The Beiruti Hustle
Rabih Alameddine was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Open Book Award for An Unnecessary Woman, a portrait of one reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, and whose musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and her volatile past. The following is an excerpt from the novel.
Such a messy morning. I need to get out of the house, clear the ant farm out of my brain. I intend to breathe some city fumes. My nightgown, crinkly and wrinkled from dried perspiration, I discard on the impeccably made bed. Fresh talcum powder under my arms, clean underwear. I put on my gray dress, which has gone in and out of style a number of times while I wasn’t paying attention, and a blue cardigan. My time of bracelets, perfumes, and frivolous adornments has long since passed. I clasp my locks into a makeshift bun and cover my head with a scarf, making sure I show enough neck skin. I don’t want anyone to think I’m covering up for asinine religious reasons.
I lock the door and try to hurry down the steps…Past Marie-Therese’s apartment, I forget about the stone that has worked itself loose on the third step from the top. I land on it. The hollow thud it emits beneath my low heels reminds me to slow. I can relax for a bit.
The stairwell is no longer exposed and friendly. Fifteen years ago, in 1995, half-walls were constructed to protect the building from flying bullets that were no longer around. They look unattractive and unnatural. Part of the post-civil war renovation, they were supposed to serve their defensive purpose while maintaining the building’s older Beiruti character and keeping the common stairwell relatively open-aired. Like most things Lebanese, they arrived after the time when they were most needed had passed.
As soon as I leave the last step and try to cross the street, battered taxis begin to blow their high-pitched beeps, clumsily inquiring about my willingness to use them. The bleating cars comfort me. My pace is quicker than it should be.
No car will slow down for me to cross—none ever has, none ever will. I zip in between vehicles, dancing the Beiruti Hustle to the other side. What will happen when I’m too slow to do this? Will I someday lose the ability to get all the way across the street before the light changes?
Will I live long enough to see a fully functional traffic light in Beirut?
I pass what used to be Mr. Azari’s grocery, now a strange store selling unnecessary electrical widgets: old-fashioned irons, neon tubes, light fixtures that are supposed to look like candles, the stems dripping permanent plastic wax, vibrating filaments within tapered flame-shaped bulbs. The store stands next to a Starbucks filled with youngsters, future married couples, preening and chatting and flirting, all of them lounging in seemingly uncomfortable and unsustainable positions, all drinking lactescent swill. A street cleaner in a green jumpsuit picks up cigarette butts off the pavement. Across the street is another one. These street cleaners of Beirut, the Sisyphuses of our age. The one before me is an East African, a young man with an old demeanor.
The city belongs to the young and their apathy. That is no country for old men. Or old women for that matter. Byzantium seems so distant.
Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.
In the early pages of his gorgeous novel Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina writes: “Only those of us who have left know what the city used to be like and are aware of how much it has changed; it’s the people who stayed who can’t remember, who seeing it day after day have been losing that memory, allowing it to be distorted, although they think they’re the ones who remained faithful, and that we, in a sense, are deserters.”
Certainly a beautiful sentence, and a lovely sentiment, but I respectfully yet strenuously disagree. There may be much I can’t remember, and my memory may have become distorted along the way, but Beirut and how she was, how she has changed through the years—her, I never forgot. I never forget, and I have never left her.
“The Beiruti Hustle” is excerpted from An Unnecessary Woman © 2013 by Rabih Alameddine; reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Read more from the 2015 PEN Open Book Award Finalists
• “The Messenger,” from City Son by Samrat Upadhyay
• “You and Your Partner,” from Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
• “Amina,” from Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
• “Our Own Maps,” from An Untamed State by Roxane Gay