Upon her passing, critics must reintroduce the late author, whose literary legacy was lost in the haze of time
Despite her reputation as one of the boldest Lebanese women writers at the peak of her career, Layla Baalbaki’s passing without much coverage on October 21, 2023, though delivering a shock throughout the Arab literary world, did not come as a surprise given the journalist and writer’s retreat from the spotlight since the 60s. Baalbaki was the first Lebanese woman tried in court for “outraging public decency” with her short story collection, “Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon” (1963). The late writer’s life has been shrouded in mystery since she departed from literary fiction, even more so after her death. As many recall the impact of her works, others speculate on her short-lived literary career in equal fervor: why did Layla Baalbaki stop writing? Did she leave behind any notes or a memoir about her life before her passing? Without the woman herself to confirm or deny, any answers remain mere speculation.
Layla Baalbaki was born to a family of Shiite origins some time between 1934 and 1936 in the Lebanese village of Houmin al-Tahta in the Nabatieh region of southern Lebanon. She completed her early education at a public school in the Ain al-Mreisseh neighborhood and Al-Makassed Islamic College in Beirut, then continued her studies at Saint Joseph University but did not complete it. Baalbaki began writing at 14 years old and was not the only writer in her family. Her father Ali al-Hajj al-Baalbaki was a zajal poet who published several collections, including “The Smile of Dawn” and “The Desert Tent,” in addition to the book “The Desert Glories from the Arabs of the Desert.”
Between 1957 and 1959, Baalbaki worked as a secretary in the Lebanese Parliament. At only 22 years old, she published her first novel, “I Live” (1958), which quickly accrued critical acclaim within Lebanon’s literary circles and abroad, receiving a French translation by Michel Barbot under the publisher Seuil in 1961. Through its bold heroine, Lina Fayyad — an anti-hero, according to some — and the use of what critics describe as provocative, if at times unpalatable, language, Baalbaki does not shy away from pointed criticisms of Lebanese society and its patriarchal, traditional systems. In the words of Paul Shaoul in Independent Arabia, Baalbaki “fought the battle of rebellion against masculinity, outdated customs, and traditions, but in a simple, living language.”
The novel cemented Baalbaki as a pioneering force in developing the modern Arab feminist novel, vastly revolutionizing the scope of the genre and inspiring the works of fellow women writers that came after. Palestinian activist and poet Hanan Awwad credits Baalbaki’s writing with launching the “first revolutionary feminist movement in Arabic literature.” At the same time, Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh and Syrian novelist Colette Khoury consider the novel an “important model,” according to Maru Pabón in the online Kohl Journal, who adds that without the precedence set by “I Live,” works like “The Open Door” (1960) by Latifa al-Zayat would not be included in literary lists today.
“Layla Baalbaki: The Last Existential Feminist” by Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 27, No. 84, 2023.
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