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The Gendered Subject: Literary Existentialism in Ghādah al-Sammān’s “Beirut Tetralogy”

  • Kifah Hanna
Chapter
Part of the Literatures and Cultures of the Islamic World book series (LCIW)

Abstract

An existentialist ambience pervades the fiction of Ghādah al-Sammān. In her novels and short stories, she addresses the core ontological questions facing the Arab individual in the second half of the twentieth century, while always situating her characters and the challenges they face in social, political, and historical contexts specific to the Levant. Her early works are collections of short stories that attend to the conflicts and contradictions of Arab, especially Arab women’s, identity in the wake of the Palestinian Nakba and Naksa. Her collection Raḥīl al-Marāfi’ al-Qadīmah (Departure of the Ancient Ports, 1973) perhaps best exemplifies her early existentialist—in both theme and form—approach to such issues. In later works, she turns to the Lebanese civil war, and, as her feminist and national concerns start to coalesce, reflects on the profoundly human dimensions of this conflict, especially on questions of suffering, bare life, and fragmented individual and social identity.

Keywords

Romantic Love Israeli Defense Force Limit Situation Bare Life Sectarian Division 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    I have chosen the term “existentialist,” as opposed to “existential,” to describe al-Sammān’s feminist and nationalist concerns. This is based on a distinction made by Hans Van Stralen, where “existentialist” “refers to the literary-philosophical movement,” and “existential” “refers to human existence inasmuch as it concerns the fundamental aspects of life.” Hans Van Stralen, Choices and Conflicts: Essays on Literature and Existentialism (Brussels: P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2005), note 10, pp. 34–35.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See, for example, Ghālī Shukrī’s Ghādah al-Sammān bilā Ajniḥah (Ghādah al-Sammān without Wings; Bayrūt: Dār al-Ṭalī’ah, 1990);Google Scholar
  3. Ilhām Ghālī’s Ghādah al-Sammān Al-Ḥub wa Al-Ḥarb (Ghādah al-Sammān: Love and War; Bayrūt: Dār al-Ṭalī’ah, 1986);Google Scholar
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  5. Najla Ikhtiyar’s Taharrur Al-Mar’ah ‘abr A’māl Simon De Beauvoir wa Ghādah al-Sammān, 1965–1986 (The Emancipation of Women in the Works of Simone De Beauvoir and Ghādah al-Sammān, 1965–1986; Bayrūt: Dār al-Ṭalī’ah, 1991); andGoogle Scholar
  6. Paola De Kapwa’s Al-Tamarrud Wa Al-Iltizām fī Adab Ghādah al-Sammān (Rebellion and Compliance in the Literature of Ghādah al-Sammān; Bayrūt: Dar al-Ṭalī’ah, 1992).Google Scholar
  7. Further, her works are examined in other studies dealing with women writers, including Joseph Zeidan, Women Novelists in Modern Arabic Literature (PhD Thesis), Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International (1982);Google Scholar
  8. Joseph Zeidan, Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995); ‘Afīf Farrāj’s Al-Ḥuriyya fī adab Al-Mar’ah (Freedom in Women’s Literature; Beirut: Institution of Arabic Research, 1980); and Cooke’s (1996; 1997), and Women Write War: Centring of the Beirut Decentrists (Beirut: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1987). The studies mentioned here are not exhaustive.Google Scholar
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    See Pauline Homsi Vinson, “Ghada Samman: A Writer of Many Layers,” Al Jadid 8:39 (Spring 2002), p. 1.Google Scholar
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    For detailed accounts of the sources of the term, see Joseph Mahon, Existentialism, Feminism and Simone De Beauvoir (New York: Palgrave, 1997), p. 1, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. David Cooper, Existentialism: A Reconstruction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp. 1–6.Google Scholar
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    See John Macquarrie, Existentialism: An Introduction, Guide and Assessment (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 34.Google Scholar
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    Maurice Cranston, “Simone de Beauvoir,” in The Novelist as Philosopher: Studies in French Fiction 1935–1960, ed. John Cruickshank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 172.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed discussion of commitment in the Mashriqi literature of the 1920s, see Verena Klemm, “Different Notions of Commitment (Iltizām) and Committed Literature (al-adab al-multazim) in the Literary Circles of the Mashriq,” Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 3:1 (2000), p. 51.Google Scholar
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    Yoav Di-Capua, “Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of Decolonization,” The American Historical Review 17:4 (October 2012), p. 1071.Google Scholar
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    For an account of the impact of the Nakba on Arab literary consciousness, see M. M. Badawi, “Commitment in Contemporary Arabic Literature,” Cahiers d’histoire mondiale 14:4 (1972), pp. 867–868.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    This list is derived from Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry, Vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1977), p. 641. Jayyusi considers these terms characteristic of the avant-garde literature of the 1950s and 1960s. In this book, I examine them and avant-garde literature in relation to Arab feminist writing since the 1970s.Google Scholar
  18. 22.
    As Klemm argues, the existentialist trend was stronger in Lebanon and Syria than elsewhere in the Mashriq” due to the colonial heritage. See Klemm (2000), p. 54. Stefan Meyer makes a similar point in The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 3.Google Scholar
  19. 24.
    For a philosophical account on existential themes in the fiction of Mahfouz, see Haim Gordon, Naguib Mahfouz’s Egypt: Existential Themes in His Writings (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    As Badawi notes, numerous of other novels of the period feature existential characteristics, including Muṭā’ Ṣafadī’s (b. circa 1930) Jīl al-Qadar (The Generation of Destiny, 1960); Walid Ikhlasi’s (b. 1935) Aḥḍān al-Sayyida al-Jamīla (The Fair Lady’s Bosom, 1968); Hānī al-Rāhib’s (b. 1939) Sharkh fī Tārīkh Ṭawīl (A Crack in a Long History, 1969); and Haydar Haydar’s (b. 1936) al-Zaman al-Muḥish (Desolate Time, 1973). See M. M. Badawi, A Short History of Modern Arabic Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 212–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 29.
    Al-Sammān’s mother had great influence on her education; she taught her, as a child, French and English, and she was able to speak these languages before Arabic. After the death of her mother, her father took the responsibility of cultivating her. Her early education started by memorizing the Holy Qur’an. Later, with the help of his circle of intellectual friends, he introduced her to world literature and art. For her own account of her intellectual upbringing, see Ghādah al-Sammān, Al-Riwāyah al-Mustaḥīlah (The Lmpossible Novel; Bayrūt: Manshūrāt Ghādah al-Sammān, 1999), p. 44. Translations of all references to this book are mine.Google Scholar
  22. 31.
    See Ghādah al-Sammān, Muūāṭinah Mutalabisah Bil-qirā’ah (A Female Citizen Caught Red-Handed in Reading; Bayrūt: Manshūrāt Ghādah al-Sammān, 1986).Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    See Ghādah al-Sammān, Kawābīs Bayrūt (Beirut Nightmares; Bayrūt: Manshūrāt Ghādah al-Sammān, 2000), p. 147 (“Kābūs 99”). All references to “Kābūs 99” are translated by me since this “Nightmare” is not translated by Roberts.Google Scholar
  24. 36.
    Chinua Achebe pointedly mocks such global literature as “some distant bend in the road which you may take if you travel out far enough in the direction of Europe or America, if you put adequate distance between yourself and your home.” Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965–87 (London: Heinemann, 1988), p. 52.Google Scholar
  25. 37.
    For her own account of such multifaceted literary influences, see Ghādah al-Sammān, Tasakku’un Dākhila Jurḥin (Loitering Inside a Wound; Bayrūt: Manshūrāt Ghādah al-Sammān, 1988), p. 130. Al-Sammān’s literary self-identification as an Arab writer is suggested not only by her choice to write exclusively about issues related to the Arab world, but also by her abandoning of her postgraduate studies in England to return to live in Beirut.Google Scholar
  26. 38.
    Mona Mikhail, Studies in the Short Fiction of Mahfouz and Idris (New York and London: New York University Press, 1992), p. 30. The question of ‘asala or authenticity in the Arabic novel is particularly loaded given that the form was imported from Europe and gradually displaced more traditional Arabic forms such as the Qaṣidah. It has been questioned whether it is possible to have an “authentic” Arabic novel when the very nature of the novel form—its modes of characterization, plotting, and causal unfolding of events—is derived from, and potentially reproduces, European epistemologies. For an introduction to these issues,Google Scholar
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  28. 39.
    Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 2.Google Scholar
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    Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (Ed.), Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 233.Google Scholar
  30. 45.
    Cited in Jonna Bornemark, “Limit-situation: Antinomies and Transcendence in Karl Jaspers’ Philosophy,” Sats—Nordic Journal of Philosophy 7:2 (2006), p. 52.Google Scholar
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    Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage International, 1991), p. 285.Google Scholar
  32. 68.
    Frederick Hoffman, The Moral No: Death in the Modern Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), p. 461.Google Scholar
  33. 70.
    Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert and Lionel Abel (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 45.Google Scholar
  34. See Ghādah al-Sammān, Beirut Nightmares, trans. Nancy Roberts (London: Quartet Books, 1997), pp. 286–296.Google Scholar
  35. 73.
    Shukrī interprets al-Sammān’s lamenting over the absence of love as “praying to love” to intervene and stop the killing. See Ghālī Shukrī, Ghādah al-Sammān Bilā Ajnihah [Ghādah al-Sammān without Wings], 3rd ed. (Bayrūt: Dār al-Ṭalī’ah, 1990), p. 165.Google Scholar
  36. 76.
    Ghādah al-Sammān, The Night of the Tirst Billion, trans. Nancy Roberts (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), p. 383.Google Scholar
  37. 84.
    Ghādah al-Sammān, Sahrah Tanakurīyyah li-l-Mawtā (Masquerade for the Dead; Bayrūt: Manshūrāt Ghādah al-Sammān, 2003), p. 237. TranslationsGoogle Scholar
  38. 87.
    John Cruickshank, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 49.Google Scholar
  39. 90.
    Jean-Paul Sartre, “Preface,” in Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (London: Penguin Classics, 2001 [a]), p. 21.Google Scholar
  40. 93.
    For a canonical discussion of violence against women, especially rape, as a biopolitical strategy aimed at maintaining the (patriarchal) “war system,” see Betty Reardon, Sexism and the War System (New York: Teachers College Press, 1985), p. 39.Google Scholar
  41. 94.
    Mary Evans, Simone De Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin (London: Tavistock Publications, 1985), p. 81.Google Scholar
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    Linda McClain, “The Liberal Future of Relational Feminism: Robin West’s Caring for Justice,” Law & Social Inquiry 24:2 (Spring, 1999), p. 480.Google Scholar
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    Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman (London: Routledge, 2001 [b]), pp. ix–x.Google Scholar
  45. 104.
    Simone De Beauvoir, The Blood of Others, Trans. Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse (London: Penguin Books, 1964; 1st ed. 1948).Google Scholar

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© Kifah Hanna 2016

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