Sabah Zwein’s Search for Absolutes

Zeina Tamer Schlenoff

“Because I Am, as if I Were and I Am Not” was published in 2002 by Dar Al Intishar Al Arabi in Beirut. Last summer, I met with Sabah Zwein, the author, in a café on Hamra Street in West Beirut, and we had an engaging conversation about her life, her work, and her place in the literary scene of post-war Lebanon. Zwein, a poet, literary critic, and journalist, was born of a Lebanese father and a Spanish mother. She grew up in Lebanon and traveled extensively in Europe and North America. During the war, she immigrated to Montreal with her husband, only to return to Lebanon a few years later, permanently changed by her experience as a displaced immigrant in a constant search to define her identity. Now in her early 40s, Zwein has continued pursuing her career as a writer while working as a journalist for An Nahar, a leading Lebanese newspaper.

It is interesting to note that Zwein’s early writings were in French, and that during her stay in Canada she switched to Arabic. She has since been praised for her intricate use of that language – her mastery of the word, manipulation of Arabic syntax, and a vocabulary that is abundant, extravagant, and complex. Like her much acclaimed earlier work, “The Oblique House, and Time, and the Walls” (1995), constructed of 65 scenes, each forming a long sentence that stops at the end of the page, “Because I Am” continues in the same vein. Its 65 poetic scenes are scattered on 65 pages and separated by 65 full stops. They follow the common thread of the narrator’s monologue describing her travels from one city to another in desperate search for a place she can call her own. Despite the presence of a male friend throughout the narrative, the narrator is very alone and forms her most significant relationships with the cities she visits. Using intricate language, Zwein describes her narrator’s affection for and connection to their streets, sidewalks, and many other aspects of the city. When I asked the author to elaborate on this idea, and to explain her choice of urban elements versus those of nature, for example, she was quick to point out that, since childhood, she had felt a deep nostalgia to a fixed place. Could it be the fear of displacement and uncertainty that many Lebanese experienced during the war? Or the longing for security in a fast-changing world?

“Because I Am” is also a search for an absolute language, said Zwein – a “pure and innocent” language that can provide the author with satisfaction and closure through the act of writing. In it, she states, “bodies, places, writing, and mistakes are all intertwined.” Thus, in order to find her place and her language, the poet is forced to wander physically and spiritually, metaphorically and in reality, in search of the Absolute. Zwein told me that she felt stranded by the language she used in this work. She felt that words were incapable of describing the dilemmas facing her protagonist and the suffering she was experiencing. As the protagonist ventures from one city to another, searching for an absolute place, so the poet was searching for an absolute language. Both fail in their search. Time is lost, cities crumble, and her character is left with nothing but an illusion. Zwein stresses the absurdity and the ambiguity of life. Her themes of anxiety, solitude, and pessimism reflect an existential outlook.

Religious and liturgical imagery abounds in Zwein’s book, ranging from ideas of sin and suffering to death and resurrection. Interestingly, when I asked her about these images, she seemed surprised and quickly pointed out that her unconscious use of such images might have served to relieve the errant body from suffering.

Other themes I found striking were the openness of the cities and the woman’s doubling over. I asked Zwein if she chose this position to protect her protagonist, since it reminded me of an infant doubled over in her mother’s womb. She replied that she saw the doubling more as a sign of helplessness and collapse rather than protection and security.

The images of sadness, lost hope, and illusions that occur frequently in Zwein’s other writings also infuse the pages of “Because I Am” – an existence in agony over the fact of its existence. Even the baby blue that colors most scenes was chosen, according to Zwein, not because it represents a new beginning, but rather because of its coldness and distance.

In contrast, the sun also is a conspicuous presence in her writings. “It is strong, clear, and stable,” says Zwein. “It uplifts the spirit by its light and serves as a reflection.” Zwein asserts also that, for her, the sun is a male symbol and the moon a female symbol. Such a switch was interesting since, in Arabic, the sun is feminine and the moon is masculine.

This is just one instance of how, through her writings, Zwein rebels against the traditional socio-linguistic order of the Arabic language, reusing it in her own way. We sense in her writings a new voice, a new style, and a new language. Zwein invents a space, a language, and a subject that are different. We, as readers, feel trapped within the text and search frantically for an escape. The author, too, admits to having these feelings when she writes. Strangled by all the emotions inside her, once she starts writing she cannot stop. She needs to get the words out so they will leave her in peace. Only then does she feel closer to salvation – but her reader is left breathless!

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

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