If many contemporary middle-to-upper-class writers in the West tend to produce fiction characterized by an insular examination of their protagonists’ travails, with scant regard paid to the political forces that have shaped and continue to shape their lives and times, the same cannot be easily said of their contemporaries from Joumana Haddad’s part of the world.
The Book of Queens, the latest novel by the Lebanese writer probably best known to Western readers for two essay collections, I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman (2010) and its follow-up Superman Is an Arab: On God, Marriage, Macho Men and Other Disastrous Inventions (2012), is a case in point. The Book of Queens includes within its scope the Armenian genocide, the Palestinian Nakba, the Lebanese Civil War, Lebanon’s intifada against Syrian “tutelage” – as it is termed in Arabic – and Syria’s (unrelated) descent into civil war.
Haddad has gone to the other extreme; in reading The Book of Queens, one can’t help feeling that the author’s abiding concern is to pack her story with a century’s worth of Levantine cataclysms. This impinges on character development, all the more so given the emphasis on the protagonists’ reactions – however defiant – to such events. The women of The Book of Queens are never bereft of agency, but too often, it is depicted as pushback against an existential threat. Greater variety in the challenges assailing them, and even a larger dose of mundanity, would have done nicely.
Despite all this, the convergence of the novel’s protagonists and historical paroxysms of violence is explosive and often makes storytelling both suspenseful and emotionally affecting. That all the protagonists are female enhances these qualities because in this story, as in life, when people are caught up in war or oppressed due to their national/ ethnic/ religious identity, the women and girls among them endure the same outrages as their male counterparts – and then some.
But they fight back. And Haddad, long known for her feminism, is keen to demonstrate the suffering, stoicism, and resistance of Qayah, Qana, Qadar, and Qamar.
Qayah’s tale, which opens The Book of Queens, some of whose five parts span decades, is arguably the most engrossing of the lot. During the First World War, the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire, embroiled in that bloody conflict and mistrustful of its Armenian minority in whose midst nationalism and separatism are growing, subjects the ethnic group to genocide. The consequences for little Qayah’s family, Armenians who live in the town of Aintab (modern-day Gaziantep, Turkey), are devastating. As Qayah’s mother, a seamstress by trade named Marine, movingly realizes, “Memories are like morgues: Endless rows of drawers that we sometimes reopen to check up on our dead.”
From the beginning, Haddad’s narrative is characterized in part by authorial interjection. This assumes the form of often needless exposition and somewhat portentous observations on the nature of humankind and our struggles, as with “Life requires the skill of tirelessly beginning ourselves again. Love, too.” Part II adds a momentarily disorienting element to the mix in that Haddad skips over the story of Qayah’s daughter Qana and plunges into that of the latter’s daughter, Qadar.
Nevertheless, Part II, which straddles Lebanon and Syria, includes more than a few memorable features, among them the funniest scene in a book that does not lack humor. When Qadar is proposed to by Fouad, a Beirut-based dentist from Syria, she is undergoing a procedure at his clinic.
She was eager to leave her parents’ house, so she immediately said yes. She didn’t actually say the word. She couldn’t, with her mouth wide open and her tongue completely numb from the heavy anesthesia. She rather squeezed her eyelids and that was it.– The Book of Queens
Part III revolves around Qana (Qadar’s mother). By now, the reader will have grown accustomed to Haddad’s jumping one generation forward or back. The problem is that Qana’s section, which is set in Lebanon – mostly during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s – proves rather anemic, what with the author conveying the tragedies of the character’s life in too rushed a fashion and generally without showing her grappling with them. Yet, in highlighting how Qana, daughter of Qayah, is “a refugee and a descendent of serial refugees”, Part III admittedly lays out an important commonality, besides family ties, between the novel’s four protagonists.
The two final sections in The Book of Queens are set in Gaziantep; Part IV homes in on Qamar, while in Part V, her mother, Qadar, who is alarmed by her daughter’s life choices, takes center stage again. Together, these twin entries bring the story full circle in more ways than one but are short and choppy. Indeed, Part V concludes the novel far too abruptly.
The Book of Queens, which Haddad wrote in English, one of several languages she knows besides her native Arabic, is published by Interlink (full disclosure: Interlink published my novel three years ago). It has followed an interesting path to publication. The book first appeared in Arabic and French translations (the Arabic edition is titled The Seamstress’ Daughter). This, the original version, includes occasional linguistic infelicities and several poetic formulations.
The Book of Queens would have worked better as a collection of short stories. For one thing, Haddad would almost certainly have felt a more pressing need to round out each character’s saga so that it is not merely an episode in a larger narrative about the vicissitudes of ethnonational or sectarian politics in her part of the world. This might well have facilitated the crafting of tales marked by, but not subordinated to, the intrusion of tragedy.
Be that as it may, The Book of Queens remains laudable and often a poignant channeling of several violent and disruptive historical events into the trajectory of a single Armenian-Arab family. It is a family in which each generation produces at least one headstrong girl-cum-woman, the kind who tries valiantly to lodge a splint in the maw of this genocide or that Nakba or the other civil war intent on devouring her and her loved ones.