Culture

Nadia Tueni's words find new meaning and urgency today

BEIRUT: "I belong to a country that commits suicide every day, while it is being assassinated," wrote the Lebanese poet Nadia Tueni. "I belong to my foolish land: I create it though my death, and its face is consumed by a thousand gazes more incandescent than hunger."

Tueni passed away in 1983. Her last, most searing body of work reflected on the harsh realities of the Israeli invasion, from the vantage point of Lebanon in 1982. Her words, images and perhaps most pointedly her questions - "Was I born of a lie / in a country that did not exist?" - have taken on new meaning, resonance and urgency now, from the vantage point of Lebanon in 2006.

Just a few months before the war in Lebanon began, the publishing houses of Dar an-Nahar and Syracuse University collaborated on printing a beautiful new bilingual anthology of Tueni's poetry, entitled "Lebanon: Poems of Love and War."

Edited by Christopher Ippolito (a professor of 19th- and 20th-century French literature and culture) and buttressed with essays by Jad Hatem (a professor at Beirut's St. Joseph University and the editor of Tueni's complete works in French) and Syrine C. Hout (a professor of English and comparative literature at the American University of Beirut and a specialist on Lebanese fiction in exile), "Poems of Love and War" compiles two previously published collections: "Lebanon: Twenty Poems for One Love" (1979) and a selection of another 20 poems from "Sentimental Archives of a War in Lebanon" (1982).

As Ippolito points out in his introduction, Tueni has become a veritable national treasure. Her poems have been embraced by French-speaking readers all over the world and are taught in the Lebanese school system. Yet "Sentimental Archives" remains almost completely unknown, particularly to English-language readers.

Seeing it here, side by side in French and English, is one of the strengths of this latest collection. There are many others, especially if one is to read Tueni's verses for lessons on how to respond poetically and productively to the insanity of war.

Tueni was born in 1935 in Baakline. Her father was a writer and diplomat, which brought her to Greece to pursue her studies in the 1950s. In 1954, she married journalist and statesman Ghassan Tueni, the great subject of the "one love" in the first part of this collection.

Nadia Tueni published her first book of poems in 1963. Six more followed in the time

before she died of cancer, before her time at the age of 48, in 1983. She had already lost

a daughter, Nayla, to cancer in 1962.

"Poems of Love and War" includes Tueni's famous ode to Beirut: "Let her be a courtesan, scholar, or saint, / a peninsula of dun, of color, and of gold, / a hub of rose sailing like a fleet / which scans the horizon for a harbor's tenderness. / Beirut has died a thousand times and been reborn a thousand times."

Much of the collection's first part consists of poems written for specific locations, such as the cities of Tyre, Sidon, Baalbek, Byblos and Tripoli. "Sentimental Archives," however, is more nuanced and less rooted in place.

As Hout points out in her essay on the notion of exile and the exilic experience in Tueni's work: "Here, the nation is more than a reservoir of images; it has evolved into a geographical reality as well as a socio-historical space in Tueni's engaged poetry."

Tueni, writes Hout, was a citizen of the world. Her poems helped materialize a country of both her memory and her imagination, projecting forward and backward at once. To read her work now is a challenge to do the same, to not lose Lebanon again. To read her work now is a tonic.

 

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