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The Ninety-Ninth Floor

Jana Fawaz El Hassan
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“’To be a Palestinian, either you forget your roots and deny your origins in order to advance in life, or you remain a bullet in the barrel of a rifle waiting to be fired.’ So says Majd, a Palestinian living in New York, working on the 99th floor of a sleek office building, and struggling to keep at bay memories of the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, which killed his pregnant mother and left him scarred and crippled. Now he has fallen in love with Hilda, a Lebanese Christian studying dance in the city, and he’s edgily, anxiously, angrily aware that her people should be regarded as the enemy. Were they linked to the massacre? As Hilda prepares for a trip home, professing her devotion to Majd, we’re about to find out. VERDICT Whether it’s discussing love or war, this arresting meditation on loss is visceral and honest; short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2015.”
— Library Journal, Starred Review

“Through sharp, unabashed prose, Elhassan lets reader into the lives of Majd and Hilda, two people whose families stood on opposite sides of a war and massacre in Sabra and Shatila Camp, Lebanon, on September 16, 1982. The war destroyed Majd's family and left him scarred and mangled both mentally and physically. Majd and Hilda found each other and fell in love in New York years later, but when Hilda feels compelled to visit her family in Beirut, doubts and fears build walls between the lovers. Can they come to terms with the past in time to save their relationship? Will Hilda ever return to Majd? Elhassan's writing reveals the complex, emotional journey Majd must face as he struggles with the horrors of his pregnant mother's violent murder, his own wounds, and a love that is both strong and destructive. Though he and his father escaped the "angry land" of his childhood, the butchery that destroyed his mother and countless other lives followed him to New York, written on his psyche. Anger, passion, and loss dominate the pages of this gripping, emotional novel as the protagonists face the bloody shadows of their pasts.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Two star-crossed lovers—one Lebanese and the other Palestinian—meet in New York and try to reconcile their contentious romantic and political feelings in this novel from a Lebanese author who’s never been translated into English before. If the personal is indeed political, then the relationship between Majd and Hilda is loaded from the get-go. Majd designs computer games and has adapted well to the American dream, for his business is comfortably established on the 99th floor of a high-rise in New York City. He remains bitter about the past, however, for he was badly wounded and his mother was killed in the September 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. He meets and falls in love with Hilda, who’s come from Lebanon to study dance and fashion design. She comes from a conservative Christian family and still prays often and fervently. They begin a passionate affair, which Hilda interrupts—much to the dismay of Majd—by revisiting Lebanon to get back to her roots. Majd fears, not without reason, that the distance between them might bring an end to their affair. To complicate the love theme, Elhassan creates another relationship—between Majd’s Lebanese friend Mohsen (or Mike) and his voluptuous Mexican girlfriend, Eva—that echoes the primary bond between Hilda and Majd. The personal becomes really political when it turns out Hilda’s family were Phalangists and thus perhaps in part responsible for committing the atrocities at Sabra and Shatila. Once Hilda is back in Beirut she faces the difficult decision of whether to remain or to return to the States and try to redeem her relationship with Majd. Elhassan moves her story seamlessly across two time periods—2000, the ‘present’ of the action, and 1982, when the massacre took place. Translated from the Arabic, this is an intimate and intense novel that shines a light on both the overt and hidden tensions of the Middle East.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“It’s hard to imagine a deeper gulf than the one that separates Majd and Hilda, the main characters at the heart of this gloomy reflection on love, war and not belonging. Majd is a Palestinian who lost his mother and was himself badly wounded in the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, while his Lebanese girlfriend, Hilda, is ‘one of those enemy girls’ from a family of Christian Phalangists. Luckily, they live in neutral territory — pre-9/11 New York City — where Hilda studies dance and Majd is a successful video game developer (with an office on the 99th floor). It’s Hilda’s decision to return to Lebanon to visit her family that sets off the extended bouts of introspection by Majd that make up much of Elhassan’s novel. The story’s theme of forbidden love upended by war, combined with the stranger-in-a-strange-land motif, have too long a history in literature to make a fresh telling easy. And Majd’s long-winded soul searching can be tedious. ‘My relationship with Hilda is impossible. Yes, impossible. She is South and I am West. She is North and I am East. She is fire and I am water. She’s over there and I’m not anywhere. She dances and I can barely move my leg.’ It’s the political rather than the personal that’s most engaging for the foreign reader, since there are some truths only a storyteller can tell.”

—New York Times

“Lebanese journalist and novelist Jana Fawaz El Hassan’s third novel, the first to be translated into English, is The Ninety-Ninth Floor. The novel is a frank look at love between two conflicting characters: their deep and divisive family roots, irreconcilable backgrounds, and the underlying forces that hold them together. Set in both New York and Lebanon, two worlds collide in the most painful, frustrating and fitful of ways. Majd, the Palestinian protagonist, is a successful employee at a video game development company, working in a prestigious 99th floor office in Manhattan. Severely maimed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, he moves to New York with his father for a new life, which, somewhat guiltily, he finds. Sporadic correspondence with his cousin Muhammad back ‘over there’ in Shatila, in addition to his disability, keeps him acutely reminded of all he has left behind, and of the horrors his family faced in the massacre, an incident he will never—can never—forget. It is perhaps this memory that renders remarkable his relationship with Lebanese dancer Hilda. As the relationship unfolds, the present intersperses with the past, with its memories of growing up in Lebanon re-emerging. Never far from the surface is the 1982 massacre: both Majd and Hilda have grown up in the fallout from this tragedy. Hilda, from a well-off, respected Christian Lebanese family, has had entirely different experiences of growing up in Lebanon, but she too has left for New York in search of a new beginning and new opportunities. Their love is unexpected and inexplicable, but binding. The relationship revealingly holds up a mirror—a theme running throughout the novel—to their individual selves and their pasts, prompting new questions and shining light on old truths. Pivotal to the novel is the effect of Hilda’s decision to return to Mount Lebanon on her relationship with Majd. It is a decision fuelled by her desire to find answers to the most burning but buried questions of her past, even if the truth to be uncovered is far from being what she wants to hear. Back home, she is reminded that division and disunity pervade even the closest of family units. She learns that memories, however painful, cannot be bottled up and forgotten indefinitely. Waiting for her in New York, Majd is tormented by his love for her, suffocated, and can only think to punish her for her absence by rejecting her calls, only deepening the hole bored into his chest by her absence. Imagining Hilda with her family in Mount Lebanon, he is reminded of the atrocities he has left behind, his identity and life of exile questioned further. An array of other characters also find in the city of New York a refuge from their painful pasts. Majd’s friend, Mohsen, from the war generation, leaves his family behind in Lebanon, changing his name to Mike and revelling in his successful new life, ‘absorbed in promiscuity and drunkenness but at other times [drowning] in bouts of nostalgia’. Eva, a beautiful Mexican woman, is also in New York to escape her past. For Majd, New York—and his high-rise office block, represents the top—‘every other place would be lower—Beirut and the Palestine [he’d] never known’. High up in his tower block, he feels that he is ‘eternally running away towards greatness’. Linking all the characters, in essence, is the sentiment that New York symbolizes this running away. In 2015 Jana Fawaz El Hassan received the accolade of being listed among the BBC’s 100 Women for her taboo-breaking first novel Forbidden Desires, alongside such influential figures as Egyptian feminist writer and activist Nawal el-Sadaawi. Less ground-breaking, but nevertheless shortlisted for the 2015 IPAF Prize, is The Ninety-Ninth Floor, for its perceptive insight into growing up in post-civil war Lebanon, life in pre-2001 New York, and the feasibility of a relationship between two very different characters.”