Published in Paris in 1855, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg is often called the first novel written in Arabic. It does not read at all like Little Dorrit, whose first installment was published the same year, and certainly not like Madame Bovary, published two years later, but “novel” is …
What happened to the Arab Spring in Syria? Amid a wave of jihadist violence extending from Aleppo to Paris, it is sometimes hard to remember that many of the original participants aspired to something dramatically different. In their courage, humor, defiance, and occasional moments of optimism, these protesters already seem to belong to another era—before sectarian war and waves of refugees made the idea of revolution seem quaint.
In Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, the narrator is a septuagenarian literary translator in Beirut—“the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” as she calls it, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart.” But Aaliya does not feel at home in her native city. For most of the novel, she walks through her neighborhood in West Beirut, remembering past lovers and favorite books.
Rabee Jaber’s novel, The Mehlis Report, published in Arabic in 2005 and now expertly translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, takes place in the summer and fall following Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. This was an especially anxious time in Beirut. The murder set off a movement demanding an end to Syria’s fifteen-year occupation, as well as a violent countermovement spearheaded by Hezbollah. Jaber’s novel begins on June 2, the day Samir Kassir, a prominent anti-Syrian journalist and historian of Beirut, was killed by a car bomb outside his home in Achrafiya, in the eastern part of the city. Further car bombs were to follow, targeting other anti-Syrian intellectuals and politicians. The Mehlis Report evokes this unsettled period with frightening precision. It reads like a historical novel that happens to be about the very recent past.