Saturday, January 24, 2004

Review of Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad's Death in Beirut

Like many countries which were affiliated with the West, Lebanon too had a coming of age in the late 1960's. Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad's novel Death in Beirut does a fairly good job of capturing that coming of age through the eyes of Tamima Nassour, a Shiite Moslem girl, studying in the Teacher's College in Beirut. She is dating a Maronite Christian Hani Raai. (The Shiite and the Maronites were the principle antagonists in the impending Civil War.)

The novel explores her psychology, her father who is in Africa with his second family and Job, her abusive (though typical Lebanese) brother, her mother, her boyfriend, her lover (not the same person), and a host of other characters, who come together to portray in vivid color the turmoil and chaos that captured those days in Lebanon. The political climate was extremely fragile. Lebanon then was recovering from French colonialism, a minor civil war, and the immediate aftermath of the humiliating defeat of the Six Day war. The Fedayen were just starting to assemble to start attacking Israel, and Israel was just starting to fight back. The myriad of groups and ideologies which eventually became a plethora of militias was just starting to emerge.

And here was Temima right in the middle. The sexual revolution, and the religious revolution were also in the forefront. Honor killings were still a big part of Lebanese society (as they are still a big factor in much of the Arab and Muslim world). Much of Temima's story is about fear and liberation from all of this. Lebanon was rebelling against much stronger social forces than the US was in the 60's. The conservative pull was much more severe, and the culture as a whole much more backward.

The book has strong revolutionary tones capturing the zeitgeist of Lebanon in those tumultuous times. There are strong Neitzscheian undertones that will appeal to those who want to see the products of attempting to overcome the slave morality from a very primitive state. The book was a good read, and would interest anyone interested in Arab or Lebanese literature. It should also be interesting to those who are curious about the various upheavals that took place in the 60's. Lebanon is an interesting point of comparison.

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