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  • Autobiographical Verse, Demythologizing MotherhoodThe Year in Lebanon
  • Sleiman El Hajj (bio)

Life writing in Lebanon and in the wider Arab context that offers a candid, unapologetic, nonnormative perspective on womanhood, especially motherhood, is scarce. That womanhood is a corollary of motherhood—not the other way around—is, in this setting, not only a socially and culturally engrained stereotype, but also carries legal and existential implications. In Lebanon in particular, the influence of the state's political, patriarchal, and sectarian agenda on motherhood is tangible to the extent that a form of "reproductive oppression" is deployed through "laws and policies that restrict or encourage women's procreation depending on their nationality, sect, and marital and legal status" (Yasmine and Sukkar).1 In a region where women are primarily seen as concurrently dutiful and self-abnegating mothers/wives in service of patriarchy (El Hajj, "Biographical Writing"), similar representations of Arab womanhood in Arabic literature have followed suit. As Samira Aghacy remarks in her new monograph on aging in the modern Arabic novel (including autobiographical writing and autofiction), women in Lebanon and in the Arab world often gain social acceptance, and more importantly family support, through conformity. Invariably rooted in familial setups, women in the contemporary Arab literary canon, Aghacy explains, are seen as embodying supportive roles in the service of, and quite often in perpetuating, the very constructs of patriarchy that regulate their existence. More remarkably, the literature, according to Aghacy, shows that, the older they grow, even nontraditional women who have sought to forge their own paths in life start to contemplate the virtues of conformity and traditional family roles (El Hajj, "Narratives of Older Age" 79).

In Zeina Hashem Beck's new autobiographical poetry collection, O, she presents herself as an "imperfect," albeit loving, mother, and thus subverts the one-dimensional Madonna archetype of Lebanese—and by extension Arab—mothers: impeccable, self-sacrificing saints, and/or hapless victims of patriarchy [End Page 57] and sectarianism.2 The title of the collection, as Hashem Beck explains, is "an O for the vowel in the words wonder, love, ode, god, mother, body, loss, joy, and home" (Rafeek), all themes explored across the book. Motherhood in the collection is humanized, rather than idolized or romanticized. Hashem Beck's evocative, emotive verse demythologizes the notion of the mother as an epitome of flawlessness and of edifying love and self-sacrifice. That their mere humanity entails fallibility means that the static archetype of the saintly mother places an unreasonable burden of sacrificial expectation on women. Far from fitting an exalted mold that places motherhood on a pedestal, Hashem Beck's autobiographical verse characterizes mothers as scarred individuals, with their own fears, needs, mishaps, and blatant imperfections.

The traumas of living in settings of instability and conflict are reflected in the many insecurities that end up shaping today's mothers' relationships with their children (Chedid)—and with their own mothers. In Hashem Beck's case, there is also a matrilineal inheritance of mental illness,3 and strained mother-daughter relationships. Indeed, other than the realities of wartime Lebanon, a more personal history of mental health struggles is invoked to explain how the narrator's past has configured her relationship with her daughters. "I come from a line of women who describe / flinging themselves into death / but don't," Hashem Beck writes (37). Hashem Beck dedicates significant space in her poetry collection to examining her mother's difficult relationship with her own (unkind) mother, the writer's maternal grandmother, and a concomitant heritage of suicidal tendencies that have appeared in three generations of women in the writer's family: her grandmother, her mother, and the poet herself. Even as Hashem Beck reveals how her "mother hasn't learned nothing gets fixed / by being broken over & over again," she too is worried about her own encounters with suicidal thoughts (37).

The thrust of O as a learning experience is then all the stronger for going a step beyond acknowledging that motherhood may be marred by shadows of past traumas, whether personal (her maternal "heirloom") or collective (the civil war), or by any unpleasantness in individual character traits, regardless of upbringing—indeed, an apology to her own two...