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

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