cover image Beirut Blues

Beirut Blues

Hanan al-Shaykh, Hanan Shaykh, Al-Shaykh Hanan. Doubleday Books, $22.95 (371pp) ISBN 978-0-385-47381-1

Although present, sex is not quite the driving force here that it was in Lebanese writer al-Shaykh's earlier books, Women of Sand and Myrrh and The Story of Zahra. Instead, al-Shaykh has substituted war. This is still a strangely intimate meditation on a well-born woman who has spent much of her life in the chaos of west Beirut. In 10 letters addressed variously to the protagonist's lover, her grandmother, Billie Holiday, the land, the war and people, places and events, Asmahan remembers her beautiful, cosmopolitan Beirut and childhood friends, juxtaposing them with the city's grizzled, suspicious present and the occupiers who took the exiles' places. Druze, Shia (including the gunmen of Hizbullah and Amal), Sunni, Christian, Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian personages figure in the story, though Asmahan seems disgusted with all of them. Her concerns are not about politics but about dealing with rats in the kitchen; discovering that her ancestral village has been taken over by drug plantations; finding that respect for her family's standing has crumbled along with the country. Asmahan thinks a great deal about her lovers, but her ultimate love is for Beirut. Like Ruhiyya, the village woman to whom Asmahan has been devoted since childhood, Beirut is decrepit, an ``angel of death'' devoted to dirges. The letters written while Asmahan is in her grandparents' village form the most convincing portion of the narrative. Those from Beirut, while opening up new understanding about life during wartime, are more self-conscious, even awkward. (June)