Beirut Noir, edited by Iman Humaydan, is the newest anthology in Akashic Books’ popular noir series. Up to 75 cities have been featured, from Brooklyn to Havana, and Beirut is certainly a city that can hold its own – and with good reason – in sustaining an atmosphere of brooding. Each story takes place in a different part of the city – Ras Beirut, the Corniche, Bliss Street – so that Beirut is mapped through its noir narratives. Flip to the table of contents and see each title mapped according to its neighbourhood in Beirut.
While the narrative mapping of Beirut suggests an exploration of the diversity of the urban landscape, the stories foreground the interiority of the characters to such an extent that the division of neighborhoods seems inessential. If their interior landscapes were the focus, then why structure the collection along the lines of a diversity of the urban landscape? If characters remain detached from reality and narrators remain absorbed in their own tragedies with little indication, then why should the reader remain attached, invested?
Yet, the rest of the collection is truer to the genre, allowing the characters’ tragedies to be wrought through the city’s dark and uncertain disposition. There’s no shortage in the variety of tragedies in a city’s continuum from civil war through a post-war period that reveals it is still in its warlike grip.
Written in English, Rawi Hage’s “Bird Nation” renders the city’s tragedies through an absurdist lens that is more fantastical than noir-ish, but it captures the collective consumerism, corruption and violence of the city more than any other story. Perhaps this is because Beirut’s collective dwellers are the story’s central character. And, the mutations (of Beirutis into winged creatures) and dislocations (from the residents on land exiled to sky) illustrate the struggle between the cityscape and its residents in a “peaceful” period as volatile as wartime: ″And as the people started to move along, above, and away, a politician and his bodyguard were seen lifting their rifles and pointing them at the sky.”
In her introduction to the anthology, Humaydan asserts “all of the stories are somehow framed by the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from approximately 1974 until 1990.” The afterlives of Lebanon’s civil war – in its lingering warlords, aging snipers, battle-scarred urbanscape – are as much a part of the narrative as Beirut’s influence on the characters.
In Abbas Beydoun’s “The Death of Adil Uliyyan”, the war is over, but its most brutal agents linger – as powerful and threatening as ever. Sequestered in his villa, the ailing former sniper Uliyyan chooses an old comrade to deliver his last confession. His comrade is reluctant to relive the logic of war whose memory Uliyyan insists on reviving: “As soon as killing starts, as soon as human life becomes cheap, then everything is allowed.” Beydoun’s tone maintains the sharp terseness of classic noir. And, while Beydoun does not feature classic noir stock characters – femme fatales, good detectives, crime bosses – we get a glimpse of the war through the prism of its criminals (snipers, warlords) and its moral investigators (the old comrade who sees through Uliyyan’s brutal reasoning of his crimes).
The collection is certainly uneven in its experiments with noir. Vancouver-based The Amazin’ Sardine tries too hard to come off as entirely immersed in the hedonism of Beiruti nightlife. “Monot Street, baby boys. It’s three letters away from monotony, that part is true. But yalla, drunk as I was, I did not feel any difference,” writes the narrator Dirty Teeth. He narrates his escapades in Arabic slang and English, suggesting fluency, know-how and assuredness. But ultimately he remains inured and disinterested, rendering little depth and pay-off for the reader.
The stories’ individual approaches to noir are as diverse as the Beirut landscape, its residents and exiles. Three of the 15 selections are written in English; the rest are expertly translated from the Arabic and French by Michelle Hartman. For those interested in noir set in the Middle East, Akashic has released anthologies set in Tehran and Tel Aviv. Forthcoming titles from the series include Baghdad Noir and Jerusalem Noir – whose historic sites should provide fascinating explorations of characters’ psychogeographic struggle with the cities’ divided spaces.