“Hikayat – Short Stories by Lebanese Women”

Hikayat – Short Stories by Lebanese Women — Edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf.

This introduction included here with thanks and all credit to Roseanne Saad Khalaf.  To purchase and for more information on the book, please see: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hikayat-Short-Stories-Lebanese-Women/dp/1846590116

The selections presented in this anthology bring together contemporary stories and prose pieces by established Lebanese women authors as well as promising young writers. They highlight the diversity, startling originality and compelling richness of women’s voices and experiences in a dynamic, fast-changing cosmopolitan society. Collectively, the narratives span three distinct but overlapping eras: the pre-war period, often considered the golden age in Lebanon; the two decades of protracted civil strife; followed by the postwar phase of reconstruction and reconciliation.

During the late 1950s, a group of talented women writers appeared on the Lebanese literary scene. Before this time, the contributions of women were few and the Lebanese canon, such as it was, consisted almost exclusively of works written by men. In an unexpected move, and in contrast to the dynamic of previous generations, these authors expertly relocated their prose to a more central position. Now, for the first time, women writers were competing with men in literary and commercial arenas. Together they mapped an entirely different landscape, writing in ways that radically redefined traditional literary expectations. To a large extent, their emerging influence is attributed to innovative themes and styles, coupled with an unthreatening approach. In a bid to address relevant issues, they wrote gender-informed narratives about identity and desire, defying the conventions imposed on women by a restrictive society. Female protagonists were boldly empowered to voice their own needs and expectations in hitherto unheard of ways, adamantly rejecting previously acceptable themes that reduced them to nothing more than objects of the male gaze. Interestingly, their narratives correspond to the last two phases of Elaine Showalter’s three-stage Gynocriticism theory of female literary evolution in the Western novel (1977): the feminist stage of protest against traditional standards (1880 – 1920) and the female stage of searching for a new identity (1920 onwards).1

By choosing a reflexive approach, women novelists could now rely almost entirely on topics drawn from personal experience. More importantly, however, their stance, whether intentional or accidental, served an immediate purpose: it ensured quick entry into the canon from which they had previously been excluded. Perhaps in writing differently they posed no direct threat to the male literary establishment, but whatever the reasons the results, so soon realized, had immediate and far-reaching consequences. Apart from their creativity often exceeding and overshadowing works written by men 2, their texts successfully moved female fiction out of the margins and into the mainstream. For the first time, prose that voiced gendered rebellion was redefining the way women wrote and having a decisive impact in shaping the imaginative work that followed. Their fiction stood in stark contrast with that of the previous generation of women authors who had so readily imitated established male literary traditions and who fit easily into Showalter’s first phase, the imitation of the dominant literary tradition (1840 – 80).

Layla Baalbaki, Rima Alamuddin and Emily Nasrallah are three compelling examples of writers who became distinguished for their remarkable literary activity during the pre-war period. All came from radically different backgrounds and confessional groups but together they created means of self-expression that dramatically altered the way Lebanese women crafted their prose. Layla Ballbaki gained instant notoriety for her outspokenness, especially against sexual segregation in arab society. In fact, the publication of her collection in 1964, Safinat Hanan ila al Qamar (Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon), led to her being unsuccessfully persecuted by the Lebanese authorities who deemed her writing too sexually explicit and therefore capable of corrupting public morality, particularly among the young.

In seeking to transform the lives of women, her candid prose boldly and critically challenges the prejudiced values and accepted attitudes so deeply ingrained in a rigid patriarchal system. Her defiance of gender inequalities scrutinizes the sacred institutions of marriage and motherhood, forcing even the male characters in her texts to rethink and question blind conformity. Clearly, her considerable impact was not limited to Lebanon. Zeidan claims that Baalbaki was much admired in literary circles throughout the arab world and credits her with ‘bringing the discourse of a female point of view into the mainstream of Arab writing’.3 Until then, literature, emblematic of a patriarchal culture, was written from distinctly male points of view. Moreover, Baalbaki was the first Arab woman writer to employ first-person narration in fiction, using the pronoun ‘I’ to stress the identity and individuality of the female protagonist. 4 With her novel Ana Ahya (I Survive, 1958), she ushered in a whole new era in women’s fiction, highlighting issues of personal freedom, autonomy and self-fulfillment that influenced the ‘agenda’ of later novels 5. Undoubtedly, Baalbaki’s accomplishments paved the way for writers in the generations to come.

In 1960, at the age of nineteen, Rima Alamuddin wrote her first novel, Spring to Summer, and after graduating from the American University of Beirut she studied English Literature at Girton College, Cambridge. \The Cellist’ which appeared in her collection, The Sun is Silent, was published in 1964, a year after her untimely death. It reveals the fiercely independent mind of a professional woman whose identity and self-worth exist entirely outside the male gaze.

Emily Nasrallah’s first novel, Tuyur Aylul (Birds of September, 1962), explored what later became a common theme in her work: the alienation of the younger generation from the restrictive and stifling conventions of village life and their determination to break away in search of more promising opportunities. Many moved away to cities, thereby compounding the expansion of urbanization, whereas even larger numbers emigrated, thus exacerbating the country’s proverbial ‘brain drain’. In subsequent years, with the onset of the Lebanese civil war, the tragedy and devastation it inflicted on the country and its people became a backdrop to many of her most poignant stories. ‘The Green Bird’, taken from her collection A House Not Her Own: Stories from Beirut (1992), tells of a grief-stricken man’s obsessive belief in the power of miracles to reverse his pain and ease the shock of his son’s violent death. In relating this heart-rending tale, the narrator stoically gains strength to endure the incomprehensible horrors of war.

With the outbreak of the Lebanese War in 1975, which spanned nearly two decades, came a surge of literary creativity. While the previous generation was essentially concerned with matters of personal identity and the desire for individual freedom and self-expression, the focus now shifted, primarily during the first half of the war (up to the 1982 Israeli invasion) to confront a much darker reality. During this time, as women writers became increasingly consumed by Lebanon’s tragedy, they shifted their narrative gaze away from the brutal fighting to concentrate instead on the traumas resulting from protracted and random violence. While it is easy to attribute their stance to lack of military knowledge, it was more likely an attempt to gain distance from the atrocities of warfare in order to explore deeper concerns.

Regardless of the reasons, their prose provided graphic glimpses into the tragic human consequences of violence by delving into the terrain of pain, fear and despair that paralysed the daily lives of an entire civilian population and transformed the war-torn nation into a living hell. As their fiction demonstrates, opposition to the war, alongside the exploration of alternatives to violence as a means of resolving conflict, became recurring and increasingly dominant themes. The effect was startling. Silent marginal voices capable of destabilizing and challenging the master war narrative could now be heard in the wider public sphere.

The women who wrote during the war, or the ‘Beirut Decentrists’ as Cooke names them, ‘shared Beirut as their home and war as their experience’. 6 They were able to transcend confessional and political loyalties in order to concentrate almost entirely on the omitted stories of pain and suffering. Hence they contributed a crucial and hitherto overlooked dimension to the Lebanese literary canon.

At the same time, in their war-telling, literary figures such Etel Adnan, Hanan al-Shaykh, Emily Nasrallah, Hoda Barakat and Nazik Saba Yared moved beyond simply exposing or recording daily atrocities to produce oppositional discourses and alternative visions that redefined nationalism. Their humane approach, encouraging non-violent means of bringing the war to an end, created a narrative of peace politics 7.

Cooke’s views have not gone unchallenged. Some scholars 8 have contested her designation of the Beirut Decentrists by drawing a clear division between women writers who emigrated, thus becoming Francophone or Anglophone expatriates, emigrants or exiles, and those who remained ‘under the bombs in Beirut.’ 9 Indeed, Hoda Barakat, Najwa Barakat, Hanan al-Shaykh, Mai Ghoussoub and Etel adnan are among those who settled abroad, becoming exiled decentrists residing in Western cities. Distance enabled them to write ‘from the vantage point of informed outsiders looking in, and more specifically, looking back’. 10 Consequently, they reclaimed the war experience with ‘the geographical and temporal distance necessary for an adequate assessment of the war’s personal and communal implications’. In the case of Etel Adnan, movement between numerous worlds (Beirut, London and California) and multiple cultures creates a new ethos for understanding subjectivity. As a ‘trans-national writer’, her awareness takes her ‘to a space beyond the dogma of nationalism and other codified aspects of subjectivity as gender and race.’ 11

Among the writers represented in this collection, Etel Adnan and Hanan al-Shaykh are, arguably, two of the most prominent and widely read. Adnan’s richly detailed store, ‘The Power of Death’ is a mesmerizing tale of friendship that depicts an embittered man whose life has gone horribly wrong. Throughout, he is haunted by an irreversible decision taken in his youth. Hanan al-Shaykh is perhaps best known for her novel, Hikayat Zahra (The Story of Zahra, 1980), a skillfully wrought work that offers a scathing feminist commentary on life during the Lebanese war. In contrast, ‘The Hot Seat’, a compact and blunt tale, exists completely outside the war experience. Seemingly innocent daydreams quickly end in an abrupt and starling reversal. In the excerpt from Nazik Saba Yared’s novel, Improvisations on a Missing String, Saada is saddened by her sister’s decision to leave Lebanon, while the selection from Alawiya Sobh’s novel, Stories by Mariam, depicts a young woman’s earnest account of thwarted romantic love and disappointments across the religious and social divide. It raises disturbing questions about the moral dilemmas of liberated women living in a society with rigidly defined rules. Finally, the extracts from B for a House Named Beirut by Iman Humaydan Younes tells the story of Warda’s desperate attempt to locate her daughter whom she imagines has been kidnapped.

With the Taif Accord in 1990, the Lebanese war was officially brought to a close, yet the lingering horrors along with the need to reconstruct and address the inevitable consequences, continue to inform women’s prose. In fact, much of the fiction produced in the postwar period is concerned with sorting out the past, which may inevitably be a way of clearing ground for the literature of the future. Writers revisit a landscape haunted by pain, cruelty and retribution, challenging the conspiracy of silence or collective amnesia that characterizes the attitude of many Lebanese. The past in their narratives is intricately linked to the present, often rendering stories more unsettling than enjoyable.

Mishka Moujabbar Mourani’s ‘The Fragrant Garden’ exposes the seemingly tolerant façade of Lebanese postwar society. Ironically, the husband fondly remembers what in hindsight he describes as idyllic war routines while candidly admitting his resentment of the returnees who are invading his space. ‘The Phone Call’ from Renee Hayek’s collection Portraits of Forgetfulness (1994) is the story of a dysfunctional woman whose empty life is a result of the numbing experience of war. Throughout, the protagonist is trapped in the heavy stillness of Hayek’s prose. In Merriam Haffar’s ‘Pieces of a Past Life’ Soumaya’s genuine grief and concern for her disturbed father, another war victim, is as tender as it is distressing. Haffar, who is herself too young to remember the war, writes to imagine and reconstruct a traumatic moment in the history of her country and to expose the war’s debilitating consequences on the life of a family. In Jana Faour’s story, ‘Not Today’ a young woman looks back on a simple but disillusioning childhood episode that strengthens her resolve to transcend the pervasive hostility and ignorance resulting from religious difference.

What differentiates the next group of postwar women writers is the ability to produce storylines that repeatedly de-center romantic as well as rebellious narratives. An unsentimental and deterministic outlook calls for re-imagining and reshuffling themes as well as applying jarring techniques that disturb the rhythm and flow of the prose. In addition, the loosening or dissolution of human bonds, sexual relationships and emotional dilemmas is clearly evident. All these authors craft narratives with liberating and transforming possibilities, each writing against the grain, using innovative wordplay to experiment with form and content. Mai Ghoussoub’s ‘Red Lips’ and Nadine Touma’s ‘Red Car’ are startlingly original, with vividly rendered settings. In order to reshape mainstream notions of sex, intimacy and love, the stories challenge what normally passes for acceptable behaviour. The language is dark, luxurious, dazzling, with themes that focus on the odd, the edgy, the risky and the peculiar. The prose runs freely, breaking down barriers, conjuring up playful but dangerous fantasy worlds of desire. Moreover, within these surreal arenas, shamelessly uninhibited characters engage in forbidden sexual acts in the most sacred of places: a convent and a mosque. Ghoussoub shakes up the normal flow of the linear text as she juxtaposes and experiments with assertions and insertions. Touma’s images, on the other hand, travel through the tale in rapid succession with new meanings attaching to them on the way. Both texts are tightly wrought and dramatically compelling in their desire to transform. They suggest daring possibilities capable of reshaping and radically altering inflexible and essentialist views. ‘Omega: Definitions’ by Zeina B Ghandour, is relentless in its abrasive immediacy. Direct, snappy and defiant in tone, its power lies in the potential to provoke. The excerpt from Huda Karim’s candid novel, Tranche de Plage (A Slice of Beach), transports the reader to the intimacy of two male lovers living in the midst of an unwelcoming culture. Whereas in the selection from Najwa Barakat’s gripping thriller, The Language of the Secret, the reader is witness to Khaldoun’s wild and fanciful secret religious mission.

Stories that break the silence by focusing on what remains unsaid or purposefully ignored offer the ossibility of actualizing or realizing change. May Menassa, Jocelyn Awad, Zalfa Feghali, Nada Ramadan, Evelyn Shakir and Patricia Sarrafian ward all portray female protagonists who defy their domestic and familial situations in varying degrees and with entirely different outcomes. Selections from Menassa’s The Pomegranate Notebook and Awad’s Khamsin describe dramatic events: a birth and a marriage, prompting the reader to view the patterns of families over generations. But the real purpose is to expose the rough customs and abuse that rural women are often subjected to. Zalfa Feghali’s story, ‘Wild Child’ is a chilling account of living with the bitter pain of exclusion, drug addiction and, ultimately, madness. From the outset, it is powerfully imagined, heavy with irony and emotionally charged as Nour, the isolated, rebellious protagonist, ‘others’ the hostile relatives who have so insensitively marginalized her. Nada Ramadan’s vignette ‘Chores’ possesses an air of immediacy while employing a flauntingly feminine style that voices the protagonist’s protests along with her desire to be liberated from tedious, confining domestic routines. Because the prose never gives way to emotionalism, the story succeeds in being more than just a vehicle for the dramatization of wronged womanhood. Hoda Barakat is the acclaimed author of an intensely evocative novel, The Stone of Laughter (1990). ‘Chat’, taken from her recent collection of reflective essays, deplores the callous attitude of Lebanese youth living abroad to the Arabic language.

Evelyn Shakir’s ‘Name-calling’ and Patricia Sarrafian Ward’s ‘Voice’ also provide vividly critical glimpses that give voice to the silence in Lebanese households. Their protagonists share the initial experience of being silenced but ultimately refuse to adopt the silence as their own. Yet finding a voice is not simple, for it requires a series of delicately complex mediations. Shakir’s story explores the negative aspects of Lebanese culture in the United States and its debilitating consequences on the lives of women. If at first, Dolores lacks the resourcefulness necessary to gain any semblance of independence, she later gains the inner strength to exert her will and restore a sense of self and personal autonomy independent of her role as wife or mother. In ‘Voice’, Ward crafts a linear tale that is deceptively simple and straightforward due to skilful omissions. When the mysteriously silent girl suddenly appears, the reader wonders what thoughts fill her mind. Then, as the story unfolds, our focus shifts to question her seemingly well-intended employer. The girl, whose shy, vulnerable manner is misleading, presents him with possibilities at once tempting and anxiety-inducing for they awaken suppressed yearnings carefully concealed beneath a thin veneer of respectability. Ironically, the reversal casts doubt on whether the girl ever actually feared her employer.

Shakir and Ward address questions of power and powerlessness, so vital to those who have remained invisible in their culture. By breaking the silence, such stories cleverly disrupt the discourse of the good or obedient woman, exposing situations that raise serious issues pertaining to marriage, generation and culture.

In the last ten years, a group of aspiring young fiction writers has emerged. Not surprisingly, a significant number are hybrid and multicultural returnees, border-crossers who have experienced a high rate of mobility as a result of growing up during the dangerous war years. Their introspective prose is entirely devoid of any youthful optimism, and themes are drawn from the risks, unexpected detours, and intense moments that define their broad experiences and journeys. They share a new post-modern sensibility, assuming a self-critical and cynical outlook that rejects cultural or national identity. Instead the negotiation of multiple identities in shifting contexts assumes particular significance, empowering these writers with rare insight into the reality of cross-cultural situations. The constant repositioning of a self that is hybrid, multiple and continually undergoing change has resulted in distinctly different storytelling, the impact of which could prove groundbreaking in a country that is perhaps on the threshold of a new era.

Hala Alyan’s ‘Painted Reflections’ and Lina Mounzer’s ‘The One-eyed Man’ reveal the dilemma of being caught between two or more worlds. They explore the difficulties and tensions resulting from Diaspora and feelings of displacement associated with simultaneously belonging everywhere and nowhere. These authors base their work on intimate personal experiences, writing stories that are somewhat peculiar and loosely plotted, fluid, non-linear and fragmented. But when read within a specific context, they reflect important aspects of their lives: the tales are a testimony to the uncertainties and instabilities witnessed before and in the aftermath of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s brutal assassination on 14 February 2005. The Cedar Revolution that followed ended Syria’s thirty-year hegemony over Lebanon and was largely instigated and sustained by youthful groups. As might be expected, the collective enthusiasm generated by the uprising did not materialize in the progressive transformations so keenly anticipated by the participants. Consequently, a growing number of returnee writers seem legitimately overwhelmed by a demoralizing dissonance between hoped for expectations on the one hand and existing realities on the other. At present, these are the areas being explored by young women writers who refuse to comply with an aborted national consciousness and who continue to question and to expose.

‘The One-eyed Man’ by Lina Mounzer is about people woven together in a destructive web of kinship and misunderstanding. Ali, the exiled and alienated protagonist, is consumed with scathing bitterness of self, family and nation as he struggles to come to terms with war-related feelings of loss. The unfolding transformation of his character, through fragments and flashbacks, ultimately assumes more importance than his reporting of experience. In Alyan’s ‘Painted Reflections’, a Lebanese American woman embarks on a journey of rediscovery to her homeland, in part to escape the pain of her loss on 9/11, coupled with a desire to experience the left-behind place she has come to know only vicariously through the words or silences of her Lebanese mother. Shortly after her arrival, she witnesses the horrific carnage of Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Her response is to embark on an orgy of drugs and alcohol while engaging in a hypnotic frenzy of painting. The destructive intensity with which she confronts the dilemma of being positioned on the crossroads between two cultures, yet unable to draw strength or identity from either, is a recipe for disaster.

Young returnees like Alyan and Mounzer who have spent their lives dipping in and out of Lebanon during and after the war years possess a remarkably rich consciousness. By weaving stories against more than one landscape, the condition of living between worlds is made critically clear. Constructing layers of narratives, one upon the other and one beside the other, creates spaces of tension and uncertainty between the authors, their protagonists and the multiple societies they inhabit, thus instigating a global, post-modern conversation across time and space. In this way, seemingly personal and private texts are capable of revealing a much wider and ever-expanding story.

Making selections for an anthology is never an easy process, and no single collection can be considered definitive or exhaustive. Inevitably, there will be omissions, sometimes resulting from the delicate issue of ‘translatability’. Tales that may be fascinating to read in one language are often problematic in translation. For example, the common practice in Arabic of identifying characters generically as ‘the woman’ and ‘the man’ can prove awkward in an English text. The narratives compiled here are translated from Arabic or French unless, of course, they were originally written in English and the inclusion of novel excerpts results from the fact that most Lebanese authors prefer the novel genre to that of the short story. In an attempt to simplify, I have not applied any of the international transliteration systems such as the one used by The Encyclopedia of Islam or the International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMAS). Nor has my aim been merely to present a diverse set of stories: because of my commitment to the future, I have attempted to bring together pieces by students as well as the work of authors with already established reputations.

Much of my time since I launched Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut is dedicated to working with aspiring young writers. Throughout the years, it has been immensely rewarding to witness how they shape and are shaped by the stories they tell. Their relentless search for meaning and identity has helped me to better understand the complex, rapidly changing circumstances that constitute their extraordinary reality in an unstable postwar setting. Together we have shared, in varying degrees, disillusionment and hope for a country we so deeply care about. The dreams and aspirations they carefully tuck in their texts fuel my confidence in their ability to become agents of change through the power of imagination and by assuming new direction that will inevitably restructure the future Lebanese literary canon. Precisely for these reasons, we must listen to their storytelling. I have included five of my gifted women students among the contributors – Hala Alyan, Jana Faour, Merriam Haffar, Zelfa Feghali and Lina Mounzer. The reader may wish to keep in mind that their pieces were originally written for our Creative Workshops and, as such, belong to the earliest stage of their careers.

Finally, in the gathering and grouping of stories, this anthology also tells its own story of how contemporary Lebanese women continually venture into little-known territory, of how their prose explores and probes the fast-changing and complex terrain of experience, breaking up existing narrative patterns and speaking through the silence. Undoubtedly, their distinguished accomplishments will be a source of creative inspiration for talented new voices in a country in dire need of innovative alternatives.

Roseanne Saad Khalaf

  1. Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of their Own (Princeton 1977), p. 13
  2. Agacy, Samira, ‘Lebanese Women’s Fiction: Urban Identity and the Tyranny of the Past’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 33 (2001), p. 503
  3. Zeidan, Joseph, Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond (New York 1995), p. 139
  4. Ibid, p. 99
  5. Ibid, p. 155
  6. Cooke, Mariam, War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (Cambridge 1988), p. 3
  7. Mapping Peace 1999: edited by Shehadi
  8. Amyuni, Mona Takieddine, ‘A Panorama of Lebanese Women Writers, 1975 – 1995’, in Lamia Rustum Shehadeh’s Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (Florida 1999)
  9. Amyuni, p. 9
  10. Fadda-Conrey, Carol, ‘Exilic Memories of War: Lebanese Women Writers Looking Back’, Arabesque: Arabic Literature in Translation and Arab Diasporic writing, special issue of Studies in the Humanities 30 (2003), p. 8
  11. Shoaib, Mahwash, ‘Surpassing Borders and Folded Maps: Etel Adnan’s Location is There’, Arabesque: Arabic Literature in Translation and Arab Diasporic Writing p. 23

4 comments on ““Hikayat – Short Stories by Lebanese Women”

  1. Khaled Igbaria says:

    Dear Editor,
    I am pleased to say: I have found your site usefull and serious academic. I would like you please to help me found Baalbakki’s articles as juornalist during 50s and 60s in Lebanese newspapers like Al-Nahar, Al-Dustour,al-Asboua al-arabi etc. I need them for finishing my dissertation at Edinburgh University in Edinburgh, Uk.
    Many thanks for you in advance,
    Khaled Igbaria

  2. Hi,congratulations on your great hard work on such a long list of women writers works.I am a writer of novels and short stories.I was surprised not to see any of my works mentioned in your study,although two of them were presented at LAU (speakers dr.Latif Zaytouni and dr. Ruhi Baalbaki)
    wish all the luck.

  3. […] in the anthology Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women. “The Phone Call” is, according to Read Kutub, the story of a dysfunctional woman whose empty life is a result of the numbing experience of war. […]

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