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Beirut Blues


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About the Author

Hanan al-Shaykh, an award-winning journalist, novelist, and playwright, is the author of the short story collection I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops; the novels One Thousand and One Nights, The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, Beirut Blues, and Only in London; and a memoir about her mother, The Locust and the Bird. She was raised in Beirut, educated in Cairo, and lives in London.


How can one respond when home becomes unrecognizable? In her third novel (following The Story of Zahra, Interlink, 1992), al-Shaykh uses the unsent letters of her narrator, Asmaran, to explore the deep sorrows and profound transformations, external and internal, brought by lingering war. As daughter, granddaughter, lover, friend, and striking woman on the street, Asmaran reveals herself as poised yet devastated, affecting yet wounded by change and constant danger. She writes long, rambling, eloquent letters to loved ones, to Beirut, and to the war itself. Through these, the reader learns of flight and family, arrack and cannabis, checkpoints, sandbags, and ruin. Episodic and densely populated, this work is confusing but tender and memorable, a well-translated glimpse into a world most American readers can little understand. Recommended for larger fiction collections.‘Janet Ingraham, Worthington P.L., Ohio

Although present, sex is not quite the driving force here that it was in Lebanese writer al-Shaykh's earlier books, Women of Sand and Myrrh and The Story of Zahra. Instead, al-Shaykh has substituted war. This is still a strangely intimate meditation on a well-born woman who has spent much of her life in the chaos of west Beirut. In 10 letters addressed variously to the protagonist's lover, her grandmother, Billie Holiday, the land, the war and people, places and events, Asmahan remembers her beautiful, cosmopolitan Beirut and childhood friends, juxtaposing them with the city's grizzled, suspicious present and the occupiers who took the exiles' places. Druze, Shia (including the gunmen of Hizbullah and Amal), Sunni, Christian, Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian personages figure in the story, though Asmahan seems disgusted with all of them. Her concerns are not about politics but about dealing with rats in the kitchen; discovering that her ancestral village has been taken over by drug plantations; finding that respect for her family's standing has crumbled along with the country. Asmahan thinks a great deal about her lovers, but her ultimate love is for Beirut. Like Ruhiyya, the village woman to whom Asmahan has been devoted since childhood, Beirut is decrepit, an ``angel of death'' devoted to dirges. The letters written while Asmahan is in her grandparents' village form the most convincing portion of the narrative. Those from Beirut, while opening up new understanding about life during wartime, are more self-conscious, even awkward. (June)

"Like the best modern political novels, Beirut Blues is not a political statement, fingers are not pointed without understanding. Hanan al-Shaykh's vision is unbelieving and yet full of faith."--The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A warm and hauntingly melancholic new novel . . . [by] one of the most daring and controversial female writers of the Middle East."--San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle "A finely wrought epistolary novel of lament and loss that mourns the fate of a beloved city . . . lovely measured writing from a voice deserving to be heard."--Kirkus Reviews

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