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Love Letters Unite East and West
By REBECCA JOUBIN
“Epistole: A Love Story in Letters” recounts the story of Fatima and John, whose college relationship was abruptly severed when John left Lebanon and immigrated to America. Although each married, had children, and went their separate ways, they remained in contact and their love stayed alive through a series of letters, later found and published by Fatima’s son Tariq, who learned upon their death that John was his father.
Neither John nor Fatima are able to find another true love, yet the impossibility of their love becomes clearer as time goes on. Indeed, the lovers’ turmoil in their letters mirrors the turmoil in the world around them. While Fatima chooses to stay in Lebanon and resists adding to her homeland’s brain drain, John finds it impossible to return to his birthplace and uplift his people. John remembers nostalgically what his grandmother had said before he left for America: “America takes our best youth and leaves us with the rejects,” yet when his mother asks him to return he responds: “Why should I sacrifice my joy for the sake of a utopian dream that is already a nightmare?”
Nevertheless, Fatima holds on to the hope that he will return to Lebanon and writes to him: “You don’t have to believe in my fairy tales; however, you must realize that even though you are East-born and even though you have chosen to become a West-grown man of science, it only takes one believer for things to happen.”
While Fatima lingers on the hope that she will be reunited with John, he relegates her to a dream, like Lebanon, that he can never return to. The sense of frustration in the impossibility of their union increases as the letters move through time. During the span of years that the tormented lovers write to each other, there is marked instability in the region such as the Lebanese civil war, the Qana massacre, the Gulf War, and the fall of Baghdad.
The distance that separates them and makes their love impossible is reflected by a larger lack of human understanding and compassion in the world surrounding them. While the impossibility of their love becomes increasingly evident as time goes on and they lay bare their souls to each other, Saadah’s novel ends with a message of hope, tolerance and understanding as East and West find natural and unexpected harmony among the characters. What seems like tragedy transforms into redemption and glorious love.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)