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04/19/2007


Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Aaliya Selah, the irreverent, vibrant, hilarious, and fiercely solitary narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s brilliant new novel, has practiced a strange, consoling ritual for fifty years. Over the course of twelve months, beginning on January 1st, she translates a book, perfects it, seals it in a box, and places it in the back room of the apartment in Beirut where she has spent her entire adult life. No one reads these pages, including Aaliya herself: “Once the book is done,” she says, “the wonder dissolves and the mystery is solved. It holds little interest after.”

RabihIn a world where women’s lives revolve around husbands and children, Aaliya has lived alone since her husband divorced her after four failed years of youthful marriage. In her 70s now, estranged from her family, almost friendless, no longer working in the bookshop she tended for years, Aaliya has become the “unnecessary woman” of the title. “I am nothing,” she says at her most despondent; “I’m a wholly nondescript human.”

But the space of the “unnecessary” is also the space of art, and in the absence of the usual obligations Aaliya has dedicated herself to literature. She fills her days with reading, and she works on her translations in a kind of absolute innocence, free of any taint of commerce or fame. “I’m committed to the process and not the final product,” she says. “It’s the act that inspires me, the work itself.”

One of the wonders of this novel is how, from the perspective of such an outwardly circumscribed existence, Alameddine offers a rich, variegated portrait of a community. Though she hardly talks to them, Aaliya participates in the lives of her neighbors, women who gather daily for coffee and conversation, which Aaliya follows from her room. Though she doesn’t like to admit it, she weeps with both their sorrows and their joys.

She also, at least from time to time, descends into the streets of Beirut, a city for which she feels a deep and ambivalent love. “Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” Aaliya says, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden.” She remembers its many recent traumas, including civil war and Israeli siege, the marks of which are visible in bullet holes and armored stairwells. Her own apartment was broken into by looters, which prompted her to take steps toward her own defense; for years she “slept with an AK-47 instead of a husband.”  

But it’s a different kind of intruder that disturbs Aaliya’s peace in Alameddine’s novel. Startled one afternoon by a knock at the door, Aaliya finds her brother’s family, with her elderly, senile mother in tow. They insist that it’s Aaliya’s turn to care for the old woman; Aaliya, her need for independence outweighing her remorse, even horror, at her own cruelty, refuses: “‘No,’ I say, in a low, sticky tone. ‘She is not mine.’”

But it’s the mother’s response that is most shocking. When she sees her daughter and realizes where she is, she screams, “a defiant skirl of terror that does not slow or tire.” This scream will haunt the rest of the book, finally compelling Aaliya to undertake a journey into her past that may also, in unexpected and surprisingly tender ways, be an opening toward her future.

AlameddineAaliya constantly expresses her disdain for the tidy endings that mar so many literary texts, the revelations and epiphanies that allow for the kind of resolution that real life almost never achieves. But as the novel progresses it’s clear she is approaching her own reckoning, an increasingly desperate sense that, instead of giving meaning to her life, her devotion to literature may have kept her from the work of living.

“I made myself feel better by reciting jejune statements like ‘Books are the air I breathe,’” she writes, “or, worse, ‘Life is meaningless without literature,’ all in a weak attempt to avoid the fact that I found the world inexplicable and impenetrable.” While she has prided herself on being above the myths of politics and religion that have wreaked such havoc in the world, Aaliya comes to feel that she may have made her own false idol of art. 

But this won’t be Aaliya’s final or immutable judgment, and the book bears witness to the uncounterfeitable joy she has taken in literature, a joy I found myself sharing as I read this extraordinary book. Aaliya Saleh’s voice is an indelible addition to the literary chorus she so loves, and An Unnecessary Woman is the most remarkable new novel I have read in many months.

Previous reviews...
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Human Rights Watch To Lebanon: No More Anal Probes

HamraStreetBeirutIt's both inexpressibly sad and deeply ridiculous that the Human Rights Watch, the four-star charity founded in 1978 to enforce the Helsinki Accords, must in 2012 issue a press release demanding that Lebanese police officers cease performing anal probes on suspected gay men. But they must, and they have.

From HRC:

“Forensic anal examinations of men suspected of homosexual contact, conducted in detention, constitute degrading and humiliating treatment,” said Rasha Moumneh, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in Beirut. “These ‘tests of shame,’ as local activists call them, should stop immediately – the state has no business punishing and degrading its citizens for consensual sexual conduct.”

In case you're wondering: When Lebanese cops probe your bum, they're looking for semen. The consensus among those few mainstream scientists who think about such things is that the probes are unreliable.

The issue's come up because of the police raid of a gay cinema in Beirut on July 29th, in which 36 men were arrested for peaceably watching a movie. They were all probed. Some were released post-probe; some were not. Those convicted of having performed sexual acts "contradicting the laws of nature" could be sentenced to up to a year in prison.


Lebanon: Gay Oasis in the Middle East?

Beirut

For those of you who have been to both, is Beirut "the Provincetown of the Middle East" as the NYT proclaims?

"While homosexual activity (technically, sexual relations that officials deem “unnatural”) is illegal in Lebanon, as in most of the Arab world, Beirut’s vitality as a Mediterranean capital of night life has fueled a flourishing gay scene — albeit one where men can be nervous about public displays of affection and where security guards at clubs can intercede if the good times turn too frisky on the dance floor. But even more than the partying, Beirut represents a different Middle East for some gay and lesbian Arabs: the only place in the region where they can openly enjoy a social life denied them at home."

In February, a series of gay rights rallies, the first-ever in Lebanon, began in Beirut. Watch footage from them, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Lebanon: Gay Oasis in the Middle East?" »


Beirut, Lebanon Gay Rights Activists Hold New Rally

 The second major rally in four months has been held by a gay and lesbian activist group in Lebanon, Calcutta News reports:

Beirut "Gay men and women in Lebanon have taken to the streets in a brave effort to show the rainbow flag.  Protesters on Sunday carried banners and unfurled flags at a sit-in for gays and lesbians in Beirut.  The region's only overt gay rights organisation, Helem, which is based in Lebanon, is preparing for a campaign to overturn the law that makes homosexuality illegal. Helem has been responsible for organising the only overt gay rights protests ever to be held in the Arab world. In February, nearly two dozen gays and lesbians waved rainbow flags in a downtown Beirut square, carrying banners demanding homosexual rights.  They were protesting what they said was the beating of two gay men by police.  Helem is now set to challenge Lebanon's Article 534, which prohibits sexual relations that 'contradict the laws of nature.' The region has seen a recent spike in killings of homosexuals, blamed by some on the influence of Islamic extremists."

The AP looks at the gay rights struggle in Lebanon.

The screencap above is from a clip of February's protest, which you can view, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Beirut, Lebanon Gay Rights Activists Hold New Rally" »


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