The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing, by Darina Al Joundi (translated by Helen Vassallo), tells the story of a young Lebanese woman, Noun, who grew up in Beirut and, despite the vicious fighting and ferocious aerial bombardment, chose to continue to live there through the years of war. Although born into a Muslim family, Noun’s freedom fighter father was ‘fiercely secular’. He encouraged his daughter to embrace a guilt free existence, to live as she pleased.
The book is described as a monologue and was first written to be performed as a one woman play in France where it proved a sensation. The structure resembles that of a playscript, including some directions. In the preface, the author states:
“Noun is not me, but she is a part of me. A part that I love and that life and society will no longer tolerate: she isn’t allowed to shout loud and clear what she thinks in real life, but at the theatre she’s applauded for it.”
A rebel from childhood, Noun is unafraid to express herself in a way few women, especially Muslim women, are more usually depicted. She is profane and open about her desires. She laughs long and loud about her enjoyment of drugs and sex. Given that she was regularly abused, suffering serious physical assault at the hands of her first husband and other family members, this laughter comes across at times as inappropriate, almost hysterical. Perhaps this is to encourage the reader to judge her actions, something her father refused to do.
“he never judged. He didn’t believe in guilt, and used to say no-one should feel guilt for doing what they want. I wanted to see how much he could take.”
The story opens at her father’s funeral. Family and friends are following Muslim tradition, something Noun knows her father would not have wanted. She stops the recorded recitation from the Qur’an, locking other mourners out of the room where the body lies and replacing the cassette with Nina Simone and other music he enjoyed. This and further actions that follow lead to her family having her locked away.
Noun adored her father but came to question why he so rarely criticised the choices she made. Was she his lab rat? Did he forget she was his daughter? The violence that surrounds Noun in the war takes its toll.
“It’s strange, that desire for violence, as if the violence of the war wasn’t enough. We were almost as criminal as the people who went around killing each other. We didn’t have guns or machetes, but we were so twisted with ourselves, with each other, pushing one another to do the craziest things”
When her father dies, Noun loses what protection he could offer. She is now at the mercy of her Muslim brother-in-law, the new head of the family. His actions are encouraged by witnesses who feel her behaviour requires correction.
“You didn’t give me freedom, you gave me a poisoned chalice. How could I be free all on my own surrounded by millions of lunatics?”
The themes in this monologue offer up much to consider: the damage caused by religion, war, familial oppression. Noun comes across as unapologetically alive to the appetites of a hot-blooded human being. She suffers appalling violence but continues to hold close the tenets her father instilled. Noun may have her flaws but remains strong in her determination to shrug off the straitjackets society tries to impose on her – to retain agency.
A remarkable piece of writing that, while disturbing in places, offers up a fresh perspective of life in war torn Beirut. It is a challenging, uncompromising, intensely thought-provoking work.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Naked Eye.