Sariah Choucair and Dr. Dilworth Parkinson, Asian and Near Eastern Languages
During my time in Beirut I came to know myself. At first this may seem a very bold, unscholarly statement, perhaps better suited to a magazine essay than a scholastic summary. However, I feel that the best research is that which becomes a part of us, that broadens our view not of our subject only, but of the world as a whole and our role in it. When I applied for and received this scholarship I was expecting to have a purely scholastic experience studying the women’s literature produced during the Lebanese civil war, completely separate from my familial experience with my paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles who still live in Beirut. This expectation was proved to be false. I could not keep the two separated. As my months in Beirut wore on I found myself so increasingly wrapped up in the stories and experiences of my family, my friends, and my country that I could not keep my research isolated nor unbiased from what I saw and experienced on a daily basis.
I have decided to present my report in two parts. First I will discuss the research I undertook and give a general overview of my findings. Second I will remove my scholar’s cap in favor of one a bit more personal and I will describe what light the daily experiences I had shed on the development of both my research and my identity.
Miriam Cooke published a seminal book in 1987 entitled War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War in which she identifies the female authors writing during the war as “Beirut Decentrists.” Cooke asserts that it is the women of Lebanon who carried on the literary tradition through the war. While I agree with Cooke on this sentiment, I disagree with her when she argues that in order to deal with the pressures of the war on their society the women turned to a “decentered” voice wherein they speak as though they are either fragmented or through the objects and people around them; in a sense trading their identity in favor of giving their voice to their surroundings as a means of dealing with their confusion at the state of their country. It is important to note, however, that Cooke wrote the book in 1987, therefore eliminating much of the work produced past this time.
An interesting trend can be seen in the literature of the civil war period. In the earliest literature, such as Ghada al-Samman’s Beirut Nightmares, written while Samman was kept prisoner in her home by the heavy fighting taking place in her neighborhood (Samman was unfortunate enough to live in the famous Hotel District of old Beirut where some of the most brutal, unrelenting fighting took place), Cooke’s idea of “Decentrism” holds true. Samman, in order to deal with her lack of freedom, her fear, and her immense losses to the war, writes about herself as though she and her neighbors are the animals who are entrapped in the nearby pet shop. She also continually calls out and envisions her past lover who was killed in the war. In the final chapter of the book Samman is safely transported to a safer neighborhood where she closes the book and begins her search for a new life.
The search for a new beginning is a constant factor in most of the civil war literature. Although the later literature evolves from a “decentered” voice to one almost throbbing with its sense of self-awareness (not to be mistaken for self-confidence), all of the literature contains a search for a new future, a new future, a new self, and a new country. Hanan al-Shaykh, perhaps one of the most successful of the “Decentrist,” provides us with such a heroine in her book Beirut Blues. Asmahan is a beautiful, individual woman throbbing with life. As the book moves on Asmahan finds herself fleeing her Beirut home and returning to her village only to find the life she once knew now in shambles. Whereas Samman dealt with similar loss by musing on the pet shop tenants or writing fantastical stories about mannequins breaking free of their plastic confines and wandering around al-Hamra (a famous Beiruti shopping area, once considered the “Champs- Elysee” of the Mediterranean), Shaykh has Asmahan’s voice become more and more fully developed as she rediscovers her deep-seated need for her country. Indeed the characters in these two, and many others, women’s books do not merely feel patriotism for Lebanon. Rather, they gingerly toe the line between hate and lover for their country and feel a need, almost a hunger, for it. Even in the literature of women who fled during the war, such as Mai Ghoussoub’s Leaving Beirut, you sense that the women need their country and that they fled almost a revenge—the beautiful Lebanon they knew in their youth had abandoned them so in response they abandoned her yet continued to crave their homeland. It is interesting to note that Shaykh fled to London where she still remains; yet all of her novels’ characters, when offered the chance of escape, refuse to leave Lebanon. On the bend of biographical/psychological criticism, it could be argued that Shaykh imbibes her characters with the strength and courage she finds herself lacking and deals with her feelings of guilt by writing characters stronger than herself.
The research I did on this literature was not only valuable in that it gave me a chance to hone my literary abilities; it taught me a lot about my culture that I would not have otherwise known. My father is Lebanese but I have grown up in Canada and the United States. Although I have always been proud of my heritage, I have not always been knowledgeable about it. In effect I feel that I was able to gain years of knowledge regarding Lebanese history in a few short months due to my research and the resources I had available to me.
Doubtlessly the greatest resource I had was my family. The stories of their struggles during the war helped make the stories of my research all the more familiar. The greatest thing I gained while being in Beirut was a closer relationship with my paternal family. I have spent time with them before, but never before have I felt so close to them. I really feel that my research helped me in this. They realized my curiosity and appreciation in their culture; this alleviated many of their fears that my father’s children were growing up with no concept of their Lebanese blood, no pride in the struggles of their people. Also, as stated before, the literature I read before I arrived in Beirut coupled with the works that I read while there broadened my understanding greatly.
The timing of my trip was also ideal, as I was able to experience many historic events that also gave me greater insight into the studied literature and my culture. I experienced a late-night bombing of a nearby electrical plant just before the Israeli withdrawal from the South. Nothing can prepare you for the thunder of the planes overhead or the whine of the sirens wailing over deserted streets. Three of my little cousins ran to me that night, asking “Sariah, Sariah! Are you scared? We cannot be afraid! The enemy wants us to be afraid and WE WILL NOT BE AFRAID!” I went to the mourning services for a neighbor’s son killed while fighting for Hizbullah against Israel and wept to hear the wailing and beating of breasts by his family. I watched as Israeli troops drove to their rightful side of the border, and visited my family’s village with my aunt, her first time back since the 27 year occupation. While I cannot admit to courage as great as my 7-year old cousin, I am grateful for these opportunities to realize how much I have taken for granted in my life, and for the greater understanding and appreciation I gained for my family and heritage. The women I met in Lebanon, from my grandmother to the jolly woman, Umm Ali, down at the shop, all qualify as heroines. In Lebanon a woman walks proudly, my aunt told me it is because they know that inside they have the strength of tigers, and that hey will never surrender their strength. I found these same sentiments and similar experiences repeated over and over in all of the literature I have studied.
I love Lebanon; I love the person I became while I was there. No other experience has ever changed me so much for the good nor offered me so great an opportunity to share the gospel and serve. I learned so much about a culture and a people who will forever hold the greatest portion of my devotion. I am as proud to be “Lubnanniya” (a Lebanese girl) as I am of anything else in my life. As I continue my research and analysis of further texts, I hope to see this devotion and understanding grow.