Jana Elhassan’s Al-Tabiq 99 (Floor 99, 2014) is the most problematic choice the International Prize for Arabic Fiction made in 2015. Its bombastic title, adolescent prose and patchy storyline stands in unflattering contrast to the rest of the shortlist.
Elhassan’s age might have something to do with it (she was the youngest writer on the shortlist at 30 years old), although Floor 99 is her third attempt after Raghbat Mamnua (Forbidden Desires, 2009) and Ana wa Haya wal-Ukhrayat (Me, She and the Other Women, 2013 — also IPAF-shortlisted).
For Floor 99 she moves away from a purely Lebanese setting for the first time, but fails to match this ambition with a narrative that doesn’t abound in bodice-ripper clichés. The novel, set in New York and Lebanon, tells the unlikely love story between a Palestinian survivor of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and a Christian Lebanese woman whose family supported it.
Taking place in refugee camps in 1982, that three-day killing spree saw close collaboration between Lebanese Christian militias and Israeli forces (under the leadership of Ariel Sharon), who left around 2,000 Palestinians dead. The tragedy was rooted in the politics of the time, when Israel invaded south Lebanon to chase out the Palestinian Liberation Organization and institute a new political order centered around Christian factions that wanted Palestinians and their allies out. Its memory remains potent not just because of the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics but because of the fraught politics Israeli aggression and Palestinian refugees have brought to neighboring countries.
Elhassan grew up in the shadow of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991) and momentous events like the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The generation that inherited such a legacy would be expected to reimagine different scenarios for how it might resolve itself or perhaps reconstruct other narratives that go beyond the pre-existing national narratives that ultimately led the country to civil war. And here lies the challenge for a writer like Hasan to reveal the complexity of such conflict on one hand, and to offer us a chance to imagine some form of reconciliation, on the other. However, what happens is an unhappy obfuscation of complexity and no reconciliation, as the protagonists engage in the most banal retelling of the story of lovers as adversaries (think Romeo and Juliet without passion or suspense).
Elhassan seems to revel in unoriginal storytelling. She paints Lebanese Christians as hypocritical, petty, power-hungry racists and Palestinians as frustrated opportunists whose tragic fate turns them into unrepentant misanthropes. As for her main protagonists, Majd has scar and limp acquired during the massacre and Hilda is confused about her religious upbringing and why her family hates Palestinians. There is nothing redeeming about Elhassan’s characterizations save the fact that through them she poses the interesting question: In the here and now, can a Palestinian Muslim sustain a meaningful relationship with a Lebanese Christian, and what would that relationship reveal?
The rest of the novel is composed of a supporting cast who have little bearing on the main protagonists and what they do. At one point, the novel descends into sensational telenovela-type subplot with a Hispanic American heroine. Elhassan’s unfamiliarity with the reality of New York and its inhabitants is unfortunately obvious in the way she describes them, providing an astonishingly hackneyed image of a city filled with people who despite relishing its consumerist, fast-paced lifestyle are haunted internally by its “ruthless” and “unforgiving” spirit. This superficial treatment shows up the narrative as unashamedly flimsy and inconsistent. In contrast, the author is at her best when describing the Lebanese countryside, particularly Christian aspects with all their contradictions and idiosyncrasies. Then and only then does the narrative thicken and give depth to the inexplicably intransigent characters. We get to see olive orchards, sloping mountains and wild flowers that grow by the side of the road.
Elhassan’s prose remains light, journalistic and awash with tired phrasings. It never goes beyond the level of a Mills & Boon novel, especially the sex scenes. As she has been praised for broaching the subject of sex in her novels, one would expect an interesting take on how intimacy can be depicted in Arabic. But these scenes too are rife with careless stereotypes, bordering on misogynistic at some points (referring to female genitalia as “a hole that needs to be filled”). In tying her female protagonist’s self-image and self-worth to the desires and whims of her male protagonist, Elhassan perpetuates conservative notions of female sexuality as merely a reflection of and receptacle for male sexuality and control. Hilda repeatedly refers to Majd as having “awakened” her body and made her aware of her “self-image.” It is surely impossible to consider such reiterations of the passive, phallocentric nature of female sexuality as laudable.
The jury’s decision to include such a freshman attempt at writing among the supposed highlights of Arabic fiction raises serious questions for me. It makes me wonder about the criteria by which works are selected for the IPAF shortlist. With other entries we have seen, even when their narratives failed to carry through the literary visions they promised, such as in Ahmed al-Madini’s and Lina Hawyan al-Hasan‘s books, their prose and language contained an unmistakable beauty. In the case of Floor 99, the only reason for selection could be to strike out one more “representative” from their checklist – in this case a young woman writer who writes about sex and inter-faith relations in post-civil war Lebanon.