Aaliya thinks she is An Unnecessary Woman. Certainly, in Beirut where women are valued by their connections to men, daughter, wife, or mother, she has no such connection. Her father died when she was young, her ex-husband was impotent and divorced her, and of course, she has no children. Now she is 72, years old and feeling her age. She has, though, a rich inner life, an internal conversation with books.
An Unnecessary Woman takes place of just a few days and not much happens at all, unless using far too much Bel Argent which turns her hair blue is something. Her big dilemma is choosing which book she will begin translating with the upcoming new year. She likes to begin her translations on New Year’s Day. She has a ritual, preparing her desk, her special pen, everything in its place.
But there is a lot happening internally. She recalls events in her life, the many wars, tracking down an AK-47 to defend herself, her friendships, the book she’s read. While her family relationship is fractious and her mother emotionally discarded her long ago, she had two people whom she considered real friends. Hannah, her not-quite sister-in-law and Ahmad, a young man who loved to read and helped in the bookstore where she worked before Black September turned him into a revolutionary. There are also the three women who also live in the four-plex apartment building with her. She calls them the Witches and eavesdrops on their conversations as they have their daily coffee. For over 50 years she listens to their lives without joining in.
Aaliya is a wit. If you can get through this book without a dozen or more snorts of laughter at some sly jab, you’re made of sterner stuff than me. Aaliya is opinionated about the books she has read and makes her own judgments. She has a keen intellect. Having lived through several wars, she notes that “at the heart of most antagonisms are irreconcilable similarities. Hundred-year wars were fought over whether Jesus was human in divine form or divine in human form. Belief is murderous.”
Where her judgment fails is in regard to herself. she thinks she is unnecessary, outside the main. She admits that she sought to be different, but regrets that she is so alone.
So I absolutely loved An Unnecessary Woman. From beginning to end, I was entranced by the inner dialogue that filled Aaliya’s days. Her mind appeals to me. I love her sense of humor and her wry observations. I admire how with relatively little plot events, there can be such transformation and the realization that even at the age of 72, one can still change and grow, making different choices.
I loved the insight into a different worldview, that of a Muslim woman, though not a particularly devout one, in Lebanon with her skepticism of the United States and Israel, as well as of the various factions who struggle for power in Lebanon. As to her religious devotion, she remarks when covering her head with a scarf that she makes sure to show a bit of the skin on her neck. “I don’t want anyone to think I am covering up for asinine religious reasons.”
I loved the sense of place. Beirut was the other major character in An Unnecessary Woman and she had many conversations with her as she walked through the streets and alleyways. Aaliya loves Beirut, but its an exasperated love. “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.”
This is a wonderful book, one that makes you want to highlight all the clever and insightful bits, the striking use of language such as a stovetop flame “livid and blue”, but if you do, you will have a book with more highlighted than untouched. It is that thick and rich with words you will want to remember.