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‘Beirut, Beirut’ follows one man’s search for ideals in a war-torn country

Sonallah Ibrahim’s historical fiction novel ties his personal experiences with news stories to a transitional period in Lebanese history.

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Beirut, Beirut
By Sonallah Ibrahim
Translation: Chip Rossetti
Bloomsbury
263 pp.

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Over the course of 15 years, the Lebanese Civil War pit several political groups against each other in a brutal conflict that devoured nearly the whole country. A demarcation line known as The Green Line divided Lebanon’s coastal capital into two segments: predominantly Christian militias backed by Western powers dominated East Beirut, while Muslim and Druze militias supported by rival Arab nations (Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran) took over West Beirut.

After it came to end in 1990, the war left about 75,000 internally displaced, over 100,000 dead and nearly one million people searching for new lives abroad. The miniscule country had been a playing field for domestic and regional conflicts since its independence in 1943, and the mere fact that it’s still functioning, albeit under frail circumstances, is shocking to anyone vaguely familiar with its complex history. 

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It’s understandable then, that when Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim found himself in the midst of this chaos, he had an endless amount of material to draw from. Similar to his past works such as "Zaat" and "Stealth," Ibrahim’s historic fiction novel Beirut, Beirut ties his personal experiences with news stories from the past to illustrate a transitional period in Lebanese history. 

Five years into the civil war, the narrator lands in Beirut to nail a publishing deal for his controversial book. Yet his plans quickly give in to the chaotic state of the country and he becomes engrossed in two women. 

The novel’s subtitle claims it’s a tale of “love and war,” yet that exaggerates the narrator’s desperate attempts to fulfill his lustful desires. Rather, war dominates the pages as Ibrahim successfully demonstrates how the conflict led to “tribal thinking.” Many conversations in the book begin with questions such as “East or West Beirut?” or “What religion are you?” to portray how, at the time, a simple answer would determine whether one was a friend or foe.  

After a slow start, the novel picks up once the narrator realizes his trip may drag on longer than expected. His friend Wadia introduces him to a director who had been searching for an outsider with an “objective and fresh” view to record a voiceover for a documentary on the Lebanese Civil War. The narrator doubts he’d be able to understand the film and initially declines the role, but is easily swayed once he learns the director is a female, like-minded progressive.

He then immerses himself into the country’s history after Antoinette, the director, hands him books, reports, and newspaper clippings to help him contextualize the film. “Previously, I had a foggy idea about the Lebanese Civil War,” Ibrahim writes. “But I realized now that the matter went much deeper….The Lebanese problem seemed like an enormous quilt of multicolored strands that were entangled with each other, so that separating them out became an impossible task.”

One can easily falter in trying to identify Lebanon’s 20 sects and ever-changing political groups. Yet Ibrahim takes the reader by the hand and clearly explains the “Lebanese problem.” 

Regional movements catalyzed the country’s formation and its confessional system, under which the government distributes political and institutional power proportionally among religious communities. Yet the system was (and still is) based on an outdated census that hardened sectarian divides and created economic and social inequalities that still exist in Lebanon today.

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Once the narrator has a better understanding of the warring factions, the chapters shift between his time in Beirut and his studying of the four parts of the film. But this back and forth can be confusing. The film covers the early stages of the civil war (1975-1978) while the novel takes place in 1980. This method allows Ibrahim to portray the aftermath of the film’s story through his experiences, yet also makes it difficult for readers to situate themselves in the proper context. 

But the two come together near the end. By chasing after two women with opposing political views and by never disclosing his own religion, the narrator defies the sectarian basis of the civil war. His views come to light in a heated debate in which he calls for secular states, “where the place of the individual is determined on the basis of his ability, not on the basis of religion, family, or tribe.” 

While the book could use more dialogue between the characters to demonstrate how the war affected their lives and mindsets, regardless of their backgrounds, their experiences are summed up in one telling realization: “Life is hard here. Beirut is a den of tangled and contradictory loyalties.”