I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached, translated by Edward Gauvin
As in my post for Beirut’s preceding, award-winning companion title, A Game for Swallows, I find I need to start at book’s end. “I remember Georges Perec!” the final image announces. Initially seeming to be unrelated to the rest of the book, the unexpected homage to the experimental French writer actually reveals the book’s intention. Perec’s novels and essays included wordplay, lists, and other attempts at classification; Zeina Abirached’s latest spare volume is a collection of memories – each beginning with “I remember …” – that bound together, attempts to make sense of surviving a childhood in the midst of war. Using the same unique typeface introduced in Swallows – blunt, block capitals with a very distinct use of dots over the ‘i’ and inside the ‘o’ that are eerily representative of neverending gunshots – Abirached reminds us in nearly every panel that war (bullseyes, danger, destruction, death) is never far.
By the time Abirached was born in 1981, the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) was already six years into what would be 15 years of fighting.
“I remember one day my mother said … promise me you’ll always look out for each other.”
“I remember my mother’s navy blue Renault 12,” with a windshield that was replaced far too many times because it was riddled with bullets. When asked about the car’s color, Abirached’s younger brother answered, “Navy blue? Uh … with white dots?”
In spite of the imminent dangers, childhood happened: “I remember Giant Robot cartoons,” causing whining arguments over bedtime. “I remember tapes … and the sound they made when you shook them.” As Abirached danced to the latest videos, her father “got into the habit of cranking up the volume on his music” – Wagner, Berlioz – “… in order to drown out the chaos outside.”
“I remember all the places where we took refuge during the war” – ironically mapped out like an endless board game.
Living as ‘normal’ a life in the midst of war moves seamlessly from the horrific to the absurd and back again. With all her detailed memories, “I don’t remember the last day of the war,” Abirached reveals. She does, of course, remember what happens after, including how living a ‘normal’ life without war is also not without challenges. “I remember July 2006,” she writes from Paris, when war strikes Lebanon again where her family still lives. “I know what they went through in all the texts [her mother] didn’t send.”
As a childhood survivor, Abirached matures into an astute adult witness. Speaking the same language doesn’t mean shared understanding. Collecting shrapnel can make a boy very happy. And crossing the street can mean entering another world. So, too, opening Abirached’s books will transport you there, as well.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2008, 2014 (United States)