Beirut Nightmares: Place and Identity in War Literature

In recent months I have been re-visiting my university days, a trip down memory lane furthered by real-life stops on campus for my own son’s robotics and theatre summer camps. Both of us by nature being somewhat sentimental, it becomes easy for me to point out places of personal significance and he to ask about and absorb my memories into his own imagination. Not all of these places are the actual scenes of some past events: departments have shifted, and an entirely new library has been built since I graduated the first time. Some of the new spaces, it seems, are not conducive to memory transference of any sort: particular experiences, for varying reasons, could never have happened there.

Perhaps this is why I have been re-reading much of my past written work. It enables me to call up memories of classrooms and offices, lounges and labs, where exchanges and arguments occurred, places whose smells and visuals remain intact, even years after in “real life” they have been painted over and all traces of past inhabitants wiped away. It isn’t difficult for me to spend great periods of time getting lost in these papers: I loved my work and now realize I seemed to get lucky a lot because much of my research entailed topics I cared about.

One such subject was Lebanon, which tended to be known mostly for its war-torn recent past. I had to admit, however, that in order to get at the “everything else,” it was required to wade through the debris first. As the protagonist of today’s review herself shows, some deconstruction and even painful analysis must occur before it can be stripped away to reveal what is better underneath. I am not convinced I agree with the extent to which Samman takes her analogy, though this is another discussion altogether. Suffice to say I did have to make my way through a certain amount of history, and the outcome was one of my first of several writings with Lebanon as a central player.

Below is reproduced my analysis of Ghada Al-Samman’s Beirut Nightmares, a work of fiction depicting the series of dreams experienced by an unnamed narrator/dreamer stuck in her Beirut flat at the height of the Lebanese Civil War. It is slightly re-worked as originally it was paired with study of a memoir dealing with the same topic; here it appears as a stand-alone review. I selected it today partly because it speaks to place, a topic of interest to me, along with that of memory. However, in the years since I originally wrote the piece, every person I’ve shown the book to has asked and offered thoughtful questions and comments, and wanted to know more about Lebanon. This speaks to me of a receptive wider audience, not just for Samman’s novel, but also for a lovely country whose best days are perhaps yet to come.

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The Place of Identity and Identity of Place in War Literature 

“Where” exactly an author is coming from, it has become more and more clear in literary studies, often is influenced by geographical location, although not merely a physical space as defined by political boundaries. To be sure, this indeed plays a part in an individual’s sense of identity. However, the topography of a “mental map” serves to create a sense of self as well, and its formation is influenced by a variety of factors, such as the past, emerging or existing words or phrases with nuances peculiar to geographic location, currents events, how and in what way individuals view themselves as well as how they perceive and remember others.

The way in which sense of place works to shape a person and her identity is addressed in a novel dealing with the Lebanese Civil War. In Beirut Nightmares Ghada Al-Samman’s protagonist, a writer/translator, records the nightmares that flood her life during two weeks of street battles dominated by snipers who threaten anyone venturing out of doors. Written in diary form, each division being a nightmare, the novel chronicles a particular era in the writer’s—in this case, the narrator’s—life, and features other people in the telling of her ugly dreams. The presence of others in the novel is important as it illustrates instances in which a person looks deeply into the mirror of her soul and sees reflected back her own complicated topography as influenced by her sense of place and its population. All of these factors serve as part of the larger whole; that is, the person she is and the place in which she lives, both mutually influential.

The nightmares themselves are numbered and of an odd assortment of lengths, the longest being several pages and the shortest consisting of just a few words. Their structure also serves to reflect the nature of real nightmares: of varying intensity, moving back and forth between surrealistic images born of the narrator’s imagination and scenes of sheer terror obviously influenced by the bloodbath just outside her window. Often, the ending of any given nightmare is punctuated with an exclamation point or ellipses, either of which reflects in writing what a dreamer feels when she actually is being released from the grip of a real nightmare—a sudden burst of alertness as she is jolted awake, or merciful wavering as the horror gives way to the seeds of wakefulness.

Like many nightmares in real life, whose scenes often merge into one another, the narrator’s nightmares also shift unhesitatingly between the awake and the dreaming world. Indeed, within the first three words of the opening page, the author skillfully establishes this fusion: the narrator commences her telling of the nightmares, “[w]hen dawn broke,” a time usually associated with freedom from the bonds of such terror. As the book progresses, the mixing of “nightmare” and “reality” increases, with the intention that the reader retain an awareness that the lack of clear division between the two signifies the extent to which nightmares have taken over the waking life of the narrator.

Samman’s protagonist relates with equal lucidity events that are plausible as well as fantastic, and she chooses to use the nightmares to her own advantage. Rather than passively learning to endure these ghastly events, she becomes aware that each manifestation “was the image I’d seen of my own soul in the mirror of events.” Utilized as a source of strength as opposed to a tool of terror, she concludes that, “After all, aren’t bad dreams just an expression of an elevated level of perception? Don’t nightmares take place in a state of heightened alertness? And isn’t what we call madness in actual fact a kind of complete ‘unfiltered’ awareness?” Reducing the power of the nightmares’ hold over her by altering her perception of them enables the protagonist to make clear considerations of what she does see when she looks into the mirror of her soul.

Moreover, at this time of near social collapse, when many in her land are forced to stare into the same mirror and the reflections themselves cause confusing terror, she recognizes that a complex web weaves individuals and their place together in much the same way that fun-house mirrors reflect many different images of the person staring into them. When Samman’s narrator observes others as well as her city, she sees herself, and vice versa.

 

 

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Five-star Holiday Inn, site of one of the war’s deadliest battles

Continue reading “Beirut Nightmares: Place and Identity in War Literature”

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Rabindranath Tagore: Whispers in the Ear of Eternity

Recently I had the great privilege and honor to review Paula Lofting’s debut novel, Sons of the Wolf. I found much to admire in the book, not least the characters whose words are spoken to each other as well as across time. I am a big believer in paying special care and attention to what concerned our ancestors, for it all influenced their actions and resulted in the world they gifted to us. In turn, our children shall be the beneficiaries.

One character in particular expresses a sentiment that resonated with me, deeply: “In time we are all just whispers in the wind[.]” The duality of this statement strikes me so deeply because it has affected every person who ever lived, as one day it will each of us. The question that remains is: How?

The Russians say that no one really ever dies as long as there is someone to remember the person who has left this world. Rabindranath Tagore, however, refers to forgetfulness as a “liberating path.” As we make our way along that road, kicking up dust kicked up by so many others before, what does the wind blow our way, and how much of it will we hear? How open are we to what is being said? As whispers are buoyed along the wind, will we even recognize that they carry memories of what once was of vast importance in the lives of those whose world we were given?

When I read those words of Aemund’s, I thought of something I’d written previously that concerned itself greatly with memories, part of which entailed study of Tagore, whose poem “Shah Jahan” explores the creation of the greatest and grandest memorial the world has ever seen.

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I have chosen some of the most poignant passages, the messages of which are very telling in terms of questioning how any given moment occurs and then, as Freyda contemplates, are “gone like whispers in the wind.” Shah Jahan understands this transience, and attempts to conquer it.

You knew, Emperor of India, Shah-Jahan,

That life, youth, wealth, renown

All float away down the stream of time.

Your only dream

Was to preserve forever your heart’s pain.

The harsh thunder of imperial power

Would fade into sleep

Like a sunset’s crimson splendour,

But it was your hope

That at least a single, eternally-heaved sigh would stay

To grieve the sky.

Though emeralds, rubies, pearls are all

But as the glitter of a rainbow tricking out empty air

And must pass away,

Yet still one solitary tear

Would hang on the cheek of time

In the form

Of this white and gleaming Taj Mahal.

O human heart,

You have no time

To look back at anyone again,

No time.

You are driven by life’s quick spate

On and on from landing to landing.

***

Thus, Emperor, you wished,

Fearing your own heart’s forgetfulness,

To conquer time’s heart

Through beauty.

***

The names you softly

Whispered to your love

On moonlit nights in secret chambers live on

Here

As whispers in the ear of eternity.

The poignant gentleness of love

Flowered into the beauty of serene stone.

Poet-Emperor,

This is your heart’s picture,

Your new Meghaduta,

Soaring with marvellous, unprecedented melody and line

Towards the unseen plane

On which your loverless beloved

And the first glow of sunrise

And the last sigh of sunset

And the disembodied body of the moonlit cameli-flower

And the gateway on the edge of language

That turns away man’s wistful gaze again and again

Are all blended.

This beauty is your messenger,

Skirting time’s sentries

To carry the wordless message:

‘I have not forgotten you, my love, I have not forgotten you.’

***

Lies! Lies! Who says you have not forgotten?

Who says you have not thrown open

The cage that holds memory?

That even today your heart wards off

The ever-falling darkness

Of history?

That even today it has not escaped by the liberating path

Of forgetfulness?

Tombs remain forever with the dust of this earth:

It is death

That they carefully preserve in a casing of memory.

But who can hold life?

***

‘Towards the gate of dawn

I remain here weighted with memory:

He is free of burdens, he is no longer here.’

—Rabindranath Tagore, “Shah Jahan”

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Photos courtesy Lisl Zlitni.

Book Review: Sons of the Wolf

Sons of the Wolf Book Tour Banner

I am very pleased to host today’s segment of indieBRAG’s blog tour celebrating Paula Lofting’s debut novel, Sons of the Wolf. Set in the England of King Edward the Confessor, Sons of the Wolf introduces us to the understanding that those who populate this pre-1066 era conduct lives and a society every bit as complicated and layered as our own. Moreover, they view themselves as individuals, albeit if not on the same level as do we. Their lives and loves, hurts and worries, superstitions and values, inform the directions in which they pour their energies. The modern notion that life was universally short, cheap and dirty is challenged by Lofting’s research and narrative, which details people who aim for the future and fight to retain their dreams. Picking at threads, they sometimes patched together as best they could, while other occasions show them to be the ones manipulating the strands.

Sons of the Wolf

by Paula Lofting

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Whispers in the Wind: Sons of the Wolf and Remnants of Our Past

As Wolfhere and his right-hand man, Esegar, make their way home from a victorious but devastating Scottish campaign, the reader is immediately given to understand the historical importance of their surroundings. “They’d been travelling many days along the ancient trackways which for centuries had witnessed the various comings and goings of the many different peoples of these lands.” Indeed, heritage is echoed in names–Inewulf, whose wife gives the returning warriors drink–and language–““Aye, þu airt welcumen, Lord[,” she replies]–as well as the practices governing their society. Wulfhere, as thegn, is a landowner with allegiance to the king; in this case he also serves the local earl, Harold, who soon intervenes in a thinly-veiled land dispute, which plays itself out as a generational feud. In order to promote peace, Harold orders Wulfhere to contract his daughter’s hand to that of his enemy’s son, Edgar Helghison. Young Freyda is only too happy to oblige, in love as she is with Helghi’s injured and ill-treated son.

In the course of the novel readers learn of other familial secrets, seamlessly revealed by Lofting in her characters’ dialogue–knots that smoothly reveal themselves–and sudden, dramatic actions and events. Like the tapestry depicting the lives and meanings of their ancestors’ world, Lofting skillfully portrays that of the Horstedes in scenes otherwise reminiscent of a typical day or evening, yet with so much meaning infused within. As Ealdgytha, Wulfhere’s beautiful but unhappy wife awaits his return,

[p]art of her was missing. Somewhere in her mind she had closed a door, locking inside the thoughts she did not want to think and the feelings she could not bear to feel.[. . . ] Then, at hearth time, she sat by the fire, chatting quite animatedly away to Gunnhild about her new pregnancy.

This scene sewn into a tapestry would reveal little to an examiner, for who can see into hearts embroidered onto material? Like the multitudes of others we encounter in passing each day, these people we might see, but what lives in their hearts and minds lay unknown to us even, sadly, when we blow off the dust and bring our open hearts to the examination. Or perhaps, like Ealdgytha, we see something we recognize but wish to dismiss and carelessly toss the remnants of our ancestors into coffers and chests.

Her daughter, Winflaed, however, is thrilled to learn about those who came before her, her “awesome ancestors,” led by Aelle, who brought them across the sea to the land they now inhabit. Their own tribal leader had been Wulfgar, whose name lent its prefix to the many still in use. She continues to stare at the tapestry:

Silently, she attempted to interpret the story that the embroidered images were telling her. Hills and trees on one side and on the other a coastal shoreline with a half-dozen or so richly coloured sea vessels, all possessing sails that were crested with a brown wolf’s head. In one corner of the tapestry was the summit of a hill that sloped down into woodland. Along the rising gradient, wolves appeared to be running upwards with the largest of the creatures at the hill’s pinnacle, its dark grey-blue shape howling at a perfectly round moon against a darkened sky. This was clearly the leader, Winflaed decided, for it was the largest and most clearly represented. Behind it, the others looked small and insignificant against its majesty. Interestingly, there were no images of humans. It was as if the wolves themselves had sailed and alighted ashore from the boats and were running freely across a depicted land.

It has been said that images speak to the examiner, though what the message is depends on who receives it. What is so different between what Wilflaed and her mother hear? Who depicted the newly arrived as wolves would also indicate why they were depicted as such: fearsome, frightening invaders, or noble, misunderstood creatures? What did mother and daughter hear in the echoes of the wolf leader’s cries to the night sky? As the wind carried the sound across the landscape and through time, what changes came over it and how much was left to understand? Was the recognizable stripped away, leaving only hard images that seemingly cover up all else?

Their own experiences surely color interpretations as well. The roles of mother and daughter affect how they perceive the world, but also their ages, the former having become embittered by what she has endured in life, and the latter still within the parameters of innocence. She continues to see what we overlook. While current stereotypes can be misleading, it is only too true that life in 1054 England was harsh by modern Western standards. As for Wulfhere, we find him engaged in bloody battle once more, this time having also to deal with the aftermath of battlefield abandonment and the sickening devastation wrought on the villagers following the fight.

Wulfhere is at war on the home front, as well, for his bitter disapproval of Freyda’s betrothed does nothing to waver her enthusiasm, and he seeks to engage her to another. His young children battle one another, the demanding Ealdgytha insists he make choices and his enemy Helghi’s attempted rape of his maidservant leads to a furious battle that ends in tragedy–in more ways than one. Wulfhere is determined, protective and proud, perhaps a perilous combination in a man as passionate, and sometimes selfish, as he. However, he is at least sometimes capable of recognizing the níðdraca, the monster who “thrive[s] on their lust for revenge, their need for a reckoning, and the endless waiting[,]” as well as the part he plays in weaving it to life.

Lofting has allowed us, too, to be passionate observers rather than passive ones, because she has brought to life an era shrouded in the mystery of the unknown. With such a distance as nearly a thousand years between “us” and “them,” we already sometimes echo the wretched Alfgar’s words of his own era, “What does it matter what she felt? [. . . ] as long as you are on the winning side [. . . i]n the end it is all the same.” And given the diversity of persona across the timeline, it can hardly be disputed there were some who treated even their own times thus. In diplomatic fashion, Lofting has given even such as Alfgar voice to speak to us, even at the risk he may be matted together with slave taking, “men so drunk they pissed where they stood” and “the torn body of a dead baby lying in the mud.”

Indeed, Sons of the Wolf is not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart. Brutal reality lives here, and to honor the lives of those we seek, we must face the tapestry and honestly examine even the uglier segments. Actual lives were lived on this dance across the arras, clues of which Lofting sifts through and unknots, thread by thread to gain understanding of personalities and motives when so little documentary evidence reveals its secrets. So do not be put off by the telling, for it needs to be so. As this reviewer frequently maintains, they are remnants of our past, these ancestors of ours, though they on their tapestries may “in time [be] just whispers on the wind,” they beckon to us and we are obliged to follow.

Publish Date: July 23, 2012
Publisher: SilverWood Books
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English
ASIN: B008OK4HF2

UPDATE: Several e-copies and a paperback up for grabs! To stand a chance of winning, e-mail author Paula Lofting at sonsofthewolf1066@hotmail.com . Go for it!!!!

Visit indieBRAG’s blog tour page to keep up with other dates and sites!

Paula Lofting

About the author: My name is Paula Lofting and I write historical fiction. My first novel is called Sons of the Wolf, set in 11thc England. I like to keep things as accurate as I can when I am writing historically and belong to a re-enactment society, Regia Anglorum that covers the period in which I write. This enables me to have some knowledge of the time I write in of the everyday things and not just the politics and events of the time. Living history is a big part of what Regia do and everything has to be well researched for authenticity.

My earliest influences in reading were Rosemary Sutcliffe, Edith Pargetter, Leon Garfield, Mary Stewart and Sharon Kay Penman. Rosemary Sutcliffe really got me into Dark Age history. I love her style and am reading Manda Scott currently whose style is heavily influenced by Sutcliffe’s.

Aside from enjoying historical fiction set in pre-conquest years, I also enjoy later medieval, ancient and anything in later periods that would interest me. I also enjoy crime, horror and thrillers. Erotica is not really for me but I appreciate the skill you must need to write in that genre.

I am a psychiatric nurse by day and writer in my spare time. I have three children and live in the beautiful county of Sussex, England, where my book is set. I am currently working on the sequel which I hope to have released in the late summer or early Autumn!

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A copy of Sons of the Wolf was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Banner courtesy indieBRAG Medallion, LLC. Images courtesy Paula Lofting.