Interview with Iman Humaydan Younes

Sectarianism as a Dead End for Lebanon

The books of Iman Humaydan Younes, with their poetic language rich in images and their sensitive insight into the interior lives of her protagonists, have led to acclaim for her work world-wide. Ariana Mirza spoke to the Lebanese writer about war, art and society

photo: Ariana Mirza
Iman Humaydan Younes: "Sectarianism has hampered our development."

​​ Ms Humaydan Younes, you've experienced war and written about it. You left your country for a time and emigration is one of the key subjects of your civil war novel "B for Beirut." You also come from a family which lived on the land only two generations ago and bred silk-worms, which is the starting point for your second novel "Wild Mulberries." How much fiction, how much autobiography is there in your novels?

Iman Humaydan Younes: My novels are fiction. In "Wild Mulberries" there is some information which my father gave me, but it is not an autobiographical novel. The protagonist Sara is a fictional person. However there is an episode from my family history which inspired me. The second wife of my grandfather ran away from him. She escaped from the violence and power-hunger of this patriarch, but her later history is unknown. I was happy for the woman when I heard her story; as I say, it inspired me.

An enormous amount of literature was produced during the Lebanese civil war. People wrote in an entirely different way, using stylistic methods which were new to Lebanese literature. There were aspects of surrealism, absurd elements. You could also find extreme irony. And Lebanese women also increasingly were found on the literary stage. What's your explanation? Your first book was also published just after the end of the Civil War in 1991.

Humaydan Younes: The war opened up the literary tradition. The modern Lebanese novel is a product of the war.

What's your opinion of that development?

Civil war in Lebanon (photo: AP)
Armed conflict as an agent of change: "The war destroyed the social norms," says Humaydan Younes. "And that has allowed something new to emerge."

​​Humaydan Younes: A war is never, truly never positive. That's what I'd like to make especially clear to start with. But if I try to find a single positive aspect, it's this: war has opened up the tradition, including the traditions of society, which had until then been very strong, with very rigid ways in which men took account of women. Since then, a woman is not just a mother and a wife. Since then, she's also a separate being, one who has to be seen as independent.

The war has not only destroyed the security system of the people, it has also destroyed the social norms. And that has allowed something new to emerge. Writers and artists speak up, and they are listened to. There's a wide variety of voices which claim attention. The war has opened up these strong, official, mainstream voices and pushed them to one side.

How does that show itself?

Humaydan Younes: For example, there are now novels and stories which take place on the edges of the country. There wasn't any of that before; all the cultural production was concentrated on the cities. Before the war, there was no other perspective, no other focus. Now people are telling the stories of the unknown Lebanon, the underground, if you like.

image: publisher
Multi-vocal, almost cinematic account of the Civil War and its effect on ordinary lives: Iman Humaydan Younes's B as in Beirut

​​Is that an atmosphere in which girls and young women can grow up more freely than before?

Humaydan Younes: Yes, yes, indeed. In Lebanon, everything is at the edge, except the centre, and that's Beirut. And since the modern independence of the state in 1943, many Lebanese families have moved from rural areas to Beirut. These families suffered a culture shock as a result of urban life. Their children have got over this shock, they've turned into city-folks. And this generation is now re-writing its families' history.

Is there a hope that this generation and the artists and intellectuals you've been talking about will positively influence the way the country is going? Or is this just a private, or at the most a cultural matter?

Humaydan Younes: Unfortunately, this is what has happened: since the war, people in Lebanon don't feel as if they belong any more. That's why they withdraw into religion or into their religious or ethnic community, and they don't see themselves any more as citizens of the country.

But there's also communication beyond the religious limits and, as you call it, the community borders?

Humaydan Younes: Yes, yes, there is. These people really do take a risk. They don't just remove their own masks. They also look closely at things, illuminate the dark corners. They tell people: look here, this is what our society looks like. Look more closely, this is what is happening in Lebanon. See where our sectarianism has brought us. See how this sectarianism has hampered our development.

Hezbollah rally in Beirut, Lebanon (photo: AP)
'Why Is This Woman Smiling?' - Sectarianism is one of the major problems facing Lebanese national unity, explains Younes

​​Do the people involved in culture concern themselves with these questions more than the politicians do?

Humaydan Younes: Exactly. It was officially taboo to talk about the reasons for the war. No-one wanted to shed light on them. But it's breaking through the surface, and that's because of art and literature.

How do you see Lebanon's future? In what direction will society develop? In the West people regard the developments with considerable interest and some latent fear.

Humaydan Younes: Do you mean the fears that Muslim groups will cause unrest, or that a new civil war will break out? I can assure you of one thing: even the most radical groups in Lebanon know they can't win a civil war. Even the groups which think they are the strongest don't make the mistake of believing that they could win a civil war.

I think every Lebanese has learnt that civil war is the worst possible solution for a country. So the groups try to find a non-violent solution. And sometimes, when I listen to the radio or watch the television, then I get the impression that the various communities fight their virtual war in the media because they don't want to fight it in the streets. The most terrible insults and accusations are standard fare, but, apart from a few exceptions, whenever the hate which has been sown in the media spills over on to the streets, it's an unwritten law that each group is careful not to let things go to extremes. That's the lesson of 1975.

That brings me to my last question. What's your hope for the future?

Humaydan Younes: Well, I hope that this new generation realises that we can't go on as we are, that we can't continue to define ourselves by the religious or ethnic community we belong to. We must really, with real commitment, try to work towards a state, a real state – which so far has never existed – a state in which we all see ourselves as citizens and not as sectarians – not as members of a sect, not as members of a community, but as Lebanese.

Interview: Ariana Mirza

© 2010

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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