Between new love and old home

BEIRUT BLUES by Hanan al-Shaykh trs Catherine Cobham, Chatto £14.99

AT one point in Hanan al-Shaykh's new novel, the narrator Asmahan learns that her grandfather, a dirty old man who likes to bruise women's breasts, has taken up with a young Lolita. The nymphet, Juhayna, is suspected by various family members of having designs on their inheritance, but Asmahan is moved to a more generous, and stranger, judgment. "In choosing him she was merely choosing the past which had proved its authenticity compared to the bearded leaders, the conflicting voices, the clash of arms."

The past is mourned throughout Beirut Blues, mourned without sentimentality. The past is the place in which Asmahan's grandmother had to fight for the right to literacy, but it is also the lost village land, occupied first by Palestinians and then by local thugs, it is Beirut, that once beautiful, brilliant, cosmopolitan city, transformed now into the barbarity of ruins in which perch snipers picking off women in blue dresses and other fighters who are afraid of the hooting of owls. The young Asmahan grew addicted to the voice of Billie Holiday. Now she writes letters to departed friends, to her lost land, to her lover, to her city, to the war itself, letters with the quality of slow, sensuous, sad music. Now the strange fruit is hanging from the trees outside Asmahan's own windows, and she has become the lady singing the blues.

"In Lebanon," Edward Said has said, "the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women's writing), reportage, pastiche..." How to create literature - how to preserve its fragilities, and also its tough-minded individuality - in the middle of an explosion? Elias Khoury, in his brilliant short novel Little Mountain (1977), created an amalgam of fable, surrealism, reportage, low comedy and memoir that provided one response to this question. Hanan al-Shaykh - perhaps the finest of the women writers to whom Said referred, author of the acclaimed The Story of Zahra and Women of Sand and Myrrh - offers a new solution. What unifies her novel's shattered universe is the presence, everywhere in her prose, of the low unabated fever of human desire. It is the melancholy, luscious portrait of letter-writing Asmahan, a true sensualist of Beirut, a woman given to spending long afternoons oiling her hair, who acts with a sexual freedom and writes with an explicitness of erotic feeling and description that makes this novel pretty daring by the puritanical standards of the mosque- and militia-ridden present.

Asmahan begins and ends her epistolary narrative with letters to an old friend, Hayat, now living abroad; and the question of exile is one of the book's recurring motifs. (Modern Arabic literature is, more and more, a literature not only of exile but by exiles; the men of violence and God are making sure of that.) Asmahan feels sorry for her old friend, living away from home and missing Lebanese food; she feels almost contemptuous of the returning writer Jawad, with his smart questions, his appointments, his arrival as a voyeur of her lived reality. "Then one day he opened his eyes ... the newspapers no longer provided him with a hunting-ground for his sarcastic jokes; it almost seemed to cause him physical pain to read of the senselessness of what was happening." At this moment, he and Asmahan begin their affair; and so she must choose between new love and old home, for Jawad will leave Beirut. She, too, must contemplate exile. Perhaps, in the name of love, she must become like Hayat, her friend and mirror-soul, for whom she has felt such pity, even scorn.

It would be wrong to reveal Asmahan's final choice, but it is not easily made. Her attachment to Beirut is very deep, even though, in a letter to campaigner Jill Morrell, she compares herself to the hostages. "My mind is no longer my own ... I possess my body but not, even temporarily, the ground I walk on. What does it mean to be kidnapped? Being separated forcibly from your environment, family, friends, home, bed. So in some strange way I can persuade myself that I'm worse off than them ... For I'm still in my own place, but separated from it in a painful way: this is my city and I don't recognise it."

Al-Shaykh brings to this transformed Beirut a passion of description. Here are cows that have become addicted to cannabis, and Iranian signs on shopfronts, and plastic-bottle trees. Old place-names have lost meaning and new ones have sprung up. There are Palestinians who speak a Beckettian language: "I'll have to kill myself. No, I must keep going," and there are militias and terrorists, and there is the War, "People have a desperate need to enter any conflict which has become familiar... to save them searching further afield and investigating the mysteries of life and death," Asmahan writes. "You [the War] give them confidence and a kind of serenity; people make this precious discovery and play your game."

What shall I do with these ideas? agonises Asmahan, and perhaps the best answer lies in her indomitable grandmother's advice. Remember who we are. Make sure the larder and the fridge are never empty.

In this, her finest novel, fluently translated by Catherine Cobham, Hanan al-Shaykh makes that act of remembrance, joining it to an unforgettable portrait of a broken city. It should be read by everyone who cares about the truths behind the clichd Beirut of the TV news; and by everyone who cares about the more enduring, and universal, truths of the heart.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf