Towering Lebanese Writer Layla Baalbaki Dies in London at 87

Lebanese novelist and short-story writer Layla Baalbaki (1934-2023), whose debut novel and only short-story collection vaulted her into the company of the best Arab writers of the twentieth century, died yesterday in London.

As Zeina Halabi wrote on Twitter, announcing her passing, “When the Arab existentialists were beginning to translate Sartre and to understand the convergence of existentialism and political commitment, Laila Baalbaki was writing the feminist existentialist novel I Live (1958). She was the first writer in Lebanon to be tried on charges of outraging public modesty in 1963, after which she retired from writing and migrated to London.”

Baalbaki’s I Live, voted as one of the 100 best Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union, was her first, published when she was just 22 years old. I Live was followed by the fierce الإلهة الممسوخة (The Deformed Gods) and the brilliant short-story collection سفينة حنان إلى القمر (Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon), published in 1963.

According to An-Nahar, she began writing at the age of fourteen, then worked as an employee in the Lebanese Parliament between 1957 and 1959, the period when she published I Live. Afterwards, she lived briefly in Paris. Throughout the early sixties, she published what Maru Pabón has called “poetic articles.” Her work evoked both admiration and outrage, which peaked with the publication of Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon (1963). The collection was banned as “pornographic” and Baalbaki was charged with outraging public modesty, leading to the first trial of its kind in Lebanon. A New York Times article published after the trial, in September 1964, described her as “the Françoise Sagan of Arabic letters.”

According to the Times, a critic had whinged about her work: “There are 10 kisses on each page, and 10 hugs and several hysterical quivers.”

Although Baalbaki was acquitted, the experience led her to migrate to the UK and to stop writing fiction.

Baalbaki’s I Live remains in popular circulation. It has unfortunately not yet been translated to English, although her story “The Cat” appeared in the CATS issue of ArabLit Quarterly, translated by Tom Abi Samra, maia tabet translated an excerpt from “Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon,” and Maru Pabón translated several of Baalbaki’s articles for the Winter 2023 issue of Kohl magazine.