Wonders of Destruction in Arabic Fiction

Max Weiss

Historians of war and society would like to believe that military conflicts have fixed beginnings and ends. Conventional depictions of the Lebanese civil war are no exception and typically confine that conflict within the notional temporal parameters of 1975–90. But the key aggravating features generally identified with the events of the Lebanese civil war—class resentments, echoes of the Arab-Israeli conflict on a regional scale, domestic geographical inequalities, sectarian rancor, and political infighting across the Lebanese scene—had been accumulating since 1948, and even earlier.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, multiple wars were fought in, around, and over Lebanon—the two-year war (1975–76); the Israeli invasions and occupation (1978, 1982–2000); the Syrian invasion and occupation (1976–2005); the “War of the Camps” (1985–87), and so on. Indeed, “the Lebanese civil war” as such is a myth, one might even say a political fiction; it was never one thing, and cannot be boiled down to a single conflict. The Lebanese civil wars, therefore, which must be apprehended in the plural, have started, stopped, and re-started at different moments, proceeding along multiple timelines, occasionally running parallel, occasionally intersecting, and not always in ways that are coherent or comprehensible. If war, in the formulation of von Clausewitz, is the continuation of politics by other means, then politics in postwar Lebanon might be thought of as war by other means, means that may not always have readily discernible ends.

<i>Martyr Square, Beirut, during the civil war</i> (1982). Wikimedia Commons

It is something of a morbid irony that the trauma and dislocation of this grisly war experience should have produced not only a fractured and fractious political landscape but also what can only be described as some of the best Arabic prose of the 20th and 21st centuries: “Lebanese civil war literature.” The anxiety, deferral, and other displacements of the “postwar” period in 21st-century Lebanon are at the heart of Rabee Jaber’s slim yet powerful novel, The Mehlis Report (Taqrir Mihlis), originally published in Arabic in 2005 and now appearing in English in a lively, crystalline translation by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. Mehlis tells the story of Saman Yarid, a Beirut-based architect and designer who runs his own Yarid Architecture and Design Agency. The Agency is involved in a number of building projects, including some undertaken by Solidere, the company responsible for much of the reconstruction of the Beirut Central District, a massive project spearheaded by the billionaire construction mogul and former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

Most of the novel is set in October 2005, seven months after a massive car bombing took the life of al-Hariri and dozens in his entourage as they rolled by the Saint George Hotel on the Beirut waterfront, ushering in a period of profound political upheaval and widespread insecurity. Accusatory fingers were instinctively pointed at the Syrian regime—whose secret services had dominated the Lebanese security environment since 1976—and its allies in Lebanon. Subsequently, a major demonstration was held in downtown Beirut on March 8, organized primarily by Hezbollah, in order to publicly thank Syria for its stalwart support of the Lebanese people. In response, on March 14, a coalition of parties and independent political actors came together in what would come to be known as the “independence intifada” or the “Cedar Revolution.” These two factional blocs would dominate Lebanese politics for the following six years. (In July 2013 the Shi`i leader Nabih Berri pronounced the March 8 alliance finished.) In response to the widely perceived inability of the Lebanese political establishment to carry out an unbiased internal inquiry (thanks, largely, to the heavy-handed role still played by the Syrian regime throughout the country), UN Security Council Resolution 1595 (April 7, 2005) launched an international investigation into the assassination.

If war, in the formulation of von Clausewitz, is the continuation of politics by other means, then politics in postwar Lebanon might be thought of as war by other means.

During the following weeks and months, even as the work of this commission got underway, Lebanon witnessed a string of car bombings that only compounded the generalized uncertainty looming in Lebanese political and popular consciousness. The present tense of Jaber’s novel is suffused with anticipation for the imminent release of the report from the UN-appointed German investigator Detlev Mehlis. Saman spends his time fielding and avoiding phone calls from his two concerned sisters who live abroad; listlessly shuffling from home to work and back again; and regularly frequenting yet also dreading urban public spaces that have become simultaneously dangerous and uncanny. His evenings are spent with Cecilia, a woman who recently started working as a cashier at the Monoprix supermarket. Other minor characters float in and out of his life, but it is the city of Beirut itself—its physicality, its ghosts, its wreckage—that remains his primary interlocutor. Saman and his city, ever tormented, slouch toward an unknowable future, and, more importantly, toward October 20, 2005, the release date of the Mehlis Report, which is expected to reveal “the truth” behind the bombing. Separating fact from fiction here is difficult, if not impossible. Some sections of Mehlis sound like news reports, which serve as background noise and something like the soundtrack to Saman Yarid’s inexorably fraying life.

The book’s other first-person narrator is Saman’s deceased sister, Josephine, who was kidnapped along the demarcation line between West and East Beirut in 1983 and subsequently executed by her captors. She narrates her chapters from a shadowy netherworld located beneath Beirut, “the land of the dead,” where disembodied souls dwell, reading as much as they wish and struggling to compose and record their own life stories. Having read the Bible—along with the Iliad—several times, Josephine takes comfort in the biblical blandishment, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” The supernatural is a steady presence in this gothic noir, yet remains somehow tame, unthreatening, integrated into the fabric of everyday life (and death). A sense of disbelief runs alongside this domestication of the supernatural. Whether they inhabit “the land of the living” or “the land of the dead,” the characters populating Mehlis are universally afflicted with an inability to come to terms with their surroundings; all are doomed to uncertainty.




History and memory are central to the writing of Rabee Jaber (b. 1972), novelist, cultural journalist, and prolific author of more than 15 novels. Mehlis is the first of two scheduled to be published by New Directions (one hopes they will not be the last of his oeuvre to appear in English). From his trilogy Bayrut madinat al-`alam (2003, 2005, 2007; Beirut, City of the World) and Berytus: Madina taht al-ard (2005; Berytus: Underground City) to his early novel al-Bayt al-akhir (1996; The Last House) and the recent, epic Tuyur al-Huliday Inn (2011; The Birds of the Holiday Inn), Jaber is consumed by the Lebanese city, emotionally and even viscerally bound to its sights and sounds, smells and tastes.

The Mehlis Report also suggests that, for Jaber’s protagonists, Beirut’s city limits remain impassable, both spatially and metaphorically. Saman roams Beirut, much of his time spent in an anxiety-ridden stupor, reeling from senseless events that constitute his day-to-day reality, often retracing steps through the neighborhoods that he once knew all too well, but that now seem changed. That personal insecurity is linked to political instability: “Recently, after the series of explosions and the return of tension to the country, he’s started having panic attacks he cannot understand.” Any attempt to understand one’s surroundings, to punctuate and periodize one’s own life, to historicize the city and its inhabitants, is met with frustration. Time speeds up and slows down spontaneously; individual affects go haywire:

 

One minute he was up, and the next he was down. What was this strange recent mood? When had this transformation begun? Had it begun with the disturbances? With February 14th? No, it had started before that. But when? At the end of last year? While he was watching the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on TV?


Saman is beset by a gnawing obsession to ascertain “the truth”—which, not coincidentally, was the ubiquitous demand-cum-slogan plastered all over Beirut in the aftermath of al-Hariri’s assassination—and the dialectic between certainty and uncertainty, between truth and ignorance, becomes increasingly pronounced in the novel. Confusion and dislocation extend even to “the land of the dead.” Wonder and confusion, eerily similar to what Saman experiences, pervade Josephine’s realm: “I write and try to understand. To this very moment, I still haven’t grasped my own death. I haven’t comprehended it yet. How did I die? Why did I die? My time had not yet come, so how had I left the land of the living? How had I left it?” Ghoulish rats also inhabit the “land of the dead” and are influenced by the same events. After the al-Hariri assassination, a hideous giant rat and its disciples, which feast on the dead during periods of strife and devastation, awake, heralding that “the days of industry must be drawing near again.”

Gustave Doré’s illustration of La Fontaine’s fable, <i>Conseil tenu par les rats</i> (ca. 1868). Wikimedia Commons

But this is far from a grotesque horror story or a fatalist narrative. Indeed, as with much “civil war literature,” characters (and perhaps readers) wield real social power by embracing the everyday, by simply carrying on. Amid the uncertainty of “postwar” Beirut, Saman and others find moments of peace and tranquility. “Beirut is tense. Everyone is skittish. But the steam still rises from the teacups. And the cake smells sweet.” Of course, everyday death must go on as well. And being dead doesn’t necessarily mean going without TV. As Josephine says, “We have televisions here. In every house, in every room, you might find a TV. When our longing for the land of the living grows too strong, we turn on the television and watch.”

Among the strengths of this relatively straightforward yet compelling narrative is the powerful simplicity with which Jaber uses metaphor. Saman receives regular phone calls of concern from family and friends in Lebanon and abroad. Yet he grows more paranoid by the day. At one point, he refuses to answer a phone call from an unknown number that he impossibly concludes is that of someone reaching out to him from another dimension. This unnamed character gives voice to the concern that Saman is wasting his life:


Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe you were born in an inauspicious hour. A city thrives for a time, then collapses. A house flourishes for decades, then falls. The city is falling now too. Your problem is that you were born at a moment when the house is collapsing.


Beirut is a dilapidated, crumbling house. The structural problems facing the city take visceral form in and through Saman. “Strange things are happening deep within him these days. As if unknown corridors were opening up inside his body. These impenetrable feelings. All this uneasiness. These ups and downs.” The spectral figure addresses Saman, cementing the connections between the urban and the biological:


Beirut, suspended, waits for the unknown, and you too are in suspension … Beirut’s a ship, a ship on the sea, and the sea could rise up at any moment. Its location is to blame. We can’t lay the blame within it: it’s not in the city, and it’s not in you. The place, rather, is to blame. And the time.


Beirut’s physicality fuses with the corporeality of its inhabitants. Despite design flaws, though, the city and its denizens are perhaps yet redeemable.

In the past, Jaber has written in a variety of genres, from war literature to historical fiction. In its deadpan characterization of the recent past and the impending future, Mehlis creates a satisfying blend of political fiction and hyperrealism that could be termed mimetic aspiration. Those who lived through this period in Beirut’s tortured recent history will find much verisimilitude here; on the other hand, the irruption of the supernatural throughout calls into question the reliability of Saman the narrator and his lived reality.

The novel seems to be less concerned with thematizing the relationship between fact and fiction than demonstrating their unpredictable intermingling. One day after a swim, Saman promenades across downtown, observing the frenetic pace of reconstruction:


A forest of buildings surrounded by green construction netting: inside the safety netting, workers are rushing around like ants, endlessly welding steel and carrying panes of glass. Machines are molding cement, cranes are hoisting rocks, and dust fills the sky. Endorphins fill his body, and … all this construction lifts his spirits. These rising buildings are a good omen, thinks Saman Yarid.


This is consistent with the novel’s many other metaphorical equations of the body and the built environment. What is ironic about all of this, however, is that Beirut is collapsing even as the hopeful process of reconstruction continues apace.




Rabee Jaber is an important force in contemporary Arabic literature and Mehlis can be profitably considered in light of broader transformations in the field. One of the most fascinating qualities of much Arabic fiction now—though this is by no means particular to the work of Arab writers—is how it blurs the line between reality and fantasy, between politics and literature, suggesting a tension between the political and what might be called the post-political.

This is not purely a generational development. Both Fawwaz Haddad (b. 1947) and Rosa Yaseen Hassan (b. 1974), two of the most important contemporary Syrian writers who have still not had more than excerpts of their work published in English, exemplify this phenomenon. Haddad’s most recent novels, including `Azf munfarid `ala al-biyanu (2009; Solo Piano Music), Junud Allah (2010; God’s Soldiers), and Khutut al-nar (2011; The Firing Lines), follow the peripatetic journeys of Syrian middle-class protagonists as they are rudely confronted by politics—the shadowy worlds created by the Ba`athist dictatorship, or the poisonous spillover effects of the Iraq conflict and international terrorism—and forced to navigate a world on the verge of chaos, in which the everyday nature of political affairs inexorably slides from the opaque toward the sinister. In Hassan’s most recent novel, Brufa (2011; Rough Draft), a bored intelligence officer constructs the manuscript for a novel out of material collected from eavesdropping on ordinary Syrians—a plot reminiscent of the 2006 Academy Award–winning film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)—fudging the boundaries between the security state and everyday life. Such engagements with and transformations of the political are not limited to prose coming out of Lebanon and Syria. In Egypt, Sonallah Ibrahim, whose most recent novel is al-Jalid (2011; Ice), continues to carve out a space for the political in unforgiving circumstances; Iraqi writer Muhsin al-Ramli’s recent Hada`iq al-ra`is (2012; The President’s Gardens) tackles the mayhem of post–US invasion Iraq.

To the extent that Jaber’s novel can be classified as political fiction, it also gestures toward the apolitical, the anti-political, even the post-political.

During a recent visit to Beirut, I suggested to Abbas Beydoun, the Lebanese poet, novelist, and public intellectual, that there was a decidedly political edge to much recent Arabic fiction, and wondered what he thought about my description of it as “new political fiction” or my identification of a “new political novel.” His own most recent novel, Sa`at al-takhalli (2013; Quitting Time), for example, explores the fate of four friends who together survived the tumult and terror of the Israeli invasions of south Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the immediacy of those experiences and their youthful political exploits in the Communist Party and other left-wing movements recede into the mists of memory and history, the characters in the novel reflect on the place of politics within the lifespan of individuals and generations, of friendships and romantic relationships. In response, Beydoun pushed back against my characterization, protesting, “my work has always been political.”

To be sure, there is a venerable tradition of mid- to late 20th-century Arabic writing that was influenced by a wide range of philosophical and political trends, from Marxist thought and Sartrean existentialism to modernism, socialist realism, and postmodern experimentalism. But even if Arabic prose has “always been political,” the nature of the political changes over time. For Jaber, Beirut is governed by political events that are utterly beyond the control of its inhabitants. To the extent that Mehlis can be classified as political fiction, it also gestures toward the apolitical, the anti-political, even the post-political. In a world bereft of foundational truth and ideological certitude, fictional realities become unmoored, political principles untethered from moral truths. It is unclear whether critics ought to speak of a “post-political” moment in modern Arabic literature, one in which “politics, for some foreseeable time, is no longer a domain where acts are possible.” On the other hand, as Leslie Fiedler had already remarked more than half a century ago, “the embarrassing fact [is] that our world is more like the neurotic fantasies of writers of horror-fiction than the polite or sentimental constructions of the realists.” Whatever the case, literary critics can do more to find new ways of explaining the nature and transformation of the political in modern and contemporary Arabic writing.

Amid the exuberance and catastrophism of the media’s bipolar coverage of the Arab uprisings, it might seem absurd even to consider that contemporary Arabic literature should be read as anything other than social text. Pundits and critics wait with bated breath for the first novel of the Syria conflict or Tahrir Square to be published (and, of course, translated). Whether Arabic literary creation helps inspire concrete political action or reinforces the cynical conclusion that nothing is to be done remains an open question. Be that as it may, the publication of an important Lebanese author like Rabee Jaber by a high-profile literary press such as New Directions might not only represent the incorporation of Arabic literature into the contested space of “world literature” but, more importantly, an opportunity for a much larger corpus of Arabic writing to be taken seriously by mainstream English-language publishers. One hopes that the ecology of Arabic literature in translation will continue to flourish and diversify, until there is space on the A-list of international publishing for works that are political but also those that are not, for works that chronicle modern and contemporary destruction as well as those that want nothing to do with it.