Voices from Beirut

<strong>Hikayat: short stories by Lebanese women</strong>

ed. Roseanne Saad Khalaf <em>Telegram Bo

Layla Baalbaki, notorious in the Arab world during the 1960s, was persecuted by the Lebanese government for her "corrupting", sexually explicit writing. But it is now, of course, mainstream. Her story "A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon" opens this collection, and reads not unlike Jilly Cooper - "I love his naked body," thinks her heroine in the opening scene. In the Middle East as well as the west, times have changed.

The 26 stories in Hikayat are uneasy bedfellows - some suffer from awkward translation and give the sense that important cultural nuances have been lost. Several stories end on a puzzlingly moralising note: "Maybe Mum doesn't know everything after all!" ends a tale of childhood prejudice.

But beyond the occasionally gauche writing is some truly insightful, engaging work. Mai Ghoussoub's "Red Lips" follows the story of lipstick in a convent in precise, ornate prose. Zeina B Ghandour's piece is a fresh and feisty declaration of a character's irreverent take on Islam - "I don't keep Ramadan because fasting makes me go hyper".

Collectively these stories make a fresh, alienating and enlightening read, with poignant references to the war that puts a face to this country back in the news.