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Ghada Samman’s ‘The Night of the First Billion’
By Pauline Homsi Vinson
The Night of the First Billion
By Ghada Samman
Trans. Nancy N. Roberts
Syracuse University Press, 2005.
The third installment of Ghada Samman’s novelistic reflections on the Lebanese civil war is now available in English. Published by Syracuse University Press and translated by Nancy Roberts, “The Night of the First Billion” follows “Beirut ’75" and “Beirut Nightmares” in its exploration of the conditions that fueled the Lebanese civil war. Like its predecessors, “The Night of the First Billion” offers a scathing critique of Lebanese society. This time, however, the action is set largely outside of Lebanon, among Lebanese expatriates in Geneva.
The novel opens with a series of magical incantations, which set the tone for the hallucinatory and disorienting atmosphere that characterizes the life of the main character, Khalil. We encounter Khalil in the first chapter and watch him flee from the nightmarish world of Beirut at the height of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, only to fall victim to the exploitative manipulations of unscrupulous Lebanese abroad. Khalil’s return to Beirut in the final chapter provides a structural frame for the novel and suggests that there might still be hope for the Lebanese even among the wreckage of war.
As in her other works, Samman skillfully weaves together several different literary styles into one text. Elements of satire give way to magic realism, which gives way to a murder mystery in a literary mélange that addresses basic questions of social justice and human dignity.
“The Night of the First Billion” is an important contribution by an accomplished Arab literary figure. Roberts’ translation offers a fluid reading of Samman’s Arabic original. This book makes a fine addition to the growing body of Arabic literature now available in translation.
This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no.52, (Summer 2004)