Instead of working towards a promotion, they are working to save their own lives. Instead of learning the ins and outs of high fashion culture, they are learning to make Molotov cocktails. Instead of New Year’s Eve fireworks, they hear the sound of distant bombing. For the women of B as in Beirut, living on the edge is not a choice.
Author Iman Humaydan Younes takes readers through an emotionally-draining tour of Beirut in this four-part narrative. A short-story writer and journalist from Lebanon, Younes has the knowledge of experience and the open-mindedness of a first-time novelist. (Not for long—Younes’ second novel, Wild Mulberries, is due for publication very soon.)
First published in 1997 in Arabic, B as in Beirut has since been translated into three other languages. Younes exposes this whole new readership to the raw, unfiltered version of life in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). What had started out as a Palestinian-Lebanese conflict eventually gave way to major sectarian violence between Lebanese Christians, Muslims, and Syrians, dividing Lebanon into three areas. By 1984, Beirut alone had experienced massacres, suicide attacks, assassinations, and bombings.
Younes gives very little of this background information in her novel, allowing the bombings to speak for themselves. Her matter-of-factness about war-torn Beirut is so great that it is almost impossible not to see her deliberate avoidance of its major details, focusing instead on the little aspects of the war that influence everyday life. In the last section, Maha describes the persistence of human behavior in the midst of her ravaged neighborhood:
“War here, war there: the war here seemed more familiar, as though people had grown accustomed to it and no longer bothered to run from it. People hung their clothes up to dry from their living room balconies … clean colorful clothes flapped in the breeze as the wind spattered water droplets onto the balconies below, onto the streets covered with sand from the checkpoints that had been set up at both ends.”
Though Maha speaks in a flat voice here, it by no means indicates a lack of emotion. Younes’ characters do not simply accept the fact of war and its consequences without protestation or anger. Each woman has experienced a loss, and whether it was her lover, her family, or herself, Younes takes us through their grievances step-by-step.
The novel begins with the voice of Lilian, a nervous mother whose desperate desire to leave Beirut dictates her every move. She lives out of pre-packed suitcases for herself and her children, constantly reminding her husband of her intent to emigrate to Australia. Younes is monotone here, using disjointed sentences to convey Lilian’s absolute, overwhelmed-to-the-point-of-unemotion way of thinking.
“I was exhausted,” Lilian says. “I looked back. I sat down on the sidewalk among people who were terrified of slowing down even for a moment. I pressed on until I finally made it all the way across. There were parked cars.”
The staccato rhythm of Lilian’s voice pounds out details like a drum. Actions are quick and thoughts are simple, especially when Lilian discusses her painful past. Though the language is a little too percussive at times, Younes uses this to her advantage by attributing Lilian’s curt speech to her psychological condition. Lilian’s unstable, distressed state colors what would otherwise be a repetitive, monotonous voice by adding psychology into the mix. The strategy is certainly convincing; after page 20, I was nearly too distressed myself to continue reading. Sympathy, it seems, is one of Younes’ strong points.
B as in Beirut comes into its own about halfway through the novel. However, Lilian and Warda, whose voice commands the second section, are the two most emotionally unstable characters, and it is sometimes unclear as to whether Younes or the novel itself was in control of their voices. Perhaps it was the result of her characters being so lifelike—their personalities overwhelmed the chapters, obscuring some plot details and leaving others partially unexplained. Warda, for instance, is so psychologically disturbed that the world in which she lives is disturbed in the same way; the Beirut in her mind is not the Beirut found in other chapters. Were it not for the connection between the four women, it would be difficult to ascertain a great many details simply from Warda’s warped interpretation.
Younes purposefully plants this theme of distortion within each of the four narratives. Between Lilian, Warda, Camilia, and Maha, who is to say what is Beirut and what is not? Their experiences are all unique, yet contain the same shred of tradition that somehow keeps them within city limits. Camilia, narrator of the third section, manages to establish a life for herself in London, but is inexplicably drawn back to Lebanon. Maha refuses to leave her apartment building, even under the threat of constant shelling. Even Lilian, who is the only one to actually leave Beirut for good, remains tied to and haunted by its memory.
Unable to disconnect themselves from a familiar, if distressing, environment, these four women painfully embrace the city that is at once their prison and their home. Younes raises the question: are we powerless to the pull of our past? To say yes would be to trap these women in a stereotype of weakness. As one reaches the end of the novel, it becomes clear that perhaps a connection to the past is the only route to the future.