Sonia Nimr's Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands

An external journey mirroring the inner search: Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands
5 min read
03 March, 2021
Book Club: Sonia Nimr's fantastical story reads like a series of folktales in which the circles of life come together when the struggle is abandoned.
The book inhabits the dimension where things are allowed to happen

Sonia Nimr's literary work, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, is a swift narration that emulates the voyages and experiences it describes.

A fantastical story that commences with the protagonist's origin, the book reads like a series of folktales, despite it being a novel in which the circles of life come together when the struggle is abandoned.

Qamr, the protagonist, shares two diverse heritages in terms of her origins. Her father Saeed was born in a village that is replete with tradition and superstition, from which he breaks free for a while after a visit to the city and falling in love with Jawaher, whose father owns a bookshop.

Jawaher gives Saeed a book which carries the same title as the novel, and it is here that the metaphor springs to life in a series of circumstances that spiral out of control, starting with Saeed's decision to return to the village upon news that his mother was ill.

The villagers have no intention of accepting Saeed back after breaking away from tradition, yet he persists in staying in the vicinities, bringing up his family and yearning to bridge the distance between the disparate realms of the village and the city.

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His efforts, however, are destroyed by the villagers, who believe that a curse has fallen upon the village.

It is Jawaher who unravels the myth of the curse and beings normality back to village life, yet her efforts are not truly appreciated until after her death.

When both Jawaher and Saeed pass away, Qamr decides to defy tradition by travelling alone to Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the book's premise of journeying.

The element of fantasy becomes more pronounced when Qamr meets a family on her travels, who offer her shelter. She invents a story about her origins because she feels her own narrative would not pass off as the truth.

From then onwards, the mingling between Qamr's reality, her story telling and her imagination becomes prominent, in particular as her travelling is thwarted on many occasions that see her being sold to a princess in a slave market and later, working on a ship bound for Genoa while disguised as a man.

She invents a story about her origins because she feels her own narrative would not pass off as the truth

Qamr is resilient, yet it is mainly through the circumstances and adventures she faces that the reader manages a glimpse of her character. 

There is little in terms of introspection that the author reveals about the protagonist, and the fantasy element woven into Qamr's reality creates a constant shifting of attention as the scenes evoked quickly build to an exciting momentum that is then levelled almost to the point of the mundane, in contrast with the action that is very much fuelled with exaggeration.

When Qamr deals with her first loss of love — the Captain who never knew of her true identity as a woman — she settles down for the first time to pursue a quieter life and opens a bookshop in Tangier, Morocco.

However, the book which her father brought with him from his first visit to Jawaher once again makes an appearance, this time uniting Qamr with Ahmed, in a similar manner to her own parents' love story.

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One major difference is the absence of fantasy in the beginnings of this romance. However, the metaphor of travel and the incurring of loss are yet to be evoked again when Ahmed decides it is time for them and their daughter to embark upon their own adventures on sea.

Their ship sinks and Qamr's husband and daughter are lost, believed to have been taken to Egypt and later to Yemen, to be sold as slaves.

Qamr's story plunges ahead into a series of unknowns and forays into her past, when circumstances bring her in contact with people she befriended earlier on her travels.

Her vast knowledge of natural remedies becomes an asset on her later travels as far away as India, where the situations Qamr finds herself in allow of a maturing of her character which is also tinged by the burden of loss.

The external journey mirrors the inner search, where love is the journey, and love is also home

The book seems to inhabit the dimension where things are allowed to happen. There is little intrusion in terms of struggling against circumstances, and more of a permeating faith in allowing. 

It is perhaps this element that grounds the book into one's consciousness — a sense of calm in the midst of circumstance — brought to light all the more by the fact that Qamr's life is one unbelievable tale and which at the same time, encompasses so much of human nature.

The exaggerations, in terms of loss and rediscovery, are much more pronounced through the atmosphere created by the author, rather than the impossibilities of people surviving one mishap after another and just wanting, yearning, for an end to suffering.

The external journey mirrors the inner search, where love is the journey, and love is also home.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent

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