The Son of a Mixed Marriage: On Naji Bakhti’s “Between Beirut and the Moon”

December 24, 2020   •   By A. J. Naddaff

Between Beirut and the Moon

Naji Bakhti

EARLY INTO Naji Bakhti’s Between Beirut and the Moon, the novel’s protagonist Adam hides in a single bathroom with his family from Israeli aircraft bombs dropping in the distance. As the hours pass, Adam’s father asks him and his younger sister about school, literature, and soccer to distract them, while his chain-smoking mother reminds him that he’s “lucky” because he will now have inspiration as a writer later on. Adam resents his mother’s positive spin; not only does he find her use of black humor unsettling — after all, no citizenry would possibly be thankful for being bombed — but he dreams with unflinching determination of becoming an astronaut, not a writer: “I wanted to shout back … to exclaim that there was probably infinitely more inspiration in space than there ever would be in a tiny old bathroom in Beirut.”


Yet his urge to defecate keeps his mouth shut … until he can’t hold it in any longer. “Jesus-Mohammad-Christ,” his father exclaims while shooting his mother an incredulous glance, “your son just shit himself.”


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The comedic tone employed against a backdrop of perpetual war is at the core of the episodic novel, which jumps in time among various wars fought between Lebanon and Israel in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War that nominally ended in 1990.


The chapters are short and punchy, and the prose captivates through humor. A coterie of young misfits growing up with Adam in their own states of in-betweenness reflect the religious pluralism of Lebanon, a nation with 18 officially recognized religious sects. One of the most striking aspects of Between Beirut and the Moon is Adam’s derision toward religious exclusivity and sectarian politics. These first appear at the novel’s onset when a bully named Muhammad slaps his Christian peers at the playground, ordering them to turn the other cheek — just like Jesus did. Adam, who comes from a mixed marriage, has none of it, suddenly changing his religion to Islam before reciprocating a backhanded slap as hard as he can.


While returning home after being summoned to the principal’s office, Adam’s father, Mr. Najjar, pretends to punish him with a belt but lands his lashes on the bedsheet instead, shouting, “Never be afraid to fight for what you believe in, or defend those with less courage or intellect than yourself […] but always stop short of breaking your opponent’s nose.” In this light, Mr. Najjar seems like Adam’s biggest supporter, yet the complexities of their relationship manifest with Adam’s insistence on becoming an astronaut despite his father’s wishes for him to be a writer. After all, his father is a book-hoarding erudite and journalist who wants his son to fill his shoes, and who has ever heard of an Arab on the moon?


In another burst of black comedy, upon returning from school, Adam watches two towering blocks of literature almost crash on his head after his father attempts to pull a single book out from the shelf. Adam ironically had earlier been looking for a copy of The Miserly by Al-Jahiz, the ninth-century Arabic prose writer and Mu’tazila (read: rationalist) Islamic theologian whose own life had come to an end after a library of books fell on top of him and pummeled him to death. Adam doesn’t forget it: “I would later survive two full-fledged wars and one tiny one which would last four whole days but I consider this incident to be the most life-threatening, near-death experience.”


Being the son of a mixed marriage is itself an act of transcending boundaries in a society that tends to view life strictly through hermetically sealed religious lenses. This reality creeps through the humor. At a family gathering, a cousin warns Adam’s sister that their mother is condemned to hell because she’s Christian. When their neighbor Monsieur Mermier, a French diplomat friendly with Adam’s father, dies in an explosion, the first thing the neighbors do is inquire as to whether he was Christian or Muslim.


Almost all of Adam’s adventures include his best friend Basil, a member of the secretive Druze community, a dissident offshoot of Shi’ism dating from the 11th century. Basil is also determined to smash religious stereotypes. The Druze allegedly cannot eat spinach, so he shows up with spinach packed in his lunch every day for an entire month.


When Adam and Basil accompany a friend during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan for the evening Iftar, the breaking of the fast, “or ceremonial stuffing of one’s face” to Adam, they are told to pray afterward. Yet Adam’s father never taught him the necessary Quranic recitation, so he mumbles the Christian Lord’s Prayer, which he learned from his maternal Palestinian grandmother Mary (yes, there are many Palestinian Christians). When his mother realizes that he was forced to pray (something that also is actually forbidden in the famous Quranic verse 256 of Al-Baqara), she says, “The next time that woman makes you pray in her house, you do the steps to the fucking Macarena.”


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But is humor appropriate when writing about the “destructiveness” or “agonies” of war, in the words of Susan Sontag? Bakhti admitted to me that some of his humor may have read as out of place to those who experienced the war, but that his own generational, temporal distance allowed him to be funny. For the group of authors emerging from the shadow of the 15-year conflict, being serious and dour was perhaps the only way to express the horrific reality that left over 150,000 people dead and an estimated 17,000 missing. So while the literary landscape in Lebanon before 1975 was largely dreamy and poetic, the modern Lebanese novel was born out of the war. 


“As our societies are collapsing, we are trying to write,” Elias Khoury, the celebrated Lebanese novelist known for his trailblazing political writings on the war, said in a 2019 interview, citing the Syrian and Iraqi novels as new forms also birthed out of the ashes. “This is unlike the European novel which came to form following the bourgeois revolution and Industrial revolution.” Bakhti’s novel, however, is one of few written by a Lebanese novelist in English rather than in the national language of Arabic (or in the secondary language of French taught in 70 percent of schools). In this way, his work complements those of Rawi Hage and Rabih Alameddine. Setting the story in the postwar arena, he deviates from the novels that are set in the midst of the country’s longest streak of carnage and are far more explicit in their imagery of escalating violence and sexuality. Still, the influence of Hage’s De Niro’s Game can be felt in both the themes and characters of Between Beirut and the Moon.


Bakhti first picked up the award-winning De Niro’s Game when he was a student at the American University of Beirut trying to make sense of what had happened, and it greatly resonated with him. Similar to Adam, who just wants to land on the moon, fleeing is the main tension of De Niro’s Game, as announced by Greek philosopher Heraclitus in its epigraph: “How, from a fire that never sinks or sets, would you escape?”


Hage’s protagonist, an existentialist named Bassam disillusioned with war, refuses to belong to any sectarian system and becomes aware of the subsequent void created around him. As he first turns to petty crime, sporting battered Levi’s while riding motorcycles, he watches his ruffian best friend George get sucked in and become part of a militia that demands new loyalties. It is that same militia that executed the massacre of hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian civilians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982 under Israeli oversight. 


Whereas Hage’s story follows a linear chronology divided into three parts, Alameddine’s first novel, Koolaids: The Art of War, is fragmented among four cycling gay protagonists, various gods, and Tom Cruise. His arresting prose switches from the Lebanese Civil War and the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut to the rise of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, exuding a tone of understandable personal rage at the absurdity of war and a discriminatory life-threatening disease. At the time, as Alameddine says, not only were his relatives being killed in Lebanon, but his friends in the United States were also dying from AIDS.


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Between Beirut and the Moon is episodic and disjointed, but it is easy to follow the conflict between Adam and all those around him (his father, Basil, his teachers and crushes): Adam’s dreams of outer space. Only from the hopelessness permeating the setting can we understand and begin to sympathize with Mr. Najjar, who begins writing obituaries in the newspaper in his mid-40s. His last article, however, breaks that trend, with total animus for the nation: “I curse the country that presented our children with two alternatives: death or immigration and instructed them to pick between the two.”


About halfway through the book, Adam yields to his father’s commands, with the corollary — perhaps subconsciously — of relinquishing his dream of landing on the moon. In publishing his first poem when pressed by his teacher, he says: “I write because if I screamed at the top of my voice my father would up me with a book entitled The Life and Times of Antoun Saadeh […] I write because my pen is limited and when I asked it to fly to the moon, it refused.”


The poem alludes to the founder of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, the party whose emblem looks like “a red, spinning swastika with an identity crisis,” to which his father used to belong and of which his teacher Mr. Malik is an adamant follower. Most notably, this is the party that Basil is recruited into as he grows into an ultra-political figure. Bakhti was attracted to this particular motif because its vision opposed the French mandate and its efforts to break up Greater Syria, providing an alternative to pan-Arab nationalism and, with its call for separation of religion from politics, appealed to a wide range of intellectuals and minority groups. In the end, however, we are confronted with the bittersweet realization that even a secular dream of a better Lebanon can be sullied in some way.


The strength of Bakhti’s novel lies in its humorous tone and the way it confronts being written out of language. Adam’s “arab-splaining” or “leb-splaining,” as Bakhti puts it, reveals a cognizance of his position and audience, and a lack of pretense that he’s articulating his thoughts in his native tongue. Bilingual Lebanese are in on the joke, standing beside the narrator as he explains to a foreign reader “mother and father,” a colloquial term to express the notion of something complete. (“The building collapsed, mother and father, to the ground.”) Translating and explaining certain Lebanese expressions or ways of seeing the world often result in a joke of some sort.


At a closer glance, the novel seems to parallel the author’s life in an almost autobiographical way. In fact, I had to stop and realize that it wasn’t Bakhti’s own journey while reading: both the protagonist Adam and the author come from families of mixed marriage. The way Bakhti describes hiding in a bathroom while being shelled, or bullets flying outside on the streets, gives off an authority too vivid to discount as mere imagination. They are as real inasmuch as fiction can be because they pull from firsthand experience.


Yet Bakhti’s novel, he admits, is steeped in lies, tracing back to a long tradition in classical Arabic literature but also effervescent in global literature to this day. Fiction is a dignified form of lies, as Balzac said, and it is through words that the reader can discover truth in other ways. A large part of how Bakhti and many Lebanese children come to learn about the world is through cautionary tales, gossip, and war stories through their parents’ and grandparents’ oral accounts. For Bakhti, these tales are “at best unreliable and at worst sometimes total fabrications […] but they are a major portion of the history we possess.” Moreover, according to popular wisdom, Lebanon still does not have an official war memorial because there remains no unified consensus on what happened. No national history books address the civil war, and the topic is not broached in schools. In this context, for Bakhti, truth is not so much an obligation but “a sometime aspiration,” reflected in the novel’s changing landscape and the city’s volatile and fragmented nature.


While some readers may long for a greater political explanation of the causes of sectarianism in Lebanon that culminated in the civil war and postwar violence Adam finds himself in, there are other books for that. [1] Perhaps Between Beirut and the Moon was written with the assumption that the reader is well aware of these events, but the reasons behind the wars are not so simple, and are widely debated among scholars from all backgrounds.


Too often, however, Lebanon is described as a textbook example of a primordial sectarian conflict, especially by Western correspondents. This depiction clouds class interests in a country where the same civil-war-era warlords now get along swimmingly well, heading political factions that uphold nepotistic business interests. They thrive off the division of their people through a patronage system, dishing out positions in government ministries and public institutions to ensure their backings, escape blame, and deepen the country’s woes. In the words of writer Lina Mounzer, describing the sharing of postwar spoils:


A general amnesty had been agreed upon as part of the peace accord that ended the war. All was forgiven; no one would be prosecuted or held accountable. The old warlords became the new government; private contracts replaced contract killers; the new city would leave the old war behind by erasing every last trace of it, by the cosmetic overhaul of its ruins.


There’s a line from the movie War Generation (1989), directed by Mai Masri, from the perspective of a former militiaman about how, after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, the war had gotten so complicated, sectarian, and senseless. “How can you justify the killing of little girls? The skulls of children stacked up in piles,” he asks. “Those at the top don’t care. Each battle creates six or seven new millionaires. They live off the killings and it is the best of our generation that is being killed.”


The harrowing documentary provides real footage of the war and gets up close to the militiamen from various factions who were implanted with so much hatred. But, 15 years later, these same men began to ask the very questions posed by Khoury, Hage, Alameddine, and Bakhti, and a range of artists and writers who took it upon themselves to create and recreate the memories of atrocities and injustices that would never be remedied: What happened? Why did this happen? How can we prevent this from happening again?


We can now understand that for Adam, going to the moon is a metaphysical battle across space and time, a sweet metaphor for a post-sectarian Lebanon, and a treatise against his vestigial loath to factionalism, filled with hopes for a brighter future that all his entourage shared at one point. In the end, is Adam’s ultimate departure from Lebanon (but not for the moon) an allegory for the vicious cycle of mismanagement and corruption devouring Lebanese politics? Like Sisyphus, whose punishment was to roll a boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it reached the zenith, will the Lebanese have this action on eternal repeat? As Adam’s teacher Ms. Iman remarks, “What will we have done, if we raise a generation like the last?” Between Beirut and the Moon begins as a playful coming-of-age story and ends as an elegy, one that is being lived out in Beirut as I write. One year since the Lebanese popular revolution erupted, and four months since the port explosion ripped up lives and decimated half of the capital, the city is eerily quiet, taxi drives are far sparser, and hospitals are still inundated with COVID-19 cases. While a darkness overcomes the city, everyone appears to be holding their breath, unsure of what tomorrow will hold. One thing is for certain, however: the Lebanese will keep dreaming of the moon. The alternative could not be much worse.


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A. J. Naddaff is an American-Belgian-Lebanese multimedia journalist and researcher. His work has appeared in the Associated Press, The Intercept, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Middle East Eye, World Politics Review, The New Arab, and other outlets.


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[1] If you want a detailed historical account of the events leading up to the war, including the establishment of the sectarian political governance established by French colonial rule that many Lebanese now consider a curse (the president must be Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker Shiite Muslim): see Fawaz Trabulsi’s masterful A History of Modern Lebanon. Moreover, Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation is a classic that does not shy away from confronting the elephant in the room: Israel, and its oversized role in stoking the flames of Lebanese sectarianism by failing to grant Palestinians dignity in their indigenous homeland. He starts by going directly to Poland to visit a Holocaust survivor to understand the cognitive dissonance and disregard for the suffering of others.