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Lebanon in Literature: 10 Books to Unravel the Mystery

Amy E. Robertson By Amy E. Robertson Published on June 8, 2017
This article was updated on October 23, 2017

Lebanon is a little more than 10,000 square kilometers--a little less than the size of the state of Connecticut. Packed into that tiny space are four million residents, one million refugees, eighteen officially recognized religions, and one heck of a political system. It can be a little hard to wrap your head around the place. Thankfully, there are books to help.

But to understand feelings and what makes people tick? This is where fiction and memoir come into play 
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For “the facts, and just the facts, ma’am,” there are guidebooks and history books. But to understand feelings and what makes people tick? This is where fiction and memoir come into play. What about when you want to understand how the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) affected the people who lived through it? In graphic novels there’s Zeina Abirached’s excellent  A Game for Swallows, based on her childhood memories of checkpoints and snipers and gasoline shortages; drawn in a black and white style reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s famed Persepolis, and with its child protagonists, suitable also for younger readers. 

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Lamia Ziadé’s Bye Bye Babylon: Beirut 1975-1979 also recreates the author’s childhood memories, but with colorful graphics that are all the more powerful for their simplicity.

The effect of the war is revealed in novels through Rawi Hage’s dark and explosive De Niro’s Game , which traces two young men as they become soldiers and pawns in Lebanon’s war; The Penguin’s Song by Hassan Daoud, which sees the war through the eyes of a physically disabled young man exiled with his parents in the hills outside Beirut; or Hanan Al-Shaykh’s Beirut Blues, a fictional collection of letters by a woman named Asmahan, written to friends, loved ones, the city, and even the war itself, in an effort to make sense of what is happening around her.

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Gaining an understanding of the civil war is key to understanding modern Lebanon. But to really comprehend the country, you must go further back in time. The Rock of Tanios, by Lebanon’s literary legend Amin Maalouf, is set in the 1880s, when the Ottomans, Egyptians, Brits and French were all battling for control of the region. Tanios, the illegitimate son of a village Sheikh, becomes a pawn for the forces trying to pull the country apart. 

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Set a few years later, Wild Mulberries by Iman Humayden Younes touches on the struggles of conservatism and tradition, set against the backdrop of Lebanon’s silk production.

These books take the reader through some of Lebanon’s long history, but there are others that invite deeper explorations of its culture. Storytelling is a revered and longstanding tradition in Arab culture, kept alive in both the cafés and the books of the region. 

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Those too far away from Lebanon to drop by a storytelling event can turn instead to the pages of Hikayat, an anthology of short stories by Lebanese women, edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf, Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut, for snapshots of modern-day culture. Yes, the civil war appears here too, as do familial bonds, religious divides and romantic awakenings. The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine, on the other hand, weaves classic Middle Eastern tales through a frame story of a prodigal son who has returned home to Beirut.

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For a lighter take on Lebanese culture, Our Man in Beirut is a hilarious blog series-turned-book that offers up a non-fiction take on modern Lebanese culture. Similar to the fictional protagonist of The Hakawati, the real life man in Beirut, Nasri Atallah, has returned to his native land after 22 years abroad. He applies a sharp wit to Lebanon’s chaos and conundrums, leaving you laughing at the same time you’re scratching your head. (Full disclosure: Atallah is head of media partnerships at Bookwitty—but he doesn’t even know that I’m writing this. I didn’t know that Atallah was involved with Bookwitty when I first started hanging out in these web pages –when I found out that he was, I felt like I was cooler by association, as I’d already laughed my way through his book.)

Lebanon’s a complex place, and like any location that is rich with culture and rife with complications, it may not be possible to grasp all the nuances. But these ten books will give any reader a good start.

Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.

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