Renaissance in Four Voices: Four Women Writers Celebrated in Beirut

On the seventh of July, PEN Lebanon will celebrate four women writers: Rasha al-Ameer, Elfriede Jelinek, Leila Baalbaki, and Ingeborg Bachmann:

8e85b6ee-aa67-4fdb-889f-633e046da3abOf these four women writers, one hasn’t had a book translated into English, despite her prominence in Arabic: Leila Baalbaki.

You can read Rasha al-Ameer’s Judgment Day in very strong translation by Jonathan Wright. Work by Nobel Prize-winning Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek is, of course, available in English, as is poetry by fellow Austrian Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973).

Indeed, the head of PEN Lebanon, Iman Humaydan, posted on Facebook that it was “astonishing for me to discover that Laila Baalbaki’s work has not been translated into English yet.” Humaydan said she’d been searching for an English translation of Baalbaki’s Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon when she discovered the absence.

Humaydan noted that Spaceship was banned, “sent to trial in Lebanon during the 1960s. … Baalbaki’s words and freedom of spirit triggered a wide reaction started from Egypt and reached Lebanon….”

Baalbaki was born in Beirut in 1936. AUB Professor Roseanne Khalaf said, in an interview with NOW Lebanon, that she thought “what made Leila Baalbaki, in particular, interesting is because for the first time, it wasn’t women trying to imitate men. They sort of found their own voice.”

Baalbaki’s debut novel, I Livewas also banned in Lebanon, yet made the list of the “top 105 novels of the 20th century,” assembled by the Arab Writers Union. It has been translated into French and German, but is not available in English.

But it is an excerpt of Baalbaki’s Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon that will be read, in Maia Tabet’s excellent new translation, on Thursday evening. Tabet and Humaydan have given permission to run an excerpt of an excerpt here.

He drew his arms off my chest (it was 9 o’clock in the morning now) and my eyelids fluttered open. He was lying on his face and stroking my cheek all the way up to my ear, his hair, which covered the entire surface of the pillow, in my eyes. Soft against my neck, his breath irritated the remnants of summer sunburns on my shoulder that would be there until next summer. As it dissipated, the touch of his breath burrowed under the cotton sheet and burst forth from the blue vein of his foot lying over mine.

(No, no. He is dead!)

Mumbling into the pillow, he asked why my foot had moved away from under his.  He stretched out his arms, feeling for the edge of the covers. From my thigh, his hand slithered down to my foot, and I squeezed it tight between my legs. After drawing its contours, he enveloped my foot in his hand, breath boiling.

(No, no. He is dead!)

He shifted about, lifted his head tepidly, and pitched it inside my neck, whispering that I was his feral cat, roaming city streets leading to the sea, wandering in the rain through the mud and the biting cold, and coming back to him at night wet, hungry, and in search of warmth. So why couldn’t I calm down, you know, calm down a little, just calm down. His breath meanders through his contented body, lying like a child sleeping by an open window and counting the stars, one after the other, without adding them lest a wart grow on his hand, and remembering the story he heard before going to sleep—that angels, carrying little ones on their blue wings, fly off to heaven with them, piercing the clouds, cracking open the sky, and landing on a tree. The naked body next to me quivers.

(No, no. He is dead!)

For the rest of the excerpt, and work by the other three writers, be at the Monnot Theatre in Beirut on Thursday, July 7, at 8:30 p.m.

And, if you are in Marseilles on July 8, don’t miss an Alifbata event on “Youth, Sexuality, and Poetry” featuring comix artists Lena Merhej and Barrack Rima (Lebanon), Mai Koraiem (Egypt), Noha Habaieb (Tunisia) and Zineb Benjelloun (Morocco).