The Bereaved and the Disappeared – and Beirut Makes Three

2015-10-07    |   

The Bereaved and the Disappeared – and Beirut Makes Three

“Beirut stretched out along a black shore. Trying to sleep, she closes her eyes and enters the pictures of the men. Disappearing into them, she wipes away the blood and water that drips from their sides and leans over to gather their grief and cry out with a thousand women carrying pictures and moving through the streets of the city as the roads fill with the victims’ voices. There were about twenty women with pictures in their raised hands…and there she was, walking alone, her eyes shut by the gleaming sadness that leapt from their eyes and transformed the small picture into a mirror in which we see our faces.” – Elias Khoury, 1983.[1]

Although forty years have passed since the start of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the specter of the disappeared still haunts Beirut and the stories of its people. Perhaps the events of Palmyra, Syria that took place in May 2015 affirm this reality: as unconfirmed reports circulated about the release of a number of Lebanese prisoners from the infamous Palmyra prison, the same questions returned and the same images resurfaced: Were any of the Palmyra prisoners among those who had disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War? Had the detainees been transferred to another prison? Were their names known? Had they been found dead or alive? How did the Lebanese state respond to these rumors? How long would we have to wait? The pictures of the disappeared had returned, as Elias Khoury wrote in 1983, as “a mirror in which we see our faces” – a mirror that reality tried to shatter more than once, and which found refuge in literature, and in the novel in particular.

With the onset of the civil war, Beirut occupied a central position in Lebanese war narratives – not only on account of the city’s geographical and political role, but as an entity that was deprived, lacking, fragmented, and struggling with a cultural identity in crisis, one that evoked the contradictions and fractures which its intellectuals endured. As the war ended, the national narrative –in both its historical and literary sense– encountered two essential junctures. The first came in 1991, when the appointed parliament approved the general amnesty law. This law lifted criminal responsibility from perpetrators of political crimes committed during the civil war, up to March 28, 1991.[2] As warlords were exonerated, the fate of the disappeared was further obscured by the amnesty law, whose proponents considered the search for mass graves a form of sectarian incitement. The families of the disappeared raised their voices in protest, warning against the risks of singing the praises of communal peace, which would be incomplete if the fate of the disappeared remained unknown.

Following the general amnesty law, another law was passed in 1994 establishing the joint-stock company Solidere, which was commissioned to rebuild downtown Beirut. As the company’s literature explains, reviving the “heart” of the city of Beirut guarantees the revitalization of the “body” of the country. Downtown Beirut was thus rebuilt in line with the city’s new desired identity: a postmodern international city that draws on global capital while still flourishing in her old/new role as “an ancient city of the future”. Through these two ostensibly different yet practically connected laws, the city’s features have been concealed, altered, destroyed, or distorted – paving the way for an official discourse of forgetfulness, typified in a policy of crushing and burying collective memory.

In the wake of these social and urban transformations, many of the city’s intellectuals felt the oppression of the state-sponsored process of systematic erasure. Consequently, many turned their gaze towards what was farthest from the heart of the city: its memory. A heart without a memory, they thought, can do nothing for the “body” of Lebanon; for whatever erases the city’s memory also prevents its people from completing the work of mourning (faire le travail de deuil) and bringing closure to their loss. Hence, incomplete mourning that does not entail social reconciliation, they warned, is bound to reproduce the reasons that triggered the war in the first place.

At the same time, however, one cannot rely upon selective memory that does not include the fate of all those who disappeared. Therefore, the recuperation of what was scattered can only be accomplished by returning to the city’s memory through searching for the bodies it lost, by delving into their stories of torture, disappearance, and banishment. This conception of the memory of the city suggests a new understanding of the trinity of the body/heart/memory, at the core of which lie the questions of loss and disappearance.

So how did this trinity materialize in the Lebanese novel, which took up the memory of place to confront the state-policy of entrenched forgetfulness?

The novelist Elias Khoury played a fundamental role in creating a discourse that placed the question of systematic forgetfulness at the center of Lebanese cultural field in the postwar era. In this demolished and obliterated city, Khoury found that the one place remaining to memory was the literary text. In his writings, Khoury viewed the novelist as a sentry of his city. As he sweeps the dust of the invasive urban reconstruction, he unveils what had been destroyed and buried, thereby struggling against erasure with the stories of the city’s missing.[3]

In addition to his novels, plays, and critical writings, Khoury confronted the institutionalization of forgetfulness by establishing an intellectual project in which he battled the symbolic policy of repression, as represented by the systematic demolition of the city’s limbs. On the pages of the newspaper al-Nahar, and particularly within its cultural supplement, Al-Mulhaq, which Khoury edited between 1992 and 2009, historians, artists, filmmakers, and novelists strove to reimagine the city’s history by searching within the manifestations of trauma, memory, and grief in the post-war society. This discursive search for those whom the city had lost constituted an entry point into the preservation of memory, as it lent to the intellectual’s role and to the post-war cultural field in general, a firmly anchored moral dimension.

As loss became a foundational theme of war and postwar literature, the search for the missing body emerged as the thread connecting diverse literary experiences, which took up loss along three lines of inquiry: first, through the search for the city’s disappeared among the disenfranchised; second, through the immersion into the psyche of the bereaved; and, third, through the examination of the sexualities of the disappeared – specifically, their sexual inclinations and practices, and the relationship of those two aspects to violence.

The novels of Elias Khoury focused on the city’s periphery and fringes. His play, Mudhakkarāt Ayyūb (Job’s memoirs, 1993) staged by Roger Assaf, was a dynamic literary and theatrical depiction of the search for Beirut and its Job, who filled the walls of the city with words and questions throughout the Israeli invasion. The play called to mind Khoury’s other novels in which he searched for those who had lived on the margins of the city, and who were lost in it or for it or because of it. In Al-wujūh al-bayḍā’ (1981; Eng. White Masks, 2010), Khoury asked: who killed the mail carrier Ibrahim Ahmad Jaber – and what was the fate of his missing son? He repeated the question about the shoeshiner Abd al-Karim al-Maghayri in Riḥlat ghāndī al-ṣaghīr (1989; Eng. The Journey of Little Gandhi, 1994). In so doing, Khoury restored to the city its margins, to the margins those it had lost, and to the lost, their voice.

In addition to seeking the disappeared from among the margins of the city, the Lebanese novel immersed itself in the psyche of the bereaved. The anxiety and doubt experienced by the families of the disappeared constituted the core of novels that touched upon the state of those who had experienced loss, rather than the individuals who had disappeared.

Rachid al-Daif, in Fusḥa mustahdafa bayn al-nuʻās wa-l-nawm (1986; Eng. Passage to Dusk, 2001) and Rabee Jaber, in Al-i’tirāfāt (2009; Confessions, 2016) both portrayed the absurdity of retaliatory and preemptive kidnapping; in the latter, civilians kidnap other civilians so that they can exchange them in case their own relatives are kidnapped by someone else. Thus, the theme of kidnapping slid from a tragedy of the Lebanese war to a Kafkaesque situation whose absurdity prompts laughter.

The neuroses of paranoia, searching, and investigation that accompany the bereaved were not merely manifested in the context of the story, but also took over the narrative structure itself. In Sayyidī wa ḥabībī (My master and my love, 2005), Hoda Barakat introduces the narrator, Wadie, and proceeds to eclipse him. As Wadie –a killer, thief, and kidnapper– is himself transformed into one of the disappeared, the narration is transferred to his wife, a woman deprived of her husband and a substitute to the original narrator.

The notion of loss was also foundational to the narrative structure of Ṭuyūr al-hūlīdāy in (Birds of the Holiday Inn, 2009) by Rabee Jaber, in which the narrative action begins with newspaper clippings about those who left and never returned. The anxieties of the bereaved are transformed into a neurosis that invades the scattered and fragmented narrative structure.

In addition to the themes of marginality and loss, the intertwinement of violence and sexuality is deeply engrained in the literature of loss. The disappeared in Hoda Barakat’s Ahl al-hawā (1993; Eng. Disciples of Passion, 2005) is doubly victimized: first by the wanton violence of war, and second by a sexuality broken by the tragedy of war. The body of the disappeared appears mutilated by the violence of war, but also by the violence of pathological licentiousness that gives rise to a third kind of violence – the cost of trying to erase the first two and forgetting them.

The sexuality of the missing body was another story of the war. In Koolaids: The Art of War (1998), Rabih Alameddine narrates the discovery, made by Christian militiamen, of a number of unidentified corpses. This places the militiamen in a quandary: what should be done with the corpses? Should they bury them in Christian cemeteries, or are they Muslim corpses? And if so, should they be exchanged for Christian corpses that were located in another dumping ground elsewhere in the city? As the debate intensifies, the leader of the militia proposes a solution: the fighters should uncover the corpses and examine their organs. If the men are circumcised, then they are Muslim; if not, they are certainly Christian. “But what if one of them was actually Christian, but had been circumcised for one reason or another?”, asks one of the gunmen. Their leader replies, “if he was a circumcised Christian, then he deserves the fate of being buried with Muslims”. Through this incident, Alameddine points to the ritual transformations of the civil war, from kidnapping on the basis of ideology, to kidnapping on the basis of sectarian identity, to a final kidnapping that is beyond senseless, one which collapses all narratives to that of the circumcised phallus.

In this way, the loss of both the body and its memory has grown into an essential element of the post-war novel: a novel of broken limbs, multiple voices, untrustworthy narrators and unreliable narratives, in a narrative discourse of crisis that depicts the city as mutilated, schizoid, and hijacked in turn, as another victim of the civil war engulfing it. At the same time, the novel confronts the discourse of political power by offering new meanings to the trinity of body/heart/memory. Rather than reviving the “body” of the country by concentrating on its heart without its memory, the novel turned to the body of the disappeared, conceived as a means to reclaim collective memory in the hopes of restoring what remained of the body of the country itself.

But most importantly, in this transformation, the discourse of loss framed the cultural field of Beirut in the 1990s and the early 2000s – a period dominated by the rhetoric of reconstruction and civil peace in the context of suspended reconciliation. While bulldozers and tunnels were drawing the lines of the new city, the fate of those missing in the war, along with its literary manifestations, drew a moral demarcation line between political power lacking legitimacy, on the one side, and a cultural field lacking power, on the other.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] See: Elias Khoury’s, “Al-mar’a wa-l-ṣūra (The woman and the picture),” Zaman al-iḥtilāl (The time of occupation), 1985. Beirut, Arab Research Foundation, p. 87.

[2] The bill established a number of exceptions, including crimes of assassination carried out against political and religious leaders and diplomats, in addition to crimes referred to the Judicial Council (editor’s note).
[3] See: Elias Khoury’s, “The Memory of the City,” Grand Street no. 54 (October 1, 1995): 137-42.

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