The place where you live in shapes you the most⏤it’s like where you grow up and witnessing what? Having said that, think of a post-war or post-colonized region, it shatters not just the landscape but its people, culture, language, minds and all the most their very existence into fragments. Ghada al Samman, in her Beirut ’75 (1974) translated by Nancy Roberts, presents such remains of the 1975 civil war of Beirut in Lebanon.
A taxi dashes to Beirut with five commuters leaving Damascus, each with different hopes and visions spinning in their heads. The city welcomes each for some sort of life-turning events. Five entries! Five lives! Five different endings!
Yasmeena enters the city longing for love, care and sexual freedom. Soon she’s showered with money and bodily pleasures by Nimr who’s from a family of political prominence. When Nimr’s father arranges for him a marriage of convenience, he soon turns out to be a perfect heir to his father’s political sadism. Before she could fully relish her dream life, she is struck by the stark reality: So why didn’t he marry her instead of someone else? Perhaps her social status and her unconventional relationship with him has compelled Nimr to see her as a whore and not a true lover. Shattered, she returns to her brother but something worse is waiting for her way!
Farah, a young man, enters Beirut to escape poverty and follow his passion for singing. Nishan, an influential man, introduces Farah’s talents to the world under an evil deal. The deal reminds him of the deal of Faust with the Satan in which he agreed to give his soul if the latter fulfills all his desires. Having fallen prey to the western-influenced depravity, he loses his masculinity, and the ensuing thoughts erode his mind. Farah ends up in an asylum for his mental illness.
Abu Mustafa, an impoverished fisherman returns from the moneylender from whom he has borrowed a huge sum. Not Knowing how to repay his debts alongside his heart ailment, he decides to stop his son from studying and train him to be a fisherman as well. He always dreams as one day the magic lamp would emerge from the sea and he’d rub it three times and a genie would rise up to say “Master! Master! Your wish is my command”. Indifferent to his usual self, one day, Abu Mustafa goes fishing using dynamite and before he could hear others’ cries of protests, he jumps into the sea clutching the diffused dynamite in his hand.
Abul Mulla, an honest old man, works at an archaeological site guarding and protecting many valuable historical artefacts. Poverty becomes his cruel fiend tempting him to steal one of the statues from the site. His guilt pushes him to the extent of talking to the statue, as if to a friend who listens discreetly to his overflowing thoughts. Resolutely, he plans and steals it to his hut to trade it. The statue lunges on Abul Mulla strangles and kills him⏤his son notices what looked like fingerprints on his neck.
Ta’aan escapes from a group of men determined to sever his head. Completing his university degree Ta’aan returns to Damascus with the least clue that his degree has earned him a knife to slit his throat. The flashback behind all this stuns him. Having escaped to Beirut, while walking on the road, he finds a man following him. Realising he’s one of his clan’s men, Ta’aan takes out his gun and shoots him. However, at last, he learns from the advocate that the man approached him to ask for directions but he had answered him with a bullet!”.
Ghada Al Samman presents not five stories, they’re five burning issues of the times. I couldn’t digest any of the five endings as each gave me heart-stabbing pain. Putting them in words was more challenging as every detail of the novel demands adding to the character’s intensity. Mostly, I loved those many explicit but simple symbols, like comparing Yasmeena’s pet turtle with that of her being and plight. Simple read but hefty feeling!
Ghada Al Samman
A Syrian writer, journalist, has written in many genres exposing anything and everything that represses Arab society, especially Arab women. Being controversial all her life, she started her own publishing house to ignore censorship and social conventions. Beirut Nightmares (1976) and The Eve of Billion (1986) are her other reflections on the Civil war. Also, many of her short story collections have stirred both the Arabic and the Western literature, my favourite being The Square Moon: Supernatural Tales (1994).
I’ve always wanted to put my reading experience into writing—venting out. With the fecund digital and social space, I’ve decided now the right time to plunge into my ambitious desire of getting to know as many women writers across the world, through their works, regardless of their geographic and ethnic existence. Yet, I’m against the idea of branding my blog as feminist as I choose to read on them purely for the writers’ purport and their ardent works.
I’d like you to be a part of my reading journey and get to know along with me the women writers who’ve been silently transfiguring their areas of interest.