In Defense of Bookish Beirut

In Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, there is a scene where the protagonist — a translator, and a lover of books — asserts that she is the only person in Lebanon to have copies of well-known international fiction such as Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Lampedusa’s The Leopard. What?

Are you telling me there's no Djuna Barnes in there?
Are you telling me there’s no Djuna Barnes or Giuseppe di Lampedusa in there?

Translator-poet Robyn Creswell, in his recent review of the novel on the NYRBlog, reproduces the whole passage. From the mouth of Aaliya:

Had I not ordered some of these books, they would never have landed on Lebanese soil. For crying out loud, do you think anyone else in Lebanon has a copy of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood? And I am picking just one book off the top of my head. Lampedusa’s The Leopard? I don’t think anyone else in this country has a book by Novalis.

There are things about Lebanon that a character like Aaliya could grant a good nose-waggling. But…a lack of books? Although I like a literary snob as much as the next person, the passage did make me bristle. It seemed — as Creswell notes — as though it were written for a non-Lebanese audience. I immediately pictured Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber’s home, which is portrayed, above, in a short film produced for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Not that Jaber is the only Lebanese out there with books. Creswell:

In the late Fifties and Sixties, when Aaliya would have been in her mid-twenties, Beirut was home to the best literary magazines in Arabic, which were full of translated fiction and verse. Perhaps the most influential of these journals was Shi‘r (Poetry), a modernist quarterly modeled on Harriet Monroe’s little magazine of the same name. Between 1957 and 1964, Shi‘r published translations of Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Paul Valéry, Saint-John Perse, Antonin Artaud, Henri Michaux, Yves Bonnefoy, Federico García Lorca, Octavio Paz, Salvatore Quasimodo, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many others.

As Creswell also notes, Aaliya is portrayed as exceptionally cloistered, so she may not have known much of what was going on in pre-civil-war Beirut. But she did work in a bookstore, so Shi’r, at least, should have been on her radar. And as she ordered books for the store, she must’ve had some notion that pre-civil-war Beirut was the publishing hub of the entire region.

Another Lebanese author who writes in English about the Lebanese emigrant experience, Rawi Hage, portrays the pre-civil-war nation as a haven for writers. In an interview from a few years back:

 There was some kind of tent of experimentation, especially in Lebanon, in a certain period before the war.

I envy that era during the 1960s up to the civil war. There was some kind of revival and a very progressive community that formed in Lebanon, mostly around the AUB area around Ras Beirut. I hear from my uncles — one of them was a journalist and a novelist, and the other a novelist and a poet — and I hear their stories. And I think they attempt something.  It was the end of the nahda (“renaissance”). They formed movements, actually. I think they did.

It was very political. But I would be tempted to go back, and maybe gather a few texts to translate, but that’s it.

AL: Any particular author?

RH: I think there’s Elias al-Diri, who attempts something. And Youssef Habchi El-Achkar. I’m more interested in the era [as a whole] — it’s a romantic notion of mine.

There are beautiful moments in Alameddine’s most recent novel — moments when insanity, war, and loneliness intersect. Creswell mentions one of the most vivid, a scene where Aaliya barters sex with a former employee for a gun, and he ends up popping the blackheads on her back, which she seems to quite enjoy. Twisted, touching, and funny.

But even these moments seem completely outside the “Lebanese civil war novel” canon. Indeed, this seems to be part of the book’s conscious looking-away from the rich tradition of Lebanese civil war novels: by Elias Khoury, Jabbour Douaihy, Rabee Jaber, Hoda Barakat, Hanan al-Shaykh, Najwa Barakat, others. This novel stakes its own comico-romantic space — which sometimes works, as in a scene with middle-aged women wielding automatic weapons that is hard not to like — and sometimes seems oddly placed. In the end, the novel seems to comment not on Lebanon, but on an international “literary space” that, for the most part, could be anywhere.


  1. I haven’t read An Unnecessary Woman yet, however it is not fair to judge a writer by the flawed characters they write. A fictional character might be ignorant, snobbish, short sighted or idiotic but that doesn’t mean the author agrees with them.

    1. I believe that Robyn — Robyn, at least — and I are aware that characters can be flawed, and in the best books are indeed so. I for one am arguing that the character is unbelievable in this, which moves beyond snobbishness (and she is not really a snobbish character otherwise). It is a moment that jars not because she’s unlikeable, but because she feels unreal, disconnected from her setting.

      As Robyn states “In passages like this, Aaliya becomes a more problematic narrator than Alameddine seems to intend. ”

      There are problematic & unlikeable narrators, yes. But I don’t think she’s that at all. Indeed, she’s very likeable — feminist, maverick, bookish Aaliya against the world. Yet in a book pitched at an English-language audience (where there is no indication of a frame outside Aaliya / that any other character believes there might be readers in Beirut), her strange painting of Beirut as unbookish (and she’s someone who should know) stands on its own.

      1. I know three people in Vancouver who each state with absolute certainty: “I am the only person in all of Vancouver that understands flamenco”. Seems totally surreal and disconnected from reality. Those same people are intelligent and likable.

        1. I think these are very different phenomena — one personal, another inscribed in a character.

  2. I find it ironic that Robyn Creswell reproduces Aaliya’s flaw by initiating a dialogue with her (and maybe indirectly with the author) in which he tells her that he knows more about the literary scene in Beirut than she does. Marcia, you pointed out something important, which is the fact that Alameddine’s novel is written in English, and thus directed toward an anglophone audience. This audience, including Creswell, may not be well aware of some of the idiosyncrasies characterizing a great number of Lebanese. By emphasizing her literary snobbishness as a flaw, the humor that Alameddine captures in her is lost to the reader. A consequence of this flawed reading, an important part of her character does not reach the reader. Alameddine is extremely insightful in his depiction of his characters, and his humor might escape those who look in the wrong place in his texts.It is true that the text is written in English, but one(read: the anglophone reader) has to mentally transcend cultural (and other) boundaries to be able to enjoy it. If the reader insists on putting him/herself at the center of any text, a great deal of the pleasure is lost, and a lot of the meaning hidden in the folds of the text escapes this reader. And this is what I think has happened in Creswell’s reading.

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