Limbo Beirut | English
نُشر في November 17, 2016
In Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut, a gay artist, a struggling novelist, a pregnant woman, a disabled engineering student, a former militia member, and a medical intern all take turns narrating the violent events of May 2008, when Hezbollah militants and Sunni fighters clashed in the streets of Beirut. For most of these young men and women, the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) is but a vague recollection, but the brutality of May 2008 serves to reawaken forgotten memories and stir up fears of a revival of sectarian violence. Yet despite these fears, the violence these characters witness helps them to break free from the mundane details of their lives and look at the world anew.
The multiple narrative voices and the dozens of pen-and-ink illustrations that accompany the text allow Chouman to achieve a mesmerizing cinematic quality with this novel that is unique in modern Arabic fiction. Not only will readers appreciate the meaningful exploration of the effects of violence on the psyche, but they will also enjoy discovering how the lives of these characters—almost all of whom are strangers to one another—intersect in surprising ways.
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1- Leah Caldwell in the National: The nightmare returns for young Lebanese in Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut
The first circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno is limbo, an eerily calm place, save for the “sighs that kept the air forever trembling”. Limbo is neither hell nor heaven; it is the denial of a resolution to one’s life – a constant state of “grief without torment”.
Dante’s Christian vision of limbo is not too far removed from the state in which the Lebanese characters in Hilal Chouman’s third novel, Limbo Beirut, find themselves.
It’s 2008 in Beirut and the characters are living through a conflict that seems like it could be a war, although nobody is quite sure, exactly.
The conflict in question is, of course, based on the real-life clashes that took place between warring factions Hizbollah and the Future Movement during May 2008. The street fighting seemed to start and end in a violent flash – at least 11 people died – but it brought home a new reality to many young Lebanese who were just children during the country’s civil war.
In Limbo Beirut, though, the names of political factions and leaders are absent. Political affiliations are not the motivating factors in the lives of the young Beirutis portrayed by Chouman. To some, the conflict is a jolt to their stable worlds – an awakening perhaps or a chance to consider what is deeply wrong or right in their own lives. For others, the conflict is just a passing moment.
“War? This is all no big deal,” says Walid, a young artist. “It’s nothing to get excited about. Everything that can happen has already happened to this country. Everything that can be done was done before.”
Though each of the five stories in Limbo Beirut could stand alone, they instead come to overlap in surprising ways. There is Walid, whose jaded nature keeps him at a distance from the world around him. When the fighting starts, he imagines the old men in his neighbourhood to be “very happy”, nostalgic even, at the sights and sounds of war.
Old memories also surface for Walid. He remembers his father having him pose atop the rubble in the downtown city as a child, after the civil war, and that Beirut, “with its hummocks of dirt and its debris and its desolation… resembled hair, thick and dishevelled”.
Like Walid, the unnamed writer featured in the next chapter is more devoted to his craft than the world and people around him, including his Japanese wife. He withdraws from his surroundings to complete his novel and is barely moved when he discovers his wife has left him and returned to Japan.
As he drives aimlessly around the city one night at the height of the conflict, a random decision on his part brings together the characters in Limbo Beirut.
The novel exemplifies how this current generation of Lebanese authors and artists, raised during the tail end of the country’s civil war and the beginnings of an ongoing reconstruction, have been able to interpret more recent conflicts. These accounts are full of inchoate memories of the last war, and disillusion with any future wars.
The cryptic black and white illustrations that punctuate the stories in Limbo Beirut – each by a different artist – add to the sensation that the characters are stuck, trying to move forward but unable to. The drawings were specifically commissioned for the novel, which was first published in Arabic in 2013. It is now available in English, translated by Anna Ziajka Stanton, who has attended carefully to Chouman’s poetic expressions of isolation and detachment.
2- Review in Publishers Weekly
Chouman’s carefully constructed novel, the first of his works to be translated into English, tracks the confluence of a handful of emotional and anxious Beirutis amid the violent clashes that rattled the city in 2008. Unable to sleep, an artist leaves his dreaming lover to graffiti faces “without chins or mouths.” He is joined on the street by a medical intern who was recently dumped by his fiancée. An ersatz militiaman attempts to confront the duo, but is struck dead by a car before he can act. The culprit is a would-be writer, desperate after his Japanese wife abandons him for home. “Do I have a story?” he muses, “and how can someone who doesn’t have—at minimum—even one story write a novel?” The five narratives don’t exactly fit together, and the best way to read the book is as five distinct stories. The doctor wonders how he became “suddenly a witness to the lives of all these people” and the broader effort to conflate connection (however fleeting) with profundity strikes a false note. Still, Chouman is a sharp, insightful writer (“Beirut is a deep valley… wholly below us, wholly remote”) deftly tracking his artist, who wanders without a definite plan, stopping only to notice the “rays of light” that are “increasing and widening shyly.” (Sept.)
3- Claire Pershan in Asymptote Journal
Beirut is a city of collisions. Bad drivers, sudden friendships, graffiti in a mess of languages. And yet, when enough chaos collides, it produces its own order—the way a sprawling city looks from far away.
This is the effect of Hilal Chouman’s latest novel, Limbo Beirut, recently translated from Arabic into English by Anna Ziajka Stanton, and published by University of Texas Press. Chouman’s novel fills the space between history and memory. Six narrative chapters document the fighting that broke out in the city in May of 2008, as it was experienced by the city’s residents. These clashes, between Hezbollah and pro-Syrian militias on one side, and members of the Sunni-supported Future Movement on the other, didn’t gain much attention from western media, but for the Lebanese people, they were a frightening echo of the Civil War that devastated the country between 1975 and 1990.
“How do we pick the moments at which our stories begin,” wonders Hassan. Burdened with guilt from serving in the militia, he has devoted himself to finding happiness for his paraplegic brother Rami, who is studying in Hamburg. Limbo Beirut is one response to his question. Chouman’s narrative structure explodes subjectivity. His figures collide with their own memories, with each other, in ways that make me wonder: in the context of conflict, how discrete are our individual consciousnesses? When our perception of the present is continually assailed by our recollection of the past, where precisely are the edges of our experiences?
“I thought that we live among the reflections of time’s sadness upon all things,” reflects another character, a young doctor-in-training. In the passenger seat of a Service, after back to back shifts in the hospital’s autopsy room, he tries to make sense of his breakup, to move on with his life—when the end of love, like the end of war, is not as decisively clear as death.
“Screw this country. No offense to you, sir, esteiz.” As I had decided to talk to him, I agreed, “My God, yes, a thousand times over. You’re right.”
Each of Chouman’s characters is struggling to find logic in their lives, and to unstick themselves from something. The explosions in their city serve as the backdrop to the rest of their uncertainties. Meanwhile, visual authors Mohamed Gaber, Fadi Adleh, and Barrack Rima, provide us with another permutation of the events, intimate illustrations of each individual’s ruminations.
Walid and Alfred are trying to keep things casual, commuting between each other’s apartments in Caracas and Rue Clemenceau. Salwa, sixth months pregnant, is hit by a car crossing the street. In the hospital, she solves word puzzles while sorting through her memories and analyzing a bizarrely loveless marriage. A frustrated novelist tries to make sense of his life through his writing, but estranging himself from his girlfriend in the process.
“A year passed while we were in London. Things were happening in Lebanon to destabilize the status quo there. Then 2005 passed. 2006 flew by. I began to ask myself, Is it the place? Can I really be productive in a place I’ve lived in only briefly? Can I write a story whose events take place in Lebanon while I watch what’s happening from outside? Can such a thing be done remotely, using online searches, smart technology?”
Lebanon is a country locked in on all sides by violence—the Syrian civil war to the north, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the south. By necessity, Lebanese identity transcends its borders. Lebanese diaspora live across the world—Toronto, Dubai, Michigan, California, Brazil. Limbo Beirut shows the transnationalism and the transience of this country, the continuous movement of Lebanese people to earn doctorates in Germany, to chase loved ones to Japan, to build and rebuild homes.
If one purpose of world literature is to carry an experience beyond its borders, to unstick an event from a single mind, or place, or language, then Chouman’s novel and Stanton’s translation achieve this task together. Those readers who have passed at some point through Beirut, will find themselves drawn back along its streets overcrowded with triple parked cars, to the Corniche overlooking the Rauché rocks. And those unfamiliar with Beirut will discover it here in all its chaos and detail; they will be pulled with equal force into its tense and tender embrace.
4- Emily Lever in Words without Borders
Limbo Beirut is a novel in short stories that most definitely requires rereading. Each of its five constituent stories unfolds over different spans of time and is centered around a different character. What unites them is that they are anchored by a specific time and place—Beirut, May 2008, when the ostensibly dormant embers of Lebanon’s civil war briefly came to life again. Lebanon had been stable after fifteen years of war from 1975 to 1990, and the country’s young adults had been born in war and raised in peace, with the war as a permanent, grim presence in the background. The armed conflict was the final escalation of political turmoil that began in 2005 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and continued as coalitions led by Hezbollah and the Future Movement vied for power.
These details aren’t laid out in an expository passage––the basic facts would be universally familiar to the book’s original audience––but even a close reading wouldn’t yield much historical information. The slightly overlapping stories––connected by brief moments that take place in two or three of the stories and hold varying levels of importance in each case––retell the violence of that time in a way that nods to the fable in which several blind men grasp at different parts of an elephant (the trunk, the leg, the tusks) and, based on their sensory experiences, give radically different descriptions of what an elephant is. While this narrative seems at first to withhold the truth from the reader, it ends up conveying a collective, multidimensional truth that is richer than any one individual narrative. The butterfly effect appearances of the main character from one story as a bit player in another conveys a sense of community, and suggests that everyone, even in a city as large as Beirut, is bound together by a common experience. The reader might not understand an event when it happens but only when they see it again through another character’s eyes, creating interdependent narratives that have more meaning together than they do alone. This device, with its emphasis on togetherness, is particularly important in the context of war, which necessarily involves a fragmentation of community, of mutual understanding, and even of narratives themselves.
The 1998 novel The Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury––perhaps the most prominent Lebanese writer today––took a similar approach in recounting a more distant historical event, the Nakba, or Palestinian exodus, of 1948. The Gate of the Sun incorporates the stories of many characters whose lives are affected by the events of the Nakba. In the epic sweep of his novel, Khoury captured a historical moment that was massive in its scope and consequence through an accumulation of the stories and myths of a multitude of different individuals. The shared trauma of the Palestinian people is recounted through dozens of fragmented narratives, a device that mimics the reality of diaspora. The form of the narrative imitates its subject.
Limbo Beirut is also about a traumatic event––the violence of May 2008 in Beirut––but this event was far smaller and briefer than the massive displacement of the Nakba. The narrative strategies used in Limbo Beirut paint a picture of the conflict of 2008 that emerges as an eruption of violence in the midst of an uneasy, unstable peace.
Violence enters into the lives of characters dogged by neuroses and uncertainties that seem to mirror their environments. Walid, the central character of Part One, watches the media say in the run-up to May 2008 “that the government was fighting itself, that the country hated itself, that an explosion was inevitably coming.” Similarly, Walid’s body is fighting itself––he has an ulcer brought on by consuming basically nothing but coffee and cigarettes––and he is wracked by an inner conflict resulting from the fact that he was never able to reveal his sexual orientation to his father, no matter how much he loved him. Walid never explodes in the way the country does––he is too timid for that––but he nevertheless observes that “this war, so very well organized, so very limited, so very local . . . resembled his brain.”
Salwa, the protagonist of Part Three, identifies more with the war in the past, the one that defined her childhood. She manifests what also seems like a kind of Stockholm syndrome for this time in her life, a period that she spent mostly inside for safety, tearing through magazines dedicated solely to crossword puzzles: “She wouldn’t be exaggerating if she said that these magazines were the war for her.” Crossword puzzles generate a sense of a knowable and interconnected universe; the cruciverbalist decrypts what is encrypted to populate an organized and self-contained little world of black and white boxes. At the same time, clues reach into every area of knowledge so that each puzzle seems to span the entire universe. For Salwa, each clue––“the ancient Canaanite god of the sea” or “an Umm Kulthum song based on a melody by Riyad el Sunbati”––is as evocative as a Proust madeleine. Perhaps this is why she is so dejected when she sees these puzzle magazines progressively disappear from newsstands at the same time as the war fades from people’s memories. As an adult she remains obsessed with crossword puzzles to the point where she is almost seriously injured in her quest for a magazine issue she might not have found and gone through yet. That which gave Salwa comfort in the first war puts her in danger at the outset of the second war––she is hit by a car when crossing the street to look at a magazine, and is rushed to the hospital, but the casualties of the violence clog up the halls, impeding her access to medical care.
All in all, this is a bizarre episode, one that could be read as a straightforward condemnation of dwelling on the past––perhaps a parallel to the way the 2008 war can seem like a resurgence of the 1975–90 war. But that’s too simplistic. What really puts Salwa in harm’s way is a universal reflex of people who have experienced trauma: to preserve and perpetuate a coping mechanism long after the occurrence of the trauma that made it necessary. And isn’t that the way history seems to always work, every action generating an equally harmful overcorrection?
5- Marcia Lynx Qualey in Qantara.de: Hybrid Lives
″Limbo Beirut″ is mostly set in Beirut in May 2008, when Hezbollah and Sunni fighters clashed in the streets – a frightening after-echo of Lebanon′s fifteen-year civil war.
Yet this novel is not about warfare. As Stanton said in a three-city Skype conversation, ″Limbo Beirut″ is a demand that the reader ″balance in the uneasy space between being a voyeur and a participant, gratifying our desire to get inside the head of that stranger we meet on the street…but on the other hand surprising us with the fact that you can never just be a witness, that you′re always going to somehow become involved in the other′s life, whether you mean to or not.″
As the book unfolds, each of the five stories bumps up against the others. They affect each other in large and small ways, some of which don′t become clear until the final pages.
The first section, illustrated by Fadi Adleh, centres on Walid and his lover Alfred. Here, the street clashes don′t drive the action. Instead, it centres on the accommodations that Walid and Alfred make to the larger society. ″Limbo Beirut″ thus joins a growing number of Arabic novels in which gay men are portrayed as sympathetic, ordinary people, as in Muhammad Abdelnaby′s ″In the Spider′s Room″, or in the background of Iman Humaydan′s ″Other Lives″, translated by Michelle Hartman.
Chouman emphasised, in a conversation over Skype, that he doesn′t write issue-driven or taboo-breaking books. He′s against approaching gay characters ″in a bubble, expressing a world which is not integrated with other worlds.″ Instead, he wants to ″integrate these characters within the usual landscape or platform.″ Chouman, who currently lives in Dubai, added that he′s now writing a novel with gay characters at the centre, ″and I′m trying to just understand the characters, linking it to how homosexuality plays out in Lebanese society, how sometimes Lebanese society treats homosexuals as outsiders.″
″It′s more interesting to me to weave these characters into the usual storytelling rather than to express them in a standalone, isolated approach,″ Chouman said.
Striking monochrome illustrations
But the story doesn′t begin with Chouman′s prose. Before the first sentence, the reader sees an arresting black-and-white image: a man′s body with a head like a camel′s. Throughout the first chapter, images of vulnerable or anxious human bodies are woven in, as are animal faces, missile-streaked landscapes and talking heads that seem to argue past a woman′s armless body. None of these directly reflects the action. Instead, they′re a visual track that accompanies the narrative.
″If you remember Naguib Mahfouz books that have Gamal Qotb covers, where you have one illustration with a quote – that was my starting point,″ Chouman said. ″But I wanted to take it further.″ Chouman gave early drafts to each of the illustrators, who had the freedom to express or interpret their chapter as they experienced it.
The five stories are in many ways independent and Walid and Alfred disappear for a time. Indeed, Chouman originally intended to craft ″Limbo Beirut″ as a short-story collection. The idea was to have the stories in five different writing styles, in five different cities, illustrated by five different artists. Ever since Chouman was in one of Najwa Barakat′s acclaimed writing workshops, he said, ″I always try to do a sort of writing that includes some collaboration with others.″
Early on, Chouman got a grant from the Arab Foundation for Arts and Culture so that he could pay the illustrators. But then thought he should find a publisher. ″And they were like, ′No, we don′t publish short-story collections.′ ″
Instead of being discouraged, Chouman decided to re-shape his project as a novel. It was initially going to be published by Dar al-Adab, but Chouman says they were worried about the illustrations, which feature some nudity. The book was eventually published by Dar al-Tanweer and Chouman said he hasn′t experienced any censorship. In fact, he said, the book has seen steady sales. This was a surprise, Chouman said, because mid-list Arabic fiction sometimes has a hard time finding an audience.
Twin audience appeal
″One detail that played to our benefit is that we′re attracting two audiences,″ Chouman said. The first is the Arabic-literature audience, while the second is the audience for illustrations. ″There is a culture in Beirut of graphic designers and illustrators. So this was a prototype for them.″
A few critics, Chouman said, declared that ″Limbo Beirut″ was ″not a novel.″ Chouman believes this is because although there are interlinked novel hybridisations in other languages, ″it′s new in Arabic.″
The final chapter of the book is the most intimate and the only one written in the first person. This mental letter to an unseen woman takes us to a hospital, where the disparate-seeming story threads are finally brought together. Both Stanton and Chouman called that last chapter their favourite.
″I like finales,″ Chouman said. ″It′s like you′re reaching a point where everything is making sense, at the end and you get a bit anxious about it.″
The final chapter, illustrated by Mohamed Gaber, ends fittingly, with a giant pause button surrounded by Arabesque patterns. Just so, the action of the last chapter pauses, before it returns us to the first chapter and to a desire to read it all over again.