In her lecture “Writing Fiction in Lebanon: A Woman’s Perspective” given this past Thursday, Iman Humaydan presented herself as someone who might have withstood bombs. Dressed in mournful black from head to toe and speaking in accented English laden with pregnant pauses, Humaydan’s appearance was a constant reminder of her foreign and war-torn origins. Her novels, originally written in Arabic and translated into both English and French, were laid neatly on the table in front of her, and she regarded her listeners with a harrowing solemnity as she explained not only how it was (and is) possible for her to write, but why she writes at all.
Humaydan, born in 1956 in a small village close to Beirut, started writing at the age of 13 with no thought of ever publishing. At that point, the only books accessible to her were the “cause” books given to her by her politically active father and the proletarian manifestos provided by her Communist brothers. In her family, writing was seen as an act of devotion and publishing was reserved for “functional” writing. Humaydan cited this as one of her first challenges as a writer: finding a way out of the stiflingly cause-laden atmosphere of home and discovering books that she truly loved. Even when she had read the classics though, she never showed anyone her writing. “It wasn’t serious,” she claimed – it was simply an expression.
It was only after she left Lebanon for Cyprus during a bombardment in 1988 that she gained the courage to publish some of her short stories, and continued to do so until 1997. Finally, she published B As in Beirut, a novel that she admits she didn’t know she was writing at the time, probably because most of it was committed to paper in short moments while waiting at the checkpoint between West and East Beirut (which separated the Muslims from the Christian population). Not surprisingly, her novels are largely devoted to life in war-torn Lebanon and specifically to female struggles within that world.
During the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975, men were simultaneously physically present and mentally absent, obligating women to adapt while maintaining their typical roles as caregivers for the family. Humaydan’s words and those of her female literary contemporaries are about these women, who wanted both a change and a way out. As she put it, writing was “a way of saying Ã¢â‚¬Ëœno’ to what was going on.”; By asking questions, Humaydan and fellow writers were admitting implicitly that what was going on was not right. Men were either fighting, philosophizing or abroad, which meant that Lebanese women were on their own – and not for any small period of time. There have been so many wars in Lebanon throughout the past 60 years that they must be referred to by name in order to avoid confusion. The country hasn’t had more than 10 years of peace in the last seven decades.
For this reason and others, war is an inescapable reality for the Lebanese. Wars have defined Humaydan’s life to the extent that dealing with war will always be “unfinished business” both mentally and emotionally, and that, as such, the concept of writing about anything other than war seems outlandish and impossible. From where does the emotional energy to write a romance come when war has characterized your past, present and probable future?
Unfortunately, even the literal and figurative process of mourning implicit in Humaydan’s writings isn’t always effective at putting the horrors of war to rest. While writing B As in Beirut, Humaydan said that she purposefully left large spaces of the page blank in between her character’s narratives so that they could breathe, and so that she could put distance between herself and the plot of her story. “I felt suffocated as I wrote,” she said. Humaydan was afraid to see her own experiences immortalized on paper and to have to be her own witness.
In White Mulberries, her second novel, having garnered experience and courage as a writer, she departs from Beirut (her “most polite novel”) by freely expressing her own anger in her prose, perhaps in an effort to quell the violent angst that has invaded her life. While writing, she tries no to think about her audience for fear that she will, once again, begin to censor herself and concede to the fear of having an independent voice.
Even now, Humaydan is of the opinion that the Lebanese war novel hasn’t been written. For her, the eradication of the violent feelings in herself is the project of a lifetime and her career as a writer has only just begun. The lingering concepts of war and death were treated nonchalantly by Humaydan when she recounted going to the beach with her daughter during Israel’s 2006 invasion and leaving just in time to see an Israeli battle cruiser bomb a lighthouse just a few kilometers away. Yet her frustration at being unable to bury these memories was evident in her presence: Humaydan rarely smiled, and when she ended her lecture with a two-minute reading of one of her novels in Arabic, she did so apologetically. “I know you probably won’t understand,” she said as she put on her reading glasses. Her statement was not only a preface to her reading, but an assertion about the singularity and hardship of her life.