May Reading: Two Books from Lebanon

This post might also be called Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, featuring two writers, one male and one female, one living in Lebanon, the other abroad, who both use oral storytelling as a narrative device and blend personal stories with political ones, trying to explain what is inexplicable, or at least give us a flavour of what it might be like to go through such difficult times. Neither of these books are easy to read, despite what the jaunty cover of the second one might indicate, but they are worthwhile, well-written and thought-provoking.

Elias Khoury: White Masks, transl. Maia Tabet, Maclehose Press. (Originally published in 1981, in the midst of civil war in Lebanon)

An apparently banal murder of a man in his fifties, left on a rubbish tip in Beirut: Khalil Ahmad Jaber represents everyman – wife, family, two married daughters, a son who fought in the civil war and has been proclaimed a ‘martyr’. Prior to his body being discovered, disappeared for three weeks. The story is narrated by a journalist who tries to investigate the case – and speaks to his widow, his daughter, the neighbour (an engineer who seems reasonably interested in the widow), widow of the caretaker of the block of flats who seems to have had a relationship with the deceased, the rubbish collector who found the body, a militiaman who was involved in the interrogation of Khalil, his daughter, the doctor who performed the autopsy.

Each account gives of course a very different view of the troubled personality of the dead man, seeks to justify their own part in his downfall, but also show how preoccupied they are with their own lives. The narrative gives the feeling of interview transcripts, messy, slipping easily from present to past and back again, going off on tangents. Perhaps in keeping with the oral storytelling tradition of the region.

Finally, the journalist narrator’s voice comes back in at the end of the book, to almost chide himself for picking such a ‘small’ subject to ‘entertain, please and pass the time’ (surely an irony, as he succeeds in doing almost exactly the opposite – cause anxiety, worry and confuse us). He sums it up as one small tragedy among so many that are being played out daily.

Is the identification of the murderer the problem? Would it help us understand the motives for the crime? I don’t think so… It was not for lack of trying… I spent months investigating and reading to try and establish the facts.. So now, dear reader, you too may feel as bewildered as I do. Faced with the impossibility of discovering the truth, you must doubt, as I do, the reported incident itself, as well as people’s accounts. I am sure one of those clever literary critics is going to say that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I can just hear him saying, ‘But surely Beirut is just like any other city, full of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, going to work, eating, sleeping, having sex, having children, dying, celebrating festivals buying chocolate egss, sugared almonds, and maa’moul.’ While all of that is true, I do not know how one can reconcile that assertion with my story.’

The book is troubling in its portrayal not only of the ‘artistic truth’, which is in the eye of the beholder, as we have seen in Rashomon and many other instances, but also in its political implications, namely that the truth is no longer valued. Arriving at even an approximation of the truth is no longer attempted and you can trust no one. A weary, cynical view of partisanship and a necessary indictment of all sides in a conflict.

Hoda Barakat: Voices of the Lost, transl, Marilyn Booth, Oneworld Publications. Initially published in Arabic in 2017

Barakat perhaps represents the next generation of Lebanese, who never knew the country before constant civil war drove them into exile. She has been living in France for quite a while now, so it comes as no surprise that her novel reflects the stories of those who left a country torn by war (it could be Lebanon or any other country in the Middle East or North Africa, or several different ones). Six individuals are trying to make new lives for themselves somewhere abroad, but they are also looking back towards their home, their family and their past, writing letters to the ones they left behind… letters which never reach their destination, but are found by the next letter-writer in the chain. Despite the cheery-looking cover and the more modern tone, the six stories in this novel also weave a dark and troublesome story of displacement, hopes quashed, struggling to be accepted and treated as an equal and living in poverty and uncertainty. At times, it feels like letter writers are their own worst enemies, as they make dangerous or foolish or bad choices – or at least, that’s how we would judge them at a distance, in the comfort of our own settled lives. But who knows how we might act if we were in similar situations, with the personal, familial and historical social burden weighing upon us?

The conceit of letter-writing (after all, who still writes letters nowadays, would they not be more likely to call or send messages via phone) also gives a very immediate, oral storytelling quality to the book. The letters are found in those public liminal spaces that are neither here nor there, neither old home nor new country: hotels, airports, planes. They never reach their intended destination, but towards the end of the book, we see how the intended recipients might respond to them (or at least to the people who wrote them). At the same time, the author makes us the readers question how we might respond if we were to encounter these people. None of the people presented here are ‘nice’ or ‘worthy’ refugees – they are prickly, egoistic, pitiful, performative, trying to justify the horrible things they did in the past, often downright nasty. The whole gamut of human experience, because anyone can become a displaced individual. But they are not just individuals who make bad choices, they are also victims of their place of birth, their culture and upbringing, the historical and social circumstances.

There are both shocking moments and so many poignant and wistful details in each of these stories. Here are just a few of my favourite quotes:

Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

Another voice says the following in a letter to her mother:

If a mother doesn’t love her daughter, then who will she love in this world? Mother, why did you change so much as you got older? Didn’t I obey you enough?… I know that you loved me when I was a child. And then the world treated you harshly. The hardships accumulated, as they did for me, and the bitterness of it all weighed on your heart. This is what life does to us, how it determines things. Life unleashes its storms on us and we are no more than feathers whirling in hurricane winds.

This book provides such a powerful, uncompromising look at people on the margins of society:

These people see no one and no one sees them. Any attempt to infiltrate the world beyond that wall ends in catastrophic, violent repulsion, like the meeting of two substances whose magnetic charges repel each other. Two worlds, completely cut off from each other, two languages whose codes are mutually undecipherable, unreadable in whichever direction you try to read them.

How well can we ever know people who have lived through civil wars? How much can we ever really know about the violence and destruction, the losses, the devastation? The overpowering fear they must feel every day? Can we ever really understand how they are transformed, which things change inside them and which things harden?

I was too busy at work this month to get much reading done, so these two will be my only two books from Lebanon, but they certainly provided an intriguing insight into a different culture and literary style. My last book in the May reading of translated Arabic literature will be Egyptian: Palace Walk, which deals with far less recent history.