The following is excerpted from Hala Alyan’s latest novel The Arsonists' City, about the legacy of war in the Middle East and how we hold on to the people and places we call home. Alyan is the author of the novel Salt Houses, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Arab American Book Award and a finalist for the Chautauqua Prize. Her work has been published by The New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, where she works as a clinical psychologist.
Naj was one of my favorite characters to write because she allowed me to inhabit Beirut again and, more precisely, Beirut in all her complexity. It is a place that is often fragmented in the imagination: either exotified or fretted over, a place condensed into devastating headlines. But those that love that city (and country) know it to be brimming with contradictions and capable of holding multiple, at times painful realities and truths. This scene shows Naj at an art gallery in Beirut, and it was so fun to daydream and brainstorm about what sort of project would be on display; artists working out of Beirut are producing some of the most incredible visual art, music and literature of my generation.
The art gallery is lit like a haunted house, with lamps blooming from unlikely corners. It is a large, open venue that Naj has seen before, but it’s been completely transformed. The walls are painted a deep, outer-space black. The surface is shiny and Naj finds herself drawn to it, mesmerized. It reminds her of black-tar heroin, which she saw once in London when she and Jo went out with a group of teenage fans. There’s a large sign near each wall admonishing do not touch.
People mill around the space, talking and laughing, and Naj says hello to the ones she knows. The art scene in Beirut is scrappy, divided into cliques: the expats; the French-educated elite; the university students, huddled tonight around the bar, glancing about in awe. This is mostly an urbanite Beiruti crowd, many of them architecture or fine arts majors at the American University who’d graduated but, for one reason or another, never left. They take unironic trips to the Cedars in the summer and write scathing articles on the garbage crisis.
“I swear,” one woman is saying, “the day our prime minister’s corruption is more shocking than a female orgasm, I’ll finally sleep through the night.” Nobody bats an eye. Unlike their more Lebanese-Lebanese contemporaries, these crowds have sex, and they talk about it; they argue about body politics and labor rights. Their families live nearby and fast for Ramadan but something—a summer in Paris, an internship with an American nonprofit—set them apart from their perfectly manicured peers in adolescence, and they’ve never looked back. Secretly Naj finds them obnoxious but not so much that she doesn’t want to be liked by them.
“After an orgasm,” the woman adds, and everyone laughs. Against each wall there are boxed displays with a photograph above each one. Naj makes more small talk, then excuses herself. There is a large placard on a stand describing the pieces.
The Queens of Aleppo series is an exploration of the debris of war. During the artist’s final days in her hometown of Aleppo, before she fled to nearby Beirut for safety, she braved the streets of the Halab al-Jadida neighborhood in the south, which had recently been demolished by Assad’s forces. Adib gathered lone cosmetic items from the rubble, finding them in places as unlikely as the burned back seat of a sedan and the collapsed remains of a nearby store. In a poignant and arresting commentary on the commodification of war, the Queens of Aleppo exhibition displays those cosmetics alongside images of Syrian women wearing them, an attempt to expose the capitalistic opportunism that emerges during times of war and occupation. The decision to display these photographs in Lebanon is a deliberate one—the new nations have coexisted in a delicate, forced ecosystem since Lebanon’s independence from what had been known to the Ottomans as Greater Syria. The artist, Syrian-born but currently living in Beirut, goes by Zizi and describes the countries as “reluctant stepsisters . . .they didn’t choose each other, and yet the survival of one depends on the other. When one nation is in war, it is my belief that the other is as well.”
Naj wanders the room. Each glass box holds a single item on a velvet cushion: a half-burned eyeliner, a stub of red lipstick without the cap, the remnants of caked face powder. Above each object is a blown-up photograph of a different woman, a selfie from the top of her forehead down to her collarbones. The women all stare into the eye of the camera, adorned only with their assigned makeup. The burgundy lipstick is inexpertly smeared on one woman’s lips; the kohl circles another’s eyes.
“It feels like it’s a bit manipulative, don’t you think?” someone says to a friend, and Naj rolls her eyes. She walks around the room twice, hungry for the photographs. The effect against the pitch-black wall is hallucinatory; they’re like glowing holographs. She looks over her shoulder, then surreptitiously grazes a finger against the wall.
“What the —” Naj’s forefinger is tipped with a wet, obvious black.
“She couldn’t resist” comes a voice behind her. It’s one of the urbanites, clearly a friend of the artist. She speaks confidentially, pleased to know something about the show. “She wanted to catch people in the act,” she continues. “You know, all our hands are dirty, et cetera.”
Naj looks around and sees for the first time that some guests are gesturing with blackened fingertips.
“It’s brilliant,” Naj says. In spite of herself, she means it. “We’re all complicit.” The woman nods. “Yes! Ugh. She’ll be thrilled.” She points to a woman—clearly the artist—who’s talking to someone just a few feet away, her shoulder blades visible under her dress. Her friend nudges her as she passes and says in Arabic, “Fikriya, someone finally got your paint gag.” “At last!” Zizi claps her hands and turns to face Naj. It’s Fee.
Naj instinctively steps forward. They both freeze. Fee’s hand goes to her throat, her face pale. Her hair is darker, her face a little thinner and longer, but it’s definitely, unmistakably her.
“What are you doing here?” they both ask at once. There’s a beat, then nervous laughter.
“I’m the one who—” Fee waves her hand. “Did this.”
“You’re Zizi,” Naj says. “I didn’t know you were into art.” It’s a ridiculous thing to say; ten years have passed. Fee could have become a zookeeper for all she knew.
Fee looks down. “I wasn’t. I worked at a bank in Aleppo. But after the war, I started to take photographs.”
“This is unreal. Since when do you live in Beirut?”
There is finally a flash of anger in Fee’s eyes. “Maybe you heard about this, Naj? There was a war like fifty miles from here.”
“You couldn’t call?”
“You couldn’t?” Fee parrots back.
“I tried,” Naj mumbles. “After it started. But I couldn’t find you anywhere.
You’re not on Facebook. And I couldn’t call—”
“Because we’d both changed our numbers,” Fee finishes for her. “I am on Facebook. I just use my married name.” She looks hesitant saying this. Her accented English is exactly the same as it used to be, the care of someone who isn’t a native speaker.
“Of course.” A memory charges at Naj: Fee’s mouth hot under hers, the two of them huddled under one coat, sharing a bottle of Jack. But she shakes her head against it.
“Is that Jo?” Fee points toward the bar, where Jo is speaking to a tall man in glasses.
“Yeah, he’s the one who told me about this.” Naj frowns. “We’re in this band now.”
“Naj.” Fee’s voice is sad. “I know. I have all your albums. Actually.” She clears her throat. “We went to the Baalbek show last year, around Christmas.”
“You were at that show.” Naj tries to remember something distinct from that night, some omen, but there’s nothing.
“So you and Jo are together now,” Fee says. Her face is impossible to read.
There isn’t a word for what Fee was for Naj; they were nineteen, practically children. The idea of calling another woman a girlfriend then had been unthinkable.
“We’re not.” Naj rolls her eyes. “We’ve never been.”
The rumors have said otherwise for years. It’s convenient, so Naj never corrects anyone, has been known to kiss him full on the lips after a good set. They once did a magazine photo shoot where they posed under bubbles in the same bathtub. Even her own mother slyly asks her from time to time how her mate is, her voice so suggestive it’s clear Mazna believes that any day now, Naj will send her parents a photograph of a ring with accompanying exclamation marks.
The truth is that Naj’d had a fantasy when the band first started of being some sort of lesbian vanguard of the Arab world, a queer rock star, a lighthouse for the gay kiddos. But the closer she got to it, the more she shrank from the prospect. She couldn’t tell her fans before she told her parents. Her mother and father were liberal enough, accepted that America was different, but some things couldn’t be helped. It skulked in the house while Naj grew up—that time her mother called Madonna sick for kissing a fresh-faced Britney Spears on MTV, the way her father spoke of a gay patient with AIDS. It wasn’t a matter of being pardoned; it couldn’t be comprehended in the first place. Instead of queer, she projected sexy and hoped the little Arabi dykes would recognize it. (They did. There are hundreds of blog posts and social media tags about Naj’s sexuality, her quiet but ferocious nods toward queerness, and Naj saves every single one in a Gmail folder.)
“He’s my beard.” Naj nods toward Jo.
“Your beard,” Fee says slowly. Naj remembers how Fee would discover new words in English all the time in college, thrilled at each one. They had come from different worlds. Naj was an American playing Arab. Fee was emphatically Arab, her parents agreeing to let her go away for college only because her brother lived in Beirut. She had a curfew, wore cardigans, dreamed in Arabic.
“It’s like it’s what gay men call their wives.”
“Why do gay men have wives?”
“Oh. Well, I guess before they accept that they’re gay? Or when they accept that they’re gay but can’t come out?” Naj turns her sentences into questions when she’s nervous.
“So you’re a gay man now,” Fee says, her voice amused. “And Jo is your wife.”
“Basically.” Naj gives her a sheepish smile. “Well, your wife is talking to my husband.”
Naj takes a second look at the tall man. He’s vaguely handsome, with a goatee and a receding hairline. He looks positively pedantic.
“He used to work at the university in Aleppo,” Fee says as though reading her mind. “He taught law and history.” Something bitter flits in her voice. “Clearly, he was looking backward when he should’ve been looking forward.” “The photographs are great,” Naj says, then feels a little stupid. She sounds like one of the moon-eyed art students.
“Do you really think so?” Fee’s face lights up and Naj forgets everything. “I was interested in the idea of portraiture,” Fee says, her tone immediately taking on a higher lilt, sounding almost as pedantic as her husband looks. “At first, it was going to be about having me photograph strangers, but then I started researching self-portraiture. Did you know it’s been around for centuries?”
“Selfies?” Naj thinks of the idiotic duckfaces that flood her Instagram feed. Fee nods, her cheeks flushed with excitement. “It’s one of the oldest art forms. Cave paintings were often of the artists. And think of van Gogh. Frida.
Self-portraits have existed since the beginning of time. Zen monks in Japan were painting themselves centuries ago.”
“I never thought of it that way. All those self-portraits in museums. They’re predecessors to the selfie.”
“Now it’s become more prevalent, because everyone has the tools for it. So we relabel it narcissism.”
Pre-vale-ant. “Isn’t it?”
“I suppose,” Fee admits. “But I think it’s more than that. Yes, we like to look at ourselves. Even the ancient Egyptians knew that. But modern self-portraiture has more to do with our cultural anxiety about representation.”
Naj thinks back to their philosophy course in college, how after each class she and Fee would argue about soul theories for hours on the quad. “And representation during war is even faultier.”
“It is!” Fee looks at her gratefully. “So I decided to have the women represent themselves. I guess I’m no less paranoid than those monks.”
“But isn’t their own representation as fallible as any other?”
“I’d rather be misunderstood by what I say than what someone says for me.” Fee frowns, and Naj wonders if she asked the wrong question. “I think I got so sick of all the talking points. About Syria. People say it’s cyclical, that what’s happening in Aleppo today is what happened in Europe a hundred years ago. But I disagree. I think the Arabs have a particular sickness.”
The room feels too hot. Fee is actually here. They are having a conversation. “Right.” Naj tries to sound knowing, but she feels a brief panic, like she’s taken bad mushrooms. This is too much. The last time she’d seen Fee, they’d both been nineteen, weeping on a bench in the university at night. Fee had been in her life fully and often, and then she was gone. Naj had a notebook of songs for an album entitled Living Ghost; she’d never released a single one.
As if on cue, Fee clears her throat, looking nervous. “It’s about the war, yes. But also about being colonized.”
Naj makes a noncommittal sound. How is it possible, Ava once asked her after she’d called to check in following a bombing in Beirut that Naj hadn’t even heard about, to be living in the heart of politics and know nothing about it? When in doubt, Naj thinks, blame the whites. “Yes, colonialism,” she says.
“It feeds on that internalized sense of inferiority. It sets people against one another. I guess in some places, representation becomes political,” Naj concludes, a little impressed with herself.
“It starts wars,” Fee says dryly. “You grow up being eyed through a certain lens, that’s how you act. Women have learned to colonize themselves.”
The conversation suddenly feels claustrophobic, the black room too small for Naj. She looks around at the happy, oblivious people and feels resentful toward Fee—the Artist—for standing there barely flustered, or at least hiding it well. Naj speaks a little harsher than necessary. “Is that what art does? Disrupt colonialism?”
“I don’t know what art does anymore,” Fee says quietly.
Fee wants to introduce Naj to her husband, so Naj follows her to the men.
Jo has his back to them, and Naj pokes him harder than necessary. “Look who it is,” she sing-hisses.
Jo turns around and gasps. He keeps his mouth open for a moment before speaking. “Fee! What . . .” He trails off, looking back and forth between Fee and the man he’s been talking to. “You’re the artist?” he finally manages.
“She is,” Naj replies for her. Did you know about this? she asks him silently. He shakes his head: Of course not. Jo had been the one to see Naj through that awful winter after Fee left.
“Jo, I see you’ve met my husband,” Fee says. “Naj, this is Bilal.”
Naj’s fingertips are cold. She shakes the man’s hand; the fox’s face is tipped up toward everyone. She crosses her arms.
“You all know each other,” Bilal says. It isn’t a question. He smiles, and Naj can see his appeal. He reminds her of a nerdy guy in a movie.
“From university,” Fee says quietly. “They call you Fee,” Bilal says to his wife. “It’s an old nickname.”
“I like it,” Bilal muses. “Fikriya is such a serious name.” The four of them look at their drinks in silence.
“I can’t believe it was you all along,” Jo finally says to Fee. “Bilal said you’re working on a painting series next.”
“Did he,” Fee says sharply. “Yes.” She’s momentarily distracted by a couple of shy students who come over and praise the exhibit. When they leave, she seems unfocused. “I haven’t worked much with oils. It’s coming out quite messy so far.”
“What are you painting?” Naj asks.
“Women,” Bilal answers for her. “Syrian women. Old, young, even beggars.” He places a hand on his wife’s shoulder, ever so slightly proprietarily, and Naj decides once and for all that she dislikes him.
Fee seems to sense the shift. She moves almost imperceptibly to the left so that Bilal is forced to drop his arm. “The subjects are Syrian,” she corrects. “But I’m dressing them up as characters in Arab folklore, then painting them. I’m focusing on Levantine figures. Princess Badoura, Scheherazade, that sort of thing.”
“You’re doing portraits?” Jo asks.
“Kinda. It’s a little more complicated than that. I’m reimagining them once with the costumes and then a second time through painting them.”
“You’re representing a representation,” Naj says.
“Exactly.” Fee looks at her with that grateful expression and Naj remembers rather than notices the freckles spattered across her nose.
“It’s a shame. You would’ve been good to paint,” Bilal says to Naj, “but it’s just Syrian women.” That he seems to like her just intensifies her dislike.
“Her mother is Syrian,” Jo says.
“I forgot that.” Fee’s face softens with memory. Naj wonders which one. “Is she?” Bilal looks interested.
“Yes,” Naj says, glaring at Jo. “From Damascus.”
“I wonder if that would work,” Bilal says. His tone is thoughtful. The quartet falls silent again, the three of them looking at Fee as she chews her lower lip, thinking.
“A mother would do,” Fee says quietly.
Excerpted from The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan. Excerpted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin. Copyright © 2021 by Hala Alyan.