36. On 14 February 2005 at approximately 1250 hrs, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri left the Nejmeh Square in Beirut going back to the Kuraytem Palace. He traveled in a motorcade comprising of 6 cars, together with his security detail and Member of Parliament, Bassel Fleyhan.37. When the motorcade passed the St. George Hotel at Minae Al-Hosn Street a huge explosion occurred and resulted in the death of Mr. Hariri and others.38. Shortly after the blast, the Director of Al-JazeeraTV in Beirut received a telephone call from a man who stated that the Nasra and Jihad Group in Greater Syria claimed responsibility for the assassination of Mr. Hariri. This message was broadcast shortly thereafter.
– excerpt from the United Nations Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005). Popularly known as “The Mehlis Report”.
Rabee Jaber’s gorgeously written and brilliantly conceived novel – let’s establish that right out of the gate – is set in the days leading up to the release of UN Security Council Resolution 1595: The Mehlis Report. And while it isn’t necessary to know the history to enjoy the book (I learned most of of the information included in this review only after I’d finished reading) knowing a little bit about Lebanon and the events leading into to the story is helpful.
With that in mind: Lebanon, like Belgium, might be considered a victim of its geography. Both Syria and Israel loom at its borders. The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the details of which I’m not going into, resulted in internationally sanctioned invasions and occupations of Lebanon by both these neighbors. Israel sent troops into Southern Lebanon in 1982, where they remained for almost two decades. Syrian forces invaded even earlier, in 1976, eventually occupying two-thirds of the country. It was Former Prime Minister Harriri’s assassination, spawning peaceful protests known in the West as the Cedar Revolution and Intifadat-al-Istiqlal in Lebanon, which precipitated Syria’s withdrawal in 2006. Thus ending almost 30 years of continuous foreign occupation.
Jaber’s The Mehlis Report takes place in 2006 after the protests have begun and a few weeks prior to the release of the UN report investigating Harriri’s death. Tensions in Beirut are high. Everyone is talking about and speculating on what Mehlis’ (the German Special Investigator appointed by the UN) Report will reveal. A middle-aged architect named Saman Yarid is no less effected than those around him. We are privy to conversations between Saman and his two sisters (one now living in Baltimore and the other in Paris). It is a close family. The sisters worry about his safety. They feel it is time that he, too , leave Lebanon. He knows they are probably right… and yet he stays. And takes long walks saturated with memories of war, family and the changing landscape of Beirut.
Saman’s Beirut is a place laden with portent. He comes from a family of architects, his father and his grandfather founded the firm in which he works, and so he has an intimate knowledge of every square foot of the city. He’s constantly comparing the new buildings and construction to what he remembers from his childhood or to the time before the war.
He passes the BLOM bank and the new sidewalk behind the buildings on Maarad Street that descends to the Place de l’Étoile. There aren’t many customers on this side of the street either. Spotlights light up Roman columns underneath the street. Crowns of sculptured marble. Thresholds. Grass sprouting among the stones. He’s seen the plans for this park. And the long winding path among the ruins. When will this park be completed? The view will be different on this side once the park’s finished. The fish market was here before the war, behind the Banca di Roma. He used to come here with his father. The bank has since moved to Al-Omari Mosque Street. Its building collapsed during the war. Or rather, half collapsed, and the Solidere bulldozers removed the other half. These columns were discovered beneath the debris, after the rubble was dug up and dumped into the sea. The plan had been to put up some buildings here. The Roman columns changed that plan. Saman has the very first map of the ruins in his office. And he has the amended maps as well…
The Mehlis Report is a ghost story in more ways than one.
There was a third Yarid sister, Josephine, who was the victim of a brutal kidnapping 22 years ago. During the war. She provides a second, stranger, layer of narrative – speaking to us from a kind of limbo. She resides in an underworld that is also Beirut, but different. This shadow city is inhabited by ghosts who remain connected to their former lives through books, a compulsive need to write (a self-reference by Jaber?) and continuous observation of those still living. Whereas Saman’s story is told in the third person, Josephine narrates in the first. This lends an intensity and desperation to her part of the story that is incredibly disturbing. Like in the following excerpt where she attempts to contact her brother. She calls him on his cell phone. Though he receives the calls, he doesn’t recognize the number and doesn’t pick up. She keeps calling, but when he eventually answers he’s unable to hear her voice.
I see you all by yourself, Saman. You want to know what binds you to this city, but you don’t know. It’s like your guts are tied to Beirut’s, and you don’t know why. You go your way while your eyes drink in the buildings and the streets, the city’s hidden nooks. Wrought iron doors. Polished walls. How many cities are hidden in the belly of this one city? At rare times, you see all of those cities together. At night, when you push the window open, outwards, and hear the wooden shutters bang against the wall and then retreat into the darkness, your heart jumps. It doesn’t jump because of the sound of wood striking wood: you’re not scared of that noise. You’re not scared it will wake up the naked woman under the sheets. Like you, she drank a lot before going to sleep. You can tell she’s sound asleep from her breathing. Even if they started shelling the city right now, she still wouldn’t open her eyes. “And if it weren’t for my headache, I wouldn’t have woken up.”
Josephine is as chained to the city as her brother. She refuses let go of her ties to the living world. She is haunted by her former life, just as those left alive are haunted by their memories of the dead. And so we are given two evocative descriptions of Beirut, one from above and the other from below. This inability to release, to let go, is the source of the tension in The Mehlis Report.
The writing, as already mentioned, is gorgeous. Rabee Jaber uses a shadow world of ghosts and memory to explain a place he obviously feels very strongly about. And Kareem James Abu-Zeid deserves praise for his stunning translation of a novel that depends as heavily on capturing “atmosphere” as it does prose. Moving with Saman Yarid through the streets of Beirut it’s hard not to believe you’re experiencing the sites, smells and tangibles first hand. In Josephine’s voice Jaber describes the same city’s soul. The cumulative effect of both narratives is an incredibly poignant expression of love for this war torn, shifting city that is perpetually rising from its own ashes.
Rabee Jaber is the youngest author to win the International Arabic Fiction Prize, which he was awarded in 2012.
Publisher: New Directions, New York (2013)
ISBN: 978 0 8112 2064 4