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Ghada Samman's 'Beirut '75' Unmasks Gender and Class in Post-Colonial Society
By Kim Jensen
By Ghadda Samman,
Translated from the Arabic by Nancy N. Roberts.
Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
Ghadda Samman's novel "Beirut '75," translated by Nancy N. Roberts, is a short, yet harrowing exposé of the political reality of Beirut at the outset of the civil war. This frighteningly raw novel, which traces the lives of five strangers, lays bare the deep social divisions which led to one of the most dismal periods in modern Arab history.
With a storyline reminiscent of such Western works as Balzac's "Lost Illusions" or Flaubert's "A Sentimental Education," "Beirut '75" describes the unveiling process whereby "the glittering city" is revealed to be nothing more than an alienating prison. In this case, Beirut replaces Paris as the city of madness and death. But here Beirut, unlike Paris, is the site of post-colonial dismemberment -- a city torn asunder by class rivalries and outdated allegiances (ironically, to Paris). This political and cultural "dismemberment" is incarnated in the book in haunting ways -- all too prescient of the butchery that became prevalent during the war.
At the book's opening, the two main characters from Damascus--a young woman, Yasmeena, and a young man, Farah, set out to seek fame and fortune in the city of their dreams: Beirut. The name alone causes these poor unknowns to shiver with excitement at the promise of freedom and secular pleasures. But these pleasures, Samman graphically illustrates, are false lures in a city which has adopted only the trappings of modernization, but which is still riven by blood feuds, class exploitation, and an unyielding patriarchy.
Yasmeena, the central figure in the novel, yearns for love and sexual freedom. She soon finds them in Beirut with a wealthy young lover, Nimr, who showers her with money and bodily delight. But her moment of ecstasy is short-lived. Nimr's powerful father has arranged for him a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a wealthy ally. In the savage conclusion of Yasmeena and Nimr's affair we see that he becomes not only the perfect heir to his father's sadism, but also a vicious partisan in the right-wing militias. Yasmeena discovers the grim truth too late: that to act freely as a woman here is to be regarded as an expendable whore.
With a storyline reminiscent of such Western works as Balzac's "Lost Illusions" or Flaubert's "A Sentimental Education," "Beirut '75" describes the unveiling process whereby "the glittering city" is revealed to be nothing more than an alienating prison. In this case, Beirut replaces Paris as the city of madness and death. But here Beirut, unlike Paris, is the site of post-colonial dismemberment -- a city torn asunder by class rivalries and outdated allegiances (ironically, to Paris).
Each of the other characters in "Beirut '75" come to similarly ironic and appalling fates. Farah, the Damascene youth who longs to escape poverty and boredom, makes a Faustian deal with Beirut's cruel elite whose depravity is revealed in a number of ways, not the least of which is its indifference to the ongoing Israeli bombings and encroachments. Farah ends up equally depraved--a victim to their Western-style idolatry. Three of the other characters in the novel from the working poor -- Abu'l Malla, Ta'aan, and an impoverished fisherman, Abu Mustafa, must each face their lot of injustice and barbarism.
Samman's writing about these difficult subjects is marked by its dramatic passion and its ability to create a net of recurrent symbols which are cast and re-cast to show the inter-relatedness of the five characters. One such reappearing motif is that of animal life, a figure that seems prominent in Samman's work. The goldfish, for example, that hang suspended in transparent bags in the Hazmiyyeh marketplace are often re-visited. In the beginning of the book, Yasmeena is stuck by the beauty of these glittering translucent "lamps." But by the end, these bags come gushing open and the fish are seen writhing in a death-dance on the pavement. Because the novel describes some of the conditions leading to the historical fishermen's strike (one of the precursors to the civil war), the image of the sea and its creatures becomes all the more significant.
Ghadda Samman's work in "Beirut '75" is not only unequivocally feminist, but is also a powerful example of an engaged post-coloniality--where magic realism, surrealism, and the macabre become tools for transcribing violent political realities. While reading this novel about characters who have been robbed of their freedom, their destinies, and their sanity (and who are rudely ignored if they speak Arabic instead of French), one could arrive at an overwhelming sense of futility. The one thing that saves us from unrelenting pessimism is the twinge of bitter humor that obviously twists at the lips of this gifted storyteller. If she can't enjoy Beirut in 1974 (when she wrote the book), then at least she's going to enjoy unmasking the pretensions of the ruling class and the ruling gender which she holds responsible for its misery.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, no.25 (Winter 1999)