“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, falling apart, aging and forever drama laden,” write Rabih Alameddine in An Unnecessary Woman. “She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”
A 72-year-old, blue-haired, literature-loving woman named Aaliya is ostensibly the protagonist of Alameddine’s latest novel, but some readers might argue that Beirut is the real character at the heart of the book. A rambling, illuminating, bittersweet reflection on a life spent with books rather than people for company, An Unnecessary Woman is an ode to literature but also to Beirut, in all its chaos and magic.
Aaliya’s Beirut is a city steeped in memories, a place where nothing from family, to electricity, to traffic is reliable. It is an imagined city whose true face is overlaid with nostalgia for a past before “the virulent cancer we call concrete spread throughout the capital, devouring every living surface.” It’s a city she loves and hates and will never leave.
Alameddine – who lives in San Francisco – has a knack for conveying Beirut’s complexity and the powerful mix of emotions it inspires. In The Hakawati, his narrator describes the city as a dish cooked for thousands of years and seasoned with “the salt and pepper” of religion – “a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.”
If Alameddine captures a romantic vision of a city we all recognise, then Gibran Khalil Gibran’s Beirut is a kind of earthly paradise. In The Broken Wings, first published in Arabic in 1912, the city is “a bride in the spring,” “a mermaid sitting by the brook drying her smooth skin in the rays of the sun.” His narrator describes a city of gardens, filled with flowers and orange and apple trees wearing “garments of perfumed blossoms” that look like “brides sent by nature to inspire poets and excite the imagination.”
It’s a description unlikely to resonate with anyone familiar with today’s Beirut, disfigured by war and then again by reconstruction. Many contemporary novelists reflect on the war years in their work, but some were writing even while the conflict was still raging. In The Story of Zahra, London-based novelist Hanan al-Shaykh explored the effects of the war on a mentally unstable woman constrained and persecuted by the demands of a patriarchal society. Zahra’s peacetime Beirut is a place riddled with rules and expectations to which she never quite measures up. Paradoxically, Beirut at war is a city that grants her unexpected freedom.
[Beirut is] a mermaid sitting by the brook drying her smooth skin in the rays of the sun.
Gibran Khalil Gibran, The Broken Wings
In Beirut Blues, by contrast, Al-Shaykh’s protagonist Asmahan is torn between staying to watch the city she loves ripped apart by war, or fleeing to start a new life overseas. Her internal dilemma is expressed through a fragmented epistolary structure, consisting of a series of letters written to loved ones, to Beirut and to the war itself.
Elias Khoury, whose novel Little Mountain – named for Achrafieh – was first published in 1977 and was written concurrently with the onset of the Civil War, has spent decades capturing Beirut through the eyes of a dizzying raft of characters, from militiamen, to Palestinian refugees, to doctors and architects, smugglers and prostitutes. His Beirut is constantly shifting and evolving, symbolising something different to each new character – a place of danger and of shelter, of opportunity and of tragedy, of memory and of amnesia.
In all its beauty and ugliness and complexity, Beirut is a city that inspires. From visual artists like Etel Adnan and Zena El Khalil, to writers who have lived overseas for decades but still write about Beirut like Rawi Hage and Hoda Barakat, to Francophone authors whose work has been translated into multiple languages like Charif Majdalani and Amin Maalouf, authors have found endless ways to pay tribute to a city that infuriates and fascinates in equal measure.