The Literature of the Lebanese Diaspora: Representation of Place and Transnational Identity

cover image

By: Jumana Bayeh

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

New York, NY: I. B. Tauris, 2015. 277p. $99.00. ISBN: 978-1780769981.

Volume: 2 Issue: 12

December 2014

Review by:

Issa J. Boullata, PhD

McGill University

Montreal, QC, Canada

This book was mostly written at Macquarie University in Australia, where the author is a Fellow in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations. Her approach to literature is sociological and, as such, offers a uniquely original contribution by concentrating on the representation of place and transnational identity in the literary writings of the Lebanese Diaspora. By using the theories and findings of Diaspora studies, she sheds new light on the literature of some Lebanese writers of fiction living in various countries, and brings to them a new understanding not fully possible otherwise.

Displacement and double consciousness constitute the main concept that concerns the author of this book. In other words, it is the ambivalence of the Lebanese writer in the Diaspora who feels he is neither completely at harmony with the setting of the new country in which he lives, nor fully free from that of the old one he left. To him, writing becomes a “place” in which to live. His diasporic condition incites him to reconstruct place and to contest essentialist definitions of it; and this book studies the ways he represents it and creates a “transnational” identity.

Apart from references to other writings, the Lebanese novels that are dealt with in detail are the following, in the order they are studied in the book: (1) Unreal City [1999] by Tony Hanania; (2) De Niro’s Game [2006] by Rawi Hage; (3) Somewhere, Home [2003] by Nada Awar Jarrar; (4) The Night Counter [2009] by Alia Yunis; and (5) Ports of Call [1999] by Amin Maalouf.

The book has three parts, each being divided into chapters. Part I is entitled “War and the City” and focuses on Beirut in the Civil War, during which time it was divided into West Beirut (the Muslim sector) and East Beirut (the Christian one). Part II is entitled “Home, Mobility, Immobility” and focuses on women writing on domesticity and movement. Part III is entitled “Contesting the Nation-State,” focusing on land as a place for the nation.

In Part I, Tony Hanania’s Unreal City [shows the destruction of West Beirut, alienating his protagonist and inducing his recruitment into a militant Islamic movement in South Lebanon. Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Gameshows the isolated world of East Beirut’s Christians and the fact that the city is what its inhabitants make it to be. In Part II, Nada Awar Jarrar’s Somewhere, Home has a rural setting in the Lebanese mountains and reflects conservative domesticity and a static image of home. This is not so in the similar rural setting of Alia Yunis’s The Night Counter, which shows that domesticity is inherently mobile. In Part III, Amin Maalouf’s Ports of Call, the nation is the focus and its relationship with the Diaspora is examined; the notion of territoriality is emphasized, land being necessary in the formation of the nation-state and of identity. The novel deals with the years in Palestine before the establishment of Israel in 1948, and with the tireless effort of the narrator to keep Jews and Arabs together in productive coexistence in the same land. While these novels are not all equal in their attempt to represent place and identity, they all attempt to promote an idea of place that is pluralistic and open to diversity, exchange, and mobility.

Jumana Bayeh’s analysis of the novels in light of Diaspora studies directs attention to a new perspective of Lebanese literature. In the meantime, her reading of the literary texts themselves is deep and informative. Her concentration on three themes in her analysis — namely: (a) the civil war and the city; (b) home; and (c) the nation-state — helps the reader understand the relationship of place and identity as represented in the Diaspora fiction she studies. Her book is a good read.

Reviews By Year

Reviews By Category