The Rubble of Beirut

Lebanese author Elias Khoury’s latest novel to be translated into English, Broken Mirrors, is about identity and memory, destruction and displacement, exile and its internal ruptures. The book opens ...

Lebanese author Elias Khoury’s latest novel to be translated into English, Broken Mirrors, is about identity and memory, destruction and displacement, exile and its internal ruptures. The book opens with the exiled Karim Shammas having just returned to a still-dangerous Beirut in 1990, as the Lebanese civil war that began in 1975 works its way to an explosive end. Karim suffers from a “homesickness for Beirut [that] had left him incapable of thought” and lands him in his home city without his knowing exactly why he is there. The deep, inexplicable longing that overtakes him in middle age is accompanied by paralyzing despair over endemic violence, endless war, and pervasive corruption. “The war will never end because it’s inside us,” says a woman, Salma, to Karim, reflecting not only the accumulated anguish of war, but the deeply fractured nature of Lebanon, Christian and Muslim, born from French and English imperial maneuvering and Maronite demands for a state independent of Syria at the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Khoury, who was until recently a Global Distinguished Professor of the Middle Eastern and Arabic Studies at New York University and the editor of a top Lebanese literary magazine, Al-Mulhaq, is a stunning literary voice of Beirut’s despair and resilience. He isn’t alone in this project. Beirut, its sweep of sea and mountains perched on the edge of East and West, open and cosmopolitan, yet fundamentally unstable, has engendered an urban literature of resilience and memory, of voices trapped in the rubble. It’s worth mentioning here the work of the young Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, whose striking novel The Mehlis Report was published in English in 2013 (Jaber’s Confessions
was brought out by New Directions in March). That book shares a literary and historic tableau with Broken Mirrors, both exploring the ennui of war and terror-depleted Beirut (for an enhanced portrait of Beirut, 1950–2005, read the novels together). The protagonist of The Mehlis Report, Saman Yarid, another 40-year-old man on the precipice, is a Beirut architect whose city is falling apart around him.1 Saman, who has remained while the rest of his family has gone into exile, and Karim, who left while everyone else stayed, reflect each other in the broken mirrors of Beirut. “It’s like your guts are tied to Beirut’s and you don’t know why,” writes Jaber.

Rebuilding a city determined to cast off the past while simultaneously trapped in it are leitmotifs in the literature of Beirut. Khoury’s protagonist, Karim, who became a dermatologist in exile in France, has nominally returned to oversee the construction of a new hospital proposed by his brother, Nasim. But building something new means tearing down the old—whatever the war itself hasn’t destroyed—and with it, memory. “What kind of person demolishes his own memory?” wonders Karim. For Karim, like Saman of The Mehlis Report, numbness produces despair, what Khoury calls an “incurable fragility.” Both Karim and Saman mask their despondence through sex with multiple girlfriends and through Beirut’s sensory delights: coffee, arak, and the traditional pastry called knafeh.

In Broken Mirrors, as in previous novels, notably Gate of the Sun and Yalo, Khoury expresses the idea that people contain multitudes and wear disguises with a prose style that winds, loops, and turns through memory, time, and imagination (and the layers of the city), and which the translator, Humphrey Davies, flawlessly matches in English. “Men aren’t the sons of their fathers and mothers, they’re the sons of the language they speak. That’s why we call it the mother tongue,” says Nasri, the father of Karim and Nasim, the most powerful figure in the novel though he dies—or is possibly killed—months before Karim’s return to Beirut. “Our true mother is the language.” But one doesn’t need to be an expert on the Koran or classical Arabic poetry, whose gestural form Khoury borrows, to become entranced by the sound and rhythm of this language, as if under a spell. Karim, like the reader, is caught: “Karim found himself incapable of understanding the relationship between past and present. It was like memory gave everything a ghostlike cast; as though, rather than remembering himself, he was seeing another person who resembled him.”

Beirut has engendered an urban literature of resilience and memory, of voices trapped in the rubble.

The person who most resembles Karim is his brother, Nasim. Though they were born a year apart, their father insists they are twins. As children, they look the same and are inseparable. Nasri, widowed when the boys are five, is demanding: he wants both of them to be just like him. (As the boys grow older, Karim succeeds at school and Nasim fails; Karim becomes shy, slender, and reflective, Nasim burly and aggressive. Karim pretends to be Nasim and takes his exams and Nasim protects Karim from bullies.) After the 1967 Arab–Israeli war and the launch of the armed Palestinian liberation movement, the figurative twins take opposite sides, embodying Lebanon’s internal contradiction: Karim becomes a communist aligned with a Marxist brigade that’s part of Fatah; Nasim joins the rightist Christian Phalangists. But Karim does not have the heart for war. He watches both the Lebanese communists and the pro-Palestinian brigades being taken over by thugs—in this case, Islamists who come to exploit the civil war and whose seizure of power and indelible effect on the region beginning in the 1970s Khoury employs as the novel’s shadow plot.

Karim flees war and dashed hopes for France, despite his love for Hend, who agrees to marry Nasim, deceiving herself that he is an exact replacement for his brother. In France, Karim marries a nurse named Bernadette. He rejects his Lebanese heritage and for a while cherishes Bernadette’s white skin; they have two daughters. “He’d come to France to erase his memories and manufacture new ones in a new country and with a new woman who had nothing to do with his past.” At 40, though, he “had come to feel he could no longer see himself in this new environment, as though Karim had evaporated and become shapeless.” It is as though nothing, for the exiled, is definite. Why return? Karim doesn’t deceive himself that he can “start a new life.” He “set off for the past, only to discover that he could no longer visit it. Things happen in a deluge and pile up one on top of the other.”

With that language on the tongue, Khoury lets Karim, and the reader, sift through the rubble of Beirut. There is quite a lot of sex in this sifting; Khoury depicts female sexuality as a form of power and of weakness. He bathes it in an Orientalism that is not incidental but sometimes too much to bear, as are the many bits of wisdom expressed as metaphor by Nasri, Hend, and others. And yet, after a while, the wisdom, like the longing for fragrance in the dust of war, becomes intoxicating. The reader can’t resist. Karim indulges endlessly. And then he snaps.

On the precipice of exile again, he eyes a waiting airplane, but will the city let him go? icon

Featured image: Mural painted beside Cafe Younes in Hamra district of Beirut. Photograph by Omar Chatriwala / Flickr