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Since the world changed for Americans on Sept 11, 2001 I have made an effort to include fiction and history from Arabic writers in my reading universe.  Novels are, of course, a recent, mostly British invention, taken up, shaped and adapted by the French, Germans and Americans soon afterwards and now richly developed around the world.  Arabic fiction –in translation  of course– was new to me when I began with Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth and Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs.  Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif is one of the most memorable novels I have ever read, written while Munif was living in Syria, though he was born a Saudi and spent his early years in Jordan.  Rabee Jaber, author of  The Mehlis Report, following 16 previous works, is Beiruti by birth (1972) and takes the city as his location and principal character for his latest novel.  It is October, 2005.  After 15 years of relative calm a tremendous bomb the previous February killed Rafic Hariri, a former Prime Minister along with 21 others. An investigation of the crime, commissioned by the U.N. and carried out by Detlev Mehlis (a German) is due any day. This is the factual setting.  Most of Beirut is tense with hope, that the facts and perpetrators will be revealed, and with worry that more bombings and assassinations will follow.

Books Mehlis ReportThe novel starts promisingly, with quick identification of important characters, a hint of history and intimation of a crime and the questions that come: who, when, why and how.

“Saman Yarid has three sisters: Josephine, Mary, and Emily.  Josephine was kidnapped in 1983 on the demarcation line between East and West Beirut. Mary lives in Baltimore…”

The early chapters bring us into Saman’s life, an architect who continues to live in Beirut despite the renewed bombings following 15 years of peace after the 1975-1990 war.  His sisters call him from Baltimore and Paris, worried, asking him to leave.  He has a lover, Cecelia. They cook together; he loves immersing himself in her laughter. The tension of the city is revealed during their encounters — no one sleeping, noises all night long.  “We won’t sleep well,” he tells her, “until Mehlis speaks.”  She works, he seems to work less, to have more time. He walks.  We get to know the city.  He has a dalliance here and there, which he mostly regrets and promises himself, not again. He knows he should not drink so much.

As we hear about his days we hear things we, as outsiders, wouldn’t know.  That Osama bin Laden had closed off major parts of the Middle-East to wealthy Arabs and that Beirut in 2005 was the center of their high-living pleasures: high-rolling sheiks, high-rise development, high-dollar nightclubs.

As Saman navigates the city, for a non-Beiruti, the difficulties begin.  It’s a hard thing to bring a city to life for those who have never been there; we need details, but not too many.  For those who have been there, even as visitors, street names, large buildings and public squares light up memories. For others, not so much:

I passed by the Awdah Bank (the Awdah and Saradar Group) in the Bab Idris district, and by Elie Saab’s new building , and by the Bensaçon School…

It’s one thing if the name-dropping is sparse and meant to indicate, to give an impression.  It’s another when we are meant to follow a detailed itinerary of streets and alleys of which we have no visual or sensory images: City Palace Cinema, Amir Bachir Street, the Parliament district, the street with iron roadblocks in front of the UN’s ESCWA building, the intersection in front of the Bladour Hummus, Bean and Fatah Restaurant. This is all in one, short walk.

Another difficulty appears early: a chapter in which each paragraph begins with quotations — to indicate someone talking– but no closed quotes.  The first of these chapters  is a third person account of someone thinking he had seen the setting up of a car bomb.

The fear [in the civil war] was nothing like the fear I felt that night, even though it wasn’t the noise of a shell or a bullet or a rocket or anything like that.  There was no explosion.  It was the popping sound of a motorcycle engine.  But what a fear that was.  No, it wasn’t exactly fear that I felt.  I felt as if I’d been murdered.

This narrator talks about/writes about what he/she had seen.  He or she is afraid.  It is mysterious.  To us something seem off kilter — who is this person? The chapter ends.  We’re not sure this person appears again.  Even much later it is unclear.  Was it or was it not a car being wired? Was there a bombing associated?  

Several chapters later, the quotes appear again, this time a sort of newspaper account of a giant rat appearing in one of the neighborhoods, an enormous city dump and home to Armenians since the 1915 massacres in failing Ottoman Turkey. Why the quotes? What is being signaled? 

The third appearance of the quotes, after some work to understand it, seems to indicate that a dead person is talking, trying to telephone Saman. So perhaps, he, or she who talks about a car bomb being set up earlier is dead also; perhaps by that bomb. But which bomb? The one that killed Hariri and is being investigated by Mehlis? Or the Geitawi explosion which Saman experienced with Liliane, his second, or third tier lover? Perhaps the giant rat has something to do with death as well?

The mystery deepens, but not the one we thought might be the core of the story, the revelations of the Mehlis report — the names of, or leads to, the assassins– but one of the author’s own making, a mystery of signs and signification, and the mystery as to his reality:  is it one in which the dead speak and make telephone calls?

As it turns out, that indeed is Jaber’s literary reality.  Much of the second half of the book is a first person narration by the kidnapped and murdered sister, Josephine, of living on the other side –though not set off by the mysterious quotes of the earlier dead.  People there like to read, and she especially.  Some write.  She does but is losing the appetite for it. She is trying to come to grips with being dead, what it’s like and how she got there.

I knew I was being kidnapped.  I knew it.  But I didn’t lose hope.  There were people who were kidnapped and came back … I didn’t think about the Lord.  I thought about life.  Life wouldn’t abandon me now. Life wouldn’t give up on me — I was still at its beginning.  Where did that great hope that filled my heart come from? Yes of course I was terrified.  But with fear came hope. I’m trying to understand the secret of that hope.

The dead can watch those living in Beirut on TV.  Josephine watches Saman.  She knows what he’s thinking.

And yes, the giant rat reappears

 It’s interesting stuff: an other world which is much like the current one.  Wounds remain, but not the pain.  Thirst remains but not the hunger.  Memories of the moments after death:

 There was no fear in me. The city seemed dead; I was alone in the night beneath that strange white moon; those dark eyes were following me; my blouse was gone; my head was covered in dried blood.  But I felt no fear.

Now we wonder: is the voice earlier, in quotes, Josephine’s?  Is the mystery of the men and the possible car bomb tied not to death by bomb but her kidnapping, as a witness? Is whoever is writing of the rat earlier she who writes of it later?  Is it she calling her brother from the other side, even though there are no clues other than both early and later narrators talk of writing?

Is this the clue then, to the novel?  The author, Rabee Jaber, writing, with great difficulty, from Beirut but, as it were, from the other side?  Beirut as hell?  As one of the characters says, No one from Beirut will ever go to hell because we are already there.

If so it’s a wonderfully conceived play of imagination, trying to express this side and the other, how the two become indistinguishable, how the giant rat of war and death appears in both. If so.  Because the puzzle he has set up, at least for this reader, doesn’t have quite enough matching parts.  With the puzzle pieces arrayed, I think I see a shape and am quite in wonder.  Pushing to lock them in place, as puzzle pieces normally are, I find they don’t fit and the shape I thought I saw seems false.  The witness to the possible car bomb preparation can not be Josephine but is probably with her on the other side.  I can begin again, or leave off.,

Which I do.

Perhaps I am making too much of the mystery. Perhaps Jaber simply wants to remember Beirut, its streets, its food, the cities of the past hidden in the belly of that of the present.  Perhaps he wants to convey to us the unsettled feeling of the city, the questions unanswered, the disappearance of a waiter at Cecelia’s place of work and her discovery of a hidden tunnel, which may or may not be connected to a bombing. The Mehlis report is not revealed in the pages of the novel; we have no idea what it said, what impression it made, what it solved or didn’t solve.  Perhaps  Jaber needs to ask himself, through Saman, why anyone stays, to sort out what, during such a war, is the difference between life and death.

The translation, or the English we are reading, is fine.  Colloquial, not too foreign, as we would wish.  I had to pull up my reading horses only once or twice, very momentarily, to examine the terrain.  Minor stumbles such as “she was kidnapped by the museum” (when “near” or “close to” would have been without ambiguity). The often described yellow eyes of the rat(s) are once described as dark eyes. Odd, I think.  I didn’t know that leprosy is associated with whiteness of the skin and wondered if the original said this.  One editorial slip occurs when the murdered Josephine is being carried through a building on the other side, then seems to be walking, and then again carried — all without transitions such as ‘he picked me up,’ making it seem a stitch was dropped. 

The Mehlis Report will satisfy some, especially those who have known and loved Beirut.  For all it may be a valuable insight into the conditions of such low intensity, nerve-wracking warfare, and how some people just make do.  For many, I’m afraid, the puzzle will be too much, the images that could available passed over because hard and frustrating to get into focus.