The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber (trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid). New Directions. 202 pp. $14.95.
The Mehlis Report is the first English translation of a novel by the prolific Lebanese author Rabee Jaber. It has been translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, who told The Quarterly Conversation in 2009 that Jaber was the single Arab author most in need of being brought into English.
In Zeid’s estimation, Jaber captures in his work “the life and spirit of the city of Beirut in unforgettable ways.” This is certainly the case in The Mehlis Report, which follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon’s capital, where his memories of the city’s past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation’s civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when people and places seem to disappear; he writes about being perched on the edge of calamity; he writes about what is no longer noticed because it is passed by so often; he writes about how time—geologic and historic—imposes itself on a city; and he writes about how bewildering it is to make sense of a world saturated by news. This is not an exhaustive list of what seem to be his preoccupations. Suffice it to say that anyone interested in the possibilities of the novel to engage the overlapping realities and discourses of contemporary life will find The Mehlis Report an astonishing read, since in tracking one man’s relationship to Beirut, Jaber tracks all of us as we try to orient ourselves in a violent and transitory world whose beauty has power over us.
Rabee Jaber was born in Beirut in 1972. Along with publishing seventeen novels—the first in 1992—he edits al-Hayat’s weekly cultural supplement. Although The Mehlis Report is his first work to come out in English, some of his other novels have been translated into French, German, and Polish. His book America, which is about the Syrians who immigrated to America at the beginning of the twentieth century, was shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), and his novel The Druze of Belgrade went on to win the 2011 prize. Jaber often begins his books with historical events. In The Druze of Belgrade, for instance, he follows a group of Druze that were deported to Belgrade when the 1860 Mount Lebanon Civil War ended. His most recent novel is about Beirut between 1975 and 1977, torn in two by the civil war. The Mehlis Report, on the other hand, is set in the same year it was published, 2005, a historical novel that is told as the history that informs it is enacted.
The central historical event in this book is the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman and former Prime Minister of Lebanon. He was murdered, along with twenty-two other people, on February 14, 2005, when his motorcade passed in front of Beirut’s St. George Hotel and 2,200 pounds of TNT was detonated. Even if you are unfamiliar with these harrowing events, you can still piece together the gist of its calamitous impact on Beirut from Jaber’s novel. Of the many groups that might have been responsible for the assassination, speculation focused most keenly on Syrian security forces, since Hariri had recently disagreed with the terms of Syria’s long-standing occupation of Lebanon. On February 25, a United Nations fact-finding mission arrived in Lebanon, and in May, Detlev Mehlis, a German judge who the BBC characterized as a “diligent detective” of “state-sponsored crime,” was named its chief investigator. The novel opens on June 2, 2005, when Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir is killed in a car bomb, one of the many acts of violence that followed Hariri’s assassination.
Jaber takes no liberties with the unfolding of real-life events, but, to individualize this history as a work of fiction must, he focuses his gaze on how Hariri’s assassination impacts Saman Yarid, a forty-year-old architect who is left alone by his family in Beirut. Like many Lebanese families, his was shattered by the violence of the Civil War—Saman’s sister Josephine disappeared after being kidnapped on the Green Line between East and West Beirut in 1983. He lives by himself in the family house and directs its architecture and design agency, which entails going to the office “to avoid sitting alone in the vast rooms of the family home on Ghandour-al-Saad Street.” With no true occupation to engage him, he spends his morning reading the news, with its ongoing coverage of Hariri’s assassination and feverish anticipation of the Mehlis Report. When he gets tired of drinking coffee, he goes for walks and contemplates the city of Beirut, restored and reconstructed yet again after its most recent calamity. He visits friends, or calls on one of his girlfriends: on Liliane, who gets upset when Saman is walking with her the morning after yet another explosion; on Yara, whom he has lunch with at a Chinese restaurant before she flees Beirut’s tension for an extended stay in Amsterdam; on Cecilia, a woman he seems to be falling in love with, despite his aversion to commitment.
And so the novel progresses, Saman wasting his days as he worries vaguely about his escalating drinking and accelerating symptoms of heart disease. The novel’s main drama is acted out in the gulf of Saman’s inner life. It is here that history has left a void not unlike the empty spaces Saman notices all over the city of Beirut, a void that echoes with continuous associations of historical disaster and personal loss. When Saman’s sister Mary calls him from where she has settled in Baltimore, urging him to leave Beirut’s “harrowing life,” we hear little of their conversation, instead following Saman as he “wanders” to the “thick colored glass of the high circular skylight” and out to where his now silent neighborhood used to be “terraced fields of mulberries.” In a similar vein, as Saman makes his way downtown, he notices the “white plaza in front of the ruins of the City Palace Cinema . . . [where] it’s as if someone has poured boiling water over all the stones.” He thinks back on a manakish bakery that had once occupied a space on the street that is empty now. He relives a recent explosion that killed one person and injured many others, which takes him somewhat inexplicably to the old clock in the parlor of his family home: a heavy clock that “had been carried to the house from the port of Beirut in a wooden box that looked like a coffin.”
More and more frequently, even insistently, Saman’s cell phone vibrates with a number whose area code he does not recognize. It is his sister Josephine, trying to reach him from the land of the dead, where she has been watching her brother’s aimless days on a television. As Saman’s fatal heart attack approaches, the novel’s point of view shifts and Josephine’s voice breaks through. She is writing to her brother from the library in the land of the dead. What she describes makes the violence that Saman experiences as void and dread more horrifically real. She tells him what happened to her after she was kidnapped: beaten with the butts of guns and “wooden sticks that looked like table legs”; covered with a rough wool blanket after a final crushing blow to her head; opening her eyes and seeing the moon, “white and round against the dark blue sky . . . the night sky . . . the full moon shining down on the sleeping city.” The city is abandoned and black, without its customary sounds and voices, a dead city, populated by the “white bones of men,” flies, “green and noiseless,” bats “pass[ing] through the silver air and disappear[ing] among the pine trees at the race track.” From far away, mustard-colored eyes stare at her. Though this is a fearsome landscape, Josephine has no fear any more, only “the memory of fear” as she walks and walks toward her home in East Beirut but gets no closer to her destination.
The Mehlis Report ends on October 20, the day Saman Yarid feels “a horrific pain in his chest,” the day before Mehlis releases what will be his initial findings. At the point of Saman’s death, you cannot help but imagine what is next for him—that he, like Josephine and Harari, will be confused as he notices a sky and city that is deeply familiar but eerily altered, that he will remember falling onto the sidewalk, that he will walk and walk but draw no closer to his destination, and that, in a tragi-comic twist, he will feel such a longing at times for the world left behind that he will watch what is happening there, even its awful explosions, on one of the land of the dead’s many televisions.
A’Dora Phillips has an MFA from UMass-Amherst. Her stories, essays, and translations have appeared in a number of journals, including The South Dakota Review, New York Stories, and The Kenyon Review. She lives in Cincinnati.
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