Months which are not turbulent in the Middle East are welcome. This last couple of months have been particularly lacking in this respect. When people look back in twenty years at the Summer of 2014 in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, will they remember the terrible events which have befallen them, or will it just blend into a generalised history of catastrophe and violence?
Khoury’s epic and terrible book is set in the Lebanon, in the nineties. I recently read that a new synagogue is being built in the Lebanon, a sign of its current stability. A whole generation will have grown up which will have no memory of the events in that country, events which destroyed Beirut and made the Lebanon a basket case for over a decade. Every day from my youth seemed to bring a fresh tale of woe, a tale which at the time seemed as though it would have no ending.
Khoury’s novel is set in the aftermath of that civil war. However, that war, just like the ones currently raging in the region, was part of a wider conflict. The anti-hero, Yalo, traces his roots to Aleppo, Damascus and Turkey. He can’t be sure if he’s Arab, Assyrian or Kurdish. His grandfather is a priest from the last Christian sect which speaks the language of Christ, or so he claims. He berates his grandson for not being able to speak the language himself, telling him: “To whom do you think you will talk at your second coming?” The Grandfather’s religious philosophy offers an overbearing Gnosticism, one that Yalo can never get to grips with. “’I am Mar Afram’ the grandfather answered, and he smiled because his grandson was such an idiot that he didn’t know that all the writers of the world are merely copyists and there is only one, hidden book on the face of the earth, a book not written from human inspiration, and that when people write literature or poetry, parts of this book are revealed to them and they copy them down a rearrange them.”
Yalo is born into this confusion and is a product of it. He is not particularly religious, although he believes in the miracle he thinks his mother and grandfather performed when they drank the seawater of the Mediterranean. He is pliable, unsure of his identity, gullible. He fights briefly in the war and then is easily convinced when a fellow fighter suggests they steal from the company safe and run away. That same fighter then leaves him high and dry in Paris. He is brought back by a Lebanese arms dealer as a guard. He discovers that he lives in what would now be called a notorious dogging spot, in the country, and begins a brief career as a rapist and thief, a career which comes to a halt when he falls in love with one of his victims, who will later denounce him.
Yalo has plenty in common with Mersault, Camus’ anti-hero from L’Etranger. Any sympathy we feel for him is grudging and hard-earned. Seen from the outside he’s a miserable character. However, we watch Yalo as he buckles under hideous torture and gradually his whole construction of his self, his identity, starts to fall to pieces and then reassemble itself. So much so that by the final part of the book, the narrator, who is Yalo, has come to see his former self as another man, whom he observes and talks to.
The novel narrates Yalo’s story in a circuitous flashback. Its present tense is the interrogation cell, where Yalo recollects his past and tries to assemble it in a form that will appease his interrogator. Yalo’s is a terrible journey which comes at the end of the terrible journey which has been his pitiable life. It’s the life of any young man who has the misfortune to become caught up in the internecine strife of the region. Whose world view is constructed around the myths of his family, the urges of his masculinity and the peer pressure of the militarised world he inhabits.
The book was intially published in 2002. Twelve years on, its bleak vision appears to be more apposite than ever.