Sep 092013
 

The Mehlis Report

First published in Arabic in 2006, The Mehlis Report is the first English translation from prize-winning Arabic author, Rabee Jaber, a love song and an elegy for his beloved home city of Beirut. The book transcends politics to become a tale of loss and memory, touching without an ounce of sentiment, uplifting without a speck of hope. –Steven Axelrod

The Mehlis Report
By Rabee Jaber, Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
New Directions, 2013.
218 pages. $11.98.

Like Joyce Cary’s London and Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, Beirut is a living presence in The Mehlis Report. The city has died and been reborn many times in the last 60 years, with all its incarnations superimposed on each other, like the acetate overlays in a mid-20th century encyclopedia, in the minds of the people who love the place. This is not a brooding Islamic casbah full of fanatics plotting carnage in the shadow of the minarets, the war-torn hellscape portrayed by western media.

Instead, the novel gives us a vision of Beirut from the inside: a seaside town with a lovely corniche and a human history stored in the images of human memory: the old athletic club where a hotel stands now; the highway that replaced a warren of narrow streets. It’s a city of bars and hotels,  mosques and bakeries, undergoing a construction boom in 2005, when the book takes place.

A man strolling from Monot to Abd-al-Whab street can buy a Mirinda orange soda and a manakish sandwich en route to his girlfriend’s apartment, even if he has to skirt the rubble from a recent car-bombing on the way.

The man in question is Saman Yarid, a local architect obsessed with the city in all its changing forms, unable to leave despite the entreaties of his two sisters. One of them has opened a bakery in Baltimore, Maryland; the other works as a translator for UNESCO in Paris. Neither of them can understand how Saman can stay on in Beirut, where sectarian violence still rages sporadically, fifteen years after the end of the Civil War. His third sister, Josephine, was kidnapped and killed at the height of that conflict, in 1983.

The first half of the book records Saman’s daily life among the specters and shifting landscapes of his beloved city: his various girlfriends, his work at the Yarid Architecture and Design Agency.

“I’m forty now,” Saman reflects. “and I’ve done nothing with my life.” Mostly he keeps track of the prominent citizens killed on the streets of Beirut – Samir Kassir, for instance, a professor of history at St Joseph University whose secondary career as a journalist writing editorials blasting Lebanon’s pro-Syrian regime in the daily newspaper Al-Nahar earned him an assassination by car bomb in front of his home on Furn al-Hayek Street.

The most horrific and newsworthy murder was that of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in February of 2005. The massive explosion wiped out his heavily armored car, his entire motorcade, and a good chunk of the street on which they were driving. Saman walks by that street every day. The threat of car bombs plague his thinking. He is certain he saw two men planting a bomb in a car, during one of his long nightly walks. The big Mercedes seems to stare at him with a ghoulish squint of imminent doom after that encounter – silent, temporarily intact, like Monot Street before the Hariri assassination.

The bomb never goes off, if in fact there ever was one. Nevertheless, Saman is so afraid, so certain of the coming explosion, that he feels as if he has already died. Death is everywhere in Saman’s world as he stalks through the night streets and past the new surveillance cameras of a city perpetually dying but never reborn, eternally haunting itself in poisoned nostalgia of its remaining champions.

All of them are waiting for the release of the Mehlis report, the U.N. Security council’s investigation of the Hariri assassination, authored by German judge Detlev Mehlism who has been investigating the attack at the highest levels of the Lebanese and Syrian Governments.

Fittingly enough, ultimately the report changed like the city itself, under the stress of politics and religious strife. The original document, leaked to the press, clearly indicated the involvement of Hezbollah and certain high officials in Syria. But key witnesses recanted their confessions, documents disappeared, and a much less provocative report became the official version of the investigation’s findings.

For Saman Yarid and his friends, waiting in a purgatory of anxiety and doubt for the verdict of the United Nations, none of that matters. Time stands still as they tip-toe through the minefield of daily life.

This fear-tipped banality finds an uncanny echo in the routines of Josephine Yarid, Saman’s sister. She narrates the second half of the book, starting with the moment she wakes up from what should have been a fatal beating at the hands of her kidnappers.

She walks through a strangely deserted “green line” between east and west Beirut, touching dried blood matted in her hair, feeling little but an overwhelming thirst and the memory of pain, rather than pain itself. The full moon above the city convinces her that somehow, against all odds, she’s still alive.

Then she sees an old man who looks strangely familiar, though she can’t place him.

Look at my face, he said, and imagine me with white hair – not black like this but white.

I said I was tired – so tired and thirsty I couldn’t imagine him with white hair. But I’ve seen you before, I said, and I know you.

I wanted him to help me. To pick me up and carry me home. I wanted him to pick me up and carry me in his arms like a child – I wanted him to take me to my family. Why doesn’t he carry me home? I wanted to open my eyes and see myself back on the familiar sofa in my own familiar house again. To open my eyes and see the faces I knew looking back at me. I wanted them to look at me and tell me I’d come back, tell me I’d been saved. Why wasn’t he taking me home right then and there?

I stared at him and noticed that he looked like my brother – he didn’t just look like my father, he looked like Saman as well. But he wasn’t Saman. This man was older than my brother. I’ll try to picture him with white hair, I thought. And then he spoke again.

“Josephine, I’m your grandfather.”

At that moment, I knew I was dead.

Josephine has entered the afterlife and the Beirut of the dead bears a striking resemblance to the stilled and stifled living city her brother still inhabits. She walks it as he does, and watches him on the television, the only visual connection to the land of the living. Also, she reads and writes. In Jaber’s evocation of the afterlife, everyone reads, all the time. It’s the only activity that brings the dead any peace of mind, though they also write. They even have an assignment: to compress their life stories into a single page. It takes many drafts, and you can’t help feeling that the first half of The Mehlis Report might wind up as Saman’s initial effort, when he reaches the other side.

He has a long way to go, and so does his sister.

Meanwhile, they walk, and chart the changes in their worlds, and remember. For Jaber, both life and death are defined by the futile effort to escape the past. The dead have giant rats who will eat the longing for the living world out of their souls; the living receive no such service. Throughout both worlds and ricocheting between them, the images appear and disappear, recur and reassemble themselves: the city, the green line, the lost buildings and sun beaten squares, and most of all the moon. It’s everywhere in this book – the first thing Josephine sees when she wakes into the afterlife, the last thing Saman sees before he goes to sleep, invoking life and hope and the illusions of both. The moon bathes the city in light, but it’s reflected light, borrowed light, the memory of light, pale and insubstantial. And that last sentence with its chanting rhythms and repetitions, mimics the hypnotic, classical Arabic style, Jaber employs, defttly captured by translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid, as in the extraordinary passage where Josephine addresses her unheeding brother from beyond the grave.

For weeks Saman’s cellphone has been ringing,  the caller disconnecting before he can answer, the number on his screen non-existent or incomplete. He senses that these calls are important, and the silence on the other end of the line haunts him. Literally:

Listen, Saman, I call you but you don’t answer. You look at my number and you don’t answer because you don’t know who it is … I call you but you don’t answer. I want to tell you things. I have so many things to tell you. I’m not alone. And neither are you … I call but you don’t answer.  You look at the number and you don’t answer because you don’t know it. Wrong number you think, or the lines must be crossed, and you tell yourself to call the company and ask about this, but you never call and you never ask, because you’ve already forgotten about it and you’re nor really interested. I all you, but you don’t answer. I want to ask you why you’re not interested … I call you and you look at the number, but you don’t answer. It’s as if you don’t care. Why don’t you care? I’m not just talking about the phone. That should be clear by now. I’m talking about a lot of things… You were born in an evil hour. The old aristocratic house, the whole district. It too is passing through dark times. It’s not your fault: time’s the culprit. How can you find a story for your life, how can you write one, when you’re in the city at this hour?

Finally, she describes the Anatolian Fault, which balances the city on the edge of a possible earthquake at every moment, and the tectonic shift in Saman’s life when Hariri was killed: “The motorcade explodes and a black chasm appears on the road, and the city falls into it. The whole country falls into it.”

Saman dies himself before the Mehlis report is made public, before he finds what he’s looking for or resolves his life into any meaningful direction. He sees the people he knew on the other side – his sister, Harir himself, Kahili Gibran, others. He sees a man, a professional writer when he was alive, who “used to write for the sake of prestige. In this world he writes only a single sentence: ‘I write so as not to choke.’”

You feel that Rabee Jaber, winner of the 2012 International prize for Arabic Fiction, writes for the same reason, under the same ambiguous moon, trying to make sense of this world and the next, well aware that his efforts will fail.

In that other world, the departed learn to read each book many times, to dismantle and reassemble it, over and over again, though few books deserve such study.

This novel is surely one of them, well worth searching out among the libraries of the dead.

— Steven Axelrod

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Steven AxelrodSteven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his work has appeared at Salon.com and various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.
Contact: stevenaxelrod@numerocinqmagazine.com

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  One Response to “Love Song for a City of the Dead: A Review of The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber — Steven Axelrod”

  1. love this piece steve (from deb)

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