"Woman at Point Zero": A Bid for Survival

Mona Fayad

Beirut Nightmares
by Ghada Samman, translated by Nancy N. Roberts
Quartet, 1997

"The novel manages an incredible feat: turning the nightmare of the Lebanese Civil War into a plea for life, and turning loss - the point zero of the novel - into hope for a new beginning, a hope for rebirth"

Ghada Samman's "Beirut Nightmares" and Nawal el-Saadawi's "Woman at Point Zero" have two things in common. They specifically deal with women at a "point zero," defining what that "point" is in their respective works; and both their protagonists commit an act of violence. Saadawi's Firdaus stabs her lover/pimp, while Samman's unnamed protagonist shoots at her boyfriend. Both acts of violence are gestures of self liberation.

Here the resemblance ends. While Firdaus' act stems from anger that has been growing in her through years of oppression, Samman's protagonist makes a symbolic gesture, shooting at a ghost. Samman's protagonist reaches her point zero by leaving the past behind her; through the "shooting," she is finally able to free herself from the ghost of her bullet-ridden boyfriend who was killed several months earlier at one of the many checkpoints dividing the city of Beirut.

Samman's ending C the shooting of a ghost C is an extraordinary conclusion to an extraordinary book. "Beirut Nightmares" renders in excruciating detail the day-to-day terror of an ordinary citizen caught in the middle of a combat zone. The novel is at once harrowing, irritating, horrifying, and at times hysterically funny. That the hysteria stems from the absurd circumstances in which the main character finds herself does not detract from the profoundly humorous and life-affirming qualities of "Beirut Nightmares." The novel manages an incredible feat: turning the nightmare of the Lebanese Civil War into a plea for life, and turning loss C the point zero of the novel C into hope for a new beginning, a hope for rebirth.

The plot of the novel is simple, a fact not reflected by the 378 packed pages of the English translation. The main character, a journalist, is trapped for two weeks in her apartment behind the burning Holiday Inn in the hotel district of Beirut during an intensive bombardment, until she is finally rescued by a tank that picks her up and deposits her in front of another hotel by the sea. The novel consists of a series of episodes Cnightmares C that the character lives through. Her brother, Shadi, escapes the first night, leaving the protagonist alone in her apartment with only her three downstairs neighbors for company: the elderly Amm Fuad, his son Amin, and their unnamed Sudanese servant. After a couple of dangerous close calls, the main character is forced to take shelter downstairs with her neighbors despite her immense contempt for their upper-class lifestyle. As their food rations run out and they are left with only a small quantity of foul-tasting water to drink, the novel outlines the characters' increasing selfishness as they compete for the few remaining resources.

The novel is marked with tragedy, yet the tragedy somehow transforms into comedy as simple matters take on a nightmarish quality. Amm Fuad dies in the midst of battle from natural causes, surrounded by his silver and objets d'art C but what are they to do with his body? They cannot venture outside the building for fear of a sniper that has already proved to be vigilant both day and night. The solutions they devise make sense only in their extreme situation, where reality is too terrible to contemplate and takes on an edge of unreality.

As if the daytime nightmare is not enough, the character also endures nightmares during her rare moments of fitful sleep. The nightmares provide much of the novel's socio-political commentary, targeting issues such as class, corruption, power, and greed. Sometimes they are about people she knows C her brother Shadi, for example, who escaped successfully from the war zone only to be thrown in jail for owning an illegal firearm. Her nightmares about him follow his transformation in prison from a rather timid young man to a criminal who decides to take advantage of the war to make a fortune. She is also visited by a variety of characters ranging from sadists who find full vent for their appetites in the war, to simple vendors who lose their livelihood and turn to crime to survive.

Among the more outrageous characters are the seamstress-turned-fortune teller Khatoum, who is forced out of her clothes-making profession because her fees are too low for her prestige-seeking customers; the model who is mistaken for a prostitute and then used as a target to deflect a sniper's bullets; and Nadim, who donates blood at a hospital only to later kill the very man who received his blood. Some of the nightmares are simple and fairytale-like, such as that of the little boy who escapes to Australia to make a fortune for his family. Along the way, he encounters Death, eager to tell his stories to anyone who will listen, and Death eventually lulls the boy into a never-ending sleep. The array of characters who appear in these semi-hallucinations, brought on by a combination of hunger, fear, and lack of sleep, provide haunting reflections on some of the social problems that led to the Civil War.

The main character herself, clinging obstinately to her personal library as a refuge in the midst of chaos, reflects the helplessness of the intellectuals and writers in the face of this outbreak of violence. The writer's moral crisis, as she continues to reject violence itself while at the same time idealizing its potential for bringing about change, comes across poignantly as the main character insists on scribbling her thoughts and impressions, eventually to become "Beirut Nightmares," regardless of the circumstances. By the end, the protagonist recognizes the same violence in herself, as she wields a revolver and shoots at a figure trying to climb through a window into the downstairs apartment at night. Though the figure turns out to be a dog and not a human being, her reaction is the same; she was willing to pull the trigger. Ultimately, she reflects, violence is not something to be thought out. Rather, it is simply "done." She also discovers violence never solves problems; instead it complicates them.

While the question of violence is central to the novel, several other threads pass through as well. One main theme is the difference between the reality of experience C no matter how distorted and "unreal" it appears C and "reality" as presented by the media. Radio is discounted early in the novel, its lies disguised as "news" exposed clearly and brutally. Nonetheless, the protagonist's constant attempts to draw on the movies for knowledge in situations she encounters reveals the enormous gap between reality and the representation of reality.

Another thread throughout the novel is the pet shop next door, used metaphorically to represent the class structure in Lebanon. While at times the comparison seems forced or overdone, the horrific climactic scene in which the starving dogs attack the owner who has finally come to bring them food is not softened because of its metaphorical implications.

Of course, Ghada Samman would not be who she is without addressing gender issues in the novel. This she achieves with remarkable simplicity. Amin, Amm Fuad's son, is the contrast against which the main character pits herself. Reckless and indifferent to social norms, she maps out the strategies for survival, while Amin, cast by Samman in the role of the "Eastern female," is too bound by convention to provide practical solutions to their problems. Samman deals with gender roles as "roles"C scripts that bind us into a particular mode of behavior regardless of whether we are biologically male or female.

By the end of the novel, partly because she is able to abandon prescribed roles, the protagonist survives but has lost everything, including the library that meant so much to her. Yet she makes this point zero a starting point, with zero representing "the largest number" in her life. Unlike Saadawi's novel, point zero does not represent deep despair; it is, instead, the point "where the horizon was boundless once again."

In this novel, Samman's second, originally published in 1976 as the second in a trilogy dedicated to the Lebanese Civil War (the first, "Beirut '75," has been translated into English and published by the University of Arkansas Press), Samman provides a testament to the resilience of the human spirit as well as a portrayal of the selfishness involved in the act of surviving. Translated into many languages, including Russian, Italian, and French, it has waited more than 20 years to see the light of day in English. Nancy N. Roberts' translation, which abridges the number of nightmares from 197 to 151, renders the original beautifully. Roberts alternates between simple, direct prose and a more literary language with poetic undertones. While the style does not capture the intensity of Samman's rich prose, the occasional blandness of the English narrative highlights the subtle humor that makes the novel so unique. Despite the many years it has taken for the English version to appear, it is well worth the wait. With the war behind us, we can now read the novel for what it is C an intelligent, down-to-earth rendering of what human beings will do in order to stay alive.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 23, Spring 1998.

Copyright © 1998 AL JADID MAGAZINE