Violence permeates the landscape of Zein El-Amine’s story collection Is This How You Eat A Watermelon? The collection is set in Beirut, and its characters are mostly Lebanese, accustomed to the unrest and insurrection of the Middle East that has become part of their daily lives. They often have to flee from their homes, or are forcibly taken from the streets, or cower in abandoned buildings. No matter if they are young or old, men, women, or children, this violence touches everyone’s lives. However, what is remarkable about this collection is its deep tenderness, the strong force of humanity that runs through each story. These people are survivors. They have a sense of humor. And most of all, they have each other. This is a book about community through chaos, about finding family in the dark.
The first story in the collection, “Sharife Vs. The Party of God,” is particularly memorable. It tells the tale of an old woman who refuses to leave her home in a small village in Southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation of the area in July 2006. One night, she runs out of cigarettes, and goes out to buy more. Some Lebanese soldiers find her and tell her she must go inside—it isn’t safe. But the soldiers make sure she gets her cigarettes, and she survives the occupation. Later, in another scene, the soldiers ask one another if they know of the old woman:
He looked at them puzzled, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The older man waves at him to come closer so that he can speak directly into his ear. ‘Listen to me son, the next time this happens, do your country and the resistance a favor and take your aunt with you.’
This story is a wonderful example of the sharp humor and deft movements that El-Amine is capable of making. Old woman Sharife is an instantly lovable character—hard-headed, stubborn, and a survivor—she is more concerned with getting her cigarettes than she is with matters of personal safety or even national security. Her neighborhood’s concern for her is touching, and the way that both the convenience store owner who donated the cigarettes, the young boy who risked his life to get them to her, and the soldiers who passed along the message all worked together to get her what she needed is a wonderful example of community. Just as American media has worked diligently to portray the Arabic-speaking world as barbaric, backwards, and inhumane, through war propaganda throughout the aughts and elsewhere, El-Amine is working to dismantle these stereotypes. By casting Middle Eastern people as clever and community-oriented while demonstrating that they often are victims of warfare (that has caused mainly disruption and turmoil for many civilians), El-Amine is working against the American media narrative.
Another memorable story is the titular one, “Is This How You Eat A Watermelon?” In this story, Ghassan is a lover of food and drink and women, and manages to eat and drink himself to an early illness. He can’t control himself. His second wife, Rana, becomes his caretaker, but even she cannot control his appetites. At the very end of the story, he begins to notice aspects of the landscape that signal that perhaps he is becoming more aware of his surroundings, and therefore more ready to change his ways. Like many El-Amine stories, this story does not have a cut-and-dry finish. Readers want to feel satisfied by the rich characters and vibrant world he has created, but they cannot settle down, because El-Amine is a master of the ambiguous ending; we are treading on uncertain ground.
“Send My Regards To Your Mother,” a fascinating piece of autofiction, uses El-Amine’s name to tell the story of a college student falsely imprisoned in Bahrain for trespassing through a compound and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The story is harrowing—the conditions in the prison are terrible, and the other prisoners are held without rights and tortured. The reader wonders throughout if these events actually took place, but what is more striking about the story is its humanity, and the way the prisoners take care of each other, giving each other rations, warnings, information, and comfort. Even in the worst of situations, people will band together. It’s a hopeful story, even as it is rife with human rights violations—and although most of the characters do not get justice, we are left with the feeling that people are essentially good, and that there is some benevolence in the world.
All short story collections need one story about a writer, and in this collection, that story is “Killdeer.” The story is simple—a poet goes to a writer’s residency and is haunted by the bird, killdeer, which pretends to be injured when approached. This bird, and several other factors, cause the writer trouble with writing during the residency, and when he does his final reading for the students at the residency, he discovers that his audience was only interested in his work because of his Lebanese heritage. They expected him to read poems about war, not the lighter poems he actually produced. He says to the students:
“I would answer that [to the students] if my poetry had anything to do with the Lebanese Civil War,” I say. I explain that the poems I shared today are simply about my love for the natural beauty of New Zealand or my adventures in scamming British tourists.
“Besides,” I continue, “it is not poetry’s responsibility to shed light on events the world chooses to ignore.” But that does not seem to satisfy them and they keep up the siege.
This story is a fascinating examination of why we write, and who is expected to write what story—a microcosm of El-Amine’s book itself, a sort of book within a book. El-Amine seems to be commenting that he does not feel as if it is his duty to write about violence, but in fact, violence is what he writes about, or at least, he writes around it; it settles into the nooks and crannies of the book as it spins outward. Even in “Killdeer,” which is ostensibly not about violence at all, the killdeer bird is pretending to be injured because it perceives some kind of attack—a violent act. Who is attacked here? The writer, or the students? El-Amine’s take on war in the Middle East and in Lebanon in particular is to address it almost as a landscape in which other, more important stories can take place—a kind of foundation in which art can be built, rather than the art itself. Poetry’s responsibility, it seems, is not to shed light on what the world has chosen to ignore, but rather to process events through the eyes of the individual, through the most powerful tool we have at our disposal—storytelling.
At the core of Is This How You Eat A Watermelon? rests the biggest question of all—what is the power of storytelling, and how can it change preconceived narratives about marginalized groups for dominant cultural audiences? El-Amine has written a set of stories that emphasize community, survival, ingenuity, and intelligence—all traits that we as Americans often claim to hold close to our hearts. Storytelling has the power to create new ideas about who our neighbors are and how to accept them.