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Friday, December 12, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

This is a book of quiet feminism.  It is also an allegory about how notions of beauty and civilization can endure in a world that periodically descends into barbarism and how women can persevere in a society that never ceases to devalue them in both war and peace.

The Beirut of Aaliya, the protagonist in this tale, is a city caught between the notion of a progressive and cosmopolitan European city and the persistent traditional Muslim notions of what women's roles should be. At an early age, Aaliya is married off to an older man. He's stupid and impotent and unworthy of her. After he mercifully divorces her, Aaliya is left with their spacious apartment, much to the chagrin of her own family, who thinks she should hand it over to one of her brothers, all of whom bullied her throughout her childhood. She refuses, never answering the door when they come knocking, and her family hates her for it.  So she is alone in the world, sleeping with an AK-47 and comforted by her books.

Aaliya is smart and literary. The book is interspersed with the tragedies that Lebanon has endured over the last 40 years with Aaliya's reading and translating into Arabic a wide variety of classics.  She spends much of the book dialoguing with the lives and works of great writers as she simultaneously recounting the events of her life, from girlhood to sunset years.  Aaliya's taste in literature is so wonderfully varied that the book never loses momentum, even though Aaliya herself is the most passive of protagonists.

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