Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Terminal identities

Lana Abdel Rahman, Qayd Al-Dars, Beirut: Dar Al Adab, 2016. pp247. Reviewed by Rania Khallaf

Terminal identities
Terminal identities
Al-Ahram Weekly

“To those who confronted their fears confidently, to the losers, to the dreamers, to those who tied their bodies to the ship’s mast.”

So the Cairo-based Lebanese novelist Lana Abdel Rahman dedicates her new novel, Qayd Al-Dars or “Under Review”, published by the prestigious Beirut house Dar Al Adab. Born in 1975, Lana Abdel Rahman is the author of two collections of short stories,and three novels, the latest entitled Cairo Snow. In 2010, she earned her PhD on autobiography in Lebanese women’s writing. Her new book is the story of a family forced by the Civil War to move from Beirut to Dayr Al-Sarw and back to Beirut, it is divided into three sections and follows the destinies of the grandmother, Soad, married to the flirtatious Awad Al-Turki, her daughter Najwa, married to Bassem, and Najwa’s four children.

Hassaan and Laila, the eldest two of Najwa’s children, take up the first section. Laila is a depressed middle aged woman constantly muttering, “Life is not fair,” having been forced to give up her education and leave the man she was in love with, Rabie. Hassaan is an intellectual who had emigrated to France when he was forced to return to support his family.

In the second section, set in 1982, the author depicts the family’s escape from the Israeli invasion of Beirut, where they live in the neighbourhood of Wadi Abu Jamil, to Chtoura in the Beqaa valley and onto Dayr Al-Sarw, where they rent a modest house. The horrors of war come through in full here: masked soldiers insulting them at checkpoints, the uncertainty of life after war breaks out and the constant presence of death. Led by Souad and her relative Nejma, and followed by Najwa and her kids, the journey is depicted as a female struggle to survive under brutal, male-dominated circumstances. A spoiled woman with a beautiful body and attractive red hair, Najwa is shocked by her new reality – as we have come to expect already.

The first section also includes the story of Najwa’s marriage to Bassem, a mercenary who fought in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere, who has an under-review identity and ends up running away and abandoning the family. Via Najwa, the author tells amusing stories about Najwa’s Kurdish father Awwad, who married three women besides her mother. But Najwa’s tragedy begins rather when when Fatma, Bassem’s mother, a Palestinian widow, flees her country after the Nakba in 1948 with no documents to prove her identity. Bassem inherits this “identity crisis” and so, consequently, do his future sons and daughters as well.

Via Bassem, the author highlights historical facts: in 1922, Britain and France signed an agreement called “New Camp” according to which seven villages were detached from South Lebanon and attached to Palestine. After the Israeli occupation of the seven villages, and the forced immigration of its citizens to different parts of Lebanon, Hebrew settlements were established to erase their Arab identity. In 1960, the Lebanese authorities tried to solve the issue of those immigrants, in addition to thousands of other minorities, including Kurds. They were all notified that their demands were under review. With the passage of time, such notifications were transferred to what became known as the “under review identity”. Thus, around 30.000 Lebanese families ended up suffering from this peculiar predicament.

“Isn’t this an intentional obliteration of identity, not just of the land and the people, but of memory as well?” Bassem painfully wonders. From this point onwards, the reader can work out the main object of the novel: to trace the humanitarian crisis of a Lebanese family in a realistic way, and in the course of that provide invaluable historical information as well as opportunities for empathy with Najwa’s family who, deprived of their father, must go through the Lebanese Civil War without the moral or financial support that would help them survive it.

The novel also provides a descriptive analysis of Dayr El Sarw, geographic and demographic.  The Monastery, an outstanding feature, is a deserted place on the outskirts of town, a mysterious stony building surrounded by ancient columns guarding it from unknown enemies. A nearby bridge over Ghozeel River is a part of the road leading to Damascus.

The place, in which sycamore, cypress and oak trees occupy vast green spaces, consists of clusters of tin houses inhabited by Palestinians and Bedouins, while peasants live in houses built on their own land. The area surrounding the bridge also has its unique history as it was altered into a popular market for Bedouin products and smuggled goods after the Israeli invasion. Dayr El Sarw is an isolated place, devoid as much of government as of a school, hospital or even mosque. With the local sects segregated, Najwa’s family – which doesn’t happen to belong to any of the sects – feels even more isolated and embittered.

Lebanese dialect in conversations, especially between Najwa and Laila, grants the novel an air of freshness. The novel is a gallery of characters. The author tells the stories of her characters almost individually, giving each the space to narrate his or her story.  Throughout the novel, many incidents are told from the viewpoint of Hassaan – his adventures, his secret relationships with Bedouin girls, namely Jumana etc. – but it is Laila who gives the more detailed account of the family’s miserable life, down to her mother’s inadequate cooking and her own initiative to start a snack bar in one corner of the house to help with the family’s income.

Still, the main point of strength in this novel is the author’s way of delving into the private world of this family, describing every tiny detail, and building a network of relations, also painting colourful profiles in a way that both enriches and complicates the text, making it inevitably hard to follow for some readers.

One of the more interesting marginal characters featured at the end of the novel is Al Rayyis, the owner of the hotel where Hassan works, described by Hassan as a weird character who forces him to sit and watch odd sexual programmes played on a television channel called Violence. Another is Yasmeen, Najwa’s younger daughter, who runs away with older man and ends up working as a belly dancer in a Beirut nightclub.

In the third section, the author depicts the family’s return to Beirut and, a year before, their finally becoming Lebanese citizens. The return to Beirut is prompted by the sudden return from abroad of Malaka, Najwa’s sister – to reunite the family and build a new house in place of the one demolished during the civil war: a metaphor for the reunion of the Lebanese people despite the persistence of disagreement and violence among them.

The emergence of the new wave of extremism in the 1990s in Dayr Al Sarw as in other places in Lebanon had led to Najwa’s younger son Hassan becoming recruited into a terrorist group. In Beirut the family doesn’t have to conform to the rising religious tide. With a terrorist and a belly dancer in the ranks, the dream of that return becomes yet another episode in the tragic saga.

In the end, for any liberal Arab, especially in the framework of the ongoing overlap of values and the repeated debates on the true meaning of religion and nationality, Under Review proves a haunting title. Do I accept my current identity? Do I really belong to Arab culture? Do I conform to that culture? And, were I to immigrate, would I lose my identity in that way? How easily could I become part of western culture?

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