In many languages men devastate the land
tear it up with gun-fire Smash it with terror bury it under the dead
In the spiral of ages In the black winds of hatred love is too light.
This poem by Andrée Chedid appeared in the poetry collection “Ceremonial of Violence” in 1976, one year after war broke out in Lebanon. Those few, stark, tragic lines could apply to several tragedies in the last quarter of the century: Beirut.… Sarajevo.... Kosovo. The action is the same; the victims are the ordinary and innocent; and the actors are the few people in power who play “the game of nations” under the guise of taming the wicked culprits and re-establishing peace on earth. Andrée Chedid’s lines, and the other poems of “Ceremonial of Violence,” are one sustained outcry, a cri de cœur, denouncing the cruelty of such games.
My focus here is on the concept of “Wounded Beirut” as reflected in Chedid’s novel “Return to Beirut.” I have coined the phrase “Wounded Beirut” as an expression of the state of my bleeding heart and my city’s as I lived and suffered the war that decimated my country between 1975-1990. I witnessed the agony of my city being reduced to ruins, and yet, refusing to die. Indeed, “Wounded Beirut” summarizes in my imagination all that we did, witnessed, and resisted throughout those long, tragic war years. Writing about my city has certainly been part of the healing process and a tribute to Beirut.
Of Lebanese origin, Chedid was born and grew up in Egypt, spending summers in Lebanon and, later, three years in Beirut. She moved to Paris, where she still lives, in the late 1940s. Chedid has welcomed the fact that she is both rooted and uprooted, believing her life much enriched by this experience. Speaking through Kalya, her heroine in “Return to Beirut” (1976) she wonders about this in-between condition and affirms it:
What are roots? [Kalya asks.] Distant ties or ties that are woven through life? The ties of a rarely-visited ancestral land or those of a neighboring land where one spent one’s childhood or those of the city where one has lived longest? And, indeed, had not Kalya chosen to uproot herself? Had she not wished to graft those different roots and sensibilities onto one another? A hybrid, why not? She reveled in that cross-breeding which broadened her outlook and made her receptive to other cultures.
Thus, Chedid’s characters, inhabiting more than 20 novels, many short stories, poems, and a few plays, belong to the world at large and reenact the human drama in various situations which while located in a specific time and place are open to the universe at large. Death and life, infancy and old age, joy and misery, love and hatred interact while, in counterpoint, a miracle is played out that began when Lucy, our ancestress, stood up on two legs leaving behind the animal kingdom. Lucy marched, unaware, towards human life, consciousness, and lucidity, with its accompanying anxiety and searching. Alepha in “La Cité Fertile,” Job’s wife in “La Femme de Job,” Maxime and Omar-Joe in “l’Enfant Multiple,” the admirable Om Hassan in “Le Sixième Jour,” and so many other men and women beautifully blend Orient and Occident, and express, with simplicity and tenderness, Chedid’s world vision. Sensuous and crystal clear, her work also captures the essence of the human condition.
“Your house will not be an anchor but a mast.”
Kahlil Gibran, 1881-1931
“…into the profound depths of my book plunge, to share the burden borne by mankind and resurrect life…”
Badr Chaker Es-Sayyab, 1926-1964
These two epigraphs by Arab poets sum up the ethos of Chedid’s world: sharing and resurrection, sympathy and hope on the one hand and the house and heart as a bold mast in the world at large on the other. The French title of “Return,” “La Maison sans racines” or “The House With No Roots,” significantly provides a link to the concept of house. The author herself told novelist and critic Evelyne Accad that it means a free house.
Chedid builds “Return to Beirut” upon three different time sequences, cutting back and forth between three epochs: July-August 1932 — in Roman numerals — when the heroine Kalya spent a summer in a luxurious Lebanese mountain resort with her grandparents, aunts and uncles; July-August 1975 — in Arabic numerals — in Beirut, when Kalya, a photographer now in her mid-50s, arrives from her home in Paris and meets for the first time her granddaughter Sybil who lives in New York; and — in italics — one morning in August 1975, a few months after the war broke out in Lebanon.
The events of that fateful morning tie the narratives together and provide the climax. Two young women — a Muslim, Ammal, and a Christian, Myriam — planned a long march. Lifetime friends, they were socially and politically committed to the ideal of a democratic nation. To express their rebellion against the partition of their city by ruthless militia gangs, they planned to start marching from the two sides of Beirut and meet at the center of the dividing avenue. Many Beirutis promised to follow them and help them triumph over the militias, but the march was violently arrested by heavy shelling. The gunmen rejected the women’s message of peace.
Kalya, standing at her aunt’s window in Beirut hears a gunshot. The apartment overlooks the fateful avenue, and Kalya watches the march, the two yellow scarves held high above the heads of two young women who look exactly alike. Suddenly a shot, and the novel recalls “It was nothing. Nothing but a muffled noise…” Kalya hurries down the avenue towards a red blotch. Highly stylized, Kalya’s steps create rhythm and pattern punctuating the whole novel, while every sequence, every image, and a whole range of emotions converge at the center of the avenue:
Kalya advances alone .… This path from the porch … is beset with memories, vacillating, stretching time, mingling with dreadful images.
The scene broadens; Kalya is filled with other memories as she advances:
…columns of prisoners, fields of corpses, painful cities, London under the blitz-krieg, Paris occupied. Will the world never stop enduring these tortures?
Paris, London, Beirut and so many other cities echo Kalya’s agonizing question: “This city here, still shining over the sea, will it in turn sink into the abyss?” And Chedid’s narrator wonders:
…Will the woman suddenly stop still? Her lips tremble, her skin tingles. A shaft of fire pierces her heart.
Kalya, thus, becomes the archetypal figure of all women, giver of life, bearer of humanity’s sufferings: “Life holds on [Chedid affirms, in that same episode of Kalya’s long march], takes a new breath and is rekindled.”
Verdi’s highly dramatic “March of the Slaves” comes to mind as Kalya’s march goes on with increasing emotional tension. The thrust of the whole novel is tightly held together by Kalya’s highly stylized steps:
Her legs move forward [as if separated from her body], leading, following one step after another, a step, and a step, then a step …. Kalya moves on in a nightmare.
Indeed, Kalya moves on and reaches the red blotch—the two young women locked together and bathed in their blood. They are transported to a hospital but do not die. Tragically, however, young Sibyl falls victim to a sniper. Brokenhearted, the grandmother collapses:
Once more, silence
Kalya has reached the end of her journey. Her heart no longer knows what to hold on to.
Men, women, rush into the square. Shutters open. Doors open. Cries, shouts rise up all around. She thinks: this indiscriminate violence cannot, will not last.
The author chooses to end her novel on a hopeful note. Ammal and Myriam’s rebellion will not be wasted. The girls did not die. Their yellow scarves become one and fly high above the crowd:
The yellow scarf, stained with blood, flaps in the breeze. It retains in its folds the tenacious brightness of the morning.
The piece of cloth rises, billows, falls, rises again, takes off, flutters, falls once more then flies off, even higher…
And the novel closes.
In this cinematic, slow-motion technique, the writer’s highly-charged language overcomes all frontiers and reaches far beyond horizons to the primordial domain of the human and humanity’s artifact the city, locus of absolute violence. Men, women, and the city are struggling for life, against endless wars across ages. So the psychodrama of city after city recurs.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, No. 31 (Spring 2000) http://www.aljadid.com