A day dedicated to remembrance implies a belief in the act of remembering; but what if you were born into a family whose history was inextricably tied to a country that believed in the act of forgetting? Pierre Jarawan’s Song for the Missing is a memory curation project undertaken by its hero Amin in 2011 just when the Arab Spring has sparked flames of revolution across the Middle East. This project of chronicling the events of his life is a deeply personal one for Amin, because it holds the key that might help him make sense of his past, the past of his family, and by extension, the past of Lebanon.
It’s 1994 and Amin is fourteen years old, an orphan, brought back to Beirut from Germany by his grandmother four years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War. One of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the country, the War lasted fifteen years and claimed over 100,000 lives; close to 20,000 people were kidnapped or disappeared and therefore presumed dead. These statistics don’t make headlines on the news in 1994, because in 1994 when Amin is fourteen, Lebanon has repressed memories of the War, and memories of the thousands killed and missing. This collective, state-sanctioned amnesia confuses Amin, but the two people closest to him – his grandmother and his best friend, Jafar – aren’t much help. His grandmother opens a café and exhibits her paintings with cryptic titles that don’t make much sense. Jafar is a product of the war, a child who has aged prematurely, having grown up on a daily dose of fear and violence. He leads Amin into bombed and abandoned buildings and shows a Beirut Amin wouldn’t otherwise see.
Years later when Amin looks back on his life – on his intense friendship with Jafar, his complicated relationship with his grandmother, his meetings with the mystic storyteller of Beirut, Saber Mounir, whose tales of the past are as stirring as his insights into the present, and his unforgettable encounter with a girl who sets into motion a series of unforeseen events – he realizes that the curation of memories is a complicated endeavor and that like his country, he too has repressed painful memories of his own life. It takes time for him to reach the point in the story where he feels up to sharing those memories. Jarawan lets his protagonist unravel the years of his life from 1994 to 2011 slowly, all the while taking us into confidence that what is being unraveled is in the end based on memory, which by its very nature, can be selective and flawed. What we get, though, is a portrait of a seeker as a young man – someone who seeks the truth about what happened to his family and who joins forces with those who seek the truth about what happened in Lebanon during and following the war years. The story of the Civil War is messy and complex. What Jarawan offers us through the pages of his book – in prose that is visually evocative and achingly soulful – is not an analysis of the war (there are scholars who have, by now, shed light on those dark hours), but rather a character study of a sensitive young man who tells us his story and its place in the history of his country; history, in the end, being more than just a ledger of facts, but rather a compendium of loss, a treasury of stories that, as Saber Mounir tells Amin, cannot recover what has been lost, but can allow others to experience it.
— Leena Desai, Senior Education and Development Coordinator