Book review: Rabee Jaber's The Mehlis Report describes life, death and loss in Lebanon

A year ago, Rabee Jaber won the 'Arabic Booker' in Abu Dhabi for The Druze of Belgrade. Now he's back with The Mehlis Report, his latest novel in English translation, writes Frederick Deknatel

The Mehlis Report
Rabee Jaber
Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid
New Directions

"Beirut was, and is, a very real place," journalist Samir Kassir wrote in his mammoth history of Lebanon's capital, "whose playfulness and love of show and spectacle fail to conceal its inner seriousness." Kassir was killed in a car bombing in June 2005, three and a half months after the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri's own assassination, along with 22 others, in a massive blast along the city's Corniche on Valentine's Day. Uncertainty and terror followed Hariri's death, as the United Nations launched a high-profile investigation while car bombs and assassinations persisted, and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and security forces - and thousands of others rallied around Hizbollah and its sponsor in Damascus. The mood and psychology of this moment in recent Lebanese history is the nominal plot of The Mehlis Report, the English-language debut of Rabee Jaber, the 2012 International Arabic Fiction Prize winner.

Architect Saman Yarid wanders Beirut, investing hopes for peace and answers to his city's turmoil on the release of the UN investigation led by the German judge Detlev Mehlis. Saman is the last member of his family left in their sprawling home in Achrafieh; his sisters have moved abroad, save for Josephine, who was kidnapped in the civil war, and never found. But his story - late nights, long walks, and different girlfriends - leads into an imaginative excavation of the city's brutal past and present, and the toll of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, with 150,000 dead and an estimated 17,000 missing. In Jaber's novel, Kassir's "inner seriousness" of Beirut is, in fact, a parallel city of the dead, where those lost in the war wander a nearly empty city, always thirsty, and sit down to write their memoirs. And the "real" Beirut in the months after Hariri's assassination, as the translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid told an interviewer, is really that "Beirut of the dead superimposed on the Beirut of the living".

These parallel cities are not only inhabited by Saman in East Beirut, and his sister, missing since 1983. The city is defined by its architecture, by what has been rebuilt and restored since the fighting ended in 1990, and, more often, what has been torn down in the name of reconstruction. Saman works in an office downtown, surrounded by the cranes of Solidere, the redevelopment authority founded by Hariri and tasked with rebuilding Beirut's devastated business district, which was a frontline of the civil war. The first morning we meet Saman, he is at his desk, when colleagues give him the news: "They killed Samir Kassir. They blew up his car. In front of his home on Furn al-Hayek Street, the La Rose Building." Waiting anxiously for the release of the Mehlis Report, Saman responds to the news as he does to most everything else: he goes for a walk. Jaber captures Beirut's openness and social freedoms in the daily habits of this 40-year-old bachelor-architect: "He drinks coffee, and when he gets tired of sitting, he goes out for a walk. He goes out and visits friends. In the middle of the day, he calls one of his girlfriends, or goes home."

But there is confinement in these rhythms, a sense of both middle-aged aimlessness and despair as Saman waits for the next car to explode and fields frantic phone calls from a sister in Paris, and another in Baltimore, urging him to leave Lebanon. The melancholy of having lost a sister in the war is, at first, just a footnote to Saman's focus on the city itself, racing to be rebuilt. "All these assassinations and explosions, all this tension, all this fear of falling back into civil war, and yet these buildings keep sprouting up," he tells himself as he walks in the Wadi Abu Jamil district downtown, whose wrecked buildings he remembers exploring with his sister Emily, now in Baltimore. The construction frenzy, Jaber writes, pleases Saman ("these rising buildings are a good omen"), and of course as an architect they mean more business for his firm. But Jaber alludes to a city unable or unwilling to protect itself and guard its heritage, from the destruction of the civil war to the march of international real estate development that replaces old stone with towering glass and steel. Passages detail the history of historic houses and districts now overshadowed by high-rises, their gardens abandoned, the springs and wells that gave them their names and the olive, mulberry and orange trees that grew among them, gone.

History - both Beirut's local heritage and the wider Levant - are frequent subjects in Jaber's seventeen novels. Last year's winner of the "Arabic Booker" prize, The Druze of Belgrade, is historical fiction set in the aftermath of the 1860 civil war between Druze and Maronites of Mount Lebanon, told through a Christian egg seller who is mistaken for a Druze fighter and exiled to the Balkans. Jaber, who at 42 was the award's youngest winner, said he "spent years researching in a basement library in the American University of Beirut … scanning the archives of Ottoman papers." Berytus: A City Beneath the Earth, was written in 2005, the same year as The Mehlis Report (Jaber writes quickly). Its English translation, also by Abu-Zeid, is forthcoming from New Directions. His prolific writing extends beyond fiction, as Jaber also edits Afaq, the weekly cultural supplement to al-Hayat.

Beyond a keen eye for historical and even architectural details, Jaber creates in The Mehlis Report a city of voices, which together destabilise the story and produce competing narratives that, in less than 200 pages, intuitively explore life, death and loss in Lebanon. Josephine, the missing sister, enters in the first-person, but it isn't always clear who is speaking, even if the geography of the city is painstaking and precise. Time and space obscure and overlap, so that the Beirut of the living and the Beirut of the dead appear to converge and split depending on the moment - the dead are always there, they might even be calling Saman on his mobile phone. What begins as a measured, authoritative third-person narrator for Saman's story yields to a kind of stream-of-consciousness, before reverting to the cold matter-of-factness of a news report. The souls of the dead, including those who disappeared in the civil war, dominate the city (all the war's killers, meanwhile, inhabit their own "province", where all they can drink to satisfy an eternal thirst is awful, bloodlike water, "red, stagnant, and rank", from boiling pools). Jaber suggests that the living who remain, like Saman, must contend with their own dislocation, especially after relatives abroad chastise them for choosing to stay in Beirut over the safety of a foreign city. As Saman's sister Mary pleads from Baltimore, "What's keeping you in Achrafieh, my brother?" His answer has nothing to do with the clichés of the city, from the pre-civil war nostalgia of the "Paris of the Middle East" to seemingly endless and breathless contemporary media coverage of Beirut as the city of simple and static contrasts, of boozy nightlife and Hezbollah. Saman is in Beirut for the same reason as all the dead, including his missing sister - because it is his city, and "he knows these paths so well". Place is central. As one of the dead proclaims, looking over a city framed by a snow-capped Mount Sannine that is just like the Beirut of the living: "Sannine was white, and the sea was blue, and Beirut filled my eyes." Or maybe it's just the sense of Beirut as a place of mythology, perched on the edge of the Mediterranean, the site of so much history, and so much strife. As Josephine writes to herself of passing from life to death:

"In Greek mythology there's a river that separates the land of the dead from that of the living. I didn't cross any rivers. There was no boat to ferry me from one bank to the other. But everyone has their river. Mine was the demarcation line between East and West Beirut."

Jaber creates a foil in death to a governing culture, in Lebanon and the wider Arab world, dominated by the mukhabarat (intelligence service), official opacity, and baffling bureaucracy - and to Lebanese society's inability to account for its terrible past. In the land of the dead, where everyone reads old books voraciously in a huge library and writes their life stories, papers cannot be torn up or destroyed. Everything must be carefully archived, and nothing is forgotten.

Frederick Deknatel, a regular contributor to The Review, writes for The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications.

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