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Review of White Masks by Jonna G. Semeiks in Confrontation, Issue Number 109

The action of White Masks, which was originally published in Arabic in 1982, takes place primarily during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). This was a bewilderingly complex war, at once sectarian, nationalist and even economic, involving Lebanese nationalists, Shiites, Israelis, Palestinians, Hezbollah fighters, Syrians and revolutionary Communists. The fourth novel by a prominent Lebanese intellectual and writer of plays as well as fiction, a former Fatah member and a Civil War combatant, White Masks is powerful, disturbing and important. Its many indelible scenes of violence and senseless brutality bring to mind more than once Jerry Kosinski’s Painted Bird. At the heart of the book is a murdered man, Khalil Ahmad Jaber, a one-time postal office worker and father of two daughters and a boxer son who becomes a soldier and, soon after, an official “martyr” when he is killed. The narrator of Khoury’s novel, an underemployed student with journalistic aspirations and few serious motivations for writing his book, interviews a number of people whose lives have intersected with the dead man’s—his widow, his daughters, the garbage collectors who find his tortured body—and their stories, moving backward and forward in time, digressing into incidents from their own and others’ histories, sometimes containing recitations of other narrator’s stories in the midst of recounting their own, create a complexly figured, blood-soaked tapestry of the horrors of war, like a Guernica painted in words by many different voices.
If the reader is sometimes confused (losing track of who is speaking or when events take place, a dislocation no doubt intended by Khoury), so are the characters in the novel and the “frame” narrator himself, the would-be journalist. Before presenting the results of his investigations, he writes a “Prologue”—a term that suggests a literary provenance, even as his first sentence assures us what follows is “not a tale”—and in this Prologue he confesses, as does a second time in his “Provisional Epilogue,” that he has failed in his attempt either to know who killed Jaber or to understand why he was killed. Indeed he tells us, before he even introduces all the testimony (the putative evidence, the clues) gleaned from the widow, the garbage collectors, and so on, that readers might do just as well to read the forensic pathologist’s report (which he obligingly provides) or the few pages of the Prologue they are currently reading as to wade through the several hundred pages of often feverish, distraught voices that follow.
All of this, of course, is fascinating. Who could resist such a quixotic quest, such a beguiling, seemingly humble narrator with, nonetheless, an array of tricks up his sleeve? The epigraph of the novel (the journalistic compilation the young man pulls together) suggests we, all of us, are living in a dream world where no reality truly exists; but the full text suggests at times that as a protective stance we retreat to the idea that we live in a dream world. At other times, in one of the book’s most tragic implications, the interior narrators achieve almost a kind of blasé acceptance of the horrors they tell us about. Horror becomes ordinary reality, more troubling, certainly, than mundane acts like making Chermoula or doing the laundry by hand, but the stuff of everyday life nonetheless. Thus there is the story of the first night of Fatima Fakhro’s marriage. She is forced into marriage with a much older man; as is typical of the women in White Masks, she does not complain about her lot. After the small wedding ceremony is over, her new husband takes her into another room, puts his hand over her mouth, and mercilessly beats her, then essentially rapes her. He utters not one word. One is left feeling this is the way things frequently are.  The marriage goes on to have other troubles, but its brutal beginning, its lingering aftereffects, is not one of them.
Private, intimate violence in this scene echoes the novel’s public, impersonal kind. The reader comes to see that the characters in White Masks survive if and only if they come to terms with, accept, horror and violence; those who do not, perish. There is no escape to a spiritual world (which, the epigraph hints, exists) nor any escape to a different culture, a different country; there is only this world. And the portrayal of the Lebanese world Khoury gives us is a damning one. Whether he meant to suggest that the Beirut we see in this novel—a city of “goons and bullies,” to quote one character—is representative of many more cities and countries in the Arab world I do not know, but certainly the stories we are told by witness after witness are as fresh and familiar as the headlines in The New York Times.
To be fair, some of the violence in White Masks is of a kind we are familiar with in the West. In the chapter “Perforated Bodies,” a medical doctor’s 65-year-old-wife is stabbed, raped, and shot in the course of a robbery attempt. The killers at their trial display no remorse, indeed laugh and joke, though they are angry that someone has “informed” against them. Then there is the kind of violence one doesn’t want to believe is practiced anywhere, given the practitioners of it. A gynecologist tells his astonished father, who is also a physician, that he doesn’t need to look for a wife because he has sex with all his patients, once they are unconscious, before providing the abortions they’ve paid for. Another doctor lets his students perform surgery on “hopeless cases”—people dying of cancer, for instance—removing parts of their brains or other organs because of the difficulties of getting decent (i.e., non-mutilated, reasonably fresh) corpses. For the most part, though, the atrocities spoken of by the various witnesses (who in disconnected and sometimes stream-of-consciousness testimony tend to drift away from the task of clarifying Jaber’s life or death) are atrocities committed for political or religious reasons, and sometimes for both.
Who was Khalil Ahmad Jaber? What happened to him? In Khoury’s “Provisional Epilogue,” the aspiring journalist (who has failed in several of the most fundamental of journalistic tasks), after discoursing about the usefulness or impossibility or pointlessness of discovering the identity of Jaber’s murderer, names several possibilities and then speculates further that perhaps Elias Khoury killed the unfortunate former postal worker. This is no journalistic coup: we begin White Masks, of course, knowing this. But it does point to Khoury’s text as a metafiction, in the way it reminds us that it is a fictional construction. Nevertheless, reality intrudes often: in the form of the Civil War, in the arguments about military strategy and Palestinian grievances, in the names that are linked (speculatively, to be sure) to real events, like the Black September attack in Munich in 1972, and these things have the effect of making us wonder whether what we are reading isn’t, after all, the real thing. The young journalist’s caution, in the Prologue—“I wish to state unequivocally that I am pointing a finger at no one, and that my aim is not to level accusations. It would be meaningless to do so in these fair time of ours”—is replete with equivocation and irony. But in general with this narrator, one must cast a skeptical or assessing eye. From the beginning of his “investigation,” he has insisted that the murdered man was as transparent as the narrator’s story itself. Neither proves to be the truth.
And what of Khalil Ahmad Jaber, the murdered man whom no one, including his wife and children, seems to understand, and who doesn’t receive the elementary justice of his murdered being called to account? We know that after his son is killed and his (Jaber’s) job disappears in the general chaos of Beirut five years into the incomprehensible war, he descends into madness. (To say this is to imply that the society around him is sane, which it is not, unless perpetual violence and random cruelty are sane.) He ceases to eat, to bathe, to go out of the house. After his wife hires someone to drive out the djinn from inside him, he essentially leaves his house forever. The fact that the posters of his martyred son are being ripped apart by children, ruined by wind and rain, or papered over by Beirut authorities with fresher “martyrs” (there is of course an unending supply of these) or with commercial advertisements particularly plagues him. Wearing a pith helmet, he takes to eating the remaining stores of posters he has been given for private use, bit by bit. Later he will erase the remaining copies of his sons’ posters, put white nail polish over all the images in the family photos, and later still attempt to whitewash all of Beirut’s walls. Confusing himself with his son, he tells a good Samaritan who offers food to the starving man with the paint pot that he is a boxer but has given up appearing on television because “the screen is so small and narrow I feel suffocated. I feel it pressing against my head.” Then he urges her to gather up her children and “get under the sheet me…The city’s all white. I’m painting it…”
Hi whitewashing all the walls of Beirut infuriates the authorities. He is brought in for questioning—he smells, we are told several time, like death, like a decaying corpse—but is let go. Soon after he is murdered, and the journalist, like the police, abandons attempts to find out why. Late in the novel, as the shelling of Beirut continues, even though “the war” is supposed to be over, a character who believe it is Jews who are doing the shelling says
“Looks to me like they want to kill every single person…there won’t be anyone left who’s witnessed this war to do the telling: if someone survived to tell the tale there’d never be another war. It seems that this country’s destiny is to spawn a new war every twenty years. That’s why everyone must be killed.”
Everyone in the present must be killed, in other words, to make way for new victims in the future. Plastering the city with posters of slaughtered, “heroic” youths, then later whitewashing those same bullet-pocked, bloody walls: it’s hard not to view the crazed Khalil Ahmad Jaber as a symbol of Beirut and Lebanon itself: a country that is “disappearing” or devouring its young, “disappearing” its history and culture, devouring itself. This novel may be even more important now, in this “Arab Spring” (whose course no one can predict), than it was when it was first published in Lebanon, thirty years ago.

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