Global Perspective

Elevating the Eccentric, An Unnecessary Woman Makes National Must-Read List

by Monica Villavicencio, office of marketing communications

Being part of USF means being part of a world that extends far beyond our campus gates and national borders. We have one of the largest international student populations per capita in the country and a vibrant community of students, alumni, and faculty studying and working abroad. This month, USF News highlights this #GlobalPerspective with stories about USFers changing the world from all corners of the globe.

Of all the characters novelist Rabih Alameddine MBA ’86 has created, his latest — a 72-year-old woman with blue hair and no friends — is his most autobiographical, he says.

Aaliyah Sobhi, the title character of Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, is a recluse. She’s outlived a loveless marriage and witnessed death at her doorstep — literally — as her homeland, Lebanon, was torn apart by a decade and a half of civil war.

A recluse in Beirut 

The one thing giving Aaliyah’s life meaning is her love of literature. Her days are spent alone in her Beirut apartment with her favorite authors and their creations. Their characters are her company. Each year, she painstakingly translates one book into classical Arabic. And each year, instead of sending her work to a publisher, she puts the completed translation into a box and stores it in her spare room. So far, she has 57.

In the eyes of the world, Aaliyah has accomplished nothing. 

And for Alameddine, that is what makes her so compelling. 

A self-described recluse, Alameddine divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut, spending much of it alone, reading and writing. But, unlike Aaliyah, he has plenty to show for it. His works include a collection of short stories and four novels, including the international bestseller The Hakawati, which has been translated into more than 10 languages. His books have received glowing reviews in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and on National Public Radio. An Unnecessary Woman, published in January, is one of 10 books on the National Book Award’s fiction longlist.

'Necessary' or not?

“I look at my own life, and I’m really odd,” Alameddine says with a characteristic self-deprecation. “My friends think, ‘Oh well, he’s odd, but he’s a writer.’”

“And so I was thinking, ‘What if someone was as much of a recluse as I am but is not a writer, doesn’t publish, doesn’t do anything, so the world does not know. Is their life necessary or unnecessary?’”

It’s a question that haunted Alameddine after reading about the life of Bruno Schulz, a celebrated Polish writer and painter. Schulz was temporarily kept alive by a Nazi commander so that he could paint a mural in the commander’s son’s room. Schulz was classified as a “necessary Jew.”

Alameddine’s character Aaliyah is not, in fact, “necessary” by her society’s standards. She is not a wife or a mother, nor a published translator. She is simply odd and old. And yet, Alameddine says, her life has value, just as any other.

Every life has value

“We define ‘necessary’ and ‘unnecessary’ by what society values. A doctor is more important than a bartender, or a famous writer is more important than a garbage collector,” he explains. “But the truth is, every life has value. What makes a life ‘necessary’ is how much commitment one has to the life they’re living.”

And by that account both Aaliyah and Alameddine are anything but “unnecessary.”

Know someone with a powerful USF story? Let us know! | Twitter @usfcanews