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Weight of Paradise, The
Iman Humaydan; translated by Michelle Hartman

published 2016 • 5.25" x 8.5" • 244 pages
ISBN 9781566560559 • paperback • $15.00

“A suitcase found in an old Beirut building changes one woman's understanding of her city, her life, and the world at large.... As in her earlier works, Humaydan is concerned here with the lives of women: their losses, struggles, and victories.... [she] writes incisively about her characters and their fears, frustrations, and, most importantly, their hopes."
Kirkus Reviews


While making a documentary film about the reconstruction of downtown Beirut, Maya Amer stumbles upon a battered leather suitcase that will change her life forever. Inside it she finds letters, photographs, a diary, and an envelope labeled: Letters from Istanbul.

The Weight of Paradise is both the story of Maya and her discovery, and also the story of the owner of these papers, Noura Abu Sawwan. A journalist, Noura fled Syria just before the Lebanese civil war to find greater freedom of expression. But as we learn from her diaries, her flight was also precipitated by her family’s denial of her sister’s suicide after she fell pregnant by a mukhabarat officer. The diaries lead us through the turmoil of Noura’s life first in Syria and then in Beirut: her family’s resistance to political repression in her childhood and adolescence, the passionate love story she lived with Kemal Firat, her Turkish soul mate and the author of the Letters from Istanbul and her commitment to writing against injustice, including publishing her sister’s tragic story.

A multi-voiced, multi-genre narration, The Weight of Paradise interweaves the stories of these two women and the people who surround them within the fabric of Beirut in the civil war and its immediate aftermath. A love story as well as a story of women’s liberation and political freedom, the novel is also the tale of a city and country torn apart by repression, occupation, and war. Beirut, Damascus, and Istanbul are shown as vibrant locations where people resist state violence trying to live and thrive together across linguistic, ethnic, religious, and communitarian differences.

We follow Maya as she works to establish a new life for herself in Beirut after having lived in France. As she is coping with how to raise her son alone after the premature death of her husband, she and her friend Sarah begin pursuing the traces of stories she discovered in the suitcase. Maya’s story parallels Noura’s search for freedom from state and family censorship, as does Noura’s friend Sabah’s continual battle to eke out a decent living after her husband is abducted and disappeared in the war.

The Weight of Paradise delves into the intricacies of personal, family, and political struggles, but despite and perhaps even because of these struggles, people are bonded together by love. The love of Noura and Kemal; the love of their child born into war; the love of Maya for her late husband that she discovers after his death; the love of a grandmother for her granddaughters to ensure they have a better life; the love of women’s friendships—Noura and Sabah, Maya and Sarah.  Maya’s reconstruction of the events of Noura’s life—and death—eventually lead to a surprising turn of events that offers an unexpected glimmer of hope within the bleak post-war backdrop of 1990s Beirut.

Iman Humaydan is the author of three previous novels B as in Beirut, Wild Mulberries, and Other Lives, all published by Interlink.

Michelle Hartman is an associate professor of Arabic and francophone literature at McGill University in Montreal. She is the translator of several novels from Arabic, including Iman Humaydan’s Wild Mulberries and Other Lives, as well as Alexandra Chreiteh’s Always Coca Cola.

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