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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.