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Choices of a lifetime sealed in unmailed letters


By Hanan al-Shaykh, translated by Catherine Cobham

Doubleday, $22.95

Reviewed by Gelareh Asayesh

Beirut Blues, a novel by Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, is true to its title. It opens with the narrator, a young woman named Asmahan, gripping her Energizer flashlight and musing about the rat in her kitchen while a sniper fires bullets outside her Beirut home. Each chapter, written in the form of letters that will never be mailed, is awash in profound ennui. The narrative combines a leisurely, eastern story-telling style with a sense of alienation evocative of Albert Camus.

The book, translated from Arabic by Catherine Cobham, brings to life ravaged, unraveling Lebanon, once the party girl of the Middle East. Full of visual detail, from frying zucchini to orchards where opium has replaced fruit, it transports us to another world. This is a world of war and irreconcilable differences: between mosques and night clubs, Muslims and Christians, Hizbullah and Israel. Al-Shaykh brings us a rumor of life as it is lived on most of the planet, where neither affluence, peace nor democracy is a given, so that issues of survival crowd out the pursuit of happiness.

More than anything, however, Beirut Blues is a story of the choices forced upon the people who live in this world.

Wealthy, privileged Asmahan seems to spend much of her time bidding good-bye to friends who have decided to leave the Beirut of snipers, bomb shelters and dry faucets for a life abroad. Uprooted and nostalgic, they complain of a sense of alienation as haunting as her own. Asmahan's best friend, Hayat, writes from Belgium: "Abroad you get along with other people on a purely superficial levelthe days don't cut a groove into your memories."

Asmahan herself has refused to leave her home _ Beirut and the Bekaa Valley village where her land-rich grandparents have been displaced by young men with Kalashnikovs. Then she meets Jawad, a Lebanese author living in France who has returned for a visit. Their affair prompts her to make a hitherto unthinkable choice to leave Beirut.

In Beirut, her life is aimless; her education as an architect useless. The days consists of little more than eating, talking and sleeping. "Existing in Beirut all these years had been a full-time job," Asmahan writes. "Getting accustomed to (war) took a lot of effort."

But in the airport as she waits to leave, Asmahan rethinks her decision. "I don't want to turn into one of those pathetic creatures who are always homesick, always saying I wish I were still in Beirut," she tells Jawad. "I don't want to become like you, split between here and there. I know I'm not happy here, but why should I be unhappy in two countries."

The book begins with Asmahan describing herself as a hostage in her own country. By the end, she has made her peace, however imperfect. "My life is here," she says. "and every country has its own life."

In many ways, Asmahan is an unappealing heroine and Beirut Blues a book that is difficult to become engrossed in. The characters are glimpsed briefly, parading disjointedly through the narrative. Asmahan herself seems absorbed, as she herself acknowledges, with "the trivia of love and sex." She retells chance encounters and love affairs and lives in her head, establishing little meaningful connection with anyone, even Jawad.

Her lethargy is part of the condition al-Shaykh has set out to capture. But Asmahan's total lack of effort, perhaps in the context of the take-charge approach to life inherent in American culture, makes her hard to care about. She describes herself as self-centered, another facet of her ennui. But the tepid nature of her affections implies a shallowness that is not belied by anything we learn of her as she was before the war. The progression of her love for Jawad is rather like that of a butterfly across a meadow _ hard to follow, always changing direction, veering between deep passion and infatuation.

The real beloved in this story is Beirut, and it is ultimately Beirut, not any of the people in her life, that Asmahan chooses to keep faith with.

Al-Shaykh herself is an immigrant who has made a different choice, and perhaps for her, Beirut Blues is a chance to reaffirm her love for a land she has left behind. Be that as it may, al-Shaykh has captured a quintessential human dilemma, faced daily by millions of people around the world who are torn between their love for their home and their need to escape its torments and inadequacies.

Can Asmahan really bear to live in the land she loves? Can she really bear to leave? Will there really be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

Asmahan decides that there will not be. Is she brave or cowardly, wise or foolish? It really doesn't matter. Beirut Blues' gift is that it tells the story of those who are privileged in being able to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Gelareh Asayesh is a writer who lives in St. Petersburg.