Book review: Drawing a star on Vienna’s forehead

Mary Mourad , Wednesday 29 Dec 2010

A little novella, only seventy-seven pages long, relates the story of Vienna, a woman struggling against a society that confines females to the smallest of worlds

Sa’arsem Nejma A'la Jabeen Vienna (I will draw a star on Vienna’s forehead), Sahar Mandour, Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2010. pp77

When Sahar Mandour wrote her first book, “I will draw a star on Vienna’s forehead”, little did she expect the warm reception it would receive from Arab readers. The Lebanese-Egyptian television host had never written before, until one day she had a bright idea and Vienna was born, first appearing in Lebanon, then in Egypt through the prominent publisher, Dar el-Shorouk.

The little novella, which is only seventy-seven pages long, relates the story of Vienna, the little girl named after the famous song by Arab diva, Asmahan.  The song recalls the city of Vienna, with a splendour that resembles paradise, even causing the birds to sing.  However, the relation between Vienna the city and the story ends there.

 Born to an average middle-class family, Vienna lives through the struggles of a society which confines females to the smallest of worlds. She suffers and struggles to relate and plunges headlong into life until eventually hitting the bottom; experimenting with life rather than actual living it.

Vienna starts smoking, drinking and having sex at a young age, abandoning all the conservative Arab morals, which leads her family to force her into marriage. Supported and defended only by her loving older brother, she dares to defy the family and drop out of college after failing philosophy.

 Even marriage becomes a test but she is soon freed when her husband dies young, not unusual in Lebanon which has suffered continuous losses since the civil war. They don’t have children, which severs all ties with that part of her past, except for one visit to his family, not out of sympathy, but because she misses her mother-in-law’s cooking.

 Vienna meets success elsewhere.  Using her beauty she becomes a star on television, only to realise that stars only shine briefly for an instant before they go out.

Sexual taboos

 Her relationships become an entangled list of men and she mixes up their names and eventually loses track of them. Daringly addressing sexual taboos and relationships, she turns to amusement to relieve the boredom. Nothing means very much to her. Even an attempt to return to college ends in disaster, followed by a trip to Paris where she hopes to make a living, but returns soon after.

 Religion hits Vienna hardest as she escapes her dull life and looks for company among her neighbours, who encourage her to take the “right path.” Her devotion and dedication to this new direction takes her all the way to Mecca, and hajj (a required pilgrimage for Muslims), to the extent of marrying a neighbour’s brother in order to have a mehrem (an accompanying male required for women to enter Mecca).

However, a wake-up call hits her during a “religious teaching session”, when she realises that there is deliberate intent to ignore and even destroy ‘the other’, in this instance - Christians. However, this appeared as defensive in support of her brother who is a secret homosexual.

 Vienna’s last encounter will be with death, and here Mandour leaves us to consider that lightness of existence depicted throughout her novel.

A powerful cry for freedom

The real art comes from the extent of its cynicism and ability to turn all sacred truths into material for sarcasm and laughter. Not unusual in Lebanese art, Vienna  connects politics with family matters and personal lives. It’s rare to find Lebanese creative writing that is not tainted with the colours of every-day lives, combining the private and public intimately. There is a powerful cry for freedom heard loud and clear, starting with a scream for true political liberation, until it drops to a whisper, calling for social liberation in one of the most open Arab communities.

 Mandour’s writing uses an extremely simplistic language that matches the simple style and carefree use of words and expressions. Nothing can be taken seriously when spoken by Vienna, who at one point calls for a petition to the United Nations, requesting support for “ladies discriminated against by homosexual boyfriends”, and requesting European Union funds.  She demonstrates in front of the mission’s office asking for external pressure on the government of Lebanon.

 It’s difficult to judge the ‘star on Vienna’s forehead’ in strictly literary terms; it only matches the creation in breaking the rules in relation to style, consistency and speed. Yet it remains a hectic and exciting trip that leaves the reader breathless.

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