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"A journal is a rearview mirror"

A Hand Full of Stars - Rafik Schami, Translated by Rika Lesser

Although this book was written in 1987, it seems no less relevant to today's Syria. The regime allows no alternative opinions and clamps down hard on dissenters,whether real or imagined. A stay in prison is a nightmare for anyone unfortunate enough to rouse suspicion.

The fourteen-year-old narrator decides to begin recording his day-to-day life in a journal, encouraged by his close friend, Uncle Salim. If you want to be a journalist, advises Salim, then you need to develop the habit of being observant and recording your observations.
The book is written as the journal of our (unnamed) protagonist and clearly shows his developing maturity over the period of four years; his feelings for Nadia, the girl who lives down the street, and a growing awareness of the injustices taking place around him.

He starts by writing about his own life as the reluctant son of a baker. He is desperate to remain in school, where he is doing well, but eventually his father demands that he leaves to work full time in the bakery. Rather than sweat and toil in the manufacture of bread, our diarist suggests that he go around town delivering the loaves. This results in many more customers and allows him to meet new people and observe what is going on around him. One of these new customers is Habib, a retired journalist. Although he is disillusioned with journalism in such a restrictive regime, Habib is eventually persuaded to help the young lad achieve his dream.

Some parts of this book have really stuck with me. The idea of the sock newspaper - snippets of news disseminated through the sale of very cheap socks, was excellent. I also enjoyed the homeless vagrant who provided a riddle in many languages for the narrator to solve - a great lesson in people not being all they appear.
Well worth the read.