Standing in for the Dead: A Lebanese War Story

Lynne Rogers
Author Rabee Jaber from an interview, courtesy of
By Rabee Jaber, translated by Karem James Abu-Zeid
New Directions, 2016
Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation of Rabee Jaber’s novel “Confessions” brings to American readers a brutally honest, yet uplifting narrative of the war in Lebanon. The quest for identity has proven a fertile literary paradigm for this war, yet Jaber’s narrative quest breathes fresh air into the oft repeated paradigm. This brief and courageous novel aptly begins with a paternal confession, “My father used to kidnap people and kill them. My brother says he saw my father transform, during the war, from someone he knew into someone he didn’t know.” The tribal, as well as modern narrative never brings the reader into the father’s consciousness, and instead brazenly describes his ruthlessness and transcendent generosity in one defining moment during the war.
Like Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Return to Haifa,” Jaber’s engaging narrator also becomes the victim of a cross political and religious adoption that addresses a heinous historical crime, and reveals the tenuous, yet simultaneously tenacious bonds of inheritance exaggerated by sectarian violence. Not surprisingly, Jaber’s narrator, Maroun, now approaching forty, “does not feel himself.” The very man who riddled Maoun’s family car with bullets at a checkpoint in revenge for the loss of his own son, then spontaneously rescued Maroun from that bullet ridden car. The Christian family renames the boy Maroun after their lost son, his dead “brother.” Subsequently, the Christian community assimilates this replacement Maroun from the other side, as the ubiquitous martyr photo of his dead counterpart gazes down into the family’s living room. As he grows, the boy’s blurred sense of past continually overtakes him in confusing dreams, and fragments of vivid sensory memories. Just hearing Armenian or eating pumpkin jam from Southern Lebanon ignites a cauldron of unexplained emotions.
Not until he reaches adulthood does Maoun begin to understand the looks his family give him, as if trying to fathom some internal mystery about him. Does he belong to them or the enemy? As both outsider and insider, the growing boy can recount a harsh, honest history of the war in Lebanon that distinguishes cruelty from a violent morality. His brother’s friend carries around a pocket of human eyes from the Shatila massacre, and his father doesn’t hesitate to shoot an innocent family, and yet beats his eldest son for bringing home gold from other war victims.
A vibrant read that maps Beirut, Jaber’s “Confessions,” while not a confession of the innocent narrator’s sins, humanely acknowledges the shared inhumane complicity of the Lebanese war. Moreover, it illustrates the love that can be generated by someone from the ‘other’ side.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
© Copyright 2016, 2017 AL JADID MAGAZINE
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