Miriam Cooke, War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (Syracuse University Press, 1996).
May Ghousoub, Leaving Beirut (London: Saqi Books, 1998).
Emily Nasrallah, Flight Against Time (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997).
Mai Ghousoub’s mind must have been busy in Beirut, as she sat in dark corridors of other people’s homes, listening to the thud of mortars shaking the night, trying to attach meaning to the chaos and serendipity that became life in Lebanon under civil war.
Ghousoub examines the propelling forces of war from the distance of exile and reminiscence. She has written down some of the most troubling of these arresting thoughts in her fictional memoir, Leaving Beirut, in which she ponders questions which have forever transformed her reading of reality. It is an awakening that many political exiles and refugees share: “I had to move into a brand new setting, come to foreign lands and hear a different language before I could realize how terrible and absurd this whole thing had been.” She compares herself to those who willingly participate in war, and who are seldom struck by its absurdity. Like lovers moving in a closed circle, they are acting out emotion and unable to view themselves outside their distorted reality.
Subtitled “Women and the Wars Within,” Ghousoub’s novel examines women and their reaction to war and war’s reaction to them, embittering some and empowering others, as they escape or join, forgive or destroy, the social forces that oppress them. But she also looks at women outside of war, such as Leila’s grandmother whose sole reason for living was to mete out misery to her disloyal husband. And she gazes not unsympathetically at men in their relation to war. She shows the complexity and the tension between injustice and war as a prescription for social justice, and exposes the little conflicts and smaller scale injustices that war submerges or uses as fuel.
Ghousoub’s literary device is a sheaf of letters, unmailed, that she writes to her French teacher, Mrs. Nomy. While not consistently used, the device attempts to give some connectedness to the work. Unfortunately, the thoughts, some of them extended into full essays, remain a disjointed treatment of the themes of war, forgiveness, justice and, above all, survival.
The background presence of Mrs. Nomy is, however, comforting, reassuring the reader of the goodness of the critical mind, and the endurance of the kind of quiet, individual heroism that occurs when people’s minds fail to conform to the evil prevailing in their society. “She was trying to help us to understand people’s complex reactions to survival, and the difficulties of salvaging kindness in the harsh reality of the Middle East where people both live and condemn each other to exile. She had chosen the way of forgiveness.”
But while her theme is forgiveness, Ghousoub is also not wholly convinced that it will work, or that virtue is unquestioningly on the side of the victim. The line between good and bad is definitely a hazy one. Didn’t fanaticism make that obvious? It is a dilemma of modern societies, says Ghousoub, that relationships are reduced to a simple mentality of praise and blame. This “lack of nuance” is a hallmark of times of turmoil when people need easy answers to excuse horror they regard as necessary. Those who see the nuance and cannot take sides, and who have connections to the “outside,” as well as money and opportunity, flee the scene but are troubled forever. Those who stay for the end of war and the inevitable reconstruction have a choice between understanding and reparation or vengeance and retaliation.
Ghousoub has an interesting historical perspective at the end of her book, intertwining acts of cowardice and feats of heroism and pointing out the difficulties in distinguishing between the two, in wartime and postwar France and Germany. There is a single photograph in Leaving Beirut: a street scene in Chartres after liberation depicts a crowd running behind a fleeing young woman, her head shaved in disgrace, cradling her baby. The photo depicts emotional illusion, tricking the viewer into alternately identifying with the humiliated but vulnerable young mother, and then with the crowd for exposing a traitor.
Ghousoub sees how many victims metamorphize too easily into victimizers. She finds a singular example in Mandela whom she admires as someone who throws himself into the future; the humiliations he suffered made him hate the act of humiliation.
Miriam Cooke, a professor of Arabic literature, offers the view that women writers like Mai Ghousoub who shared staying in Beirut and experiencing its painful decline into war can be contrasted to men writers by what she calls their de-centered perspective. Her analysis, War’s Other Voices, includes Emily Nasrallah in the group of Beirut Decentrists, and could have just as easily included Mai Ghousoub.
These women divide their world into those who left and those who stayed, a division somehow indicative of patriotism. To leave Beirut, to turn one’s back on Lebanon, is considered by these writers to be initially an abdication of responsibility that deepens into a loss of identity, as it has for many emigrants. To stay was an affirmation of being Lebanese.
In Flight Against Time, Emily Nasrallah deals with the war as it touches a family dispersed across two continents. At the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, village life, especially in the placid south, was undisturbed. “The situation” was changing in the city, in Beirut, as if it were a byproduct of modern urban life. But gradually the war bled out to every corner of the land, soaking the lives of all Lebanese, even those in the mahjar (emigrants). Emily Nasrallah traces the flight against time and back of septuagenarian Radwan, “Abu Nadeem,” who together with his wife of 50 years travels from Jurat al-Sindyan to Canada for his first visit to his children and grandchildren. He does not know that his children have been worriedly monitoring the situation and have orchestrated his escape. The separation, however, becomes a move against his heart.
Nasrallah writes (and Issa Boullata translates) sensitively, with great attention to cultural details and the contrasts of then and now, there and here, east and west, inside and outside, of which every emigrant is poignantly conscious. As he makes his way to the cold reaches of Canada’s north, Radwan is full of thoughts of his life that are tied inextricably to Jurat al-Sindyan. He searches for the continuation of family but instead finds dislocation in another land. While his wife finds her identity within her family, he discovers that his sense of roots, as powerful an emotion as love, demands that he must return to his village. Emotion defines identity and determines individual destiny.
Radwan determinedly goes back, not unhappy with the idea that his fate will be uncertain and difficult. The fact that he is tortured and killed one month after his return by nameless and faceless assailants is not seen by Nasrallah as a defeat. Flight Against Time is a love song to emigrant families that are forever torn by conflicting emotions pitting past against future as well as the fear of lost identity and the dream of return. The discussion is sharpened by the context of war, but a similar dilemma exists in a non-war situation as well.
The Lebanon war presented residents with a choice. It is the element of choice — the leaving or the staying — and the implications of having that choice and making that decision, which these writers address, ultimately putting the responsibility for the future on the shoulders of those sharing the present.