Tripoli Nights with a Master of Arabic

Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol

by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies
Archipelago, 501 pp., $20.00 (paper)


by Rabee Jaber, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid
New Directions, 120 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Elias Khoury, London, 2006
James Emmett/Writer Pictures
Elias Khoury, London, 2006

A little more than halfway through Elias Khoury’s novel Broken Mirrors, the main character, Karim Shammas, meets an architect from Solidere, the real estate company that razed and rebuilt downtown Beirut after Lebanon’s ruinous civil war. The architect shows Shammas a computer program that works like the video game SimCity in reverse: instead of building cities, it flattens them. As Shammas inspects a virtual model of Beirut’s elegant city center, built under the French mandate, “suddenly the buildings began to fall, one after another, each disappearing behind a mass of dust before collapsing, broken up into a heap of stones and sand.” Shammas, who has a love–hate relation to his hometown, is nevertheless alarmed. “What kind of person demolishes his own memory?” he asks. But the architect only sneers. “Memories! This is a country without a memory. What use is memory? Memories of crap and shit, c’est fini.”

The demolition man has a point. Who wants to remember a civil war that nobody won? After local factions—Catholics, Muslims, and Druzes, among others—fought to a brutal stalemate, the Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement, signed in 1989, granted peacekeeping duties to Syria, which occupied Lebanon for the next sixteen years. None of the country’s sectarian and political groups was innocent, but all could equally claim to be victims. With no national consensus about what had happened or who was to blame, the premise of postwar reconciliation was a willingness to forget. The state gave warlords of all factions an official amnesty—many are now back in power—while refusing to investigate the cases of 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared during the conflict.

No Lebanese intellectual has been more vociferous than Khoury in asserting the claims of collective memory. From 1993 to 2009, he edited the cultural supplement of the daily newspaper al-Nahar, which he made into a tribune for revealing the imposed amnesia of the postwar settlement. He described Solidere’s plans for downtown Beirut as “an exclusive fortress of gated communities policed by private security.” But Khoury’s defense of memory was neither antiquarian nor nostalgic. He believed that the only way for Lebanon to free itself from its history was to face it. Interrogating the past was, he wrote, an effort “to claim the present.”

Khoury was born in East Beirut in 1948 to a Greek Orthodox family. As a student in the late 1960s, he broke ranks with most Lebanese Christians and joined the Palestinian Fatah movement, fighting alongside leftist forces during the civil war (in which he temporarily lost his sight in one eye). He also studied in Paris and wrote a thesis on the conflict between the Druze and Maronite Christians of the 1860s, another Lebanese war that left few documentary traces. Returning to Beirut, Khoury became a critic and an editor for al-Mawaqif, the liveliest journal of the Arab New…

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