Black Foam: A Novel by Haji Jabir translated by Sawad Hussain and Marcia Lynx Qualey

Today I am sharing my thoughts on Black Foam, the brand new novel from Haji Jabir. My thanks to Katya Wack at FMcM for the tour invite and to publisher Amazon Crossing for the advance copy for review. Here’s what the book is all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy
Release Date: 07 February 2023
Publisher: Amazon Crossing

About the Book

From award-winning Eritrean author Haji Jabir comes a profoundly intimate novel about one man’s tireless attempt to find his place in the world.

Dawoud is on the run from his murky past, aiming to discover where he belongs. He tries to assimilate into different groups along his journey through North Africa and Israel, changing his clothes, his religious affiliations, and even his name to fit in, but the safety and peace he seeks remain elusive. It seems prejudice is everywhere, holding him back, when all he really wants is to create a simple life he can call his own. A chameleon, Dawoud—or David, Adal, or Dawit, depending on where and when you meet him—is not lost in this whirl of identities. In fact, he is defined by it.

Dawoud’s journey is circuitous and specific, but the desire to belong is universal. Spellbinding to the final page, Black Foam is both intimate and grand in scale, much like the experiences of the millions of people migrating to find peace and safety in the twenty-first century.

My Thoughts

Before reading this book I have to confess I knew very little about Eritrea, about its people or the way in which it is run or governed. Consider me partially educated as I am sure there is far more to learn. In Black Foam, Haji Jabir introduces us to Dawoud, a man of many names, who has told many stories and risked his life in order to escape Eritrea for a better life in Israel or beyond. The story follows the many towns, settlements and trials that Dawoud endured on his journey, the friends and acquaintances he made along the way in his desperate quest to find somewhere he can belong.

We have all seen on the news the hundreds of migrants who risk life and limb on unsafe boats in order to find a new start in the UK and often I have wondered what has driven them to such lengths. Dawoud’s story may not have involved such a crossing, but it was no less perilous and the repercussions of his bid for freedom and a new life kept the stakes high. I found this an intriguing read, and whilst not the quickest in pace, the way in which the author explored the character’s background, teasing out elements of the Eritrean culture and communities to portray his journey was fascinating. From being born the child of soldiers specifically raised to serve as a soldier himself, to his attempts to find a place in Beta Israel we learn much of his past and of the obstacles facing him. The way in which he had to keep changing his name, reinventing himself to assimilate and to become what he needed to become in order to survive and progress in his journey.

The structure of the story does take some time to get into, with Dawoud’s progress interspersed with memories from his past, particularly when he is going through his settlement interviews to try and gain permanent migrant status in Israel. It did mean that I had to concentrate a little more to work out if we were in Dawoud’s, or Davit as he was by then, past or present, but each story revealed a little more about his character. The difficulty was in determining how much of what we were being told was true, Dawoud’s status as an unreliable narrator cemented in the fact that he had to keep reinventing himself in order to convince others to help him or allow him to stay. How much of what we read is Davit’s fact and how much fiction would be for readers to decide, but there was the sense that much of what he told was grounded in truth, if not all of it. We are witness to the betrayal of others, and Davit’s betrayal of them in return, all of which is understandable given his need for sanctuary. What we hear of his time in solitary or the darkness surrounding the Blue Valley is stark and enforces the reasons for his migration.

This was a fascinating story, one which drew me in, particularly towards the end when Davit arrived in Israel and slowly started to examine all he had done and why he was so definitely drawn to the Mosques as opposed to the Jewish faith he had adopted in order to reach his goal. These scenes are reflective of his search for meaning and his long quest to belong and be loved. He starts to understand why he has been drawn to the same kinds of women and what it is he really wants. Whether a new start founded entirely on lies can ever end in happiness, you can only find out by reading. Wonderfully translated by Sawad Hussain and Marcia Lynx Qualey, it has given me a real insight into an area of African literature I had no experience of before, and really captured my attention.

About the Author

Haji Jabir is an Eritrean novelist who was born in the city of Massawa on the Red Sea Coast in 1976. He currently lives in Doha, Qatar, where he works as an Al Jazeera journalist. Jabir’s creative aim is to shed light on Eritrea’s past and present and to extricate his homeland from its cultural isolation. He is one of the most important Arabic-language authors of his time.

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