Beirut Brings a Fragmented Family Together in “The Arsonists’ City”

9 May, 2021


“Unti­tled” by Beirut native Huguette Caland.


The Arson­ists’ City
, a nov­el by Hala Alyan
Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, March 2021
ISBN 9780358126553

Rana Asfour

“Tonight the man will die … the city already seems resigned to it.” 

Nov­el­ist Hala Alyan kicks off The Arson­ists’ City with a pro­logue that unspools a decades-long multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­i­ly saga. The killing is an assas­si­na­tion in revenge for anoth­er com­mit­ted for no rea­son “oth­er than that peo­ple were hurt­ing peo­ple.” The year is 1978 and the cap­i­tal city of Lebanon, Beirut, is three years into the throes of a rag­ing civ­il war sparked by bat­tles between Pales­tin­ian and Chris­t­ian mili­tias and oth­er actors that will last anoth­er twelve years, claim­ing more than a hun­dred thou­sand lives. In response, Syr­i­an army per­son­nel have set up shop in the city. They will “over­stay their wel­come by about three decades” before final­ly with­draw­ing in 2005. Amongst all the destruc­tion and uncer­tain­ty, two peo­ple — ris­ing Syr­i­an the­atre actress Maz­na who har­bors dreams of Hol­ly­wood, and the flam­boy­ant wealthy Lebanese Idris — are falling in love. Threat­ened by the assas­si­na­tion and fear­ing Idris may be the next tar­get, the cou­ple mar­ries and set off to “Amri­ka” in pur­suit of the Amer­i­can Dream. 


The Arsonists' City-hala alyan-9780358126553 - 800p.jpg

Decades rum­ble by.  The year is 2018. Ava, a biol­o­gist mar­ried to Nate with whom they share two chil­dren, is Maz­na and Idris’s eldest daugh­ter. She receives a phone call from her moth­er fum­ing at Idris’s deci­sion to sell the fam­i­ly’s defunct ances­tral home in Beirut. She is demand­ing that her eldest “sen­si­ble” daugh­ter trav­el with them to Beirut in the sum­mer and con­vince Mimi, Ava’s younger broth­er, who lives in Austin, to join them. Togeth­er with their younger sis­ter Naj, in Beirut, they are to help Maz­na save “the last fam­i­ly house that belongs to us.” Despite final­ly suc­cumb­ing to her moth­er’s wish­es, Ava remains scep­ti­cal of her motives to res­cue the prop­er­ty; for one, Maz­na has­n’t set foot in Beirut for close to thir­ty years, and besides, the only names on the deed are those of Idris and his sis­ter Sarah, who nev­er left the city. 

By the time all the Nasr mem­bers reunite in Beirut, read­ers have a some­what clear­er mosa­ic of who they are as indi­vid­u­als, their rela­tion­ship with each oth­er and their lega­cy, as well as their feel­ings about return­ing to Beirut: eldest Ava who is jug­gling a shaky mar­riage as well as the demands of moth­er­hood, and whose career is caught up between feel­ings of inad­e­qua­cy and frus­tra­tion for not fit­ting in with her white Amer­i­can hus­band’s Hamp­ton friends, where she feels “out­side of life instead of in it” and guilt for being a “fake Arab” when it comes to her fam­i­ly’s her­itage; thir­ty-five-year-old, “almost rock star” Mimi, who man­ages a restau­rant in Austin where he lives with his girl­friend Harp­er and per­forms in an obscure rock band, “in which he is the old­est by a decade,” and has­n’t laid eyes on his grand­fa­ther’s house in twen­ty years. Nev­er­the­less, despite the pres­sures of con­tend­ing with his moth­er’s out­right con­de­scen­sion of Harper’s mid­dle class back­ground, his father’s dis­ap­proval of his mon­ey-drain­ing hope­less musi­cal pur­suits, and his resent­ment of his sis­ter Naj’s celebri­ty sta­tus, he dis­cov­ers that his child­hood sum­mers with his grand­fa­ther and “a city he knows only in heat” remain etched in his memory. 

The house is over a hun­dred years old, and the rooms are sun­ny and nar­row. The house isn’t just a house – it’s a House. After all of Beirut’s grub­by build­ings, Maz­na had­n’t expect­ed some­thing so hid­den, so pret­ty. This is like trav­el­ing back in time, the court­yard in front tiled, a canopy of branch­es over­head, the peaked roof.

It is Naj though, the famous pop singer fronting “qui­et but fero­cious nods to queer­ness” that feels most attached to the ances­tral home since relo­cat­ing to Beirut and the only one, besides Idris, to attend their grand­fa­ther’s offi­cial funer­al. Per­turbed at the fam­i­ly’s descent upon a city she has come to regard as keep­er of her secrets, deeply miss­ing her grand­fa­ther, and grap­pling with the painful mem­o­ries after a chance meet up with a for­mer girl­friend, she feels that the fam­i­ly’s vis­it could not have come at a worse time. 

Read­ers at this point are treat­ed to Maz­na and Idris’s back­sto­ry that will lift the lid on Maz­na’s deci­sion to put a dis­tance between her and a city she once adored. With that, the car­toon­ish car­i­ca­ture of a stereo­typ­i­cal elder Mid­dle East­ern cou­ple, por­trayed affec­tion­ate­ly bick­er­ing at the start of the nov­el, splin­ters at the seams, expos­ing a grit­ty tale of a mar­riage that has had to weath­er its fair share of adver­si­ty, pain and sac­ri­fice not only to assim­i­late and per­se­vere but also to thrive and flour­ish on for­eign soil. 

And so ulti­mate­ly it comes as no sur­prise that a few days into the fam­i­ly reunion, the frag­ile bonds between its mem­bers begin to unrav­el and all the old resent­ments, secrets and lies sim­mer­ing beneath the sur­face threat­en to implode, as the fam­i­ly quick­ly set­tles into a rou­tine that reminds the sib­lings uncom­fort­ably of their child­hood. That said, it becomes inter­est­ing to note that while the nov­el pro­gress­es along with shift­ing per­spec­tives and plot twists that con­tribute to the rich­ness of the sto­ry, bring­ing to the fore­front a tumul­tuous time in Lebanese his­to­ry, it is the famil­ial bonds, fraught as they are, that sus­tain the char­ac­ters and bring them back togeth­er again. 

Alyan’s deci­sion to anchor her sopho­more nov­el around an heir­loom is not a new one. Her debut nov­el Salt Hous­es, pub­lished in 2017 and win­ner of the Day­ton Lit­er­ary Peace Prize and the Arab Amer­i­can Book Award, fol­lows the sto­ry of four gen­er­a­tions of a fic­tion­al Pales­tin­ian mid­dle class fam­i­ly, the Yacoubs, in which Alyan mas­ter­ful­ly con­veys the sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty of objects, par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in dis­placed immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, as sym­bols for invalu­able sto­ries of fam­i­ly his­to­ry, mem­o­ries and places that no longer exist. 

All aside, it is the city of Beirut that vies for and takes cen­ter stage as a “city of mul­ti­ple rein­car­na­tions” mired in con­tra­dic­tions and para­dox­es.  Beirut is the mater­nal city wel­com­ing its prodi­gal chil­dren return­ing to its fold. It is as well a sanc­tu­ary for refugees flee­ing from a sev­enth year of civ­il war in neigh­bour­ing Syr­ia. It is the place where the absence of archi­tec­tur­al plan­ning has ren­dered the land­scape an amal­gam hodge­podge in which state of the art lux­u­ry apart­ments built with Gulf mon­ey crop up side by side with “scruffy neigh­bour­hoods with plain facades and crum­bling archi­tec­ture.” It is a city that boasts art gal­leries, film and music fes­ti­vals, gay bars, over­priced teashops, yoga stu­dios and Uber. A secure city where “friends don’t lock their apart­ments even if it isn’t always safe” due to car bombs, inva­sions, and roads blocked by week-long protests. 

With one foot in the East and anoth­er in the West, the author insists on por­tray­ing a city intent on push­ing back against its infa­mous rep­u­ta­tion as one where every­thing is fleet­ing, no one is there to stay, and no one is quite sure where they belong. In one inter­view Alyan described the city as “frag­ment­ed in the imag­i­na­tion: either exo­ti­fied or fret­ted over, a place con­densed into dev­as­tat­ing head­lines. But those who love that city (and coun­try) know it to be brim­ming with con­tra­dic­tions and capa­ble of hold­ing mul­ti­ple, at times painful real­i­ties and truths.” 


Novelist and poet Hala Alyan.

Nov­el­ist and poet Hala Alyan.

I shed my first tears for a city when as a young Jor­dan­ian I was about to leave Beirut after four years at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty of Beirut (AUB). In my mem­o­ry, Beirut nes­tles in a pre­cious com­part­ment, one from which I retrieve the images of my first rock con­cert, my ear­ly explo­rations into the lim­its of my inde­pen­dence and the first intake of breath when I opened my eyes to an expan­sive view of the Mediter­ranean from my bed­room win­dow. Beirut was also the place where for the first time I learned about nav­i­gat­ing through a city pep­pered with road­blocks and check­points run by an occu­py­ing army. I got my first taste of polit­i­cal unrest when my dorm build­ing shook and my win­dows shat­tered fol­low­ing an explo­sion that rocked the cam­pus, bring­ing down its land­mark Col­lege Hall ear­ly one dawn — my first awak­en­ing to the his­to­ry and pol­i­tics of an entire region I belong to.

Iron­i­cal­ly, The Arson­ists’ City ends in 2019, just a year shy of the tragedy that cat­a­pult­ed Beirut back into world­wide head­lines when on August 4, 2020, a stag­ger­ing 2,700 tons of ammo­ni­um nitrate stored at Beirut’s port explod­ed, caus­ing, by most esti­mates, at least 210 deaths, 7,500 injuries, and US$15 bil­lion in prop­er­ty dam­ages, bring­ing Beirut’s econ­o­my to a stand­still at its worst pos­si­ble time, when mas­sive infla­tion and Covid are the order of the day. 

As the nov­el crescen­dos to its dra­mat­ic vibrant finale, the author cov­ers swathes of de jour glob­al and region-spe­cif­ic issues regard­ing iden­ti­ty and lega­cy, immi­gra­tion, sex­u­al­i­ty, race, fem­i­nism, and colo­nial­ism. The result is a new under­stand­ing of fam­i­ly, home and belong­ing and an appre­ci­a­tion of humankind’s capac­i­ty for com­pas­sion, heal­ing and per­se­ver­ance. The Arson­ists’ City is a char­ac­ter-dri­ven nov­el, intri­cate­ly struc­tured and lay­ered with sug­ges­tions from the author’s own life as a six-year res­i­dent of Beirut, when she was a stu­dent at AUB; as an immi­grant who trav­elled with her par­ents from Kuwait to the US after Sad­dam Hus­sein’s inva­sion of the coun­try in 1990 cost them their home; and as a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, trained in the art of bring­ing togeth­er frag­ment­ed expe­ri­ences in order to cre­ate a cohe­sive pic­ture, ren­der­ing the nar­ra­tive at once famil­iar and universal. 

Hala Alyan is also a poet with four award-win­ning col­lec­tions to her name, most recent­ly  The Twen­ty-Ninth Year. Her poet­ry col­lec­tion Atri­um was award­ed the 2013 Arab Amer­i­can Book Award in Poet­ry, while her col­lec­tion Hijra was select­ed as a win­ner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poet­ry. There­fore, it comes as no sur­prise when the prose reads lyri­cal in places con­tribut­ing to the assump­tion that giv­en the length of The Arson­ists’ City at just under 450 pages, it is in fact one writer’s indul­gent, lan­guid ode to a city she car­ries much affec­tion for and a net­work of peo­ple that make a place far more than its archi­tec­ture and infra­struc­ture ever will. And in the few places where the nov­el­’s elec­tric charge may wob­ble or its struc­ture should­n’t work and yet does, that too seems in tan­dem with a place where noth­ing works as it should and yet peo­ple suc­cumb, lulled by the mag­ic and the promise. 

And then they return time and time again even when it all goes up in flames, because “Fuck it, it’s Beirut.” 

 

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Rana Asfour is a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She blogs at BookFabulous.com and is TMR's Book Editor, culling and assigning new titles for review. Rana also chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.