From Beirut to Oklahoma: Lebanese-American Novel Blends Poetry, Medicine

By Judith Gabriel

The Mighty Weight of Love
By Hanna Saadah
Almualif Publishing, 2005

Hanna Saadah intended to return to Lebanon. After studying  medicine at the American University of Beirut he went to Oklahoma in 1971 for post-graduate work. But by the time he finished his residency, Lebanon was still embroiled in civil war. Saadah stayed on, raising a family and conducting his medical practice in Oklahoma City.

He was there in 1995 when the downtown Federal Building was car-bombed, resulting in 169 deaths. It became a key element in his first novel, “The Mighty Weight of Love,” in which his adopted homeland provides the setting for a fictional account that blends his medical knowledge as well as his love of poetry.

Throughout his medical career, Saadah wrote poetry, resulting in the publication of four books,  “Loves and Lamentations of a Life Watcher,” “Vast Awakenings,” “Familiar Faces,” and “Four and a Half Billion Years.”

And his novel, “The Mighty Weight of Love” is indeed, an effort to combine the healing arts and poetry into what might be called a medical mystery, told through the eyes of the fictional  Salem Hawi, who, like the author, hails from Lebanon, and writes copious poetry. And they are both doctors:  Medical details fill out character descriptions and figure prominently in back stories and plot twists. The unfolding of the book’s intriguing drama utilizes forensic medicine puzzle solving. Clearly, this is the work of a physician, who weaves the lore of his field into a poignant plot.

It is also the work of a poet. The author’s fictional counterpart, Dr. Hawi, lives and breathes poetry, reciting his “own” verses to express the ineffable at frequent intervals in the unfolding of the love story-mystery.  Poetry becomes a virtual character in the story, often serving to express the more sublime interior landscape of the characters. Saadah seems to have anticipated any future (and warranted) criticism about the overuse of such poetic devices, as in his introduction, he writes: “When one of my fellow writers complained that it had too much poetry, I demurred with, ‘I wish it had more.’” 

Indeed, the writer sees the entire work as a virtual poem. In describing how the story “descended” upon him, he notes that “It was a fervent poem that echoed out of my subconscious, a poem I was unable to hear until I penned. Consequently, my poetry strums throughout the entire work animating it with blithe spiritual tunes.”

Certainly, the work is animated with a warm and  noble spirit, and one instantly warms to the voice of the narrator. It is the voice of a man who loves life with many passions, and who yet seeks to walk a moral path. It is a voice filled with feeling. In his introduction, Saadah notes that “As a novel, it violates all the vernacular rules of storytelling and rests, in its entirety, in the lush spiritual bosom of feelings.”

In the unfolding of the plot, the fictional Salem Hawi, a Lebanese-American doctor whose wife had died three years earlier, begins dating a  woman who has a daughter, the result of having been raped when she was a teen-ager. The daughter had never been told about her father, and now that she is turning 16, she is confronted with the truth. Like a white-frocked detective, Salem uses medical clues to locate the perpetrator.  The unmasking leads to new complications, and resolutions, in the twists and turns of this medical, poetic maze.

The maze takes a tragic detour as it is superimposed on the real life catastrophe when, on April 19,1995, a car bomb exploded in downtown Oklahoma City, bringing down the Federal Building, and resulting in 169 deaths. In the fictional narrative track Saadah has laid out, the author is reminded of the violence he thought he had left behind in Lebanon: “Salem drove cautiously amidst the rubble, his heart pounding with awe at scenes he never dreamt of seeing in peaceful Oklahoma. In Beirut, during the civil war, this was a common sight; but here, in the vast serene expanse of friendly sun and smiling seasons, it seemed incomprehensible.”

The resolution of the novel shows the human spirit of his fellow Oklahomans in the aftermath of the bombing, inspiring former Oklahoma City mayor, Kirk Humphreys, to note that Saadah had “captured our collective sense of loss, unbelief and irreversible tragedy as we dealt with the chaos of that horrific day.” 

“The Mighty Weight of Love” is a book of hope, however, in which the human spirit rises from the ruins, again and again, in Oklahoma, and in Beirut.   

- Judith Gabriel

This review appears in Al Jadid ,Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid