Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

February 18, 2021

This book is on fire! A dizzying magic carpet ride. A jealous book. It requires your full attention. Look away and you will lose track and get lost, look closer and you will get lost in the stories within stories within stories. It is a matter of choosing your definition of “lost.”

“No matter how good a story is, there is more at stake in the telling,” says the hakawati. The evidence is the book itself, a contemporary retelling of the Arabian Nights through the approach of Lebanese writer, Rabih Alameddine; but this is the Arabian Nights (uncensored, the author warns), deeper and more relevant, and suffused with rich Lebanese culture and history.  It is wondrous, bizarre, sometimes even vulgar and repulsive — but only when you take things literally and only until you realize they are metaphors and then it becomes disturbing, and then these parts become ingenious!

One does not have to read the Arabian Nights in order to enjoy this, but I believe it will be better appreciated with an ample background. Many references would have been lost to me and some sections would have seemed absurd had I bypassed the Arabian Nights. The writing style does not have a tinge of mediocrity, and yet I am aware that it cannot be everyone’s cup of coffee; but I will remember this book for the beautiful words it gave me:

Hakawati — “A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables (hekayat).  A story-teller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns… ‘hakawati’ is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki,’ which means ‘talk’ or ‘conversation’. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Zajal — a poetry duel practiced in Lebanon until today.

Bakhshi — an oud player, a singer, and a storyteller.

Maqam — In the Arabic language it means place, location, situation, position, a shrine, but in Arabic music it is a scale and a mood. “Teardrops descending along cheeks, a cascade of grace,” as the protagonist puts it lyrically.

Tarab — “A musical enchantment. It is when both musician and listener are bewitched by the music.” An entrancement achieved between performer and listener while engaged in music.

This whole book is a cacophony of stories. How fitting that its last word is “listen”.

Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

February 18, 2021

This book is on fire! A dizzying magic carpet ride. A jealous book. It requires your full attention. Look away and you will lose track and get lost, look closer and you will get lost in the stories within stories within stories. It is a matter of choosing your definition of “lost.”

“No matter how good a story is, there is more at stake in the telling,” says the hakawati. The evidence is the book itself, a contemporary retelling of the Arabian Nights through the approach of Lebanese writer, Rabih Alameddine; but this is the Arabian Nights (uncensored, the author warns), deeper and more relevant, and suffused with rich Lebanese culture and history.  It is wondrous, bizarre, sometimes even vulgar and repulsive — but only when you take things literally and only until you realize they are metaphors and then it becomes disturbing, and then these parts become ingenious!

One does not have to read the Arabian Nights in order to enjoy this, but I believe it will be better appreciated with an ample background. Many references would have been lost to me and some sections would have seemed absurd had I bypassed the Arabian Nights. The writing style does not have a tinge of mediocrity, and yet I am aware that it cannot be everyone’s cup of coffee; but I will remember this book for the beautiful words it gave me:

Hakawati — “A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables (hekayat).  A story-teller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns… ‘hakawati’ is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki,’ which means ‘talk’ or ‘conversation’. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Zajal — a poetry duel practiced in Lebanon until today.

Bakhshi — an oud player, a singer, and a storyteller.

Maqam — In the Arabic language it means place, location, situation, position, a shrine, but in Arabic music it is a scale and a mood. “Teardrops descending along cheeks, a cascade of grace,” as the protagonist puts it lyrically.

Tarab — “A musical enchantment. It is when both musician and listener are bewitched by the music.” An entrancement achieved between performer and listener while engaged in music.

This whole book is a cacophony of stories. How fitting that its last word is “listen”.

Rabih Alameddine: I, The Divine

Rabih Alameddine is insane. His Hakawati is Arabian Nights on drugs, a dizzying magic carpet ride. When I thought a book’s structure could not get crazier, I end up with this: I, The Divine. A novel in first chapters. Yes, each section is Chapter One all throughout the book! With the exception of the Prologue on page 110 and the Introduction at the very end!

But I cannot recommend this author to everyone. He will make readers feel uncomfortable. There are obscenities. Lots of it. But these obscenities are often realities — war, murder, suicide, rape. With the Lebanese Civil War as backdrop, and through the main character and her family, we are shown how a nation’s events shape the lives of its people.

He seems to be the kind of writer who loves giving the reader a good challenge; one has to be sensitive to allusions and metaphors otherwise the point is overlooked. But amidst these dark and heavy themes, he surprises you by making you laugh! I repeat, Rabih Alameddine is insane…

…but who also happens to be a painter who has exhibited in London, New York, and Paris. This explains the colorful passages, and in his two works that I’ve read, references to art and artists adorn his pages. In one of the earlier first chapters, he quotes the artist, John Dwyer McLaughlin, “These Asian paintings I could get into and they made me wonder who I was. By contrast, Western painters tried to tell me who they were.”

This, to me, was a signpost that signaled how this book is, above anything else, about identity, a comparison of Eastern and Western thought, and an additional reflection to my Fertile Crescent literary tapestry on individuality and community. By the end of the book, this is confirmed:

“If I wanted to know about lion, I had to look at the entire pride. I had to look at it not as a single organism per se, but as a new unit much larger than the sum of its parts… I could not begin to fathom what being a lion was if I only looked at each lion individually, or even at the relationships between the lions. All of them together, not all of them individually summed up, but all of them as a dynamic organism, were the species; all were the word lion.

I had tried to write my memoir by telling an imaginary reader to listen to my story. Come learn about me, I said. I have a great story to tell you because I have led an interesting life. Come meet me. But how can I expect readers to know who I am if I do not tell them about my family, my friends, the relationships in my life? Who am I if not where I fit in the world, where I fit in the lives of the people dear to me? I have to explain how the individual participated in the larger organism, to show how I fit into this larger whole. So instead of telling the reader, Come meet me, I have to say something else.
Come meet my family.
Come meet my friends.
Come here, I say.
Come meet my pride.”

Elias Khoury: Little Mountain

This is one of those art forms that make you feel that you have absorbed so much and understood so little at the same time. It has been identified as the finest novel on the Lebanese Civil War, but I am more convinced that it is postmodern poetry.

The point was over there. A woman, glowing… I was holding her by the hair and drowning in the place where the pain flowed from her shoulders… I was not saying anything but was not quiet either. The apogee of sadness. She cried, sitting at the edge of the room, holding her breasts. I went toward her, frightened. No, I wasn’t frightened. I was looking for something or other, for a word. But she remained on the edge of the room. Then stood up, came toward me. I held her, she dropped to the floor and broke, and the room filled with pieces of shrapnel. I bent down to pick them up, blood began to flow and the walls were covered in mud and trees… She was the point. To hold her was to hold nothing. She would run off, leaving me baffled. I would run after her. That’s how she imprisoned me inside a dream that was hard to abandon… This is the revolution, I said. Just like this, living in the constant discovery of everything, in the nothingness of everything. That is revolution.

Elias Khoury comes from the generation of Lebanese novelists who reflect in their writings the constant threat of their national identity’s dissolution. Read this forewarned that they do not adhere to the Western form of the novel, because to them “form is an adventure”, as the Edward W. Said writes in the foreword of this edition. “…when the chapters conclude, they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”

Read this to feel — not to know, but to feel — a nation’s tragic plight. Read this for the strangely beautiful language. Read this like you would a prolonged and lingering poem…

Amin Maalouf: The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

When Kingdom of Heaven premiered in 2005, the character that made the biggest impression on me was Saladin. Although I expected the film to be highly fictionalized, I hadn’t realized how much of it was true based on eye-witness accounts that survived from that period! From the writings of Ibn al-Athīr (1160-1233) to Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) and others including a few Western chroniclers, Amin Maalouf condenses the events of 1099-1291 and gives us The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

Published in 1984, this work questioned and redrafted the prevalent narrative of who the world thought of as barbarians. The reader is made mindful that, “At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was the intellectual and material repository of the planet’s most advanced civilization,” and it was only posterior to the Crusades that the trajectory of intellectual advancement and world history would shift to the West.

It was the era of Assassins, Seljuks, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, the Crusaders, Templars, and eventually, the Mongols. Needless to say, Game of Throne-ish details abound! But what I value most about this book is how it defines the chronology, succession, and the characters of the Crusades in a gripping way that will not easily slip into the lapses of my memory; and more valuable is the epilogue where we are made to understand the repercussions and a seeming collective trauma nearly a thousand years later.

— “What they learned from the Arabs was indispensable in their subsequent expansion… In medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, and architecture, the Franj drew their knowledge from Arabic books, which they assimilated, imitated, and then surpassed.”

— “The epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism.”

— “Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile — attitudes that grew steadily worse as world-wide evolution, a process from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued.”

— “The Arabs refused to open their own society to ideas from the West. And this, in all likelihood, was the most disastrous effect of the aggression of which they were the victims.”

— “The Arab world… cannot bring itself to consider the Crusades a mere episode in the bygone past. It is often surprising to discover the extent to which the attitude of the Arabs (and of Muslims in general) towards the West is still influenced, even today by events that supposedly ended some seven centuries ago.

— “There can be no doubt that the schism between these two worlds dates from the Crusades, deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an act of rape.”

Black Wave & From Beirut to Jerusalem

July 10, 2021

It is difficult to invest time in a book that is nearly six hundred pages thick these days, but From Beirut to Jerusalem was even more difficult to put down! This is impressive journalism!

Although Friedman writes with a more personal tone, one cannot help comparing it to Black Wave by Ghattas, because at some point after these books’ respective publications, it has been said of each that if there is a book one should read to achieve a better idea of the morass of Middle Eastern politics and relationships, it should be this. I think it should be both.

I read Kim Ghattas for her Lebanese roots, and Thomas Friedman for his Jewish upbringing and on account of his three Pulitzer awards. I assumed their backgrounds would affect their insights, but these two books surprisingly complement each other! Aside from a comprehensive account, they have chosen to elaborate on different aspects and, together, give the reader an even more exhaustive view — albeit exhausting, too.

These journalists have confronted some of the most complex and divisive issues and have endeavored to organize the confusion for us, readers, despite knowing they would ruffle feathers. While we know that no one can ever give us the complete picture, it is a substantial step.

I have to admit that most of what I know about Middle Eastern affairs are spoon-fed by selective news networks or social media pages that cater sensationalisms, half-truths, and over-simplifications to the passive.

If there is one good thing that this pandemic has given me, it is the chance to check my own biases and avoid shaping lazy opinions, and be reminded that there is so much I do not know; and that it is alright, and necessary, to reevaluate my thoughts and opinions — not just on matters of a realm thousands of miles away, but on life in general.

Rabih Alameddine: An Unnecessary Woman

“…𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘴𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘺𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘥𝘪𝘥 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘳𝘰𝘥𝘶𝘤𝘦 𝘮𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘨𝘦’𝘴 𝘮𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘤 — 𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘤𝘦𝘥 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘮𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘤 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘯𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘭 𝘢𝘥𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘴… 𝘐𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘺 𝘱𝘰𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘰𝘱𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘺 𝘦𝘺𝘦𝘴; 𝘱𝘰𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘺… 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘴𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘪𝘵𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘣𝘢𝘤𝘬 𝘰𝘧 𝘮𝘺 𝘣𝘳𝘢𝘪𝘯 — 𝘱𝘰𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘺, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘥𝘢𝘳𝘺… 𝘐 𝘳𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘤𝘬 𝘰𝘧 𝘢 𝘥𝘰𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘨𝘦 𝘣𝘦𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘶𝘴𝘤𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘥.”

Our “Unnecessary Woman” is a Beiruti who spends a life reading and translating the works of non-Arabic literary giants into Arabic. What I find remarkable here is that her whole life and character is unfurled through the literary criticism of other works.

By the time a reader is done reading this book, they will have an infinite reading list.

No dizzying magic carpet rides from Rabih Alameddine this time, no shocking form-defying stunts of the novel, just an engaging and steady stream of thoughts and memories about Beirut and its place in the world, and mainly a life lived in literature.

This is a contemplation on such a life, on writers, on readers, on literature. But if we listen closely, it does not necessarily glorify this kind of life. Instead, it asks questions: “𝘎𝘪𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦, 𝘱𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘺, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘴 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘪𝘯𝘧𝘭𝘶𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘺 𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘦, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘐 𝘥𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘦?”

“𝘐 𝘮𝘢𝘥𝘦 𝘮𝘺𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘭 𝘣𝘦𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘣𝘺 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘫𝘦𝘫𝘶𝘯𝘦 𝘴𝘵𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 ‘𝘉𝘰𝘰𝘬𝘴 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘢𝘪𝘳 𝘐 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩𝘦,’ 𝘰𝘳, 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘴𝘦, ‘𝘓𝘪𝘧𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘮𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦,’ 𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘸𝘦𝘢𝘬 𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘮𝘱𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘢𝘷𝘰𝘪𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘢𝘤𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘐 𝘧𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘭𝘥 𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘱𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦.”

Our heroine is a flawed human being especially when it comes to human relations, and to read Alameddine is to learn to be patient with some details that make one uncomfortable — but does he teach you so many things! And to learn… isn’t that exactly why we read? Even when one of the things being taught indirectly is that tricky balance between literature and life.

Andree Chedid: The Return to Beirut

Discovering a wonderful but obscure writer adds to my happiness these days. Although obscure only in my part of the world, at least… for after all, there is a public library in Paris named after Andrée Chedid!

Having shelves largely organized by geography, I had trouble categorizing an author of Lebanese descent, born in Cairo but resided in Paris and wrote in French, and has won French literary awards including the Albert Camus Prize and the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie in 2002.

Matters of roots often spring up in the novel. “𝘏𝘰𝘸 𝘵𝘰 𝘱𝘶𝘭𝘭 𝘶𝘱 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘦 𝘳𝘰𝘰𝘵𝘴 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘴𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘥𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘦𝘯𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘰𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘧 𝘮𝘢𝘯, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘦𝘹𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘭, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵? 𝘉𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩 𝘴𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘴, 𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴, 𝘭𝘢𝘺𝘦𝘳𝘴, 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘥𝘰𝘦𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘦 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩𝘦?”

But for the time being, I will keep her in my Lebanon section, because although she writes with the elegance of the French (there is even one sentence that is Proustian in length and spans an entire page), this book has the structure of a Lebanese novel — unconventional and unpredictable, and it is very much a reflection of Lebanon.

It ends as the civil war begins. Centered on the lives of a grandmother and granddaughter, we see their mirrored lives unfold while an unusual and refined suspense that drones throughout the delightful passages suddenly grips your whole being towards the end.

Andrée Chedid is a literary gem! I am wondering at the scarcity of her works in our bookshops!

Elias Khoury

Gate of the Sun

October 4, 2021

Gate of the Sun is a steady stream of sorrow flowing for five hundred and thirty one pages.


I can stop there.


But I feel that I have to warn you about those indelible and heartrending parts where a crying baby is suffocated to death to keep him silent so that he would not endanger an entire group; about the pregnant wife of a fedayeen who had to claim she was an immoral woman to protect her husband and keep his whereabouts secret; or of that woman who did not weep with her eyes but with everything inside her… and what if I told you that this novel was inspired by real dialogues between Palestinian exiles and Khoury? I am not sure how my heart was able to bear it.


At this point, you would probably begin to think that this book undoubtedly demonizes Israel. But therein lies the beauty of this magnum opus — despite all the pain it recounts — it does not.


In an interview conducted by an Israeli publication, Khoury articulated, “When I was working on this book, I discovered that the ‘other’ is the mirror of the I. And given that I am writing about half a century of Palestinian experience, it is impossible to read this experience otherwise than in the mirror of the Israeli ‘other.’ Therefore, when I was writing this novel, I put a lot of effort into trying to take apart not only the Palestinian stereotype but also the Israeli stereotype as it appears in Arab literature and especially in the Palestinian literature… The Israeli is not only the policeman or the occupier, he is the ‘other,’ who also has a human experience, and we need to read this experience. Our reading of their experience is a mirror to our reading of the Palestinian experience.”


I think this is important because if this attitude can be applied to one of the most divisive issues in the world, then we can certainly attempt this in our own personal or national conflicts.


We also see this thought being explored in the novel through Khalil, the narrator: “This secret is the mirror. I know no one will agree with me, and they’ll say I talk like this because I’m afraid, but it’s not true. If you’re afraid, you don’t say your enemy is your mirror, you run away from him.”


“But let’s look in the mirror… I confess I’m scared. I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death. We mustn’t see ourselves only in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them.”


That last sentence hints at the Holocaust, the forceful catalyst — forgive this terrible oversimplification — that led to the Palestinian exodus. Not blind to the faults of the Palestinians, it also asks this difficult question, “Are we imitating our enemies, or are they imitating their executioners?”


“𝐈𝐟 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐝𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐩𝐞𝐜𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐥𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐬, 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐝𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐫𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐭𝐨 𝐝𝐞𝐟𝐞𝐧𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐨𝐰𝐧.”

_ _ _


With the anticipated announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 7, several people have asked about my projected winner. Aside from thinking myself unqualified to make such a projection, I answered by saying that I’m probably the wrong person to ask because my picks are unlikely to be chosen, because they are not safe choices — Elias Khoury or Nawal El-Saadawi, but she passed away earlier this year, so that leaves Khoury.


But I hope people will not have to wait for Khoury to be awarded the Nobel before they start reading him. After each novel, the Lebanese always leave me asking incredulously, “How was it possible to write a novel that way?!” And yet, Gate of the Sun seems to be the pinnacle of all the Lebanese works I’ve encountered.

Khoury draws the drapes from an incredible window to a way of seeing and storytelling unknown to most of us.

.

As Though She Were Sleeping

August 14, 2021

Nobody enters a dreamlike state and makes sense of it immediately. So, too, with a book like this. It reads like a long dream where visions of the present blend into the past and future. The first chapter is 176 pages long. Can one allow the flow of dreams to be interrupted by brief chapters?

It is 1947, Lebanese Milia marries Palestinian Mansour, and though it is not explicitly stated in the book, nor can the term “Partition Plan” be found in its pages, we know that this was the turbulent year in the Middle East when a particular land would be divided between Jews and Arabs. It is through this time that Milia responds to life, her marriage, the religious and political climate, her family history… as though she were sleeping.

Elias Khoury, a pillar of modern Lebanese literature, writes this novel with a magic realism so convincing and so natural that it never feels contrived. He creates a sublime balance of literary elements with a distinct sensuality. Nobody enters a dreamlike state and makes sense of it immediately. So, too, with a novel like this, but if you read through, it will be worth it.

On the surface this is a magnificent ode to the Arabic language and Arabic poetry, and that is what people keep saying about this book. And it is! I indulged in those sumptuous passages about poetry and words!

But this is what I have not heard being said about this book but which I felt deeply: Milia is Lebanon. Mansour is Palestine. This is a seldom told story of how the relationship affected Lebanon. To know how it ends, one must either read the book, or know history.

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Little Mountain

July 2021

This is one of those art forms that make you feel that you have absorbed so much and understood so little at the same time. It has been identified as the finest novel on the Lebanese Civil War, but I am more convinced that it is postmodern poetry.

The point was over there. A woman, glowing… I was holding her by the hair and drowning in the place where the pain flowed from her shoulders… I was not saying anything but was not quiet either. The apogee of sadness. She cried, sitting at the edge of the room, holding her breasts. I went toward her, frightened. No, I wasn’t frightened. I was looking for something or other, for a word. But she remained on the edge of the room. Then stood up, came toward me. I held her, she dropped to the floor and broke, and the room filled with pieces of shrapnel. I bent down to pick them up, blood began to flow and the walls were covered in mud and trees… She was the point. To hold her was to hold nothing. She would run off, leaving me baffled. I would run after her. That’s how she imprisoned me inside a dream that was hard to abandon… This is the revolution, I said. Just like this, living in the constant discovery of everything, in the nothingness of everything. That is revolution.

Elias Khoury comes from the generation of Lebanese novelists who reflect in their writings the constant threat of their national identity’s dissolution. Read this forewarned that they do not adhere to the Western form of the novel, because to them “form is an adventure”, as the Edward W. Said writes in the foreword of this edition. “…when the chapters conclude, they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”

Read this to feel — not to know, but to feel — a nation’s tragic plight. Read this for the strangely beautiful language. Read this like you would a prolonged and lingering poem…