Beirut Blues

al-Shaykh, Hanan. Beirut Blues. Translated by Catherine Cobham. New York: Anchor Book, 1995.

In the beginning, reading Beirut Blues seems like being dropped in the middle of a multi-person conversation without knowing who is involved or what they are talking about. There is a tedium to filling in the gaps as you are reading. With “Dear —” it is obvious from the beginning someone is writing a letter. It takes a little deduction to figure out who is writing the letter and who is her intended audience. There is a lot to fill in within the lines. But, throughout Asmahan’s letters there is passionate reverberation and a running commentary on her beloved Beirut before, during and after the civil war. Most of these letters will probably never reach their intended audience and that fact adds another layer of mystery to them. One of the saddest letters to read is the one Asmahan writes to her grandmother. She focuses on her grandfather’s emotional and physical relationship romance with a much younger girl. It becomes startling clear when Asmahan sees the girl’s bruises and pictures her grandfather leaving them on his young lover. It’s a rude awakening to a different culture. Other poignant letters include ones to the war and to the land of Beirut. But, my favorite part was the end, when Asmahan has to decide whether or not to leave war torn Beirut for France to be with her married lover. It’s a scene rife with indecision and torn loyalties.

Probably my biggest gripe about Beirut Blues is the sheer number of people mentioned in Asmahan’s letters. I have kept a running list of the names dropped: Afaf, Ali, Aida, Bassam, Fadila, Fatima, George, Hayat, Hussein, Hasoun, Isaf, Jill, Jummana, Juhayna, Jawad, Kazim, Karki, Lalya, Munir,  Morrell,  Mustafa, Musa, Naima, Naser, Nizar, Nikola, Nadine, Ricardo,  Simon, Salim, the Spaniard, Suma, Safiyya, Vera, Yvette, Zaynab, Zemzem, Zakiyya (not counting grandmother and grandfather) and I know I have missed a few. To my ignorant American ears these names are confusing. For all I know they are not only the proper names of people but of places as well.

Line I liked, “My appeal, even my normal liveliness, must have deserted me” (p 64). Here’s another: “I expected some burning emotion to be rekindled between us, but the kiss ended quickly and there was no aftermath” (p 72). And another: “…instead you sing the reality you live” (p 135). Last one, “Coming to this school, having new shoes and a mother in America, seemed to put a gleam on my mind as if I had polished it with almond oil” (p 170).

Reason read: August 15th is the official Lebanese holiday Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

Author fact: Another al-Shaykh book on my challenge list is Women of Sand and Myrrh. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Book trivia: This is a book that requires a little patience to read. There is no pulse pounding plot, nor dilemma a hero must solve before the last page.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Leavened in Lebanon” (p 130).

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