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from the October 2016 issue

“Limbo Beirut” by Hilal Chouman

Reviewed by Emily Lever

For six strangers, the brutality of May 2008 reawakens forgotten memories of the Lebanese Civil War.

Limbo Beirut is a novel in short stories that most definitely requires rereading. Each of its five constituent stories unfolds over different spans of time and is centered around a different character. What unites them is that they are anchored by a specific time and place—Beirut, May 2008, when the ostensibly dormant embers of Lebanon’s civil war briefly came to life again. Lebanon had been stable after fifteen years of war from 1975 to 1990, and the country’s young adults had been born in war and raised in peace, with the war as a permanent, grim presence in the background. The armed conflict was the final escalation of political turmoil that began in 2005 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and continued as coalitions led by Hezbollah and the Future Movement vied for power.

These details aren’t laid out in an expository passage––the basic facts would be universally familiar to the book’s original audience––but even a close reading wouldn’t yield much historical information. The slightly overlapping stories––connected by brief moments that take place in two or three of the stories and hold varying levels of importance in each case––retell the violence of that time in a way that nods to the fable in which several blind men grasp at different parts of an elephant (the trunk, the leg, the tusks) and, based on their sensory experiences, give radically different descriptions of what an elephant is. While this narrative seems at first to withhold the truth from the reader, it ends up conveying a collective, multidimensional truth that is richer than any one individual narrative. The butterfly effect appearances of the main character from one story as a bit player in another conveys a sense of community, and suggests that everyone, even in a city as large as Beirut, is bound together by a common experience. The reader might not understand an event when it happens but only when they see it again through another character’s eyes, creating interdependent narratives that have more meaning together than they do alone. This device, with its emphasis on togetherness, is particularly important in the context of war, which necessarily involves a fragmentation of community, of mutual understanding, and even of narratives themselves.

The 1998 novel The Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury––perhaps the most prominent Lebanese writer today––took a similar approach in recounting a more distant historical event, the Nakba, or Palestinian exodus, of 1948. The Gate of the Sun incorporates the stories of many characters whose lives are affected by the events of the Nakba. In the epic sweep of his novel, Khoury captured a historical moment that was massive in its scope and consequence through an accumulation of the stories and myths of a multitude of different individuals. The shared trauma of the Palestinian people is recounted through dozens of fragmented narratives, a device that mimics the reality of diaspora. The form of the narrative imitates its subject.

Limbo Beirut is also about a traumatic event––the violence of May 2008 in Beirut––but this event was far smaller and briefer than the massive displacement of the Nakba. The narrative strategies used in Limbo Beirut paint a picture of the conflict of 2008 that emerges as an eruption of violence in the midst of an uneasy, unstable peace.

Violence enters into the lives of characters dogged by neuroses and uncertainties that seem to mirror their environments. Walid, the central character of Part One, watches the media say in the run-up to May 2008 “that the government was fighting itself, that the country hated itself, that an explosion was inevitably coming.” Similarly, Walid’s body is fighting itself––he has an ulcer brought on by consuming basically nothing but coffee and cigarettes––and he is wracked by an inner conflict resulting from the fact that he was never able to reveal his sexual orientation to his father, no matter how much he loved him. Walid never explodes in the way the country does––he is too timid for that––but he nevertheless observes that “this war, so very well organized, so very limited, so very local . . . resembled his brain.”

Salwa, the protagonist of Part Three, identifies more with the war in the past, the one that defined her childhood. She manifests what also seems like a kind of Stockholm syndrome for this time in her life, a period that she spent mostly inside for safety, tearing through magazines dedicated solely to crossword puzzles: “She wouldn’t be exaggerating if she said that these magazines were the war for her.” Crossword puzzles generate a sense of a knowable and interconnected universe; the cruciverbalist decrypts what is encrypted to populate an organized and self-contained little world of black and white boxes. At the same time, clues reach into every area of knowledge so that each puzzle seems to span the entire universe. For Salwa, each clue––“the ancient Canaanite god of the sea” or “an Umm Kulthum song based on a melody by Riyad el Sunbati”––is as evocative as a Proust madeleine. Perhaps this is why she is so dejected when she sees these puzzle magazines progressively disappear from newsstands at the same time as the war fades from people’s memories. As an adult she remains obsessed with crossword puzzles to the point where she is almost seriously injured in her quest for a magazine issue she might not have found and gone through yet. That which gave Salwa comfort in the first war puts her in danger at the outset of the second war––she is hit by a car when crossing the street to look at a magazine, and is rushed to the hospital, but the casualties of the violence clog up the halls, impeding her access to medical care.

All in all, this is a bizarre episode, one that could be read as a straightforward condemnation of dwelling on the past––perhaps a parallel to the way the 2008 war can seem like a resurgence of the 1975–90 war. But that’s too simplistic. What really puts Salwa in harm’s way is a universal reflex of people who have experienced trauma: to preserve and perpetuate a coping mechanism long after the occurrence of the trauma that made it necessary. And isn’t that the way history seems to always work, every action generating an equally harmful overcorrection?

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