Bas in Beirut
By Iman Humaydan Younes
(Translated by Max Weiss)
Interlink Books, 2007
In the tradition of Balzac’s “Pere Goriot,” urban-apartment novels have become the fashionable genre of social realism voicing collective discontent for the Arab world. Iman Humaydan Younes’ “B as in Beirut” focuses on four unforgettable yet abandoned women enduring the war in the same apartment building. In contrast to the traditional trope of war-torn Beirut as the captivating whore or the raped, wide-eyed young woman, Younes’ heroines are the neglected wives, the forsaken mothers and daughters who cast a harsh indictment on the militias, regardless of their affiliations.
The first narrator, Lilian, a Christian woman married to a Muslim, recalls their happier marital moments before her husband, a writer, had lost his hand. Ironically, Lilian recounts their story while preparing her and her children’s emigration, an emigration that will leave her husband behind. As more than one veteran can attest to, the effects of war seep into their bedroom and their most intimate moments have also become their loneliest.
Warda, the second narrator, separated from her young daughter, suffers from a debilitating depression. In an original narrative of reformulated Christian imagery, Warda’s depression begins when her father is killed during an explosion; ultimately, the shattered glass of the family’s icon of the Virgin causes his death. In a final act, the dyed-blonde Warda, referred to as “Miss Crazy Hair,” attempts to walk on water towards a mirage of her fair daughter. Camilia, filled with a youthful yearning for life as the youngest tenant, responds to the war with promiscuity prior to escaping to England. Her series of lovers reflects the cruel cynicism of war. Camilia returns to Beirut as part of a documentary team.
Finally, Maha, a Druze woman widowed before she had a chance to marry her betrothed, unfolds her story. She mourns her lover Ghassan, who died twice: “once when he lost his life, and once when he couldn’t give his death the meaning he so desired.” Riven from her own history, she travels to the green lawns of America to re-read her own letters, in a search to find her own memories. Like Camilia, Maha eventually returns to an irrevocably lost home, and before the war’s end, both Camilia and Maha discover their own complicity in the fighting. In this engaging narrative, the “B as in Beirut” phonetically toys with the language and geography of the setting, accompanied by a female chorus of “bas” – enough sorrow – in Beirut.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63
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