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from the September 2008 issue

“BE HERE NOW”: An Introduction to “Yalo”

"How can I describe to you what happened to Yalo…the truth, sir, the truth that only God knows, is that my memory is distorted and I don't know."

Yalo takes place during Beirut's 1975 Civil War, as well as its prologue and its aftermath. After years of occupation by the Ottoman Turks and the French, ending during WWII, and a series of governments through the 50s and the 60s, the civil war of the 70s was a bloodbath crush; a larger war filled with volatile, small internecine wars. Battles raged within the many internal Lebanese factions and their outside supporters (Israel, Syria and others), the various sectarian Christian and Muslim splinter groups (Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Shias, Sunnis, Druze and Armenians), and through a rich and poor population. Massacres, revenge killings, civilian deaths, complex grabs for power and quick shifts in control became everyday occurrences. Since the 70s, the cosmopolitan, international, vibrant Beirut has known many more drastic turns including assassinations, occupations, coups, bombings and near famine. In the last few months alone, Hezbollah has seized the capital, becoming Lebanon's controlling power. In such a swiftly changing landscape, it is almost impossible to find a "before" and "after" in Lebanese war politics. A world so inextricably tied to warfare that many generations have never known genuine peace. The warring in Lebanon has few clear boundaries, something that has also rendered many other wars, in a sense, unspeakable. The horror of the late-seventeenth-century King Philip's War, between the Wampanoag and the English colonists, America's most vicious war, silenced the white combatants. Settler John Kingsley could only describe the impossibility of speaking of it when he said: "My hart wil not hould to write & sheetes would [not] contayne."

Yalo attempts to articulate this kind of inarticulateness, to contain what cannot be "contayned." It is all about impossibility: how can lived time be fathomed much less recorded? The novel opens as a young man, Yalo, is being tortured violently, a scene around which a cut up, stream-of-consciousness, narrative structure is built, composed largely of Yalo's wildly fluctuating, contradictory memories. He is a fatherless boy from Beirut's Syriac (or Eastern Catholic) Quarter whose imposing, white-bearded, Damascus-born (possibly Kurdish) grandfather is a cohno or priest. As a teenager, in 1976, he and his mother fled their neighborhood when the civil war escalated. In 1978, he joined the army and fought as a solider for ten years and went to Paris in 1989 with a war buddy, who then deserted him. Eventually, holding a Kalashnikov, he took to attacking lovers in parked cars at night, often robbing them and raping the women. He returned to Lebanon where he was imprisoned for months and tortured to confess to rape and unspecified collaboration. The torturer insists that Yalo tell him his crimes, tell him the "story of his life." Yalo tries to appease his tormentor but can find nothing that he wants to hear. He laments over and over—"I cannot tell my story."

Yalo's author, Lebanese novelist, playwright, and essayist Elias Khoury, is one of the Middle East's icons of international letters and political activism and the editor-in-chief of Al-Mulhaq, the cultural section of Beirut's daily newspaper An-Nahar. Yalo, first published in Arabic in 2002, is his eleventh novel. Khoury is a part of the wave of Arab novelists that departed from traditional Arabic writing in the 1950s and the 60s, when fiction appeared as a nascent genre. Before that, poetry and story-telling dominated literature, and written Arabic was formal, never duplicating dialects or ordinary speech. The reformation of this classic rule in part developed the modern Arabic novel. Over the decades, Arab writers such as Jordanian born Saudi-Iraqi Abdelrahman Munif, Palestinian-Israeli Emile Habiby, and Syrian Ghada al-Samman, as well as Khoury, began to fuse langue and parole. Through this mixture of new language forms and new structures, and a heritage in abstract representation, by the 80s and 90s, an experimental narrative considered innately Arabic emerged.

This radical Arabic style is tied to regional politics as few others are. Strangely, Lebanon's turmoil marginalized the conventional, Realistic novel (still paramount in the Middle East) and liberated writers to express the war's chaos through a chaotic structure. Khoury took this further. After fighting in the streets, he refocused his resistance and saw writing itself as an act of militancy. In 1993, he stated in the Beirut Review that "literature cannot be reduced to politics: I went through the war, and could not avoid writing about it. But literature is about rethinking everything, including politics; it is not mainly about politics." Khoury also felt that the activism in writing could mitigate the "erasure" of Lebanon's past. As so few archives were intact after many decades of war, he wanted to write so that he could help to materialize, as it were, a history that had disappeared.

As with virtually all of his fiction, Yalo is Khoury's literary effort to enter the entangled reality of today's Lebanon and today's Lebanese consciousness. The novel exposes the country's crisscrossed history but, what's more, it tries to make present the world of Lebanon's long wars, diasporic uncertainty and its dismantled, identity-conscious society. Thus, I called this introduction to Yalo "Be here now" because this phrase pinpoints Khoury's desire to write a stable place, creatively, in the midst of Lebanon's ambiguities.

The novel's design is an utterance in itself—the prose rushes, in a stream of consciousness, and sentences jump from time period to time period. This dis-order mirrors the war experience as Khoury described it in 2002— "[…]everything is timeless: you live the present, the past, and future in the same second; you live and die in the same second; you are everywhere and nowhere in the same second." This style is typical of Khoury's novels, with insecure structure, moving abruptly between present and past, and first and third person, but Yalo has an anchoring strategy. It is replete with vivid descriptions and short, you-are-there subject-verb conjunctions. "He rolled…he stood…he saw…his feet failed." The immediacy of the subject-verb combinations subliminally fix in place the narrative's otherwise rapid flow. This is a political gesture: to focus us in the living moment. The reader is forced to stop at these simple sentences that express daily, ordinary routine actions: we are locked into the everyday, even in the midst of Yalo's tumbling memories.

Khoury also holds our attention through a persistent, subtle metonymic emphasis on the living self as a manifestation of culture, world, person, and text. Yalo's grandfather reforms culture when he tells him, "The true baptism, my boy, is the baptism of tears," basing spiritual transcendence in fleshly feeling. Torture is transformed into synecdoche when Yalo's sack (in which he is tortured—tied inside it with a vicious cat) becomes a "war sack." The war's easy meaning is reformed into its inexpressibility as "the war that never lied because it never spoke." Time becomes an animal thing when Yalo "discovered that the night had a body."

The book opens with the line "Yalo did not understand what was happening." This phrase is much repeated and, as a leitmotif, grounds any reading of the book. The novel is fraught with assessments of the questionable failures and successes of writing and of articulation. Yalo the character is "trying to read in the whiteness of the paper his story, which he did not know how to tell, his language, which he did not know how to write, and his memory, which he did not know how to provide with a voice." Yalo the story is doing much the same. Yalo begins, as much of Khoury's fiction does, with an urgent textual voice. This overpowering interiority forces the reader to feel something beyond just "the story." All this is set against the constant refrain of futility in any attempt to say what cannot be said. "I want to write, but I am lost," says Yalo.

But what stays solidly present is the being. The being is the be-all and end-all in Yalo—the tortured body, its uncomprehending mind and its desire to tell the story remain the omphalos of all Yalo's many voices, lies, tales, and untranslatable realities.

Yalo, in form and content, is so politicized a book that it should be approached from many sides. Words Without Borders wants to give as much perspective as possible throughout this month and I look forward to any and all comments: political, literary, and more. Check the web site often! Enjoy the novel!

Drake Stutesman is a radical literary novelist, a non fiction writer and the editor of Framework The Journal of Cinema and Media. She holds a University of Sussex PhD on the experimental writing of Susan Howe. Her cultural history of snakes, Snake (Reaktion Books) was published in 2005. She is working on a biography of milliner/couturier Mr John and on a second novel. She has travelled extensively in the Middle East

Want to respond to Drake's introduction? Head over to our Yalo Discussion Forum and join in the discussion.

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