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The Uncivil Servant: A Different Reflection of the Arab World

Mitchell Abidor
May 5, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Broken Mirrors, by Elias Khoury, translated by Humphrey Davies, Archipelago, 2016, 500 pages, and In Praise of Defeat, by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Archipelago, 2017, 800 pages.

OUR HYPOSTASIZED image of the Arab world is that of one rotted by Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. That it was once a heartland of hope for the left, and had its own vibrant revolutionary camp, is lost in the mists of time, though it was only decades ago. Two recent books, one by the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, the other by the exiled Moroccan poet Abedellatif Laâbi, provide us with an inside view of that lost world of hope.

The key to the latest novel by the prolific Elias Khoury appears in its English-language title, Broken Mirrors. The notion of a broken mirror stands for almost everything about the book. The story is told in shards, the same incident or moment told and retold as a fragment of the whole, reflecting different things with every retelling, its pieces fitted together in slightly different ways each time, making it impossible to definitively accept any of the versions as the final one, each of them offering a partial reflection of the characters’ states of mind at various times.

The shards of the broken mirror form the material for the construction of the novel, but also the lives of the characters. The life of the protagonist, Karim Shammas, a Beirut-born dermatologist now living in Montpellier, France, is one in shards, torn between his Lebanese past and his French present, his Lebanese past and his Lebanese present, his Lebanese lovers and his French wife, and his shattered and scattered relationship with his brother and father.

Even the motor of the story, Karim’s return to Lebanon, is reflected differently throughout the tale. Has he returned to participate in the money-making enterprise of constructing a new hospital in Beirut with his brother? Has he come to see a lost love, now married to his brother? Is he trying to find the truth about his father’s death? Even as he learns of the circumstances of the death, which of them is the real one? Is any of them the real one?

Broken Mirrors is about the impossibility of reconstructing the pieces of the mirror in any consistent way, but also the frustrations of the reality of the shattered mirror that is Beirut, that is Lebanon. The civil war figures everywhere in the novel, either as potential event looming over everything in the present, or as a central part of Karim’s past, which he must confront.

A Christian, Karim was involved in his youth with the pro-Palestinian and largely Muslim Lebanese left of the 1970s, and Khoury takes us with him as he tries to reconstruct that era. Khoury himself lived that life, an active participant in the pro-Palestinian revolutionary socialist left of that period, collaborating at one point with one of the gods of Palestinian literature, Mahmoud Darwish.

But even -- perhaps especially -- the dreams of Arab revolution were shattered, and were pasted together to form Islamism, their mirror image. A class analysis of Lebanon and the Arab world written by Karim has been revised and issued by an Islamist organization, led by Khaled, a former Marxist now gone over to Islam. “Khaled took the book from Karim’s hand, opened it randomly, and said he’d put ‘Islam’ for ‘the working class’ and ‘socialism’ wherever they occurred, ‘and it worked fine.” Khaled, whose subsequent killing, as well as that of his wife and child, will haunt Karim, explains his actions and indeed the current state of the Arab world to the dismayed Karim: “I know what I did with your essays wasn’t right, but honestly, doctor, it fitted. If ideas are to stick together they need glue. We took off the Marxist glue, put on a new glue, and they stuck. Maybe Islam’s better, because it’s stronger.”

POLITICS PLAYS an important role in the work of Khoury, though his political work in real life has been tied primarily to the cultural. Quite different is the life of the Moroccan Abdellatif Laâbi. Founder in 1966 of the important cultural-political review Souffles, he was also a member and activist in the Parti pour la Libération et le Socialisme, heir to the Moroccan Communist Party. He would then, along with the Jewish Moroccan militant Abraham Sarfaty, found a new leftwing party, Illa Al Amane. Both Laâbi and Sarfaty would be arrested and tortured, Laâbi spending six years in prison before finally being released and going into exile in France.

In Praise of Defeat brings together poetry chosen by the author that spans his entire writing career, from 1965 to the present. In its 800 bilingual pages, the book provides as complete a portrait as we are likely to have of this central figure of Maghrebin culture. Brilliantly and feelingly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, this collection has been nominated for the Best Translated Book Award, and if there’s any justice in the world, it will win it.

Politics feature heavily in his early poems, written both as a militant and after his release from prison. The torture he underwent is described with a frightful directness, as simple testimony: “I was laid on a bench, feet and hands tied. A rag completely covered my face. Water was running, penetrating the cloth, pouring up my nose. Impossible to swallow it.”

He describes, he feels the torture of his comrade Evelyne Sarfaty, who died from the violence inflicted on her: “behind the back/a rod passed under the elbows/ of the hobbled arms/ and used to lift the body/ and hang it up by placing each end/ of the rod/ on the edge of a wooden table.”

Literature is central to the young fighter’s existence, but he wonders about its utility: “Can writing, simply writing, shake the rule of the state of siege, when every street has become a death trap when the torture chambers have no vacancies, when an entire people is losing blood every day…?”

And yet, he says, “Write, write, never stop.”

Though politics ceased to be the central concern expressed in his poetry, it has never ceased being a concern. He writes of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003: “By a burnt-out vehicle/ they are trampling on corpses/ with smiles on their lips/ even hatred/ can produce the grotesque.” And this fighter for a secular and socialist Morocco -- one who has never trafficked in and has always opposed Islamic fundamentalism -- nevertheless felt it necessary to apologize for the attacks in Madrid in 2004 in a poem whose title says it all: “People of Madrid, Pardon”: “And so pardon, people of Madrid/ Pardon for those nights ahead/ white or gray/ when a loved one/ comes back as a threatening ghost/ to rebuke you for having survived.”

THE BULK of this volume shows a more intimate side of Laâbi. Most of In Praise of Defeat is made up of selections from long poems, but within these lengthy poems he is fond of short lines, the line breaks giving the poems a propulsive, yet slightly staccato rhythm, imparting to them, both in English and French a distinctive flow.

Love, of course, plays a large part in these works, and however beautiful the poems of his relative youth, perhaps most moving is his late poem “Jacaranda My Love,” from 2014, a poem that speaks not of the fires of youthful passion, but of the beauty of a long-lasting love. “Soon/ half a century/ since the fantastical/ pagan sacrament/ of our union/ Every time I think of it/ I am dumbfounded all over again/ but not so much as those to whom/ we happen to reveal/ what is far from a secret/… They find it hard to hide/ a twinge of jealousy/ even a trace of hostility/ as though they were searching/ in this union of extraterrestrials/ the flaw/ the weak link/ the hidden vice/ something bordering/ on the non human.”

Like Broken Mirrors, In Praise of Defeat is worthy not just as a corrective to a reductive view of the Arab world, but as important works of art.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.