How a Saudi Woman Wrote One of the Great Memoirs of the Lebanese Civil War

Photo of Arie Amaya-Akkermans
27 December 2016

Fadia Basrawi’s memoir Brownies and Kalashnikovs: A Saudi Woman’s Memoir of American Arabia and Wartime Beirut offers a unique perspective on the Lebanese Civil War, and life in wartime Beirut: that of a Saudi woman who grew up in a gated America community in Dhahran. This outsider perspective makes for an insightful and often profound meditation on Lebanon’s history and Arab politics, as Arie Amaya-Akkermans discovers.

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In his book The Human Province, Elias Canetti notes how ‘It is only in exile, that one realizes to what an important degree the world has always been a world of exiles’; it is but with this predicament in mind that one objects to the whole genre of war writing, and raises the question of whether exile, displacement and war had not been there already to begin with. Are not wars and exiles more constants than exceptions? An answer isn’t easy to come by.

The lives of writers themselves however, for whom the home is easily lost – regardless of the spurious claims for citizenship in a so-called republic of letters – and who have to flee this or that country are a reminder of the cruel state of affairs described by Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others: ‘This is what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.’

But as Canetti is careful to note, this realization happens only in exile. Though it is not impossible to find oneself at home in exile – and for some, exile becomes not only a permanent home, but the preferred home, showing how being at home has become a rather vague illusion for the millions of denizens – rather than citizens – of a world made at once bigger and smaller: Infinitely less familiar and more pregnant with possibilities.

In the Middle East, exile and displacement – and not necessarily voluntary in most of the cases – is nothing of a literary metaphor or novelty in most of the cases. What is this home, though, to which so many yearn to return to? Was that home so sweet after all? Was it not the scenario of violence and pain? Was it not a tunnel without light at the end? What is the meaning of regret – over what is left behind – when you had no choice?

Fadia Basrawi’s memoir Brownies and Kalashnikovs: A Saudi Woman’s Memoir of American Arabia and Wartime Beirut (2009) is one of those question marks that ask the reader to enter the perilous zone of liberating oneself from the convention of reading memoirs intensely trapped in a by-gone past, and paradoxically just as intensely focused on the future. A tale of love and darkness that reveals more about its unusual characters than about its usual subjects.

The author, a Saudi woman raised up in a gated American community inside Aramco’s Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, from one of the first Arab families allowed to live in the compound, recounts with vividness – and sometimes emotion – a journey of five decades between Dhahran, Beirut, Abu Dhabi and Vienna but specially Beirut. Written over the course of seven years and published in the late 2000’s it is specially revealing in its precocity.

Even for the most experienced observers of the Middle East of uprisings and revolutions, it is nothing short of uncanny to read into the thoughts of a Hejazi woman back in the 50’s and 60’s, seeing reflected in them battles that are still our own and that also portray the deep ambivalence of the educated classes towards the relationship of the region to the Western world: ‘Our father wanted us educated but unaltered, an impossible task’.

Her book is illuminating about the history of Saudi Arabia in early days of the 20th century and the intricate connections between the discovery of oil, the hegemony of the United States and the rule of Al-Saud for which she does not spare her sharp assessments: ‘Until today, the oil wealth has yet to reach other than those in Saudi Arabia’s ruling circle and their entourage and the United States’ ruling circle and their entourage.’

She speaks without reserve: ‘We, the modern inhabitants of this part of the Arabian Peninsula, are born subjects of the Al Sauds whether we belong to the Al Saud tribe or not, or, more importantly, whether we care to be subjects or not. Our ‘independent nation state’ is a theocracy with no constitution except the words of the Quran, no separation of powers, no press outside the official line, no elected parliament, no judicial independence, no separate identity for women, no recognition of residing non-Sunni sects like Shi’is and Ismailis.’

The early history of Aramco and how deals were brokered between the Americans and the Saudi royalty in detriment of the natives, surfaces clearly with richness of details usually unavailable to historians, mentioning the expertise on beatings of the Saudis since time immemorial coupled with the proverbial indifference of the corporate establishment towards a region rich not only in oil but in illiteracy and backwardness.

As a student at the American University of Beirut – a true luxury for women of her generation, she offers an onlooker’s glimpse into pre-war Lebanon that usually escapes the Lebanese, badly embittered by the ongoing conflict: ‘My first taste of cappuccino will remain forever entwined in my memory with my first taste of freedom in Beirut at its finest hour […] The Beirut I was seeing that day in 1965 was the Beirut my generation will always hold in our nostalgic hearts.’

In Lebanon, Fadia became acquainted with her future husband, Adnan Hayyat, a journalist for the newspaper An Nahar and with whom she would marry in secret from her own family; what would tie her fate to that of the Lebanese and would estrange her ever since from Saudi Arabia. She reflects on the beginning – and permanence – of exile in her book: ‘I knew I would never belong in Lebanese society; did that matter to me when I had never fitted into the American or the Saudi Arab one?’

This brings to mind the words of Amin Maalouf, who was an editor at the selfsame An Nahar when the war broke out and sent him into exile in France: ‘Isn’t it a characteristic of our time to have turned all human beings, somehow, into immigrants and minorities? We are all forced to live in a world that resembles so little the hearth we are coming from. Before we are immigrants, we are migrants; before arriving to a new country, we have had to abandon another, and the feelings of a person towards the land that he abandoned are never simple.’

She recalls the words of her husband at the onset of the Civil War: ‘Unless we agree to carry arms, we do not belong here. Rivers of blood are going to gush across this country, and soon’ and from there begins a passionate and at times irreverent storytelling about the fate of Lebanon during the worst years of the war, living in and out, between Beirut, Abu Dhabi – whose early beginnings are beautifully chronicled in the book – and Vienna.

Memoirs of the civil war – particularly written by women – are not rare, and passionate accounts have found their way into books such as Lina Tabbara’s Surviving the Siege of Beirut: A Personal Account (1983), Jean Makdisi’s Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir (1990) and Soha Beshara’s Resistance: My Life for Lebanon (2003); so extensive is the corpus of this kind of chronicling that Miriam Cooke’s book War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (1996) is entirely devoted to it.

There are many aspects however that distinguish Basrawi’s writing: The fact that she was not an active participant in the ideological and political conflicts and also that she experienced a great part of the war in Lebanon rather than exile, added to the fact that her chronicling does not end with the Civil War but stretches all the way to the summer of 2006 when the July War between Hezbollah and Israel ends.

Halldor Laxness instructs in one of his novels that ‘The closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction.’ Had the history been told through the eyes of a Christian, for example, the events and victims would have been portrayed differently. It is for example slightly awkward that although the recollection of events in recent Lebanese history is very detailed, there is not one single mention of the Cedar Revolution.

The book however does not claim to be a history of Lebanon and in spite of the gloom that it recounts throughout decades, it is still bent on putting an emphasis on the celebration of life, on resilience, resistance and on the future; what does not prevent it from having moments that overwrite the subjective into meditations, whispers and profound reflections: ‘The beauty of life is particularly striking in times of war.’

In a Podcast released by Middle East Youth in 2013, the author responds to Rola Hayyat’s questions about her fascinating book: ‘How would you describe the whole process of writing your memoir and did it in some way force you to face some uncomfortable memories and maybe turn a new page? Was it a cathartic experience in the end?’

FB: ‘I wouldn’t say cathartic but it was rather painful because I did force myself to look into matters that I had glossed over, because there was just so much going on, and there were so many things that my children didn’t know about because I felt they had enough to deal with grey days of war going on around them.’

She also expresses the degree to which the book relates to current Saudi politics: ‘It’s pure politics, actually, my book.’ What truly highlights Eduard Said’s insight that literature is of the highest relevance when attempting to understand Imperialism and Totalitarianism. Basrawi sends also a message of encouragement to all Arab and Saudi women, and is straightforward when asked about the Arab revolutions: ‘It’s the only way to go’.

The book is illuminating in so many ways that it is impossible to entirely agree or disagree with it; many Lebanese would find themselves puzzled at some of the revelations and insights offered by the book, and probably some Saudis would too. What remains true is that her voice is very much worth listening to at a time when the old ghosts of sectarianism and violence begin to haunt the Lebanese again with the Syrian revolution next door – one of the most sensitive topics in Lebanese politics, recalling one Biblical verse that the author chose for the title of one of the memoir’s chapters: ‘Weep for your allies in Lebanon. Shout for them in Bashan. Search for them in the regions east of the river. See, they are all destroyed. Not one is left to help you.’

Lebanon scholar Sune Haugbolle put it succinctly in a lecture discussing memoirs and public testimonies of the Lebanese Civil War: ‘No one is in possession of the absolute truth of the war… In such a public sphere, one might have to stop insisting on the truth and instead listen, very carefully, to the conversation.’

By Arie Amaya-Akkermans

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