Road to Chlifa Summary

Michele Marineau

Road to Chlifa

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Road to Chlifa Summary

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The Road to Chlifa is an immigrant narrative from award-winning French author Michèle Marineau, with English translation by Susan Ouriou. The narrative follows the story of a seventeen-year-old Arab named Karim, from Lebanon to Quebec, and his journey for place in his adopted home of Montreal. The story makes use of flashback narrative, and is also told from multiple points-of-view. Additionally, the narrative switches between narration styles, including second- and third-person narration. Marineau also adds correspondence between Karim and his friend, Bbechir, in the form of letters, as well as dreams and memories, to flesh out her story. Some critics have noted that the fragmented “feel” of the narrative at times is meant to underscore Karim’s own mental and physical fragmentation throughout his journey.

The story’s backdrop is highlighted by the historical conflicts that broke out between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, including Lebanon, during the 1980s. Karim’s childhood in Beirut takes place during this volatile time period. From Karim’s eventual recollections in the novel, the reader learns that Karim’s parents emigrated to Montreal but that he chose to remain behind. A large part of his reasoning was because of his love for a girl named Nada. In June of 1989, however, Nada is killed in a bombing. The event sends Karim into despair, but he must now help Nada’s sister, Maha, and her younger brother, Jad, reach safety. Maha wants to go to Chlifa, but Karim does not think the journey is safe for her, and so accompanies the siblings.

Maha and Karim are aided by a friend, Antoine Milad, who manages to get them across two checkpoints without incident. He drives them north and then drops the trio off near Nahr el-Kelb. Due to the persistent violence, the trio has to avoid the main roads at all costs, meaning they must travel through the mountains and forests for their safety. While traveling, they befriend a goat that Maha names Black Beard. Black Beard lightens the trio’s spirits as they head to Chlifa, but due to oversight, the goat manages to escape one day and is killed by a land mine.

One day, Karim decides to hike further up a mountain while Maha and Jad rest from their journey. When he returns, however, he finds that Maha has been murdered. With extreme shock and depression, he must make the journey to Chlifa still, where he eventually buries Maha’s body. As it turns out, the person they were attempting to meet in Chlifa had died six months prior. With all of the bad luck following Karim, he finally decides to go to Montreal and live with his parents.

Karim’s journey to Montreal and his adjustment into studies and life there is a tale told by many immigrants. For Karim, it is made all the more difficult due to the effects of war that color his past. When he first arrives, he isolates himself from his classmates. The narrative reveals that, though he often gives his fellow students the cold shoulder, Karim is considered extremely attractive, and the girls in his class are all attracted to him. Because of this, the boys in his class are jealous of him. During a class outing, another immigrant, a girl named My-Lan, is harassed by their classmates. Karim intervenes and is attacked. Due to the severity of the attack, he ends up in the hospital. It is during his stay in the hospital that My-Lan comes to visit him and the two begin to learn about one another, including their dark pasts. In this way, Karim learns that there are others just like him, torn by war and loss. With My-Lan’s help, Karim eventually becomes a lot more optimistic about his new life, and finishes the task he has been struggling with, which is a list of twenty-one things he likes in Montreal.

The Road to Chlifa addresses the themes of friendship, love and compromise through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old boy who begins his journey of selfhood in a war-torn country. Before Karim ever has to deal with the issues of immigration and establishing a new identity in a new land, he must deal with daily survival and the injustices of war. Death and loss are two themes that are constant for Karim while in Lebanon, and his eventual decision to leave for Montreal is his way of transforming death and loss into rebirth and gain. Though he struggles with his adopted homeland, he has both family and, in time, friends. He also has other immigrants whose backgrounds resemble his.

In short, Karim finds a community of individuals who are made stronger by their violent pasts. The discrimination Karim and My-Lan face in Quebec also point to the fact that people can be violent regardless of place or beliefs. People can be violent for petty issues, such as jealousy, or surface-level issues, such as skin color. For young adults, these prejudices often arise in the school setting that Karim finds them. His attitude of stepping in and helping My-Lam, however, and his subsequent turn to optimism show that the human heart can triumph over prejudice and discrimination.