On some of the greatest rats in Arabic literature:
Rats are everywhere: at the Jordan-Iraq border in Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun; inside the ceiling (and Sana’s head) in Fuad al-Takarli’s The Long Way Back; in the refugee camp in Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Inside the Night.
But those are ordinary rats. The rats in the three books below are of giant, sometimes mythical, proportions. Rabee Jaber’s rats, in The Mehlis Report, can be as big as donkeys, or bigger, and they welcome you into the underworld. Rachid Boujedra and Najwa Barakat’s books bring rat-hating and rat-loving to a fever pitch in their post-war landscapes.
As Khaled al-Masri notes in his dissertation, “Telling Stories of Pain: Women Writing Gender, Sexuality and Violence in the Novel of the Lebanese Civil War,” it’s common enough for rats to “signify urban decline, both morally and materially.” He quotes Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986), who suggest: “the rat, then, furtively [emerges] from the city’s underground conscience as the demonized Other.”
But in all these books of tangled post-war morality, the rat is more than an Other. The rat is Other and Self, or the war personified, or a supernatural force from beyond.
1) The Obstinate Snail (1979), by Rachid Boujedra, trans. Leon Stephens (2013)
Here, our paranoid bachelor-narrator is a model Algerian state employee who is “too loyal to the State to believe in God,” although practical enough to donate to the construction of a nearby mosque. He works in his city’s de-rat-ization department, ridding the city of the rats he loves and hates. He cherishes a group of them he keeps in his basement while also torturing others and plotting the species’ demise. He stands with France, Civilization, Rationality, and Cleanliness against poorer countries, sensuality, reproduction, and the flaccidity of begonias.
I live alone myself. A sign of originality in this city crippled by demography and bad faith. My fellow citizens are unreasonable. They should be made to march to the tune of catastrophic slogans. Fortunately, they’re not as quick as rats, snails and pigs! The lower you descend in animal classification the more important reproduction is.
This wonderful, catastrophic, darkly funny book centers on Luqman, a civil-war opportunist and torturer who tries to rehabilitate himself as a rat exterminator who lost his parents, tragically, in the war.
Rats appear early in the book, unwelcome invaders in both Luqman’s house and the house of his sugar-mama, Salaam.
Later, the notebooks of an “Einstein” committed to a state psychiatric facility spur the rat-extermination project of Luqman, Salaam, and Najeeb. This “Einstein,” obsessed with rat extermination, suggested before his death that rats were the reason for Lebanon’s civil war, something Najeeb comes to believe, seemingly to absolve his own crimes. Love, torture, hate, rats, and genocide are all twisted up such that it’s impossible to pull apart the threads. Are rats evil? Or is it those of us who torture the rats?
3) The Mehlis Report (2005), by Rabee Jaber, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid (2013)
Another post-war book, The Mehlis Report is a genre-bending historico-fantastical murder-mystery that centers on what’s perhaps Lebanon’s highest-profile murder — that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The two protagonists are Saman Yarid, a forty-year-old architect whose life has stalled, and his dead sister, who lives in the city’s underworld. Rats populate both the underworld and the world above:
“There are seven smaller rats and one big one. The big rat lives in the belly of the mountain. And the seven rats sleep in seven separate lairs near hte big rat’s, also in the mountain’s belly. The big rat spends most of its hours asleep. It sleeps for long stretches of time. In 1990, at the end of the war, it went into hibernation. There were fewer dead with the end of hte war, so there were fewer souls, and less work to do. It was hungry, and it sunk into a deep sleep to overcome this. Or maybe the hunger made it drowsy, sent it into hibernation. It slept like a bear sleeps through winter. The seven other rats are smaller, but they’re still giants — each one is the size of a mule. There are other smaller rats, and there are ordinary rats as well. But we only see them on rare occasions. They live in the bowels of the earth, and only very rarely come up to the surface.”
Jaber writes quickly, and perhaps there are parts of the book that could be edited down. But it’s full of fantastic and fantastical ideas. The explosion that caused Hariri’s death causes the mountain to shake and these rats to awaken. Yet Jaber’s rats aren’t evil. “They weren’t the rats I used to read about in school.” They’re more like underworld workers, coming out when there’s death and destruction.