I Will Draw A Star on Vienna’s Forehead
By Sahar Mandour
La CD-thèque Publications, 2007
Sahar Mandour’s I Will Draw a Star on Vienna’s Forehead emerges from the politically charged backdrop of a Lebanon entangled in a regional tug of war. This starkly apolitical first novella charts the life of the titular Vienna, taking us all the way from her first yowl to her dying dirge in the span of thirty-six pages.
Born in an unnamed country, into an unnamed family, Vienna narrates her triumphs (a first kiss stolen while tutoring a boy) and tribulations (he turns out to be gay) as she careens through life, trying and discarding personas like outfits. She is an angsty teenager, a revolutionary activist, a failing philosophy major, a dissatisfied housewife, a promiscuous widow, a tacky talk-show host, a born-again college student, a suicidal depressive, a veiled homemaker, a fed-up emigrant, and then a fed-up returnee. Vienna is a flâneuse, a middle-class tourist in her own life, sightseeing in the strange realm that is womanhood in the Arab world.
It is the protagonist’s often hilarious running commentary (the book is narrated in the first person, except when Vienna emigrates to Paris) that makes the story most compelling. She explodes into melodrama the moment she is born, demanding from the doctor who just delivered her a magnum of champagne in lieu of the obligatory slap on the bum. Years later she organizes a protest to take the case of her first lover-who-turned-out-gay to the United Nations, in hopes of starting an NGO to relieve the anguish of all spurned women. Mandour’s writing, which would seem to belie her formal background as a journalist, uses an irreverent stream of consciousness to circumvent the florid classicism of most Arabic prose, keeping events moving at a brisk clip, transforming Vienna’s many makeovers into a hedonistic jailbreak from boredom and restriction.
At a time when the Arab female provokes fascination both within and without the region, books like Rajaa’ Saneh’s pandering tell-all memoir Banat Al Riyadh have redressed the old clichés in gossip column vogue and pushed them into the limelight. (Saneh’s book, a fetishistic chronicle of four women and their sexual exploits in traditional Saudi Arabia, has met predictably wide critical acclaim in the West as a “brave” work.) Superficially comparable in its subject matter, Mandour’s book is in fact a subtle swipe at an entire genre. She unfolds her main character into the various stereotypical expressions of womanhood only to collapse them, one after the other, into a pile of cardboard cutouts. It is as if Mandour herself is trying on different personas, then discarding them, until none remain but the stranger in a strange land. Virginia Woolf had to kill the Angel in the House in order to be free to write; perhaps only in death can Vienna have an autonomous life.
But it would be reductive to relegate this character to the annals of feminism, just as it would be naive to pretend that her story has little to do with the writer’s Lebanese homeland. Consumed by sectarian strife and teetering on the verge of civil war, it is thus no surprise that Mandour’s heroine is distinguished by her blasé attitude toward it all, flitting indifferently from one experience to another, much like the famed bar hoppers of Beirut during war-time, in search of instant gratification until she finally greets death with an oxygen mask and a song:
“Vienna has a garden in Eden, and a melody in the air with a ring. If heard by the birds, it makes them all cry and sing.”