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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.