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:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
David Swanson
100 Years of Using War to Try to End All War
Andrew Stewart
The 4CHAN Presidency: A Media Critique of the Alt-Right
Edward Leer
Tripping USA: The Chair
Randy Shields
Tom Regan: The Life of the Animal Rights Party
Nyla Ali Khan
One Certain Effect of Instability in Kashmir is the Erosion of Freedom of Expression and Regional Integration
Rob Hager
The Only Fake News That Probably Threw the Election to Trump was not Russian 
Mike Garrity
Why Should We Pay Billionaires to Destroy Our Public Lands? 
Mark Dickman
The Prophet: Deutscher’s Trotsky
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of the Toilet Police
Ezra Kronfeld
Joe Manchin: a Senate Republicrat to Dispute and Challenge
Clancy Sigal
The Nazis Called It a “Rafle”
Louis Proyect
Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
David Yearsley
Founding Father of American Song
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail