Hisham Matar: “Naima”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Hisham Matar’s “Naima” was first published in The New Yorker‘s January 24, 2011, issue.

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Hisham Matar’s new book Anatomy of a Disappearance comes out in the UK in March and in the U.S. in August, and everything I see suggests that “Naima” is an excerpt from that book, or at least a bit of back story.  It certainly reads like an excerpt, and at this point I’m ambivalent about whether to read the book, although it is possible we’ll hear more about it during Booker Prize season (Matar’s In the Country of Men was shortlisted in 2006, which means this book is automatically submitted for the judges’ consideration).

The narrator of “Naima” is Nuri who, now an adult, is looking back on his youth right before and after his mother died.  Matar’s prose is strong, and from the beginning his mother is depicted as an almost ghost-like presence and absence.  Though they are from Egypt, she prefers the cold, and on their yearly vacations she takes the family north to, say, the Swiss Alps or even northern Norway.

Some afternoons, Mother disappeared and I would not let on to Father that my heart was thumping at the base of my ears.  I would keep to my room until I heard footsteps on the deck, the kitchen door sliding open.  Once I found Mother there with hands stained black-red, a rough globe dyed into the front of her jumper.  With eyes as clean as glass, wide, satisfied, she held out a handful of wild berries.

On some of the cold nights up north, Nuri would imagine that Naima was there.  She was their maid (had been since before Nuri was born), and she remained in Cairo while they travelled.  Though Nuri yearns for his mother, his relationship with Naima is more maternal: “But if I was ill it was Naima who would not leave my bedside.  Mother would occasionally come in and stand at the foot of the bed, clearly concerned but awkward, as if she were intruding on a private moment.”  Why this is the case is alluded to, particularly when his mother’s melancholy is most apparent. 

I did not know then why Mother looked better in photographs taken before I was born.  I do not mean simply younger but altogether brighter, as if she had just stepped off a carousel: her hair settling, her eyes anticipating more joy.

Before Nuri is born, his father was a goverment minister.  When the king is killed, his parents and Naima escape to Paris, which is where Nuri is born.  His parents avoid speaking about the city.

It’s strange.  I found “Naima” very well written bit by bit, but, as a whole, as suffocating as anything I can remember reading.  I had to keep taking deep breaths as the unvarying lugubrious tone sucked the wind out of me.  It is better on a reread, and I am intrigued with where the story is apparently going.  Here is what I gather from a synopsis of the upcoming book: several years later, another woman appears and both father and son fall in love with her; she falls in love with and marries the father; he disappears.  I am interested, if I can manage to keep my breath.

17 thoughts on “Hisham Matar: “Naima””

  1. Betsy says:

    I agree with you, Trevor. The depression of this story is suffocating. It is like a memoir in which every word has intense significance for the author, but very little meaning escapes to the reader. Somehow the design is too freighted. It is as if the author wants the Nubian servant and the aristocratic mother to stand for alternate sides of the lost motherland. But actually, all the relationships in the story seem dead, and a story cannot move the reader with that kind of weight. The boy’s boyhood appears to be dead as well, although the narrator doesn’t seem to realize that. The narrator dwells on loss as if in dwelling on loss he can revive what has been lost. For us to respond to the story, there has to be a thread of life, and I don’t feel that thread in the story. There may be a truth to the story that we don’t get, though. For some people from the Middle East, perhaps life feels this way.

  2. Moon says:

    I am sorry, but I disagree. I have rarely read a story so moving and unaffected as ‘Naima’. It is as if the author, Mr Matar, has bared down his poetic prose to the most basic elements. I can’t wait to read the novel Anatomy of a Disappearance. Amazon says it comes out in March not May.

  3. Trevor says:

    Betsy, Matar’s own father was involved in Libyan politics before fleeing the country in 1979. He disappeared in 1990, so it looks like the book (if not this piece) does have quite a bit of personal resonance, at least on that level.

    Moon, thanks for the correction (I’ve edited the post). I get March and May mixed up all the time — basically, I try to avoid March altogether. I liked the piece well enough to read it twice, and it was certainly better the second time. Still, I’m much more interested in where the story is going than where this story left us.

  4. Aaron says:

    I dunno, I felt very satisfied by “Naima,” and I’m usually the first to jump all over fiction of this sort, especially if it reeks of “excerpt.” Further thoughts here (http://tinyurl.com/5wtnl3v), but in a nutshell, I feel that the emotions of the piece — heavy and requiring a lot of patience, I agree — speak a sort of universal language that transcend some of the more confusing cultural references. I like the compromise between the mother and father — he prefers heat, but while the mother’s alive, they always go somewhere cold, because that’s what she prefers — and I like the way that the mother seems more like a sister to the narrator than a mother, sweetly ironic when you consider that Naima is most likely the narrator’s birth mother, and that she was originally hired (at the age of thirteen) “to be like a daughter” and not just a maid.

    I liked the strange scene in Naima’s terrible neighborhood, I liked the taut emotions between Father and Naima (immediately after Mother’s death), and I enjoyed even the little details, like the references to orphanages and jasmine while on the way to hospital (again, further hints at Mother’s inability to conceive and her subsequent depression/illness). It’s challenging to try and do so much in a short story, and if this is in fact part of a longer work, I’ll be curious to see the finished product, whether or not it’s as sustained as this piece has been.

    Okay, this was a very large nutshell, apparently.

  5. Moon says:

    Aaron, wonderful analysis. I hadn’t spotted all these parallels, although they must’ve registered somehow. I read it again and it made it even better this time.

    And Trevor, I see what you mean. But even if it’s an excerpt, I enjoyed it a lot. I loved ‘In the Country of Men’. Matar seems to be getting better. Let’s wait and see when ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ comes out. (I too mix my Marches and Mays, but also my Junes and Julys) Apparently the exact date is 3rd March. So that’s just in over a month from now. I’ve ordered my copy already from Amazon.
    Take care.

  6. Betsy says:

    Aaron, I was interested in your observation that “Naima is most likely the narrator’s birth mother”. I had thought that,too, and wondered about the implications that sets off. Do you or Moon have any thoughts about that?

  7. Aaron says:

    Betsy, my understanding was that the wife was infertile, so they took a very young maid in dire straits, used her to have a child (in another country, France), and then never spoke of it. This would explain why the father gives in to all of the mother’s wishes: he feels he owes her a debt for what she feels is still a betrayal. (The lack of happiness after the child’s birth.) There may be some cultural stuff there, too, though the man and woman in this relationship seemed fairly equally matched. As for the implications toward Naima herself, well, she seems happy enough, distraught only when she has to leave.

  8. Betsy says:

    Thanks, Aaron. Your initial entry concerning the story interested me very much, as did Moon’s entry, given our opposite reactions to reading the story. It will be interesting to see the book come out. Trevor’s point about Matar’s father puts it all in a different light.

  9. John says:

    I think Aaron and Betsy’s insights are good. I thought that perhaps Taleb might have been the father because of the last statement Naima makes regarding the pillow that he had slept on.

  10. Anthi says:

    I agree with John. Taleb knew the boy before he was born (70).
    May I add, Nuri means ‘my light'; ‘noor’ is a spelling variation of ‘nur’. Naima means sleeping, fem. sing., pronounced ni-y-ma, or can mean soft, pronounced na?ma fem. sing. She is the heartbeat of the family. No way Kamal Pasha will split the new, happier unit.
    What a big sigh of relief at the end. Bravo, Hisham.

  11. Trevor says:

    No way Kamal Pasha will split the new, happier unit.

    I think Matar has other plans, Anthi. The book, after all, is entitled Anatomy of a Disappearance.

  12. Betsy says:

    Such an interesting discussion. Anthi and John – your thought that Taleb might be the father solves my puzzlement over Naima’s remark about the pillow. I’m reminded never to doubt the writer – I should be puzzled for a reason. Still, while I accept the idea, I think it’s meant to be ambiguous. The ambiguity about the child’s parentage melds into the larger context, the question of true fatherland in the sense of government, and true motherland, in the sense of culture and love. I also think this author has to be writing about family structure, asking questions about it.

  13. Ken says:

    I come late to this one and am interested at the divergent opinons. I thought this was one of the best stories of the last year or two. I agree it’s sad but I was a bit disappointed at the initial comments about it being “lugubrious” and lacking a “thread” these seemed a bit like the complaint about stuff being “depressing” that one often hears (I know I’m verging on being harsh but I’m being honest). The later writers seemed to get it. This is so amazingly well written and so moving. The discourse on class is also interesting (and not noted by most respondents) and also the melancholy of exile, or knowing your life will be mere existence from then on and that its peak is long passed. I also had no idea this was an excerpt and usually am irritated by the proliferation of excerpts in the New Yorker of late. Compare this to the thin, feeble work by Amos Oz the week before to further bolster its excellence.

  14. Trevor says:

    Well, Ken, I am one who said the tone was lugubrious (isn’t it?), but that wasn’t my problem. I don’t care if a work is depressing (in fact, I didn’t actually consider this one depressing; to me, a work can be melancholic without being depressing, and that’s how I felt about this one), so I can’t take that criticism. My problem was the “unvarying” part, and I note some early readers of the book seemed to feel the same type of tonal crush that I felt, as well written and interesting the content is. I’ve read other works where everything was marked by melancholy, but here it felt like a stylistic choice that wasn’t always justified by or suited to the dynamic events. There are dramatic shifts throughout the story, but that tone remains. I was much more impressed with my second read of the story, but I’m still not sure I rate it as one of the best stories of the year.

    I liked the Oz story, but I certainly think this one better, though I enjoyed reading it less.

    All that aside, I’m interested in your point about “knowing your life will be mere existence from then on and that it’s peak is long past.” That’s not something I considered and would like to hear your thoughts, principally because this is apparently only the merest backstory to Matar’s novel. And perhaps that’s my problem: I just could never get past the fact that this was not only an excerpt but backstory.

  15. Ken says:

    Thanks for the reply. I didn’t find it lugubrious but instead (you know the saying about “one man’s meat is another man’s poison) sad, mournful, affecting and full of thoughtful ideas and great images (such as the boy looking at his “mother’s” collarbone or the descriptions of Norway). I also never suspected it was back story but totally read it as a whole but partly it’s because I don’t know the writer or that he has a book coming (well I read there was one coming but didn’t think of this as part of it). As for your question, I thought it dealt with the “exile” and his melancholy. If you were a big deal in the government and then simply subsisting in another land you might be depressed and yet now that you mention it, I must say this may have been me reading into the story since it’s possible the dad is working to foment revolution or hopes to return to his native land someday. We really don’t know and perhaps the sad tone of the story affected my judgment about the father. Another thing I liked was how a secret (at least in terms of the narrator’s knowledge) and its shame (which everyone feels) can permeate an entire environment and be the (dare I say) elephant in the room.

  16. Trevor says:

    Another thing I liked was how a secret (at least in terms of the narrator’s knowledge) and its shame (which everyone feels) can permeate an entire environment and be the (dare I say) elephant in the room.

    I agree. I did really like how this was presented. In fact, for me, it may have been the strongest aspect — or, I should say, favorite aspect — of the work.

  17. Prasant says:

    Wow, what a wonderful story it was. I must give in to many of you above – Ben, Anthi, Betsy, Aaron, Ken… for wonderful insights and parallels you drew. Though it seems ages since the story was first published, the good thing is I need not wait much longer to read what follows in the book of which it possibly was an excerpt/backstory of – Anatomy of a Disappearance? Did anyone read it, and does it keep the engagement that is so promising at the end? I felt its ending taut that left me wanting for more – something I have rarely felt since ‘Lady or the Tiger’. The prose is very descriptive and touches chords deep inside, like the way ‘Mother’ and Nuri would laugh playfully, or the way she tucks her hair…

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