The late author known as Emily Nasrallah was born Emily Abu Rashed and grew up in a hamlet in south-eastern Lebanon. Kfeir is a lovely village shared by Greek Orthodox and Druze families, and it’s surrounded by rolling hills and olive trees. As the crow flies, it’s about 10 kilometres from the Israeli border and 30 from the Syrian. The village was for the most part spared from the violence that rocked Lebanon for 15 years during the Civil War, but it has been characterised by another form of loss, which started well before the war. Economic migration, primarily to North America, which began in the mid-to-second half of the 19th century has been a constant, and it is a subject that is central to Nasrallah’s musings and work.
In 2011, for her 80th birthday, she reunited her siblings – who had all immigrated to North America – in Kfeir. She began thinking about creating a cultural centre in their family home that would focus on emigration. Now, less than a year after her death in March, Beit Touyour Ayloul Foundation is open to visitors, with two libraries still in the making. One includes the author’s personal library and her published books, while the second focuses on emigration from the region, and will eventually include archives of old photographs and letters. The name of the Foundation is a reference to Nasrallah’s multiple award-winning first novel, Touyour Ayloul (Birds of September), published in 1962.
A wish fulfilled
Another of the author’s wishes was to see her memoirs published. Independent Lebanese publisher, Dar Onboz, brought out the beautifully designed Al Makan (The Place) in a record four months, and presented it to Nasrallah – who remained quick-spirited until the end – five days before her death. The publishers, Nadine Touma and Sivine Ariss, say in the book that the Lebanese author was “paying homage to her maternal lineage” and the ancestors who had marked her life, and that they, in turn, wanted to transform the publication into an homage to Nasrallah.
Al Makan begins in the 19th century and takes us to the mid-20th century. It recounts the story of Nasrallah’s close and extended family, of which many members followed the patterns of migration in the area. For one part of her story, the author relied on a manuscript written by her erudite uncle, Ayoub Abou Nasr, to tell the story of his emigration in 1914. He was one of the few who returned to Kfeir, and he went back because of a debilitating illness.
It was this same uncle who encouraged her to study, and his brother paid for her education. The book includes photographs, artwork, a map indicating the areas where people migrated to, and a small lexicon with illustrations and photographs that explains historical, geographical and sociological references that may be unfamiliar to readers – Nasrallah talks about a bygone era of village life in Lebanon that was often associated with underdevelopment.
When they began working on the production of the book, all those involved knew that time was of the essence, and this allowed for “a special intimacy,” says Touma. “In [her memoirs] there is a reconciliation with the past, but it’s not nostalgic. What is striking when you read her work and when we spoke to her, was her profound calling for equality.” Although Nasrallah is often seen as a feminist, she wasn’t “just about female equality, but all inequalities: social class, religious, gender, or regional.”
Inside the Beit Touyour Ayloul
When one visits Beit Touyour Ayloul, there is a clear sense of being in a place that serves as a bridge between past and present, and a space where the sociological reasons for migration are remembered and explained. In the calm and beauty of the surrounding nature, it is also easy to understand why the author was so deeply attached to the land, which became central to her work. In one of her short stories, The Lost Flour Mill, in the 1992 collection A House Not Her Own: Stories from Beirut, translated by Thuraya Khalil-Khouri, her character is searching for a mill she remembers from her childhood with her adult daughter. When they cannot find it, the daughter tells her mother that the mill is only in her memory, “Within the depths of your roots that hold tenaciously to this land”. As she walks away, the mother trips over what is the old millstone, “buried, under the layers of earth and years”.
Nasrallah’s house, built in traditional limestone, was entirely renovated in 2015 by her daughter Maha, an artist and architect. She is the executor of her mother’s estate and has been working closely with her since she was 14 years old, when her mother “involved me by having me do the illustrations for her books”, says Maha. “So, I read them, and our relationship grew from working together. We would come to Kfeir about once a month to visit the grandparents. My great grandmother died when I was nine.”
Maha was 15 when the Lebanese Civil War began, and it became very difficult to travel to the area. Emily’s parents had both died by 1980, after which the house was mostly abandoned. Then in 1982, while Maha was preparing her thesis in architecture, she decided she wanted to work on a project in the region and travelled to the water mill on the Hasbani river where her grandparents had met, a scene described in Nasrallah’s 1981 novel Flight Against Time, translated into English by Issa Boullata. Years later, Maha was commissioned to renovate the mill, which had been her final project in architecture school.
The interior of Nasrallah’s house is surprisingly large. Constructed with a combination of reeds, plaster and earth and crossbeams in local wood, in the main room built-in benches run along the wall on which the children would sleep on mattresses, which they rolled up during the day. There is the window that the author would look out of as a child, and the terrace in front of the house where her family would gather after work and school, and where, as she recalled in Al Makan, her father would lift her up onto the table and she would recite the poems and songs she had learnt during the day. “This table was her first stage, and on it she learned to deliver a speech courageously.”
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Maha says that their experience in Kfeir has been extremely positive. When Beit Touyour Ayloul opened last September, “I was so touched,” she explains. “The head of the municipality provided women who cooked for days to make manakeesh for the 300 people who came to the opening.”
The author’s daughter is intent on keeping the library focused on emigration: “The fact that people were born to emigrate made her mother sad.” In Flight against Time, Nasrallah wrote: “The village changed into a nursery that embraced the seedlings for a while, and when the trunk grew and the roots became stronger, the seedling would seek to be transplanted to a larger land.”
Her daughter hopes that in time there will be a network throughout Lebanon of small cultural venues, such as the Gibran Museum in Bsharreh that can be associated with the Beit Touyour Ayloul. She is working on completing the paperwork for funding, and the Foundation will also function as a writer’s residence.
As Emily Nasrallah wrote in the preface to a collection of short stories, “The word has become a refuge and a lifeboat – the poem or story, a substitute nation.”