Emigration has been a pervasive part of this country’s history, even long before “Lebanon” was a country. Economic uncertainty and repetitive waves of violence have prompted many to seek a better future abroad, leaving their families behind.
No surprise, then, that expatriates have offered such an enduring subject for Lebanese fiction, not infrequently written by Lebanese expatriates in the language of their host countries.
Hala Kawtharani’s “Ali al-Amercani” (American Ali) tells the story of one such expatriate. Ali is a Lebanese who fled the country during its 1975-1990 Civil War. Now he’s returned to see his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother after 22 years in the U.S.
The story is narrated by Chirine Darwish, who wants to challenge the social norms facing women in Lebanon, and in the Middle East in general.
Eager to free herself from the weight of social convention, she divorces her husband and abandons her job. So liberated, she decides to write a novel, her first, on Ramzi Kheir, a deceased poet whom she admires.
As she’s preparing to start her novel, Chirine runs into Ali, whom she hasn’t seen in 22 years. Now in his early 40s, Ali was her first love and she decides he will be the subject of her novel.
Chirine pursues Ali through Beirut’s streets and even follows him to his grandparents’ house in south Lebanon. The place is full of childhood memories for both Ali and herself, which Chirine hopes will trigger conversation.
Chirine starts writing and more meetings with Ali ensue. She writes everything that Ali tells her about his memories of the Civil War, of his life in the U.S., and his feelings about his mother.
The narrator’s desire to write seems uncontaminated by any concerns with accuracy, as she insists on depicting Emma, Ali’s ex-fiancee, despite his refusal to speak about her. Neither does she feel jealous of his dating Huda, an AUB student half his age, as long as he still has time for the conversations that are essential for her novel.
By the time the reader reaches the book’s rather abrupt ending, he will be familiar with challenges facing women, expatriate or not, in Lebanon. Though it seems Kawtharani didn’t live abroad for long herself, she skillfully illustrates the dilemmas of belonging faced by many Lebanese expatriates.
“He’s not completely integrated in his American life,” Chirine observes of Ali, “but to a certain extent, and not completely alienated from what some call roots.”
“If it wasn’t for the war and my family situation,” Ali confides to Chirine. “I would have continued my life here,” in Lebanon.
Many members of Lebanon’s expatriate community will no doubt sympathize with the emotional challenges facing these characters.
For her part, Chirine resembles many Lebanese women whose lives are predetermined by their families and other social pressures, and who encounter myriad challenges when attempting to resist these pressures.
“I was always obedient despite tempests and storms invading my imagination,” Chirine says. “I was not allowed to travel, so I stayed here, they said ‘marry,’ I got married, ‘deliver,’ I delivered, and then I woke up.”
The persistence and loss of memory is a key part of the story. Chirine describes her memories of Ali’s grandparents’ house, and both she and Huda interrogate Ali about his memories. For Ali’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, memories are literally being erased.
Huda keeps asking Ali about Civil War Beirut, illustrating the new generation’s desire to know details about Lebanon’s civil strife, which older generations are often reluctant or embarrassed to discuss.
The novel includes beautiful descriptions of southern villages and their isolation from the real estate boom remaking the face of Beirut.
“We stop to remember sites which have not changed,” Chirine remarks during a walk with Ali in the southern village, “something unusual in Beirut ... they match our memories of fields.”
An easy read, “Ali al-Amercani” skillfully illustrates the life, emotions and dilemmas of belonging experienced by a Lebanese expatriate.
Hala Kawtharani’s “Ali al-Amercani” (Saqi Books, 2012) is available in select Beirut bookshops.