Aaliya is an independent woman with blue hair. Divorced early from an unsuitable husband (“the impotent worm”), she kept the spacious marital apartment in Beirut in spite of intermittent demands from her more reproductively active (and ruder) half-siblings. During the Lebanese civil war, she slept with an AK-47 beside her. She supported herself until her retirement by running a bookstore, and has lived a largely self-sufficient emotional life, finding company and solace in reading and in her translations of great books of world literature.
The blue hair was a bit of a mistake.
Aaliya is a bitter loner, stalking around her apartment in a wrinkled nightgown and an old maroon mohair overcoat. With the blue hair, it must be quite a sight. But she is appealing, because she is in love with words – with poetry, philosophy and novels (and so must Alameddine be; you can’t fake this kind of gorgeous delirium). Readers of his previous book, the fabulous (in both senses) mythopoetic epic The Hakawati (reviewed by Rover in 2009 here), won’t be surprised, as that book was its own delirious dream, a sort of thousand-and-one ecstatic hallucinations of Lebanese history and culture. (“Hakawati” means “storyteller” in Arabic; the book was sold in some markets as The Storyteller.)
Alameddine has taken a risk with An Unnecessary Woman. Rather than conjure more obvious magic for those readers who fell in love with the vast canvas of The Hakawati, he has chosen to give us one lone woman who has retreated into a kind of imperfect solitude. But she contains a vast canvas within her, and through her we examine Lebanon, specifically Beirut, and the life of the outsider in a rigid society seething with constant political upheaval and intermittent war.
An Unnecessary Woman is witty and learned, funny, clever and moving. It is liberally salted with quotations and reflections on the meaning that can be drawn from books, on the life that can be made from reading and thinking, and on the relative merits of various translations from the Russian. It is a treat for anyone who also loves and cares about those things. It is a bibliophile’s delight.
It is also a loving history of the last generation of Beiruti life, of the experience of living in a city and a country (and a region) that has so often exploded – and occasionally been pieced back together – and of being a woman in a place where men rule with guns. And it is a gentle but insistent reminder of how much people need each other, and that despite the solace that can be taken from inanimate artifacts of human culture or from naked exercises of power, real human contact cannot be replaced.
Aaliya’s story is a hopeful, even redemptive account of the healing power of care. It acknowledges the difficulty of moving past a long history of pain, both individually and as a society. It casts a critical eye on the foolishness and posturing, especially the macho kind, that leaves so much destruction in its wake. But it is also alive to love and beauty, and the transformative power of the simple gesture of concern, and to how easy it can be to bring the outsider in (if you want to, and if she’ll let you), not to mention the life-giving qualities of a really good cup of coffee.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, Grove Press.
Elise Moser’s YA novel, Lily and Taylor, came out in September. She fantasizes about belonging to an Aaliya Saleh book club, and reading all the books Aaliya refers to (except maybe the Heidegger).