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Clare Roberts reviews
The Ninety-Ninth Floor
Translated by Michelle Hartman
Published by Interlink Publishing, USA.
ISBN: 9781566560542, pbk, 264pp, $15.00 / £12.00
Running away to New York
Lebanese journalist and novelist Jana Fawaz El Hassan’s third novel, the first to be translated into English, is The Ninety-Ninth Floor. The novel is a frank look at love between two conflicting characters: their deep and divisive family roots, irreconcilable backgrounds, and the underlying forces that hold them together. Set in both New York and Lebanon, two worlds collide in the most painful, frustrating and fitful of ways.
Majd, the Palestinian protagonist, is a successful employee at a video game development company, working in a prestigious 99th floor office in Manhattan. Severely maimed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, he moves to New York with his father for a new life, which, somewhat guiltily, he finds. Sporadic correspondence with his cousin Muhammad back “over there” in Shatila, in addition to his disability, keeps him acutely reminded of all he has left behind, and of the horrors his family faced in the massacre, an incident he will never – can never – forget.
It is perhaps this memory that renders remarkable his relationship with Lebanese dancer Hilda. As the relationship unfolds, the present intersperses with the past, with its memories of growing up in Lebanon re-emerging. Never far from the surface is the 1982 massacre: both Majd and Hilda have grown up in the fallout from this tragedy. Hilda, from a well-off, respected Christian Lebanese family, has had entirely different experiences of growing up in Lebanon, but she too has left for New York in search of a new beginning and new opportunities. Their love is unexpected and inexplicable, but binding. The relationship revealingly holds up a mirror – a theme running throughout the novel – to their individual selves and their pasts, prompting new questions and shining light on old truths. Pivotal to the novel is the effect of Hilda’s decision to return to Mount Lebanon on her relationship with Majd. It is a decision fuelled by her desire to find answers to the most burning but buried questions of her past, even if the truth to be uncovered is far from being what she wants to hear. Back home, she is reminded that division and disunity pervade even the closest of family units. She learns that memories, however painful, cannot be bottled up and forgotten indefinitely. Waiting for her in New York, Majd is tormented by his love for her, suffocated, and can only think to punish her for her absence by rejecting her calls, only deepening the hole bored into his chest by her absence. Imagining Hilda with her family in Mount Lebanon, he is reminded of the atrocities he has left behind, his identity and life of exile questioned further.
An array of other characters also find in the city of New York a refuge from their painful pasts. Majd’s friend, Mohsen, from the war generation, leaves his family behind in Lebanon, changing his name to Mike and revelling in his successful new life, “absorbed in promiscuity and drunkenness but at other times [drowning] in bouts of nostalgia”. Eva, a beautiful Mexican woman, is also in New York to escape her past. For Majd, New York, and his high-rise office block, represents the top – “every other place would be lower – Beirut and the Palestine [he’d] never known”. High up in his tower block, he feels that he is “eternally running away towards greatness”. Linking all the characters, in essence, is the sentiment that New York symbolises this running away.
In 2015 Jana Fawaz El Hassan received the accolade of being listed among the BBC’s 100 Women for her taboo-breaking first novel Forbidden Desires, alongside such influential figures as Egyptian feminist writer and activist Nawal el-Sadaawi. Less ground-breaking, but nevertheless shortlisted for the 2015 IPAF Prize, is The Ninety-Ninth Floor, for its perceptive insight into growing up in post-civil war Lebanon, life in pre-2001 New York, and the feasibility of a relationship between two very different characters.
Published in Banipal 57 – Syria in the Heart (Autumn/Winter 2016)
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