Why did Mirsal leave her letters here, between my hands? Uprooting her from her existence just like the poplar trees shed their yellow leaves to end a precarious phase of time’s chapter. And time passes, and it keeps going, and I see its footprints on top of these yellow worn-out pages…
(Translated from Tyour Ayloul, I did not do justice to the text but that’s the best I could do)
Novelist, journalist, teacher, lecturer, women’s rights activist and mother, Emily Nasrallah was born in Kfeir, in the south of Lebanon in 1931. She was 44 when the civil war began. Much of her writing has inevitably been influenced by the war environment, which surrounded her for many years. She is known to many as the “Village Poet,” illustrating life in Lebanese villages within many of her works. As a young woman she felt as if a large part of her was left behind when she left her village to attend the American University in Beirut. From an early age, Nasrallah learned that it was the men who emigrated in order to pursue their careers. Her characters are often victims of village traditions and social or political circumstances. As a result, several of her characters wish to abandon their village existence and move to the city in search for a better life, just as she did as a student.
She achieved acclaim for her writing with the publication of her first novel, Touyour Ayloul (Birds of September) in 1962, in which she describes the saga of the village people who witness their loved ones (sons, husbands…) depart for far away to more promising lands and countries, just as they see in the month of September, birds, in awe of the expected cold winter, head south in search of warmer places.
The book earned her instant praise and three Arabic literary prizes. She became a prolific writer, publishing many novels, children’s stories and short story collections touching on themes such as family roots, Lebanese village life, war, emigration and the struggle of women for independence and self-expression. The latter has been a subject she maintains support for throughout her life.
As a testament to her Lebanese identity, Nasrallah refused to leave Beirut, even during wartime. She considered her loyalty honorable and, in fact, necessary to preserving “the last shred of territory she could call home.”
Her experience as a student in Beirut was twofold: on one hand, she achieved success, especially as a woman outside of the village setting, and yet she also felt the loneliness one feels having ventured far away from home. Writing would become her escape from this very loneliness. Thus, her village upbringing in Kfeir, her move to Beirut as a woman, and the characteristics she believed to be representative of a strong Lebanese identity, all became recurring themes in Nasrallah’s writing because, above all, she had lived them. Her writing contains themes and sentiments experienced worldwide. “Human experiences are similar everywhere in the world,” she once said.
Nasrallah uses language very intentionally in her novels, employing the Lebanese village dialect to express chatter among women, traditional proverbs, and oral collections of memory that form the heartbeat of rural villages in Lebanon. Not only does she create a sense of local character through language, but she also expresses the versatility of the Arabic language to use different words, phrases, and structures of Arabic to distinguish several social classes.
Her novels are like a collection of stories without chapters, a lengthy, longing stream of consciousness. Capturing us in her world where one lives, laughs, and identifies with the pain of her characters. As the stories of war, women, and village life unfolds in her books, we become lost in her thoughts and breathe in unison with her characters. Profoundly, she captures you in her subjects’ life’s trajectory, drawing you nearer to their fears, happiness, and plights. This one woman encapsulates everything that it means to be a woman living in our society, a poet of a lost generation, a poet that dually sings the frustration and the beauty of life and everything that comes with it in this country, even in this world because language is art. Her words give the collage of ideas a meaning and purpose. And art is purpose. At least if, like Emile, you paint with words.
“And the taste of abandonment lingers in the air of the village at times. It nestles in pressers, in the gaps of roofs, in the small scratches in-between the oak and olive trees’ leaves, in the tears that escape from the eyes, from the uninhibited owes that gusts from the mothers’ chests…” (Translated from Tyour Ayloul, again I really did not do justice to the text…)
To an astonishing woman…