32 by Sahar Mandour: Book Review

32 by Sahar Mandour. Translated from the Arabic by Nicole Fares. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii, 140. ISBN: 9780815610694 (paperback).

This book is the first English edition of Mandour’s book titled 32, which was originally published in Arabic in 2010. Sahar Mandour is a novelist and journalist who was born in Beirut; so far she has published four novels in Arabic. 32 was translated from Arabic into English by Nicole Fares, who is a translator from Lebanon and earned her M.F.A. in literary translation from the University of Arkansas. She is currently teaching creative writing and world literature at the same university while pursuing her Ph.D. in comparative literature and cultural studies.

This novel is a work of modern fiction in contemporary Lebanese literature. Mandour critically gives meaning to the life of women in Lebanon, or women immigrants in Lebanon, as she writes about the positive and negative aspects of their lives in her own simple yet sophisticated style. She touches on a few highly important topics in Lebanon and the Middle East in general, such as the social reality of female domestic workers in Lebanon, and religion, which is a sensitive topic in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries. Mandour wisely connects several issues of one nation to the living conditions in Beirut. She captures the accepted traditional society’s norms but also fantasizes about a society where domestic workers are welcomed or homosexuals live a full life—a life which no one except themselves has the power to affect, and in which nobody could control or insult them.

She delivers long conversations that shift from the narrator to her group of friends or to herself, and at one point reveals to her friends in the story that she is preparing a novel or story from her daily life, including her friends and their characteristics. She amazingly plays with the context of these friendly and typical conversations all through the book and succeeds in bringing up more complex issues, such as gender structure in the workforce, especially after the Civil War, when she claims it had an important role in defining Lebanese identities and shaped so many adolescents’ and adults’ lives, including hers. She also skillfully shows how the politics governing a nation could affect people’s social lives. In doing so, she shares the narrator’s neighbor’s life experience and how an unexpected moment in her life changed her destiny and pushed her to the edge and put an end to her life out of desperation. In this context, Mandour writes about “a life in Beirut, a life of darkness and headaches, for those wanting to experience them both. There’s something in Beirut that makes the ending obvious from the beginning.”

By the end of her novel, the narrator knows how she is going to present her book, as she shares her feelings with her group of friends. She likens herself to a house with two television sets in two different rooms. Her life then, she says, would be similar to different television channels. One has to get the right channel and aim the remote control at the right television to get the life she wished for. Writing this novel, she affirms, she has developed new emotions that she could truly feel. As these new emotions sneak into her inner world and invite her to take control, she has learned not to escape from them and their mixed sensations. She describes her transition from age to age and from one life to another. It is quite possible that sometimes in transition, things of the past remain while others of the present begin to fade. The important thing is to fully live and convince herself that she has completed her task.

Toward the end of the novel, the translator adds that the narrator comes to a realization that what all people should do is take their lives one day at a time and write their story one page at a time, hoping that it may help them understand themselves, others, and their surroundings better.

This book is a well-written book with a professional translation. The conversations convey the narrator’s and others’ characters in the book in order to portray the life of women in Beirut. This is an appropriate source for any library with a literary collection, as well as any collection focused on gender, international, and Middle East studies and its literature.

Shahrzad Khosrowpour
Chapman University