B as in Beirut
Iman Humaydan Younes; translated by Max Weiss
5 1/4" x 8" • 229 pages
ISBN 9781566567091 • paperback • $15.00 •
"In this affecting debut, Lebanese novelist Younes artfully presents the overlapping struggles of four woman living in the same Beirut apartment building during the bloody, stop-start Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. While the city slides into violent chaos, Lilian watches as those around her break under the weight of grief until the desire to emigrate is so strong that she begins living out of suitcases, even bringing them down to the nearby bomb shelter. Crumbling emotionally, Warda pines for her daughter, Sara, from whom she is separated by the fighting. Maha, separated from her lover by the hostilities, remains in the building for the duration of the war, adjusting the rhythm of her everyday activities to accommodate the swelling violence. Camilia, the fourth woman, returns to Lebanon after a long time away to film a war documentary and moves in with Maha, a friend of a friend. Maha and Camilia's stories are the most interlinked, and it is through their combined perspectives that the book reaches a moving climax. Younes delivers a fractured Beirut with acute empathy and insight."
-- Publishers Weekly
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ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year Award -Gold 2008, Translation Fiction
The four interlocking narratives that make up this extraordinary novel belong to four women who live in the same apartment building in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. There is Lilian with her two children, desperate to emigrate, with or without her husband. Warda cannot recover from the loss of her daughter, and finds that no matter how many times she goes over it, the story of her life no longer makes sense. Camilia has returned to Beirut to make a film about her former homeland, but becomes irrevocably caught up in its violence. Maha remains in the building even as her family, her neighbors, her city and country fracture around her. As the war continues each day, unending, divisions between past and present begin to break down.
Younes's intimate, haunting attention to these women's lives creates an unforgettable portrait not only of her characters but of the nature of war. Here, loss is the city's most constant resident, and its story will inevitably overcome all the rest.
Iman Humaydan Younes is a Lebanese novelist, short-story writer, researcher, and freelance journalist. B as in Beirut, her first novel, received wide international acclaim and has also been translated into French and German. Her third novel, Hayawat Okhra (Other Lives), will be released in Beirut in 2008 by al-Massar. She has also written the nonfiction work Neither Here Nor There: Narratives of the Families of the Disappeared in Lebanon and has conducted and published studies on environmental and development issues in post-war Lebanon.
Max Weiss earned his PhD in History from Stanford in 2007. He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, where he is working on a manuscript tentatively entitled, Institutions of Sectarianism. This is his first published translation.
"...a grand piece of fiction...The attention to detail makes this tale haunting in that although it is fiction, it isn't too far from reality. 'B as in Beirut' is a conflicting and hart-wrenching tale of near reality, and is recommended to any who want an idea of atrocities in Lebanon and deserves a place on any community library world fiction shelf."
—Midwest Book Review
"...fine literary fiction...a fractured portrait of multilayered loss...Younes' lack of sentimentality in writing dialogue, along with the crisp staccato rhythm of her prose and her brilliantly economic plot transitions (for which translator Max Weiss surely deserved credit in preserving), lends rueful humor to the otherwise painful story...Younes' novel...reads, at times, like a rescue effort, pitting collective memory against collective amnesia."
— The Daily Star, Beirut
"A short story writer and journalist from Lebanon, Younes has the knowledge of experience and the open-mindedness of a first-time novelist. Her matter-of-factness about war-torn Beirut is so great that it is almost impossible not to see her deliberate avoidance of its major details, focusing instead on the little aspects of the war that influence everyday life."
"The novel sets itself apart as a citizen's account of war as opposed to a soldier's. Overall, it provides a compelling viewpoint on a battle zone more frequently referenced in mainstream news stories than understood."
“This novel …is a fascinating and haunting portrayal of life in war-torn Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.
The style of the prose in each section shifts to reflect the four different personalities. However, the women share the numbness and alienation of the extended state of war. Even the staccato and rapid-fire prose mimics the bullets and bombs and perpetual violence, spurting out hurt and despair as well as occasional beauty and wisdom.
—Multicultural Review, Fall 2008
"In this very compelling novel, originally published in Arabic in 1997, Iman Humaydan tells a multilayered and multivoiced story of four women living in the same building in war-torn Beirut. While some novels about the Lebanese civil war construct an exaggerated, surrealistic atmosphere to convey the horrors of armed conflict, “B as in Beirut” seems to be telling about real people in real situations. Humaydan employs flashbacks, memories, dreams and even delusions to illustrate her characters’ state of mind, but the effect is always authentic.
Humaydan’s prose is sparse but vivid. She is equally adept at setting the scene, delving into her characters’ psychology, and creating a distinctive female voice. She doesn’t tell everything at once, but builds her story piece by piece, forcing the reader to imagine the characters and events. One is immediately drawn into the interior world of her four female characters, as violence engulfs their country and permeates every aspect of their daily lives, creating unanticipated problems and worsening already existing dilemmas.
The major theme in “B as in Beirut” is disappearance and the ensuing search for lost loved ones, which is often intertwined with search for self. All four women must deal with disappearance: the disappearance of normality, the disappearance of mixed neighbourhoods as sectarian killing increases, and most of all, the disappearance of loved ones...
“B as in Beirut” is a subtle but powerful protest against war and sectarianism. All of the major characters married and/or have meaningful friendships across sectarian lines, as if to show that the civil war in Lebanon did not have to be. All the women (and many men) in the novel have their dreams dashed by war and lack of understanding between the sexes or generations, but a few prevail by having the courage to be true to themselves and reach beyond false boundaries."
—The Jordan Times
“In 'Wild Mulberries' and 'B as in Beirut', Iman Humaydan Younes narrates the dialectic between Lebanon’s capital city and its villages through the eyes of five female characters. This narrative is refracted through a history of war, the violence of industrialization and rapid economic change, and the infinitesimal injuries that only family members and spouses can inflict on one another. While 'B as in Beirut' unfolds during the Lebanese civil war of 1975–1990, the narrator of 'Wild Mulberries' inhabits the era between two altogether different wars, World War I and World War II. …Both novels succeed in portraying the rawness of pain, mourning, and perhaps most powerfully, resignation.
...Younes’…novels, particularly 'B as in Beirut', stand as a testament to her ability to describe in excruciating detail the terror of love and loss. While the civil war is very much in the foreground of this novel, Younes is never seduced into explaining or documenting the war as a subject in and of itself. …This self-reflexivity makes Younes an intriguing author. As novels that examine the vulnerability of human life without succumbing to the temptation to sermonize in grandiose terms about the greater meaning of war, death, and loss, 'Wild Mulberries' and 'B as in Beirut' are not to be missed.”
—Journal of Middle East Women's Studies
"Iman Humaydan Younes' 'B as in Beirut' focuses on four unforgettable yet abandoned women enduring the war in the same apartment building. In contrast to the traditional trope of war-torn Beirut as the captivating whore or the raped, wide-eyed young woman, Younes' heroines are the neglected wives, the forsaken mothers and daughters who cast a harsh indictment on the militias, regardless of their affiliations.
In this engaging narrative, the "B as in Beirut" phonetically toys with the language and geography of the setting, accompanied by a female chorus of "bas" - enough sorrow - in Beirut."
—Al Jadid Magazine
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