Jessica Sarhan
Last updated: 5 December, 2011

Book review: Beirut 39 – New Writing from the Arab World

“We experience the aches and pains of imprisoned freedom like birds in a cage; stifling societies, sexual frustration, corrupt regimes, poverty and illiteracy. And mapping the soil in which the seeds of fanaticism flourish, good women are driven to madness by injustice and oppression.”                          

– Hanan al-Shaykh on Beirut 39

I recently finished reading Beirut 39, a collection of short stories and poetry by various young Arab writers. The collection, that aims to unite poets and novelists from the Middle East and North Africa, is a fascinating insight into how the region’s younger generation is defying established literary tradition and creating a genre of their own – one that refuses to be obstructed by rules of censorship or cultural expectations. It has also allowed young Arab writers to move away from the regional confines that have categorized them for so long, no longer being branded as specifically Syrian, Saudi or Moroccan, they are determined to create a united voice that transcends geographical boundaries. “What brings together most young Arab writers,” explains Lebanese poet Abdo Wazen, “is their tone of protest, and their rebellion against traditional literary culture.”

The female writers in Beirut 39 have certainly gone against what is expected, exploring ideas that have historically remained off-limits. I adored Dima Wannous’ story of Hanan, a young married woman who indulges in countless affairs without shame or remorse. Wannous’ ornate and sensual descriptions defy common practice of female Arab writers as she explores topics of sexuality on the backdrop of a traditional Syrian society. What makes the narrative so powerful is that the description of Hanan is not judgmental or critical but an elaborate and open observation of a woman who freely explores her sexuality.

The extract included from Rosa Yassin Hassan’s novel, Guardians of the Air, was also gripping. Here, Syrian born Hassan, tells the tale of a political prisoner who is brutally tortured by the stringent Syrian regime. She explores complex ideas of love in a setting of imprisonment, political oppression and cultural practice. The novel was initially published in 2009; however, its exploration into the many young Arab men who have become victims of violent and harsh regimes undoubtedly resonates with current events taking place in the Middle East.  

Female Arab writers have long gone unrecognized but this collection has given them a distinguished platform from which they may communicate their ideas about the world they live in. These stories show female writers as self-determined and forward thinking. We are no longer listening to what is expected, but are being invited to hear the new and untold stories of today’s Middle Eastern women.