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Emily Nasrallah, 86, Lebanese novelist and activist

In 2017, the Goethe Institute awarded Ms. Nasrallah the Goethe Medal, an honor presented to non-Germans.
In 2017, the Goethe Institute awarded Ms. Nasrallah the Goethe Medal, an honor presented to non-Germans. (Jens Meyer/Associated Press/FIle 2017)

Emily Nasrallah, a prize-winning Lebanese writer whose novels struggled with bigotry against women, the horrors of civil war, and the vacuum left by fleeing refugees, died Tuesday in Beirut. She was 86.

“Lebanon and the Arab world lost an icon of literature and Lebanese creativity, and a women’s rights activist,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in announcing the death.

Ms. Nasrallah, who was also a journalist, a teacher, a lecturer, and a women’s rights advocate, was best known in Lebanon, but some of her books were translated and published abroad.

Wherever they were read, they struck a responsive chord.

“You really travel through the pages,” Sirene Harb, an associate professor of comparative literature at the American University of Beirut, told The Associated Press. “It’s not anymore a book that you have in front of you, it’s something you have inside of you.”

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Ms. Nasrallah’s novels were tragic narratives of alienation, arranged marriages, and unfulfilled love — stories of young women torn between strict village traditions and emerging rights trying to shape their lives as members of societies in transition.

They recount the emptiness left by immigration, the women left behind by men seeking a better life beyond war-torn Lebanon, the parents abandoned by children desperate to fulfill dreams they had been denied.

Education in her village at the foot of Mount Hermon was rudimentary, but after completing the third grade, she appealed to an uncle, a businessman in West Virginia, who agreed to subsidize her education at a boarding school in suburban Beirut.

She was still a teenager in college when one of her teachers encouraged a local magazine to publish her work.

In 1957, she married Philip Nasrallah, a chemist from Zahle, Lebanon. They raised four children, Ramzi, Maha, Khalil and Mona, who survive her.

“I believe that children are a source of inspiration,” Ms. Nasrallah once said. “The writer who is a mother sees in her children the history of humanity,”

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She graduated from what is now the Lebanese American University in Beirut in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in education and literature and published her first novel, “Birds of September,” in 1962.

Her five siblings had left Lebanon for Canada, but Ms. Nasrallah steadfastly remained, even during the civil war that began in 1975 and lasted into the ‘80s. She joined what became known as the Beirut Decentrists — a group of writers, all women, who were physically and intellectually scattered over “a self-destructing city,” as professor Miriam Cooke of Duke University put it.

Even in her children’s books, Ms. Nasrallah would hardly sugarcoat the horrors of military conflict. In “A Cat’s Diary” (1998), she chronicled war through the journal of a cat left to fend for itself by a family who had fled the fighting.

Last year, the German cultural organization the Goethe Institute awarded her the Goethe Medal, an official decoration that honors non-Germans. Last month, President Michel Aoun of Lebanon honored her as a commander of the National Order of the Cedar.

“I am not a feminist writer,” Ms. Nasrallah told The Daily Star of Lebanon in 2004. But she championed respect for women, not only those who, like her, had fled to more cosmopolitan lives, but also the friends and classmates she had left behind in rural villages.

For Ms. Nasrallah and the other Decentrists, Beirut during the civil war became a metaphor for the villages they had abandoned.

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“Nasrallah redefined Lebanon, the sick child, as a village,” Cooke wrote in “War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War” (1987). “Hence, those who had left the village recovered through the war their lost identity, and with it their right to belong and to call themselves Lebanese.”