Emily Nasrallah was born into a Christian family in southern Lebanon in 1931 and is one of the most well-known Lebanese authors and intellectuals in the Middle East. Her highly acclaimed works include novels, essays and collections for adults, as well as seven children’s books. At the age of 21, she was the first young woman to turn her back on the village community of her birthplace Kfeir in order to study Education at the American University in Beirut. In the capital, she initially worked as a teacher, then as a journalist and freelance author. In 1962, she made her debut with the novel ‘Touyour Ayloul’ (Engl: Birds of September), which was immediately awarded three Arabic literature prizes and unleashed enthusiastic reviews in her home country. This sensitive first book deals with the inhabitants of a small village and the dreams of Arab women, whose lives revolve solely around the choice between total repression and liberation. By doing so, the author created a literary work that – for all its critique of Lebanese society – retains full sympathy for her home country.
Nasrallah’s texts centre on the lifestyles of women who are striving for equality and freedom to develop their own personalities and who are torn between the narrow confines of family life and rural community on the one hand and urban freedom on the other. She creates female figures who persevere in their fight for survival amidst the fateful constraints operating in a society where religion and kin are all-determining influences. Not infrequently do her characters settle for “passive persistence”. Yet, in cases where they do break away, they usually fail to find any new sense of belonging. In this vein, ‘Ar-Rahîna’ (1974; Engl: The Bondaged) uses artistic-metaphorical language to tell the story of Ranja, who as a young woman finds out that her parents pledged her from birth to the powerful landowner Nimrod – and who does not succeed in disentangling herself from her fate.
The opposition between city and countryside became less important for the protagonists of her novels when in 1975 Lebanon descended into a bloody civil war that was to last fifteen years. From this point onwards she presents a Lebanon that took on the character previously symptomatic of the village: the place one cannot leave without being punished. Her novels and stories from this time are the cries for help of an imploding society. In her award-winning children’s book ‘Yawmiyyat Hirr’ (1997; Engl: A Cat’s Diary), the author depicts the horrors of war from the perspective of a Siamese cat and his friend, the girl Muna, in all its startling everydayness in contested Beirut. The distanced viewpoint of the cat is never downplayed, allowing the events to appear even more baffling. Although Muna and her family leave the city, the author herself refused to go into exile – despite the total destruction of her belongings in three bombings. Nasrallah – together with a group of writers known as the ‘Beirut Decentrists’ – remained in Beirut. The mother of four children, she still lives there today.
© international literature festival berlin