Edge-of-War stories

24 Mar

Beirut: Like business, the making of art is disrupted by war. War also stimulates some sorts of business, of course. A short roll-call of past centuries’ cultural production – Homer’s “Iliad,” say, or Wilfred Owen’s World War I poetry, or Picasso’s “Guernica” – lends weight to the notion that, with the advantage of distance, fine art can come of war.

The Israeli armed forces34-day war against Lebanon in 2006 has inspired any number of literary works on both sides of this country’s troubled southern border. One of the best-known is “Beirut, I Love You” (Saqi), by Lebanese pop artist Zena el Khalil, who found worldwide fame during this conflict with her blog recording its progress, beirutupdate.blogspot.com.

Now a new novel by fledgling London-based Lebanese writer Dania el Kadi aspires to spice-up war literature. “Summer Blast,” depicts itself as “chick lit with a difference.” The book’s subtitle is “When war threatens Lebanese women’s plans.”

From the outset, Kadi informs her reader that this is one war tale that should be read with a pinch of salt. The front cover, emblazoned with a pair of spiky red stilettos, does not contradict this impression.

“Summer Blast” will not appeal to readers searching for a profound insight into Lebanon’s most recent war. Even those eager for a “Sex and the City” style depiction may well find Kadi’s debut novel a tad unsatisfactory.

The novel does have many of the strengths of a light read.

The author cannot be accused of being pretentious and the reader is unlikely to be forced to draw upon a dictionary to get through the story. Arcane references to Lebanese political culture are also wanting. Lebanese readers curious to know about Dubai and Miami may enjoy facets of the book, since the July War provides a springboard to some lively anecdotes of these other places.

When it comes to the book’s depictions of Lebanon, unfortunately, there is an odd lack of authenticity.

Elyssar, the main character whose perspective governs the opening chapter, is jolted from sleep by “the screech of the warplanes.” She first “lunge[s] to secure” a mirror. Then, moments later, she is “too scared to move.”

Kadi’s portrayal of fear amounts to a multitude of mutually-contradictory stock reactions. It’s not that panic doesn’t make people do things that are at cross-purposes with one another, simply that Kadi’s depiction of this behavior is unconvincing.

The fact that Elyssar’s mother and sister are similarly afraid – her father, meanwhile sits watching the television – only adds to the artificiality of the opening scene. Word and deed seem incongruous, assigned to individual characters not on an organic basis but by virtue of how certain character types are meant to behave.

The impression that characters are purely functional may stem from Kadi’s thematic agenda. The novel aims to show the resilience of these Lebanese women at wartime, to depict them as having the same strength of character as “Western” women, and to prove that Lebanese women share the same values as other women around the world.

These values, alas, appear to be limited to “men and shoes.” For some readers keen to plumb the existential depths of feminine resilience at wartime, Kadi’s empowered women may seem on the shallow side.

This seeming lack of depth is not a function of chick lit per se. Because Kadi’s characters appear to have been designed to represent particular attributes – rather than complex, at times contradictory, nuanced and developing creatures – they don’t feel real. Insofar as the plot serves as a series of stages where the author can make the points she wants to make about Lebanese society, it feels a trifle contrived.

The third-persona narrator describes Elyssar’s lifelong dream to see Madonna in concert, then adds offhandedly that this might be because “attending a pop concert had felt so out of reach … when … growing up.” Once introduced, this theme is never pursued, suggesting to the skeptical reader that it is being employed merely because it suggests something “exotic” about Lebanon.

For some local readers, at least, efforts to evoke Lebanon’s exoticism are irritating. On page three it’s mentioned that Elyssar is in her thirties and still living at home. Whether “the social norm allowed it or not,” she berates herself, “she had to find a way to leave her parents’ home.”

If Elyssar is meant to be representative of Lebanese society, you may wonder when the author last assessed that society. While living at home into adulthood is common – for both sexes, not just women as Kadi implies – moving out of the family house and into another place in Beirut is not unheard of. Cohabitation is much more of a taboo but even this is becoming more common.

The fact that this theme too is no further developed ultimately cements its initial ring of artificiality. Neither Elyssar nor her family express concern about her living situation. When Elyssar does leave Lebanon for America, her family actively encourages her.

This aura of artifice persists throughout “Summer Blast.”

Many of the book’s references to Lebanese customs or quirks do not quite work. Elyssar refers to her cousins as “cousinettes,” a sweet sugar-dusting of Lebanese culture that fails when the cousins improbably assign the label to themselves as well.

Elyssar’s cousin Maya is barely dressed when she arrives at the family’s mountain refuge, because the aerial attacks forced her to flee Beirut quickly. Elyssar focuses on her Uncle Najeeb’s “own nuclear blast” of annoyance that his niece is improperly dressed.

To this point Najeeb has not been depicted as conservative or unsympathetic in any way. Sympathetic characters have been known to behave inexplicably, but Kadi’s rendering of the incident rings true with neither the situation nor the character.

Such evocations of Lebaneseness are frequent, gestures to the “foreignness” of Lebanon that seem to be mere stock gestures.

Similarly, Kadi’s efforts to define Lebanese women as powerful women, mirrors of the “Sex and the City” characters they love, is unsatisfactory. Elyssar, Maya and Rouba each play stock roles and fulfil rhetorical objectives. Kadi’s empowered women are puppets, leaving the reader with the unpleasant sense that Lebanese women are empty and insubstantial.

Her depiction of “the intelligent Lebanese woman” is as crass as a portrait of “the suppressed Arab woman.”

“Just because an American in a uniform has spoken to her she’d started having visions of herself in Guantanamo,” she writes in her sole reference to Arab-American relations. “ … Orange was not her color.”

The summer war hardly features in this book. It provides a framing device for Kadi’s project to depict Lebanese women the way she depicts them. Like the characters who are her mouthpieces, those 34 days of war are a tangential side-effect of the storyline.



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