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Reviewed by:
  • Leaving Beirut
  • Zeina Zaatari
Leaving Beirut. Mai Ghoussoub . 2nd ed.London: Saqi, 2007. 188 9780863566769.

The Foreword by Maggie Gee describes Leaving Beirutas “a subtle and profound book, a fascinating mixture of autobiography, semi-autobiographical fiction and meditations on how human behavior is distorted by war, cunningly woven together by one central story that seems to come directly from the author’s childhood” (10–11). Leaving Beirutis a collection of essays that Lebanese author, Mai Ghoussoub, produced at different moments in her life and in response to particular events in the world. Ghoussoub draws on her life experiences in Lebanon during and before the civil war, her life in exile in London, and her skills as an artist and playwright. Leaving Beirutis not an academic or scholarly researched work, although it deals with themes that have been extensively explored and written about, namely issues of revenge, war, violence, punishment, and victimization. Nor is it a work of fiction, although several of the stories appear to be based on fictional characters or at least an imagined understanding of the characters’ lives and transformations.

Overall, Leaving Beirutis an easy weekend read, with several enjoyable short stories that give the reader insight into life in time of civil war and the tribulations of exile. The comparative nature of the essays expands the reader’s horizon beyond the limitations of each struggle or conflict situation. Ghoussoub attempts to move beyond the “uniqueness” of each conflict situation to draw initial commentaries on the state of human nature, although this is not explicitly stated or defined. In some [End Page 114]instances, the essays seem to tell stories of people and places that Ghoussoub had known or visited. In other instances, the essays are ramblings or diary notes with very little critical analysis, documentation, or clear purpose. Even though Leaving Beirutis not intended as a scholarly text, it nonetheless deals with issues that have been researched and investigated by scholars and practitioners. It is therefore important to engage wi Thexisting bodies of literature in an attempt to advance our collective understanding and application of these issues. A concern for the future of humanity demands this level of responsibility, a serious and purposeful engagement with sources, studies, and other literature, rather than a sampling of haphazard material.

The issues raised are very interesting for the reader, as they address dilemmas of human existence that many have pondered as they have watched endless wars on television screens or experienced them in person. The serious nature of these particular themes, however, requires a more nuanced analysis that contributes to a better understanding and theorizing of these issues. For example, serious research is lacking in the discussion of issues of violence, revenge, punishment, and justice (or what I might prefer to call “accountability”), within the context of political warfare, liberation struggles, or occupation. A major omission is Ghoussoub’s lack of engagement with any of the literature produced by Franz Fanon and postcolonial theories. As such, the essays function as mere notes or general life commentaries that may trigger the reader’s curiosity but do not provide any tools or avenues toward serious consideration or conclusions.

Similarly, the process of transformation from victim to victimizer is a recurring theme that the author explores, particularly through the lives of underprivileged individuals such as Latifa, the young maid, and Said, the grocer’s son. This theme has been explored in psychoanalytic and political historical literature. Ghoussoub does not engage with any of this material, but rather prefers to present a very lineal transformation or metamorphosis that these key individuals went through. Latifa moves from being an exploited and abused young maid to being a notorious fighter and the “sister of men.” Ghoussoub presents firsthand knowledge of Latifa’s past but goes on to speak on her behalf without having either talked to her or actively examined the circumstances of her transformation. Rumors become realities and lives become fodder for the story of [End Page 115]transformation from victim to victimizer, sometimes a result of the desire for revenge or the inability to forgive and forget. These characters then, Latifa, Said, or Fadwa, become dispensable...


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pp. 114-117
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