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 theater 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 course work. It better 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 author Ghada al-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 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 analysis. I selected it today partly because it speaks to place along with that of memory, both topics of interest to me. 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 al-Samman’s novel, but also for a lovely country whose best days are perhaps yet to come.

Note: Because the reproduction below is an analysis rather than review, there are some passages discussed that contain spoilers

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 Lebanon’s 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 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 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.

Al-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 that 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 al-Samman’s narrator observes others as well as her city, she sees herself, and vice versa.

Five-star Holiday Inn in 2009, site of one of the war’s deadliest battles, by Steven Damron from San Francisco, via Wikimedia Commons

Set in the early days of the war, during the Battle of the Hotels in 1975, Beirut Nightmares opens as the narrator—who remains nameless throughout—returns from evacuating the very old and young only to find that she is trapped in her flat by raging street battles on all sides and the presence of snipers, positioned in the Holiday Inn across from her building. The only people she has any real contact with—other than her brother, who is later arrested as he attempts to get away from the area with an unlicensed gun for protection—are her neighbor and his son Amin, as well as their servant. It is ironic, given his preoccupation with the material goods of this life, that it is Amin who first brings the question of place out into the open. Berating his third-floor neighbor for her desire to order food supplies from a grocery, he demands of her: “Where have you been living? Don’t you realize what’s going on around you?” The narrator’s reaction to this enraged query is an awareness of the frightening reality of her circumstances, and she questions the two regions in which she apparently lives: on a battlefield and in a verse of poetry. Like so much else in Beirut, it is a contradiction. Or is it? Is her craft a powerful enough weapon to fight the terrors outside her window? Or is decibel level an appropriate yardstick to use—faint scratching sound of her pen against the paper versus the sound of bombs falling from the sky—to determine whether arms or words have more might? She expresses her frightful awakening to reality by pondering her neighbor’s hypothetical question, confessing to her self that she has been living in a verse of poetry:

I [had not] mastered the use of anything other than this skinny little object that went scurrying over the paper between my fingers, leaving quivering lines behind it like the trail of blood left by a wounded man crawling over a field of white cotton… All my revolutions took place and all my slain met their ends in fields strewn with letters of the alphabet and bombshells made of words….

These “quivering lines” and “bombshells made of words” take many forms throughout the novel as the protagonist reconsiders the capabilities, weaknesses, and overall worth of her craft, and as she observes the events going on within and without her. Shortly after she writes her current weekly magazine article—crouched in the hallway as a battle rages outside—the telephone wire serves as her and the article’s link to the outside world. The words and lines that serve as fighting men in her pieces now do battle with the fighters’ bullets, which “wanted to sever the telephone wires and, along with them, the wires of compassion and human fellowship.” She dwells on the relationship between her words and the fighters: within Beirut both live, tied to the other within a tangled existence, at the same time creating more lines, barriers and divisions between each. Each struggles to obliterate the other, and within this lays the tragedy that both are fighting for a single goal. She concludes that the pen and the bullet are, “at best, like brothers who are enemies”—albeit brothers who cause the destruction of the very lines that would serve to further their common cause.

Al-Samman also utilizes a series of nature metaphors throughout the novel as a bridge between past and present, and between the awake and dreaming world. “I shut my eyes and a wave of drowsiness came over me, seeking in vain to sweep me off the shores of consciousness into slumber’s ocean depths.” Via these metaphors, the dreamer moves through her nightmares—the waking and dreaming world are by now, ironically, the only elements of life in Beirut without division—and back in time as she remembers her boyfriend Yousif, whom she had encountered at the same time she “wanted to live out the new commitment I felt to my homeland.” Tragically, Yousif is brutally murdered at a checkpoint by enraged students. Certainly angered before the dreamer and her boyfriend had even approached them, the youths’ fury was fuelled by examination of the couple’s identity cards, which revealed that they were not of the same religion. The youngest of the students shoots Yousif and he “collapsed onto an airline display window, which shattered and turned into knives of glass that pierced him.” Like Beirut itself, Yousif is shattered and pierced, fragmented as the result of divisions that serve as pretext for such destruction. Equally beloved and torn asunder, the slain man and Beirut each often serve as a vision that reflects the other, and the narrator proclaims her continuing bond to both, despite all that has occurred:

He would come down to me out of the mad symphony of death and explosives then come in lacerated with bullets, just as he had been the last time I saw him. Then I’d run to him and cling to his chest, which had been sown with shattered, jagged pieces of glass as a field is sown with seed. The closer he drew me to him, the more deeply the splinters of glass would sink into my own chest. We were fused in death and pain, and the knives of glass were transformed into bridges, into arteries shared in common by our two bodies…Then little by little the darkness would descend upon us, and right there in my arms he’d vanish into thin air as I cried out: ‘But I still love you!’

Early on in the novel, the protagonist relates her initial impressions of an assemblage of caged animals who had been abandoned in a nearby pet shop and now are stuck in the midst of the same blockade as she. The animals, “a motley group of living creatures that resembled human beings in their diversity,” become her major preoccupation and she recognizes immediately the reflection they provide of the human beings in the neighborhood who also are imprisoned in their places of abode. Having visited the pet shop in the past and seen the wretched conditions in which the animals lived, existing only to secure a fast and easy means of moneymaking for the shop owner, the narrator reflects at length on their lives. Observing that some are wounded, she senses that within their quarters lives divisive bitterness, evolved from time spent in terror of their master as well as internecine fighting, when they ought to have united in revolt against their one true enemy, the shop owner. Like a truly skilled autocrat, however, he has craftily managed to divide in order to conquer:

As I watched one of the peacocks spreading its tail feathers, it occurred to me that he probably looked down upon the other animals. I imagined the larger dogs lording it over the smaller ones and the grown cats exacting ‘tribute’ from the kittens. Meanwhile, all of them without exception were so preoccupied with the trivial biological differences between them that they hadn’t stopped to notice the one vital thing they all shared in common, namely, that every one of them was a slave and a prisoner. The fools! Couldn’t they see the reality of the situation? On the other hand, perhaps they had seen it. In the eyes of every one of these creatures…was a teary-eyed gaze filled with shame, brokenness and dismay, as well as a touch of restless fury.

The narrator’s first instinct is to free the miserable creatures, whose “voices” she hears “joining in unison with the murmurs and growls of the domesticated families in the neighbourhood.” Therefore, under cover of darkness—night time gives her a greater sense of security from snipers who have their weapons trained on her garden—she sneaks into the pet shop and opens the cages of several animals, including birds and dogs. To her surprise and horror, the birds fail to fly away into the open air, and the dogs simply meander back into their cages after a short bit of wandering through the store. Despite her naiveté regarding the animals’ course of action once the doors of their prisons were all opened, the protagonist has no illusions about the implications this holds for the rest of the inhabitants in the quarter, and immediately considers that she was “seeing my own face in a mirror, if not my entire neighbourhood or city.” She thus leads readers from this initial stage of social unrest, all the way through to the final eruption of the shop in which the animals, enraged and maddened by hunger—and predicting the probable social breakdown of the rest of the city if this war continues—attack the returning pet shop owner, tearing him limb from limb.

Roman columns of Basilica near the Forum of Beirut, 2008, by UggBoy UggGirl via Wikimedia Commons

As the animals’ small society continues to disintegrate, the narrator bears witness to the destruction of her city and its people via a cast of characters who move in and out of her nightmares. She sees with horrifying clarity behaviors that pass themselves off both as instinctive acts of survival and dreadful amusements perpetrated by boredom and hopelessness. The narrator recognizes herself in others, ordinary residents and sadistic fighters alike. One nightmare, in which the dreamer sees herself, relates the slow death of a sniper by his own hand as he performs his feats of cunning and torture on a pedestrian. Warming up to the game he plays, he shoots at the ground near the terror-stricken man, and then fires a shot into his hand and his thigh. Full of self-congratulations, the sniper fires a last shot into the man’s stomach, all the while failing to notice that with every shot he fires, blood flows from the same spots on his own body as it does on the suffering man’s. In his fatigue he thinks he might simply put the dying man out of his misery, but an urge to see his face nudges the sniper to where his victim lay dying:

When he turned him over on his back, he discovered that the man’s face was his own, exactly as if he’d been looking into a mirror. It was only then that he became aware of the excruciating pain in his bowels and he knew that a long, slow, agonizing death awaited him as well. He didn’t have the option of shooting himself in the head so as to abbreviate his torment. After all, his rifle was too long for him to simultaneously put the barrel to his head and reach the trigger.

The narrator is not comforted by the contemplation that she ordinarily would not even kill a mosquito, let alone take sick pleasure in causing someone else an excruciatingly slow and painful death. Nor does she fail to recognize, however, that any of the cast in her terrifying dreams, sadistic sniper included, could be a reflection of herself. In her own boredom she fights the intrusive thoughts that hint of her dark, hidden capabilities. Like both the passer-by and his murderer, the dreamer fights off the cruel combination of terror and boredom, and at one time fleetingly contemplates suicide. In her bouts of hopelessness she would prefer simply to die quickly, rather than live out her numbered days as a prisoner in her own home. Her death can almost be assured, and yet the agony of not knowing when a stray bullet or rocket might make its way into her flat is as drawn out as that of the pedestrian from the moment the first teasing bullet hit the ground near his feet. Yet her desire to live—not merely survive—is embodied in the small green shoot that she envisions under many different circumstances as it fights for survival. Appearing throughout the book, the tiny sign of hope is perhaps as small as the bit of compassion demonstrated by the sniper when he momentarily feels mercy for the suffering of the bullet-riddled man. Nevertheless, the dreamer fights for her resolve to believe that this green shoot of hope, small as it is, is equal to the forces that currently dominate it: “[D]espite everything—or rather, because of it—I knew there had to be a green bud sprouting somewhere not far away.”

Similarly, al-Samman’s protagonist had been observing Amin and his father throughout, their maddening, irrational behavior and materialistic desires causing her both anxiety and frustration. The two men worry incessantly about their valuables in the house, and refuse to accompany the dreamer on her hoped-for military rescue because they are afraid of thieves plundering the flat in their absence. She argues over the matter with Amin, who accuses her of acting in the same manner with regard to her extensive and much-loved book collection. Repudiating the validity of his position, she accuses him of misunderstanding the role of home in his life, exactly what makes a home, and what can be equal to it: “Life is a precious, marvellous gift, and in order to give it up for something, that ‘something’ has to truly merit such a tremendous sacrifice. When you place your life in danger for the sake of your treasures, it’s because you’ve mistaken them for your true ‘home’.”

As she stands in her home and contemplates her beloved library, the narrator realizes that the books’ one true enemy is fire. Looters would not bother with books: there is no re-sale market for them and they are, in any case, far too heavy to bother with. In the midst of worry over losing her collection, the narrator recalls with fondness how like people they are to her: she has had a relationship with her books, a dialogue and comfortable rapport with the narratives and ideas within them, and how much of her is invested in them and all they hold is reflected in each book’s marginalia as well as within her very self. To lose the books would be like losing a piece of herself. A part of her would die, much the same way she dies one piece at a time as Beirut slowly dies around her. Like the people and events in her city that cause her to look inward, to face the mirror of her soul, the narrator sees within her preoccupation with her books and their fate truths that had lain dormant and hidden, much like the truths behind the very war she and her fellow Beirutis now live in the midst of had.

Eventually, the fear that looms largest for the narrator comes to pass; her books and the rest of her home are utterly and entirely destroyed after her third-floor flat, always the most vulnerable, suffers a direct hit from an incoming rocket. As she stands in the doorway to a home that no longer exists except as smoldering ashes, she sees both blackish water and hot smoke, and she suddenly finds herself “rubbing my face with my grubby hand in unspeakable grief and sorrow.” Aside from symbolizing her devastation at the loss of her cherished library, the act in which she blackens her face with soot also serves as a transition point in her relationship with her city.

From this point on, there is a discernable change in the mood of the text. Although she still envisages scenes of misery, even fears the total destruction of Beirut, the narrator sees her city as a beautiful one, albeit one that had been wearing an alluring veil that covered cancerous growths which “could be treated only by cauterization with a red-hot iron.” Despite this, and with only a small orange bag filled with some papers, the manuscript for Beirut Nightmares and a few of Yousif’s belongings, she suddenly is not only hopeful of living through this ghastly war, but also filled with joy and exhilaration simply to be alive. The loss of all her material possessions causes her to reflect that, “Everything we lose restores to us some part of ourselves which we had been dissipating in our attempt to hold on to that very thing.”

Nightlife scene in Badaro, a trendy section of Beirut, 2016, by Imageuploader2 from Wikimedia Commons

What the narrator has been holding onto with such tenacity was her city and her very self. In the novel’s progression she often teeters on the brink of hopelessness, at the last minute pulling herself back with words of strength. Each time Yousif appears to her she envisions her city and the destruction it faces, and the very fusion of the two in her nightmares reflects this threat of loss of self in the midst of the chaos surrounding her. As her home stands on the dividing line between the warring factions—and she often speaks of living on the dividing line between life and death—the narrator too exists in a place in which she fears her loyalties must be divided. She desperately wants to live, and yet fears that survival and the act of moving on would cause her to lose all she has left of Yousif and Beirut. Earlier, in an anxious attempt to lose neither of the two she searches for material proof of Yousif’s previous life with her, in the form of pictures and letters, but is unable to remember where she had hidden them after his death. Upset and frightened, she searches the entire house for them, contemplating that perhaps, like the city Yousif represents, the memorabilia had been “gradually transformed into ashes, then blown away in the darkness of the night.” Eventually, she discovers the letters and pictures in the attic, resting in the cradle she had slept in as an infant.

This allusion to her childhood reflects Beirut’s and her own tumultuous growth over the years and, later, at point zero after the loss of her flat, the joy she feels at being alive becomes one unburdened by feelings of guilt at having survived. She recalls that in the past she had always risen from the ashes, and that the present point zero might indeed be a time of joy for her because in the past she had chosen to see it as a point of departure rather than a loss:

Joy would weep over me, extricate me from the quicksand into which I’d fallen then raise me up above the clouds. Shouting into the night, it would lift me up, saying: I’ve raised you up, my child, to protect you not from sorrow but from destruction. I’ve lifted you up to protect you not from disappointment but from falling. I have lifted you up, my child, to shield you not from defeat but from surrender. I’ve raised you not above error but passive acquiescence. I’ve raised you up, my child, to protect you from that peace which is in fact nothing but surrender.

In so recalling the struggles faced in the past both by Beirut and herself, she regains the firm footing of her resolve, and the awareness that light might come into the different prisons of life only if their walls are bored through by explosives, metaphorical or actual. After a military rescue finally does come through, she takes with her the small orange bag and these renewed realizations. As both she and Beirut are “poised in anticipation of imminent labour and birth,” al-Samman’s narrator throws the remains of her life with Yousif—pictures, papers, music—into the sea and uses a dreaded revolver to shoot at his apparition. It is after this final act of death that she is able to be re-born, and as she gazes over her beloved city she sees absolute beauty in Beirut contradictions: the sun is shining as rain pours from the sky. As the sunlight pushes its way past the clouds, the dreamer envisions hope for her own future and that of Beirut, and in order to get a better view to the sight, she lowers her head and closes her eyes.

Like so much of life in Beirut, the act of closing one’s eyes to establish a better view is contradictory, yet clearly points to the idea that one can be looking straight at something and not actually see it. For years societal injustices had been observed and blatantly ignored, damaging not only those they had directly affected but also the lives of others by virtue of those persons bearing witness to such injustices and the reactions of those around them—a two-way mirror that reflected perceptions of self and others. Moreover, where the narrator comes from directly correlates to the geographical location she hails from; combined with the mirrors and bouncing, refracting light in society, a sense of place develops that becomes a part of the person or group and is a substantial portion of identity. Thus exploring identity, particularly one’s own, might involve a painful examination or even destruction of a previous life, as occurs in Beirut Nightmares.

The dreamer is a woman who traveled to and lived in several other places before returning to Beirut and its wars within—the wars of thousands of people who struggle between selves old and new as another war rages outside on the city streets. Her relationships to all these conflicts—fellow Beirutis who influence each other whether they are absent or present from one another’s lives—co-exist with the “standard” destruction of conflict as seen by the outside world, and in so doing emerges the ultimate civil war. The deconstruction and rebuilding of the self occurs, a painful process in which she sees reflections of herself in everything around her—events, language, attitudes—and the destruction and chaos surrounding her is reflected in her own self. This is demonstrated throughout as al-Samman’s unnamed protagonist/dreamer painstakingly recounts the paths her life has taken in a book whose very title reflects not only the nature of the journey but also the importance of the place in which they occur. She must undergo a death before she can experience a re-birth and envision a brighter future. Through nightmares both surreal and frightening she examines her life past and present. Literally and figuratively walls are torn down, and it is following the loss of her home that she realizes the only true home she has is her own body: the creativity and consciousness that dwell inside her provide the strength to insist that the small green shoot of hope exists in the midst of all this devastation. And it is this hope that in turn enables her to feel comfortable at “point zero,” alone, yet surrounded by elements at that same spot: on the verge of re-birth.

Ras Beirut looking out on the Mediterranean, 2011, by Karan Jain from Washington, DC, USA (ferris wheel and the corniche) via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “Beirut Nightmares: Place and Identity in War Literature

  1. Pingback: From the Archives, Volume I: Kicking off the Summer – before the second sleep

  2. slow fox

    To me Beirut always has been a special place in a double sense. A real one (with a great and somehow ambivalent history) and a fictituous one. A momentum, where East meets West. A melodramatic stage. In fact the story turned out a kinda ignition key to my silly memories. There were times, when the French chanson influenced a specifical style of Arab popular music. Think of Feirooz for instance. Those morbid intellectual Arab coffee restaurants …
    And yes – according to the initial painting at the top of this site – it’s a painful renaissance.

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