The War Within

April 5, 2016   •   By Jacob Rama Berman

Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol

Humphrey Davies

“THE WAR WILL NEVER END because it’s inside us.” These ominous words set the tone for Elias Khoury’s introspective novel, Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol. The war in question is the Lebanese Civil War, which officially ended in 1990 after 15 years (1975–1990), but as Lebanon’s neighbor, Syria, slips further into the chaos of multifaceted conflict, the statement reads as prophetic. The question of the Lebanese Civil War’s contemporary legacy in the Middle East is an important one and suggests one of the reasons that Humphrey Davies’s supple translation of Broken Mirrors appears at an opportune time for American readers. In giving voice to the ambitions and disappointments of a range of leftist leaders from Lebanon’s Civil War, Broken Mirrors illuminates an essential pathway for the rise of militant Islamicism. The novel also charts how Islam supplanted Marxist and Communist thought as the go-to revolutionary ideology in the Middle East. This historical mapping is interesting enough as a backstory to the current moment of conflict and crises in the region, but what is perhaps more relevant is the novel’s nuanced rendering of Middle East revolutionary politics.

One of the signal failures of 9/11 novels has been their inability to capture the voice of the Muslim terrorist. When these voices appeared on the page, as they did in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Andre Dubus’s Garden of Last Days, they often read like thesis arguments: jihadist vocabulary, but without a full, messy range of recognizable human motivation. Broken Mirrors does not address contemporary Islamic terrorism (though it does chillingly mention Mohammad Atta). However, it does portray scare words such as jihadist, fedayeen, and martyr as fully human and, at times, as entirely sympathetic. It is one thing for informed scholars, such as Joseph Massad, to insist that Islam is not monolithic. It is quite another to take a deep literary dive into the lives, and minds, of an eclectic array of individual Muslims. Broken Mirrors has the added virtue of articulating Muslim diversity within the broader context of the Arab world. The Lebanese Civil War was a multisectarian farrago, born out of the social, economic, and confessional divisions both within Lebanon and the larger region. To read Khoury’s literary account of this war is to gain a deeper appreciation for the range of identities, philosophies, and political ambitions that energize conflicts in the Middle East.

Khoury is one of the most recognizable names in Arab literature today, author of 10 novels, many of which have been translated into English. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1948, the same year that Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon and Jordan. Throughout Khoury’s writing career, as both journalist and novelist, he has repeatedly returned to the intertwined subjects of Lebanon and the Palestinians. The growth of the Palestinian armed presence within Lebanon, particularly after Black September in 1970-1971, provided the single most important casus belli in the conflict that came to be known as the Civil War. Khoury has suggested that the birth of the Lebanese novel is a direct result of the devastation of war. Not national consolidation, but rather national destruction forced Lebanese society to face itself in the mirror. Broken Mirrors enacts that national self-confrontation on an intimately personal level.

The novel begins in 1990, the year the war ended, and moves backward toward the war’s beginning. The organizing logic of the narrative is the unorganized logic of memory, and so its movement is nonlinear, jumping about in both time and perspective. The reader’s entry point into this unstable and shifting world is Karim Shammas, a 40-year-old Lebanese dermatologist who has come home for a six-month visit. Karim has spent the last 10 years in France trying to forget the war and his past. He returns to Beirut without his French wife or his two daughters. Once there, he reunites with his brother, Nasim, who has married Karim’s former lover, Hend. From the beginning of the novel, as he lifts his suitcase out of a cab’s trunk, Karim is adrift. Unable to say why he left Lebanon in the first place and not sure why he has returned, he is nevertheless determined to “rewrite” his own story by confronting his past:

He didn’t tell her [his wife] that a person cannot live without his mirrors. He’d exchanged Nasim, Hend, Jamal, Danny, and Malak for French mirrors but had come to feel he could no longer see himself in his new environment, as though Karim had evaporated and become shapeless. All he wanted to do was recover his image before deciding what he should do with the years that remained to him.

Karim’s existential angst makes him heir to a generation of deracinated postcolonial mimic men who have sold their birthright for a mess of European pottage. But the tension between Karim and Nasim serves as a microcosm of Lebanon’s larger fractures, so their father compares them to Cain and Abel, not Jacob and Esau. Nasim has invited Karim to share in a hospital project, the hospital symbolic of Karim’s desire to heal, or at least confront, the wounds that the Civil War has inflicted on his relationship with his brother. Nasim, born in the same calendar year as Karim, is in many respects his brother’s inverse. Though both are Maronite Christians, Karim has aligned himself with the revolutionary Palestinian and Muslim factions of the Civil War, while Nasim fights for the reactionary Phalangists. Nasim is the fascist right to Karim’s communist left, the East Beirut to Karim’s West Beirut, the body to Karim’s brain, the one who stayed behind to fight instead of fleeing to forget. Together, Nasim, Karim, and their father Nasri once formed what Nasri calls the “Trinity” — an integral whole represented by the fact that the brothers used to complete one another’s sentences. The shattered unity of this “Trinity,” and by extension of the country, is evident in the inconsistency of the brothers’ memories of the past. In fact, the brothers have opposed approaches to memory itself — Karim has been in the process of “erasing” his own memory, while Nassim has “set about adding, not subtracting, for he wasn’t content with his personal memory. Rather, he had mixed his brother’s into it by taking possession of Hend.” The battle for control of Beirut that once pitted brother against brother has become a battle for the past itself as one brother attempts to seize possession of the other brother’s memory.

Khoury’s novel is not so much postcolonial as it is specifically a post-1967 Arab novel. Karim’s struggles with the shame of desertion and the question of who owns memory resonate with the thematic concerns of seminal literary works of Palestinian identity politics, such as Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa (1969). The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said identified Khoury as the writer who had stylistically pushed the Arab novel past the influence of Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz’s techniques. Said argued that Khoury’s resistance to form captured a shift in the Arab perception of reality after the defeats of 1967, the events of Black September, and the instability ushered in by the Lebanese Civil War.

The chaotic structure of Khoury’s narrative allows him to move nonhierarchically between various perspectives to create a mosaic of Lebanese life. A character will emerge within a story, who then leads the reader to another character within another story, and so on until the frame story has been filled with so many competing voices that the frame itself disappears. This technique has been compared by critics to the unhatching structure of a One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla wa Layla) story, but Khoury’s novel is less nesting doll and more spider web. Khoury revisits the same stories again and again, repeating them from different perspectives, adding details, and coming to new conclusions. The result is that his tales accrete meaning and evolve with each telling, eventually revealing a network of connections. For example, Karim first hears the story of his father’s death from Nasim, who tells him the death was an accident, the result of an old man falling in his apartment. Then, Karim hears the story from Hend. In her telling, the father has attacked her, and she has pushed Nasri away and to his death. Finally, Hend’s mother, Salma, tells Karim her version of the story, which is that the father had gone blind, and his death was a result of that blindness:

“Oh my God!” screamed Hend. “You mean I killed him without realizing what I was doing?”

“I am the one who killed him,” said Salma weeping.

“No one killed him,” said Nasim. “His oil ran out so he died. Weird you’d believe his stories after everything he did to you.”

The novel never weighs in on whose story is most believable. Rather, Khoury gives each perspective its own narrative space and allows it to reflect, refract, and even contradict the perspectives that have preceded it. “When you live in Beirut, or any other city in the Arab world,” Nasim learns, “you have to adapt to the absence of answers and the discovery that every question leads to another question.”

The formlessness of Khoury’s structure develops, as Said suggests, out of the incoherence of a society that has fallen into civil war:

Ideas can only last if they are put in a vessel that imposes form on them. But a civil war has no vessel. It is an assemblage of broken mirrors that run parallel to one another, making of fragments images that reproduce each other but refuse to form a coherent whole.

Khoury resists the totalizing and univocal narrative of “official” history. How does one create a meaningful relationship to a traumatic past, he asks, when the very details of that past are contested? As an alternative, he offers a poignant vernacular history of the Lebanese Civil War, one in which nothing is certain and everything is open to multiple interpretations. His style reproduces both the conflict’s sickness and its cure.

One of the most compelling ways Khoury achieves this effect is through his rendition of Beirut itself. Khoury guides the reader through a beguiling Beirut, a city whose very existence seems to be at stake. The hospital project at the heart of the brotherly reunion is part of the postwar reconstruction of Beirut. As Karim watches over Ahmad Dakiz’s shoulder, the hospital architect plays a computer-simulated game that allows him to demolish the city’s historic buildings. The architect comes across the area around Martyrs’ Square and the Cinema Rivoli, a 1950s Streamline Modernist movie house located by the harbor:

“Hang on a second,” said Dakiz, “Cinema Rivoli’s going to come down. Why is the computer doing that, even though I put enough explosives to bring down a city? The cinema’s like a streetwalker. It blocks the sea. For some reason it doesn’t want to come down.”

“Enough!” said Karim.

“Wadi Abu Jamil.”

“You’re going to knock the Wadi down too?”

“To the ground.”

“And the Tawileh market?”

“The Tawileh market?! What are those silly little markets good for? They’re all in ruins and full of trash. It’s all going. We want to build a modern city — malls, like in Saudi Arabia and Dubai and America.”

“And the memories?”

“Memories! This is a country without memory? What use is memory? Memories of crap and shit, c’est fini.”

Karim recognizes the enmeshing of physical and psychological geographies. He does not share Dakiz’s faith in the “modern,” with its promises of renewal, regeneration, and anonymity. Instead, he fears reconstruction will destroy memories of Beirut’s past along with its buildings. The streetwalker image is a neat twist on the Orientalist obsession with odalisques, belly dancers, and harems — organizing symbols of Eastern sensuality and sexual availability. The Oriental streetwalker here is a cinema, and the illicit allure it offers has a direct relationship to fantasy projection. But the power of fantasy projection is not exclusive to Orientalists. The streetwalker is a marker of the marginal, the taboo. The streetwalker locates Bohemia and all its promises. By giving the streetwalker her due, Khoury builds his narrative from tales told by prostitutes, pimps, and thugs who are also angels, martyrs, and war “heroes.”

Karim’s own faith in the aura of ruins and relics is part and parcel of the novel’s suspicions about forgetting the past in order to move on. Instead of a form of forgetting that depends on erasure, Karim’s return to Beirut prompts him to explore a more dialectic relationship between forgetting and memory:

He said he wanted to forget and Karim couldn’t think of how to answer him. He was right to forget, we all want to forget. Karim, however, was convinced that the protection of memory was a condition of forgetting. Memory had to be preserved somewhere so we could forget it and turn a new page. When we demolished memory in that barbaric way, though, it meant we wanted memory to make its home in our unconscious. That way the war would renew itself every time we thought it had ended.

What happens when war becomes decoupled from material reality? One of the more fascinating ways that Khoury’s novel addresses contemporary events is in its treatment of the rise of a militant version of Islamicism out of the ashes of Cold War ideology. Just before he leaves Lebanon for the first time, in 1980, Karim has a conversation with his leftist comrade Khaled. They discuss a book Karim helped write for the cause. Khaled hands Karim a new copy of the book:

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.”

“What! Islam! You too Khaled? And what are you going to do with the memory of Yahya, who died a Marxist and struggled for socialism?”

“Don’t bring Yahya up. I know what you and Danny thought of him, you thought he was a populist and impulsive. And Danny used that French word which makes my skin crawl every time I hear it. What was it again — lummen? That’s it — lummen.”

Lumpen,” said Karim …

There was a silence and all that could be heard was the sipping of tea.

“You, comrades, can give up, but not me. What would I do with the boys? Leave them to split up and go back to being neighborhood hoodlums working for Intelligence and taking drugs? We’re poor, we live in the low-income neighborhoods, we don’t have apartments in Hamra and Tall el-Khayyat like other people, and without a belief to bring us together we split up. Without Islam everything will fall apart.”

One can be reasonably dubious of the implied argument here — that contemporary Islamicism is a censored version of Marxism — but the novel effectively situates Khaled’s rewriting of Marxism within its larger examination of memory. Khaled’s impetus is pragmatic and based on his desire to build a community for the poor of his neighborhood, although the willful reinterpretation of the past to justify the present creates a dangerous precedent.

If Khaled represents one end of a spectrum of positions within 1980s Islamist revolutionary thought, his former underling, Radwan, occupies another. Radwan is also former Marxist who has become an Islamist — Sheikh Radwan. Radwan’s own interest in the past stems from his desire to write a memoir. He wants the prophet Yahya’s papers so he can “publish them as an appendix to my book so all can see how we were guided to God’s religion through our commitment to the poor.” The plan to temper the history of the Civil War into a tendentious memoir about Islam naturally gives Karim pause. But even more unsettling is Radwan’s rejection of cultural hybridity writ large. Addressing Karim by his alter ego and imaginative double, Sinalcol. Sinalcol is a made up word, adapted from a soft drink brand, and adopted by a shadowy figure from the war who was both terrorist and freedom fighter. Sinalcol is also Karim’s “double and his mirror.” Radwan castigates the Frenchified doctor’s leftist politics of resistance as imported:

Talk? We can talk as much as you want! The hegemony of this imported culture, is, however, no longer viable. The age of “sinalcolized” culture is at an end, my dear Brother Sinalcol.

Stylistically, Khoury’s novel invests in precisely the fractured and polyvalent modes of representation that define “sinalcolized” culture. Karim’s dalliance with the Sinalcol identity comes to represent his willingness to stare into the broken mirrors of the novel’s title and discover alternate versions of both self and nation. In contrast, Radwan espouses an ideology of purity that rejects otherness. The sheikh speaks to Karim in the language borrowed from radical jihadist theorists such as Sayyid Qutb. Qutb’s 1964 book Milestones called for the purification of Islam through a return to its early practices. It had an immense influence on the philosophy of Al-Qaeda and its successors. Not the least of Qutb’s intellectual legacy was the idea that Islam was synonymous with a political state that needed to be established in the here and now. Radwan’s speech rings with the sinister undertones of a Salafist-inspired philosophy that has found contemporary expression in the so-called Islamic State’s land grabs across the Middle East. Islamic State propaganda has built on Qutb’s theorization of takfir, whereby a Muslim can be interpretively transformed into a non-Muslim, to create an exclusionist language of religious community that is directly at odds with Yahya’s “struggle for socialism.”

Khoury gives voice to these forces and their ideologies of “purity,” but he also gives voice to those who would challenge their authority. When Khaled admonishes his grandmother to start wearing the veil she responds by reminding him that he is in no position to lecture her on Islam:

“All I need is lessons in Islam from an atheistical communist like you! I was Muslim before they came up with all that nonsense.”

“But the veil is the path of the Prophet, Imm Yahya.”

“They veil is the light of the Beloved Prophet that covers our soul, not a bit of cloth we put on our heads.”

Broken Mirrors is a fascinating and trenchant literary exploration of a society at war with itself, but it is both more, and something other, than a war novel. It is an exploration of trauma, nostalgia, and the importance of the stories we tell. “Stories aren’t to be thrown around without regard for their significance,” Karim comments, “or they become absurd.” Karim’s encounters with the lovers, friends, comrades, and family members of his past are the broken mirrors of the novel’s title — each one revealing a distorted view of the self as it attempts to reconcile itself with its other. In his individual way, Karim models the process of national reconciliation, but the results of his efforts are debatable. The novel leaves little doubt that the schisms that ripped Lebanese society apart have been internalized, and in some cases, mobilized outside Lebanon.


Dr. Jacob Rama Berman is an Associate Professor of English at Louisiana State University. He is the author of American Arabesque: Arabs, Islam, and the Nineteenth-Century Imaginary (NYU Press, 2012). He lives in New Orleans and writes about the 19th century, Arab American culture, and Islam in America.