‘Oh Salaam!’: Is Change Possible in Post-war Beirut?

An ArabLit review of Najwa Barakat’s Oh, Salaam! is now up at Full Stop: 

Interlink World Fiction cover templateFor many of us, war doesn’t affect daily life — or, at least, skimming over how the war machine shifts global dynamics, it doesn’t seem to. Even so, it makes up a large part of the world’s daily news: who is advancing, who retreating, and how ordinary people continue to cope. We grant the moment of “war” a special status. Just so, novels, memoirs, and poems where war is foregrounded occupy a large place in literary canons.

What gets lost, sometimes, is the time after a conflict. Once the “peace” begins, what happens to those who’ve adapted themselves to a long and brutalizing war? Najwa Barakat’s Oh, Salaam!, written in the fragile peace that followed Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, asks this question. The book, newly translated by Luke Leafgren, is not a large, serious Post-War Novel, as you could call Elias Khoury’s Yalo. Instead, it’s a fast-paced, novella-length work, reminiscent of Muriel Spark’s Driver’s Seat, both for its black humor and for the way its characters slide precipitously into danger.

Oh, Salaam! centers on a handful of characters. Three of them fought together in the civil war: a former bomb-maker (Luqman), a former sniper (Najeeb), and a former torturer (the Albino). Although the Albino is dead, the book follows his fiancée and two other family members driven crazy by war. Later on, this small group is joined by a privileged young Lebanese woman who’s briefly returned to post-war Beirut.

The book says little about which “side” of the war any of the characters were on. During the 1975-1990 war, Beirut was broadly divided into East (Christian) and West (Muslim). But the reality was much more complicated, with many competing factions and shifting alliances. In Oh, Salaam!, the main characters’ allegiance is never named, and they refer to themselves only as members of “the gang.” The English word “gang” has useful connotations: Luqman’s motivations for fighting were personal enrichment and a protective sense of belonging.

We do know that the Albino was Christian. There is a giant portrait of his patron saint, Elias, in his mother’s apartment. Also, before the Albino tortured his victims to death, he “baptized” them. But this says less about his sect and more about how belief systems are frightening flexible during war, a theme also pursued in Elias Khoury’s great post-war novel, Yalo.

Although each of the characters has their moment, it’s Luqman — the former bomb maker — who forms the heart of the book. Indeed, the novel could also be titled Saving Luqman, which makes it a sometimes-uncomfortable read, as we don’t really want this killer and torturer to be saved. Keep reading on Full Stop.

Listicles that feature Oh, Salaam!

Three Great Arab Novels About Rats and Their Extermination

15 Great Books: How Civil War (Re)-shaped the Lebanese Novel

50 Great Lebanese Novels and a 5-Book Starter Kit 

Collections in which you can find Barakat’s work (in translation):

Beirut Noired. Iman Humaydan

Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthologyed. Christopher Tingley and Salma Khadra Jayyusi

Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Womened. Roseanne Saad Khalaf

Excerpts of Barakat’s work online:

“The Bus,” also trans. Leafgren