Sahar Mandour, 32 (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2010).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sahar Mandour (SM): 32 was published in December 2009 and written between 2007 and 2009. This was during a very unsettling time in Beirut which witnessed a series of assassinations of MPs and journalists in a highly polarized political and sectarian environment. Back then, I was working as a journalist, a desk editor of the local pages at Assafir newspaper, specifically. As part of my job, I was directly engaged in the coverage and analysis of these overwhelmingly violent events and debates.
Such dangerous times trigger personal and collective traumas in societies and in bodies, particularly for those of us who have lived through the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Coming out of the war, our days and nights became made of one sticky fabric of fear, violence, and disappointment. Having war lords as state figures did not help. Our disillusion with the possibility of a peaceful living came with existential threats, clashes of identities, sectarian righteousness, and most importantly political meta-narratives that were mutually exclusive.
Lebanon was (and still is) a proxy site of collision between the two enemy axes in our region. Wars were yet to come. Against the backdrop of these unfolding futures, I wrote 32.
Behind a compulsive writing process to evade a stressful and triggering reality, was a conscious desire, overtly expressed in the novel, to document our existence, the group of friends who spent night and day together in an orchestrated manner, excavating the tough way to exist as closely as possible to the desired state of being. We were reactive, as war children, but also courageous and daring. Dreaming of a different, kinder world for ourselves, paying justice to anger and music.
We were in constant interaction and clashes with what social, political, and religious authorities had to offer then. My main obsession in Beirut’s late 2000s was to mark out our existence on earth and its impact on our beings.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SM: The book addresses the life of thirty-two-year-old female friends working together as a brigade in Beirut during the last quarter of 2010. Their lives are closely engaged with lives of other people in the city, like Kumudu (Koko) and Nadia. Their timeline intertwines with that of a city hanging between peace and war; hostile events unfold while their “regular” lives continue. The city and its dwellers, their psyche and emotions, their memories and documents, are the main protagonists.
Koko is a migrant domestic worker from Sri Lanka, a few years older than the other protagonists. She works twice a week cleaning and organizing the house of the narrator. Koko is one of the female workers who relatively liberated themselves from the kafala (sponsorship) system and managed, at the cost of breaking some regulations, to own her life in Beirut. She shares the humor of the other characters and adds to it her “vecu” in Beirut and her story from Sri Lanka, all in her characteristically rigorous, high-pitched tone.
Nadia is an older lady who sells flowers in the same region and witnesses their lives. After years of coming across her while smiling and buying her flowers, the narrator finally engages with her. She learns of her years in Havana with her Cuban husband, before he got sick. His sickness compelled them to move to Beirut, where his wife could not pass her nationality to him and the couple thus received no social security.
The book also engages with the patriarchal authority shaping lives in Beirut, whether through laws, street level authorities and dynamics, or in annoying sets that assume freedom, such as bars and the night in general. Testosterone is one of the book’s central issues.
In short, the book addresses different aspects of life in Beirut between 2007 and 2009, ranging from the mundane to the existential.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SM: 32 reflects a close proximity to my real life during the time of writing. While the book is not autobiographical, it intertwines heavily with my reality. The novel insists on being fun, sometimes funny, even when it describes a get together in a scene of terror, right after a car bomb assassination.
I intentionally discuss in it some of the issues inherent to writing a creative novel in close proximity to reality. Should the writing be honest to real events, and thus sacrifice creativity? Wouldn’t an “honest” narrative impose on the writer the need to make unwarranted and timeless statements about friends? Just because I am writing a novel, it does not mean that I should reduce this friend to a series of impressions and perceptions. It is an act of violence, in a way, given the set.
I found refuge and happiness in writing when I raised such issues on paper, allowing myself then to narrate stories as opposed to documenting events.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SM: I hope at least two types of audience enjoy the book: one specific, and the other aiming for maximum inclusion. The first is the audience I had in mind while writing: people my age, women in friendship, living and conversing, going through triggering situations or similar conditions. These people kept me company while writing. The second type of audience is everyone for whom these “documents” are kept: all possible readers, basically.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SM: After the documentation obsession that ruled over the writing process of 32, I started writing my fourth novel, Mina (2013), fueled by the need to escape the limitations of reality. I took a trip with a gay actress in her thirties, filled with cinema, creative references, and anger. It was a treat for my imagination. Yet my need to escape the physical reality remained, as most of Mina’s events are set and in direct conversation and conflict with Beirut.
After publishing Mina, the first thing that came to mind was: “I want to write a fairy tale.” The novel I am currently working on did not turn out to be a fairy tale, but it is as close to one as possible.
I have reached the last chapter, but writing this novel has been challenging. In the process, I thought I had lost my capacity to write fiction, but then a fellow novelist and a dear friend helped me understand why I was finding it difficult to write this novel. He told me that I was writing for the first time about what I cannot already see.
When I started thinking of the novel I am currently writing, I had an uninformed desire to write outside the identifiable space and time. Outside Beirut, but not in another known place. Events that are relevant to our present, but not located in it. All names–of persons, places, etc.–are not common or do not exist in our world.
It is a novel with three main characters. Each has his or her own chapter, independent yet connected. When I advanced in the writing process, I realized that I was extracting the personal living from the social context that usually takes over the narrative. I want to observe how our living in the standing socio-political conditions influences us, without allowing the specificities of reality (for example, the identity of a city, mood of an era, specific events, names of streets and people…) to overtake the narrative. These geo-social realities are shared; we tend to directly give in to the references they evoke.
In this novel, I deal with anxiety and trauma, patterns and feelings, behaviors and personal identities. And it is a very slow and highly demanding writing process. But I will get there!
Excerpt from the book
Written in Arabic by: Sahar Mandour (2010)
Translated to English by: Nicole Fares (2016)
I should leave the house.
But I have no energy to get off my couch.
I start texting my friends looking for a reason to go out.
And I find it:
A car bomb?
Who is it? Who’s the target? Who?
Cellphone. I dial.
“Allo, Mom? I’m fine, what happened? What do you mean nothing! There was an explosion in the Bain Militaire area! Watch the news. But you guys are okay? Yeah, me too.”
I hang up then dial and dial again.
Nothing goes through. It disconnects the moment I dial.
The network is completely helpless now that I need it the most.
Where was the explosion exactly?
In my heart, perhaps?
Do they want to assassinate me? Not likely.
I’m rushing off... where am I rushing off to?
They mention an explosion in the Rawshe area.
No kidding, I heard it. I want more information. Should I leave?
And go where?
My window is blocked by a garage, and the door... the door, okay, I’ll open the door.
I slowly open the front door and see broken glass in the hallway of the building and people. My neighbors.
I fit in with them. I commiserate with them, and comfort them even though I don’t know how to comfort anyone.
How can people protect themselves from an explosion that has already gone off, and the possibility of another that might follow?
Who got assassinated? How many casualties?
They’re saying that a minister in the Lebanese Parliament was targeted.
I go down to the street and see Zumurrud, Zeezee, Shwikar, and many other friends.
They came from all over.
All over? They were all here when it happened.
Zeezee was at an outdoor café next to where the explosion went off.
Zumurrud ran from her house toward the source of the sound like many others did. She came down from the top of the hill where she lives to the bottom where I live.
And Shwikar was getting money from the ATM at the entrance of the Bain Militaire beach close to where the explosion happened.
They’re saying the minister was assassinated.
They’re saying his son was with him.
They’re also saying that some players from Nejmeh, the professional soccer team, were killed during practice.
Their soccer field is next to the café.
It’s also across from the theme park.
Fire trucks, EMTs, police cars, army jeeps, news vans (some taping and others broadcasting) and civilians amid it all.
The crowd surrounds the site of the explosion, separating us from it.
Why would we get any closer anyway? To see the dead. To see what a human body looks like torn to pieces. To see the destruction. To see what, exactly?
We wouldn’t see anything that will make waking up tomorrow easier.
They say they found the body of an elderly woman who worked at the Sporting Beach Club. An Egyptian woman.
I walk away and sit next to my friends on a sidewalk nearby.
The restaurants are dusting themselves off.
All eyes are peeled for the smallest change or update to pass it on to the ones that haven’t seen it yet. We see and tell; we acknowledge what happened in order to grasp it, to grasp the magnitude of the death that was thrown into our laps and that was awakened from the past and is hiding behind tomorrow.
Uff, I’m suffocating.
And everyone else is suffocating, too. When we witness a crisis together, our rhythms unite.
And when it’s time to put this behind us, we still return to the location, united as well, and attempt to remove death from the scene.
We tell a joke about ourselves, another about our world, and a third, whispered, about nothing.
We calm down a bit. We exchange expressions of happiness for one another’s safety; then break eye contact when we hear moaning. It’s coming from a mother and her son who are looking for his brother. He was practicing in the Nejmeh soccer field. He’s the star player.
We remain silent.
The mother is sitting on the sidewalk nearby us, her head in her hands and her words swinging back and forth between hope and pain. Her son goes to ask about his brother and comes back without an answer. And the lady, in everyday black, stands on the edge that separates mourning from gratitude.
She won’t give thanks because her son’s safety will not be granted.
But we don’t know that yet. We’re still silent, our tears washing our faces. We don’t know what to do aside from wishing that we were invisible, that the earth would swallow us whole. The lady is crying for her son, and we’re standing like idiots around her.
We haven’t lost anyone, so how can we console a mother who just got hit with the image of her dead son?
We withdraw into ourselves.
We shrink and melt into one body.
If we heard her scream for water, we would rush to her with water.
If we heard her sobbing, we would rush to her with tissues.
But she doesn’t want anything we can give her. She just wants her son back. We withdraw into ourselves even further.
We hear a voice that generates a feeling inside us like an explosion.
It’s a friend of ours from abroad who’s spending a pleasant summer in Lebanon. He was in the area when he heard the explosion, so he grabbed his camera and came running, looking for something good to film.
He’s a civil engineer, and now, suddenly, a social activist as well, living in Paris.
He addresses us: “Thank God you’re safe!”
Please! We don’t want to hear that expression right now, not while the lady whose son’s safety has not yet been guaranteed to her stands beside us.
I hug my friend tightly and close my eyes, hoping that maybe my silence will rub off on him. I open my eyes and see him back away with the swiftness of a juggler and lift his camera from his hip to his eye level. The camera that had been hanging from his shoulder is now pressed up against his nose.
What do I do? How can I get him to calm down? But first, how can I get him to back off from his self-styled journalism?
I block his camera lens with my hand. We explain to him exactly what just happened to this woman and how we’re feeling toward the entire situation. He calms down a little. “Ohh,” he says, as if he just made an important discovery. What discovery? That an explosion usually results in casualties, injuries, and having to mourn loved ones?
Why didn’t he expect that? Perhaps because he’s spent a long time abroad and has now become used to only seeing this kind of news through a lens, usually followed by a televised dramatic discussion and finger pointing.
Maybe that’s why his first instinct is to grab the camera, so he can see the disaster through the lens - live - just as he’s used to.
It doesn’t matter anyway, that’s his business. Me, on the other hand, I’m not carrying a camera. I can hardly carry myself.
All of a sudden, I see him point the camera at the woman sitting on the sidewalk. I explode.
He ignores my demand and looks at me with a face that says that he understands my distress, in fact he’s as upset as I am, but the picture needs to go on YouTube or Facebook so the world can see this woman’s pain, or else, who would hear about any of this, or of her?
What? Does it even matter if the world hears of this, or of her? And besides, who said she wants “the world” to hear of her, especially at this moment? Maybe she wants to be left alone right now. Maybe she doesn’t want to become an image or a video, not today, tomorrow, not thirty years from now.
Before I can give this man a piece of my mind, the brother of the missing son returns to tell his mother that he is officially missing. The Nejmeh team members were counted, and his brother wasn’t among them.
When I hear this my heart stops. What’s this? The camera again?
Before my friends and I can react, the brother yells at the cameraman and tells him to leave him and his mother alone. Then he collapses on the sidewalk, weeping. The fresh-from- Europe guy pounces on his prey camera in hand, assuming the brother is giving in to the lens and not to shock over losing his brother.
I stand up, then my friends follow suit, and we walk away.
If we can’t do anything to keep this overzealous guy from performing his duty, then we’re not going to be his excuse for a performance.
He asks, “Where are you guys going?”
I hiss at him, “Home.”
We walk toward my apartment, fast. Almost running.
We stop and sneak a look at the amateur photographer who’s determined to enlighten people as to our plight, to see if he’s following us.
We make sure he’s busy shaping international public opinion.
Then we improvise. We head in the opposite direction.
We walk uphill. Ice cream on the sidewalk. Silence. A little talk, a lot of talk, noise, then silence again. As though noise is a betrayal of the tranquility of the dead and the suffering of the living.
We feel a sudden and great respect for life, and the loss of it. Silence.
Relapse: Shwikar cries.
Her tears make jokes spill from our mouths, make our hearts race. We won’t have tears of sadness. If one of us falls apart, we all will. And we can’t fall apart after an explosion; we can’t surrender to fear because any car around us could be a bomb.
Yeah. Any car around us could be a bomb.