I'm not afraid for myself
Born in 1955, Alawiya Sobh comes from a Shia family and grew up in the Christian east of Beirut. Her first novel "Maryam: Keeper of the Stories" was published in 2002 and made her famous for its timely and dramatic illustrations of the fates of women in Lebanon. She has published three more novels since then, most recently "To Love Life". This book was banned in many Arab countries, yet it was also shortlisted for the prestigious Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2021.
Ms Sobh, your books are banned in almost all the nations of the Arab world except Lebanon, where they've always been published and where you yourself live. Now you want to leave Beirut. Why?
Alawiya Sobh: Beirut was the only free city in the Arab world. It was a symbol of the convergence of cultures and religions and a bridge between East and West. All Arab intellectuals fleeing tyrannical regimes, prison and murder in their countries sought refuge here. I was born and raised in Beirut. The idea of emigrating never entered my head. This is the first time I've thought about it. I'm giving everything up. I no longer have the mental, emotional and physical strength to live here. Home nations are illusions. A homeland is a place where you're not threatened by death, disease or hunger. Every place in the world is friendly if you sense its humanity.
What's your life like in Beirut?
Sobh: I live in a building with 22 apartments, yet only seven families live there now. The others, most of them Christians, have moved away. I miss them, we were close. The other residents are older people whose children live abroad. The residents always belonged to a range of confessions. We never thought about whether someone was a Christian or a Muslim. Even during the war, neighbourly relations were very good. We met up in the bunker, ate together and stayed there overnight.
Do you still have any contact with those who remain in the building?
Sobh: Many of them have lost hope; others have become intolerant. The neighbour who lives on the same floor as I do suddenly started making his wife wear a hijab. She always used to wear the latest fashions. He would always greet me with a smile. Now he's grown a beard and if I meet him in the lift, he'll lower his head without saying hello. If we're alone, he won't get in the lift with me. He thinks it's forbidden.
Your house is in Hamra, a district that was always a melting pot and often described as an exemplary milieu, otherwise rare in the Arab world. What does the area mean to you?
Sobh: I've lived my best days in Hamra. Even during the civil war, it was vibrant and unique. Cinemas, theatres, cafes, boutiques, wonderful scents in the air. Now, Hamra Street has lost its civilised, cultural and commercial role. The high-end restaurants and cafes are now closed. Most of them have turned into cafes for smoking waterpipes and the smoke wafts along the road. The rubbish piles up, there are beggars everywhere, most of them displaced children. What can I say? Hamra Street always was Beirut's mirror and its identity.
But nevertheless, every day you still sit at the same table at the "Crepaway" cafe and write…
Sobh: I’ve written in cafes all my life. I used to go to a popular place right on the seafront, with old wooden tables and a garden with plants and flowers. But when it was closed during the war, I decided on one of the high-end cafes. Whenever my cafe shut down, I'd move to another one. Once upon a time, all the cafes had a European, primarily French character. None of them have survived. So I go to "Crepaway", which is quiet and clean.
What does your average day look like?
Sobh: I'm struggling to concentrate on writing. I always write in the mornings. I was always accustomed to think about nothing other than the world of the novel I'm currently writing. But now I'm unsettled and struggling to secure supplies of water, gas and my medication. I no longer have enough money to pay the housemaid. This is the first time in my life that I'm involved in everything. I have to find a supermarket with cheap prices. But the outrageous prices are going up every day – at some point will I no longer be able to buy the things I need? I lost my money through the bank, how am I supposed to carry on?
How do you support yourself?
Sobh: It's difficult for me to manage some things. I have even started cutting back on food because I can't go without some of my medicines. I can't describe to you how difficult my life is and I'm not used to it. My life was just writing. Today I don't know how I'm supposed to manage.
Is your own money frozen in a bank account?
Sobh: Of course. The bank stole my money, just as it has stolen everyone else's.. This corrupt regime has stolen Lebanon’s entire wealth, even its natural resources. Now I can only withdraw one thousand dollars a month and the rest is paid out in Lebanese currency at a rate of 8,000 Lebanese pounds per dollar – whereas on the black market the dollar has already reached rates of up to 33,000 Lebanese pounds. What I get isn't enough to pay for the neighbourhood generator that supplies electricity. So now I have no electricity and read at night by candlelight. What kind of life is that and how am I supposed to carry on?
"Our nation is plagued by undefined psychoses"
In your most recent novel "To Love Life", you write about the failure of the Arab Spring and how religious bigotry and patriarchal structures are impacting people's health. Is disease a metaphor for the state of the entire Arab world?
Sobh: What happened was that I contracted a rare neurological illness after the Arab Spring, with cramps and terrible pain. At the time, I was watching all the violence and the destruction of Arab cities on television. I had to take sedatives, which blurred my memory for years. I carried on trying to write every day, but I couldn't. I couldn't separate my own imploding body from the ruined Arab cities. My feeling is that because of the dictatorships and the Islamist, extremist or terrorist forces, no one in this region was spared some sort of psychological or physical illness. In my novel, the heroine Basma says: "We're all sick. Our nation is plagued by undefined psychoses".
In your novel, the primary battlefield is the female body. What relationship do women have with their bodies?
Sobh: It is influenced by Islamic religion, religious institutions and social traditions: this is where the problem lies. Culture, institutions and laws in this patriarchal-Islamist society are perpetuating women's fear of their femininity and their bodies. There is violence against women on all levels. In my novel too, the girls are raised to curse their femininity. But Basma fights, she confronts her family with it, her milieu and all ideologies and becomes a free ballerina, her role model is the German dancer Pina Bausch. And when her husband, who was a painter, handsome and liberal, joins Hezbollah and asks her to put on a veil and stop dancing, she leaves him.
Your novels always provided rare insights into kitchens and bedrooms, realms that are normally out of bounds. Your protagonists talk about their devoted, insensitive or stubborn husbands; about their terrible sex lives; about their fear of losing their children; but also about romantic feelings towards other men. How was your most recent book received?
Sobh: Many readers thought I was expressing my own feelings. But the clergy and religious fanatics, Sunnis or Shias and the Hezbollah all attacked me and many mosques denounced my story, as well as a Shia sharia court. I'm ashamed to say that I received threats for the first time. I haven't spoken openly about that up to now, because I don’t want that to be the reason why readers' attention is drawn to my work. What happens, happens. Writing is my life.
Are you afraid?
Sobh: As far as my private life or my writing is concerned, I'm not afraid of anything. Those who read my work will see how brave I am. I'm not even afraid of those who have recently threatened me. What I'm really afraid of is the outbreak of a new civil war in Lebanon. I'm really worried about the Christians who have stayed in Lebanon, after many of them emigrated to the West and they became a minority here. Thousands more left after the Beirut port explosion. That’s why I'm concerned about the religious equilibrium in this country, because Lebanon's civilizational distinction is largely due to this balance and the presence of Christians.
That's something you hear often, but behind closed doors. Few people dare to say it openly
Sobh: The population of Lebanon today is just four million people, whereas more than 17 million Lebanese live abroad in the diaspora. It's also estimated that there are more than one-and-half million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It could very well be more than that. Half a million Palestinians live here too. If these refugees had been naturalised, Lebanon would have become an Islamic nation grouped with those of the Arab world and it would have lost its unmistakable flavour, its identity and its civilization. I'm not divulging any secrets when I say that the roots of this civilization lie in the presence of Christians in Lebanon.
Also, I'm worried about the children in Lebanon, who are without food, water, milk, medication, vaccines, hospitals and schools. I'm afraid for the disappointed girls and young men, for a whole society that has forgone all the possibilities of life. That's making me sick. This corrupt, murderous political military elite has destroyed everything. But I'm most afraid of the Iranian occupation of Lebanon and the threat of severe famine. Then, the nation will take its final breath.
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2023
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
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