Thursday, March 19, 2015

I don't want to keep my country imprisoned in my memory

Back in December, two things happened: I made a resolution to to diversify my reading and I got an awesome Secret Santa gift that included a book that met my diversity criteria. And now I'm finally getting around to reviewing Beirut Blues by Hanan al-Shaykh.

Beirut Blues is the story of Asmahan, a Lebanese woman trying to make sense of her currently war-torn world. She loves Beirut but wonders if she should leave to somewhere safer: the country where some of her relatives are, the U.S. where here mom is, France with some friends? The story is told through her letters to her friends, family, lovers, and Beirut itself. Although honestly, the letters thing didn't really work for me because they don't read like letters. It's more like diary entries she's vaguely directing at someone except not really. It's not a straight narrative of events and at times it was hard to follow what was going on and who everyone was, but overall I still got the feel for things.

Surprisingly, Asmahan rarely seems to fear the war. It doesn't seem to affect her directly and other than a brief encounter when some soldiers take a friend away for questioning there aren't any tense moments. This could be in part because of the structure and the fact that she is telling these events to people who know she obviously made it out fine. She's here writing the letters. Most of the tone of the book is focused on Ashmahan's longing for the Beirut of the past. The bombings don't seem to bother her so much as annoy her, but the fact that the Beirut she loved is gone is what's truly upsetting. Sometimes she feels trapped by what Beirut has become, that even though she herself isn't being held for ransom, she has been kidnapped by the fighting.

I appreciated that Asmahan was a fully independent woman. She talks about her lovers (which is how she refers to them and probably makes more sense than boyfriend or something, even if I can't help but say the word sarcastically), new ones and those she had, with a certain nonchalance. It's not a big part of the story, but I appreciated when it came up it wasn't a big deal. She does her thing and she's not demonized for it. You go, Asmahan.

While the book is sort of slow, there was a lot in the language that was beautiful. I guess some of that credit goes towards the translator.

I don't believe I'll think about anything beyond the confines of my room. But I have to stop myself sneaking a glance through a gap in the garden wall at a house which is said to be occupied by party members. The night was calm, and everyone was asleep. I saw the fighters sleeping with their families. I could almost hear them snoring. I lowered my head and wondered if I had really been kidnapped. Perhaps I was still having a bad dream. People sleeping peacefully couldn't be kidnappers. Then I reminded myself that evil sleeps too.
You prescribe laws as if you were in a normal country with citizens who still glory in that title and all it stands for. It's easy for you to propound these views, when you haven't hidden in a shelter, had friends and neighbors killed in bread lines, returned home to your apartment building and found it has vanished, and realized after a moment that the rubble under your feet is all that remains of it.
But here he was now treating his own life as if it was more precious than any other in the country. Perhaps he and the others who had left were perfectly entitled to do so: they had escaped to protect the precious gift of life while we were persisted in walking carelessly over minefields.
It's a slow story. There isn't a lot of action or activity, but it has very pretty moments.

Gif rating:
Title quote from page 360

al-Shaykh, Hanan. Beirut Blues. Trans: Catherine Cobham. Anchor Books, 1995. Originally published in Arabic 1992.