“Book Review: The Pigeon Whisperer”
Reviewed by Madeline Barbush
An intoxicating tale of one refugee’s destiny
The Pigeon Whisperer recounts Syrian refugee Dabbour’s desperate search for a new life in Berlin. The short novel is an exploration of the many obstacles refugees face in coming to their new country. The author, M.H. Matar, is also from the Arab world, and like Dabbour, had to deal with losing his home. From an insightful interview included at the end of the novel we learn firsthand that Matar’s personal journey leaving his country (Jordan) was a spiritual awakening for him. He tells us that he chose to see it as a blessing rather than dwell negatively on the past. The novel serves as a reminder that whether you are able to be there physically or not, home will always live inside you if you let it.
Dabbour is a young, meek man who fled war-ravaged Syria with his childhood friend Yasser. Once in his new home of Berlin, Germany, Dabbour becomes well aware of his position as a refugee and of how he is viewed by the Germans, but he chooses to love the city despite its flaws. He believes that, “Those who are afraid to live will never have a life and will never be able to live…”
While pure-hearted Dabbour tries his hardest to embrace this idea for the good, Yasser takes it to the opposite extreme and lives with reckless abandon. He crushes Dabbour with his cruel manipulations. He uses Dabbour’s talent of training pigeons in order to deal drugs, and he takes advantage of Dabbour’s loyalty to carry out his dangerous plots.
Author M.H. Matar poignantly portrays the internal and external conflicts that many refugees face in their new country. For Dabbour’s character, it could be argued that the internal conflicts are the greatest. The burden of the past is one of his main struggles. When he visits his friend at his home, Dabbour enters into a “mini-Syria.” The apartment brings about a certain nostalgia for him. In this moment, a bond is created between the men and the story is strengthened. M.H. Matar convincingly layers the lives of each of his characters who are all dealing with issues of creating an identity away from home.
Yasser propels Dabbour’s external conflicts in the novel, and the author does an infuriatingly great job of overwhelming us with every horrible act Yasser commits. Yasser acts out. He feels the prejudice of the Germans, and instead of trying to integrate with society like Dabbour, he rebels and brings Dabbour down with him. The cycle of prejudice that entraps many refugees is blown up in Yasser’s decisions and actions. Matar employs the two main characters to show the many complications faced by refugees in a foreign country, but what is more, he never shies away from redeeming them or damning them.
There are a great deal of twists and turns in the novel. Most are exhilarating, but there are moments when the action is slowed down because Dabbour dips into the past. In such a short novel it would be impossible to hash out all the details, but as the reader I found some moments to be rushed and too quickly explained rather than involving us directly in real time.
This novel isn’t all about the action though. That’s part of the point. Instead, we emphasize with the spiritual and emotional gains made by Dabbour. Although there may be some readers disappointed by this, in the end I found it allowed us to reflect deeper on the themes of fate and destiny, thus adding a strong internal thread throughout the novel that I couldn’t have done without.
The author admits, “Evil is infectious, like a disease. Goodness is not.” It is intoxicating that Matar chooses this good over evil while covering such a heavy topic. Especially because of how much it works.
Category: Literary fiction
Paperback: 188 pages
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