Aaliya Saleh’s Phantom Life
An Unnecessary Woman. Rabih Almeddine. New York: Grove Press, 2013. 291 pp.
Aaliya Saleh, the 72-year-old protagonist of Rabih Almeddine’s fifth novel, has lived in Beirut all her life. She has seen her once-cosmopolitan city descend into seemingly perpetual communal strife. After Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization’s failed attempt to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy in 1970, in which thousands of Palestinians died, the PLO gunmen were expelled into Lebanon.
There they staged guerrilla raids into Israel and became one pole in the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Aaliya recalls reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities “while people killed each other outside my window.” At the midpoint, in 1982, Israel invaded, forcing the PLO into exile in Tunisia, and leaving behind a new enemy, the Shi’ite Hezbullah militia, which has contested ever since for dominance against Lebanon’s Christian and Sunni Muslims, while periodically launching attacks over the border into Israel, which draws the Israelis back into Lebanon.
Aaliya observes these events with stoic distaste, hating all of the gun-toting armies, militias, and gangs with Olympian impartiality. Liberated from an arranged marriage when her nasty, diminutive, and impotent husband divorces her at the age of twenty, still a virgin, she secures a marginal job as the only employee of a small bookstore, operated on a shoestring as a hobby project of a prosperous Beiruti. “There were more stupid stuffed toys than there were books, and everything was covered with dust. The bookstore had as much chance of making it as I did.”
She stays there until she retires when she is sixty-eight and the bookstore is sold out from under her. Thereafter she has been a recluse in the apartment she had first occupied on her disastrous wedding night when she was sixteen. It is owned by her ex-husband’s family and they resist every attempt by Aaliya’s relatives to force her out to allow their larger families to take it over. This gives her space for her books.
During her whole adult life Aaliya has been alienated from her family. She sees them only when one or another of her stepbrothers bangs on her door demanding that she relinquish the apartment to him, as his wife has just had yet another child. Her refusals become easier when, after Palestinian militiamen burglarize her rooms and one of them, in a gesture of spiteful contempt, shits on her bathroom floor – a spot she can never afterward feel is clean – she acquires an AK-47 that she sleeps with and which gives her the reputation of being a madwoman. The stepbrothers hear of this and stop coming. She calls the Palestinian gunmen teenage Thanatophiles.
Aaliya has only one close friend, Hannah, who died in 1972. On the floor above there live the Three Witches, Fadia, Aaliya’s ex-husband’s sister, who owns the building, and her two girlfriends, with whom Aaliya maintains a tenuous amity.
Claire Messud in a laudatory review in The Guardian writes that this is “a book in which almost nothing happens.”
That is perhaps an exaggeration, as the arrival of the AK-47 is not the only unexpected touch, but the novel achieves its power not from action but from the contrast between the emptiness of Aaliya’s external life, which is practically claustrophobic, and her intellectual life. Coming from a family of near illiterates who see little point in female schooling, she begins with a traditional Qu’ranic education but soon develops a passion for world literature and philosophy.
Fluent in French and English as well as Arabic, she has spent fifty years translating literary works into Arabic. Every January first she tries to begin a new book. With the exigencies of the civil war, that some of her choices are exceedingly long, and a few were abandoned midstream, she has, at seventy-two, completed thirty-seven books. Her translations include works by W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Italo Calvino, Sadegh Hedayat, Knut Hamsun, Bilge Karasu, Imre Kertész, Danilo Kiš, Cees Nooteboom, José Saramago, Bruno Schulz, Leo Tolstoy. That none of these writers wrote in English or French has a central import on Aaliya’s life and work.
In her entire lifeAaliya has spent only ten nights outside of Beirut and never left Lebanon. After her retirement from the bookstore she only leaves her apartment to shop and go to the National Museum, preferably when few others are present.
Her mind is flooded with a torrent of words and images from the outside world. These come not only from the works she has translated but from the vast body of books she has read along the way. The one negative review I found, in the New York Review of Books, captured this while sniffing dismissively that An Unnecessary Woman was “a kind of commonplace book, stuffed with citations from Aaliya’s favorite novels and poems.”
The criticism is unfair but An Unnecessary Woman is certainly stuffed with citations. At one point Aaliya describes her reading habits. She buys a few books on her almost nonexistent salary, and supplements her wages by bringing home treasures from the bookstore. As she is in charge of ordering, she collects what she is interested in.
“The pile grows and grows until I decide that I’m not going to buy a single book until I read my stack. . . .
“The top book on the pile is Microcosms by Claudio Magris. I’ve only read one other book of his, Danube, from which, among his many impeccable sentences, one wrapped its octopus arms around my frenetically feeble mind for months. It goes like this: ‘Kafka and Pessoa journey not to the end of a dark night, but of a night of a colourless mediocrity that is even more disturbing, and in which one becomes aware of being only a peg to hang life on, and that at the bottom of that life, thanks to this awareness, there may be sought some last-ditch residue of truth.'”
* * *
Rabih Alameddine was born in 1959 in Amman, Jordan, to Lebanese Arab parents. He grew up in Beirut, was sent abroad to boarding school in England. After two years he moved to Los Angeles where he took a degree in engineering at UCLA, then an MBA from the University of San Francisco. He family belong to the Druze religion, which split off from Shia Islam a thousand years ago, incorporating elements of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism; 5.6% of Lebanon’s population of 4.2 million are Druze, or about 231,000. There are 125,000 Druze in Israel. Whatever his upbringing, Alameddine shook off religion altogether. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut.
Like Salman Rushdie, Alameddine’s work is absorbed with the conflicted status of the emigrant, attracted to Western modernism but never fully a part of that ethos, repelled by elements of traditionalism in the homeland but never able to sever that identity and ending not at home in either culture. Aaliya is the most extreme emigrant while never setting foot in the lands she reads about.
Alameddine’s juxtapositions are layered. Aaliya sacrifices most contacts with others, family, and career to her self-isolation and endless reading and translating. In a country where almost everything is colored or defined by religious politics, including family and clan connections, Aaliya’s non-Arabic and non-religious literature provides an armor that protects her from becoming defined by religious sectarianism. The immersion in an endless variety of foreign cultures allows her to define her own position in Beirut’s confessional brutalities as a personal Switzerland. It also stakes out a position:
In a maelstrom, taking sides, any side, not only cannot change the outcome but requires sacrificing oneself to the unforgiving and narrow ideology of a cause, no matter if that cause is Maronite Christianity, the Shi’ite champions of Hezbullah, the Christian Falangists, the Palestinian irredentists, Sunni militants, or some less likely variant such as Marxism.
Alameddine wants to establish Aaliya’s choice of life paths as absolute, using the wedge of the foreign cultures to shut the door on being drawn into domestic loyalties, even through a literary career that would eventually bring public attention, create enemies, engender friendships, all with threads leading back into the web of sectarian hatreds she is determined to escape from. This takes us to the peculiarity of her translations.
For the whole of her fifty years in this endeavor she has never translated a book into Arabic that was written in either English or French, the only two other languages she reads. Instead she adopted the method of selecting books for which she could find both English and French translations – her chosen authors wrote in Russian, Dutch, Spanish, Serbian, Greek, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Italian, and other tongues. Her translations were made by comparing the French and English versions. These, of course, would be unsalable, as she never did or could read the originals.
As translation is often looked at in the literary world as drudge work except at the highest level of the chosen translators of very famous books, most reviewers of An Unnecessary Woman passed over in silence what Aaliya might have gotten out of such a prolonged, unremunerated labor. One quoted a sentence where she said doing the work was “bliss.”
I don’t have the language skills to translate. At most, years ago, working for a Trotskyist news service in New York, I would translate two-paragraph articles from Le Monde. But I have been an editor on and off for a very long time, and copy edited many manuscripts. I occasionally read a novel in my bad French. And in an advanced Chinese class at UCLA in the 1980s we read a hundred pages a week of short stories and essays in Chinese. These activities, like translating, all have in common a deep concentration on each sentence that is absent in ordinary reading. Copy editing, translating, and, if you are paying close attention, reading with care in a foreign language is not the same as reading a book in your own language. It requires immersion in the text. You have to think through each clause and subclause: what is the author trying to say, how would you phrase this if you had to improve it.
For those of us in the vast army of literary minions who spend our time working over other people’s words, the pleasure of it, if the book you are engaged with is any good, is grasping at a much more intimate and lasting level what the author is trying to communicate. Aaliya calls it a “blind lust for the written word.”
Aaliya never makes any attempt to do anything with her translations. They pile up in boxes in a spare room of her apartment. She explains herself at one point:
“If I tell the truth – and I should, shouldn’t I? – I translate books with my invented system because it makes time flow more gently. That’s the primary reason. I think. As Camus said in The Fall: ‘Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.’ I made translation my master.”
* * *
The only other fully developed persons in An Unnecessary Woman are Ahmad and Hannah. Ahmad, a shy teenager, showed up at Aaliya’s bookstore one day in 1967, “lanky and wispy, a character out of a Chekhov story, with peach fuzz and kaffiyeh, trying to emulate his hero Yasser.” He lived with his mother in a corrugated iron shack in the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp. Curiously, he wanted to see a copy of Alberto Moravia’s The Conformist, whose hero, he had heard, “was not a hero, he killed many lizards.” Being told there was no Arabic translation (Aaliya refused to translate it herself as it was too boringly didactic), he settled for an English version. His English was rudimentary and he had no money to buy a book, so he came every day for a month and painfully worked through the novel. He asked for a job, and when the owner refused to hire him worked at the bookstore for four years without pay.
After the Palestinian influx into Lebanon following 1970’s Black September in Jordan, Ahmad abandoned books and the bookstore and joined George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. IN 1977 Aaliya sought him out after her apartment was burglarized, to ask him for a gun. Water had been shut off in her neighborhood for a long time. “I stank of sewage. I looked like the witch from Hansel and Gretel.” Ahmad, now in his late twenties, had become a functionary of the PFLP. His living room was filled with “Balzacian embellishments – a cloverleaf of small lalique ashtrays, Lladro and Hummel figurines approximating a modernist Nativity scene, a grandfather clock, a rug that might have been twice my age at the time.”
Ahmad had become what as a teenager he had abhorred. The PFLP, Aaliya mused, “as Marxist-Leninist as it may have considered itself to be, was a mirror image of Mussolini’s Fasci Italiani di Combattimento.” He had become a lizard killer. He worked as a highly paid torturer for the Palestinian cause. It was said that he knew how to make mutes talk.
He suggested an AK-47, “reliable, never jams, easy to use, lightweight.” What did he ask in return? It took him a long time to articulate, but he demanded sex with her. Another ambivalence. She needed the gun. She was filthy. This was not exactly consensual. She agreed – by this time, at least, she was no longer a virgin – took a long, much appreciated, shower and they went to bed. She was just forty. The last time she saw Ahmad was in September 1982. He was boarding the ship for Tunis with Arafat’s party.
* * *
Hannah was fifteen years older than Aaliya, born n 1922. She was shy, a little overweight, self-conscious of her slight limp, a devout Muslim, socially awkward. She came to know Aaliya through Aaliya’s husband’s family, and that through a cosmic misunderstanding.
Hannah, who had only recently begun to leave her parental home during the day, by taking an unpaid volunteer job at a local hospital, went to the hospital by taxi. The Beirut taxis took on five passengers: two in the front with the driver and three in the back. Fearing to sit next to a man, Hannah always paid for two seats. One day, when the only vacant seat was Hannah’s preserved space, the driver insisted she give it up so he could take on a soldier who flagged him down. When she refused the driver refunded her fares and expelled her from the cab. Expelled with her was an army lieutenant who had sided with her in the argument. He insisted on walking her home.
The romantically inexperienced Hannah wove fantasies about her lieutenant and convinced herself that he was enamored of her and wanted to marry her. She told her parents than an engagement was imminent and had them invite the lieutenant and his whole family to an elaborate lunch.
The mystified lieutenant and his parents appeared, thinking this was excessive for walking the young woman home. That they came at all convinced Hannah’s parents that she was indeed about to be married. This embarrassing encounter came off with neither side quite understanding what the other thought was going on.
Inevitably the two families compared notes and understood a mistake had been made. Just as they were about to tell Hannah that the lieutenant wasn’t interested, he was killed in a car crash. She was never told. Instead, for the rest of her life she attached herself to the lieutenant’s mother as a grieving almost widow. The dead lieutenant’s brother later became Aaliya’s unwanted husband. And that is how Hannah and Aaliya met.
Hannah became Aaliya’s Sancho Panza, her inseparable companion. She tried to follow Aaliya into the labyrinth of European and Asian literary and philosophical thought. Aaliya certainly didn’t choose an easy place to begin. She and Hannah would have dinner together at Aaliya’s apartment, and in the evenings, for the two years from 1952-1953, Aaliya would read out loud from a French edition of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, a book that even she concedes she barely understood, while Hannah sat in the corner and quietly knitted.
But Hannah remained game. They worked their way through Spinoza the following year. One day in the bookstore while Hannah was there, “a chic woman walked in trailing a reek of lily perfume and petit bourgeois affectations.” She asked where the books by Heidegger were kept. When told, she pointedly asked, “Which would you recommend?” The question was meant to humiliate. Aaliya had read an essay about Heidegger to Hannah but none of his books.
“Without lifting her eyes from the sweater she was working on Hannah said, ‘We wouldn’t recommend anything by that proto-Nazi. He’s a third-rate philosopher with a ridiculous knit cap, and trust me, I know my knitting. . . . His only interest was in posturing, and only posturers are interested in him. A woman of your intelligence shouldn’t waste time reading Heidegger.'”
Around 1970 Aaliya’s mother-in-law died. She was also, of course, the mother of Hannah’s long-dead lieutenant. On her deathbed the old woman said to Hannah, “You have given me, my dearest daughter, some of the happiest moments of my life. Your presence in our family has made the absence of my son bearable.” But then she added, “I promise that once all three of us are in Heaven, I will not be forced to make the impossible decision of choosing between the two of you.”
Hannah afterward was so moved by being fully accepted by the lieutenant’s mother that she paid no attention to the cryptic last sentence.
“She moseyed along through her life for quite a while after that, nine or ten months, but I imagine that like a mosquito buzzing in your ear, that last sentence,vague as it may have been, wouldn’t let her sleep. A buzz of doubt that became the roar of the crowd at the Colosseum? . . . She may have woken up one morning and realized that the lieutenant had never desired her.”
She took a whole bottle of Seconal and Valium, and survived. In 1972 Hannah jumped from the top of a four story building. She was forty-nine. She never finished Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, where she had gotten as far as the second volume.
* * *
As An Unnecessary Woman begins, Aaliya is just completing her translation of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a novel of the kindertransport. Its main character, Jacques Austerlitz, was sent by his parents as a child in the 1939 mass rescue mission of German Jewish children dispatched to Britain to escape the Nazis. Most never saw their parents agen. As an adult, Austerlitz returns to Europe to try to discover how his parents died, in the Holocaust. Aaliya says of this:
“I am proud that I finished the Austerlitz project. I consider it one of the best Holocaust novels. . . . I find that when a subject has been heavily tilled, particularly something as horrifying as the Holocaust, anything new should force me to look with fresh eyes, to experience previously unexperienced feelings, to explore the hitherto unexplored. When I first read Primo Levi, my body shivered and spasmed at the oddest of moments for a week. I couldn’t read Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen without clutching the edge of my desk. But then it took years, wading through mostly melodramatic books until I came across Kertesz’s Fateless, to feel challenged once more.”
Jewish experience and Jewish writers pervade this novel by an Arab author. Walter Benjamin is mentioned repeatedly, and several pages are devoted to the fate of Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew, an artist, literary critic, author of the book of short stories The Street of Crocodiles. His life was saved briefly when a Gestapo officer, Felix Landau, declared Schulz a “necessary Jew” and used him to paint fairy tale scenes on the walls of his son’s bedroom. Schulz was killed by another Gestapo officer, Karl Günter, Aaliya recounts, “to get back at Landau, who’d killed a dentist Günter favored – a necessary dentist, one presumes.”
She tells us that “The philosopher I feel the most kinship with is Spinoza.” So here we have a truly broad world culture, not only inclusive of Europeans, Africans, and Asians, or only figures of the Left or Right, but, unusual for an Arab author, particularly one of the first rank, full inclusion, even a favored place, for Jewish philosophical and literary culture. This is an essential context when Aaliya at one point declares:
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that I dislike Israel, that ridiculous pygmy state dripping with self-overestimation, yet many of the giants I respect are Jewish. There is no contradictions. I identify with outsiders, with the alienated or dispossessed. Like many nation-states, including its sister pygmy state Lebanon, Israel is an abomination. Israelis are Jews who have misplaced their sense of humor.”
I cannot share these views. They run off the track insofar as Lebanon’s other past and present threats – Hezbullah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PFLP, the Christian Flange, are nonstate actors whose partisans have selected them by an act of choice, while Israel is a nation of half the world’s Jews, most of whom did not select that country by choice and among whom there are a very wide variety of opinions. And though the Lebanese have suffered from Israel’s 1982-85 invasion and its war with Hezbullah in 2006, in each case Israel was responding to extensive cross border attacks by nonstate forces in Lebanon.
That said, both Aaliya Saleh and her creator, Rabih Alameddine are anything but anti-Semites and from their standpoint the Israelis were mainly one more of the armed groups fighting their way across their country. Alameddine drives this distinction home on the same page where his creation Aaliya denounces both Israel and her own homeland:
“I like men and women who don’t fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul. I like outsiders, phantoms, wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived. . . . I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca.”
I have for most of my life chosen the other path: of identification with causes, parties, oppressed groups, threatened small nations and nationalities, most especially Israel, the Kurds, Taiwan. But I had, before the civil rights movement of the early sixties threw me onto the track I have followed, saw myself, exactly as Aaliya has chosen: as an outsider, looking forward with great pleasure to being a phantom wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle. Those are the two poles of our ambivalent lives.