When my husband first proposed Lebanon as a possible destination for our family, I embarrassed myself by momentarily confusing it with Libya. (Cringe.) A little internet research cleared up that confusion, and also let me know that Lebanon is also not the tragic and war-torn place that it had been during its 15-year civil war. (It’s been nearly a quarter-century since that ended – and for now the Lebanese people are holding out against the forces trying to destabilize the country once again.)
Once we made the decision to move here, I upgraded my reading from internet to books, to familiarize myself with the region, its history and culture. I’ve kept on reading about Beirut and the region in the 20-odd months I’ve been here, in everything from children’s books to graphic novels, light fiction to academic treatises. Most helped me better understand the region, its culture and its history, and a few were real gems. (Look for those marked with an asterisk below.*) If you have a suggestion to add or a comment on any of the books, please add your voice, I’d love to hear your opinion!
Today’s list focuses on culture, memoirs, and other non-fiction; my next post will include books for children, literary fiction and guidebooks. Peruse, and you’ll surely find a book or two to pique your own interest — residency in the Middle East not required.
* One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2013)
A ribald retelling of what is perhaps the Arab world’s most famed piece of fiction, the centuries-old One Thousand and One Nights. In order to keep herself and the women of the kingdom alive, Shahrazad tells the king a new story each evening. Some tales date as far back as 850 AD, and Arabian, Persian and Indian tales were added over the centuries. Al-Shaykh has selected 19 of them. Modern language makes them accessible and entertaining, but Al-Shaykh did not edit out the eroticism, so this classic is adults-only. (Here is a version that for the most part looks more family-friendly, and also contains more stories.)
* The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (2010)
Kahlil Gibran is Lebanon’s most famous writer, and The Prophet is his masterpiece, with some 100 million copies sold since its original publication in 1923. A compilation of poetic essays, The Prophet recounts the advice of the prophet, Almustafa to the people of the city of Orphalese as he is about to depart for home. He holds forth on topics such from love to laws, passion to pain. While some of Almustafa’s recommendations felt ordinary or even trite, others are inspiring and given its premiere place in Lebanese literature, it should not be missed. This version in particular is worth seeking out, as it is accompanied by beautiful Persian artwork. (Published by Arcturus and available on Amazon and in the Antoine chain of bookstores in Beirut. Note, while his name is usually spelled “Khalil“, this edition puts the “h” after the “a,” and so I have done so here.)
The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generational Odyssey by Fouad Ajami (1999)
Fouad Ajami is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, and is widely regarded within Lebanon as one of the region’s foremost scholars. The book is an “amalgamation of literary criticism, history and political commentary” that starts with a recounting of the life of Lebanese poet and Arab nationalist Khalil Hawi. It then moves on to discuss Khomeini’s revolution, modern Egypt and more, but I have to admit that I abandoned the book after the second chapter, when the focus on Lebanon ended. Not a light read, but a good fit for those interested in Middle Eastern studies.
*Bye Bye Babylon: Beirut 1975-1979 by Lamia Ziadé (2011)
Well-executed graphic novel about the early years of Lebanon’s civil war, told through images from the author’s own childhood memories. Pictures are both simple and vivid, making it a great and easy-to-grasp introduction to the complexities of Lebanon’s civil war. This is a fantastic book.
Beirut I Love You by Zena El Khalil (2008)
After growing up in Lagos and New York, El Khalil moved back to Lebanon post 9/11, and was in Beirut at the time of the 31-day war with Israel in 2006. Anecdotes such as her friend Maya trying to escape the city for a day at the beach in the midst of the war, each time turned back at a military or militia check-point, highlight the struggle to lead a “normal” life in a decidedly abnormal situation. Her writing felt tinged by self-pity, but given that she was writing about living through a bombardment, it’s hard to blame her for that.
War Diary: Lebanon 2006 by Rami Zurayk (2011)
This slim book is the diary of a Lebanese university professor from the 33-day war in 2006 (known both as the Israel-Lebanon war, and as the Israel-Hezbollah war). According to his diary, Zurayk is “a veteran activist from the Lebanese left,” and not affiliated with a particular religion or political party. Among the elements of the book, Zurayk writes about how he came to support Hezbollah. Life during either this war or the civil war is not something that is easy to bring up and chat about over a cup of coffee with Lebanese friends, and I found it helpful for understanding a perspective that I might not otherwise have a chance to hear about first-hand.
Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut by Salma Abdelnour (2012)
A light read about a Lebanese-American woman’s return to Beirut. As a food and travel writer, Abdelnour is adept at bringing the sights and sounds and smells of the streets of Beirut to life. She struggles to find her place amongst expats and Lebanese, and to start a life in a new place. Although I found it a bit hard to sympathize with her struggles (you speak the language! you already have an apartment in Beirut before you arrive! you have aunts and cousins and childhood friends here!), I enjoyed seeing Beirut through her eyes, and those about to embark on a life as an expat might find some insight about what to expect.
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989)
It’s impossible to understand Lebanon today without understanding its past. This engagingly-written account of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, by renowned correspondent Thomas Friedman, is one popular place to start. It was one of the first books I picked up on Lebanon, and by reading it I came to understand that the civil war was not a simple Christian versus Muslim divide as I had thought, but that one of shifting, complex, and unpredictable alliances between multiple sects and factions.
That said, I have Lebanese friends who urged me to read Lebanese writers on Lebanon, feeling that the Lebanese, well, understood themselves better. (See this article on Al Jazeera written on the occasion of the 2010 re-release of Friedman’s book, which echoes some of the criticisms.) They suggested renowned Lebanese scholar Fouad Ajami (see Culture, above), but it wasn’t the comprehensive modern history I was seeking. Other friends cut some slack for Robert Fisk, author of Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (2002), as “the only Westerner who understands Lebanon.” That book is now on my shelf, but first I want to read my husband’s new book by Lebanese author Samir Kassir…
Beirut by Samir Kassir (2010)
Much more than modern history, Beirut tells the story of this city from its ancient roots to modern day (or at least up until 2005 when the book’s author was assassinated). Kassir was a professor of history at Beirut’s Saint-Joseph University, a journalist, and a vocal critic of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. He was killed by a car bomb on June 2, 2005, shortly after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. My husband is reading this right now and says the writing is beautiful; I’m looking forward to picking it up when he has finished.
Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God Hardcover by Matthew Levitt (2013)
I think it’s going to become uncomfortably obvious that I prefer the personalized perspective of memoirs over other types of non-fiction, because this is yet another book on my shelf that I want to read, but haven’t actually cracked open yet. (Well, it’s on my Kindle, so the shelf is figurative, but you get what I mean.)
Living in Honduras (one of the pit stops on the drug route from South to North America) I became aware of how groups in distant countries have their tentacles into the drug trade, and was intrigued by the book’s description as the “first thorough examination of Hezbollah’s covert activities beyond Lebanon’s borders, including its financial and logistical support networks and its criminal and terrorist operations worldwide.” There are often allegations against Hezbollah for money laundering and drug trafficking networks that stretch to South America, and I’m curious to see what Levitt might have to say on the matter. I’ll get back to you when I’ve read it.
It’s a rainy day in Beirut today. Just the right kind of day for curling up on the couch with a good book.