Ghada Samman: A Writer of Many Layers

Pauline Homsi Vinson

Ghada Samman is a prolific writer who has produced over 40 works in a variety of genres, including journalism, poetry, short stories, and the novel. Outspoken, innovative, and provocative, Samman is a highly respected if sometimes controversial writer in the Arab world who is becoming increasingly well known internationally; several of her works have been translated from Arabic into languages such as English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, German, Japanese, and Farsi.

Available in English translation are “Beirut ’75” and “Beirut Nightmares,” both translated by Nancy Roberts. “The Square Moon,” translated by Issa J. Boullata, won the University of Arkansas Press Award for Arabic Literature in Translation. All of the works above have been reviewed in previous issues of Al Jadid. Forthcoming is Nancy Robert’s translation of “Laylat al Milyar” (“The Billion Dollar Night”), which can be considered the third in a trilogy about the Lebanese Civil War, following “Beirut ’75” and “Beirut Nightmares.” In addition, several of Samman’s poems have been translated into English and published in anthologies such as Nathalie Handal’s “The Poetry of Arab Women.” Several early interviews with Samman are also available in English in anthologies such as “Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing,” edited by Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, and “Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak,” edited by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Qattan Bezirgan. There is a wealth of material on Samman in Arabic, including several book-length studies and numerous interviews. Increasing attention is being paid to her in literary works in English, as in Miriam Cooke’s “War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War” and Joseph T. Zeidan’s “Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond.”

Samman was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1942. Her mother, who was a writer herself, died when Samman was still a young child. Samman thus grew up primarily under the care of her father, who was a university professor, a dean at the University of Damascus, and a cabinet minister. She credits him for fostering within her an appreciation for both hard work and learning. In his book, “Ghada al-Samman Bila Ajniha” (“Ghada Samman Without Wings”), Ghali Shukri quotes Samman on her passion for the written word: “I cannot recall the day when I didn’t know how to read and write. I know that I learned French first [from her mother], and then Arabic and the Qura’n.” The young Samman chose to pursue a B.A. in English literature, rather than medicine as her father had hoped, at the University of Damascus. She then obtained an M.A. from the American University of Beirut, where she wrote her thesis on the Theater of the Absurd. From there she went to London to pursue a Ph.D., but eventually abandoned the project.

While Samman was still in London, her father died. During that crucial year of 1966, Samman also lost her job as a journalist for a Lebanese newspaper and was sentenced in absentia for a three-month prison term for having left Syria without official permission, a sentence which was later revoked under a general pardon by the Syrian government. At the time, however, Samman was left completely on her own, an unusual position for a young Arab woman of her social class.

Of the years 1966-1969, Samman told Shukri, “I stood truly alone in this fierce world, facing all the forces that were against me. … I spent [those years] … between Lebanon and various European countries, working and living like any young man alone. These years are what formed me … During those years I confronted others as a foreigner in a foreign land without the protection of family, social status, or money, and I learned what I hadn’t known before. … The hardest lesson I learned was my final discovery of the superficiality of the bourgeois Damascene society that used to consider me during those years as good as dead – ‘a fallen woman’ – whereas I was in reality a woman starting to live her life and an artist gaining in awareness [of life around her].” As recorded in both Shukri and an article in An Nahar Literary Supplement, Samman willingly traded the personal freedom she experienced in the West for a sense of belonging in the Arab world. She chose to reside in Beirut because, she says, it seemed both to allow for a degree of freedom within the Arab world, and to embody the battle between enlightenment and oppressiveness. During the war in Lebanon, Samman resided in Paris for about 15 years with her husband and son; currently, she maintains two homes, one in Beirut and one in Paris.

The same impulse toward individual liberty and self-expression that guides Samman’s personal life also characterizes much of her writing. As a journalist, she explored aspects of Lebanese life that were largely ignored by the mainstream: namely, the plight of the poor in neglected areas of north and south Lebanon. Unwilling to be bound by social or literary conventions, Samman established her own publishing company in 1977 and thus has been able to publish her own writing free of editorial interference.

Whether in her relatively early romanticist writings or in the more socially engaged fiction such as “Beirut ’75” and thereafter, Samman’s work exhibits a boldness that defies restriction. While her writing can sometimes seem repetitious, her interesting blend of surrealism and verisimilitude, coupled with her command of the Arabic language, allows her to be simultaneously poetic and political in her prose writing.

At the core of Samman’s writing is a cry for individual liberty. In a statement characteristic of Samman’s penetrating and direct wit, published in an article in the Gulf-based Al Itihad newspaper she declares: “As to the critic who finds it difficult to pinpoint my writing in one area, I will make things easy for him. He can write on the drawer in which he files my work, ‘a cry for freedom!’”

This quest for freedom, Samman insists, is inextricably linked to the question of women’s liberation. As she tells Shukri, “sexual revolution … is a part that cannot be separated from the revolt of the individual Arab against all that restricts his freedoms, be they in the sphere of economics, politics, free speech, expression, or thought. ... There is no way but through struggle against all reactionary thought, which includes our understanding of sex, and against the overall bourgeois view of freedom.”

Unconventional in both her personal life and literary works, Samman is undaunted by the negative criticism that some of her work has incurred. She depicts such “taboo” subjects as political corruption and women’s sexuality and exposes all that she considers hypocritical, exploitative, or repressive in Arab societies. Towards that end, she creates strong yet flawed characters in specifically Arab socio-cultural locations, and relies heavily on stream of consciousness, symbolism, allegory, and fantasy in much of her work.

Lebanese Society

In “Beirut ’75” Samman explores the social, economic, and political conditions embodied in an outmoded and corrupt form of male-dominated feudalism, exposing in the process many of the factors that eventually resulted in the eruption of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, shortly after the publication of her book. In “Beirut Nightmares” she recreates the surrealistic and nightmarish quality of the civil war in Lebanon during the infamous hotel battles of 1976, concentrating especially on such questions as the role of the intellectual in revolution and the relationship between the pen and the bullet. In “Laylat al Milyar,” she explores the self-imposed predicament of the Lebanese living in Geneva during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982 and reveals how the characters simply replay, in the safety of the wealthy symbol of European democracy that is Geneva, the same opportunistic exploitation by the rich and powerful Lebanese of their poor and weak compatriots.

Through symbolism and allegory, Samman addresses sensitive social and political issues that might be either too dangerous or less effective if confronted directly. A distinctive feature of her work is the symbolic use of animals to give insight into the human condition.

Symbolic Use of Animals

In “Beirut ’75,” the turtle and the performance monkey are the only figures that react with fear to the intimidating sound of Israeli fighter jets as they break the sound barrier above Beirut. The animals’ instinctive and natural reactions provide a relief against which to view the indifference of the Lebanese people who go on heedless of both the portentous warnings of the threatening planes and of the worsening socio-economic and political situation. Significantly, the turtle, which shadows one of the main characters, Yasmina, is able to “come out of her shell” in the novel and find “wings” to fly out of Yasmina’s apartment window in pursuit of freedom. Unlike the turtle, and more like the characters themselves, the colorful fish that hang from a vendor’s stall in the popular market district of Beirut can only escape their transparent prisons through a desperate bid for death. Samman makes this point poignantly as Farah, Yasmina’s counterpart in the novel, likens himself to the fish when he realizes that he is “trapped inside a glass jar” only to witnesses one of the bags containing the fish burst open, “sending its contents splattering onto the pavement.”

As in “Beirut ’75,” so too in “Laylat al Milyar” Samman mirrors the vulnerable condition of her characters through her description of the plight of animals. Khalil is a struggling, poor Lebanese who is caught in the snare of his rich and corrupt immigrant compatriots. His predicament is powerfully embodied in two images of trapped creatures. The first is a bee that becomes so seduced by the promise of sugar in a Coke bottle that it willingly enters, only to become trapped permanently, forever flying around in circles and bumping itself against the bottle’s impenetrable transparent walls. The second is a rat that Khalil sees in a shop window in Greece, ceaselessly running among the replicas of Lebanese ruins being sold under an Israeli flag. Staring at the rat, Khalil understands that what he sees is his own image looking back at him. In these ways, Samman encapsulates the condition of many Lebanese. Seduced by the attractions of commercial profit, they become trapped in conditions of their own making.

Perhaps the strongest symbolic use of animals in Samman’s works is found in “Beirut Nightmares.” The pet shop, which the writer-narrator-protagonist repeatedly visits in both her dreams and when awake, comes to function as an extended political allegory, recreating in microcosm the socio-economic and class conditions in Lebanon at the beginning of the war. The difference in the physical appearance of the pet shop’s front and back sections exposes the superficial, hypocritical, and exploitative aspects of pre-war Lebanon. The front section of the shop is reserved for the customers. It presents a beautiful, modern, clean, and urbane atmosphere. The back section, however, which the protagonist glimpses surreptitiously, reveals the cramped, dirty, and horrible conditions in which the shop owner keeps the animals. Like the poor and oppressed Lebanese masses, the animals remain in horrible conditions in order to ensure the commercial success of the pet owner, whose wealth depends not only on the ill treatment of his animals, but also on his presentation of a convincingly modern and progressive front. Like the disenfranchised Lebanese masses, the animals in the pet shop become so accustomed to their imprisonment that they are lost and confused when the protagonist opens their cages and offers them freedom. Then like so many of the Lebanese fighters waging war in the streets of Beirut, the animals turn against one another long before they attack the shop owner, who is set upon by the dogs when he finally remembers to bring food to his neglected charges.

As we can see from these examples, Samman’s use of the symbolic is not only firmly anchored in concrete socio-political and historical conditions, but also partakes of the world of fantasy and the surreal. This style, as several critics have noted (see, for example, Al Jadid, Nos. 23, 26, 29, among others) is akin to the magic realism developed by such important Latin American writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende.

We find Samman’s willingness to appropriate non-Arab literary forms for her own purposes early on, in her echo of T.S. Eliot’s famous line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” when she describes Yasmina’s feelings of anxiety and discontent in “Beirut ’75”: “I’m tired, weary, fed up. … The days crawl by, as sluggish as an anesthetized body on an operating table.” Samman insists, however, that such literary borrowings are not slavish imitation. She tells Paula Di Capoa, whose book is translated from the Italian into Arabic as “Attamarrud wal Iltizam fi Adab Ghada al Samman” (Rebellion and Commitment in the Literature of Ghada Samman): “I am influenced by my Western education, but that doesn’t mean that I am simply a shadow of it. I am learning how to polish my Arab tools in the light of the literary endeavors of others.”

Magic Realism

Samman’s ability to appropriate non-Western literary traditions for specifically Arab contexts is best illustrated through her employment of an Arabic sort of magic realism in “The Square Moon,” a collection of supernatural short stories set in realistic contexts. In this collection, Samman explores the difficulties and internal contradictions experienced by various Arab immigrants living in Europe. In settings far removed from their Arab origins, the various characters encounter liberation for women, but also racism, displacement, and alienation. As they struggle with questions of identity, allegiance, separation, and personal freedom, they also discover the tenacious hold of old traditions upon their lives. These appear in various guises, some positive, some negative, but almost always as the manifestations of repressed anxieties and fears that haunt the characters in supernatural form.

Significantly, as Samman reveals in “Register: I’m not an Arab Woman,” the ghosts in “The Square Moon” are of a different variety from either the Gothic or the Hollywood cinema type. They neither confine themselves to palaces and the rich, nor do they wear white sheets and burst into laughter. Rather, they assume forms modeled upon those found in Arabic folkloric superstitions and literary traditions. The Parisian swan that bewitches the Arab protagonist of “The Swan Genie” possesses specifically Arab qualities. Dubbed “Clever Hasan” by the protagonist, the swan reminds her of her grandmother’s tales, “Arabian myths,” and the “rook” from “The 1001 Nights.” Through such means, Samman highlights the ways in which her use of magic realism is specifically Arab, not only expressing Arab concerns but also drawing on Arab literary precedents. When Samman signals the meanings of her symbols and the Arabic heritage that she evokes in her writing in – at times – overly explicit modes, it may be the result of her multi-layered attempts to both justify her literary choices and reach as wide an audience as possible.

While Samman’s use of the supernatural is most consistently at work in “The Square Moon,” it can also be seen in significant moments in each of the three books on the Lebanese civil war. In an eerily prophetic moment in “Beirut ’75,” a minor character, a fortuneteller, declares: “I see much grief, and I see blood – a great deal of blood.”

In seeming fulfillment of the fortune teller’s prediction, the “nightmares” in “Beirut Nightmares” often take on a supernatural aspect, as the protagonist’s flights of fancy blur the distinction between her waking and sleeping states, allowing her to see, hear, and report aspects of Lebanese life that even the fortuneteller in this second book is too scared to utter. Indeed, the protagonist’s insistence on recording and rescuing her manuscript is itself a Schahrazadian move, an attempt to prolong her life through telling politically engaged yet fantastical stories in the face of seemingly imminent death.

In “Laylat al Milyar,” the eerie incantations of the magician harken back to the witches in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” but also find their source in a specifically Arab superstition and the use of magic still practiced in certain parts of the Arab world. His magic, along with his own psychological breakdown at the end of the novel, allow for the symbolic representation of the various characters’ inner feelings and desires.

The deployment of the surreal in all these works succeeds thanks to Samman’s use of the nightmare motif. “Beirut ’75” ends with a series of Farah’s nightmares, which seem to function as a release for his madness, which is itself an escape from the clutches of his unbearable reality. In a highly absurdist gesture that combines insight with self-assertion, the novel closes with Farah replacing the placard that announces the entrance to Beirut with a sign that reads: “Hospital for the Mentally Ill.”

War Macabre

“Beirut Nightmares” begins where “Beirut ‘75” left off. The title and chapter headings, coupled with grotesque comedy, the absurd, and the macabre all recreate the nightmarish aspect of the civil war, stiflingly experienced by the narrator-protagonist in both her waking and sleeping states.

The recurring fantastical excursions that are the protagonist’s nightmares function as a literary device, allowing for variations in the setting of the action. Moreover, they are a forum for political critique and the questioning of such issues as corruption, inequality, the plight of the poor, the role of violence in revolution, and, especially, the relationship between the pen and the gun. In one of many repetitive Kafkaesque episodes, the absurdity of the war is portrayed in the predicament of the protagonist’s brother, whose attempt to flee from the confines of their front-line apartment lands him in jail for possession of an illegal weapon.

The last in the trilogy, “Laylat al Milya,” reveals how Samman’s characters seem only to have “fled from the nightmares of their homeland to discover the nightmares of exile.” Moving the action from the confines of Beirut to Europe, Samman exposes the ways in which so many Lebanese emigrants manage to recreate, in exile, the same exploitative socio-political conditions that perpetuate the war in Lebanon.

In “Beirut ’75” the internal madness experienced by Farah triggers the “nightmare” sections of the book. In “Beirut Nightmares,” the external madness of the war around her traps the protagonist in a nightmare world of both dreams and political reality. In “Laylat al Milyar,” drug-induced hallucinations call forth a surrealistic world, which in turn reveals the nightmarishness of the characters’ actual conditions. We see this through the eyes of Khalil, who is coerced into becoming a drug user. In a semi-hallucinatory state, Khalil is taken to a “circus,” where he witnesses several surrealistic “shows.” In one, people live in a cage whose ceiling is imperceptibly but surely descending upon its slumbering occupants. When Khalil tries to warn one of them of the impending disaster, he is told to mind his own business. In another “show,” poor revolutionaries storm a gilded cage only to replace its rich occupants and take up their positions once they sit in their seats. In this circus world, the police function to silence or expel anyone who speaks out against the show. The women participants are content in traditional female roles and refuse any alternative to their daily household chores. The “common man” refuses to take responsibility for his lot, sure that only “what is written” will happen to him. Others hurtle down to their deaths, jumping off to a solid pool that proves to be only a mirage, while onlookers watch them, unwilling to warn them of their errors in perception, because they are “of a different religion” from theirs.

It is easy to see how the different episodes in the circus represent the sad state of Arab, and especially Lebanese, life as Samman sees it. It is a state of enforced silence and willing surrender, a state far fallen from the long-gone glories of Arab civilization as epitomized (and idealized) in the Arab Andalusian past, a time and place in history to which one of the stunted circus performers allows Khalil to time-travel to in secret.

Notwithstanding their nightmarish atmospheres, Samman’s works inevitably end on a hopeful note. “Beirut Nightmares” ends with the promise of a new life as symbolized by the blazing rainbow that the protagonist sees across Beirut’s sky after she succeeds in getting herself and her manuscript rescued from her apartment. “Laylat al Milyar” ends in a similar note of hopeful triumph symbolized by the colorful kite that flutters in the Beirut skyline in spite of the bullets aimed at it, which Khalil spies upon his return to the city with his two sons.

Commenting upon her use of the nightmare motif in her writing, Samman told Al Itihad newspaper: “Dreams, madness, invocations, and hallucinations are literary tools that help me to probe the depths of humanity.” The point is to wake up. Samman continues: “What’s most important in a nightmare is for the individual to persist, from within his sleep, to wake up and get up from the nightmare. The will to wake up is what we [Arabs] are lacking.” Indefatigably, Samman’s perceptive and creative works seem to function as literary wake-up calls for those willing to listen.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 39 (Spring 2002) 
Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid