Crosseing the Satanic Sea in a Palestinian Boat

 Times of Death and Roses reviewed by Hussam ul-deen Mohamed*

The Goddess Ishtar Crosses the Satanic Sea in a Palestinian Boat
{Editor’s note: Since the publication of the Novel Times of Death and Roses and the publication of this article Elie Hobeika was blown up in Beirut in January 2002}
Is it possible for a literary work to possess a human being and become something like a soul mate day and night?

This happened to me recently. The literary work responsible for this strange feeling is a novel written by Palestinian novelist Adel S. Bishtawi entitled Times of Death and Roses.

I read this novel time and time again for over a year. Every time I finished it and attempted a review I found myself gripped by a conflict almost similar to that facing one of the novel’s characters in their quest to free themselves from the devil’s grip. It is the kind of conflict which keeps one in bed for days unable to decide what to do next.

Such a feeling is hardly an invitation to read the novel by the usual fans of easy and undemanding reading. Or could it serve to set the right mood for a study of the psychological impact of literature? In any case, what it means, in my opinion, is that Times of Death and Roses is unique and special. What is more, the act of possessing itself is one of the pivotal points of this novel posing a mind-boggling question: How does evil possess human beings and how could they escape evil’s grip?

From an artistic point of view, these questions are articulated in the story of a beautiful sophisticated young woman directly in conflict with a person portrayed as the human embodiment of a modern Satan. Through this story, the novelist takes us the readers on a journey where our destiny is to be possessed by the Prince of Darkness, to touch it and to repeatedly feel an urge to free ourselves from its grip. At times we cannot but sense the devil lurking under our very skin; feel his breath released from deep down within us. This is the novel’s way of making us fathom the terrible influence of evil.

I guess this is exactly what happened to me.

Times of Death and Roses, however, is also about the ability of the human soul to free itself from the devil. In this novel, salvation lies in a love relationship 1 between Ali (a Palestinian Muslim youth) and Rana (the product of a marriage between a Palestinian Muslim man and a Lebanese Christian Maronite woman). Failure in love does not only equal death; it simply leads to it. This is made clear in the opening chapter in what happened to Maher, a friend of Ali, who recalled his failed love story while he heard the call of death and prepared himself for it to happen.

Demonising the Demonic

In Times of Death and Roses, contrasts are repeatedly made between Rana and the biblical character of “Legion” whom the New Testament describes as possessed with demons. But for Rana to describe herself as Legion does only constitute an act of symbolism. This invokes a religious dimension but also an important element – a mythological one – which combines with a corresponding historical dimension so that the novel is endowed with the seal of an epic, although it appears to the reader to be mainly concerned with the individual and its choices.

For Ali, however, Rana remains an angel until a touch of doubt weakens his insistence. This comes late in the novel, when Ali, with his own eyes, sees his heroine trying to protect (the antagonist) Elie. Rana actually enlisted Ali’s help to free herself from Elie who had possessed her like a devil does to its victim in a horror movie.

The reference we have made to the movies here does not, however, eclipse a greater reference – the Bible. Bishtawi’s book adopts a similar logic to that of the New Testament in its insistence on the viability of the possession of human beings by the devil and the ability of Jesus (in the New Testament) and Ali (in Times of Death and Roses) to chase the devil out of the “patient’s” body. And this is just one instance where the spirit of the biblical text infiltrates Bishtawi’s book. There are many more which we will underline in the course of this article.

The recurrent invocation of Satan in the novel gives the impression that everybody is possessed one way or another with different demons. Salvation lies not only in love but also in the ability to put up a ferocious struggle against evil – one, which may lead, even to death. 2

Rana, for her part, falls prey to the devil’s power of possession through an exploitation of the most basic of human instincts – survival.
How does this come about?
The scene of the novel is partly in the midst of Lebanon’s deadly civil war. Elie, the antagonist, affects one of those infamous flying-barricades. A car is stopped. Rana is ordered to step out. She is led to an unknown fate when, suddenly, Elie emerges. Fear is a basic element of seduction. When, much later, Katya, who reveals herself a mistress of Elie and a member of his secret organisation, fails to convince her friend, Rana, of meeting with Elie, she promptly wins her consent by reminding her the barricade incident could happen again.

Then camisoles turn to use the element of life instead of death in his seduction scheme so as to assume total control over Rana. Gradually, Rana is attracted to a handsome and influential man. But Elie is not an ordinary man; he is a “devil” whose vocation is death. He does not seek to win Rana’s love like any man seeks the love of a female (his first concern is to enlist her into the gang of death that he leads). He simply wants to control her as quickly as possible, employing dishonest means. He arranges a party for his followers of boys and girls.

He tells Rana to smoke hashish and, once she undresses, under the effect of the drugs, he snaps shots that he would later use as a means of control and blackmail. Feminine jealousy intervenes. Katya explains to Rana that what is required of her to do once she becomes a member of Elie’s gang is to engage in murders and assassinations (like blowing up bobby-trapped cars in the midst of pedestrians). The problem with Rana, however, is that she becomes possessed with Elie’s love. She even becomes, albeit briefly, a willing partner, does her share of seduction and accepts even Elie’s desire to control her, though still under the influence of drugs. Indeed, once aware how horrible the acts required of her are, she backs off. Her refusal takes the form of an act of self-destruction, but even two failed attempts at her life later, she still believed in the viability of reaching a compromise with Elie 3 despite having known the evil side in his character. How does this come about and what does it mean?

The novel lays part of the blame on Ali. He had a chance to engage Rana in a relationship before she met Elie. But he was busy with his political cause. The male’s good side ignored the woman and, by doing so, pushed her to the evil one. It is as if the educated, by lending itself to its political cause is kept away from the prime meaning of human existence: love and life-making.4 The more mysterious side in Rana, the reason for falling in love with Elie even after having unmasked his death-making face, is one that can by no means be touched easily. That is why the novelist dealt with it with extreme care and equally great bewilderment which is further inflamed by the question: how could a morally pure, innocent girl (with a practicing Muslim father and a practicing Christian mother), even if swayed by the forceful passion of love rather than the reasoning of the mind, accept a marriage proposal from a criminal and how has the devil been able to infiltrate into her soul, in the first place?

The bewilderment in Rana’s case does arise from this girl being the exception to the rule but because many a girl like her have sold their tender souls to the devil.

Moving down from the mythological to the earthly and societal grounds, however, will show the novel treading into the bumpy areas of the human soul when it feeds on a hatred dressed with religious justifications. When Rana tries to equate Palestinian violence with that of the Lebanese (Christian) Phalanges, Ali says to her that the Palestinians did not kill children with empty bottles and hatchets. As a political reader, maybe, equating victims to murderers seems to me rash because we find in this equating a gap through which the devil has infiltrated and in which demonic ideas camouflaged by politics and religion have found their way to the necks of children and bodies of women.

“Times of Death and Roses does not allow for classification.
This, in my opinion, is the most important characteristic of great literature.”

But there remains for me as a reader and a human being, as well as for the novelist himself, an open door for feeling bewildered. The reason is that Rana says to Ali, threatening:” You don’t know what is lodged in me.” She also says:” Some of my souls belong to me, some to the devil.” (Page 289) The novelist is admitting here that something evil already existed in Rana. It is like an “original” evil or sin lurking inside waiting to be awakened, suddenly, to kill and murder. The novelist ventures even into suggesting some king of a relationship between this original evil and man being the product of a minority. (Page 303)

Rana’s contrary decision to fight the devil within her and get married to Ali seems extremely realistic and far away from riddles. She says by way of justifying her new decision:” I want to be part of this small world I know. I want to be close to mom and dad and my friend in a secure place doing the only thing I want – live my life.” (Page 175)

The Yin-Yang Analogy

Having treated Rana in her swivelling between the position of a victim in the grip of its oppressor and the contrasting position of the victim in its struggle to defend itself and end the deadly darkness’, Bishtawi has proved able to see the strange dialectic between good and evil where, such as in the Chinese philosophy, the yin and yang are entwined and where the beginning is part of the ending and the one is part of the other.

We may see that entwining in the names of the protagonist and the antagonist who are competing for Rana’s love. They carry a single name pronounced differently (Ali, Elie). The variation in pronouncing the names of the two characters, although insignificant and marginal, hides a huge amount of differences and signals that are so opposed to each other as to make the survival of one dependent on the destruction of the other.

The novelist sets up an arena for a mythological conflict between good and evil as personified by people that are real and carry political and historical significance. Concurrently, he presents all the possibilities of doubt as to the usefulness of such a struggle. There is, on the one hand, a clear Manichean distinction between two opposite natures, while, on the hand, the novel continuously makes references to a boat carrying both (Muslim and Christian) characters so that if one were to drown, the other would certainly meet death. What is even more significant is that the heroine, through her dual cultural identity (as both Palestinian and Lebanese, Christian and Muslim) carries inside her both of these ferociously opposed persons and suffers thereof. It may be concluded, however, that the aim sought by the novel is to eliminate the division and weld the two parties together.

The novel presents love blossoming within evil (and hatred) but turning, gradually, to strive against it. It is a scrupulous depiction of the ups and downs in the growth of this love inside the complicated character of the heroine. Rana does not only carry inside her the seed of destruction (her two failed attempts at her life) but also the seed of fertility (her unquenched desire for love and motherhood). She encompasses both evil and good (in an utterance that reflects this while leaving the door open to bewilderment, she says: “I want to hate them both because they are the reason for everything.” (meaning her suffering). (Page 357)

Having started by recording Ali’s departure from the way he dealt with his political cause (joining the Palestinian resistance movement), the novel moves to depict Rana as she enters the spider-web, falls in love with Elie (the antagonist who may be described as the anti-Christ, using ecclesiastical terminology) and finally discovers the truth about the latter’s designs. At this stage, she has realised that in return for Elie’s promises of love and marriage she is to engage in assassinations and dealt acts. The subsequent encounter between Ali (who is frustrated and at the brink of meeting his death on the open sea) and Rana (who is equally frustrated and attempts suicide) becomes a savior for both and constitutes a welcome development in a realistic novel that embraces the idea of beginning of the universe with the creation of Adam and Eve.

The Sea of darknessp the sea of love

Still, Adam and eve of the novel do not descend from paradise to earth but from a genuine hell to the sea. Here, the novelist invokes a wealth of what the sea has meant through the ages. Ali’s excursion refers the reader to an entire heritage of literary production that is organically and intimately linked to the sea: (Homer’s) Odyssey, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway. It refers the reader as well to layers of memory that do not only interact with the recently stored literary texts but also with all that has been written about the sea and water and its foundations both in human soul and in the myths and legends.

The second chapter ends with a horrific scene in which futility and death are interwoven. Having disappeared without a trace following an Israeli air raid, the mutilated body of Maher, Ali’s friend, emerges to the surface of a lagoon inside the military camp, forced out by the explosion of a hand grenade that another guerrilla (Bu’bu’) had tossed to the water.

A change of scene. We see Ali in a boat on the open sea, pondering his return from what Fadel Errabii had once described as “the closed society of the Freudian fighters” to civil life. Ali is immersed in fishing. Maher had died in the lagoon like a fish. The narrator’s description of the fish’s struggle to escape the fisherman (and Maher’s attempt to evade the Israeli bomber) appears symbolic of Ali’s desire for survival. The fish’s attempt to free itself appears to be suicidal. Ali had tried to exit the camp not through the main gate but through “the gate-to-hell” that the commander had planted with mines. His exit is, consequently, suicidal, too, but also ritualistic. It is similar to the crossing of “straight way” to paradise for a Muslim or the act of baptism for a Christian. The mines do not explode, however. It is Ali who explodes in a lengthy monologue accompanied by an enormous outburst of rage against the main topic of the novel, evil.5

Likewise, the act of fishing plays a role close to the Christian experience as demonstrated in Jesus inviting his followers to eat his flesh or his invitation to the fishermen: Samaan and Andrew to follow him so that he will make them save men, morally speaking. 6 Maher who metaphorically becomes a fish in the camp’s lagoon is now himself, or rather his tormented soul that had been cornered and made helpless, to be fished by Ali. The naiveté of the fish is nothing but that of Ali, Maher and Bu’bu’ who all made the mistake of biting on the bait. 7

But while Ali draws comparisons between Maher and the fish, he, likewise, draws comparisons between himself and the other two in a tripartite exchange of symbols. In order to escape the memory of having been a victim, Ali feels a need to be a fisherman, not a fish. Fishing is getting rid of violence in addition to being symbolic and ritualistic.

Immersed in an acute existentialist mood, Ali becomes aware of how lonely he was on the open sea and in the entire universe.8 He is unable even to sense the existence of God. This notion is so powerful in that it holds the individual solely responsible for fate but, strange enough, it also puts Ali in the middle of crossed mythological and ritualistic experiences that are religious by excellence. This serves to draw the reader’s attention to the mythological and symbolic core that is embedded in the realistic fabric of the novel.

“Times of Death and Roses does not allow for categorisation. This, in my opinion, is the most important characteristic of great literature.”

PART II

Chapters: 4, 5,and 6, are the most important in terms building the dramatic action in the novel. They provide the reader with details for a scene for each of Ali and Rana. Ali, in his part is in his boat (having spent a terrible night, came to the brink of death and suffered deadly loneliness). Rana is on board a ship (likewise in a state of acute despair that pushes her to take the decision of committing suicide). They appear having been on a journey in the sub conscience, far away from the mainland and its relationship with reality. They are heading, each in his own way, towards death, passengers in a mythological boat taking them to the underworld of the dead. The chance for Ali’s survival is slim: the sea sets its huge jaws wide open to swallow the two. But when Rana jumps into the water, their destinies meet again and they rush to each other, having been saved from a close encounter with death.

As we have noted earlier, water has many faces in the novel. One of these is death. Maher had died in the water of the camp’s lagoon and Ali and Rana approached the end also in the water. Another face is life and fertility as demonstrated in Ali’s attempt to save Rana from drowning. Combined, the sea becomes an enormous womb for existence and its opposite, the two contradictory concepts that constitute the main focus of the novel as illustrated in the struggle between life and death.

The novel proceeds to present an extraordinary love story faced -under the powerful force of an old history represented by the cultural identity of the heroine and a new history represented by her relationship with Elie – with obstacles that similar expected in an ordinary love story. The antagonist, who is more of an “anti-hero” than a villain, does not put sticks in the heroine’s wheel. It is she who goes out to him. The obstacles are actually of a psychological nature. Hence the fluctuations in the behaviour of the hero and his heroine as well as the suffering they endure in their attempt to come together.

The novel can be seen equally possessed with two deadly elements: one human, the other religious (although the latter is also human). But while the human element is quite clear and need not be justified or questioned, it is the religious element that makes the novel remarkably unique. While rejecting political action that conceals its murderous behaviour under the banner of Christianity, the novel, equally vehemently endorses the more profound meaning of the Christian experience. Ali, the Palestinian Muslim, is closer to the Christian teachings that understands the woman (a side that is quite clear in the New Testament), and closer as well to the Christian teachings that rejects religious tradition when it is not compatible with and merciful towards humans, in addition to many other elements that too readily render themselves to the reader. By adopting the essential core of Christian teaching as clearly demonstrated in the New Testament, the novel invokes the profound in Christianity thereby to reject the exploitation of Christianity under the pretext of protecting it but actually using it for political purposes that permit murder.9

Focusing on Ali tends to conceal Rana’s pivotal role. Hers is not the role of a possessed patient awaiting a miracle. Rana is full of intelligence, passion and a special psychological aptitude. She plays the active and fertile role in the love story. Her relationship with Ali is the result of her decision. Ali’s role is active and interactive in tandem and equal standing with that of Rana’s. If Ali happens to embody mythological as well as human characteristics, Rana has the seed of eve with all its richness and mystery. Her story is, at the mythological level, closer to that of Ishtar who descends to the realm of the dead to save Tamouz from his enemy and to save herself as well.

Fictional Possession

Having read Times of Death and Roses several times and investigated it from different perspectives, I may safely venture into talking about a strange relationship existing between narrator and novelist. I would not exclude the possibility of a conflict between the two. The novel encompasses two parallel compositions: one is wanted by the novelist for his novel, the other imposed by the novel itself. On the one hand, there is a tendency in the novel to depict the fictional conflict as being between two devils, though a reader may understand it as being between God and Satan: the equating that Rana makes between “two devils” in her life does appear as such. After all, Ali does not make death: he is in a military camp targeted by bombing and aggression: his relationship with Rana is one of extreme tenderness. By contrast, we see Elie sowing programmed death in all its actual and symbolic forms. He is also aggressive and mean in his relationship with Rana.

I would guess that Times of Death and Roses is a model example of a conflict switching from one between the characters to one between the novelist and the tale he has created. The novelist, the impartial and the “democratic,” has Ali say: “I wasn’t capable of dealing with life: I only deal with death.” By so doing, the novelist established a kind of similarity between Ali unduly. The novel does not, indeed, conceal the novelist’s keenness on being democratic with his characters, even at the expense of a certain degree of self-demonising. But in the end, the novel attests to two important points, firstly, that the novelist cannot but be partial in historical and human situations of universal interest, and, secondly, that the principal conflict in fiction, in general, and more so in epic novels, tends to be one between starkly opposed view points or two contradictory major lines of narrative where one has to negate the other. Still, Times of Death and Roses scores a distinguishing point by its democratic desire to embrace both lines of narrative into a single story, although it had, in the end, to side with one against other, as should be expected from an artistic drama.

The novel tends to depict a conflict between good and evil but the novelist, perhaps out of concern for impartiality, appears to want to equate Ali to Elie. The purpose might be of twofold: first, the equating is meant to be strictly for Rana who thus becomes like the possessed Legion. Secondly, it could be directed to a reader who does not sympathise with Ali, or, let’s say, does not view Palestinians in favourable eyes.

But this would bring in the question of contrasts in the sociology of reading. The novel’s antagonist who could be considered the human incarnation of Satan is a person who has political ambitions and belongs to a specific religious group and Arab nationality. Furthermore, the historical background of the fictional conflict is still fresh in the reader’s mind. So what if a person of other than me -one of different political and social background- was to read the novel? Would this reader come to experience the same feeling as I, or rather see things from a different perspective and, maybe, sympathise with “Satan?” 10 And would this mean that the novelist ventured into demonising the other while beatifying and sanctifying the self? And if we were able to easily see the mythological and tragic, could we as easily have smelled the ideologue- in the negative sense of the word? There is no doubt that ideology is present and incorporated in all the creative writings because it is present in all of us, social humans, though I, personally, do not see ideology a smaller story within large ones, and I can never equate the story of the uprooting of the Palestinians from their homeland to the story of the independence of Israel, and not to the phalanges idea of seeing the civil war as the result of the Palestinian “alien” presence in Lebanon.

Craftsmanship

To those who have read Bishtawi`s previous novel, Traces of a Tattoo, Times of Death and Roses reveals itself as a big adventure. In the former, we read a love story evolving from a simple theme with a beginning, a climax and a denouement in the classical tradition. The reader lives through events that are narrated in a very exciting way. The fictional form, basically composed of relatively short chapters, interacts with the theme homogeneously leaving the reader with the impression of watching a television serial that continuously uncovers for the spectator layers that are skilfully hidden in the text so as not to interfere with the free flow of the narrative.

The story in Times of Death and Roses is quite different. Here the reader is faced with several restraints that are imposed by the complexity theme and characters heavily burdened with the weighs of history, the sufferings of the present, the twisting of idea and body under the heavy price of the Lebanese civil war which opened the Pandora box and unleashed all the bloody instincts and motivations. By way of form, Bishtawi uses for this novel a division similar to the one he used for his previous one: a large number of relatively short chapters. The number of pages is also the same. The action, however, does not appear to develop in the same way. In Traces of a Tattoo, the heroine travels to America and back to Syria but the progression of the action is not affected at all.

One of the elements on which the novel is built is the ability of the young characters to maintain their contact and bring their love story to success by using modern technology. In Times of Death and Roses, instead of encounter we sense a deadly loneliness pushing each to suicide. And even when an encounter does materialise, we do not gain the same reward that a reader gets from Traces of a Tattoo after having followed the funny and extremely enjoyable details of a special love story. For Ali and Rana, their encounter is based, in the first place, on a previous, failed attempt at establishing a relationship which, itself, suffers from a competing one between Rana and Elie who is the personified antithesis of Ali. In the process, the novel becomes a continuous struggle against separation which, strange enough, can only be won by vanquished a corresponding separation- the one between Rana and Elie.

While we may consider encounter as being the mover in the relationship between the hero and heroine in Traces of a Tattoo, it is separation which constitutes the corresponding mover for their counterparts in Times of Death and Roses. Consequently, constructing the plot for the latter, selecting a suitable framework for an extraordinary love story, required a super effort.

It would follow that the construction of plot, and, by extension, the entire novel, constituted the basic artistic element of Times of Death and Roses. The effort made by Bishtawi in this regard approaches, in its intensity, the suffering of the characters. A closer scrutiny reveals the great care and effort made by the author in composing his literary work. It is like working on a huge piece of diamond where every tiny detail has an extremely important role.

As an example of high craftsmanship, the division of chapters plays a fundamental role in furthering the principal ideas of the novel. Chapter 17 is a cinematic scene of love while chapter 18 is one of separation. Progressing from one chapter to another is not determined by a chronological order, as the division is one organic, artistic nature. The ultimate effect is manifested in a similarity that is detected to exist between chapters and ideas. It is as easy for the novel to speak of wine turning into vinegar when it wants to denote love failure as it is to speak of vinegar turning into wine to denote success.

Times of Death and Roses does, indeed, appear to have been influenced by the cinema to a large degree. This especially apparent in the way chapters wind and unwind. The silver screen is, perhaps, better equipped to convey the great creative charge carried by the novel. The first chapter opens with Maher hearing, or internally sensing, a tune which we are later to recognise as the macabre melody of death: it concludes with Maher dancing to a revolutionary song. The second chapter begins with what appears to us an illness attacking Ali but later turns out to be a nightmare which Ali suffers upon the disappearance of Maher. We also encounter in this chapter the flashback employed to record those tense moments that preceded a blast. The same technique is to be used more often in the course of the novel.

More evidence of cinematic influence can be seen in the novel’s reluctance to resort too much to the descriptive, keeping it always to a minimum such as enough to depict psychological mood. Chapters are often began and concluded abruptly. This effect is sharpened still by the use of active verbalisation. An example: “Ali looked at Bu’bu’, petrified. He signalled to him to move away but the latter ignored his signal: “Abu Al-Abbas forbade entry to ‘ the gate-to-hell,’ he said hitting Ali in the chest.” (Chapter 3).

Every time the novelist opened a new chapter he asked the reader to think with him not only about the time and venue but also about the action itself and how it is shaped. The chapters most often do not open with description but directly jumb into action by means of tense, expressive dialogue. The clearest example is the riddle we encounter right from the start as to the exact timing of events.

The flashback technique plays a large role in the making of this riddle. For example, Chapter Two expects the reader to solve several puzzles including the disappearance of Maher (an exercise which consumes 9 pages), the identity of Sana (page 54) and her death, disengaging an otherwise intertwined dream and reality. In sum, it would appear that the entire novel (which is already huge) is just a concise scenario prepared for another novel that hides behind it and presents all the details in a traditional manner!

Cinematic elements and techniques aimed at heightening suspense or hybridising a literary genre, would normally constitute a pillar in a structured novel but may, in certain instances, contravene with a complex composition the novelist chooses to weave into his work, as is the case in Times of Death and Roses. In this novel, the reader finds it necessary to read certain phrases more than once in order to fully understand its meaning. The reader also needs to be ever attentive in order to understand the numerous references and symbolic utterances in the novel. (As an example, the narrator says of Rana in page 127:” The self in the first part of the verse said to the self in the second part.” This is a reference to the dual cultural identity of the heroine.

Other symbolic utterances are of a religious type (such as the reference to Legion which is difficult to understand for someone who is not familiar with the Bible), or political nature (such as in the utterance: “He said his name was George but she overheard Michel whisper the name as Ahmed” (page 99), the connotation being that some Muslims aided the phalanges militias). Unless the novel is read more than once, it is difficult for the reader to pick up all the references that it contains.

But complexity is not limited to the question of references. Knotty are almost all the elements of the novel: image, metaphor, time, venue and character. Hence the difficulty of subjecting the novel to classification. It cannot be considered a romantic story although it intimately deals with love; it does hold the reader in suspense all the time but it is not a “horror story” whose only concern is suspense; it is not even a historical novel because it is concerned with the individual’s inner life and understanding of history; nor is it purely psychological because it tackles the social side of the individual; it is not a political story because it tries to study the political in the human context then the mythological and the epic; it is not also an epic because it is not populated by human groups in conflict but by individuals who are representatives of groups albeit unique and special. In sum, Times of Death and Roses does not allow for classification and this is, in my opinion, the most important characteristic of great literature.

For all of the above, Adel Bishtawi has once again proved himself to be one of the most important Arab novelists, and one of the most professional and representative of the our era. His current novel searches deep into the enormous human literary heritage, particularly the extremely rich mythological and religious legacy, in order to tackle issues of utmost sensitivity both at the level of every day Arab reality and the level of the human soul.

Footnotes
(1) For types of possession other than that wielded by evil refer to Chapter 14 where Rana describes what she thinks to be her impact on Ali’s soul.

(2) In Islamic heritage, the scholar Ibn Al-Jawzy consecrated an entire book for a study of the possession of human beings by Iblis (published by Darel Kitab Al-Arabi in 1985). What is meant by possession in Islamic tradition is that Iblis charms humans and seduces them to commit sinful acts. Every human has a Satan on his back and:” possession is effecting bad to appear as good. Vanity is ignorance: it leads to viewing the corrupt as wholesome and the bad as good.” The scholar describes the relationship between man and Satan as one of continuous conflict between angels and Satan: “The war is on between the (camp of) castle’s dwellers and guards and the (camp of) Satan.” In the tradition of the prophet of Islam, every man is accompanied by a Satan, although God helped the prophet in converting the Satan that accompanied him to Islam.

(3) She intended to ask Elie if he was prepared to accept a compromise- middle grounds between him and her- but was not able to reach him. (Page 169).

(4) Under a liberal interpretation, the attitude adopted by Ali and his fellow intellectuals who opted for joining the resistance movement at the expense of their relations with the people, rendering the latter easy prey to the devil, may mean that a true marriage between the intellectual and the people can only be attained by focusing on the self. Rana embodies a symbolic meaning in what she says of Ali: “There is the person who is primarily responsible for all that has befallen me.”(Page 171).

(5) Refer to pages 76 and 79 in the Arabic edition.

(6) Matthew’s 5:18,19

(7) Loneliness is a prime cause of despair and death.

(8) By contrast to Ali’s idea about the total isolation of man in the Universe, Rana’s father says about Ali after having saved his daughter: “Who else could have sent him but God?” (Page 159)

(9) Mark 5:

(10) A recent television interview with the former head of security of the (Christian) Lebanese Forces, Elie Hobeika, revealed that many are still capable of sympathising with a person suspected of a major role in the massacres of Sabra and Chatilla. According to Lebanese satellite TV station, Al-Mustakbal which aired the interview which, once again, held the Palestinians totally responsible for the civil war in Lebanon, 50% of the participating spectators viewed Hobeika in something other than the objective perspective of history. This may prove that history is the outcome of a host of interwoven factors– self-interest, for one- especially in arenas of factional politics such as the one which prevailed during the Lebanese civil war.

* This review was published in two-part by Al Quds Al Arabi Newspaper (London) on the 10 and 11 of March 2000 and were translated by Mohammad Khaled

 

{Editor’s note: Since the publication of the Novel Times of Death and Roses and the publication of this article Elie Hobeika was blown up in Beirut in January 2002}

Elie Hobeika: lady-killer and blood-soaked war criminal

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

Independent Newspaper, 24 January 2002

I once received a message from Elie Hobeika, who was killed yesterday in a Beirut car bombing. Elie, I was told, was very unhappy with my book about the Lebanon war, Pity The Nation.

In it, I had described how he led the Phalangist murderers into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila in 1982 ­ under the eyes of the Israelis, who did nothing ­ and slaughtered up to 1,700 Palestinian refugees. Who did I think I was? Elie was very unhappy. Elie was the Al Pacino of Lebanon.

I sent back a message. Elie had problems, I said. The Israelis themselves had named him as the principal murderer and war criminal in the Kahan commission report ­ the same inquiry which said that Ariel Sharon, then Defence Minister and now Israeli Prime Minister, was “personally responsible'” for the slaughter. If Elie wanted to shut me up, I said, I would ask about Sabra and Chatila at every press conference he gave in Beirut. The next thing I received from Elie was a bottle of champagne.

During the Lebanese civil war, Elie had changed sides. After being trained in an Israeli camp ­ no American bombing for “terrorists” trained in Israel, of course ­ he led the pro-Israeli Christian Maronite Phalange into the Beirut camp for the massacre. But Sister Syria later smiled upon him. He led an attack against his former militia associates and, in post-war Beirut became minister for electricity in the pro-Syrian Lebanese government, a period marked by massive power cuts and little electricity.

So outraged was the Lebanese government at the corruption of his ministry that, so it was said, four Lebanese Army trucks were sent to his east Beirut home to retrieve carpets, furniture and personal effects worth up to £7.2m looted from public coffers. The Palestinians longed for his death. The Syrians withdrew their security cover, the Israelis remained indifferent ­ until he threatened to grass on Mr Sharon.

Despite his mistresses he was a lonely man. Morose, unable to travel for fear of arrest for war crimes and defiant in the face of continued accusations of massacre. His young fiancée had been raped and murdered by Palestinian gunmen in the town of Damour in 1975. He hated Palestinians ­ although he later employed a Palestinian from Haifa to run his public relations outfit.

As a government minister, he sought respectability. When the father of Mai Kahale, the Lebanese President’s spokes-woman, died, he was there in an armchair, in the family home, grieving with the relatives. When the Pope went to Lebanon, Mr Hobeika was standing obsequiously in line to bow before the Holy Father. When Time magazine editors were due to be hosted by the Leban-ese Prime Minister, Mr Hobeika was invited to the state dinner ­ but seated on a table without journalists, a pariah minister. He was suave, intelligent, ruthless and, like many war criminals, a lady-killer. His former bodyguard, codenamed “Cobra”, listed his mistresses in a book later banned in Lebanon, creating a scandale in Beirut even more animated than the condemnation of the camp massacres.

The 1,700 civilians were murdered by Hobeika Phalangist thugs under the eyes of the Israelis. The Israelis were later to recall his response to a Phalangist officer who asked what he should do with Palestinian civilian prisoners: “Don’t ask me such a stupid question again,” Mr Hobeika laughingly replied. Later, he claimed he was in Sweden at the time of the massacre.

Five years ago Elie thought he might have a chance of becoming President of Lebanon. I received a call from Elie’s old friend, Rudy Baludi. How about dinner at the Vieux Quartierrestaurant in east Beirut?

In the seedy bar, Rudy explained Elie’s problem. He might want to be President. He was, after all, a Maronite Christian ­ the main condition for the presidency ­ and had the people of Lebanon at heart.

What was my advice? How did he deal with those unfortunate stories about Sabra and Chatila? I said he should tell the truth. In fact, I suggested he told the whole story to The Independent ­ the killings, the rape, the slaughter. Once he’d got this of his chest, he could see how the world responded to a confessed war criminal. Murderers had become presidents before, I said. Killers had become leaders in Africa, China, the Soviet Union, the Arab Nations, Israel; why ­ dare I say it? ­ a Wehrmacht intelligence officer had become President of Austria.

Alas, Elie decided he had no chance of becoming President. The interview never took place although, a few weeks later, I received another message. Elie would like a signed copy of Pity The Nation. I sent it, even though it contained evidence of his complicity in the 1982 massacres.

Last July, he started to walk on thin ice. Anxious to reconstitute his identity ­ or fearful of being set up for war crimes’ charges by Mr Sharon ­ Mr Hobeika called a press conference. “I am in possession of evidence of my innocence concerning Sabra and Chatila,” he told us. “And I have evidence of what actually happened at Sabra and Chatila which will throw a completely new light on the Kahan commission report.”

My last message from Elie was that bottle of champagne: a magnum of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Rosé 1988. I never drank it. I felt it was contaminated. It lay in my fridge here in Beirut last night. I know many in Lebanon would like to drink it in celebration. But I suspect that, if I uncorked it, blood would spurt out.

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