Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Making Ordinary: Recuperating the Everyday in Post-2005 Beirut Novels

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Making Ordinary: Recuperating the Everyday in Post-2005 Beirut Novels

Article excerpt

In a pivotal scene in Sahar Mandour's 2011 novel 32, the unnamed protagonistnarrator, a thirty-two year old author, announces to her friends while riding in a car that she intends to write a story. "Not a novel, just a story. An ordinary story (qissa 'adiyya), like the stories of the ordinary days (ayyam 'adiyya) in which we live."1 Her friends Zumurrud, Shwikar and Zizi enthusiastically encourage her to write "our story, we who are living in Beirut today."2 But when she eventually shares a completed draft with them, they respond with awkward silence. The mortified narrator confronts her embarrassed friends about their reactions, and they all agree that her story about a suicidal woman is beautiful, but sad. A disappointed Zumurrud elaborates: "I thought you would stick to the project you told us about in the car. I loved the idea of everyday life, since most of the novels that I read deal with the exceptional. I wanted to read about the ordinary, because it is ordinary!"3

Societies that emerge from violence value the ordinary.4 Yet cultural production emphasizing crisis and the spectacular often overshadows that which documents the ordinary. In Lebanon, critics and readers assign litGhenwa erary and cultural prestige to treatments of the civil war (1975-1990) and its memory.5 But, as Zeina Halabi has noted, in recent years a "fatigue of the memory discourse" has emerged in Lebanese fiction and cinema.6 32 stages this frustration in the many arguments among the narrator and her friends over the stories she keeps writing about Beirut: tales of suicidal women, and of kidnapping and torture that her friends have read many times before. As in the excerpt above, the narrator's friends counter her dramatic writing with their desires to "read the ordinary" and to find "ourselves in the story."7 Zumurrud's impatience with "most of the novels" she reads is a literary complaint against the prevalence of narratives of exceptional conflict and trauma.8 By downplaying the exceptional, Mandour's characters privilege ordinariness. The fifth and final chapter of Hilal Chouman's Limbo Beirut (2013) echoes this sentiment.9 Musing that when the exceptional becomes the norm, it becomes forgettable, the chapter's narrator concludes that "too much exceptionalism is tiring."10 Mandour and Chouman's novels question the literary legacy of postwar Lebanese writing by insinuating that some of its most familiar tropes and patterns are no longer relevant to their lives. The novels express their frustration with this familiar kind of writing, thereby making room for their own so-called ordinary stories.

Ordinariness, however, is an elusive object of desire with a fraught relationship to representation.11 Kathleen Stewart writes that the ordinary is "a moving target. Not something to make sense of, but a set of sensations that incite."12 Thinking the ordinary, Stewart says, forces readers away from structures and compels them to contend with how "a reeling present is composed out of heterogeneous and non-coherent singularities."13 This article examines three novels whose plots reel across the mundane, often incoherent lives of mostly middle-class, twenty- and thirty-something urban professionals in Ras Beirut.14 As 32's narrator attempts to write the "ordinary novel of ordinary life," she and her friends do ordinary things. They go on road trips, hang out in bars, and socialize in each others' houses. Chouman's 2010 novel Napolitana follows a young man named Haitham through his daily routine in Beirut.15 In the course of the novel, Haitham comes to terms with a failed relationship, reads a blog, acts as a third wheel in his friends' rocky relationship, and has a complicated love affair with an older, upper-class woman. Limbo Beirut, the follow-up to Napolitana, is more formally experimental than either its predecessor or 32. It is told in five parts, from five different perspectives. Not quite a graphic novel, it is nevertheless illustrated, each segment drawn by a different artist, making the whole a fascinating collaborative work. …

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