Sunday, April 29, 2007

two books by lebanese women

Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America
by Evelyn Shakir
Syracuse University Press, New York
pp 184, ISBN 978-0-8156-0881-3

Dreams of Water
by Nada Awar Jarrar
Harper Collins, London
pp 233, ISBN 978-0-00-722195-0

Evelyn Shakir and Nada Awar Jarrar are writers of Lebanese origin who explore the responses of women to migration, war and other upheavals. One point of correspondence between Shakir’s short stories and Jarrar’s novel is the enduring pull of Lebanon, no matter how much migrants may try to leave behind “the old country” of Shakir’s Lebanese-Americans.

The adults in Remember Me to Lebanon pepper their conversation with Lebanese dialect and cook Lebanese dishes. Marriage remains a focal point of concern; the sisters in “Remember Vaughn Monroe?”, who originate from Zahle, are “ripe for the picking” by potential bridegrooms.

Members of the younger generation may try to shake off their Lebanese or Arab roots, only to rediscover them. In “Let’s Dance”, it is when Nadia, daughter of a divorced American mother and Lebanese father, introduces herself to fellow college students and wishes to impress a young Greek Cypriot man that she says for the first time ever “I’m Arab”.

Aneesa, the central character in Jarrar’s Dreams of Water, has a painful relationship with Lebanon where her brother Bassam disappeared during the civil war. She escapes to London, where she works as a translator, but Lebanon haunts her.

When Aneesa refuses to accompany her boyfriend of one year, Robert , to New York, where he has been offered a job, her friend Isabel accuses her of not wanting to make a commitment because it was not convenient. According to Isabel, Aneesa failed to take Isabel, Robert and the others she had met in London seriously, seeing them merely as “something new and exotic”. But when Aneesa eventually returns to Lebanon, there are “things about this new Beirut that no longer seem right so that she sometimes feels out of place where she least expects to.”

Shakir and Jarrar draw on their individual and collective experiences in their fiction. Shakir grew up as a Lebanese-American in post-Second World war America. She is an essayist and scholar of Arab-American literature with degrees from Wellesley College, Harvard and Boston University, and is professor emerita of Bentley College.

Shakir’s book Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States, published in 1995, contains stories from Arab-American women she interviewed and from her mother (an Arabic version is soon to be published). Some of the ten stories in Remember Me to Lebanon were previously published in literary journals, and “Remember Vaughn Monroe?” appeared in Post-Gibran: Anthology of New Arab-American Writing edited by Khaled Mattawa and Munir Akash.

Jarrar was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese father and Australian mother. After leaving Lebanon in 1975 because of the civil war, she lived in London, Paris, Sydney and Washington DC. She now lives in Beirut with her husband and daughter. During the war last summer she and her family sought refuge in the mountains but decided not to leave Lebanon. She wrote about the impact of the war in the article “A Family at War” published by the Times newspaper in London.

Jarrar’s first novel Somewhere, Home won the Commonwealth Best First Book award for Southeast Asia and the South Pacific in 2004. The mountains of Lebanon are again an important presence in her new novel, particularly through the Druze belief in reincarnation. In the novel’s opening scene four-year-old Aneesa is taken by her mother Waddad to a sheikh because she has been talking about “my children”. The sheikh declares that she is remembering a past life.

When Aneesa returns from London to Lebanon, she finds that Waddad believes she has found the reincarnated Bassam in Ramzi, an eight-year-old boy abandoned in an orphanage. Aneesa is struck by the change in Waddad from the middle-aged woman she left behind to a crop-haired woman who looks like a 12-year-old boy in her jeans and white T-shirt. Whether or not Ramzi is a reincarnation of Bassam, identifying and caring for him has transformed Waddad.

Jarrar delicately delineates the mysterious currents connecting people. In London, Aneesa strikes up a tender friendship with Salah, a Lebanese widower in his seventies. “Our mountain people would say we were only two old souls recognizing one another after a long absence” Aneesa tells Salah in a section of the narrative addressed to him.

Dreams of Water is introspective and muted, told in the present tense with scenes constantly shifting in time and place. Jarrar finds poetry in the everyday, whether in the homely tasks of preparing food, in scenes in a London park or in Aneesa’s watching fishermen on the Beirut corniche.

The women in Evelyn Shakir’s stories tend to be feisty, independent characters with a sharp wit. The stories, set at different times over the past four or so decades, are full of vitality and momentum. The female characters often strive to establish their independence in the face of family pressures. “The Story of Young Ali” depicts a father trying to transmit traditional ways to his cheeky, argumentative daughter by reading her Arab tales. The father of the protagonist of “Oh, Lebanon” cuts links with her after she strikes up a relationship with a black Jamaican fellow student. After a series of subsequent romances, she is at a loss over how to find a husband. “Back in Lebanon, her stepmother’s housekeeper had taught her to snap the pointy tip of okra to test for freshness and sniff a honeydew for ripeness. But no heart-to-heart from anyone about sizing up a man.”

Through a dating agency she meets a Christian of Lebanese origin who is delighted she is Muslim because it makes her “more authentic. A card-carrying Arab.” A former boyfriend had told her always to introduce herself a “Phoenician” or, if she must, as simply “Lebanese”, because saying she was Arab did “not sound very nice”.

The suspicion that may be attached to Arab immigrants today is reflected in “I Got My Eye on You”, in which an elderly American woman living alone is nervous about the activities of her unruly adolescent Arab neighbours. She is egged on over the telephone by her sister, who tells her the kids “must be hatching something” and reminds her about 9/11.

These latest published writings of Nada Awar Jarrar and Evelyn Shakir are vibrant examples of the fiction currently being produced by Lebanese women. The ongoing uncertainty in Lebanon, and the current tumult of the wider Middle East, is likely to increase the international readership of such works.
Susannah Tarbush
Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature No 28 Spring 2007

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