Huda Al-Mukhtar lives in a world full of fragile yet vivid memories – of a city before it was torn apart by war and bloodshed; of a loving marriage before it dissolved into two strangers; of a daughter before she was forced to choose between parents.
Canceled Memories by Nazik Saba Yared is a moving family drama set in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Told from the perspectives of an estranged husband and wife (Sharif and Huda), Yared’s narrative is fraught with familial tensions that are at once both alien and familiar. All families fight and the Al-Mukhtars are no different – they have petty fights and disagreements that slowly build up over time; however, the terror of living through a time of war exacerbates even the mildest family argument. Sharif is a mid-level bureaucrat, disillusioned by his dead-end job. Huda is a housewife with a young child and is infuriated by her husband’s apathy. She seeks refuge as a university professor, surrounding herself with her students and her work while Sharif begins to resent Huda’s success and feels neglected at home. They are held together by their daughter Dina, but even their love for her can’t save the marriage. Mini betrayals become major ones and silence and indifference become insurmountable barriers.
Relayed in a series of flashbacks, Yared expertly illustrates the degrading effects of war on the dynamics of a family struggling to stay together. The novel begins after Huda and Sharif are divorced and Dina is 16. Huda wants to show her daughter Burj Square in downtown Beirut, now severely damaged from the war, but a symbol of the peace that existed when Huda was young. Dina resists – she’d never seen Burj Square when it was intact so why should she care now? Huda reflects:
Her memory penetrated the charred walls of the burned-out café, the Pâtisserie Suisse, where they used to gorge themselves with ice cream and cake on Saturday evenings. Was she drawn downtown because it was associated with the most beautiful memories of her past? Or because both the downtown and her past were wiped out at the same time?
These cancelled memories are a powerful anchor throughout the book. They may be painful, but they’re never fully erased, and Yared uses them to passionately illustrate the corrosive effects of the war in Lebanon. Huda remembers when her daughter was young and they suffered through days of raids, when reporters “warned children not to touch tiny balls they might find in streets and parks because those balls might have been parts of fission bombs. I smiled at fate’s way of mocking us: the terms fission and fusion enriched our language while the bombs themselves obliterated our existence!” War was a way of life for the Al-Mukhtars and thousands of others, and it’s no wonder that Huda and Sharif’s marriage collapsed. Sharif felt helpless to protect his family against the war and so he withdrew. His seeming lack of concern angered Huda but he didn’t share his side of the story – feelings to which we surely can all relate:
What was the point of thinking of everything that might have happened to her, to Dina, to me, to our friends? I didn’t want to hear the sound of the shelling or think about danger and death because I couldn’t do anything about them, so I slept. I slept, and everything around me vanished. I would forget that Huda and Dina might die, just as other women and children were dying every day . . . women and children. I drugged myself with sleep. Consciously or unconsciously.
Might we not react in the same way? After the divorce, Dina is sent to live with Sharif and Huda can do nothing – as a woman in Lebanon’s patriarchal society, she is powerless to challenge the courts. And yet, as a single mother who struggles to maintain a connection with her daughter while balancing a career, she is undeniably modern. By taking us inside the minds of both Huda and Sharif, we learn their fears, their hopes and their dreams. In this way, Yared offers a refreshingly honest and realistic portrait of a family torn apart by war, but who copes in the best way they can.
Canceled Memories is a short novel, but it’s packed with emotion, poignancy and a hopeful sadness. We leave the Al-Mukhtars knowing that life can never be the same for them as it was before the war, but that their memories (good and bad) can nourish them and finally help them move forward.