B as in Beirut by Iman Humaydan Younes translated by Max Weiss
Iman Humaydan Younes’s debut novel B as in Beirut deals with the consequences of war in what might be considered their less overt forms as experienced by civilians. The book is divided into four sections, each one narrated by one of four women sharing an apartment building in 1970s Beirut, who often make appearances in one another’s stories. There is Lilian, a wife and mother of two young children, who is determined to immigrate to Australia, despite her husband’s unwillingness to leave after a vaguely described “accident” in which he loses his hand. It is perhaps this very understatedness -- Younes’ disinclination to articulate the violence of the presumably war-related “accident” -- that is one of B as in Beirut’s most defining qualities. Younes would rather have Lilian describe her emotions at her husband’s hospital bedside, or Maha’s -- a later narrator -- reflections at her lover’s funeral, than recount the events that led to the man’s death. In this way, the novel sets itself apart as a citizen’s account of war as opposed to a soldier’s.
Warda’s narrative was, for me, the most compelling. She goes seemingly mad with grief and guilt after her father is killed in a bomb blast just outside her family’s house. However, her symptoms of neurosis remit when she becomes pregnant with her daughter, Sara. Indeed, Warda’s obsessive love for and loss of Sara is the fulcrum of her narrative, which takes strands of truth and sentiment and twists them into an account both subjective and indistinct, until Warda’s own distinct ending.
The book loses a bit of steam at points during the next two sections. The third narrator is Camilia, who “grew up in a house without men.” She desperately flees the violence of her rural town for Beirut, only to visit a friend in London and decide to remain there. She returns to Beirut to film a documentary with a friend and stays with Maha, the fourth and final narrator. Perhaps it is these two characters’ whose fates are most intertwined. As the military violence comes ever closer to their neighborhood, Camilia gets the two women unwittingly involved with a militia man, aptly named Ranger. Hidden in a basement bomb shelter, Camilia and Maha tie Ranger up and demand answers from him regarding the murder of one of their friends. It is only in this moment that the reader becomes aware of the rage that has been building in these women made to withstand the tension and strain of constantly waiting for their world to be blown to bits.
B as in Beirut makes good on its aim to delineate the experience of what it’s like to see one’s homeland torn apart by military conflict. As Camilia muses after moving to London, “What if the war broke out here, too? ... What if the dignified buildings of London and the train stations exploded? Why don’t wars happen in cities like this? Why do wars only seem to be happening in cities that look like ours?” In essence, the novel is less about violence in the Middle East specifically, but rather the realities of war in general.
At times, this novel is a bit too thick on sentiment and thin on plot, and there were elements that Younes could have clarified to strengthen her narrative. For instance, why was Maha so determined to remain in her apartment, while all of the other women left Beirut in one way or another? Western readers of the book might also find themselves wishing the book provided more background information on the Lebanese people -- I was confused as to which of the characters were Muslims or Christians -- as well as on the reasons for the war itself, only vaguely alluded to. Then again, perhaps these reasons are irrelevant. As Camilia muses while being instructed in how to make and detonate a home-made bomb, “[The man] kept on talking about the Enemy without ever defining who that was exactly.” Younes’s prose is lush and evocative, with only a few fairly obvious and notable lapses in Weiss’s translation. Overall, although the novel occasionally wavers in its target, it provides a compelling viewpoint on a battle zone more frequently referenced in mainstream news stories than understood.
B as in Beirut Iman Humaydan Younes translated by Max Weiss