FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail