Racha Mounaged’s Debut Novel Captures Trauma of Lebanese Civil War

18 October, 2021

 

From time to time, TMR reviews recent titles pub­lished in oth­er lan­guages, to give read­ers insight before they become avail­able in English.

A.J. Naddaff

 

One of the most com­mon fea­tures of tragedy is that the events that will unfold on stage are sum­ma­rized by either the cho­rus or a mes­sen­ger at the start, fore­told by prophe­cies and ora­cles. Some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pens in Racha Mounaged’s La Blessure (The Wound), which starts rough­ly where it ends. It is as if an imag­i­nary mes­sen­ger — the omni­scient nar­ra­tor — has laid out the mis­for­tune of Jad, the child pro­tag­o­nist: he is in a reha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter for hav­ing stabbed a class­mate with an oys­ter knife. His moth­er, the school’s clean­ing woman, finds out one morn­ing dur­ing her shift when she is called to the principal’s office. Then it back­tracks. We know what is com­ing. Mounaged has set us up for the child’s col­lapse. But we fall for it with heavy hearts. This is the sen­si­bil­i­ty of a great sto­ry, not dis­sim­i­lar from the late Egypt­ian writer Naw­al El Sadaadwi’s Woman at Point Zero and her mur­der­ous pro­tag­o­nist Fir­daus, who tells her life sto­ry in prison before her exe­cu­tion.

Jad’s life sto­ry is a chasm of tristesse. Set in wartime Lebanon, his suf­fer­ing stems from the con­flict of parental loy­al­ty, or the inabil­i­ty to recov­er from the forced, mutu­al­ly exclu­sive deci­sion inflict­ed upon him by his par­ents’ bru­tal divorce. To choose his moth­er, and in turn, resent his father. It is as if the only way to find peace is to elim­i­nate his father. “I am the own­er of my thoughts… I want and will erase the image of dad.” But the deci­sion leaves him in a state of tur­moil. Jad wets his bed; he has night­mares; he is anti-social. He is unmoored from a social net­work of peers his age that could encour­age him. Hav­ing removed the enor­mous poten­tial of pater­nal love from his life, he suf­fers iden­ti­ty prob­lems. Mem­o­ries of his father, his fam­i­ly, under the sun, on a mer­ry-go-round, at Beirut’s Raw­da cafe, haunt him. The image of his father smil­ing, charm­ing, float­ing in his mind, returns unin­ter­rupt­ed; at oth­er times, we see a father reek­ing of sweat mixed with alco­hol, a man full of false promises.

Jad’s per­spec­tive is told by an omni­scient nar­ra­tor, who inter­jects every so often to ask crit­i­cal ques­tions, for instance, “Was it so unrea­son­able that Jad missed his father?” There is a long tra­di­tion of nov­els told from child per­spec­tives in mod­ern French lit­er­a­ture and Mounaged drew inspi­ra­tion from Hervé Bazin’s Viper in the Fist, Yann Queffélec’s The Wed­ding, Ago­ta Kristof’s The Note­book and Roman Gary’s The Life Before Us. Yet they are all bound in pulling the read­er towards a shared inno­cence we all once possessed.

Jad is a neu­tral name. In France, girls car­ry it, and in Lebanon, it’s the oppo­site, per­haps a reflec­tion of the novel’s uni­ver­sal pull, an excla­ma­tion to not under­es­ti­mate children’s thoughts and feel­ings around the world. Jad’s wis­dom rings sim­i­lar to Saint-Exupéry’s leg­endary Lit­tle Prince, when the Lit­tle Prince says: “Grown-ups nev­er under­stand any­thing by them­selves, and it is exhaust­ing for chil­dren to have to pro­vide expla­na­tions over and over again.” Indeed, the grown ups in Jad’s life fail to under­stand that their adult dis­putes, whether polit­i­cal, sec­tar­i­an, famil­ial, have side­lined chil­dren, the upcom­ing gen­er­a­tion. The results are dis­as­trous. I’m remind­ed of the Lebanese nov­el­ist Rachid el Daif’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy ألواح or Tiles, which some crit­ics have read as a cri­tique of par­ent­ing and the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of moth­er­hood in Arab cul­ture. There is a kind of hon­esty we are not used to here. As El Daif him­self recent­ly told me, “There are germs that are pre­vent­ing us from build­ing a mod­ern state, and we inher­it­ed these germs from our moth­er and fathers.” We were on a walk in the Koraytem neigh­bor­hood of Beirut and wit­nessed a teenag­er lit­ter a Pep­si can and con­tin­ue walking.


The Anguish of Being Lebanese: Interview with Author Racha Mounaged

It is not only the par­ent dis­pute that dis­turbs Jad. He is trau­ma­tized from the war rag­ing around him. At one point, Jad wit­ness­es a car bomb shake the premis­es. Life­less bod­ies spread across the ground with brown­ish blood dry­ing on the asphalt. His uncle teach­es him how to dis­tin­guish between “the tense roar of a M16 and a Kalsh­nikov.” Inter­spersed in the hor­ror are moments of rare joy. He dress­es up in a skirt with a turquoise top and two large ear­rings at a sur­prise birth­day for his moth­er while his favorite song by Ragheb Ala­ma plays in the back­ground. Hips and laugh­ter and fam­i­ly envel­op the scene. But war and fam­i­ly con­flict are always present.

Jad’s moth­er is over­whelmed with events as a sin­gle moth­er pay­ing bills, deal­ing with irk­some lawyers for a divorce and rais­ing two chil­dren. Jad’s only bonds are with Abu Ali, an enor­mous bronzed fish­er­man whose scrag­gly beard and face are worn by salt, and his daugh­ter Jana, whose beau­ti­ful green eyes radi­ate under the sun. Thanks to Abu Ali, Jad learns how to fish, but even this joy is ephemer­al. Abu Ali is expelled from his cab­in over­look­ing the gigan­tic Raouché rock on Beirut’s cor­niche because he does not have a prop­er per­mit. Mean­while, a giant hotel “El Mag­nifi­co” is ille­gal­ly con­struct­ed along­side the sea, reflect­ing the sav­age pri­va­ti­za­tion that char­ac­ter­ized the recon­struc­tion farce of the post-civ­il war nineties — the hope­ful­ness for the future that would all come crum­bling down.

Today, Lebanon is fac­ing an enor­mous exis­ten­tial cri­sis as a result of its third exo­dus wave in the past cen­tu­ry. The first was in the end of the 19th and begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry when main­ly Chris­tians fled from Mount Lebanon, then dur­ing the civ­il war (1975–1990) and now, in the wake of the Aug. 4 port explo­sion, renewed instances of sec­tar­i­an vio­lence and an eco­nom­ic melt­down that is one of the worst of the past 150 years. Just as Jad in the nov­el, for so many today, edu­ca­tion is the only way out. School is the intact space where Jad can restore his health, well-shel­tered. But even there he is not tru­ly pro­tect­ed. A bul­ly named Youssef of wicked humor and who sports the nicest clothes throws paper air­planes at him, and even calls Jad’s sis­ter a whore. His only friend, Raphael, tac­i­turn­ly observes as a pas­sive bystander. All this can be ignored — tem­porar­i­ly — because of an inter­na­tion­al com­pe­ti­tion in Greece that Jad is deter­mined to attend.

To dis­tract him­self, Jad immers­es him­self in books on ancient Greek his­to­ry, the Parthenon, the tem­ple Acro­p­ole, and key dates. But the con­flicts are stronger than his indomitable will to suc­ceed — his com­pe­ti­tion is can­celled as a result of a resur­gence in sec­tar­i­an fight­ing that shakes the coun­try, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The sen­si­ble and pre­co­cious Jad col­laps­es into a rag­ing fury and stabs his adver­sary Raphael, iron­i­cal­ly with the weapon of the rich and priv­i­leged: an oys­ter knife. Unre­cov­er­able class injus­tice mar­ried with the emo­tion­al trau­ma of his parent’s divorce results in the wound that he inflicts across his ene­my. There is a glim­mer of joy, of some sorts, in the end, which I will not dis­close, found in a look that accepts Jad in his total­i­ty. We can infer this from the impres­sion­is­tic title image, a paint­ing by the British artist Tom Young, which fea­tures an adult who guides a child by hand out of the destruc­tion and debris caused by the Beirut port explo­sion. “I like the side which accepts real­i­ty with­out deny­ing it, but which pro­pos­es a cure through art,” the author said in a recen­ter inter­view. With all the pain that this riv­et­ing sto­ry car­ries, per­haps Wounds (plur­al) might have been a more apt title for this star­tling debut nov­el by Racha Mounaged.

A.J. Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Davidson College and is currently pursuing a Master’s in the department of Arabic literature and Near Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. His work has appeared in the LARB, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, the Intercept, and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ajnaddaff.

Beirutchildhood trauamfamily conflictLebanese civil warPTSD

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