Culture

Novel posits fictional village as emblem for a lost Lebanon

Review

BEIRUT: If Jad el-Hage's novel "The Myrtle Tree" were ever adapted to the stage, two props would be required to transform his written narrative into live theater. Framing the performance would be the myrtle tree of the books' title on one side - symbolizing enduring nature, timeless beauty and the resilience of rural life - and a haunted castle on the other - representing meddlesome man, civilization and its discontents and the destructive legacy of an interfering empire.

The structure of Hage's novel rests rather uneasily on such pairings. He pits urban against rural, present against past, political against practical and cosmopolitan against provincial to such as extent that bad against good cannot be far behind. But the most obvious and overbearing of oppositions is Beirut versus Wahdeh, the mythical village with the tree and the castle where much of novel is set.

Born in Beirut, Hage worked as a journalist for the BBC World Service, Radio Monte Carlo and the pan-Arab, London-based daily newspaper Al-Hayat. He was the senior editor in charge of the Arabic titles for Harlequin Press, which, for a time, published romance novels and crime fiction.

Hage has published six volumes of poetry, two collections of short stories, a novel and two plays in Arabic. In 2002, he published his first novel in English, "The Last Migration: A Novel of Diaspora and Love." Set in the mid 1990s, the story concerns Ashraf Saad, an arts journalist from the village of Qana who leaves Lebanon for London, misses his two daughters from a previous marriage, mourns the death of his lover and eventually falls in love all over again.

"The Myrtle Tree" is longer and more ambitious, yet it is less sprawling in situation and scope. Set in 1976, it gloms on to the ever-expanding sub-genre of Lebanese literature that is the Civil War novel.

As the story begins, protagonist Adam Awad is engrossed in the olive harvest. A college boy who wants to regain the possibility of being a dumb village hick who ages into a wise village elder, he has returned with his wife Yousra and daughter Mariam to his ancestral home in fictional Wahdeh, where he hopes to revive his late father's olive-oil press.

The arrival of an officer interrupts his olive picking. The officer wants to open the stone citadel, known as the Peacock Castle, which stands on Wahdeh's northern edge. Hage gives the structure historical provenance - it was built by the Roman Emperor Severus as a leisure retreat for the army elite, after the construction of Baalbek's Temple of Bacchus and the great law school that allegedly lies beneath Beirut. At the end of the Roman Empire, the castle fell into disrepair. Then, when Suleiman the Magnificent wanted to build a serail in Wahdeh, which had become "a prosperous centre of learning" and a "campus of culture," the village elders convinced him to build over the castle's ruins - away from the rhythms and routines of village life, so as not to dirty Wahdeh with politics.

Then the Germans came to do archaeological excavations after World War I, which put the place on the map. The English also came and "shipped a mosaic as significant as the Elgin marbles to one of their museums." Then came the French, who used the building as a barracks. When they left, General Gouraud gave the keys to the castle to Adam's uncle, the Hakim, who sealed it tight.

Everyone in Wahdeh thinks the castle is cursed or haunted. The visiting officer wants to crack it open again and use it as a training camp. As the Civil War encroaches on Wahdeh, the officer, Murshed effendi, warns that the village must prepare to fight. Trouble is, some among Wahdeh's elders are men who adhere to cooperative farming and Gandhi's pacifist principles. They live, in other words, in a time warp.

What follows is an epic melodrama of highs and lows, euphoria smashed up against tragedy and doused with war-time corruption, thievery, drugs and decay. The castle opens, the village boys train, however, instead of learning to defend their families they are dispatched to fight elsewhere.

Those who are left behind are so hyped up for action that they decide to round up stray dogs and shoot them. A neighboring village mistakes their gunfire for an attack, responds with shells and a localized war begins. Nimer, the neighborhood numbskull, refashions himself as a local warlord. His character foil is Faour, a young man with writerly aspirations who escapes to Venezuela, returns and embarks on a suicidal affair with Nimer's trophy wife.

"The Myrtle Tree" is chock full of deaths, births, weddings, feasts, first fights, explosions, rapes, murders and more. A good chunk of the narrative is given over to Faour's letters from Venezuela and the journal entries he pens for Adam's eyes only. The discussions the two men share about writing are intensely painful:

"You heard me reciting from Gilgamesh," Faour says. "There's something like that blazing inside me, Adam."

"You are choosing the narrow path, my friend. Why don't we keep it simple?"

While certainly entertaining and engrossing in plot, "The Myrtle Tree," in underlying message, risks distilling Lebanon's violence into a dangerously oversimplified dichotomy. In a note tacked onto the end of the novel, Hage writes: "Fictitious Wahdeh and its people represent the disappearing microcosm of a rural life true to all Lebanese. It was my intention to place Wahdeh on the pedestal that was destroyed by the civil war. Because whatever someone's religious affiliation we did have harmony whenever we were left alone to work our land. We had common traditions and held common values, whose spirit is shown in the tragedy of Wahdeh." In the same year that Hage's novel in set, Albert Hourani looked back on the Civil War of 1958 and noted the danger of underestimating the rural-urban divide. Instead of bridging it, however, Hage has his characters widen it, essentially blaming Beirut, and with it modernity, progress and probably globalization too, for all of Lebanon's ills.

Early on in the novel, Adam recalls his university days and says that despite falling in love, "none of it changed my gut revulsion towards the superficiality and falseness of Beirut. What many later came to believe was the golden age of a Mediterranean metropolis was to me a facade of cool and hype. It was a lie on every level, and the civil war was now revealing its sham." Adam slams revolutionary secularists and Hamra street intellectuals for retreating into sectarian enclaves, but a line later he is talking "my people" this and "my people" that. Instead of genuinely critiquing those who desired radical change, he paints them in bland cliches. Hage's embrace of a long gone pastoral way of life is quaint, yes, but it is ultimately delusional and deeply reactionary.

Jad el-Hage's novel "The Myrtle Tree" is out now from Banipal Books

 

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