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from the March 2008 issue


Introduction: War and Literature

Two years ago I asked a carpenter who had done a good job for a friend to come to my home and build a bookcase that would house the many volumes scattered on the floor and under my bed for lack of space. The carpenter was a young, jovial man who enjoyed chatting when taking a break and sipping my Lebanese-Turkish coffee. Coffee encourages conversation, and each time we sipped coffee together, we'd get to know a bit more about each other. He was from the former Yugoslavia; he had fled the war-torn country after having been a fighter. He was fed up with the war and his mother had helped him get out of the country. Now he made a living painting homes, but also building shelves. Building shelves always brought an uneasy feeling, for when he was a fighter he used to break the shelves of the homes he and his fellow fighters occupied, burning the books.

We were cold and we didn't give a damn about anything else, he told me.

I too come from a country that has witnessed a civil war and I wouldn't be telling you anything new by declaring that wars create many casualties. Wars kill and amputate humans. This is a vérité de la palice. But there are other casualties: books stand first in line among them; novels that have turned literature into a tangible reality, a reality that transcends voice, space and time, a reality that can be shared by thousands, if not millions, of people.

I looked at my carpenter and saw many normal young men I had known—our grocer's son, the brother of my hairdresser, the concierge of the building facing ours. They too fought, they too occupied and ravaged homes, they too burned shelves and the books that were kept in the homes they occupied when they were cold. The story of Bullet the fighter, the book-burner, became a play I wrote or, to be more accurate, a story that wrote itself and that I transcribed like an automatic writer.

Sure, I was writing the story of my carpenter, and that of our grocer's son. But I was also creating a work of fiction, and fiction is half truth, half lies. It is part real and part imagination (imagination as in fear and as in wishful thoughts). When we outlive a war we cannot just rewrite it; we need to reinvent it and this is how I imagined Bullet.

As far as Bullet and his companions were concerned, these volumes were made of paper, and paper was good for warming their feet. They were oblivious to their mutation into pages, into tales and stories.

Literature is inseparable today from the books that carry their stories. If we want to save literature we have to save the rectangular objects that carry and spread their words. We have to respect the book for what it is: an art object that we should defend, defend against censors, narrow-minded educators and, most of all, the dangers of war. Fiction has described wars better than any history book because a novelist, a true novelist, is not a warrior. Literature and war carry opposite genes.

Track 1: Fairuz, Mafi Hada, After 47

Storyteller enters, attitude weary, inquisitive. Storyteller stands center stage right, opposite where the actors will enter.

Storyteller: It is a damp and windy night. November in Beirut. Or is it Sarajevo? They have occupied the two-story building at the end of the street. The people who lived in this stone house must have abandoned it hastily. You can still smell their presence inside, and see their faces in the pictures, hanging on the bedroom wall and in the corridors.

Raquel enters.

Storyteller: Bullet. The name given to him by his companions, a name that suited him perfectly. He glances rapidly and disappointedly at the bulky furniture made entirely of dark solid wood. He instinctively raises his right shoulder to release his machine gun and swears crudely: the way the owners had furnished their home bothers him. It will be impossible to kick and push all this heavy carpentry out of his way.

Raquel. He needs a tough game and it always gives him and his companions great satisfaction breaking up the furniture of the houses they've "requisitioned." It is terribly humid and solemn in here.

Track 2: Pre-recorded sound of boots on wooden floor.

Raquel starts putting on a headdress. Music begins quietly, fading toward the end.

Track 3: K&D, 1 min 10 sec

Bullet and Anna, followed by Mai, enter dramatically, walking like men, gesturing with their shoulders. The three stand with their backs to the audience, facing the projected image on the backdrop.

Storyteller: It is cold and dark inside. Bullet decides to light a fire. The damned furniture is too heavy and he knows it would be hopeless to try to reduce it to firewood. Looking around, he realizes with a triumphant smile that all he needs for his fire is available and in profusion: the house is full of books and shelves, the perfect material for starting a fire.

Projection switched off. Hands of three actors plastered on wall.

Storyteller: With the help of two other fighters, Bullet removes the carpet to make space for a safe fire in the middle of the living room. He shouts for more men to join them. Soon the dark room is bursting from its quiet emptiness and the house is rumbling with energetic male voices, their heavy laughter vibrating and merging noisily with their thundering (next track starts here) boots on the parquet floor.

Track 4: Underworld. 1 min 20 sec fading at end.

Hands moving nervously, steps, hands, neck and shoulders moving.

Storyteller: One tall, edgy young man is merrily throwing the books off one shelf; another, shorter and chubbier, is kicking them toward a rapidly rising pile; and all the others, including Bullet, are vigorously pulling the shelves away from the wall, holding them under their boots while they aggressively break them into firewood ready for burning. (track 5 starts here) The atmosphere in the room is electric, charged with the glitter of sweating male bodies. As soon as the first books catch fire, the reddened features of the invaders emerge triumphant.

Track 5: Underworld, 3 min 30 sec

Shaking, shimmying—only a few times—then Mai turns her back to the audience and does breakdancing-type movements, while Anna and Raquel interact in very broken body movements, ending in all three shaking. Raquel leaves before the other two, then Mai, finding a place among the audience, then Anna. Raquel puts on a white overall and rimmed NHS-style glasses and reads in a professorial tone from the center of the stage.

Raquel: Violence is a common feature in most societies. Statistically, we know that it is predominantly a male characteristic, particularly among young men. There has been much controversy about the role of male hormones in aggression. Some argue that testosterone predisposes men to aggression. Overcrowding, temperature, noise and social pressures all affect the level in society. A young man's behavior in a group may owe more to the effect of peer pressure than to his own experience. Philip Hawthorn rightly stated in the Financial Times that testosterone is more lethal than nuclear weapons. It should be banned.

Raquel leaves stage, removing her overall.

Track 6: "Remembering" by A. Cohen. Music starts quietly. Next bit spoken over music.

Storyteller: As the broken shelves keep feeding the fire, a relaxed atmosphere engulfs the living room. Bullet, seated in the stubby and austere armchair, with his legs outstretched, reaches nonchalantly for the pile of books scattered on the floor. He throws them indolently, one at a time, into the glowing flames. The crackling fire becomes warmly reassuring, and soon all the others in the room quiet down as they listen to the appeasing murmur of the flames.

Remembering continues. As Bullet is about to throw the small book he is holding, he cannot help noticing the bright colors emerging from its cover. His hand is still, ready to repeat its routine, when he pulls it back toward him, his eyes marveling at the intriguing images printed on its jacket. Anna steps hesitantly onto the stage and moves to the center. Her movements are in sync with the speech that follows.

Storyteller: Now the book is closer to his face, a few inches away from the fatal flames. He unconsciously changes his position in his seat in order to better hold the book, gripping it with both hands. What is the name of this tanned and innocent-looking young man sitting on the edge of the boat? The blue of his eyes is as sharp as that of the sea that extends to both sides of the cover. How can a man be so wrinkled, thinks Bullet, staring at the old man curled up at the other end of the boat. Both men are unaware of the threat coming from the depth of the sea, where a monstrous-looking fish is emerging. (Anna freezes here, hunkered down) Can these two lonely men face such a ruthless attacker? Their flimsy boat could easily be overturned by this powerful and treacherous fish.

Raquel (walking on stage): The Old Man and the Sea.

Storyteller: Bullet reads. He then reads the name of the author.

Raquel: Ernest Hemingway.

Anna dances while moving away from center stage, and freezes in a hunched position.

Storyteller: Bullet feels an urgent need to know more about the young man, the weak old boatman, and their fate. He wishes he could travel on these same waters, sharing the endless space and facing the same dangers they may encounter on their way to the horizon. Bullet hesitantly opens the book and reads the first line of the first page.

Voice (pre-recorded): He was an old man who fishes alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him.

Storyteller: When he turns to page two, he is already curled up in his armchair (track 7 starts here), his knees joining his bending torso and his head stretched toward the open book.

Track 7: Robeson. 2 min 20 sec

Anna dances to "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and moves off stage toward end of track.

Storyteller: When, very late that night, he fell asleep, the room was silent and the fire dead, forgotten and unfed. He realized, frustrated, that he would not be able to finish reading his novel tonight. There was no light. He could have thrown a few more books into the fire and brought some warmth and light back into the room. Instinctively, he tightened his grip around The Old Man and the Sea and held it against his chest.

Raquel: No, not this book! I want to read it all, find out who will win the battle, who will survive. My heart is aching for this desperate old man. I hope this Hemingway has written more novels. I want to read them all.

Music from Robeson continues a few seconds. Change of lighting. Lighter, day starting to break.

Storyteller: Early in the morning the following day, Bullet, fearing the loss of his newly discovered treasure, prevented his comrades from getting near the pile of books or the remaining bookshelves. And when darkness started to cast its shadow inside the house, and a bitter humid draft settled between its walls, the fighters decided to find a new location rather than argue with their mate. Bullet stayed behind and kept on reading. When all the Hemingway books he could find had been read and reread, he looked for new heroes, walked into their lives until he was totally involved with their fates. Bullet had no time left for fighting and killing; he was now traveling in wider worlds, deeply enjoying his solitude as his mind roamed across times and continents.

Mai (screams from the audience): This isn't the original scenario! Stop the show, this isn't right!

Simulation of power failure, lights go off. Actors run behind scene, creating feeling of confusion. Everybody quickly off stage. Lights on again. Storyteller back on stage, confusion, panic … apologetic for mistake.

Storyteller: This is my story of Bullet and his encounter with books.

This is not the story of Bullet and his companions. Things didn't happen like this in reality. I have invented a posteriori a wishful tale to please you and to console myself. The end of the story in the real world of these fighters is less, so much less, enchanting.

Raquel enters.

Storyteller: Bullet had never in his life attended school seriously. By the time he and his fellow fighters occupied the two-story house, he had forgotten the shape of many letters, let alone the art of combining them. Why would he care about the fate of whole books? None of the precious books, accumulated lovingly over many years by those whose pictures were still hanging on the walls, had been saved during those damp and cold winter nights. They'd been consumed by the flames. They no longer existed. Bullet, in fact, never sat quietly on that armchair near the fire. He kept laughing loudly with his mates, kicking the shelves and thrusting the books, without even noticing that each one of them was different from the other. He was never excited by the colors on their covers. He had never felt the need to touch their spine and discover what they had to tell. He was oblivious to the secrets, the stories and the wonders they yearned to reveal.

Track 8

Mai and Anna enter with a stack of paper, some of which they give toPatricia. Other actors and Storyteller start pulling papers and throwing them onto the floor. Crescendo and following Raquel's rhythm . . .

Storyteller: I can still hear the pages of Rabelais' Gargantua agonizing in the flames. It took less than a minute for Homer's Iliad to be extinguished. La femme du Boulanger, Pagnol's tender little book, hardly resisted the killing fire. All the little Molière plays, those little blue and white books that had brought humor into my adolescence, disappeared instantaneously. It hurts to think of Oliver Twist being thrown to its death with total disdain. I cannot believe that Les Miserables was incinerated with such facility. Soon the fire grew so strong that even Averroës' Treatises disappeared within seconds. Not one volume was spared: Darwin's The Origin of Species followed The Second Sex. A beautiful edition of the bible was thrown with the Good Soldier Schweik, the Communist Manifesto was ignited at the same time as Joyce's Ulysses. I cry when I think of the rare edition of The Thousand and One Nights torn to feed the fire, its daring illustrations becoming a source of fun for these over-zealous lads. I cannot believe that these people whose faces are still watching from their hanging portraits had purchased Pavese's The Moon and the Bonfire, nor that they would have read Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. They were all extinguished; none could resist the hunger of the flames nor the impassible cruelty of their assassins. Tagore's poems were suffocated in no less time than those of the prolific Arab poet al-Mutannabi. As far as Bullet and his companions were concerned, these volumes were made of paper, and paper is good for warming their feet. They were oblivious to their mutation into pages, into tales and stories.

End of angry scene. Raquel leaves stage, followed by Mai and Anna. Stage covered in sheets of paper.

Storyteller: I see a silent circle of dark ashes in the middle of the house. They are voiceless. Their stories and enchantment . . . all dead.

Remembering again, voice of Storyteller over the music . . .

Storyteller (quiet, resigned): I know how you feel. I am still in shock too. I can still hear the sordid laugher of Bullet and his companions echo against the naked walls. The walls looked like gaping wounds after the shelves were torn down. They looked miserable without the infinite juxtaposition of spines that protected and comforted them. Before these terrible events occurred and turned their lives inside the house into a nightmare, the books didn't mind a little incursion into their stillness. On the contrary, when a hand takes a book from the shelf and exposes a little strip on the surface of the wall, they welcome light and fresh air. But now look at the state they are left in. Ugly, defamed and shattered. Yes, even the walls are crying for all those lost volumes, for the softness of their presence and for the comfort they gave those who visited the room they protected.

It's not the first time this kind of morbid gaiety had killed books.

But Bullet couldn't feel anything toward these rectangular objects. If once, just once, somebody had whispered, "Once upon a time . . . " in a gentle soft way—the way words are uttered when we are children and vulnerable—maybe he would have realized that he was committing a terrible crime. Maybe he would have jumped out of his chair and saved some of them at least. If he had been given the chance to enjoy a moment of solitude with one of these soft rectangular objects, he would have shared our myth and he would have believed in the sanctity of words. He would have acknowledged their right to exist and say whatever they wished to say.

Maybe if Bullet had been capable of saying, "There is a book that has changed my life," or heard Italo Calvino's advice:

Track 10: voiceover

Papers quietly removed from stage at same time.

Voice: Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, No, I don't want to watch TV!

Raise your voice. They won't hear you otherwise. I am reading! I don't want to be disturbed . . . I am beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel! Or, if you prefer, don't say anything, just hope they'll leave you alone. Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down in the yoga position. With the book upside down.

Storyteller: Maybe if Bullet had heard these words, my story about him in the two-story house wouldn't have been a work of fiction. Yes, if once, only once, he had heard Shehrazade's voice:

Dancer advances, movements deconstructing Arabic dance.

Voice: I heard, oh happy King, that once there lived in the city of Baghdad a bachelor who worked as a porter. One day he was standing in the market, leaning on his basket, when a woman approached him. She wore a Mosul cloak, a silk veil, a fine kerchief embroidered with gold, and a pair of leggings tied with fluttering laces. When she lifted her veil she revealed a pair of beautiful dark eyes graced with long lashes and a tender expression . . . Porter, she said, follow me . . . The porter followed her until she came to a spacious courtyard facing a tall, stately mansion with a double door inlaid with ivory and shining gold . . . The door was unlocked; the porter, looking to see who opened the door, saw a full-blossomed girl. She was all charm and beauty with a forehead like the new moon, eyes like those of a deer or wild heifer, eyebrows like the crescent in the month of Sha'ban, cheeks like red anemones, mouth like the seal of Salomon, lips like red carnations, breasts like a pair of pomegranates. When the porter saw her, he lost his senses and his wits.

Storyteller: Maybe if Bullet had heard the tales of Shehrazade, he would have waited quietly for the voice of a new Shehrazade and her promise:

Voice: If I am alive tomorrow night, I shall tell you something stranger and more amazing than this.

Storyteller: Maybe then he would have realized that telling stories, writing them as well as reading them, is a question of survival. Maybe if Bullet had heard these words, my story about him in the two-story house wouldn't have been a work of fiction.

Mai and Anna leave the stage. Raquel puts on white overalls and rimmed glasses and reads from center stage.

Raquel: Men are nine times as likely as women to commit murder.

Men are ten times more likely to commit armed robbery.

Men are eight times more likely to vandalize.

Men are seven times more likely to commit arson.

According to Wrangham & Peterson, based on the statistics released by the FBI, altogether, American men are almost eight times as likely as women to commit violent crime.

Raquel takes off glasses and jacket.

Storyteller: I have to admit that I cannot explain why I'm not distressed in the same manner when I see somebody erasing a film from a videotape. But when I see somebody obliterating as much as a word on a printed page I go mad with anger. Sure, I protest when censors intervene and dig their scissors into celluloid, but I am devastated when I see a page torn away from a book.

Is it because of THE BOOK? Of God's words? Is it because of the authority of THE BOOK that one becomes appalled by any attempt to touch a book, any book?

Raquel (with a threatening raised finger): Don't mention the name of God! Don't you see what is happening around you? Watch out for blasphemy laws! Where the hell have you been?

Storyteller: Have we anthropomorphized these mute narrators to the point of confusing any attack on them with an act of rape? I do not know what the real reason is for our adoration for these exquisite objects, but one thing is clear to me: I may love what they are saying, or I may hate it, they may amuse me or annoy me, open new worlds to me, or take me back to where I feel secure; I will always stand ferociously against any attempt, well-intentioned or not, to silence them.

Angry movements by Anna without music at corner of stage while Storyteller speaks.

Storyteller: Bullet is not the worst kind of book-killer. He didn't know any better. There are people who knowingly kill books. They burn them. They burn them because they believe that fire purifies. They want to purify the mind from their poison, from the knowledge they carry within—the kind of knowledge they disapprove of, or they dislike. Some book-killers want to suppress their own fantasies, their uncontrollable imagination. They want to fashion our life by destroying the lives they don't like and by printing the words that will firmly shape our destiny the way they see fit. The ugliest of these assassins came out one evening in Berlin, on 12 May 1939, to celebrate their biggest feast. That night they fed their roaming flames with thousands of volumes. Their victims knew no pity, their death was carried out in public. I wasn't there, but I still remember.

Anna leaves stage in resignation.

Storyteller: None of the book-killers hesitated on that evening in May, none of these hideous purifiers walked away during the ceremony, none of them did what the Bullet of my story did. They had electricity and they weren't cold; they burnt the books because they had one sacred and absolute message: words were not sacred to them.

Track 11: Indian music, voiceover music, 2 min 24 sec

Sandra enters and prepares for dance.

Storyteller: My friend Aamer loves books; he often talks about them. Last week he told me that in his country, when any written paper falls on the floor people treat it the way Christians treat bread dropped on the floor: they pick it up and kiss it. For this is the flesh of Christ. Likewise, in Aamer's tradition you may be hurting the gods if you tread on a sacred word. The name of Allah, or the name of Saraswati—the goddess of knowledge, music and the arts—is made of letters that should be worshipped, not fall underfoot. I have to admit that I have never kissed a piece of paper I have found lying on the floor after picking it up, but I sympathize with this tradition for at least one reason: it is better to kiss words than to ban them, break them or banish them.

Track 12: Dance SandraSaraswati. Indian classical dance.

All actors back on stage—in the middle on either side of Storyteller.

Storyteller: I know, I am not naïve, and you are going to tell me that words and books can also be vicious, hateful and dangerous. Some of those who revere the Word have burnt words they did not like as well. I know that, and I sometimes hear myself screaming, "How did they allow this to be printed on these pages?" Then I quiet down and tell myself that words have never killed anybody, they just tell you things. Their message is captured between the pages of a book, from where they cannot move. Words don't act. Humans act.

All together: Books don't kill. Humans kill.

From Selected Writings (London and Beirut: Saqi, 2008). By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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