[24 August 2009]
After 30 years, Wadad Makdisi Cortas’ memoir, A World I Loved, has finally been published in English, as she always hoped it would be. The timing could not be more auspicious, as it has coincided not only with the recent crisis in Iran but with the beginning of a paradigm shift on Middle Eastern issues that was set in motion by Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States. Worldwide, the “Palestinian Question” has become more of a pressing issue in recent years, and fondly but firmly, Cortas gives a picture of the Arab world that presents facts and accounts that have long been buried, or were never heard.
The book’s message is so easily delivered because it is more in the genre of Little House on The Prairie than anything political. Cortas grew up in Lebanon and is more inclined to weave an eclectic tapestry detailing her childhood, family life, and experiences as principal of a girl’s school than even explain the nature of political or social conflict.
Cortas notes the shifting boundaries of the Middle East with clarity, but also through the eye of a poet, writer, and child. Early in the book, she recalls collecting herb specimens in schools but having trouble labeling their areas of origin because the borders of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were so in flux. She writes, “Even nature was victim to artificial frontiers.” In fact, her determination to focus more on flowers and everyday activities brings softness to her account of war.
But she does have her hardened opinions, and does not shirk away from tragedy and conflict. There is no question that the second half of the book is unapologetically anti-Israel. Still, perhaps one of the most interesting things about Cortas’ story is that she is both an insider and an outsider. She did not personally leave her home, but she sheds light on how the Palestinian expulsion from Israel affected the rest of the Arab world. In particular, she draws a correlation between the powerlessness felt by the youth at the time to reactive and hostile attitudes towards the west that evolved.
As the headmistress of the Ahliah School for Girls in Lebanon, she was able to stay particularly current with minds and attitudes of young people, the people who constitute the older generation of our present day. She tracks a shift in attitude as the complications in the Middle East grew steeper. She tells the story of how she had to cancel an American speaker scheduled to visit the schools because anti-American sentiment had been so exacerbated by the conflict. She noted that the speaker was capable and accomplished but she could not convince her students to listen to him.
Cortas, although she clearly has an opinion, is utterly fair in her retelling, writing as though she is truly just relaying facts. Of course, we are obligated to rely solely on her memory, but her message is so simplistic and personal it is hard to challenge: she makes no promise other than to utilize her own memory.
However, as the dominant tone of the book is one of extreme sentimentality, and details about her own life are scattered and self-indulgent, more of a casual reminiscence than narrative that engages the reader.
The book is by no means a page-turner. Cortas interrupts herself to quote lines from favorite poems that often feel unexplained or misplaced. The translation fails to capture any eloquence that might have existed in the original text: the language often feels abrupt, simple, and arbitrary. Perhaps for that reason, the book also lacks transitions between chapters, and even within a single page.
But sometimes, the lack of fluidity reveals important information about what Cortas’ experience was like. War was clearly a major part of her life, and sometimes she quickly shifts from talking about the cakes her mother-in-law baked to discussing a political conflict. Her determination to be positive is the only editorializing that goes on in a memoir that is largely factual. There seems to be no drama or inner conflict in the life of the writer; her psyche and immediate surroundings are almost uncannily serene. Because as a school principal she often aimed to stay neutral, even her reactions to the political situation are not very strong.
It is difficult to feel any strong identification with Cortas, perhaps again due to a translation that fails to carry any momentum. While the book mirrors her day-to-day existence, it frequently lacks strength as a piece of writing. In some cases, the nonchalance of the narrative and sentence structure helps: it makes the severity of the situations she describes far more palatable to the modern reader. That said, Cortas’ text is unquestionably important, and even the flaws in the work lend themselves to a gentle exploration of the Arab world that is irrefutably necessary for citizens of all nations.