Violence is a key ingredient of human storytelling: from our first oral tales, violent acts have heightened audience attention and underlined the dangers of our world. What happens to a child who goes off alone? She is beset by ogres! Djinn! Child-eating witches! As different story traditions developed, most were rich in violence, which was often focused around a single enemy. This enemy could be battled (and tricked or beaten), offering the audience a psychological release.
Many individual writers and storytellers have worked to complicate our views of violence, but the majority of tales continue to build on this tradition, finding satisfaction in pointing a finger at a guilty party. The need to discover and punish those to blame for our ills makes for a powerful narrative driver. Discovery and punishment also create a uniquely satisfying end.
These guilty parties, whether individual or collective, can powerfully shape or re-shape our shared ideas of right and wrong. Some authors turn old tropes on their head, reversing whom we would usually find “guilty.” Others, in seeking to interrogate the violence itself, walk away from the idea of a guilty party. Elias Khoury’s narrator asks, in the 1981 novel White Masks, “Is the identification of the murderer the problem?”
Few literary movements have been as interested in not finding the murderer as recent Lebanese writing, particularly since the start of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. Lebanon boasted a vibrant literary culture in the 1960s and early 1970s, primed for a book boom. Then, in the mid-70s, civil violence spread throughout the country, “seeping into every crack,” driving people to align with one faction or another. Some writers, such as Elias Khoury, joined the battle. Many others, like Hanan al-Shaykh, took work as journalists.
It was early in the fighting when Khoury published his first impressionistic novel about the war, Little Mountain (1977). Then, in 1981, Khoury’s writing sharply diverged from a partisan worldview. As he told Sonja Mejcher-Atassi, he began to be critical of the war with Little Mountain, but “my criticism became more explicit in al-Wujuh al-baidha’ [The White Faces, translated as White Masks, 2010], which was considered to be very heavy criticism of what we–our leftist and Palestinian camp–were doing, and I was considered to be against the revolution.”
By 1981, a number of serious books exploring Lebanon’s civil war had already been published, including Hanan al-Shakyh’s The Story of Zahra. But Khoury’s was perhaps the first that foregrounded the need to discover “whodunit” and then refused to answer its central question.
White Masks was different from other civil-war narratives at the time, as it focused on a single victim, the everyman civil servant Khalil Ahmad Jaber. Structured like a detective story, White Masks tags along with a faceless journalist who searches for the person or people who kidnapped, killed, and tossed Jaber in the garbage for seemingly no reason at all.
Throughout the course of the novel, we learn a great deal about Jaber’s community, and about the ways in which violence has changed the course of individual lives and memories. But while we get a sense of the violence swirling all around, we never come any closer to discovering who killed Jaber.
In the end the narrator draws our attention back to the story itself, saying that in investigating Jaber’s story, “I have had no other aim than to ‘entertain, please and pass the time,’ to borrow a phrase from Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, our revered storytelling master—the very same one who threw all his books into the river after burning them, such was his despair over the human condition.”
How can stories, the narrator seems to ask, address violence? If they must entertain us, then can they really say anything about violent acts?
Khoury has returned many times to the intersections of memory and violence. In Gate of the Sun (1998), a young woman repeats her story of the Sabra and Shatila massacres again and again for international donors, until the story has been emptied of meaning. In Khoury’s 2002 novel Yalo, published in translation in 2008, he returns to individual crimes. This time we know who committed them, as our criminal is also the protagonist. This shifts our attention off discovering the guilty party and onto how Yalo’s memory functions, and how his acts are tied to other networks of violence.
Other prominent Lebanese authors have also been exploring this terrain. Rabee Jaber’s The Mehlis Report (2008, English 2012), is set after the civil war, but it also focuses around the murder of an individual. Unlike with White Masks, the victim is not an everyman, but instead Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. The book’s ordinary people are waiting on the official report about Hariri’s murder, set to be issued by German judge Detlev Mehlis. The city is on edge as people speculate on whether the report will be able to reveal anything. In the end, the book, which even visits with Hariri in the afterlife, doesn’t tell us anything about who’s to blame for Hariri’s death.
Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain (2010, English 2014) goes back further in time, before the start of the civil war. The novel interrogates a mass shooting at a small-town church in June 1957 that killed twenty-some villagers. June Rain is the warmest of these books, bringing the small northern town to humorous and authentic life.
The Burj al-Hawa shooting will be overshadowed by everything that’s to come, and yet it lives on in the townspeople’s memories, in dozens of different forms. Forty years after the incident, a young man who was born soon after it returns from his life in self-exile. He comes to interview the town residents, ostensibly to find out who killed his father.
As in the other books, Eliyya Kfoury learns much more about the texture of life in the village, and the ripple effects of the Burj al-Hawa incident, than about who killed his father. In the end, the question no longer seems important. Indeed, when Eliyya goes back to his life in New York City, he leaves behind the notebook in which he’s been writing down information. His mother, after having a few pages read to her, burns his work.
If we were given an answer about who shot Eliyya Kfoury’s father—or what group was to blame—then the violence itself would become of secondary importance. Instead, the density of the violent moment remains at the center of the Douaihy’s novel. Surely, sometimes it’s important to know who is to blame. But in refusing to focus on guilt, each of these novels foregrounds the way violence and memory shape one another, and how this changes a community.