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‘Don’t let the warlords win’

Dania El Kadi on the importance of leading a normal life even in times of flux

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Lebanese writer Dania El Kadi says her experience of growing up in the middleof the civil war in the eighties has made her a more resilient person
Weekend Review

Dania El Kadi is a Lebanese writer living in London. Her book, Summer Blast, is a fictional story based on the lives of three women during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. As the bombs are falling, one of the women is making plans for her wedding, the other is doing her best to get divorced while the third is trying desperately to make it to a Madonna concert in Paris.

Born in the United States, El Kadi grew up in Lebanon and has lived in Belgium, Kuwait and the UAE. When the 2006 war in Lebanon took place, she was in Dubai. The conflict lasted over a month and more than 1,000 citizens were killed in the time. Being outside the country was difficult. "If the conflict had taken any longer I would have started looking at my options to go back," El Kadi says.

The war reminded her of the long civil war in the country during the eighties, when she was growing up. "When I was a child I didn't understand," she says, "but now that I am older, I wonder how much courage it took my parents to send their children to school every day, not knowing if they would come back."

The civil war has made her a more resilient person because despite the bombings, their lives had to go on. She recounts an incident in which her brother was thought to have gone missing after he was picked up from school by an uncle. "He was in the same class as my cousin," she says. "When the cousin's father came to pick him up, he decided to take my brother too, because he wasn't sure my parents could make it to school." It took her parents a day or two to figure out he was safe, as they didn't know which uncle had picked him up.

My meeting with El Kadi took place at a café in London. She talked about how she became a writer, the many men who enjoy reading women's fiction and the inspiration for the characters in Summer Blast.

Excerpts:

 

What made you want to become a writer?

I always liked to write. When I was a child I used to hide somewhere in my grandmothers' house and write books. My first book was published in France, part of which was written when I was a teenager. When I finished it in my mid-twenties I sent it to a few publishers. My sister used to read those texts and really encourage me. However, after my book was published in France, I got stalled because I got taken up by the whole corporate-life thing, but I always had writing at the back of my mind.

When the war in 2006 came in Lebanon, there was obviously the sadness and tragedy of the situation, but there was also the irony of how we had to push on with our little plans and little lives despite everything. So that is where the idea of Summer Blast came from. And I figured that this was the time to write.

 

The illustration on the cover is of two shoes with high heels. As a man reading this book, should I be worried?

(Laughs) Actually, that was a bit tongue-in-cheek, because there are references to shoes and stuff. And I did see it as women's fiction, and I guess my publisher did as well. But to be honest, I have had a lot of feedback from men who have read it. Actually, I think I am going to put the latest one on my blog — there was an elderly Lebanese gentleman whose feedback was amazing. So no, you don't have to be worried. Because although it is women's fiction, it is also set against the backdrop of war. And it is about an experience very human, very real. I have not tried to dress it up. So I think people of both genders can relate to it.

 

War is a sensitive issue. But you are writing about these women who are trying to get on with their lives. They are more concerned about marriage, divorce and other such issues. Weren't you afraid you might be accused of trying to lighten a serious topic?

Yes, I was worried about that. I questioned it myself initially but again, it is the truth, right? As I said, I really think the best resistance you can put up is just by continuing to be a normal person, not letting violence make you a violent person yourself. And the only way you can fight back is by just going on with your life. And I have experienced that. Had my parents not decided to do that and send us to school during the civil war, we would not have gone anywhere with our lives. All Lebanese parents decided to do that. Maybe it feels shallow sometimes, or selfish, but I really feel that when you focus on your life and try to move ahead, it helps everybody eventually pull through. Anyway, there is nothing else you can do. You can sit down and watch news all day.

 

Where does the inspiration for these women come from?

Some of it is real. It was wedding season in Lebanon. I had two cousins — one was getting married and the other engaged that summer, and they had to redo their plans. So I kind of used them for the bride character. I am a huge Madonna fan. If I had been in Lebanon during the war, I would have probably found a way to get out. Again, it is not about a concert, it is about not letting the warlords win, not letting them rule your life every time they decide they want to kill people.

 

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.

Summer Blast: When War Threatens Lebanese Women's PlansBy Dania El Kadi,Turning Point, 248 pages, £9.99

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