When critics bemoan the ubiquity and triteness of contemporary memoirs, a typical gripe is that self-chroniclers make too much of too little, so that entire books are devoted to some commonplace ordeal—growing up, bereavement, illness, relocation—that might not merit 20 pages of compelling reflection, let alone 200. All the more startling, then, to read The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing, a sizzling, beautiful, and maddening memoir by Darina Al-Joundi (co-written with Mohammed Kacimi and translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager), which suffers from the opposite problem. Since she was a young child in 1970s Lebanon, Al-Joundi has survived frequent brushes with death, trampled on countless taboos, and witnessed firsthand the best and worst impulses of humanity. She could justifiably write ten books about all she’s seen and done. Instead, in this slim, barely novella-length volume, she speeds through her spectacular life like a tornado, leaving the reader reeling, awestruck—and, finally, deeply unsatisfied.
Born in Beirut to a “fervently secular” father who was a Syrian political refugee, teacher, journalist, and dedicated bon viveur, and a Lebanese mother who was a famous radio broadcaster, Al-Joundi was raised to rebel against every cultural and religious tradition prevailing in Arab society. Whenever they passed a mosque, Al-Joundi’s father would say to her and her two sisters:
“Look, daughters, look how they’re down on the ground, you, you are never to offer your ass up to the sky. Offer it to men as much as you want, but not to the good Lord. You may drink, go out, lose your virginity, but—let me repeat—in my house I don’t ever want to see anyone pray or fast.”
As good as his word, Al-Joundi père gets his daughter drunk on red wine on her eighth birthday—“Well, my girl . . . How do you feel?” “I feel higher than the sky, Papa”—and gives her an unfiltered Gauloises to smoke when she’s thirteen. Cigarettes prove a fast gateway to pot, “which made me laugh so hard that I saw the sea as much wider and the bullets as less lethal.”
Those omnipresent bullets—along with the bombings, shortages of food, water, and electricity, and constant shuttling from place to place to avoid the worst of the fighting—are what shape Al-Joundi’s childhood from the age of seven, when the Lebanon war begins. By the time she’s ten, she knows “how to dismantle a Kalashnikov and put it back together with my eyes closed.” Then, at age fourteen, discouraged by her father from taking up arms like the “fascist” military, she joins the Red Cross. Her duties include removing bullets from bystanders who’d been hit by the flying gunfire of the retreating PLO—“My hands had never held so many bullets”—and tending to victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre:
I saw one murdered family whose eight members were tied to one another by barbed wire, the steel wire buried in their black and blue flesh. People recognized the loved ones by their clothes only, they were too disfigured. I held women up as they identified the dead, and I wept and vomited. It went beyond rage, grief, and even madness.
The authors just as vividly (if too briefly) evoke the difference between Beirut at peace and, later, as it’s shredded by violence. The city of Al-Joundi’s early childhood, nostalgically recalled as “the oasis of every Arab intellectual,” “a constant feast,” “la dolce vita,” had by her teens become a grim combat zone where the hospital replaced the village square “as the place to meet everyone.” Each week brought another visit to the morgue “to identify the body of a friend, an uncle, or a cousin.” It’s a striking juxtaposition, and possibly the book’s greatest strength and greatest missed opportunity. If the remembrance of Beirut’s glorious heyday felt less rushed, and if destroyed landmarks had been visually conjured, then this heartfelt portrayal of a monumentally tragic loss would have exerted far more power on the reader’s imagination.
By contrast, they linger over the psychological effects of growing up in a war zone. When she is twenty-one, and a peace accord has been announced, Al-Joundi finds herself bereft: “[F]ear had fine-tuned me and all my gestures made sense only in relationship to that fear.” From her early teens, the pervasive morbidity of her surroundings sustains a simple philosophy: convinced of her own imminent death, Al-Joundi is “hungry for everything, sex, drugs and alcohol.” Under the tutelage of a knowledgeable gay friend, she acquires expertise in fellatio so impressive that she charges her Catholic school classmates five dollars an hour for a demonstration with a cucumber. She also starts drinking heavily and develops a raging cocaine habit; then as a fifteen-year-old virgin she is raped, resulting in pregnancy and an abortion—which she can only get after a gynecologist testifies to the rape, since “abortion was still taboo in Lebanon.” From this pivotal trauma she enters a phase of wild promiscuity. “I’d do it under porches, on the gravestones of the orthodox cemetery, on the beach, in showers, in cars, and especially in the bathrooms of bars.”
Again, my own hasty summarizing of these various life-altering experiences more or less resembles how Al-Joundi and Kacimi tell the story. The rape, abortion, and subsequent hospitalization for a serious viral infection are dealt with in three quick paragraphs, while her descent into drug addiction is described in one run-on sentence: “I started doing coke daily, two dollars a gram, Beirut was inundated with drugs.” The effect of the authors’ hastiness is exacerbated by a careless translation—“inundated,” for example, is a less natural word choice in this context than, say, “awash”—and this becomes particularly noticeable in the concluding section of the book, where some inelegant sentences and abrupt transitions appear as the pace increases still further, In the final four (of twenty-one) short chapters, we learn about Al-Joundi’s several marriages, a miscarriage caused by the violence of her first husband, a game of Russian roulette during which her friend’s brain “spurted out on my hair,” an attempted lesbian affair, and the death of her beloved father to whom the whole narrative has been a tribute.
The book’s final, shocking pages, when Al-Joundi is forced to pay a heavy price for her “insane female liberty,” coalesce around the paradox at the heart of her story: in so implacably teaching his daughter rebellion in a country where women remain “beasts of burden,” did her father sacrifice her on the altar of his ideals? Before his death, he makes her swear that at his funeral, she won’t allow Koran verses to be broadcast, but will instead play jazz. Of course she carries out his wish, removing the tape of the “wretched” Koran, and playing Nina Simone’s “Save Me.” The resulting, terrifying events brutally emphasize both Al-Joundi’s pathological bravery and the belief of the man who rapes her and later says, in response to her protestations of freedom: “You poor thing, only men are free.”