“First I was afraid, I was petrified..”
There’s something sickeningly, childishly disturbing as Darina Al-Joundi mouths Gloria Gaynor’s classic ode to heartbreak and letting go while not even two feet away, her friend puts a bullet through his head. With brain splattered in her hair, and the screams of another friend in the background, she continues to mouth the lyrics, pausing only for a moment to take the dose of cocaine out of his hand. “The hit is more important than death.” she echoes, parroting what the now-dead man had muttered only moments earlier, a reaction that seems so incoherently numb, until you realize that between the shells, the bodies, and the background of the Israeli-Lebanon war, that this senseless death just makes sense.
But to get to this point, one has to start at the beginning, a scene which involves the author locking herself in a bathroom while blasting Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” and “Save Me” so loud that the prayers of her Muslim neighbors cannot be heard. She resents them for showing up at her father’s funeral, for bringing their religion, one that has never corresponded with the secular upbringing she has come to know so intimately. “Make sure to play Nina Simone at my funeral, do not dare let others speak the Koran,” he has said to her over and over. As the music blares and the fists of the neighborhood men become more obvious as they pound on the door, Al-Joundi wonders, Who will protect me from these monsters? What does she do with the knowledge so embedded into her blood, the teachings of a father that have entrenched the same warning over and over. “Watch out my girl, all the men in this country are monstrous to women.” The soon-to-be consequences of this warning fade, and it is then that Al-Joundi begins to tell us of her parents, her childhood, and how all normalcy just came tumbling down.
It begins in secular Beruit with a family that is dominated by her well-known Shiite Lebanese radio broadcaster mother and even more influenced by her secular Syrian father, who is not only a teacher and journalist, but a political refugee. Al-Joundi’s childhood is like that of many, with the exception that her father raises her sister and her to be “liberated women,” as you can begin to feel the inklings of cultural change leaking in. Al-Joundi lavishes in his attention and finds her father to be the greatest force for defying that around her, confiding in him that which most grown women can barely speak of in the presence of their fathers. From getting his young daughter drunk, to explaining to her that he would rather her fuck every man in Beruit, rather than marry, he begins an education that will both serve as the backdrop for Al-Joundi’s unconventional life, one that will take her everywhere from marriage, to rape, abuse, and defying the face of death. It is perhaps this template for behavior that, while Al-Joundi admits first hand is both simultaneously “liberating” and “destructive,” is that which carries her through the next few years of living in a full-on war zone, where she witnesses first hand not just the destruction of her beautiful Lebanon, but the destruction of so many around her.
Her father’s insistence on her liberation becomes more education than lifestyle as the war slowly begins to creep in like a disease. “Let’s smoke cigarettes,” he says, as shells literally blow through their living room. “Let’s talk about fucking,” he exclaims, as bullets whip past them on the streets and corpses become as common as live people. Along with her father’s lectures on sex and drinking comes the practical like dismantling a Kalashnikov, then putting it back together with her eyes closed. These bizarre acts become fits of normalcy in a place that has lost reason, and by the time Al-Joundi is fourteen and working with the local medics pulling bullets from civilians, you understand with a strange clarity when all she can say about the experience is: “My hands have never held so many bullets.”
But as with war, comes the coping – Al Joundi finds herself drinking an entire fifth of liquor, wondering aloud what it might be like to have sex on actual sheets, as opposed to the places she is so used to as a matter of convenience. She is hungry for that which will distract her and make her feel alive, as it seems the constant threat of perhaps dying on the streets has become something of a joke. At the tipping point of her escalated behavior, its announced that there is a peace accord between Lebanon and Israel, something that does nothing but elevate her hunger. “Fear had fine-tuned me and all my gestures made sense only in relationship to that fear,” she says as she walks through the experiences that will show her what exactly the consequences are for being a liberated woman. From spousal abuse to abortion, to several marriages that seemed more like ways of coping with at least one other person, Al-Joudi wanders through these with a strange calmness, even detachment. It is only when she is dragged by her hair and beaten in front of a room full of peers who find it all too easy to ignore the actuality of what lays before their eyes, that the worse of her expectations comes sinking in. “Put her back in her place!” they scream. “Whore!” “You poor thing,” one of her assailants mocks. “Only men are free.”
I wish it were possible to say that this is the end, but what comes next is beyond what could have ever been expected, ending the last few pages with a whimper, rather than a bang. However, it is this whimper that presents the ultimate contradiction of what women can experience as liberated beings: if you want to get anywhere, you have to play the game. “I had understood our vulnerability as women: it’s fine to be a star, a doctor, a celebrity, but at the slightest mis-step, a woman becomes a woman again, a beast of burden who is tied up as men see fit”¦ I knew I would have to make compromises, and at the same time, I had to play their game.” If anything ever rang truer, it really is that you can’t hate the player, but you can hate the game.
Al-Joundi’s story is not an anomoly, though of course, there are many experiences that she has been through that we may not intimately know. It is easy to feel the frustration that emanates from Al-Joudi’s words when she expresses the tiredness she feels at constantly being put into one category or another: druggie, whore, madwoman, lesbian,etc. There is also an understanding of how even in the filth and shit of her hometown, even in its absolute worst, she can always see how it really is the most beautiful city in the world, even though she knows she will never be able to go “home” once she has erased herself from it. As you read with bated breath, counting down the very last words of her story, wondering what will happen – something has to happen – as she nods quietly and subserviently, waiting for the moment of escape. “I had died at the convent of the cross and stayed there. I was born the day I left it.” Your heart sinks for her, for everything that she has been through and knowing that even in the worst, she felt a deep love for that around her. To erase that is the only way to be reborn. So with the final sentence of the book, a quiet and emotionally distanced sentence, you realize that she has left behind what she loved so dearly. It’s only imagining what comes after that you begin to feel Al-Joundi’s spectacular voice come raging back again.