BEIRUT: “You’re allowed to laugh,” Rabih Alameddine reassured the audience packed into the back room of Bardo for his reading. “In fact, if you don’t I’ll start pointing out the jokes to you.”
The Lebanese-American author’s impromptu reading at the Clemenceau restaurant last week was an animated event, thanks not only to his skill as an author, but his lively sense of fun.
Opening the event with a thrice-repeated crack about how he wouldn’t have attended a reading of his – which grew funnier each time he made it – he noted that his appearance was provoked by popular demand.
Alameddine spends roughly a third of each year in Beirut and the remainder in San Francisco. He had just arrived in Lebanon after a lengthy book tour in the U.S. to promote his latest novel, “An Unnecessary Woman.”
The book features a wonderfully eccentric narrator named Aliya, a 72-year-old woman with a passion for books.
“After three months of reading the book and talking about it,” Alameddine joked, “I really would like to kill that bitch.”
He launched into his novel’s opening chapter. Then, two sentences in, he stopped.
“Habibti,” he called to a table of family members toward the back of the room. “Could you get me my more-fabulous reading glasses from my bag?”
Perfectly at ease, his gaze scanned the waiting audience. “I’m Lebanese,” he quipped. “I have to change my glasses at least once.”
“An Unnecessary Woman” takes place over the course of three days and most of the book is set in the narrator’s small apartment. It might not sound like the most riveting premise for a novel, but the humor and pathos in Aliya’s voice as she reminisces over a life spent secretly translating literary classics into Arabic makes the book a moving and enjoyable read.
“It’s hard to get the voice right. That took about two years,”Alameddine told The Daily Star before his reading. “I write, I write, I write and everything sounds a little off-kilter ... There’s nothing specific that I do other than [keep] working until, all of a sudden, one day, it just sounds right ... Once I get the voice, everything else comes into focus.
“Part of the problem with getting the voice right is I cannot separate voice from plot ... The novel that I had in mind at first had a really convoluted plot about a woman, same age, who goes to Kuwait at the time of the invasion.
“She wants to rescue her husband’s company to save it for the kids, but she really doesn’t care about the company that much. And the Americans are there trying to invade Iraq – and it just sounded off.
“So I kept paring down [until] the only thing that was left, that I was interested in, was this woman and the voice ... At first she was really involved in the rat race but it just didn’t seem right. The woman that I had in mind would never be involved with that. She wouldn’t even be married. So first the husband goes, then the whole country goes, then it gets reduced to this single apartment.”
A witty character, Aliya shares Alameddine’s love of language. At one point in the novel she expounds upon her impotent ex-husband.
“Before leaving this world,” Alameddine read, “the listless mosquito with malfunctioning proboscis remarried twice and remained childless.”
“Come on, that was funny,” he declared. “I’ll read it again.”
The room filled with laughter.
Throughout the novel, Aliya demonstrates an extensive knowledge of literature, classical music and philosophy. Her tastes, Alameddine told to The Daily Star, in part reflect his own.
“Definitely it says a lot about my taste,” he said, “but there were also things that I would probably not like as much as she would. There were things that I would like a lot that I thought that she wouldn’t ... Like her disdain of Hemingway: I’m not a big fan, but I don’t dislike him that much.
“She needed something that went against the bleak masculine voice, because she would have hated it. I did not mention, for example, Cormac McCarthy, who I like. One of my favorite books is ‘Blood Meridian’ ... But I realized she just would not like it. It’s too bleak.”
“An Unnecessary Woman” touches on Lebanon’s Civil War – Aliya mentions “looking awry” at her memories of the violence – but it’s not a central theme if the book.
“As much as has been written about the Lebanese Civil War – it hasn’t,” Alameddine said. “You could write more. The trouble is that you have to approach it from an angle that’s continually new.
“This is what I meant in some ways by looking awry. [Aliya’s] looking at it sideways, partly because it’s too difficult but partly, I think, because by looking at it directly ... you’ll be looking through tears and that can distort what you’re looking at.
“In some earlier books that I wrote, the war had more of a direct impact,” he added, “but also it was closer to when the war ended, so now both I and the characters are looking back.”
Alameddine is one of Lebanon’s best-known authors, and among the few who write in English. Reviews often pigeonhole him as an “Arab” or a “Lebanese” voice. He rejects the appellation.
“I don’t represent anything,” he said. “... I can barely represent me, let alone Lebanon or the Arab world, or whatever.
“Nobody elected me to represent them. Actually nobody elected anybody in Lebanon, but that’s another story. I fight against it. It’s insulting, a lot of the time. I get attacked from both sides.
“There is not a lot of Lebanese literature outside,” he added, “so any kind of writing on Lebanon is considered representative ... What you have to do is just get more publicity for all of us. Because if you read me, you won’t get much about Lebanon.
“But if you read me, and Rawi [Hage], and Elias Khoury, and Hanan al-Shaykh, and Imad Maydan, then all of a sudden you won’t understand Lebanon but you’ll at least get a wider view, because we’re all different and we see it in a completely different way.
“Nobody would say, ‘I read Ian McEwan so now I know about England.’ Nobody says, ‘I’ve read John Updike. I know about America,’ because there are a lot of representations of America. So what we need, both as Lebanese and as Arabs is more representation. To be more read.”
Toward the end of his Bardo reading, Alameddine’s infectious good humor overcame the audience’s inhibitions.
“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: Insane, beautiful, falling apart, ageing, and forever drama laden,” he read.“She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is –”
He paused, then went off script. “... whether it’s Geagea, or Aoun ...”
This time the wave of laughter arose without prompting.
Rabih Alameddine’s “An Unnecessary Woman” is published by Grove Press and is available from local bookstores.