Analysis of Hanan al-Shaykh’s Beirut Blues

Written in Arabic by Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh (1945– ) and translated into English as Beirut Blues by Catherine Cobham in 1995, Barid Bayrut is one of most haunting and compelling novels about enduring the day-to-day challenges of the Lebanese civil war (1975–90). Often referred to as an epistolary novel, Beirut Blues comprises a collection of letters written by the protagonist, Asmahan, an independent Lebanese Muslim woman who opts to remain in Lebanon despite the ravages of the civil war. The letters, which remain unsent, offer insightful glimpses into Asmahan’s emotional and intellectual state.

Hanan al-Shaykh

Hanan al-Shaykh. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Each letter is addressed to a particular character or location that has had a marked influence on Asmahan, including the narrator’s emigrant friend Hanan, her exlover Naser, her family’s land in a Lebanese village, her grandmother, Billie Holiday, the war, and Beirut itself. As she does in some of her other novels, al-Shaykh delves once again into the personal and communal effects of civil war, with the collection of letters in Beirut Blues amounting to Asmahan’s account of living through a war. In this way al-Shaykh offers a layered and multidimensional version of this intensely complex milestone in recent Lebanese history.

One of the important roles carried out by Beirut Blues is that it emphasizes a strong and deep-seated connection between the Lebanese in the diaspora and those who have stayed behind, delineating the emotional and national ties that unite these two groups, as well as their deep attachment, whether it be direct or indirect, to the city of Beirut. When all other vital modes of communication have been cut as a result of the raging war, Asmahan’s letters (and by extension the novel itself) act as a lifeline linking the Lebanese in exile to their friends and families back home and redraw, from Asmahan’s personal point of view, the overall trajectory of the war for Lebanese and foreign readers alike.

Originally written in Arabic and published in 1992, Beirut Blues is al-Shaykh’s retrospective look at the personal and communal effects of Lebanon’s civil war, which has instilled lingering psychological traumas in its citizens. By recreating the 1985 tensions between two Muslim militias in Beirut—Amal on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other—al-Shaykh reinstates in Beirut Blues the necessity to assess the war’s impact from a retrospective point of view. She does this revisionary act by segmenting the war into isolated incidents and events, highlighting in the process its senseless and purely destructive causes. Avoiding nostalgic sentimentality, this novel brings under intense scrutiny the readiness of a nation to delve into a bloody war, at the same time alluding to the harmful effects that might result from the Lebanese community’s ready and unquestioning postwar erasure of its traumatic memories.

Furthermore, Beirut Blues not only brings into dialogue such complex notions as home and exile, but also complicates the notion of home itself by incorporating within the novel’s framework diverse elements that are at odds with each other on the Lebanese home front, such as the village on the one hand and the city on the other, as well as the geographical and ideological border separating East from West Beirut during the civil war. The physical and psychological effects of this war are so overpoweringly present in this novel (primarily through Asmahan’s letters) that the war itself becomes a primary, if not the primary, character in the narrative.

Asmahan’s characterization is also important to reach a fuller understanding of the war’s conditions. One of the most poignant portrayals in Beirut Blues is Asmahan wavering between her longing to be with her lover Jawad in Paris and yet her inability to renounce her attachment to Beirut. Even though she often expresses a sense of being imprisoned within the city, she still regards the option of leaving the country and the war behind as an act of deception. Yet Beirut Blues cannot be accused in any way of offering a romanticized portrayal of Beirut. In fact, it is precisely sentimentality and nostalgia that al-Shaykh fights against in this novel. For this reason, underscoring the political dimensions of the war becomes a focal point in the novel, so much so that a more accurate, albeit fragmented, portrayal of Lebanon emerges.

Beirut Blues remains one of the most poignant literary representations of the civil war in Lebanon, mixing the personal with the communal to offer an intensely emotional yet critical look at such devastating circumstances. al-Shaykh has been celebrated for her incisive portrayals in Beirut Blues, which not only attest to the resilience of a people’s will but also bear witness to the importance of coming to terms with a country’s traumatic history.

Adams, Ann Marie. “Writing Self, Writing Nation: Imagined Geographies in the Fiction of Hanan al-Shaykh.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 20, no. 2 (2001): 201–216.
Fadda-Conrey, Carol. “Exilic Memories of War: Lebanese Women Writers Looking Back.” In Arabesque: Arabic Literature in Translation and Arab Diasporic Writing, edited by Maysa Abou-Youssef Hayward. Special issue of Studies in the Humanities 30, nos. 1–2 (2003): 7–20.
Manganaro, Elise Salem. “Lebanon Mythologized or Lebanon Deconstructed: Two Narratives of National Consciousness.” In Women and War in Lebanon, edited by Lamia Rustum Shehadeh, 112–128. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

Categories: Arabic Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: