‘Maryam’ by Alawiya Sobh: An Excerpt

This acclaimed novel is set during the Lebanese Civil War and offers a rare depiction of women’s experiences amid this sprawling, region-defining conflict. In Alawiya Sobh’s hands, the details of everyday life mix with female voices from across classes, sects, and generations to create an indelible picture of a climate where violence and war are the overt outbreak of a simmering tension that underlies the life in the region. Here, stories struggle to survive the erasure of war and rescue the sweetness of living, trying to connect the tellers and their audience while transforming pain and love into abiding, sustaining art. Rendered sensitively into English through a close collaboration between author and translator, Maryam offers an unforgettable picture of conflict and its costs.

Translated from the Arabic by Nirvana Tanoukhi

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An Excerpt

The issue is over, as far as I’m concerned.

I have despaired of the answer, given up on the question, and lost any hope of finding her again.

The visa is finally in my hands and a few days remain before my departure. There is hardly enough time to make the preparations, to complete the necessary farewell visits with family, cousins, neighbours, to say goodbye to Ibtisam and Yasmine, and to Alawiyya and the rest of the characters in her novel.

But where is Alawiyya Subuh that I may say goodbye to her?

If I see her again, I will not ask: ‘How’s your book coming, Alawiyya?’

I will certainly not ask her.

Whenever we met in the last few years and I asked her what became of our story, I felt as though my tongue were a hot blade that opened a soft wound inside of her. As she looked away from me, I glimpsed a gust of hidden pain fly across her eyes, and I watched her gaze falter and melt into the earth’s rotation. But her eyelids would stop fluttering and her eyes settle again on mine. Then she fumbled for a question, asking thirstily about my latest with Abbas, news of Ibtisam, or recent developments in the lives of her characters—those characters about whom I had once told her every- thing I knew, many years ago. But since then, they’ve all passed on to new fates, fates unknown to her. And all that I told her passed into nothing.

I wonder now why I told her all those stories and why she listened if she never wrote any of it down.

Has Alawiyya really disappeared, like Ibtisam, or has she just transformed herself for the new life she chose? Or has she, like Yasmine, abandoned her youthful dreams of outgrowing the place of her birth?

I want to know if she has changed like all the others, or if she has withstood it all, as if outside the time and space of the war. Did she forget everything, like our village neighbour Abu Yusuf who forgot his name after his wife Khadija died? He started calling all the other men ‘Abu Yusuf’ and whenever anyone said to him, ‘But you are Abu Yusuf!’ he would weep and say, ‘No. You’re all liars. All of you are Abu Yusuf.’

She disappeared just like Zuhair, her hero and counterpart in the novel, leaving all our fates to be lost in her unfinished book. I could no longer find her name on the pages of newspapers and magazines, or even on the door to her old flat at the top of Hamra Street. Later, I discovered that the whole building where she and her grandmother had lived had been razed to the ground.

When new novels came out, I rushed to the bookstore, pored over the titles and the authors’ names, but I never found her name or our stories. A few times, I bought all of them, persuading myself that she could have written our story under another name. But as I leafed through the first pages, my fears would be confirmed—that she had disappeared and our story with her.

I no longer need to read my life in her book, because my story ends here. I just want to find her to say goodbye, to tell her that I have chosen a path for myself outside her novel. I only want to know about her fate and the reason she disappeared.

She vanished, and no more news of her reached me.