Lebanon’s Infernal Circle


by Rawi Hage
Norton, 305 pp., $23.95 (paper)
A Palestinian woman pleading with a Christian militiaman during the Lebanese civil war, Beirut, January 1976
Françoise de Mulder/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
A Palestinian woman pleading with a Christian militiaman during the Lebanese civil war, Beirut, January 1976

“Tell me more,” says a therapist in the Canadian writer Rawi Hage’s second novel, Cockroach (2008). And again, “Tell me. I love long stories.” She’s speaking to the book’s unnamed narrator, an immigrant who recently tried to hang himself from a tree in one of Montreal’s public parks. Therapy is part of his state-mandated rehabilitation. Like Hage himself, the narrator is from Lebanon’s Christian Maronite community (though his home country is never named), and the sessions remind him unpleasantly of the Catholic sacrament: “If you sit, wait, behave, confess, and show maybe some forgiveness and remorse, you, my boy, you could be saved.”

As with several of the protagonists in Hage’s work—he is the author of four novels, all written in English—the narrator of Cockroach knows a lot of stories, most of them rather grim. He grew up in Beirut during Lebanon’s long civil war, in a milieu of militiamen, murderers, and petty crooks. The therapist, named Genevieve, thinks that recounting the events of his youth will speed his recovery. But the narrator sees that Genevieve is also excited, against her better judgment, by his tales of kidnapping, honor codes, and sexual violence. “I knew she was hooked,” he thinks toward the end of one session, playing Scheherazade to her Shahryar. “The doctor, like sultans, is fond of stories.”

This exchange between a wised-up storyteller from the East and a Western audience seemingly starved for thrills points, with some subtlety, to Hage’s own situation as a writer whose fiction returns again and again to the subject of Lebanon’s brutal civil war. Who really wants to hear these kinds of stories, and who wants to tell them? Can one do it without confirming the worst stereotypes of Middle Eastern savagery? One of Cockroach’s subplots involves another immigrant, an Iranian musician, who seduces Canadian women by telling them about having his instrument broken and his fingers bent backward when he played the wrong song for Ayatollah Khomeini. The narrator mocks the musician’s “exotic tunes and stories of suffering and exile,” but they are obviously fellow spirits.

This worry about offering up one’s trauma as entertainment for foreigners is common among Lebanese artists, and not only those who left the country. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon’s political elite have pragmatically opted for amnesia. No side won, all of them committed atrocities, and many of the warlords are still in power, having exchanged their fatigues for suits and ties. In response, Lebanese artists have tirelessly analyzed and memorialized the bloodshed—even as much of their financial support and audience have come from outside the country. Lebanon’s postwar film industry, for example, is…

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