Iraqi woman working for the Red Cross in the refugee camps – and how they deal with the realities of living in a region fractured by a patchwork of ongoing conflicts. Events which in our own relatively safe lives would be difficult or stressful take on even greater significance in these circumstances. An illegitimate child, career dissatisfaction, problems with the in-laws could all, under these conditions become matters of life or death.
The story is, in some ways, slight. Anas’ wife is not responding to phone calls back home in Damascus and he discovers she has taken their children away to her parents in Germany. A young woman and her son are saved from a traffic accident and need help to be reunited with their family. Peter is unhappy in his administrative role since, as a foreigner in the country, he is not allowed to work as a doctor. But the book goes deeper than the plot itself – I found myself thinking about aspects of the ever-changing system of hoops which refugees have to jump through, even in welcoming states like Lebanon, and that I really must read much, much more about the background to the many overlapping wars, conflicts and regimes in the Middle East. I felt that I became more aware of some of the cultural differences between the West and the Arab world and the problems faced by those who try to straddle both. And, in the end, I returned to my thoughts of home. Those who escape from countries like Iraq return because they want their children to know about their heritage. But they return to chaos, with formerly well-off families reduced to selling their jewellery, books and treasures – in fact their heritage – to survive. People use their homes – even if they are tents in a refugee camp – as a way of trying to create the illusion that the world is still normal and safe. And in the end which do you choose? Safety or home?