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IN BRIEF

Fiction

November 20, 1994|DICK RORABACK

THE STORY OF ZAHRA by Hana el-Shaykh. (Anchor: $18; 215 pp.) Zahra is an avatar of modern Lebanon. Both Zahra and her country, while afflicted by ambient and random violence, simultaneously embrace it, fearful but fascinated. Zahra's malaise, as Lebanon's, verges on madness. For both, hopes are raised, then dashed. What light there is at the end of the tunnel is dim, tenebrous. In a relentlessly grim novel, Hana el-Shaykh has chosen Zahra--unattractive, disturbed, dependent--as the eye of the hurricane, her calm arising not from serenity but from withdrawal. Her Beirut family is relatively privileged. Her mother is promiscuous, her father feckless. With only one man does she feel anything, a vague sexual pleasure. The man is a sniper. We do not understand Zahra. We do not understand Lebanon.

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