Here is Part II of the reading list I’ve compiled over the past two years in my effort to get to know my new home in Beirut a bit better. My previous post covered culture, memoirs and other non-fiction (including a graphic novel), while this post will point you to literary fiction, guidebooks and books for children that have helped me to familiarize myself (and my family) with our home in the Middle East. As in my previous post, the gems are marked with an asterisk.
* Beirut Blues by Hanan Al-Shaykh (1996)
Sidestepping the traditional story-telling format, Beirut Blues is composed of a series of ten letters from its protagonist Asmahan to the people and places she loves – including her grandmother, her lover, her city (Beirut). The book is not a straight-forward account of Lebanon’s civil war, but its stories paint a picture of the war’s effect on the people (both collectively and individually), the land, and the city of Beirut. Currently resident in London, Al-Shaykh is one of Lebanon’s best-known modern-day writers.
Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf (2007)
Some of these stories are by previously-published authors while others introduced newer writers onto the scene – and the stories are, as one might imagine, a bit disparate and uneven. However, it is the dissimilarity itself that adds value to this book, as it defies stereotypes of the modern Lebanese woman by offering a variety of perspectives. The editor is assistant professor of English and creative writing at the highly-regarded American University of Beirut.
De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage (2006)
Two childhood friends, Bassim and George, come into adulthood during the Lebanese civil war. One ends up joining a militia, while the other dreams of escaping abroad. De Niro’s Game earned critical acclaim in Canada and Ireland, but I found myself agreeing with reviewers who found that the final section of the book, which takes place outside of Lebanon, loses steam.
Ports of Call by Amin Maalouf (1999)
Described as “a powerful allegory for the struggles and anarchy that have beset [Lebanon] for the last half-century,” Ports of Call tells the story of Ossyane, a Turkish-Lebanese nobleman, including his marriage to a Jewish woman named Clara, from whom he is separated for many years because of their respective cultures, a world war, and the later (1948) Arab-Israeli War. The narrator of the story is a third person to whom Ossyane recounts his life, and it is perhaps this choice by Maalouf that keeps the story from fully drawing in the reader. Maalouf is another of Lebanon’s foremost modern writers, and as Ports of Call is the first of his novels to be set in twentieth-century Lebanon, it is well worth reading.
* Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (2010)
Elegant and moving multi-generational story of a Palestinian family that is displaced from their home at the creation of Israel in 1948, and moved to the Jenin refugee camp. Narrated by Amal, the granddaughter of the old village patriarch, the story stretches from the village where her grandfather grew up to Jenin, the refugee camp where she was born, to Jerusalem, where she was housed when orphaned, Beirut, where she became a newlywed, to Philadelphia, where she studied and worked, back to Jenin, when she brings her own daughter for a visit.
* Bet You Didn’t Know This About Beirut! By Warren Singh-Bartlett (2010)
Always entertaining, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, this compilation of factoids about Lebanese life and culture is a must-have for anyone newly arriving to the country.
* Living Lebanon by Saskia Nout (2013)
The most recent guide to Lebanon on bookshelves, and with the kind of information that a resident needs as opposed to just a tourist – like driving directions, and a deft explanation of the convoluted political system. Nout is a Dutch expatriate. While the guide is not easily available outside of Lebanon, it can be easily found in a bookshop upon arrival.
* Oranges in No Man’s Land by Elizabeth Laird (2008)
This novel tells the story of 10-year-old Ayesha during the civil war. Her grandmother desperately needs medicine that is available only from her doctor on the other side of Beirut’s infamous “Green Line”, and Ayesha dares to get it for her. The death of Ayesha’s mother at the beginning of the story may be upsetting for younger/more sensitive children, but it is not dwelt upon, and ultimately, it is a story of the triumph of human spirit and what a spunky young girl can achieve. Laird lived with her husband and infant son close to Beirut’s notorious “Green Line” during 1977.
Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan (2012)
This beautifully illustrated book introduces colors through a Muslim lens, from the blue hijab (head covering) to the silver coins for the zakat (alms) box. Suitable for families of any faith that wish to introduce cultural awareness to their younger children.
Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland (1992)
Ten-year-old Sami has grown up during Lebanon’s civil war, going to school and helping his mother with chores when he can, and living in his uncle’s basement when the fighting flares up. One day, the children march for peace, and Sami knows that when another chance comes, he will march again. Well-written, and good for sparking discussion between children and their parents or teachers. For children living in Beirut today, however, with the war in neighboring Syria, the story probably will hit a bit too close to home.
On My Bookshelf
No reading list should ever be complete, because there are always more good books out there to read. Here is the next one on my list. While I can’t tell you yet what I think of it, renowned author Amy Tan has written an absolutely glowing review of it on Amazon.com, and you don’t need me to top that – take her word for it and go out and get this book.
* The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (2008)
Hakawati means storyteller, and Osama’s dying grandfather is one. When Osama returns to Beirut in 2003, after many years in America, to sit vigil at his grandfather’s deathbed, stories begin to unfold. According to the back cover, “an Arabian Nights for this century,” and described by an Amazon reviewer as full of tales of “love, sex, murder, heroism, magic, loss, triumph, skullduggery, noblesse, repentance, lies, redemption, loyalty, curses, and just about everything else.”
After a gloriously sunny Saturday, the rain returned to Beirut yesterday. No problem. I’ve still got plenty on my shelf to read.