Books

A World I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman by Wadad Makdisi Cortas

Wadad Makdisi Cortas understated but deeply nostalgic memoir of her childhood in Lebanon gives a revealing, appealing, and necessary glimpse into the Arab world of the past.


A World I Loved

Publisher: Nation Books
Length: 256 pages
Author: Wadad Makdisi Cortas
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2009-05
Amazon

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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