Viruses and Epidemics of Futility

By Kim Jensen

Koolaids: The Art of War

By Rabih Alameddine

Picador,  1998

“Koolaids: The Art of War” is  Rabih Alameddine’s brilliant and perhaps inflammatory debut novel. It depicts the lives of several gay characters who suffer the dual tragedies of the Lebanese Civil War and the AIDS virus.

Wearing the masks of both comedy and tragedy, this literary novel eschews traditional narrative formats in favor of an eclectic mix of fragments, vignettes, skits, news reports, dreams, diary entries, aborted literary ideas, and discussions with well known philosophers and writers. Skillfully managing this chaos of form, Alameddine composes a completely distressing and thoroughly satirical picture of what it means to be an exiled Lebanese “queer.”

Alameddine, himself a talented visual artist, writes about Mohammed, a misanthropic Lebanese painter — a rising star in the international art scene. Mo, as he hates being called, is slowly dying of AIDS and has watched most of his friends die, one by one. The splintered narration, zigzagging back and forth in time, is almost always in the first person, and we don’t realize until later that in fact there are two other Arab narrators with AIDS, Samir and Makram.

All three characters have different backgrounds and religious identities, yet each speaks in the first person pronoun, “I.” This fusion, or rather confusion, in which it is never clear who is speaking, leaves the reader with the sense that each character represents a different facet of one overall Lebanese personality. This litany of perspectives tends to cater to the cynical American view of the Middle East:  all those people over there are just schizophrenic and fighting for nothing.

Despite its tender, verging on sentimental portrayal of the friendships in the gay community, the book’s overall tone is bitterly ironic. Alameddine mercilessly mocks the social and political faults he sees around him—American racism and cultural stupidity, Arab hypocrisy and corruption, pretentious literary icons, pandemic ignorance of gay culture and AIDS, and especially the degenerate sadism of the warring parties in the Lebanese Civil War.

In the middle of “Koolaids: The Art of War” is a crucial passage in which the embittered narrator sarcastically explains his theory about the Middle Eastern “Art of War.”  According to Alameddine every Semitic nation or group, be it Syria, Egypt, the PLO, or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and especially Israel, is afflicted with same virus known as the Ya Rabbi Tegi Fi Aino school of advanced warfare. This school advocates a shoot-and-run scenario in which the combatants “close their eyes, and fire, hoping to hit something,” thinking, “Oh God, I hope this gets him in the eye.” 

Hezbollah is supposedly afflicted with this virus when it fires into Israel, almost always missing military targets, yet celebrating victory if it hits anything at all. The same goes for Israel, whose even heavier artillery consistently destroys the lives of innocent civilians.  Syria finds no mercy in this book either.

The image of warfare as a virus and vice versa, though annoyingly ahistorical is still striking. In this passage, as well as throughout the book, the narrator is bewildered and tormented by fate’s randomness. Haphazard roadblock assassinations and errant Israeli bombs in Beirut have a sinister relationship to the senselessness of watching all of your friends die of AIDS, while the rest of the world remains passive, oblivious.

This “Art of War” passage is most interesting for what it reveals about Alameddine’s own narrative style, which could be called the ya rabbi tegi fi aino art of story telling. He constructs the book from literary shrapnel, firing these grim, funny, caustic, pornographic, ironic bits and pieces of story, hoping that one or more of them hits home. In this case Alameddine finds terrible victory because, often enough, they do.

Though it remains almost a pastiche of erudition, “Koolaids” shines, not like the sun, but like the burning debris from the ongoing apocalypse. In the wake of this postmodern blast in which truth, history, love, and justice lie charred in the usual battlefields of public discourse, we are left mourning our losses. Later, we rummage for irony in the ruins.

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.5, no. 28, Summer 1999)
Copyright (c) 1999 by Al Jadid


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