Chawki Bazih reviews

Cabaret Su’ad
[Suad’s Cabaret]

by Mohammed Suwaid

Dar al-Adab, Beirut, 2005

An Elegy of Regret

Lebanese writer Mohammed Suwaid, in his novel Cabaret Su’ad, succeeds in presenting a surprisingly detailed and remarkable work, rich in scenarios and events. The novel is the author’s first but he knows how to maximise his capabilities and talents being also a cinema critic and script writer, and director of many documentary films. Suwaid’s readers do not have to try hard to appreciate how he uses his great experience to give meaning and structure to the novel or to see his technical detail and elegant style.
Cabaret Su’ad contains many personal anecdotes, as is the case in many novels, but the author succeeds in making the work different from an autobiography by using a literary device. He differentiates between the real author of the manuscript Ayad Ayoub, who is enamoured of sex and women and involved in the Lebanese civil war, and Wahid Sadiq, who is suffering from writer’s block and is infatuated with cinema, poetry and the Egyptian actress, Su’ad Husni. Ayad, who has a touching humanity, has asked Wahid to review his manuscript and revise it. But Wahid claims the novel as his own after he worked on modifications, and added some scenarios of his own related to his own life.

Suwaid’s novel presents a complicated and varied picture of Lebanon through the last half of the twentieth century to the beginning of the new millennium, through the life story of Ayad Ayoub. He was born at the end of the 1950s and moved from one of the villages in southern Lebanon to the dark trenches of Beirut, arriving in Hayy al-Talmis at the family’s second home. Throughout the 200 or so pages the author presents, through his protagonist, an intermittent picture of Beirut before the war when Lebanese society was in its golden age. At this time cinema, theatre and the various arts were flourishing; Beirut was the pearl of the East and its most prominent capital. When Ayad’s father names his three daughters Asmahan, Koka and Shewikar (the names of three Egyptian actresses and singers) it is simply a symbol of his love of the arts and his fascination with the great singers and actresses.
But the civil war, which began in 1975, blew away that paradise which was an exception in the life of the Lebanese. The big ‘Teatro’ theatre was burned to the ground, the martyrs’ statue in Al-Burj Square was toppled and the brothels in Al-Mutannabi closed. Ayad Ayoub found himself in a small militia group called “the Salah al-Din forces”.

Mohammed Suwaid did not want to make his novel into an Arab version of an Indian melodrama despite the horror of the reality the characters were living through. Some of them therefore die from heart attacks, like Bashir Al-Saba’, or emigrate, like Fuad Hamama, or go mad like the writer of the original manuscript. The author prefers to use the cynical and the peculiar, cutting humour and differentiation, which make people laugh, so as to give the reader a profounder understanding of the sharp pain and extreme bitterness.

Cabaret Su’ad is a true elegy for a country whose people did not know how to be worthy of it or how to protect its beauty. It is a novel of man’s regret, revealing his real soul and removing the mask from his face. It is a novel of connected parallels and ambiguities, which provokes at once laughter and tears. It is enough that Wahid Sadiq named the cabaret he opened in Baghdad “Su’ad”, the first name of the Egyptian actress Su’ad Husni he was passionately infatuated with, for us to realise what kind of painful folly and black humour there is behind the name.

Su’ad Husni, a superstar, was born in Egypt in 1943, and committed suicide in London in unclear circumstances in June 2001.

From Banipal 25 - Spring 2006

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