Elias Khoury’s White Masks

by CHARLES R. LARSON

The six chapter titles in this powerful novel are tantalizing indications of everything that will follow: “The Boxer-Martyr,” “Perforated Bodies,” “White Walls,” “The Dog,” “The Interrogation,” and “Provisional Epilogue.”  There is also a “Prologue,” where Elias Khoury provides the initial context for his disturbing story.  In a newspaper article, he read, “The corpse of an unidentified man has been found in the UNESCO district of Beirut, near the Habib Abi Shahla statue, bearing gunshot wounds, abrasions, and bruises.  According to the forensic pathologist’s report, death occurred three days earlier.”  

Khoury continues in the “Prologue,” writing about himself.  He had graduated from Lebanese University, in 1974, the year before the Civil War began.  The victim—discovered in a mound of garbage–was subsequently identified as Khalil Ahmad Jaber, who lived in Khoury’s own neighborhood.  The deceased’s son, Ahmad, a famous boxer, had joined the militias and died a martyr in one of the early skirmishes.  White Masks is the writer’s piecing together of the facts of the assumed murder (suicide was ruled out), employing both journalistic and novelistic techniques, multiple voices and points of view.

After he learns of his son’s death in the war, Khalil goes into a state of shock.  He withdraws, sticks to his bed; some people believe that he has been possessed by djinns.  Khalil’s wife thinks that he is crazy, especially after he returns home with all kinds of erasers.  His wife observes, “I found him one day working on the newspaper cuttings about Ahmad.  Naturally, like any other family, we’d kept all the news reports about our dead son and put them in a big manila envelope—we never looked at them again, though, just kept them as mementos.  He had pulled out the envelope and, seated on the floor, spread all the clippings around him.  He erased tirelessly.”

After the newspaper articles, Khalil began with photos of his son.  “He’d start with the eyes, go down to the chin, and then work his way to the nose—even as the paper tore, he just carried on.  All day long, he worked feverishly, constantly muttering, as if possessed, or something….”  These activities continue within the house, out of the view of others.  But shortly, Khalil leaves the premises and searches for posters of his son—identifying him as a martyr for the cause—and paints over this son’s image with whitewash.  The tensions between husband and wife lead to physical struggles between them.  Khalil wants to obliterate any evidence of his son’s death; his wife wants to remember and honor her son.

As the family tension continues, huge swaths of the story are given over to the war in Beirut, grisly details of the murder and rape of innocent people.  Khalil lives on the streets of the city, encountering half a dozen people who attempt to befriend him.  One of the voices, Ali Kalakesh who also knew Khalil Ahmad Jaber, remarks about the discovery of his body “I can’t imagine that anyone had anything to gain by his murder.  He was just a poor guy, looking like one of those beggars, he had nothing—he wouldn’t hurt a fly!  It’s true we found him annoying, but these days one’s annoyed with one’s own self.” 

That last statement—“annoyed with one’s self”—crystallizes the sense of futility stalking everyone in Beirut, as human relationships break down during the on-going struggle.  Khoury is at his best when he identifies the people who have always been at the bottom, even before the Civil War.  This is especially true of Zayu, the garbage collector, who discovers Khalil’s body, and whom people treat no better than a dog, though all that he is guilty of is doing his job.

There are numerous speculations about what exactly happened to Khalil, why his body was eventually discovered in a pile of garbage.  The police and several others are implicated, but in the reign of violence gripping Lebanon during its Civil War, Khoury makes it clear that everyone loses.  Khalil’s daughter remarks bitterly, “Wars are like cats, it’s one litter after another….”   There is no exit; no escape.

That sense of futility—wars accomplish nothing—is undercut by Khoury’s almost comic ending to White Masks.  Suddenly, a profoundly disturbing anti-war novel morphs into something lesser, as if the writer had written himself into a corner and he, too, had no exit, no escape.  I found the shift of tone more than unsettling.

Maia Tabet’s translation from the Arabic is lucid and refreshing.

Elias Khoury: White Masks
Trans. by Maia Tabet
Archipelago Books, 304 pp., $22
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Police Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by London Cops
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
David Yearsley
A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman