Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain

By Karim Abuawad

Written by the Lebanese man of letters Elias Khoury, Little Mountain (al-jabal al-saghir 1977) is a novel set during the early phase of the Lebanese Civil War, a war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. Paradoxically, the civil war in Lebanon has had a tremendous impact on Lebanese literature as it generated an unprecedented number of new works which were influenced by it, so much so that the civil war has been characterized as the “midwife” of the Lebanese novel.

The appearance of these novels about the civil war, which were written from the perspectives of those who fought the war as well as those who were devastated by it, is now considered to be a threshold for the start of fully fledged experimentation in the Arabic novel, or, to put it in generic terms, from the realist mode to the experimental one. Although this experimentation in form can be traced back a decade earlier, to writers such as the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani (especially his formal experimentation in All That’s Left to You), it is with appearance of these civil war novels that this mode of experimentation became normalized, or more accepted. Therefore, Little Mountain has come to occupy a special position on the trajectory of the Arabic novel’s development. Given that the century-old Arabic novel is a relatively new form within the much larger Arabic literary tradition, the importance of this movement from the more or less traditional realist mode to the experimental cannot be understated.

In an essay entitled “After Mahfouz,” Edward Said describes Little Mountain as the first departure from the style of novelistic writing that dominated the Arabic novel for much of the twentieth century. While it is an overstatement to claim that this novel is the “first departure,” I think the general gist of Said’s characterization is accurate in that it symbolically points out (as the title of the essay suggests) that Khoury’s novel marks the break with the realist style which the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz had mastered, or even perfected, as some would have it. Writing about this break that he locates between Mahfouz and Khoury, Said says that “from this perspective Khoury’s work bids Mahfouz an inevitable and yet profoundly respectful farewell.”

* * *

It would be somewhat misleading, however, to say that Little Mountain is about the Lebanese Civil War. A more accurate way to describe it would be that it centers on the experience, told from hindsight, of an individual who gets implicated in this most horrible of wars. The novel tells the story (or to put it more accurately, the ramblings) of a fighter who has chosen to join the ranks of the fiddayyin, a group comprised of Palestinians and their supporters which fought in the civil war, despite the fact that this group fought against the Christian militias which were supposed to protect the interests of the minority to which the narrator belongs. Right from the outset, we come to understand the novel’s main narrator as someone out of place, as someone who positions himself outside of the locality to which he was assigned by virtue of being born in a certain neighborhood and to a certain family.

This, of course, is never spelled out explicitly in the novel. We come to understand the precarious position of the narrator (who is never named) from the choices he makes and from his decision to affiliate himself with one group over another. To put it succinctly, his position is based on affiliation rather than on filiation. The difference between the two, of course, has great implications to the formation of the self as this makes such formation reliant on an ethic of movement or becoming rather than on that of being. Crucially, these decisions are never explained ethically or ideologically. While they certainly have these elements built into them, they are part of an underlying scheme rather than part a manifesto-like, simplified explanations.These choices come to define the narrator’s private narrative as well as the larger narrative that he chooses to become part of. In a situation such as a civil war, choices are not a luxury, but a necessity.

In “After Mahfouz,” Said discusses some of the crucial aspects of Khoury’s style vis-à-vis the formation of selfhood. “Style in The Little Mountain” he writes,

is, first of all, repetition, as if the narrator needed this in order to prove to himself that improbable things actually did take place. Repetition is also, as the narrator says, the search for order—to go over matters sufficiently to find, if possible, the underlying pattern, the rules and protocols according to which a civil war, the most dreadful of all calamities, was being fought. Repetition permits lyricism, those metaphorical flights by which the sheer horror of what takes place…is swiftly seen and recorded, and then falls back into anonymity.

The point Said makes via the narrator about repetition is quite illuminating. For him, repetition is not the opposite of order. Rather, repetition is a search for order in a situation in which order is obliterated by a chaos that has become part of the mundane, everyday reality. The paradox Said points to shows us that even in the chaotic form that Khoury creates, there is an underlying desire to seek an order that could possibly mitigate the traumatic experience of the individual. From this standpoint, the traumatized subject constantly seeks a fleeting order even when the subject appears to do anything but seek such order.

To illustrate some aspects of the style that Said mentions here, it might be useful to start at the beginning. That is, to start with a passage that appears in the first few pages of the book, and which gets repeated time and time again throughout the loosely connected five chapters of this novel. In fact, the constant repetition of this passage also illustrates the hyper-episodic narrativity, or the utter inexistence of causality, in this novel.

Spoken by the main narrator, the passage gives us crucial clues about the style in which the novel is written, but, more importantly, about the narrator’s choice of affiliation. He says:

Five men came, jumping out of a military-like jeep. Carrying automatic rifles, they surround the house. The neighbors come out to watch. One of them smiles, she makes the victory sign. They come up to the house, knock on the door. My mother opens the door, surprised. Their leader ask about me.
–He’s gone out.
–Where did he go?
–I don’t know. Come in, have a cup of coffee.
They enter. They search for me in the house. I wasn’t there. They found a book with Abdel-Nasser on the back cover. I wasn’t there. They scattered the papers and overturned the furniture. They cursed the Palestinians. They ripped my bed. They insulted my mother and this corrupt generation. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there. My mother was there, trembling with distress and resentment, pacing up and down the house angrily. She stopped answering their questions and left them. she sat on a chair in the entrance, guarding her house, as they, inside, looked for the Palestinians and Abdel-Nasser and international communism. She sat on a chair in the entrance and they made the sign of the cross, in hatred or in joy.
They went out into the street, their hands held high in gestures of victory. Some people watched and made the victory sign.

From the repetition of the sentence “I wasn’t there” we come to understand two key notions about the way the self is constituted in Khoury’s novel: chaos and absence. The self is first and foremost constituted by absence, an absence that is not complete, but rather an absence from its designated place. We should remember that the narrator is never named, and this perhaps is the ultimate absence, an absence from one’s own narrative. Such elision cannot be taken lightly as it highlights a crucial choice on the part of the novelist, a choice to make out of an absence a disfigured and incomplete presence.

Thus, the only thing that is captured of this narrator is a chaotic and disfigured narrative about an incomplete, incoherent life: episodes from a sheltered, confused childhood in the predominantly Christian neighborhood known as “little mountain,” episodes of street fighting without an apparent objective or justification, and finally a short episode about the fighter’s time in Paris where he goes to be treated of his wounds.

Narration in Little Mountain, then, is always an organizing principle, regardless of the form (or lack thereof) it takes. In Khoury’s novel, the principle of chaos or chiasmus (depending on the generosity and patience of the reader) becomes the device through which the self makes sense of itself as well as of the incoherence in the midst of which it happens to be.

Khoury, Elias. Little Mountain. Trans. Maia Tabet. New York: Picador, 2007.
Said, Edward. “After Mahfouz” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.

Mahmoud Abbas’s Speech at the UN

Mahmoud Abbas’s Speech at the UN

by Karim Abuawad

Despite the fact that I was never a supporter of the Palestinian Authority, I have to say that I was very impressed with President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the UN last Friday. Granted, the Palestinian UN bid for statehood and Abbas’s speech will yield few tangible results on the ground. Life in Palestine will change little: the roadblocks will remain, the illegal settlements will continue to grow, eating up the land of the future Palestinian state, and the Israeli government, with the help of a right-wing, extremist Knesset, will continue issuing racist laws designed to make life harder than it already is for Palestinians.

This gloomy assessment, however, should in no way obscure the importance of Abbas’s speech and the PA’s UN bid for statehood. The importance of the speech has nothing to do with emotions or sentimentality. In addition to calling Obama’s bluff on his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Abbas, through a well-crafted speech, has also signaled a change in the terms of reference. For the first time in two decades (since the ill-fated Oslo Accords), Abbas has talked about a struggle against an aggression that lasted for 63 years (since 1948) rather than a struggle against an occupation that lasted for 44 years (since 1967). One of the things the Oslo Accords is criticized for is its erasure of the ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948 (see Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine), the results of which are still evident in refugee camps in several countries as well as in the occupied West bank and Gaza Strip. The Oslo Accords failed to address this key question because they were written as if nothing had happened before 1967. Abbas chose to bring up this critical question, while reminding his audience at the UN General Assembly that he himself was a victim of this ethnic cleansing when his family was forced to leave the costal city, Jaffa. He also reminded his audience that Palestinians have already compromised when they accepted the premise of peace in exchange for a state on the land occupied in 1967. How can they be asked to make more compromises? How can they be accused of being so stubborn as to refuse to compromise?

When it was the turn for the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to address the General Assembly, the concrete terms of reference outlined by Abbas were countered by an interesting assortment of Biblical stories and a genealogy of ancient names. In an op-ed piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote that

The world and the auditorium cheered for Abbas because he spoke like a 21st-century statesman, not like a co-opted archaeologist of centuries past. Abraham or Ibrahim, Hezekiah or Netanyahu, Benjamin or Jacob-Israel, Jew or Judea – our prime minister’s Bible and Holocaust stories should have made Israelis sitting down to their Friday night dinner feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Of course, not all Palestinians admired Abbas’s speech or supported the UN bid. The crowds that cheered for him upon his return to Ramallah and the news coverage that constantly talk about the “surge” in Abbas’s popularity should not fool anybody into believing that all Palestinians now wholeheartedly support the PA or the president. Some of the people in these crowds were civil servants who were dismissed early on the day of the president’s return in order to welcome him. Others were people who belong to the president’s political faction, and those are the people who are ready to show their support any day of the week.

The people who chose not show up for rallies because of their critical stance vis-à-vis the UN bid are taking all these developments with a grain of salt. Surely, they have all the right to question these new developments rather than participate in a fanfare before knowing what good this bid will bring them. Having said that, some of these critics have attacked, or even mocked, the UN bid either on the grounds of their distrust of anything the PA engages in, or on the grounds of legal concerns, claiming that the bid will ultimately compromise the right of return of Palestinian refugees because the state proposed is one on the 1967 borders while most refugees were expelled from the part of historical Palestine on which Israel was established in 1948.

While not qualified to comment on the legal concerns, which might, after all, be valid, I can comment on the reactions of the people who oppose anything the PA proposes, often without truly evaluating the PA’s actions. It goes without saying that it’s important to have people around who never sing the praises of those in power and instead take them to task. However, the criticism of the PA’s bid which I heard over the past few days doesn’t fall into this category. Calling Abbas’s speech a publicity stunt, or accusing him of “riding the wave” of the Arab Spring can hardly be considered credible critique. At the end of the day, the bid and Abbas’s speech showed us that the world still supports the Palestinian cause, that the “international community” isn’t made up of only the US and Western Europe, that Palestinians are indeed capable of saying No to the US administration, and that if Palestinian are determined to stand by their principles, they will find out that the free people of the world will stand with them. This isn’t an overdone sentimentality; it is the truth that was expressed through the 15 standing ovations that president Abbas received at the General Assembly.

The Trouble With Egypt

The Trouble With Egypt

by Karim Abuawad

Since the night the Tunisian people forced their dictator to flee the North African country, I’ve been hearing people anticipating that the same fate would fall on the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In fact, the similarities abound between the situation in Tunisia and in Egypt: Tunisia’s Zain Bin Ali ruled for 23 years, Mubarak has been in power for 29, both of them amassed enormous fortunes, both have created “royal families” that rule so-called republics, both of them have been indifferent to the high level of unemployment (especially among highly qualified people and university graduates), and, finally, both had governments which for years have been described as “governments of businessmen.”

It is also worth mentioning that Egypt and Tunisia are countries that have well developed civil societies that are politically mature. This is important because these ingredients could mean the difference between the establishment of more democratic societies and utter chaos. READ MORE

On This Earth What Makes Life Worth Living

By Mahmoud Darwish

Translated by Karim Abuawad

On this earth what makes life worth living:

the hesitance of April

the scent of bread at dawn

an amulet made by a woman for men

Aeschylus’s works

the beginnings of love

moss on a stone

the mothers standing on the thinness of a flute

and the fear of invaders of memories.

On this earth what makes life worth living:

September’s end

a lady moving beyond her fortieth year without losing any of her grace

a sun clock in a prison

clouds imitating a flock of creatures

chants of a crowd for those meeting their end smiling

and the fear of tyrants of the songs.

On this earth what makes life worth living:

on this earth stands the mistress of the earth

mother of beginnings

mother of endings

it used to be known as Palestine

it became known as Palestine

my mistress:

I deserve, because you’re my mistress

I deserve life.

Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008): is a Palestinian poet born in the village of al-Birweh, in Galilee. A few months before the declaration of the State of Israel, Darwish’s family was expelled to Lebanon. Upon their “illegal” return to Galilee in 1949, the family found their village razed, their property appropriated by the state. Darwish went into exile in 1970, returning to live in Ramallah, Palestine after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

He’s considered one of the most prominent poets writing in Arabic in the twentieth century. He made many contributions among which helping to popularize free-verse, a project championed by earlier poets to free modern Arabic poetry from the strict meter and rhyme that characterized the earlier traditional poetry.

Many of his poems have become lasting, and quite recognizable, songs, the most famous of which is the poem he wrote for Rita, the Jewish girl who was Darwish’s first love. The first line of the poem, which reads “There’s a rifle between Rita and me,” encapsulates this romantic encounter between a Palestinian living in Israel without citizenship and his lover who enlists in the Israeli army.

More recently, Darwish published the long poem Mural (2000), an extensive monologue where the poet talks to, and argues with, Death which has come to claim him several times before finally succeeding in 2008.

In June, 2010, the Council of Paris inaugurated “Mahmoud Darwish Square” in honor of Darwish and his artistic legacy. In the words of Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, Darwish “is not just any poet [but] a Palestinian poet, a poet whose inspiration is born of his suffering in exile.”

“Close to Home”: Film Commentary by Karim Abuawad

A few months ago, as I was looking for a good film streaming on Netflix, I came a across the Israeli film Close to Home (2005). I rarely watch Israeli films (after all Israel isn’t famous for its filmmaking industry) but after reading the little description one gets on Netflix, I was sold. The film was advertised as the story of Mirit and Smadar who “are both serving their mandatory terms in the Israeli army, charged with the mundane task of checking the papers of Palestinian civilians.”

After watching the very first scene of the film, I began to see the disconnect between the film itself and its advertisement. In that scene, a Palestinian woman, in a little booth slightly bigger than a fitting room, is asked by a female soldier (Smadar) to undress so she could be inspected. As a new soldier in the IDF, Smadar is accompanied by her commanding officer who instructs her on how to search the Palestinian woman’s belongings, from inspecting the woman’s lipstick to sending a random piece of paper Smadar finds in her purse to the “censor.” Right from the beginning, I realized that there’s nothing “mundane” about this. In fact, within a few minutes, with very little dialogue, the film shows how an extreme version of Foucauldian biopolitcs gets normalized. So much so, that when the commanding officer leaves the room, Smadar can only think about telling her officer that she was given the wrong boots, asking her how she should go about fixing this mistake.

In Israel’s Occupation, the Israeli Foucauldian scholar Neve Gordon (professor at the Ben-Gurion university of the Negev) uses Foucauldian biopolitics to examine the control mechanisms put in place in the Occupied Territories. He writes:

“By means of control I do not only mean the coercive mechanisms used to prohibit, exclude, and repress people, but rather the entire array of institutions, legal devices, bureaucratic apparatuses, social practices, and physical edifices that operate both on the individual and the population in order to produce new modes of behavior, habits, interests, tastes, and aspirations. Whereas some of the civil institutions, like the education and medical systems, operate as controlling apparatuses in their own right, frequently attempting to further the project of normalization, they are simultaneously sites through which a variety of other minute controlling practices are introduced and circulated.”

Thus, these mechanisms of sorting and controlling individuals always go hand in hand with a “process of normalization,” where individuals under control as well as those who control them become so accustomed to the situation that they can’t conceive of it being any different than what it is. The effect isn’t just a stalemate, but also a society in which institutions of control gain an almost holy status; they become off-limits to criticism.

What is interesting about Close to Home is that the film does conceive of a form of resistance to these mechanisms. While Smadar goes on with her work, doing precisely what the officer asks her to do, in the next booth, there’s a sign of resistance, as we see another female recruit arguing with the officer saying she refuses to go on with that kind of work. When she repeats her protestation saying, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” her officer tells her, “you have no choice!” The soldier is later disciplined, but she proves the officer wrong: she does have a choice.

The film doesn’t dwell on this form of explicit, conscientious resistance. When Mirit and Smadar are assigned on patrol around Jaffa Street in Jerusalem (basically looking for Arab-looking pedestrians, asking for their ID cards, and then registering them) the focus shifts to mere boredom. While Mirit tries to do her job properly and register every Palestinian she sees, Smadar shows an interest in hanging-out, going into stores, chatting with people, etc. Smadar’s boredom and her neglect of her duty puts her in constant danger as she tries to avoid being detected by her commanding officer who drives around in a patrol car making sure the new recruits are doing their job properly. It’s clear that putting individuals under control and those who control them on the same plane would be simply wrong, but as the sequence of scenes where Smadar hides in alleys from her officer shows, institutions of control tend to swallow even those who run them.

This film, I think, falls short of explicitly criticizing the status quo. However, it does a great job in showing the efficacy of state apparatuses when it comes to normalizing extreme measures taken against a by and large civilian population. As Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s short story “The Tunnel” shows us, you only need to turn on the lights in order to make people forget that their train is going through a never-ending tunnel.