Category Archives: Lebanese

Beirut 1990: Snapshots of a Civil War by Sylvain Ricard, Bruno Ricard, illustrated by Christophe Gaultier, translated by Anna Provitola, edited by Alex Donoghue

Beirut 1990Almost a quarter century has passed since two French brothers – in their early 20s at the time – decided to visit their Aunt Thérèse in Lebanon. In September 1990, the country is a 15-year-old war zone, but the brothers plan to deliver supplies, medicine, and a wheelchair to the Red Cross where Aunt Thérèse works. Their decision seems almost quixotic, with little concern about personal safety, as the brothers tease one another about when and what they will tell their parents, glibly explain the trip to friends, pore over maps and newspapers while sharing a few smokes, and laugh over their own silly behavior at the airport just before boarding their flight from Paris.

Over the three weeks of their journey, the brothers travel between various cities, never getting the opportunity to use any of their first aid training. The closest they come is the back-breaking task of clearing out giant rocks in a dilapidated hospital courtyard so that patients might have safer access to a little fresh air. Much more memorable to the brothers are the people, and the shocking, tragic, absurd, and yet still joyful moments of the people’s daily lives: “The daily life of those who the media does not discuss and whose voices are never heard. … The reality of those who have slept in death’s shadow for countless years, but who still dream that the Lebanon of tomorrow will be like that of yesterday: the Switzerland of the Orient … ”

Fourteen years after their safe return home, realizing that they “can’t forget … [that they] need to put it to some use,” the brothers teamed with award-winning graphic artist Christophe Gaultier (with whom brother Sylvain collaborated twice before Beirut) to produce this resonating travelogue. Gaultier’s style is at once immature and poignant, an ideal representation of the brothers’ youth – the frantic ducking under a window after being warned about snipers, the innocent fun of giving a group of Sisters silly nicknames, the uncontrollable rage at fruitcake-stealing inspectors. The trio’s collaboration debuted in France in 2004; it took another nine years to arrive in English translation across the Pond.

The brothers’ experience treads somewhere between naively well-intentioned privilege and creating necessary testimony of invisible real lives; thankfully, it veers toward the latter. Even as it reveals the brothers’ seeming ineffectiveness, their book is ultimately an eyewitness account “of people’s kindness, of their unstoppable love of life, of their humor even in the darkest hours of unhappiness, of their joyful Mediterranean blood,” as Aunt Thérèse writes in an afterword from Beirut in 2004. “They saw with their own eyes what it means to live dangerously, to be afraid, to skirt the absurd, and to discover the value in every moment of existence.” Inarguably, we can all learn a life lesson in that!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2004, 2013 (United States)


Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, European, Lebanese

The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine, translated by Fatima Sharafeddine

ServantAt 15, Faten is uprooted from her village life to become a live-in servant to a wealthy family in Beirut, where violence from the ongoing Lebanese Civil War seems neverending. Her father’s decision to pull her out of school, to indenture her away from all that is familiar, is final; even Faten’s mother cannot undo his harsh verdict. For two years, Faten glimpses only her father once a month when he comes to Beirut to pick up her tiny salary. Her only city friend is an immigrant from Sierra Leone who also works as a servant in the same building, whom she is allowed to visit for a few hours on Sundays.

In spite of missing two years of high school, Faten decides  she must figure out a way to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse. She realizes that education is her only chance to escape a lifetime of servitude. The young man who lives in the next building, who she sees everyday from the balcony, might just be the outside help she needs. With the passing of a single note, she allows herself to hope for a different future.

Lebanese-born, peripatetically-domiciled picture book author Fatima Sharafeddine, twice nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (regarded as the international children’s book prize with a 5 million Swedish krona/$770,000 payout!), writes her first-ever title for young adults; she also translates her own work from Arabic to English.

While her focus in Servant is on Faten whose socioeconomic status clearly puts her at a disadvantage, Sharafeddine also draws compelling attention to the plight of girls and young women overall, regardless of a family’s net worth. In spite of her fancy school, designer clothes, and many friends, May, the older daughter in Faten’s employer’s family, lives in a gilded cage, on regular display for the perfect suitor who will ensure her future as a wife and mother before she has even finished her teenage years. In this girls’ world, privilege and poverty are not as contradictory as they might seem …

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010, 2013 (Canada, United States)


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, Lebanese

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid

House of StoneThe late Anthony Shadid is back in the headlines today with happy news: the double-Pulitzer winner’s resonating memoir is one of the autobiography finalists for the National Book Circle Critics awards for the publishing year of 2012House of Stone recounts Shadid’s restoration of his great-grandfather’s home in old Marjayoun “in what it is now Lebanon,” all the while recounting his family’s journey from a troubled ancestral country to a reinvented life based in Oklahoma, U.S.A. The memoir is even more poignant that it was published just after his sudden death on February 16, 2012, from an asthma attack while he was on assignment in Syria; the scheduled March 27 publication date was moved to February 28. That looming, tragic death becomes an unintended character throughout.

Generations ago, Isber Samara, born in 1872 – “a rich man born of a poor boy’s labors” – built a house of stone. He “left it for … his family, to join us with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories.” On the other side of the world, his American great-grandson Shadid, well understood the importance of bayt: “Bayt translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve, or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.”

In July 2006, war brought Shadid to Marjayoun and left behind a half-exploded Israeli rocket in the second story of Isber’s house. What the original stonemasons had considered “impenetrable” a century earlier, “with new technologies and old antagonisms in play, there is nothing war cannot crumble in a heartbeat.” Shadid did not abandon the family bayt: he planted a splindly, hope-filled olive tree, determined that Isber’s house would remain “a house worth care.”

When Shadid’s own nuclear family falls apart – his marriage ends, he is separated from his only child – he returns to Marjayoun in August 2007 with “foolish and rash … not to mention reckless, dangerous, and altogether ‘American'” intentions: to rebuild Isber’s house. His odyssey is filled with a cast of encouraging, truculent, self-important, even comical characters, many distantly related, of course. Through reconstruction over the next nine months, Shadid, an internationally renowned journalist who escaped violent threats, survived bullet and kidnappings, who has “never been the type to stay home,” restores his own self, as well.

History – both personal and political – seems forever intertwined in the volatile Middle East. Shadid’s superb journalistic acuity, his determination to honor his ancestors by preserving the past for future generations, his longing for his young daughter Laila, all meld together to create a gorgeous patchwork of family and country, of leaving and return, and most of all, of stories worth preserving.

Tidbit: The ONE thing I really missed in the book were pictures, especially of the house. But, thanks to googlemagic, you can share Shadid’s renovations in a 10-part series, starting with Chapter 1: “Returning Home” by clicking here. How sadly surreal to have Shadid be your tour guide …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Lebanese, Lebanese American, Middle Eastern

The Perfect Flower Girl by Taghred Chandab, illustrated by Binny Talib

Perfect Flower GirlAwww … who doesn’t love a joyous wedding? In this delightful cross-cultural Muslim marital fest, Amani is determined to be the best flower girl ever for her Aunty Sarah. Even when her little sister Mariam won’t join her, Amani practices her flower girl walk diligently and regularly: “‘It’s a very important job, leading the bride and groom,'” she admonishes her distracted sister. “‘It must be perfect.'”

The preparations are many (and hunger inducing – I can practically smell that kibbeh!), and the excitement builds as the festive date gets closer. A special dinner, the glamorous dress fittings, and Aunty Sarah’s laylia (a no-men-allowed party complete with fabulous fashion show during which Amani and Mariam get to don “spectacular belly-dancing costumes”) make the time pass quickly. Soon enough, the katb il kitab – the marriage ceremony performed by a sheikh the night before the wedding party – is already here … with more of Tayta (grandmother)’s cooking, oh be still my belly! The next morning with tummies all aflutter, the celebrations are about to begin … will Amani be the perfect flower girl?

Australian author Taghred Chandab (currently living in the United Arab Emirates) continues her goal of “promoting better understanding between Anglo-Australian culture and Islamic culture in Australia” through her writing. Thanks to our global markets, that understanding doesn’t have to stay limited to Down Under … we certainly can always use more Stateside – glittering sequins, swirling henna patterns, rose petals, and all. Here’s to many, many love-filled celebrations across borders.

Readers: Children

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Australian, Lebanese

A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached, translated by Edward Gauvin

Once again, I start from book’s end, with the “About the Author” page which introduces war-child Zeina Abirached, whose first 10 years of life were spent surviving Beirut’s civil war (1975-1990). As an adult, she happened upon a 1984 documentary that included “[a] woman whose home had been hit by the bombings [who] spoke a single sentence that startled her: ‘You know, I think maybe we’re still more or less safe here.'” That woman was Abirached’s own grandmother. “At that moment, she knew she had to tell the story of their lives in Beirut.”

Zeina and her younger brother are waiting for their parents to return home. They’re just a few streets away, visiting their maternal grandmother, but navigating the Beirut streets requires “complicated and perilous choreography.” The children have never known a life without war. Their apartment has been closed off room by room for safety, until all essentials have been piled into the small foyer. Not only does the family gather there, but their neighbors often arrive to wait out the shellings and bombings as it’s the safest space in the entire building.

Tonight, Anhala, an older woman who has raised multiple generations of the family with whom she has lived for decades, is the first to come down to make sure the children are safe on their own. To distract them, she gets the children to help bake a sfouf, her favorite cake. Next comes Chucri, the building’s go-t0, fix-it man, bearing blankets and washed lettuce (produce is scarce, as is the water to wash it). Then Ernest – who has never left the building since his twin brother’s death – taps on the door, ready with the next scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. The foyer is soon cozy with the rest of the building’s neighbors … but still the children wait for their parents to arrive safely home.

Over the course of a single night, Abirached reveals the challenging lives of each of the inhabitants. Told through the clear eyes of a young child, the absurdity of war is magnified – with innocent humor and horrific tragedy, not unlike Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis and her memories of her Iranian childhood in Iran. Abirached details the hours spent taking turns waiting to get an elusive dial tone on the phone: the parents smoking themselves into a smoke screen, the children laughing and playing clapping games until the sudden interruption of a connection. Meanwhile, Chucri spends his days in one snaking line after another for everything from bread to matches to gas for the building’s generator, hoping someday he might learn something about his long-missing father. Monsieur Khaled dreams up stories of life before war, insisting he’s from Texas, the “farthest place he could think of,” but chose life in Beirut only because of true love. The unique typeface – blunt, block capitals with a very distinct use of dots over the ‘i’ and inside the ‘o’ (think bullseye!) – is eerily representative of the random potshots happening outside, a reminder in every panel that war is never far.

While violence never ends, somehow, people must still live their lives … and survive. “To die  To leave  To return / It’s a game for swallows,” a graffitti-ed wall shouts. Even the youngest children recognize the absurdity of war … why doesn’t everyone else?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Translation, Lebanese, Middle Eastern

Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World by Elsa Marston

Santa Claus in BaghdadEight stories about eight teens from eight different countries coming of age during a time of uncertainty and tumult in their native Middle East countries. In the title story, young Amal of Baghdad, Iraq, must find the very best gift for her departing literature teacher even while watching as her family’s already depleted resources continue to dwindle. In “Faces,” Suhayl of Syria comes to terms with his parents’ divorce, desperately hoping to make his mother happy once again.

Aneesi watches in horror when her beloved father is accused of theft in the wealthy Lebanese home in which they both work in “The Hand of Fatima.” When Mujahhid is sent away from Bethlehem and the constant shootings that already claimed his older brother’s life to stay with relatives in a remote village in “The Olive Grove,” he learns new ways of struggling for his people’s rights against the controlling Israelis without having to become yet another martyr.

An Egyptian city girl learns first hand about village life in “In Line,” a young Tunisian boy who sells his mother’s hats befriends a famous artist in “Scenes in a Roman Theater,” two brave girls in Jordan help save another from an honor killing in “Honor,” and a young Palestinian boy living in a refugee camp in Lebanon helps his isolated older brother possibly find real love.

While the circumstances of these young lives might first seem unfamiliar to a western audience, universal truths about what all children want soon emerge. Differences that all too often get magnified by the media fall away as the children in these pages come of age, sharing their lives with friends, dealing with the occasional conflict with parents, and trying to fit into their communities – all the while surviving war, deprivation, political uncertainty, and imminent dangers.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Arab, Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Middle Eastern, Palestinian

The Boy by Naeem Murr

Boy.MurrYou can’t believe how scary this book can be, especially if you have children of your own. The eponymous boy of many names in Naeem Murr‘s disturbingly effective debut novel is a complicated, unpredictable, wholly unreliable protagonist. He’s a hero to his fellow orphan boys and street children. He’s an angel to the orphanage matron who worships him. He’s a savior and reason for living to the fat man he sometimes lives with. He’s a monster to the foster family that took him in, a family which he charmed, seduced, then destroyed.

Now completely alone, Sean Hennessy, the father of the foster family, is determined to track down the boy he knows as Pierce (aptly named). Not only for answers to what happened, but because he’s convinced that Pierce is also his illegitimate son and, as twisted and destructive as he is, Sean’s last blood-ties to this world. The chase is on for the elusive boy, and everyone has a different story to tell …

Tidbit: Murr was a delighfully erudite and entertaining guest at SALTAF 2008 (South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival), a much-anticipated, highly-attended annual fall event sponsored by the Smithsonian APA Program and NetSAP-DC.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1998 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, British, Hapa, Lebanese

The Perfect Man by Naeem Murr

Perfect ManNaeem Murr’s latest novel is a near-perfect coming-of-age story about an Indian-born, London-raised young man, dropped into the American Midwest virtually without support, and was last year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Europe and South Asia for Best Book, as well as a 2006 Booker long-lister.

Rajiv Travers arrives as a scared young boy in the strained London home of his British uncle after being abandoned in India by his missing Indian mother and his irresponsible British father. When he proves to be no more than a half-breed embarrassment, especially for his cold, brutal aunt-in-law, he’s sent away again, at age 12, this time to another uncle in tiny Pisgah, Missouri. When that uncle promptly commits suicide, Raj becomes the unlikely charge of his uncle’s lover, Ruth, a writer of steamy romances who shows little emotion in her own life, who most definitely never wanted children. Raj’s quiet presence soon changes that.

Raj finds himself befriended by two local children, headstrong Annie and gentle Lewis. The threesome will remain bittersweetly entwined by both joy and tragedy for the rest of their lives. In 1950s middle America, the small town is filled with immigrants from all over world, who live by their too-many misconceptions about people different from themselves. From murder to incest to adultery to unbridled racism, Pisgah is anything but a pastoral refuge. Murr weaves an astonishing story of one unlikely immigrant young boy’s journey to (perfect) manhood, the lives he touches, and the identity he must create and protect for himself in order to survive.

Tidbit: Murr was a delighfully erudite and entertaining guest at SALTAF 2008 (South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival), a much-anticipated, highly-attended annual fall event sponsored by the Smithsonian APA Program and NetSAP-DC.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, British, British Asian, Hapa, Lebanese