Of loss and lavender

Of loss and lavender

Publication Date: 2023

Publisher: Manshourat al jamal

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 256


New York 2003. Sami, an old retired Iraqi doctor recently moved in with his son Saad and his family in Brooklyn, New York. He is happy to be around his grandchildren after having lost his wife in tragic circumstances. Soon, however, his memory starts to fail him, and Saad has no other choice but to entrust him to a retirement home, where the young Carmen, a nurse of Puerto Rican descent, will take special care of him – he reminds her of her late grandfather.


New York, in the late 1990s. Omar, a young Iraqi man, lands in the US. He has run away from Iraq with a fake identity. He is a deserter, and like all deserters he was punished. One of his ears was amputated. In Baghdad, this is an unmissable mark of shame. He should have been tattooed with a piece of burning hot iron on his forehead as well, but for some reason, he wasn’t. Omar dreams of a reconstructive plastic surgery to get his ear, and his dignity, back.


While Sami’s past is fading with his withering memory, Omar does all that is in his power to forget, and bury his Iraqi identity. Seeking a fresh start in New Jersey as a farmer, Omar will pretend he is from Puerto Rico. The two narrative lines unfold independently. One man spends most of his half-conscious time reminiscing, through music, which Carmen puts into his ears, or through the scent of lavender, which she sometimes wears. The other is desperate to forge a different future for himself with his bare hands, in the lavender farm where he is employed. Until the three characters’ love of lavender ultimately, in the novel’s last pages, make them meet, finally providing Omar with an opportunity to get closure from his painful past : Sami is none other than the doctor who was forced to amputate his ear, and did not tattoo his face.

Mostly written in the third person from both Omar or Sami’s points of view, a first person narration sometimes occurs, mostly in Sami’s reminiscences. Shattered pieces of his memory are scattered throughout the book, slowly revealing to the reader the story of this character, and his post-war tragic losses. While the story unfolds mostly linearly, there are many backs and forth between the characters’ Iraqi past and their American present, providing depth to the characters, and a unique perspective on exile.

As always, Sinan Antoon delivers a beautifully written moving story, with extremely relatable characters. He masterfully succeeds in putting chunks of ordinary, daily, reality on paper, with simple bare details. These render the characters’ state of mind and the atmosphere so vividly, the result is a poignant and poetic read.

Translation sample by the author, Sinan Antoon

When he woke up from the nap he was taking on the comfy oversized leather recliner, an old black and white Egyptian film was playing on the large TV screen. He didn’t try to identify the actors or remember the film’s title, because he was surprised to find himself in this place. He tried to sit up. He had, as usual, pushed the backrest all the way back to raise his feet, but he couldn’t lower the footrest. He forgot that he could easily do that using the release handle on the lower right side. A rectangular clock without numbers sat on the wall above the TV. Its hands pointed to 3:15. The wall to his right was covered with wooden bookshelves. All the titles were in English. To the left of the TV there was a huge fireplace, whose firebox was sealed with bricks. Elegantly framed photographs of various sizes sat on its white mantle. He moved his feet off the footrest and onto the hard wood floor, leaned with his arms on both armrests, and got up. The remote control fell from his lap and landed on the hardwood floor. He took three steps to the fireplace and scrutinized the photographs. A handsome man with dark skin and black hair, stood next to a blond woman and two children in one of them. The same man and woman appeared separately and together in some of the other photographs, at times with the two children, or with other people. He didn’t recognize anyone. But he was startled when he found himself standing with all four in one of the photographs. Another had them all with other people. Another, in black and white, had him standing next to his wife! How did they get this one? How did they manage to put him in all these photographs with all these strangers?
He couldn’t comprehend wat was taking place. This is certainly not a nightmare. One cannot wake up to one. He heard the howling of a fast car driving by outside. He looked to his left. Three bay windows with their white curtains drawn, welcomed the afternoon sun to visit. A large copper plate on a rectangular acacia wood coffee table nearby reflected the rays. He averted his eyes with his right hand and saw a hallway and part of the stairs leading to the second floor. He took a few steps and turning left saw what looked like a kitchen. He turned to his right and saw the entrance and the door. He will get out and go home.

He walked to the door. There was an old chair next to dark wooden shoe-rack. Looking at his feet he saw that he only had black socks on. He went back to the living room and looked around the recliner and found a pair of tan sneakers. They looked comfortable. Maybe they were his, but he doesn’t remember having seen them before.

Actes Sud, France, French, 2025

Of loss and lavender