The Lebanese novelist follows the acclaimed Gate of the Sun with Yalo, tracking a soldier’s descent into criminality.
Yalo’s life is inextricably entwined with Lebanon’s years of civil war. Where do you draw the line between his struggle and that of the country?
I come from a small minority in Lebanon, the Orthodox Christians, in the Ashrafiyye district of Beirut. My marginal position gives me a chance to see the whole society. This book tells of a human experience. As a writer, I do two things at once. I simultaneously build up the idea of the nation and deconstruct it—by which I mean that I show that everything is relative, that there is no absolute goal, and that all goals have to ultimately serve human beings.
Torture figures into Yalo, both as a metaphor for writing and a fact in the novel.
In the Arabic world, prisons and torture play a major role in reinforcing dictatorship. As they do for the superpower, too, which, in spite of the double language of human rights, produces Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. This is why prison literature has played such a major role in Arabic novels. Torture is more than a means to obtain information—it is meant to reshape and destroy. The torturer sees the man or the woman before him and wants to crush that person. There is a kind of pleasure they experience, the torturers. And this hasn’t really been explored.
Is it that by writing his confession, Yalo has to give the torturer that pleasure—to seduce him?
The real seduction is the writing itself, is getting the past back. Remember, Yalo joins the fighting in Lebanon at the age of 14. And in a civil war, you are actually fighting your own image, because the enemy is so similar to you.
What part of your novel do you expect Americans not to understand—and what part do you hope they understand?
I don’t put the book in those terms. It is important to see literature less provincially. The European novel is said to have started with Don Quixote. Very well. What does Cervantes say at the beginning of the novel? That he is translating it from an Arabic novel. Of course, he wasn’t, that is a fiction, but he was legitimating his fiction with a reference to what he thought was an important literature. Literature travels from language to language through translation, and there are no barriers, which is the force of literature. And unlike empire, literature travels alone.