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What first becomes evident from the title of Elise Salem's book Constructing Lebanon: A Century of Literary Narratives is the fluidity and continuity encapsulated in the verb "constructing," signifying an act that, by virtue of it being constantly in flux, ultimately becomes a form of reconstruction. An antidote to static formations, this act reflects the changing sociopolitical features of a nation that constantly calls for redefinitions and reformulations. Salem's innovative work expands the boundaries of literary analysis by tracing the role that literary narratives play, as forms of cultural productions, in interpreting and shaping the Lebanese nation, so much so that literature becomes part and parcel of this country's convoluted politics and bloody history.
The range of texts handled by Salem, spanning over a century of literary production, although not exhaustive, serves as an apt representation of the national moment from which each of these texts emanated. They signal the forever changing face of Lebanon, from its inception as a nation-state in 1920, to its independence in 1943, to the beginning of the civil war in 1975, followed by the postwar reconstruction project starting from 1990 and extending to the present. Salem's successful efforts to create parallels between Lebanese literary narratives and their "historical, political, and socioeconomic" contexts (x) draws upon several theories of nation-formation by the likes of Ernest Renan, Ernest Geller, Eric Hobsbawm, and Benedict Anderson. The most influential voice echoed in Salem's study, however, belongs to Antonio Gramsci, whose exploration of the relationship between nation and culture remains the foremost theoretical and practical model for this book.
Divided into three main parts, covering the Lebanese prewar, war, and postwar periods respectively, the seven chapters of Constructing Lebanon chronologically outline a range of cultural output produced during each period, focusing primarily on novels, while referencing other artistic forms including music, plays, and poetry. Narrowing the scope of this extensive study to focus on specific narratives from each designated historical period does not limit or undermine the import of this critical venture; it instead facilitates a better understanding of the complex constructions of this nation through an adequately chosen selection of its cultural productions.
Salem's analysis of the texts that contribute toward constructing and upholding the national myth of an "idealized . . . pluralistic . . . [and] resilient Lebanon" (5-6) starts in the first part of the book with Khalil Gibran's work, which was elemental in shaping early on a Lebanese identity at home and abroad, as well as positing an often romanticized [End Page 800] depiction of the homeland. Various other featured artists included in this section whose work were directly plugged into the nation's formation include the likes of Michel Chiha, Sa'id Akl, Michel Trad, Marun 'Abud, and the Rahbani brothers accompanied by the singer Fayruz. Avoiding any simplistic groupings of writers and themes, Salem points to the multiple perspectives inherent in this selection, one that simultaneously describes and informs the nation's construction from varying points of view, including the romantic and the nationalistic.
In the second part of the book, Salem moves on to focus on war narratives, most notably by women writers such as Hanan al-Shaykh, Ghada Samman, and Hoda Barakat, whose works, The Story of Zahra, Beirut Nightmares, and The Stone of Laughter respectively, "confronted the Lebanese war and explored the psychology of the Lebanese" (9). Other writers publishing during this time period include Elias Khoury, Yusuf Habshi al-Ashqar, Hassan Daoud, and Rachid al-Da'if, as well as playwright/musician Ziad Rahbani, all of whom produced narratives that separately helped "challenge national discourse . . . [and] national rhetoric" (7). Instead of providing a quick and cursory survey of these writer's narratives, Salem goes into great detail analyzing individual texts, clearly underscoring the manner in which they undercut national myths of identity and tradition, thus contributing to a reconstruction of the nation.
The third part of Constructing Lebanon constitutes an important chapter of postwar literary analysis, especially with the rising need to intellectually and psychologically confront the actualities of the...