On the Literature of Terrorism

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Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, May 3

THE WOMAN IN the photograph doesn’t look frightened, even though she has reason to be; on the other side of the crumbling wall behind her, a small boy is pointing a big gun at someone just outside the frame. Something in her posture, however, the way she cranes her head to look at the boy, suggests impatience more than anything else. She’s on her way home from shopping, it seems, and carrying a large purse and a pale, heavy object — a ­cauliflower? She’s standing on rubble, but her clean white sandals and beautiful bare legs gleam.

This is a favorite image of mine, a snapshot of unknown provenance, supposedly taken during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, 15 years of fighting, that pulverized much of the capital, leaving 150,000 people dead and more than 17,000 missing. It was a war that unleashed sustained and inventive terror, a war fought with child soldiers, and car bombs — 3,641 of them killed some 4,000 people. It is the preoccupation of the alarmingly prolific Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, whose novels are finally being translated into English, by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. The latest, the dreamlike and unhinged CONFESSIONS (New Directions, paper, $14.95), was published this spring.

What the sea was to Melville, terror is to Rabee Jaber. He knows its smell, its subtlest moods, its allure and tedium — how the sight of a child soldier, say, can provoke more annoyance than fear. In 18 novels written in about as many years, he’s traced how terror has remade his country by way of displacement and forced migration through the 18th and 19th centuries and into the present day. “The Mehlis Report,” his first novel to appear in English, was published in Lebanon in 2005, the very year it covers, and follows the aftershocks of the assassination of the prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing, which prompted an investigation by the United Nations led by a German judge, Detlev Mehlis. “Confessions,” a slender book with a high body count, is set in the middle of the civil war, in the thick of kidnappings and ambushes on refugee camps, when a child’s bag of marbles turns out to be, horrifyingly, a cache of human eyes.

Of course, the figure of the terrorist has long been irresistible to novelists — and dangerously so. Some of the attention is rivalrous; as Don DeLillo argued, the terrorist has in some ways supplanted the writer. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the writer in “Mao II” says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” After Sept. 11, Western writers flocked to the topic with touching and clumsy avidity in a bid, it seemed, for relevance. In the effort to understand just what creates a terrorist (then as now the dominant question when it comes to terrorism), couldn’t the novelist — that specialist in the dark, cobwebby corners of the soul, that diagnostician of how the private life intertwines with the public — prove himself useful? But with a few notable exceptions like “Secret Son,” by Laila Lalami, and the richly researched “Harbor,” by Lorraine Adams, there was a series of ­belly flops from our major writers. The fictional terrorist remained a creation of both condescension and envy, a tissue of projection, anxiety and stereotype informed by little curiosity or context. John Updike infamously relied on “The Koran for Dummies” while writing his 2006 ­novel “Terrorist,” which imagined an American high school student of Irish and Egyptian descent who becomes a suicide bomber.

What makes Jaber so unusual is his indifference to terrorists. He’s not curious about what impels them — he rarely bothers to even name them; they’re figures of vague dread rather than glamour. Continue reading