There are corners of this world where time seems to crowd. The city of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, in the south of the Arabian peninsula, is one of the places where the ancient layers overlap. At least until the first decade of this century, Sana’a remained practically the same as it looked in the Muslim Middle Ages.
In this region of the world that the desert envelops and sometimes suffocates, the Colombian writer Laura Restrepo located her novel Canción de Antiguos Lovers (Alfaguara, 2022), a rough braid of personal experiences wrapped in the soft scarf of fiction, a lyrical song about an exodus that, despite being forgotten, is perhaps much more numerous than that of the biblical accounts.
About 13 years ago, Restrepo was invited by the international organization Doctors Without Borders to visit Yemen, Ethiopia and the border of Somalia to get closer to the missions that were carried out in the region. Of these trips, the writer presented at the time several reports for the newspaper El País.
Years later, she began to develop a novel that not only draws from her journalistic work but, motivated by the overlapping of times in the Yemeni region, perhaps one of the geographical points with the most history and accumulated myths, she decided to add to that braid the myth of the queen of Sheba, sovereign of a wealthy people, lost between the centuries, but which has been mentioned by the Old Testament and the Koran, whose legend is so strong and so present that it continues to be the reason for such an essential identity in a displaced region.
Where myth and reality meet
“The book is a fiction, but at the same time it is the sounding board for many trips”, confirms in an interview the Colombian writer and journalist, also winner of the 2004 Alfaguara Novel Award for Delirio and the 1997 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Award. for his novel Sweet Company.
“We traveled through a land immersed in a tremendous humanitarian crisis, famine, drought, bombing by the powers and internal war, but also a land rich in myths. There is not only the myth of the Queen of Sheba, it is also the land of the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ and of a very delicious and enriched way of narrating. That’s why I wanted all that to remain in the novel, that mixture of times”.
Restrepo says that the first sensation he had during his travels through Yemen was that the historical and mythical past weigh so much that it is impossible to describe in a linear way a place that at the same moment is the genesis and the end of the eras.
“I wanted the same thing to happen in the novel. To give you a concrete example: you go in the Médecins sans Frontières van and they show you the UNHCR camp on the left hand side, with 200,000 refugees, and on the right hand side they point out the remains of Noah’s Ark, all in a matter of half an hour”, share.
The essence of the human
There are several personal and companion experiences that Laura Restrepo poured into the book. In one of them, Bos Mutas, a contemporary writer, runs into Zahra Baida, a Somali midwife who accompanies him as they run into the immense caravans of migrant women, with their children and their elderly, from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia. He describes them, though hungry and barefoot, as proud and upright, and as sensual in their pride, because they claim to be descendants of the Queen of Sheba. They know they are inheritors of a millenary culture that has endured all opprobrium and they are obstinate in reaching the West, in a place where they can study, knowing that many of them will be swallowed up by the desert.
“In these times of tremendous confusion due to crises of all kinds, not only ecological but also economic and war, I get the impression that myth is being resorted to a lot to recover the essence of what is human. I see contemporary writers, like Emmanuel Carrére, who make this systematic inquiry into mythology. And I wanted to be a part of this,” he explains.
Finally, as a journalist, Laura Restrepo believes that both in journalism and in fiction “one cannot speak of objectivity, because nothing is objective, everything is perception, but one can speak of honest subjectivity. I believe that both ways of counting can be done lovingly and not with the wall of coldness”.
He shares that more than a decade ago, when the Iberian newspaper published the reports of his trips and those of other colleagues, the series of installments was titled “Witnesses of horror.” “And the truth is that I was very surprised by that title, because as a Colombian, what witness am I going to be? We, also in Mexico, have lived very hard lives first hand, we know the enormous difficulties, the famine and the violence. We are not witnesses to the horror, we are part of it”.
old lovers song
- Laura Restrepo
- 329 pages
Excerpt from Song of Former Lovers
Do they know that many will die along the way and that they will have to bury the sickest, the oldest? Zahra Bayda says yes, they do. They know it and accept it (…) they flee from the four faces of death: war, hatred, the serpents of madness and the furious dogs of hunger. They are slender and proud, and one could even say that they look down on us. Although they do not have shoes, there is an imperial air in their way of walking (…) They say that they are going to Saudi Arabia and that from Saudi Arabia they will go to Europe, because they want to study”.