Many years ago, a well-meaning American friend introduced me to his favourite student pastime: a drinking game. I had just moved to London and it was my first time living outside Beirut. “It’s called Beirut,” said my friend as he illustrated the mechanism through which a ping-pong ball would land in a pint of beer. The reason for the name, he explained, was the thumping sound the ball makes as it splashes against the lager. It was enough to make me homesick and mildly offended in equal measure.
Which is to say that Beirut, and indeed Lebanon, can be difficult to separate from the years of civil strife that so defined it for a decade and a half. Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat, Rawi Hage, Hanan al-Shaykh and Rabih Alameddine are just some of many Lebanese authors whose work tended to be preoccupied with the civil war. My own novel, Between Beirut and the Moon, is no different in that regard. Although outside literature, in contrast, the Lebanese have been guilty of attempting to bury the past too swiftly. But enough about the war. Here is a list of books about Lebanon which do not immediately concern themselves with the civil war, except when they do.
1. A House of Many Mansions by Kamal Salibi
At the age of 12, I was asked by the pre-eminent historian in the land, Dr Kamal Salibi, about my latest history lesson at school. When I mentioned the Phoenicians, he shook his head and suppressed a smile as if I had just relayed a lewd joke beyond my years. In A House of Many Mansions, Salibi proceeds to dismantle the founding myth of Phoenicianism (that the Lebanese are the descendants of Phoenicians), while also dissecting Arab nationalism and other competing narratives. Crucially, he offers a sweeping, eloquent reinterpretation of Lebanese history that exposes the many facets of a country in crisis.
2. Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj by Samir Khalaf
Sociologist Khalaf’s Beirut of the mid-noughties is in a process of rebirth, rising once again from destruction, reclaiming lost space and poised to recover its role on the world stage. It did not, in fact, succeed. But reading Heart of Beirut, one is struck by the endearing leb-splanations. Khalaf delights in explaining, at least twice, the meaning of the ironic name for the now defunct red-light district: Souk El-Awadem (“Market of the Virtuous”). He also details the churlish dispute over the perceived height and number of the mosque’s minarets that were thought to overshadow the adjoining St George’s Cathedral. More to the point, Heart of Beirut touches on the significant debate surrounding identity and memory in terms of space.
3. A World I Loved by Wadad Makdisi Cortas
In truth, much of this memoir is about the world before Lebanon. Makdisi Cortas, a headteacher for 40 years, understood the importance of education, particularly that of women, in the precarious times of the French mandate. In the 1920s, she was among the first women in the region to obtain a university education and her advocacy was placed in the service of resisting colonialism and enriching the lives of refugee children. Makdisi Cortas wrote her inspirational memoir during the civil war, which she would not live to see out, and it ends with the despairing cry, “the ugly battles stole away my dreams. Peace is the essence of all my aspirations now.”
4. June Rain by Jabbour Douaihy, translated by Paula Haydar
“It is expected of a Lebanese writer,” said Douaihy in a 2008 interview, “to revolve around the themes of … civil conflict.” In this mosaic of a novel, Douaihy uses a fragmented and episodic narration in order to recreate the clash of 1957 between two Christian clans in northern Lebanon via the multiple perspectives of the villagers. In doing so, he retells a story about the real-life tragedy which took place in his own village. He also delivers on the high expectations placed upon Lebanese writers.
5. Beirut by Samir Kassir, translated by MB DeBevoise
“There are places that inspire lyricism.” So begins Kassir’s lyrical account of Beirut – Biruta, Berytus, or Berytion – tracing the city’s history through its Seleucid, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, and French manifestations leading up to the “westernised Mediterranean Arab metropolis” of today. His Beirut is the old stamping ground of such illustrious figures as Pompey, Saladin, Ramses II and even Jesus of Nazareth. Kassir openly admits to romanticising the city and, in truth, the book at times reads like a love letter, made all the more poignant by the assassination of its author in 2005.
6. The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid
It is not often that a novel features an appearance by the ghost of a recently assassinated former prime minister as well as a narrator – the protagonist’s sister – who is a long-departed casualty of the civil war, and yet still remains so grounded in reality. Samaan, a middle-aged architect, never actually sees the result of the UN’s investigation into the assassination of the former PM in 2005 (the Mehlis report). Fifteen years after the events of the novel, the UN backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon – itself postponed due to the Beirut port explosion – never revealed much more.
7. House of Stone by Anthony Shadid
Shadid’s subtle yet powerful memoir grapples with the meaning of bayt, the Arabic word for house. The American-Lebanese journalist embarks on a journey to rebuild his great-grandfather’s decrepit house in the ailing town of Marjayoun. It is a bittersweet tale about what it means to reconnect with one’s roots. Peopled with eccentric characters who produce such gems as “your family is the shittiest thing”, “Israel was dropping pamphlets from the sky and I was picking cucumbers” and the proud yet casual boast, “did I tell you our house in Marjayoun is older than America?” Tragically, Shadid lost his life on an assignment in Syria in 2012.
8. Writing Beirut by Samira Aghacy
Aghacy delves into the different interpretations of the city as written by a diverse list of Arab authors. The Beirut of the novels explored here – including The Tiller of Waters by Hoda Barakat and Dear Mr Kawabata by Rashid al-Daif – is a fragmented, multidimensional, unruly and drifting place. It is the open, liberal, welcoming Beirut of the 60s and early 70s, but it is also the increasingly aimless and incomplete Beirut of the 80s and beyond. It is a Beirut in a permanent state of “becoming rather than being”.
9. Lebanon: A Country in Fragments by Andrew Arsan
Arsan asks the question of what it means to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times. He is not referring to our pandemic-stricken lives but rather to the Lebanon of 2005 onwards. This is a period of relative peace in that there was no outright civil war: only flirtations with it, a war with Israel, 48 bombings and 21 assassinations. This is not so much a book about geopolitics as about the quotidian. Tantalisingly, it stops just short of the perceived climax which culminates in the October 2019 revolution, the collapse of the lira and the Beirut port explosion laying bare the entrenched 30-year corruption of the ruling elites.
10. Teta, Mother and Me by Jean Said Makdisi
Makdisi’s beautifully crafted, honest memoir is a story that does not so much revolve around Lebanon as pass through it, only to eventually build a home within it. It is a tale that spans countries, eras, wars and treaties as three generations of women grapple with preconceived notions of womanhood in the Middle East. Among the more heartbreaking scenes is that of the author and family standing vigil beside their mother’s deathbed in the US. In her infirm state she – whose life had begun in Palestine and traversed Egypt, Lebanon and finally the US – shifts between Arabic dialects and foreign languages, imploring her children to take her home. As the languages recede, the author realises that “gentle sounds are more important than accurate exchanges of useless information”.
Between Beirut and the Moon by Naji Bakhti is published by Influx Press. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.