- Wild Mulberries, and: B as in Beirut
In Wild Mulberries and B as in Beirut, Iman Humaydan Younes narrates the dialectic between Lebanon's capital city and its villages through the eyes of five female characters. This narrative is refracted through a history of war, the violence of industrialization and rapid economic change, and the infinitesimal injuries that only family members and spouses can inflict on one another. While B as in Beirut unfolds during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, the narrator of Wild Mulberries inhabits the era between two altogether different wars, World War I and World War II. When the novels are read in succession, the similarities between them at first appear more striking than their differences. It is almost as if Wild Mulberries thematically and tonally foreshadows B as in Beirut, despite the fact that the latter was written first. Both novels succeed in portraying the rawness of pain, mourning, and perhaps most powerfully, resignation. At times the reader feels like a voyeur, watching people recount the accumulation, as one character puts it, of time. At other times, however, it is the characters' detached narration that accumulates, and the reader becomes estranged from the entire enterprise.
The architecture of the homes in the two novels mirrors important aspects of the characters' lives and the histories in which they are situated. Sara, the narrator of Wild Mulberries, was born and lives in the family compound (haara) in the village of 'Ayn Tahoon. A sprawling structure with numerous rooms overlooking a courtyard and fields, the haara serves as a home for Sara, her half-brother, aunt, and father. In addition, many of the novel's most colorful characters rent rooms in the haara, including a Syrian Circassian woman who teaches Sara how to "love without giving away her soul." However, the most important residents of this structure are the silkworms farmed by Sara's father, the unnamed Sheikh. These silkworms determine the rhythm at which life [End Page 193] proceeds in the haara, the rooms of which are transformed to accommodate their life cycle. The title of the novel, Wild Mulberries, is taken from a passage in which the Sheikh speaks of how mulberry trees grow wild without taming and cultivation by human hands. At several points in the novel, Younes equates the Sheikh's insistence on taming nature with the patriarchal control he exercises, in varying degrees, over his sister, daughter, and son. As he grows older and weaker, they become stronger and more assertive. Despite their growing independence, Sara, her brother, and her aunt become entangled in the lives for which the Sheikh has laid the foundation. By the time of his death, there is no escape from these lives, only time to reminisce over lost possibilities.
The novel begins when Sara is a young girl and ends when she is a young, married mother. Throughout, Sara is a collector of memories. She moves through life trying to know and understand her own mother, who left the haara when Sara was very young (whether or not her mother is still alive remains unresolved). She collects memories from anyone who knew her mother and from the physical remainders of the woman, including the lone photograph the Sheikh keeps of his wife. Reading Wild Mulberries, one is left with the impression that the haara is the family, empty even when full, and full of recollections that are willed away or literally locked up, but that persistently gnaw at the edges of consciousness. For Sara, the echo of her mother is a siren song, filling her with a resilience and determination not to repeat her mother's life and with the inescapable knowledge that her mother's presence and absence have left an indelible mark. Sara's path leads her to Beirut and, by the end of the novel, back to the haara.
In both novels under review, Lebanon's capital represents a sense of freedom and independence...